These Things Take Time: Occupy Wall Street and the Ghost of Abbie Hoffman
Having slipped the clutches of police giving chase, Michel Poiccard, the small-time hood, charming proto-hipster and cop-killer of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 breakout Breathless, looks up at his lover and accomplice, the elegant bookworm Patricia Franchini, with a fateful realization. She has departed their fugitive lodgings for a spell and returned for what will prove to be the final time. In her absence, Michel has reconsidered their most recent parting: “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.”
I met Nancy Cohen on October 5th in the most serendipitous way: she spoke aloud to herself in the mid-afternoon, musing on Abbie Hoffman’s absence from the procession before us, he of the wild hair and brazen wit, the American flag shirt, the elevation of the Pentagon. I responded without even turning fully to look at her; there was a lot to see, colorful costumes, people everywhere. It appeared she was maybe two generations ahead of me in the age department, the boomer ’80s her welcome to adulthood: blond, bespectacled, petite. A quiet manner. We stood side-by-side on a small parapet lining a plaza outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, having paused a minute en route to Foley Square, where some 10,000 people were gathering to protest Wall Street as currently conceived: corporate influence on politics, corporate status in the courts, gross and ever grosser income disparity fueled by corporate hierarchies, socialist bailouts for corporations and corporate capitalism for everyone else.
What Nancy Cohen said was: “I guess Abbie Hoffman isn’t going to make it today.” Her words, in their melancholy, seemed to sink beneath the skyward surge of the federal building.
I answered that I was pretty sure that he was there, because hey, look all around. Meaning: if not literally looking on as a concentrated spirit of Abbie-ness from some cottony bright overhang or smog-ridden char-pit, it was clear enough he was coloring the entire scene, his image become so much bread on the waters: the wild regalia, the emphasis on spectacle, the playing to the cameras by many of the protesters, the belief that the sight of us, just our being there, would be enough to effect change.
As leaderless movement, Occupy Wall Street is the direct descendant of Hoffman’s Yippies. In the words of fellow Yippie chieftain Jerry Rubin: “You know that across the country, there are people like you who are ready to act. And they don’t need no leader telling them what to do, ’cause we’re all leaders.” Hoffman was one such anti-leader who disdained leaders, the provocateur who provoked for political outcome, while having, for a good run at least, not such a bad time.
Since O.W.S. began in mid-September, there has been a steady turnover in the sleeping bag ranks, people coming, people going; no one figure has coalesced before the camera as Voice of the Movement. This is no accident: with crowd-sourced intelligence, Occupiers have resisted the media penchant for anointing figureheads. Yet it is precisely in the absence of named leaders, that past examples loom larger.
One attraction, presumably, of reincarnation is the chance for a do-over, for getting things right. Death being that final slamming of a door that no certain code can be tapped through. Sure, we can tap, and tap, and tap—but the question is to whom do we really speak?
Once upon a time, Nancy Cohen told me, she actually had the chance to meet Abbie Hoffman; they sat down to dinner, in fact, and that dinner was filmed on the eve of his 50th birthday. The resulting short was released two years later in 1990 as My Dinner With Abbie.
In her voice, as she spoke of Hoffman on a sunny afternoon, a weight was obvious: sorrow, longing, the wish that things could be other than they are. Contrast that to the youthful zest and cleverness of the peaceful protesters, the O.W.S. movement in its infancy, teeming over in the present with belief in possibility. Ecclesiastes wrote that one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever. Abbie might say, as he did in conversation with Cohen (his perpetual request of interviewers being that they call him ‘Abbie’): “The certain thing about youth that’s needed for social change is impatience: you lose your sense of that ‘It has to happen right now’… There has to be a certain number of people jumping up and screaming, NOW, NOW, NOW [laughing], because there’s a helluva lot of people who’ll say, ‘These things take a lot of time.’”
Introduced on SnagFilms.com by a commercial for Goldman Sachs (doing innovative work for cities as down-on-their-luck as New Orleans, it says)—irony that Hoffman would no doubt have fun with—My Dinner With Abbie seems a long-buried time capsule. Pardon the innocuous guitar, the quaint title cards, the faded colors of the film stock for what they are: outward dressings of a meeting of the minds, that between Hoffman, “the macho feminist,” and his acolyte and inquisitor. To say that the interview goes swimmingly, like one conducted on, say, The Tonight Show, would be untrue, but it is precisely the abrupt shifts and miscues that make it compelling more than twenty years after the fact of Hoffman’s suicide, and why an exercise in feigned enthusiasm would be much less so.
Playing the part of pupil, Cohen is the sort determined to expose a flaw in her teacher’s thinking. When she says, in a voiceover at the film’s outset, that she heard Hoffman “would be tough,” it speaks more to her attitude in the ensuing conversation than to his. Hoffman is nothing if not gentle in his answers; even his rudest response, “Fuck off! I got four of them, they don’t mean anything,” when she broaches the subject of astrological signs is delivered affectionately. She challenges Hoffman in the manner of a child who believes a certain adult has all the answers and can withstand any doubts raised, not appearing to fathom that her questions might wound. The dissonance of her voiceover at the film’s outset (“Two years later, he would take his own life”) registers her shock over Hoffman’s ultimate choice.
And yet the young Cohen represents exactly the wave that would supplant Hoffman’s dream of revolution: the righting of economic ills, universal health care and environmental responsibility taking a backseat to the rights of women, of minority standing, of equality in the workplace, of sexual liberation, of me-first ambition of the sort epitomized by an Apple computer for everybody, of a star-system fueling the whole eternally present circus where the greatest thing you can be, a pursing of the lips with requisite irony, is a rock star.
Abbie Hoffman was nothing if not a rock star. Late in life, he cited the Beatles and Dylan as models for his persona before the camera. If Hoffman was also something of an outrage (“We will not go into the ovens, we will fight back, we will not submit to the America’s children for breakfast program, fuck off you Philistines in Washington!” he declared to a bank of mics at the height of his fame), it should not be forgotten that he was a child of an era when protesters were fire-hosed and set upon by police dogs, where being in the wrong car in the wrong place with the wrong people could get you and your friends disappeared. He was as flamboyant in his dissent as the forces of suppression were dumbly violent in meeting it. Who’d these kids speaking out think they were? Didn’t they know that violence and backroom deals rule the world? The divine absurdity of Hoffman’s cultural contributions—a book called Steal This Book, inspired no doubt by the Diggers’ “Free Store” on the Lower East Side—employed nonsense to evoke the world unimagined yet.
In time, the Lower East Side became the Lower East Side “tm”. Abbie Hoffman became Abbie Hoffman “tm”. One half of the Yippie political agenda undid the other. And Abbie Hoffman the image undid Abbie Hoffman in flesh and blood, leaving him laid out fully clothed in bed inside a turkey coop in Pennsylvania (the absurdity!), without any socks on. Scattered on the floor were notes detailing his mood swings: he claimed to be working on a book about conquering them.
As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Abbie Hoffman spearheaded a successful late-night food delivery service. No alien to capitalism, he even exhibited a talent for it. He simply chose to go a different path. And that path, no doubt envied by many of his ’60s cohorts for its magnetism, led Hoffman to a dinner with Nancy Cohen at Sarge’s Deli on the eve of his 50th birthday.
“Do you think things happen just randomly or is there some format, destiny?” Cohen asks.
“Both! I think both! I think there is a pattern but an individual brings a certain amount of will to the situation,” he answers.
“Are you hard on yourself?” she asks after surprising him with a cake that he is clearly embarrassed by.
“I go from one extreme to the other,” he answers. “I almost prefer insults to compliments to tell you the truth. If someone came in and said, ‘This is a stick-up, give me your money,’ I would know how to respond much better than with the cake.”
“Do you feel successful about your life?” she asks.
“It’s a little embarrassing to be more radical, more activist than the next generation,” he answers.
While literature strips the body from the voice—the corporeal being of the author definitively absent (gender, skin color, attire, attitude)—film captures the outward appearance, allowing for the viewer to observe how what is being said complements what is being enacted. Film is the preferred medium of tyrants, it has been written (the examples of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy spring to mind); the interior life in doubt, the authority of appearances feverishly propagated. No less could be said, though, of the print medium in the centuries following its inception. And a defining trait of the O.W.S. movement has been the ubiquity of iPhone videos turned toward the goal of mass democratic engagement. Indeed, they are the protesters’ weapon of choice. Look no further than the priority given by the NYPD to deterring a video record of their November 15th raid on the O.W.S. encampment, a priority at which they unambiguously failed.
Abbie Hoffman, for one, would not be surprised at what armed and armored officers are capable of, having had a good seat at the 1968 occupation of Lincoln Park in Chicago. What happened there, and later on outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel, marked a turning point in the history of left-of-center politics in the United States. As Michael Gerson wrote recently in The Washington Post:
The most destructive Democratic image has been the theatrical, radical protester of the late 1960s. Many journalists remember the Yippies, the Battle of Michigan Avenue, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Chicago Seven with nostalgia.
Most Americans, however, viewed this social movement with alarm. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became some of the most successful politicians of their time by taking the side of authority and propriety against disorder and radicalism. It was one of the main reasons that blue-collar Democrats became susceptible to Republican appeals. When a student protester confronted Reagan’s car and shouted, “We are the future,” the then-governor of California wrote out in response: “I’ll sell my bonds.” The silent majority cheered.
These images of blue-helmeted police swarms going haywire on protesters, young and old, black, white, yellow and everything in between, along with the long-haired representatives of the lifestyle Hoffman espoused (flamboyant drug use, free love and rude disdain for authority), take on new power in light of recent events. If nothing else, the images are a reminder of the fact that police will always be fluent in the language of violence and rage; they live it, day in and day out, through their training, their niche the raw underside of this nation’s aspirations. No protest movement should attempt to communicate with them on those terms. They are ready for it, and many of them—too many—appear more than willing to engage in the only language they know.
The Occupiers are fashioning a language of their own. How remarkable that under the klieg lights of what appeared nothing less than a guinea pig experiment in crowd control, the NYPD outfitted to conquer not a group of one hundred passively resisting citizens, but a grotesque fantasy of mob violence (a fantasy, it turns out, embodied no more convincingly than by the police themselves), the amassed citizens kept their cool. Rather than the ’68 chant of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” before the first gas canister went off, the protesters cried, “We shall overcome,” “You don’t have to do this” and “We love you.”
In their vehement disdain for authority the Yippies ultimately fed the conservative party one of its most powerful recruitment tools: populist outrage at the right of any know-it-all to say what’s best for you and me (see Wallace, George). The Yippies’ unapologetic blend of politics and theater, a blend enthusiastically embraced by young people, certainly shaped the fortunes of Ronald Reagan, Arnold (“I’ll be back”) Schwarzenegger and Hollywood’s love affair with the government podium (to the degree that brain-fried evangelical candidate Rick Perry’s recent campaign commercials appear to be selling tickets for Rick Perry: The Movie).
If all the world’s a stage, then who better to represent us than our favorite actors? Such notions as personal accountability (Reagan’s notorious “plausible deniability”), unscripted candor and actual, honest-to-God job experience slipped by the wayside as qualifying traits. If all the world’s a stage, then what people need in times of distress are more compelling entertainments.
Sloughing the need for endless enthrallment to media outlets, the O.W.S. movement decided itself to become an outlet, to reclaim the most direct conduit of all: the public commons. This form of engagement, and not any one physical space, is what defines it, the ability to gather people, to focus outrage in a peaceful fashion, to attract attention to what our media cycles would otherwise brush off. “Get a job!” an officer in riot gear chortled at protesters during the raid, consciously or unconsciously parroting students at the Wharton School of Business who cattle-called from a second floor balcony to those gathered beneath them. Yes, but, you see, that’s just it: as long as actual jobs are few and far between, goading like that amounts to a conservative brand of activist theater, a channeling of the inner Yippie. Because such jobs exist, primarily, in the imagination.
It’s easy to recognize from the vantage of a generation more savvy to media how a set of historical hypotheses has played out over decades. What’s difficult is to stand there in the present, to put yourself on the line, as Abbie Hoffman did, time and again, at great personal risk, at great personal cost. The cost, though, was something that Hoffman would never admit to troubling him much. The thought that we might get there, that, with apologies to Mahatma Gandhi by way of President Barack Obama, We Are the Change We’re Looking For, was all the reason he needed.
“You’re not comin’ back?” Nancy Cohen asks him. “This is it?”
“This is my one chance,” Abbie Hoffman answers. “I’m not into reincarnation. I’m not sayin’ it might not be there. I’m not into it. It allows you too easily to cop out.”
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 2 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook