The first street theater tricksters the forefathers of today's culture jammers such as The Yes Men and Billionaires For Bush appeared on the political stage in the 1960s. At the time, the possibility that activists could spread subversive messages through the mainstream media was a counter-intuitive, even revolutionary notion. But with the right mix of TV-savvy images and provocative sound bites, delivered with humor and no small dose of irony, the anti-war, flower power message of the political vanguard was able to reach the living rooms of unsuspecting, disaffected youth across the country, helping to ignite the radical activism that transformed America during that tumultuous decade.
No one was better at genius pranks than Abbie Hoffman. He's appreciated for stunts like bringing the New York Stock Exchange to a halt when he led a band of hippies onto the balcony there, where they rained dollar bills down upon the floor of amazed Wall Street suits, who famously knocked one another to the ground as they dived rapaciously for the free cash. Others may remember Abbie for the levitation of the Pentagon during a 1967 march against the Vietnam War (witnesses insist that it really did happen). But the event that made Hoffman a household name was the Chicago 8 trial, the subject of the new documentary "Chicago 10." For months the news was filled with his brilliant, often hilarious, defense maneuvers against government charges that he and his co-defendants conspired to disrupt the 1968 Democratic national convention. Abbie transformed the trial into a true theatrical event, a platform for broadcasting the alternative values and politics of the counterculture onto every TV screen in America. In the process, while never wavering from his radical beliefs, Hoffman became one of the country's most famous celebrities.
As this interview shows, he was also a sober, serious strategist who grounded his antics in theory. Few appreciated the subtle ties between cultural gesture and political action as deeply as Hoffman. This converstion took place in New York City a few months before his untimely death in 1989. It appeared in 2007 in the Australian journal Into-Gal.
KJ: The first big event that put you on the map, so to speak, was when you and a handful of hippies showered dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Can you tell me a little about what happened?
AH: It was the summer of '67. That was when Jerry Rubin and I kind of met, and then we did the levitation of the Pentagon that October. Well, that whole summer, as the year before, it was nothing to wake up at St Mark's Place on the Lower East Side and say we were going to do some stunt.
For instance, we would go into a bank, get two rolls of quarters, and start throwing them on the floor. We planted a tree in the middle of St Mark's Place to get rid of all the cars. Rock bands played in the streets, played in Tompkins Square Park. Every thirty minutes you'd have a new poem, you'd rush out and hand them away on St Mark's Place. And all the anti-war demonstrations, regularly.
Who was writing these poems?
Me, Jim Fouratt, Ed Sanders, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman. It was called the Communications Company. Jim Fouratt had a duplicating machine. We didn't have Xerox then, and we reeled off these poems on multi-colored paper. I got married in Central Park, and we did the invitation on a leaflet. Anybody who has a full collection of these leaflets, it would be worth a half-million dollars today! They were great! And it was garbage art really. You just read the poem, threw it away, had a good time. The influences came from people like Allan Kaprow. They were doing Happenings, but they didn't have any political content, see? They were strictly apolitical, so, of course, the rich loved it.
Did you go to any of the Happenings?
No, but I read about them, I was aware of them, in the papers and the media. I went to Pop Art exhibits. I went to a big Pop Art show in the Armory, I guess the year before, which had some indoor Happenings. And then there was the Living Theatre, and there was another theater, Richard Schechner's Performing Garage. All this stuff was going on... I think at one point Richard said we were influencing each other. You know, life and art were imitating each other. I mean, walk down St Mark's Place between Third and Second Avenue, and it was like walking through a circus. You'd see every kind of costume in the world, every sight possible. People barefoot, it was nothing to walk around barefoot. We thought of this stuff very fast. People were handing out flags at the Statue of Liberty saying "End the war." There were a lot of demonstrations down at Whitehall, the draft induction center.
Everything you did seems to have been inspired by a spirit of fun and a sense of humor.
And a sense of communicating ideas through the mass media by manipulating famous symbols. We were doing it, actually, before this theory had come around. It was instinctive. I'll tell you one of the more famous ones. On Valentine's Day in '67, we mailed 3,000 joints of marijuana to people all over New York, picked out of the phone book, with a letter explaining, you've read a lot about it, now if you want to try it, here it is. But, P.S., by the way, just holding this can get you five years in prison. We sent it to some in the media. Bill Jorgensen, the local news anchorman, almost got arrested on the air for showing it on TV. The cops came right on the set and it was quite hysterical. Half the people on the Lower East Side knew who did it!
And you had no problems with the cops, they never traced it to you?
No, no. To come up with the list we'd get stoned, yellow pages and stoned, that's it. There were different rolling teams and all that. Jimi Hendrix gave me the money for it. Ultimately it changed the laws in this state, got the penalties reduced. We used to have a lot of campaigns against pay toilets. We'd go up there, photograph people sneaking in underneath, and put pictures in the underground newspapers with captions: how to get into a pay toilet. So we'd show people who would sneak in under, or taping the lock shut. All these were in Fuck the System, later in Steal This Book, etc. in that spirit. But the Stock Exchange probably was one of the best of these kinds of acts.
Tell me something about the Wall Street event. How did it come about?
Well, I called up the New York Stock Exchange and booked a tour. I said we're bringing a tour group, about eighteen of us. I gave them the name George Metesky, who was the mad bomber of New York, about fifteen years previous to this.
The mad bomber of New York?
Yeah, he was just a cultural hero. He was a media freak. When they arrested him he had a big headline in the Daily News: "Mad Bomber of New York Captured!" He was living with his mother and his aunt, you know, a meek sort of mild-mannered guy. He just had a thing about Con Ed because Con Ed fired him. So he left little pipe bombs all over the place, like Grand Central Station, and he had the city terrorized! Of course the guy who answered the phone wouldn't remember the name, but I would, as would other people who know the history of New York. I had about three hundred dollars, and I changed it all into singles. It was either my money or money I raised. Three hundred dollarsthat's not much money. You got a bang for your movement buck, let's face it! I could run the country cheap!
Where did the idea come from?
Well, I don't want to get arrogant, but the theme of Christ chasing the money changers from the Temple, obviously that idea was there. But maybe I thought about that later, writing about it in Revolution for the Hell of It, or something. But it seemed like a good idea at the time, and we had the resources and the capabilitiesand we could go to central casting right at Gem Spa, the newsstand at Second Avenue and St Mark's Place, and get as many people as we wanted right away. People were ready to volunteer for anything, and they were doing their own things. When we got to the Stock Exchange, we got in line with all the other tourists. Pretty soon as we waited in the line to go visit the Stock Exchange, just on the regular tour, somebody must've noticed something freaky, because we were dressed like hippies. We were not dressed like tourists from Iowa, you know, or Indiana. Hippies were still a little bizarre-looking to the general public, there were two cultures. So within a matter of minutes the press was swarming all over us.
You didn't call the press in advance?
No, but this is New York City. They get tips. The police, the guards at the Stock Exchange will tell them, there's eighteen hippies down here, they're going to do something. People were giggling, smoking grass probably, you know. You wander above Fourteenth Street looking the way we did, already people are staring at you. You stand in an airport, they stare at you because you look like a runaway from the local circus.
So you thought of your appearance down on Wall Street as a kind of confrontation?
Sure. Your very dress, your being was a confrontation. A deliberate confrontation. And an affirmation of a spirit, of an art, of a more humane kind of existence. Cooperation versus competition. We didn't have to spell out our ideology because it was pretty clear if you followed our acts, and if you tried to make all the intellectual connections, you'd find plenty of theory. We had utopian visions, like "abolish money" was big. And "abolish work." We were anti-work, anti-money. So the throwing out of money at Wall Street would fit into that. You could say that we were anti-capitalists, which we were, but we didn't have an "ism.' We had the idea of "free.' We kept putting across the idea that it all should be free, since our society's so rich. We had free stores, and you could just go in and take all the clothes you wanted. Free food in the park. Free poems and free rock concerts. The idea was that we were living in "post-scarcity.' We had great affluence in that period, as a society. So we should be working towards full unemployment, we should be working towards a society with more quality time. Why work for full-employment? It's boring. Well, of course, because people need money. Well, we're so rich we're just going to divide up the wealth. People have a right to medical care, free medical care, which we all provided on the Lower East Side. We had various institutions that acted as models for a while, as long as we could sustain them. When you'd see a store that says "free store,' you could come on in and have anything you want with your good looks. No shoplifting allowed. And people would come in and dump all their junk, and we'd have other people sorting it out. We were building a community of maybe forty or fifty thousand, in New York, on the Lower East Side.
So when you go to the Stock Exchange dressed like that...
...they know something's up. It doesn't take long for a guard, say, for fifty dollars, to call the Daily News or Associated Press. And they swarm. You can have a big fire in New York, and you'll have the press there before the fire department arrives.
Did you stage the whole thing for the press?
No, I never did anything for the press. Well, we didn't know if we would be arrested. I knew there would be some kind of confrontation, because at some point, the guard's going to come up and say, "No." If we were arrested then the press is there and everything. I mean the story is going to get out one way or another. We didn't know it would be big. The guards tried to keep us out almost simultaneously when the press came, it was all one big commotion. There were a lot of guards, these were guards, not cops, guards from the Stock Exchange. And they said we weren't allowed in and had no right to do this, blah blah blah. And we said, hey you know, what do you mean? We're Americans! Free tour. What the hell, we want to see what it looks like. So finally, we negotiated.
You did the negotiating?
Of course. I'm very good at negotiating. It was already my seventh year as a political organizer in various ways. I negotiated with the Klan to let them give me back my life in Mississippi, so...! You get them in a situation where it's going to be an embarrassment for them to keep you out. They said, "Hippies are not allowed in." So I said, "Well, look, we're Jewish. You don't let Jews into the Stock Exchange?" The press was there. So I turned around to the press and I said, "They won't let Jews in the Stock Exchange!" "Oh no no no. That isn't what we said. Now wait a minute..." They got red-faced. So you can get in. Once they decided to let us in, though, they said that press are not allowed in the gallery, so the press had to back off and wait on the street. They already sensed what we were going to do. People were flashing money, they were starting to eat it and everything. They were clowning around.
Making a show for the press?
No. For each other. I relate to media that way. We're just going to create a little story and a lot of people are going to be hearing about it. Now if somebody brings a camera or something, well, that makes the job easier, but I'm not doing it for them. It's an important distinction. We had no concept of a "media event." The idea of manipulating the media was ridiculous. The people who own the media manipulate it, we just had some tricks up our sleeves. We knew that we were talking to a society that was post-literate. Either post or pre. It was now in a phase where it wanted to watch and listen, it didn't want to read. So for watching or listening, you've got to paint some pictures. You've got to have some images.
Can you remember any of the things that influenced you in this direction?
McLuhan, I was influenced by his writings. Andy Warhol, he was an influence. But all of us were thinking about this. Every person that left their community and came to the Lower East Side, who resisted the draft, who went for an alternative lifestyle, they had to do some thinking about it. It's called getting an education. You had to rebel, because it was not going to be handed to you right there in school, in the local church, or the local draft board center. The local newspaper wasn't going to tell you that this is a good thing to do. Of course, everyone gave some thought to it. I was just a leader among people who gave thought to it, that's all.
Getting back to the story, what happened after they let you into the Stock Exchange?
The press was not allowed to continue in the snake line, but they let us into the gallery. So we sat there with all the other tourists. We hugged and kissed a lot and everything. We were hippies. We were clowning, funnin'. Of course, we were all stoned. Sure, we were having a good time. Also, for part of the tour they tell you how the Stock Exchange was started. No one in the group had been on the tour before. Like many people who live in New York, they don't go to see the symbols, the tourist sights. So, you know, Carnegie made money, Ford made money, and everyone made money down there. It's like the lottery on a big scale. And they explain what the ticker-tape is all about. Everyone asked some silly questions, or some meaningful ones. Some just got interested, like real tourists. You can be a tourist and a hippie too. But once we got into the gallery and we were all spread out, I passed out the money, and people had their own money they kicked in. You know, it was communal money. And at one moment, when they were all busy down there in the pit, ticker-tape going like crazy, we gave the signal, and ran to the railing. Even though there were a couple of guards positioned on the gallery, there was no way to stop eighteen of us coming from different directions, all with money, handfuls of money, going "Take the money! Here's the real shit!" throwing it over the railing, and screaming and yelling while we're doing it! So, imagine... they looked up, I mean all these brokers, and they start booing, cheering. A lot more boos than cheers. And the ticker-tape had stopped. I read that the ticker-tape had stopped six minutes. I couldn't tell that at the time, but the normal hubbub of buying and selling stopped. They didn't know what to do. Then pandemonium broke out, and they started yelling "Money, money!' And they start running, they were all over on their hands and knees, gobbling... After we threw the money, the guards were stunned. They didn't know what to do, we had them outnumbered. They had to send for reinforcements. The guards were saying things like, "You can't do that, you're not allowed to do that. That's illegal, we're going to get the police." "What do you mean? People throw away money all the time here! This is the way you do it, isn't it?'"I mean, it's just a panic having to argue with me in real life. In a situation like that... because I'm fearless. I don't care if they pick me up and throw me in the Stock Exchange. Throw me in the pit. I'll be alright. I'm ready!
Did the guards actually manhandle you?
Sure, the guards shoved us around and everything. We pushed back. We were kind of pacifist then, so we weren't ready to punch out a guard. We already made our point. The money was out there, gone. The ticker-tape had stopped. They all were groveling around on their knees, tracing down these real bills. We were there a few more minutes, and we just left. They said get the hell out, we got out. So everyone's out, everybody's jumping up and down, laughing, giggling, hugging, big fun, and we're out on the sidewalk and then there was a press conference. There were reporters all over the place, blocking the streets. Because they had waited, they couldn't come in and see it. So there's no photos of what I'm telling you. That's what makes it a great myth, because every newspaper account was different. And interviewing me was like interviewing a hurricane. "Hi, I'm Cardinal Spellman"' "Where'd you get your money?" "I said I'm Cardinal Spellman! You don't ask Cardinal Spellman where he gets his money!" "What kind of talk is that?" "How much money was it?" "I don't know. Thousands! We threw away all the money we had!" So accounts of it had to vary a great deal.
It was a spontaneous scene with the press?
Very. We burned money in front of the press. That was illegal then, by the way, to burn money. I hadn't done that before, but I had gone into a bank and just thrown money out. Or I'd sit there and play a flute, in the corner of the bank, dress up like an electronic Indian or something.
Had you ever dealt with the press like that before?
Of course I'd dealt with the press as an organizer. We'd already been on The David Susskind Show, which had been kind of wild drama. "How do you eat?" We opened a box of food and started feeding the whole audience. "What's a hippie?" We opened a box and a duck flew out with the word hippie around its neck. And Susskind went crazy! You see, we were trying to destroy the whole Q & A, intellectual TV kind of Q & A. All of a sudden: what's a hippie? Well, here's one. It's a duck with the word hippie on it flying in the audience. You want to get under their skin, these cruel, level-headed intellectuals with make-up on, being very liberal, analytical and everything. You want to bust through that. In other words, more show, give people something more to hear and watch. It isn't a very big story to say that these people were on TV and said this. So what? It's what they did. We thought of these acts as public happenings that jolted the kind of collective fantasy world that we live in through TV, essentially. The national fantasy world. So it would be natural that later there would be hippie invasions of Disney World, and other sacred tombs. Surrounding the Pentagon with witches so that it would rise into the air. Also, we wanted to get people to do what they were saying. That was kind of a problem with liberalism at the time, because it was saying things, but it wasn't doing anything. We were very action-oriented. We were called "action freaks."
Who called you action freaks?
We called ourselves action freaks, and we'd say that was a compliment, because you acted on your ideas. In fact, Dwight McDonald, who was a friend of mine, an older man, intellectual, a critic of American foreign policy, once remarked to me a few years later, "Whatever gave you people the idea that you had to act on your ideas? That's anti-intellectual. It's against the whole tradition of Western intellectual thought." Of course, that's not true. The abolitionists were acting on their ideas. And Thoreau. We lived by the ideology of the deed.
So what you were doing also had political significance?
Of course. It's a lot different than giving your money to Santa Claus standing on the corner. That's a political act, too, by the way. I think they're all political acts. There's no such thing as interacting in society without it being a political act, the most fearsome of which is war. But all other acts are political, too. Even if you say, "I don't believe in politics," you've just acted. You've acted for the status quo. How many times have you heard people say, "I don't get involved in politics?" Well, the rulers of the society, the Powers That Be, that's exactly what they want the populace to say, because that gives them three more votes. In a sense, one of the things we were saying at the Stock Exchange was that the people down on the floor weren't really engaged in capitalism, because they had it all rigged. I mean, they were all making money, they all represented people who are making money. It's the poor that feel the effects of capitalism. They've got to go out and work hard, protect their bicycles from being stolen, kill or be killed. I mean, they're in the dog race of capitalism as we know it. But the rich, they have socialism.
But when you were dealing with the press...
A put-on. I think they call it a put-on.
Did you give your name to the press?
No. That was just a thing of the times. Lots of those leaflets, even Revolution for the Hell of It, I signed "Free," even though people knew who it was, ultimately. Part of the purity of this moment was that people were doing acts without the ego gratification of seeing your name in lights. But after a while it became pointless. It didn't matter if I said I was Robin Hood, they printed Abbie Hoffman.
So what was the press coverage like after the Wall Street invasion?
It was hysterical. "Hippies went to the Stock Exchange, showered thousands of dollars onto the floor of the Exchange. The ticker-tape stopped. The Chairman of the Board of the Stock Exchange says it will never happen again. We'll take measures to prevent this from ever happening." Blah blah blah. They get very serious and straight-faced. The broadcasters are giggling a little, and they're showing footage of the press conference on the street, so people can make those bridges in myth-making.
Were you influenced by pop-culture phenomena, like the Beatles' press conferences, things like that?
Of course. And Dylan. Dylan had a way of mocking the press as he was talking to the press. And the Beatles, of course, were great at it. Oh yes, the Beatles were an enormous influence, as they later told us, we were on them.
What other ways did the Beatles influence you?
The Beatles were the complete artist, complete vision, designed the whole package. The songs, the words, sang it, lived it. And there were four of them, and they were all very different, so it was a collective experience, communal art. That was important, and their playful attitude about whatever they did. We liked the idea of collapsing dichotomies between work and play, between what the straight Left would call serious struggle for social change, and play. If you're fighting for liberation, why shouldn't you enjoy it? If you crack some barriers made by the imprinting system of the acculturation process, it's sort of like removing the shades of bullshit that have been layered over your head. And it's a good feeling. So, in a way, the Beatles were messengers of a kind of truth. A new truth. A new way that we could all relate together.
Would you say that they embodied the counterculture?
Definitely. Oh, yes. It was such a truism that Sgt. Pepper had an amazing impact on us, and on people all over the world, really, except for the Chinese, they were kind of shut off. When it first came out, it was like walking in and being one of the first people to see the Sistine Chapel, or seeing Shakespeare live, see him stand up and explain what he's going to do with his play, Twelfth Night. It was just incredible. Because up till then, and this is important in understanding the counterculture, long-haired music meant opera, it meant classical music, and it was meant for a very rich, elite, highly educated bunch of people. That was called long-haired music. Symphony music. Classical music.
Why was it called long-hair music?
Just because long hair through the '30s, '40s and '50s had become identified with the professorial, elite, irrelevant academic kind of rich type. So that was long-hair music. But because of the Beatles and the whole movement, long hair was popular. You could get the Sgt. Pepper album literally in Woolworths. So you had one of those rare moments in history where the best and the most popular were the same. That's called a Renaissance. That was a Renaissance aspect to a decade which was Civil War. A decade that marked a whole century. No doubt in my mind it marked the century. No doubt who won.
We. Someone gotta win someone gotta lose. I know we won because, see, I can sit here with you in this deli and I've got long hair and I'm talking to you. Before then the cops could have come right in and taken me outsuspicion. Now it's illegal. We had to fight for it. And that's one of the things. And we abolished legal segregation. Whatever president comes, we can't go back. We can't go back to slavery because of the Civil War the century before. We can't go back living under King George because of the Civil War the century before that. So every century has like a war that marks it, and no matter what happens after that, you can't go back. Obviously, they weren't complete revolutions, or we wouldn't have homeless people, we wouldn't have poor people. We've got one more Civil War to go in this country. One more to go. We've got a big class struggle, it's about economics. We didn't touch that in the '60s. I mean, we touched it the way that we did, by throwing out money at the Stock Exchange. You see, I couldn't do that act today, because it would be an insult to people that are poor and homeless. But then it was affluence. There was a general ethos and perception in the country that we were all doing well, that we were living on easy street, more or less.
But in the '60s, many of the hippie kids associated with flower power and Timothy Leary weren't thinking so much about politics.
This act was a crossover between the hippies and the more political people. I would be the link between that kind of consciousness and Dave Dellinger or A.J. Muste, Cora Weiss. Primary in my mind going to the Stock Exchangeor even the first guerrilla communications act that we did, when we surrounded Con Edison's office with big signs saying "Breathing is hazardous to your health..."
Tell me about this.
We ran and put soot bombs inside the offices, the elevators and everything. We all dressed up in black and looked sooty, which looked wild on TV, it was amazing. But let me say that, about all these actions, foremost in my mind was stopping the war in Vietnam. We tried to invent different ways which would break people away from the mainstream kind of thinking which got them to salute without thinking, my country right or wrong, what ever it says. If it says "go kill," then go kill. If it says "study," then study. If it says, "pay your bill," then pay your bill. People would hear about us or see excerpts on television, read about it in the papers. They would identify with it, get ideas of their own, and start doing it all over the place. "Ideology of the deed" implies that the act is going to be reproduced in various forms in various ways by others in a kind of spontaneous generation. That doesn't mean that we didn't have any structure of communications of our own, or leadership. We had all that too. It was just that these kinds of events were moving faster along the communication belt than a leaflet.
You were always thinking about the way things would look when they were photographed.
Always. When I got up and dressed. I mean, that's the point. If I made a leaflet or a button I was aware of how it was going to communicate. Television was a little more tricky, as was the press, because you don't have the final say, so it's all distorted and everything. But ultimately I learned that that was okay, it didn't matter.
Why was that?
Because mythology is always distorting everything. The basic idea to get across is that someone went somewhere and tried to disrupt something. They tried to disrupt Con Edison, say. It doesn't matter what the media says about it, because some kind of emotional time bomb is stuck in the place.
And how did that make it mythology?
It was mythology the way I am a myth. The way people come up to me and say, weren't you a leader of the Klan in the '60s? Aren't you a woman? You're taller. Are you still on Wall Street? Didn't you play with the Grateful Dead? One of my favorites is that I invented long hair. I told him it wasn't true. He said, oh no, you made it legal in America. I said, now you're right! At the trial in Chicago, outside the court house on the opening day I did a front flip, full in the air, and landed on my feet. It was great that I could do it, it was about fifty-fifty at that age. But later, as that story got told, I heard I did it right in front of the judge, seventeen stories up. "Wow, he did a somersault right in front of the judge.' So myth brings closure. For example, people said we were banging on the walls of the Democratic convention in 1968, but we didn't get within seven miles of the building. We couldn't get out of Lincoln Park. So the numbers increase, the closeness of the symbols increases. That's myth.
Myth was a way to communicate critical messages through the media.
But there were lots of positive things, too. We were giving out free food and had free concerts. One day a bunch of us said we were going to clean a street all across New York. It was 7th Street, and we said we were going to clean the street from river to river. We put out leaflets and we got thousands of people. Certain things done around Liberty Week, or Hands Across America, most definitely, were bastardizations of a kind of public art that we brought to the modern era. Let's say we brought it with a political edge, and they took the political edge away.
Your approach to the media was a lot different than the Old Left or the SDS.
Oh sure, because the Old Left and SDS were drawing from the academic tradition and the religious tradition. They're not even that interested in winning.
What do you mean by that?
The academic tradition teaches you how to present a problem, and the religious tradition shows you how to be on the right side of the angels, and maybe even go down in martyrdom. But it's not exactly like the Super Bowl, where you've got another team to beat. It's a game, but hell you're playing the game as hard as you can. I play those games as hard as I can. That's why when they say, oh, you're just acting and everything, I say yeah: well, three dislocated vertebrae, four broken noses. It's real blood. It is a little shocking, but this is, after all, real life that we're talking about. We're taking real risks.
You were very involved with the new culture, the poetry, the rock music...
The whole idea was to try and hyphenate the two political cultures. But, you know, now when I talk to people about reprinting my early books, they say, "Don't tell them they're political books, just say "culture" and the publishers will say okay. Maybe we can get them through as art, but not as politics.' Unfortunately, as the story gets told, you pick up a new book on the '60s, it is written by a college professor, so it's analytical, academic, and it slightly misses the point, the flavor of it all. Go and look at the underground newspapers of the time. The prettiest one was the San Francisco Oracle, they had twelve issues, and some small press is putting it out now as a limited edition. It'll go right away. Like I say, if I had all those poems, even if I had manuscripts, early things that I wrote, they're worth much more than stuff I could write today.
That's for collectors.
Universities. But I don't have anything, I don't collect it. It's all out there in the gutter. A lot of the films, too. We had alternative newsreels. We had people with early video equipment, early cameras, filming all these events. But a lot of it is simply rotting away. The videotape then simply wasn't the quality it is today, so it's rotting away. Very hard to find a lot of good footage of me, for example.
That's funny. I'm surprised.
Well, maybe after I'm dead they'll dredge it up, but I haven't seen stuff that I thought was particularly good. One good shot of one good speech in May, 1970, but the rest of the stuff is, you know, minor. And people like it, too, when they see it. But I'm telling you, the best stuff's lost. That's the thing about all this. You had to have been there. I'm telling you we surrounded a five-sided figure which symbolizes evil in many religions with a circle to demystify it, and the building rosethe Pentagon rose in the air. But you had to be there to see it! You ask anyone who was there, and they'll tell you, yeah, sure it turned orange and it rose, it went right up!
In Revolution for the Hell of It, you said "Understanding is the first step to control, and control is the secret to our extinction."
Right. As I said at one point, chaos is mightier than the sword. Of course, I wouldn't be alive if this wasn't true. I can't tell you how many times I've been... four times attacked by mobs of five hundred to a thousand people, or more, or small groups. And they never laid a glove on me.
Peripheral vision. What looks like a rioting mob with a lot of movement seems to slow down. It's the same with athletes. If you talk to them, they'll tell you that even though the game might look very fast, it doesn't seem that way to them. They've trained themselves to slow it down. It has something to do with the way you stay calm. When people are rioting they are out of control, they are not aiming. It's not like a cop. If three cops are coming after you, they've had a lot of practice. But a riot of a thousand people, they're just angry. They throw their babies at you, they throw their jewelry at you, they start punching their friends. You know, they're a frenzied mob. As long as they don't have a rope, you know... Also I've had situations where at least one hundred police have pulled guns on me, maybe three or four times that's happened. I got scared in Mississippi... I've always felt that dying for what you believe in is an honor, so that brings a certain madness to the situation, a certain confusion, and in the cop's mind, he doesn't know how to deal with this. This is something new. They haven't seen this. Of course, if I pull out a gun, they're used to that. If you pull out a gun they all know what to do. Mostly I would just try to use the fact that I had some presence. "You're sure you want to do this? You know who I am? You know who my uncle is? You'll be pounding the beat in Staten Island." Every police force has a place where cops get punished without getting kicked off the force. So you know that, you know cop talk. And they know you know their cop talk, and the only way you'd know that they don't want to pound the beat in Staten Island is if you have some pull. They think you know the inner ways of the power structure, so they back off. They get nervous about that. It's something that they haven't seen with your standard, run-of-the-mill suspect.
Another quote from Revolution for the Hell of It: "Theater is involving for those who are ready for it, while it's dismissed as non-threatening by those who could potentially wreck the stage."
Those who would get it, would get it, and those that won't, they won't. It took a strange person to get it and be very threatened by it. There were some people who thought we were too sneaky and very dangerous, and when they understood that, then we were in deep shit. So we took risks. People risked a lot more than their career and marriage plans. I mean, it's tough. I'll go to a group now that wants to fight a toxic waste dump or a nuclear power plant, and someone will say "Well, my lawyer says I can get sued." Sued? I'm coming from where you could get hung! See, by '68 they were passing hordes of laws so that we couldn't even move across state lines, we were banned from speaking in certain states. The Interstate Riot Act. You couldn't wear a shirt that looked like the flag. They were going after hippie garb, etc. That was the period when the very strict marijuana-possession laws came in. They were catching on that the cultural thing mattered. Anyone looking at Freedom of Information Act files could see that. It was around this period they hired a psychologist to analyze me, and Jerry Rubin too. I met the person later. They couldn't figure out the chaos, the confusion, they couldn't figure the motive. Why would they throw their money out at the Stock Exchange? These are white, smart kids. They could go work for IBM and everything. Why are they running around in slums getting their heads cracked by cops. You see, they couldn't figure it out. So as long as they couldn't figure it out, you were winning. Later on they did. It was the mid-'70s when you get the rise of the Right. They figured out how TV is used, the use of modern technology, especially computers. And you see anti-abortion people out there doing civil disobedience, saying this is the civil-rights movement of the '80s. The way they mix up culture and religion. When I went to Pat Robertson's 700 Club as a fugitive in 1976, I covered it as an underground writerI was really underground!I was saying, hey, I'm watching the counter-revolution to the '60s, right here. They're using the same techniques, plus they've got plenty of money, and they're wrapped in the flag, and in the Bible. My God, it's going to be no contest. Organizers on the Right would tell you that they picked our methods apart. They didn't like our goals, but they liked our methods. They studied our methods and gave it back to us. Wouldn't you? Somebody had to study this. I mean, the U.S. didn't get away with a war against a little country. Something went wrong. Something happened.
So this method of symbolic action had a direct political impact?
You know, within a month they spent twenty thousand dollars building a bulletproof wall around the Stock Exchange gallery. In fact I'm told that if you go on the tour that they will say that this is where the hippies ran up and threw the money off the railing. It's become part of the tour. Symbolic warfare is close to the real thing. Disrupt the fantasy world, memory bank, all these imagesyou can show that they're so vulnerable and fragile. Their reaction is going to be, well, next week they're not going to be throwing money, they'll be throwing bullets, it'll be violent. In a way the disruptive thing is violent, even though it's very peaceful what we did and everything. To people in power, it makes fun of their precious symbol, Wall Street. It made fools out of them. Just a handful of hippies brought the thing to a stop. Changed the whole world of commerce in an instant. They don't like that. I mean later, just about everybody's going to be giggling about it. Ten, fifteen, twenty years later. But that's one of the neat little tricks. That's how you get away with it. That's why I'm alive, and that's why I'm fifty-two.
Originally published on Reality Sandwich on May 7, 2007.