Abbie's Road 1936-1989
Twenty-Three Years After His Passing, We Republish Abbie Hoffman's 1989 Obituary by His Student and Co-Conspirator
By Al Giordano
Originally Published in The Valley Advocate
April 12, 2013
His road began in Worcester, the Massachusetts city of seven hills and no thrills, on November 30, 1936, at 4:30 p.m., double-trouble in a triple-decker house. The end of the road came on April 12, 1989, when Abbie Hoffman was found lying peacefully in his bed outside of New Hope, Pennsylvania, with a stomach full of barbiturates and a legacy that will be felt for as long as the rest of the human race survives. The fact that the coroner said he committed suicide does not for one moment erase all the good he did while serving his life-sentence on planet earth. Abbie was captain of his own ship. He did everything on his own terms, including die.
He was a friend of mine. But his loss will leave a gaping black hole for many who mourn his passage, including millions around the world who never met him, except when he entered their living rooms through the television set, pioneering a new method of guerrilla warfare on the electronic battlefield of the mass media.
His was a long and winding road that, indeed, led to your door. It took him down dusty brown dirt Mississippi back roads in 1964, past the little shacks and big hearts of the southern civil rights movement. He drove through a cultural explosion of free speech, hallucinogenic drugs, the sexual revolution, and the emergence of a counter-culture. He labored to organize that youth culture into a potent political force against the war in Vietnam and more.
But if his life is to be fairly described as a road, one cannot ignore all the tailgating behind him. Eleven state legislatures once passed laws banning Abbie Hoffman’s entry, by name. (Abbie, of course, would hop on the first plane he could into each state to challenge and subsequently overturn the law in court.) The FBI compiled 68,000 pages of files on him, and hired two psychologists to analyze him from afar.
Superspy G. Gordon Liddy was commissioned by the U.S. government to draft a plan to kidnap Hoffman to Mexico. Federal agents repeatedly posed as political allies, followed him around, illegally tapped his phones, broke into his home, and prosecuted him for conspiracy to incite a riot in the case of the Chicago 8 (a.k.a. Chicago 7). The American Civil Liberties Union would later call it the most important political trial of the century.
Abbie made enemies in high places. During the 1971 Mayday demonstrations against the war, President Richard M. Nixon’s White House tapes recorded an oval office conversation between the president and his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman:
NIXON: We need some thugs to go in there and beat those guys up.
HALDEMAN: Yeah, strike breaker types, real murderers who can go in there with gusto and smash some noses.
NIXON: Like the Chicago Seven. Aren’t the Chicago Seven all Jews? Rennie Davis is a Jew, you know.
HALDEMAN: No, not Davis.
NIXON: Abbie Hoffman! He’s a Jew!
HALDEMAN: Yes, Hoffman, definitely a Jew.
NIXON: Then at least half the Chicago Seven are Jews.
Hours later, Hoffman’s nose was broken when he was chased down a Washington, D.C. alley by a gang of uniformed police who smashed billy clubs down upon his face.
Abbie survived a series of mind and body-blows that would have knocked any of the rest of us out of the ring long ago. He wrestled with a condition known as manic depression. His thunder and lightning-bolt creative streak was balanced by lonely plunges into his depths.
In 1973, Hoffman was busy at work on a sequel to Steal This Book. Hoffman had written the first book as a guide to getting everything for free. Two million copies would eventually be sold or stolen.
As part of his research, he was interviewing drug dealers—on his wiretapped telephone. His natural curiosity for the study of underground commerce, and his legendary willingness to try anything once, led him to be present during a cocaine deal between two sides whom he had helped to bring together. There were undercover agents on both sides. It was the very first night that the tough new Rockefeller drug law took effect. For his role, he faced a mandatory 15-to-life sentence in New York state. He would later write, “I shouldn’t have been there.”
The tires screeched as Abbie crashed not into a dead end, but into a new life, underground—in reality many lives, many names, many homes, a constant road due to the need to be a moving target. As a most wanted and famous fugitive, easily recognized across the globe from his photos on the evening news and in morning papers, his only hope was plastic surgery. He went under the knife and emerged with a nose job.
His years underground are perhaps the least well-known in his life’s story. In Mexico, orange PEMEX stations pumped diesel fuel alongside dusty roads. The language was Espanol. The rhythm, Latin. The poverty, legendary. But even the poor had a name, an identity.
And it was there that Abbie met Johanna Lawrenson, his running mate. She kept him alive for 15 years. In his writings from that time, he called her “Angel, who led me into the valley of life.” They ran together in a land of brujos and ruined cities of stone, and through Europe and the sad grey American underground. He was madly in love with her until the end.
At times during his seven-year flight, Abbie would surface for guerrilla press conferences. In 1979 he turned up at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston for a rendezvous with reporters at a building that President Jimmy Carter had dedicated 10 days earlier. After the death of Judge Julius Hoffman, the nasty little man who had presided over the Chicago conspiracy trial, Abbie appeared in a Groucho Marx nose and glasses, and danced on Julie’s grave for a photographer, in fulfillment of a courtroom promise.
One place Abbie could not show up was at his father John’s funeral in Worcester, where his brother Jack was harassed by FBI agents hunting for Abbie.
Last week, Abbie’s mother, Florence, 83, mourned her first-born son in the same Temple Emmanuel where he could not mourn his father.
In the late ‘70s Johanna brought Abbie to her Thousand Islands home on the border of Upstate New York and Canada, where she had spent much of her youth with her mother, author Helen Lawrenson, and her father, maritime union organizer Jack Lawrenson. The road became a rolling river. Cars were replaced by boats. The international border would provide a convenient escape if necessary. Abbie took up fishing, cooking, even relaxing, and settled in under the alias of Barry Freed. For a while it almost seemed as if there would be a happy ending in sight, blissful obscurity.
But then the Army Corps of Engineers announced their plan to bring winter navigation to the St. Lawrence River, destroying the quiet beauty of the Thousand Islands. Abbie, ahem, Barry decided he could not sit back and allow his new home to be despoiled. Together, Abbie and Johanna organized Save The River, a grassroots citizen movement that would become a textbook case for community organizers everywhere. They won. Today, the St. Lawrence flows freely still.
Disguised as mild-mannered citizen activist Barry Freed, he was appointed to a federal environmental commission by President Carter—and awarded a citation from New York Gov. Hugh Carey for his environmental work. After the disguised Hoffman, in a suit and tie, gave calm and reasoned testimony to a U.S. congressional committee, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan leaned into his microphone and reportedly said, “Mr. Freed, after listening to you, now I know that the ‘60s are finally over.”
In 1980 the road surfaced again as Barbara Walters was whisked through a labyrinth of islands by speedboat for the secret blockbuster interview that would mark the second coming of Abbie Hoffman. Working with his lifetime lawyer Gerald Lefcourt, who never once sent him a bill, Abbie made arrangements to turn himself in and face the charges.
I met Abbie shortly after he came up for air, in April of 1981 at the Rowe Conference Center. A week later he was sentenced to three years in prison in New York. We corresponded while he was in jail. Before he was released on parole one-and-a-half years later, he did community service for the Veritas Community, raising money and publicity for the treatment of drug addiction. In 1982 he produced for them a public service announcement—one of the first rock videos ever made. He was always one step ahead.
On Christmas eve 1982, the recently freed Hoffman called me into his Manhattan apartment. He asked me to join him in his next battle. He said he was on his way to Bucks County, PA to fight a pumping station that would divert the Delaware River 40 miles inland to the Limerick nuclear power plant. “But I can’t leave today,” I pleaded.
We left on Christmas night. I gave him a 10-day commitment and ended up staying for a total of eight months. We won some battles, including a May 17, 1983 referendum vote to dump the pump. But the war would eventually be lost in 1987, when the courts overturned the stated will of the people and construction began again on the Point Pleasant Pump.
In his later years Abbie traveled the campus lecture circuit. He was well-known for his disappointment in the Me Generation. “Don’t trust anyone under 30” was his new motto. He called today’s campuses “hot beds of rest.” But the scolding came from a man who, more than anyone else of his generation, cared to work with the politically active young people of today. He respected youth. He invested in us.
He was immensely proud of his children. His youngest, america, child of Abbie’s second wife and fellow organizer Anita, campaigned to overturn a curfew in his town, and was published in the L.A. Weekly at age 16. Today he’s 18. “He’s gonna inherit the family business,” his dad proclaimed while they were arrested together at the pump site in 1987.
His first two children were from his first marriage, to his Brandeis classmate Sheila. His oldest, Andrew, 28, is an artist near Boston. His daughter, Ilya, 26, a graduate of Hampshire College, works with juvenile delinquents for the state of Massachusetts. “Not a yuppie in the litter,” Abbie would boast.
He loved the topical music of young artists like Billy Bragg, Michele Shocked and the Washington Squares, who performed at the opening broadcast of Abbie’s syndicated program, Radio Free USA at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. He was a guiding light and mentor to many less well-known youthful organizers, including Lisa Fithian, Monica Behan, David Maloney, Prakash Mishra, Abbie Fields and the current organizers of the National Student Action Network.
Also in his later years, his passion for environmental issues grew like vines in the tropical jungle. Abbie was very pained by the destruction of the rainforests, and traveled there. After his success on the St. Lawrence, he helped organize a federation to save the Great Lakes. For the last six years of his life, the Delaware River war was a constant commitment. In his final days he told a neighbor that he was so sick over the oil spill in Alaska that he wanted to organize a boycott of Exxon.
With Amy Carter and other co-defendants, Abbie was arrested at UMass in Amherst in November 1986 on trespass charges stemming from a protest of CIA recruitment on campus. It became known as the “CIA On Trial” case. They put expert witnesses on the stand, from a former U.S. attorney general to a former CIA agent—and convinced a jury of six that the CIA had broken international law and committed higher crimes.
On April 15, 1987, while the jury deliberated, I walked down Main Street in Northampton with Abbie as he awaited the ax to fall. “Not guilty,” was the verdict. Cheering crowds flooded out into the street. It was a great and happy day. Abbie’s moving closing arguments to the jury were later reprinted in the Nation and Harper’s. He told the jurors that a verdict of innocent would say, “Young people, don’t give up hope. If you participate, the future is yours.”
Abbie believed that ideology had become irrelevant to modern political action. Whether it is capitalism, communism, socialism, or anarchism, he said “isms are wasms.” He instead saw history as a perpetual struggle between revolutionaries and reactionaries. He never gave us any doubt as to which side he was on.
He believed that apathy would destroy democracy, which he loved as much as any other patriot. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he used to say. His 1987 book, Steal This Urine Test, in addition to being a how-to manual on beating the bladder cops, was perhaps the first literary work to declare war on the modern-day repression brought on by the current war-on-drugs. Abbie had guts. And he was right.
I keep looking for him over my shoulder, thinking that the door will suddenly swing open, or the phone will ring, and he’ll be there like he always was, smiling, telling jokes, giving us the best times of our lives. I will remember him best as a Jack-of-all trades, teaching me how to fish on the St. Lawrence, to hustle pool in the Applejack Tavern in Point Pleasant, PA, to work el mercado negro—the black market—while we were in Nicaragua together, and how to practice free speech wherever I go. If the truth be known, he spent many a frustrating hour trying to teach me how to give speeches, and how to write.
”There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning,” he wrote while he was on the run. Of all his accomplishments, he would probably like to be remembered as the guy who levitated the Pentagon. But the real miracle of Abbie Hoffman was how he raised the collective spirit of our nation, and of the human race.
It’s like the last acre of jungle rainforest has been cut down. Abbie Hoffman cultivated an endangered species of plant known as Democracy. He spent every waking minute toiling in the garden, stamping out the weeds of greed and repression, sowing the seeds of rebellion and revolution, drawing water from the well of history.
Two nights and 200 miles from his sad death, in the post-midnight darkness of Northampton, on April 15, the grey stone walls of the Hampshire County Courthouse began themselves to cry out in mourning. “Steal this courthouse,” shouted the graffiti facing Main Street. “Abbie did Justice here,” yelled the words on the Gothic Street wall. The letters CIA had been slashed in red. And one lone spray-painted heart graced the entrance.
It had been exactly two years since the day that Abbie, Amy and the others were acquitted in that courthouse.
That very same morning, in Mercury, Nevada, former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg, the man who compiled and leaked the Pentagon Papers a couple of decades ago, delivered a eulogy for Abbie Hoffman. Ellsberg had been one of the witnesses who testified in Northampton about the CIA’s crimes and the necessity of citizens taking direct action to win back our democracy and save our dying world.
According to Advocate photographer Paul Shoul, who was there, Ellsberg fought back a flood of tears, as we all have been prone to do since Abbie went underground one last time. He then picked up a banner that said “For Abbie Hoffman.” He held it to his chest. And he walked into the desert sun, across the barricades, and onto the Nevada nuclear test site, where he was arrested with 1,047 others—and the memory of a fallen friend.
Editor’s Note: Advocate staff writer Al Giordano and Abbie Hoffman were close friends and co-conspirators for eight years. Since Hoffman’s death on Wednesday, April 12, Giordano has been in Pennsylvania, New York and Worcester with the Hoffman family and friends.
In 1987 Hoffman wrote about Giordano as “the best under-thirty community organizer in America.” Last summer, Hoffman asked him to write his authorized biography.
”Al taught me the strategy of ‘capture the flag,’ ” Hoffman wrote of Giordano in Steal This Urine Test. “I took Al’s lesson with me to the University of Massachusetts on November 24, 1986, when I spoke at a rally against CIA recruiting on campus.”
”Capturing the Flag,” wrote Hoffman, “implies you are as good an American or better than the Enforcers. It is a strategy essential to winning in the eighties.”
Lea Ud. el Artículo en Español
Narco News is funded by your contributions to The Fund for Authentic Journalism.
Please make journalism like this possible by going to The Fund's web site
and making a contribution today.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism
For more Narco News, click here.