· AMERICA'S TRIALS

In 1985, I was a scruffy, activist/student living in a semi-abandoned warehouse in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts. I was studying philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross and computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Canvassing door-to-door for MASSPIRG paid the bills and evolved my childhood delinquent sensibility into politics. Or something akin to politics.

Days and nights were protests, road trips, drugs, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, FORTRAN, assembly language, poetry, and shoplifting. My Irish Catholic mother was less than approving. She didn’t immigrate to America for this. Once she cut my long hair and beard short while I was out cold on morphine in the wake of an emergency lung collapse surgery while on LSD. Mothers.

Good canvassers develop an ability to instantly assess how much a house is good for. This one was working class, neat, but not too neat, lived in. “They’ll be good for $15, maybe $25,” I think. There’s a mezuzah on the doorpost. Another good sign.

A woman in her 70s opens the door. She listens attentively, asks a few questions. At the end of the spiel, I ask for $18 though the membership form clearly says $15. She smiles in appreciation, invites me to the Formica kitchen table. I eat chocolate chip cookies while she rumbles for the checkbook.

Then she hesitates, or at least makes me think she's hesitating. This is back when women back would often say: "Can you come back when my husband is here?"

Instead she asks, "Would Abbie Hoffman approve of your group?”

That catches me for a moment, but I confidently proclaim that Hoffman would support our campaigns. I believe it. “I've read his books,” I tell her, but don't mention the title in case she disapproves of shoplifting. You never know.

She drills down a bit. "Enough to give $18?"

Definitely, I say, wondering if I should have asked for $36.

She turns toward the doorway and calls out, "Hey Abbie honey, this young man says you'd give him money."

Sitting at that table with Florence and Abbie for the next hour was one of the highlights of my undergraduate days. It helped cement my commitment to a life of activism. I left with $36.

Kierán Suckling is the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which he founded with friends in 1989 while working on a philosophy PhD at SUNY-Stony Brook. He splits his time between Tucson, AZ and Portland, OR.

Abbie Hoffman in the 1980s

Abbie Hoffman studied with two heavy hitters at Brandeis University: the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow and Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse. Hoffman's books, including Revolution for the Hell of It (1969) and Steal This Book (1971) influenced a generation.

In 1973, Hoffman was arrested for intent to sell and distribute cocaine; he maintained that he was set up. The following year, he skipped bail and went underground, becoming an environmental activist on the St. Lawrence River in northern New York. In the 1980s, he reappeared, served 4 months in prison, and resumed his activism, including a demo with Amy Carter. Unbowed but bitter, he never backed down, saying in 1987:

 

You are talking to a leftist. I believe in the redistribution of wealth and power in the world. I believe in universal hospital care for everyone. I believe that we should not have a single homeless person in the richest country in the world. And I believe that we should not have a CIA that goes around overwhelming governments and assassinating political leaders, working for tight oligarchies around the world to protect the tight oligarchy here at home.

Abbie Hoffman died of an phenobarbital overdose in 1989 at the age of 52.

Abbie on Guerrilla Theater and the Media

Worcester (Pron. Wuh-stuh)

Excerpts from Jonah Raskin's Abbie Hoffman biography

Worcester itself had a remarkable past that Abbie knew little about. Founded in the early eighteenth century, it became a center of the anti-slavery and feminist movements in the mid-nineteenth century. Henry David Thoreau spoke there in defense of John Brown and his raid at Harper's Ferry. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the celebrated anarchists, made Worcester a brief refuge several decades later, and there were vigorous socialist and trade union movements. Eugene V. Debs spoke in Worcester, and so did Sigmund Freud. The city was hardly provincial.

Indeed, it was "zippy and exhilarating," Samuel N. Behrman wrote in The Worcester Account, a chronicle of his early years. Behrman, who was born in Worcester in 1893 and went on to become a successful Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and contributor to the New Yorker, was--until Abbie's rise to fame in the sixties--Worcester's most famous native son. Abbie's grandfather, Morris Hoffman, had, however, known little if anything about the "zippy and exhilarating" world of Worcester. A street peddler who sold fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn cart, he later became the proprietor of a small candy store, where he kept his eyes on the cash register, not on cultural improvements or the lecture circuit.

Like their Russian ancestors, the American Hoffmans were lower middle class, but they worked hard, saved their money, and planned for a better life for their children. At home they spoke Yiddish, which Abbie called "the language of survival ... half insults, half complaints," but they mastered English, learned their civic lessons, became American citizens, and bought into the American dream.

Abbie Hoffman belongs to a distinct generation of American radicals born in the mid- to late thirties who became synonymous with rebellion and insurrection, feminism and black power, and the antiwar and youth movements of the sixties. Abbie was born in 1936, the same year as Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers. Gloria Steinem was born in 1934, Eldridge Cleaver in 1935, Jerry Rubin in 1938, and Tom Hayden in 1939.

Unlike a great many of the radicals of the twenties and thirties, Abbie's generation had little if any direct experience with crushing poverty, no memories of Europe, and none of the cultural and psychological dislocation associated with the immigrant experience.

He satirized Worcester, his birthplace and his hometown; among friends he called it the city of "seven hills and no thrills," a cultural wasteland that was "half way between Boston and nowhere." But he also loved Worcester and clung to it tenaciously. Until 1966, when he turned 30, it was at the heart of his universe. When he went away to college, it was to Brandeis in nearby Waltham, Massachusetts: so close he often went home for weekends...Even when he was a fugitive in the seventies, he slipped back into town, ate at his favorite restaurant, El Morocco, and visited old friends..."I've never left Worcester," he told reporter Kristen Duran in 1987.

In his autobiography Abbie noted that his relationship with his father was "one continuous, raging battle, with me refusing to cry and him huffing and puffing.... After a few years, I learned that dungarees absorbed all the whammy out of a whipping." Still, the beatings must have hurt. When he turned fifty, a young filmmaker named Nancy Cohen, in her film My Dinner with Abbie (1989), asked him whether he had raised his own children--Andrew, Amy, and america--differently from the way he'd been raised. "I don't kick the shit out of them," he replied with bitterness.

 

Florence Schanberg outlived her son, dying in 1996.

Adapted from For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, Jonah Raskin, University of California Press. You could steal it but it's also available here.

Dear Abbie ::: John Prine

Abbie Hoffman teaches a class

Everybody Wants A Cookie ::: Dan Reeder

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