Monday, July 5, 2010

On Effective Resistance -- and Abbie Hoffman

I'm in a strange and contentious mood today. Maybe it's the extended heatwave. Maybe it's just my "time".

Today would be my father's 109th birthday if he were still alive. Of course he died many years ago in a hospital where he was finally taken at the last to perish of a cancer that is usually controllable or curable if treated early enough.

He refused treatment when it might have saved his life. By that time, he was refusing most every overture from the outside world. He lived his last few years as a virtual hermit, doing his best to withdraw into a shell. I had no contact with him by then since I was more than a thousand miles away on the one hand, and I was unable to get a response to letters or phone calls, on the other hand.

In fact, I found the letters I had sent to him stacked in a neat pile on a side table when I explored his house after he died. None had been opened. I had tried calling him numerous times, but he never answered the phone. Eventually, I called his sister who lived down the street from him to find out whether he was OK, and she said he was, but she hadn't seen or talked to him for over 6 months, maybe a year. She thought he was fine, he just didn't want to be bothered. He wouldn't even listen to her the last time she saw him. He just looked right past her. What could you do?

Yes. What can you do? I missed his funeral and burial due to a flight delay from California, but I did attend his wake at the home of his sister, and I left with my head reeling, revolted and disgusted at these shallow and self-centered Iowans, claiming as they did: "Well, you know, Ray committed suicide. He wouldn't take any help when it could have made a difference. When they finally got him to the hospital it was too late. It was his own fault. Did anybody send for a priest?" The best thing they could say about him was that he should have stayed in the military. He had a very promising career in the Air Force, and he would have been out of the mess that things became in his small town in Iowa. It would have been for the best for all concerned.


At the time, I was actively resisting military service -- which the rest of the assembly to "honor" my father knew -- and so I saw it as backhanded slap not just at my father (for being himself) but at me, too, for being a doGdamned Hippie. He had left the military to go home and defend his older brother who on trial for murder. A political trial, I might add, for the real killer was known to the prosecutor before he took the case to trial, and it ended with a directed verdict of acquittal. That was the "mess" that things became in small town Iowa.

I still rage about those people. Not that it ever did me the least bit of good.

But then, I didn't have to deal with them more than occasionally. What a relief.

This is a picture of my father's house as it looks today:

I think it was actually taken last year, and the house looked a good deal different when my father lived there. The sort of mismatched window on the first floor left front was a door, the main door to the house. The larger window on the left front was even larger, and it was put in by my father to please my mother who came out to Iowa from California and who found the house dark and dreary when she got there. The house was built in stages, starting in the 1840's or '50s with the two rooms in back (which became the kitchen and dining room when my father lived there.) The small wing on the left side was added as a lean to originally, in the late 1850's; it had two bedrooms and a bathroom when my father lived there. Not too long afterward, a second story was added over the four early rooms, and one of the rooms above still had a Gothic arched window that Grant Wood made famous:

The front was added in the 1870's, and included a parlor, a stair hall, and a large bedroom upstairs.

A wraparound porch was added at the same time.

My father had lived in the house for years, since the early 30's. It had belonged to his father from whom my father inherited it. This was one of several houses on the street my grandfather had owned. Once it was in my father's name, he "cleaned it up," as he said, removing all traces of its Victorian Era origins from the exterior, including the porch, and masking the Gothic window from the outside with siding and a new window. He had it painted white. He partially modernized the interior -- Late Moderne Era light fixtures, tropical figured wallpapers, plumbing updates and the like -- and overwrought Victorian furniture was replaced with simple '40's modern pieces. Linoleum and new appliances were installed in the kitchen and the coal fired furnace in the basement was updated.

By the time my father died, the house was pretty much of a wreck. He hadn't maintained it for years while he'd shut himself up in it like a hermit. He'd rented out the upstairs to some very strange people who pretty much trashed that part of the place, but they're the ones who finally got him to a hospital. Some attorney friends of his said they'd take care of his estate on contingency, and so they did. Of course, it was nothing but trouble getting the few things I wanted boxed up and sent to California, getting the house sold, the proceeds (such as they were) distributed, and ultimately gaining closure on the whole sorry affair.

But you can see by the way I write about it more than 40 years later, I'm still puzzled at all the unknown elements of my father's final years, and annoyed at the complete insensitivity to him and to others shown by his surviving friends and relations.

I mentioned that I was actively resisting military service at the time my father died. I was called up for the draft in October, 1967, during a time of intense protests at draft centers all over the country, including Oakland where I was ordered to appear. In fact, the Oakland Induction Center was shut down by the protests during the time I was in transit. There had been protests and shut downs and arrests all week. I thought that going for my physical as ordered could be quite an interesting experience, though I had no intention of becoming a troop.

And it was interesting to say the least. We were scheduled to arrive at the Induction Center at 10am, but because of the protests, we were held at Santa Rita until about 4pm, and needless to say, we tended to act up some while we waited. Anti-war chants were our favorite.

When we were finally delivered to the Center, the smell of teargas was very strong in the air and the protest was still going on. Protesters had been removed from the front entrance, but they were right behind the double line of Oakland police who formed a kind of gauntlet for us to literally run through from the bus to the front entrance of the Induction center. The crowd was chanting slogans, and some of us were chanting too and raising fists as we stumbled into the Induction Center.

I remember being surprised at how respectful and even gentle the staff was once we were inside. I expected something much rougher, and it wasn't that at all.

We could hear -- and if we were near a window, see -- the protests outside all through our not too excruciating ordeal inside, and I saw people being arrested and hauled away. Some of us inside made for the windows in our underwear and shouted our solidarity with those outside, but truthfully, most did not. Most were silent, enduring the various pokage and proddage that's part and parcel of the process and getting ourselves "evaluated" by the psych team. Some of it was very funny, like when we had to give a urine sample and the military fellow supervising this process had to keep very close (and eager) watch on us to make sure... well, not sure what, but he obviously loved his job!

Now and then, we could hear the pop of tear-gas outside amid all the chants, and soon enough the air would fill with that acrid aroma and we'd all start coughing and gagging. They gave us something for it, but I honestly don't remember what. It may have been just a wet cloth to hold over our noses and mouths. I can still feel the burn of teargas in the back of my throat from that day, and every time my eyes are irritated due to allergies, I'm reminded of it.

Eventually, they were done with us, and I was surprised it was over so fast. I had a handful of papers to take with me, and when we got back outside the crowds were gone and it was getting dark. There were a few police milling around and a lot of debris in the streets. Faint odor of teargas lingered. Got back on the bus and went back home.

Got a notice that I passed my physical, and the real struggle began. I was NOT going to be drafted. Period. There were maybe half a dozen of us from that induction cohort who had vowed we were not going to go, no matter what. And we said as much at the Induction Center, something that the staff said they were very used to hearing, and it was no skin off their nose one way or another. Some people, they knew, really didn't want to be drafted. Oh well.

I sent letters to my draft board saying, "No, I will not go, don't call me," and I remember they sent me one back saying they received my letter and would I please provide documentation that I was a conscientious objector. Hm. No, I would not, thank you very much, and I would not be drafted, either. This went on for several months as I recall, with the draft board periodically replying to my refusals with very polite requests for more information. I was actually expecting to be arrested at any minute.

I burned my draft card at a public ceremony at my college (I wasn't a student at the time, I had dropped out for a variety of reasons, and that was why I'd been called up for a physical). I protested at the Federal Building, marching and chanting and carrying signs against the war and the draft. While the police were always a threatening presence, they didn't bash my skull and they didn't arrest me, either. Much to my surprise.

Finally, the draft board sent me notice that I was classified 1-A and would be subject to induction into the military within a short time (30 or 60 days, I'm not sure). Of course they conveniently included a new draft card. Bless their hearts. The one I had burned was a 1-S student deferment, which was no longer valid anyway, since I was not a student any more.

So I expected to get a notice any day that I was drafted. And you know what? It never came. The same thing seems to have happened to all six of us who "Hell no, we won't go." After what seemed like a long time -- and many letters back and forth to the draft board, and for some of us but not all, medical opinions from sympathetic doctors that said we weren't "fit" for service -- we were all re-classified 1-Y, subject to induction only in a national emergency.

It was... over. We weren't going to be drafted. We wouldn't have to go to jail, and we wouldn't have to go to Canada. Deferments didn't matter any more. It was... over.

Of course, if the Viet Cong started crawling up the beaches of Santa Monica, all bets were off.

Some time later, toward the end of the draft, some of the draft board members were interviewed, and they said that from time to time, they would get letters from draft and war protesters, and they said they would not arbitrarily reject them. They considered each one carefully. They knew there were many, many Americans opposed to the war and the draft, and they didn't see it as their job to induct men who were simply going to resist. So, if the facts warranted, they would try to find a way for men who were genuinely opposed to the draft and the war to stay out of the military, because what use would they be inside?

This was the first time I'd really thought of the draft board members as human. Their reputation was something entirely different. And yet, apparently they found a way to keep us out of the military.

Who'd a thunk it?

So, in a very small way, and essentially without our understanding of what was happening, our resistance was effective. And I cannot go to the Vietnam Memorial downtown and read all the names of the men who died there, some of whom I knew, some of whom were drafted, and not burst into weeping rage. Why? Why? Why?

By 1968, my rage at what was going on was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that it wasn't just damned dirty hippies or dumb kids who were outraged. Far from it. The McCarthy campaign and then the Kennedy campaign demonstrated the depth and breadth of opposition to the horrors being inflicted on the suffering peoples overseas and at home. This was no fringe uprising. It was global. It was deeply felt at home. I was attracted to the Kennedy campaign, but I thought he was an opportunist just the same. I watched the primary results come in from California, and I went to bed before Kennedy gave his victory speech.

I felt a hand shaking me awake. "Kennedy's been shot."

Oh my god. Not again. Please. Not again. Martin Luther King had been shot in April, and the national upheaval was intense. Many, many people had been killed or wounded in the aftermath. Please, not again.

This time, there was only sorrow and resignation. The last, best hope extinguished... And yet, there was still Chicago.

If I could have, I would have gone. "Won't you please come to Chicago..." Yes, well.

But I was penniless, had no way to get there, and no chance of going. I watched the events of the Democratic convention unfold on television, more bloodshed and rioting and teargas. More anger, more misery, more outrage.

And the star of the show was Abbie Hoffman. There was no doubt that it was a show and he was an absolute star. Simply amazing.

And my doG he and those with him got a lot done. To say that protest and resistance and monkeywrenching, and yes, clowning when the situation calls for it, is "ineffective" -- after what Hoffman and others were able to do -- is so full of shit and ignorance the mind boggles with the breathtaking arrogance of it.

Hoffman was a character, no doubt about that, and he relished the spotlight. He was a liberationist, not a communitarian, and yet every cause he supported and everything he did seemed geared to "be of service" to far more than himself and his image and reputation.

Somehow too many Americans have lost that spirit, or maybe never knew it.

He was an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; he was a committed anti-war activist; one of his stunts was organizing the "Levitation of the Pentagon;" he always encouraged others to get involved and he was very successful in motivating otherwise passive or apathetic individuals to get off their butts; he went to the New York Stock Exchange and threw fists full of dollars down on the trading floor making some of the traders scramble to get the money.

Of course his arrest and trial in Chicago for his participation in the Democratic Convention protests in 1968 is the stuff of legend, and while his trial with that of the other "Chicago 7" was going on, his antics in court were magnificent, appropriate for the political trial context, and utterly contemptuous. Where are those today who will so creatively and gleefully expose the corruption of justice that passes for our court system today?

His books -- like Steal this Book and Letters from the Underground -- are still inspirational.

He went underground when he was set up by police as a big cocaine dealer and ultimately skipped bail. But while underground, he remained active as an organizer and writer. When he eventually surrendered to authorities, he was given a light sentence and was released after four months, something that is almost impossible to conceive of given draconian sentencing these days.

Abbie Hoffman was one of those involved with the revelations about the CIA's illegal involvement in the "Contra" war against the Sandanistas in Nicaragua when, at trial after his arrest (along with many others) for protesting the CIA's recruitment at the University of Massachusetts, Daniel Ellsberg, Ramsey Clark, and Edgar Chamorro, among others testified to decades of illegal and violent activities by the CIA.

Hoffman is alleged to have committed suicide by ingesting over 150 Phenobarbital tablets on April 12, 1989, but many of those who knew him don't believe it was suicide. Instead, they suspect he was "suicided," though just how is a mystery. The "why" is obvious. He remained a very effective organizer of trouble and afflictions for the powerful and comfortable to his dying day, and if there was anyone in America at that time who "needed suiciding" by the Powers That Be more than Abbie, let's hear who.

Effective resistance is sometimes an accident, often an art. But effective resistance and protest to right the wrongs of our nation is a constant necessity.

'When our country is right, keep it right; but when it is wrong, right those wrongs.' -- Abbie Hoffman, 1987

Our call never ends.


  1. Dear Che,

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I'm not quite old enough (49) to have been fully aware of everything going on but the events of the 60s (and at least until the mid-70s) seemed to saturate everything. As a child I listened in to every adult conversation, of course noticed my dad's derision of young men with long hair, watched nightly news with my dad (Huntley Brinkley) and remember the weekly (was it weekly?) reporting of the dead Americans in Viet Nam, remember being wide-eyed as we drove through Canada (was it Ontario?) and seeing a bunch of hippies riding on a large flat bed trailer being pulled through the city with loud rock and roll being played in an anti-war protest. Quite a sight for a young one from the midwest (Ohio) who's parents only listened to country music. :)

    Apologies for the ramble, but the 60s and 70s cast a spell over me that I still carry and always make me cry, especially when reading someone's personal experience (yours today).

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post. Hoffman also deserves credit for bringing the "October Surprise" (a secret deal the Republican Party made with Iran to delay the release of the Iranian hostages - in the belief it would result in an automatic win for Jimmy Carter) to public attention in 1988 through his Playboy expose. Hoffman's brakes were tampered with as he delivered the article, resulting in a serious car accident that nearly killed him. Which always made me very skeptical of his so-called suicide. I write about my own close encounter with car tampering and suspicious suicides in my recent memoir THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE (I currently live in exile in New Zealand).

  3. Thanks for your comments, both of you.

    I've written about some of these things before, but never in quite this way, and as I wanted to post on the 5th of July -- my father's birthday -- I kind of rushed the Hoffman part of it, used less of my memories and more of research, so it seems a little odd and off kilter to me when I look at it now because I didn't include the "October Surprise" matter and Abbie's involvement in revealing it and his subsequent "accident." Thanks for jogging my memory of that whole thing.

    Abbie Hoffman always struck me as a very conscious individual who always wanted to raise the consciousness of others, freely and generously, and his is a spirit we could really benefit from today. Which, of course, is a prime reason to get rid of him. If that's what happened.

    And Gwen, there was so much that was liberating and good, and there was so much fear and anxiety during the 1960's and early '70's. I look back on what was accomplished and what failed through my own contrarian prism, but by and large, despite the hazards and the fears, the upheavals -- on the whole -- were worth it. But what a long, strange trip it's been!

    Dr. Bramhall (in exile), I've just started looking at your site and I plan to spend a good deal of time there. I certainly empathize with the urge -- or the need -- to become an exile. And I know people on the internet who make light of experiences like yours, as if they are so rare as not to matter at all, or they're entirely figmentary. For in other countries, it's much worse, you see.

    No, what you've been through is more common than most people can know; much worse goes on all too often in this country.

    I hope you are safe and reasonably happy in NZ. Thanks for posting.

  4. Ché,

    Very nicely written.

    I can identify with many of your experiences. I too went through the Oakland Induction Center for my physical. This was in ’65, before the war protests began. I was classified 1A shortly after that and received my draft notice that fall. I wrote several letters to attempt to change my status due to my opposition to the war, but nothing happened. I went into the Army in January of ‘66.

    My Army tour was one of those million dollar experiences that I wouldn’t go through again for all the money in the world. The friendships I had in the service were the closest I’ve had in my entire life. Like you, my visits to the Vietnam Memorial in DC tend to tear the heart out of my chest. It all seemed so pointless.

    When I got out of the Army in ’68 I became active in many war protests at college campuses in the Bay Area. I found myself caught up in the movement, and remember that time-frame as providing me with some of my most personally rewarding experiences.

    This is probably the first time I’ve ever written about that period of my life. I guess I was inspired by your excellent essay.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Steven Rockford

  5. Steve,

    Thanks for your kind comment.

    I hope you'll be willing to open up about that part of your life when the time is right. It has been really hard for so many of "our generation" to look back at what really happened, and I've known too many Vietnam Vets who still can't deal with it.

    As I said, I've never written about these things in quite this way before, certainly never making these kinds of linkages. It's an ongoing process of discovery.

    What happened with the draft board is of course more complex than I detailed here. It's still gobsmacking that they seemed to listen. I don't know that that would have happened if it hadn't been for all the protest and revolt that was going on at the time. I know that some draft boards became even more rigid. So it was a crapshoot anyway.

    I keep hoping we've learned something. I know we can never forget.