As savvy as the slickest madmen in advertising, the Yippies tried to project universal messages: “everyone is a leader” and “the Festival is whatever you want it to be.” As Jerry told Abe Peck in 1985, “It was mutual manipulation.
A marvelous visual stunning book by Pat Thomas, Did It: Jerry Rubin” An American Revolutionary captures the excitement and humor of the prankster counterculture radicalism of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the odd engagements of Rubin and varied fellow travelers with other attempts at bending reality across the remainder of the 20th Century. Did It is an oral history — not just of Jerry Rubin, but of the people with whom he engaged in activism and play… among them boldface names like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg.
For those of you too young to remember, Jerry Rubin was one of the leaders of the Yippies or Youth International Party, a group that took a radical mix of counterculture and new left ideas and impulses and turned it into disruptive, funny and dangerous political theater.
While the Yippies are best known for their famous “siege of Chicago” — some of the activities leading up to that are memorialized in this excerpt — they remained a vital organization into the 1970s and were the leading activists in a few communities.
We will be running an interview with Pat Thomas about the book soon. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy these pages straight from the book.
Thanks to author Pat Thomas and FANTAGRAPHICS for permission to publish this excerpt. In addition to his current book, Thomas is the author of Listen, Whitey! The sights & sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and consulted on the essential film history of the Black Panther Party, The Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution.
For those of you who would prefer not to squint at the tiny print that accompanies the pdfs from the book itself, we provide the unadulterated text below the designed pages.
btw there’s not much point to Steal This Book online. It’s the visual design that makes it! So rip off your boyfriend instead.
“Chicago was a revolutionary wet dream come true” Stew Albert, Berkeley Barb September 6, 1968
Vietnam was the first war to be brought right into the living rooms of America each evening and could be considered the first reality television show. Young people witnessed the carnage of both soldiers and civilians including the burning of villages – and thought, “why would I want to go and join that war?” Unlike World War II, the threat to the American way of life seemed minimal. The draft heighted the tension, every young male received a number and a draft card that identified them. That felt more like Nazi Germany and less like the American dream. It even became a federal crime to burn a draft card.
Abe Peck wrote, in Uncovering the Sixties, “As the stage was being set for Chicago and the Democratic National Convention, Tom Hayden and SDS would advance the power of student revolt. Rennie Davis and Dave Dellinger would continue the broader-based National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam [MOBE] that had marched on the Pentagon. The McCarthy kids, ‘Clean for Gene,’ would back the Minnesota senator in his drive to liberalize (but not radicalize) the presidency. But it would be the Yippies – the Youth International Party, most closely identified with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin – that would grab the spotlight, in large part because it chose to fight its battles on the field of media. The Yippies would capture and divide public imagination, test the ethics of organizing via media, end flower power as a factor in the papers, and fuel the most divisive debate in the history of the underground press.”
Jerry saw the Chicago event as something in which just the presence of a massive amount of long hairs and freaks all enjoying themselves with free love and music would force the local authorities into a state of violent paranoia, in turn destroying their own city. He kept refining the concept over time, in which a like-minded group of people inspired by political change, guerrilla theatre, and rock music would convene in the heart of Chicago. The plan was to arrive with the advance blessing of the city having already obtained permits to perform music, sleep in public parks, and hold rallies. The Yippies gave a list of demands to Mayor Daley’s office.
Jim Fouratt: We went to Chicago in June to apply for a permit. I had wrapped it up in a Playboy centerfold thinking that’s what Chicago’s about [since Playboy was published there]. Did not go over well at all when we handed it in.
“Jerry Rubin was the chief ideologist or scenario designer for the Festival of Life in Chicago. My task was to design the symbols and gather up the props.” – Abbie Hoffman
Daley’s administration didn’t respond, but the Yippies forged ahead. Jerry later recalled to Milton Viorst: “Abbie and I worked out of our homes, called each other in the morning and met in the office. It was like two energy centers. And we held insane meetings on Fourteenth Street, where there’d be a couple of hundred people, and they’d end up in fights and craziness and madness. Everybody was bursting out, whatever they wanted to be and whoever they were. Everybody was really asserting themselves. It was a wonderful, exciting, creative, weird and…dangerous period.”
Hell No, We Won’t Go!
Since Ed Sanders was in an established band The Fugs and knew other well-known musicians, he was asked to round up sympathetic performers. No surprise that protest singer Phil Ochs quickly agreed along with Country Joe McDonald (who would wow the Woodstock Festival in 1969 with his “F-U-C-K” cheer and “I Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”). However, over time, everyone except the MC5 and Ochs pulled out, including Abbie Hoffman’s pals Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane. The lack of permits and threat of police violence were the key reasons. Purposely the lack of bands was kept secret for fear it would discourage kids from coming.
Ron Davis: Jerry called me to go to Chicago; he wanted the Mime Troupe to do a show in Chicago. I said, “Jerry, if I do a show in Chicago, I want armed guards. I wouldn’t do a show in Chicago, the cops are gonna beat the shit out of you.” I told him the phone, “we’re not gonna go.” Jerry replied, “Oh, but we’re gonna have a festival there.” I said, “yeah, you could have a festival, but I wouldn’t do anything except have a marching band, with everybody having a crutch as a sword. As a defense mechanism, so when the cops come with their billy clubs, you could at least have a weapon in your hand, so you could fend off the cops.”
Jim Fouratt: When we were planning for Chicago we’d have those weekly meetings at the loft on 14th Street, both Allen Ginsberg and I objected to the way it was being organized, as a “festival of life” and all that.
Masters of Hype
As savvy as the slickest madmen in advertising, the Yippies tried to project universal messages: “everyone is a leader” and “the Festival is whatever you want it to be.” As Jerry told Abe Peck in 1985, “It was mutual manipulation. To interest the media I needed to express my politics frivolously – If I had given a sober lecture on the history of Vietnam, the media camera would have been turned off.” Besides, the Yippies never had the cash flow nor the political clout to purchase bandwidth, so they had to use the currency of hype. They beefed up the numbers of people they expected (or did actually turn out) at every event. Why say 1000 people are expected, when 5000 sounds more exciting? Their tongue-in-cheek humor played into the straight media brilliantly. When they announced they’d dose the entire city of Chicago water supply with LSD, nobody in the media did the math to realize that it was impossible (according to author David Farber, the Chicago Public Works ascertained that it would take five tons of acid to effectively contaminate the water supply). Just the suggestion that public sex acts might occur would send the media into a tizzy. Jerry and Abbie played the reporters like a fiddle. They made-up crazy shit and the newspapers regurgitated it every time.
Sam Leff: Marshall McLuhan was an important part of the perspective that we all had, namely creatively using the media. So far as this whole Yippie thing is concerned, there was a small group of people that were changing the world, and in fact, one of the chants in Chicago ’68, was ‘the whole world was watching’ [on Television], which was one of the reasons the Russians felt capable and had the guts to go into Prague, during the week of the Democratic Convention, as the world was watching [and distracted] in Chicago, so the Yippies had signs saying, ‘welcome to Prague,’ and ‘Czech-ago,’ and there was even a demonstration at the Russian consulate.
Note: During the same week as the Chicago protests, thousands of Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to eradicate the “Prague Spring”– a short lived period of liberalization in the communist held country.
“History has chosen us, born white in middle class America, to reverse centuries of America – to vomit up our inheritance – ours will be a revolution against privilege and a revolution against the boredom of steel, concrete, plastic.” Jerry Rubin 1968
Paranoia was striking deep inside the average Chicago resident thanks to rumors printed in the Chicago American daily paper which stated on Sunday August 25th, 1968 (the day before the Democratic Convention began);
Here’s why an army of 20,000 police and soldiers is needed in Chicago this week. Every one of the following acts of sabotage has been threatened by black or white militants. . . . Militants have said they will put agents into hotel or restaurant kitchens where food is being prepared for delegates and put drugs or poison into the food. The water supply has been threatened either by sabotage at pumping stations or dumping drugs in the lake near intake pipes. A mass stall-in of old jalopies on the expressways at a given time would stop traffic. . . . Yippies said they would paint cars as independent taxicabs and take delegates away from the city. Yippies’ girls would work as hookers and try to attract delegates and put LSD in their drinks. . . . Threats to the Amphitheater include gas in their air conditioning system, shelling it mortar from several miles away, storming it with a mob, cutting the power and phone lines. How many other sophisticated schemes of sabotage exist may only be imagined.
Jerry knew that the Yippies couldn’t compete with the immense power of the war machine, so he and Abbie invented their own power source: communication. They learned how to manipulate journalists to create an interest in their message. Jerry knew that “One demonstrator could steal the national media any day with a bold act.”
Yippies and the Underground Press
The Yippies relationship with the underground press was quite different than with the mainstream papers. Mainly, the underground media posed real and challenging questions. They wanted facts more than hype. Were the Yippies staging a festival or a riot? Jerry recalled in 1985, “It was important to perpetuate myths in the underground press, so I have to say that I tried to manipulate it. [But] the underground press was easier and harder to manipulate than the mainstream press. Easier because some of them shared [our] vision, so you could say, ‘Let’s go further with this vision.’ Harder to manipulate because they were more cynical. They were aware of the vision.”
In Uncovering the Sixties, Abe Peck reflected, “Seated in my Chicago apartment….Rubin became Jerry as he talked quietly but enthusiastically about a festival of youth, music, and theater in Sweet Home Chicago! And if it just happened to coincide with the Democrats’ Convention, well, as the press release had said, “the two are, of course, entirely unrelated. That night, Jerry described a nonprofit Woodstock, one year early. But if his confrontational fingers were crossed, my arm wasn’t twisted when I said I’d be the Yippie’s man in Chicago. Naïve, flattered, I nevertheless hated the war, disdained straight society. The Yippies weren’t some boring Leftist sect, but all-American rebels who, instead of arguing over slices of the pie, wanted a whole new menu. And the whole thing sounded so exciting! Hadn’t the tail end of that press release said, “Chicago is yours! Do it!”
“Jann Wenner was the Benedict Arnold of the sixties” – Abbie Hoffman
Some papers put serious heat on the Yippies’ Chicago plans. There was a particularly scathing piece in the May 11th, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone written by publisher Jann Wenner. He noted that politics served no purpose in music – and recommended that people not attend the upcoming Festival of Life planned in Chicago. Abbie Hoffman later put it brilliantly, “Jann Wenner was the Benedict Arnold of the sixties.”
In Craig Pyes’ 1972 essay “Rolling Stone gathers no politix” (sic), he points out that while Wenner told his readership in ’68 to boycott the Chicago Convention, he wasted no time in cashing in on the Conspiracy Trial later on. The trial had been such a pop culture media spectacle that Wenner needed to jump on the bandwagon. He commissioned a major feature article when the trial was done and ran “full page ads in many papers, stating: ‘Our Reporter Was There’” with a subscription form at the bottom of the advert. Rolling Stone ignored their previous stance against the Yippies. Now the idea was to exploit the “turned on youth” culture to maximize the magazine’s reach. Except there was just one little problem with the slogan “Our Reporter Was There” – the reporter in question, Gene Marine, had been sent to Chicago by Ramparts magazine, so in theory, the ad should have read “Their Reporter Was There.”
In Robert Sam Anson’s Gone Crazy and Back Again: The Rise and Fall of the Rolling Stone Generation, he describes Wenner’s attitude towards political coverage: “Jann [was] meant to be with the heavies, not the Hoffmans and Rubins and Dellingers, but the people who practiced “politics politics”: the Kennedys and McGoverns, the real politicians, the grown-ups. Now it made sense…. He was the man always searching after gods, the larger-than-life figures who got their names in the New York Times and Time magazine. He liked being with them, sharing their company, basking in the attention they lavished on him, hoping the approval they received would, by his very proximity, rub off on him. “Wenner had been disparaging in print of the Yippie antics in Chicago in ’68, “It looks like a shuck,” he’d written. [Fast Forward to] 1977 and Jimmy Carter had landed a spot in the White House, so Wenner threw a party to celebrate. Jerry Rubin, who had been “so excoriated” by Rolling Stone throughout the sixties, asked Jann at the celebration why the magazine now embraced the political system. Wenner replied, “We’re not going with losers anymore, we want winners.”
Others, such as Michael Rossman of the Berkeley Barb, provided a more studied, if critical approach, in which he wrote an “open letter” to Jerry. He felt the Yippies were being “totally irresponsible” by suggesting everyone come to Chicago to enjoy some good vibe music when the possibility for violence was strong. Dated March 16, 1968 – the “Letter to Jerry Rubin” stated:
Let me tell you what I see happening. A scant handful of guys – centering around you, Abbie, Krassner, etc. – are pouring charismatic energy into an unprecedented style of organizing. In the first stage you run up and down the coasts, turning on rock groups, head shops, happeners, underground mediamen: “Come to Chicago to do your thing, be the Festival of Life confronting the Convention of Death; and spread the word… However many go, the ground condition they will find there seems clear. There will likely be blood. The black thing there is near blowing, black radicals are warning white organizer friends, “Stay off the street, we won’t be able to protect you.” Chicago has more cops per capita than a nightmare; Daley’s preparing the sewers for mass arrests. Chicago in August will harbor the nation’s richest pool of uptight bad vibes, set to flash. Pack 200,000 kids in there, with where we are in America these days when not even our inner millennium has come, and it’s sure to blow.
Afterwards, Rossman accurately pointed out, “What was acted out in Chicago had little to do with the Democratic Party or electoral politics. The conflict expressed was between the old order and its young.”
Yet, not all left-wing media was critical of the Yippies – one supporter was African-American Julius Lester (who was one of the few blacks writing for the mostly white underground press). In the Guardian, he aptly pointed out that the Yippies “helped politicize the hippies (who, he agreed, may not have always been political), projected an alternative lifestyle, and did not engage in the nitpicking common on the Left.”
Jerry Rubin in The SEED, 1968: “The Yippies are with the Vietnamese peasant guerillas wherever they are, and the black and other struggling people of America. [My vision of Chicago is]: “A kid turns on the television and there is his choice. Does he want to be smoking pot, dancing, fucking, stopping traffic, and going to jail or does he want to be in a blue uniform beating people up or does he want to be in the convention with a tie strangling his throat making ridiculous deals and nominating a murder?”
The Six O’Clock News
“Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.” -Marshall McLuhan
Jerry’s goal was to create enough of a stir that Walter Cronkite would have to announce on the evening news that Chicago had become a ‘police state.’ Jerry wanted to bring H. Rap Brown’s statement that “violence is as American as cherry pie” – to the media’s attention. Jerry “wanted the inherent violence of America to be exposed. I felt America was a violent country, but the violence was being done to invisible people, browns, blacks. So I wanted the violence to be on TV, prime time, nonstop, boom! Smack right in your face. My plan in Chicago was we want good to be facing evil, we want young white kids beaten up by the cops.” (Steal This Dream)
Cronkite was the most popular and trusted newscaster, one in which people of various political factions could depend on to tell the unbiased truth (within the confines of mainstream media). Even Jerry agreed, “Walter could announce the end of the world and you’d believe it.” When Cronkite denounced the war in Vietnam during his February 27th, 1968 nightly newscast,” For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could,” President Johnson saw that as his cue to not seek re-election. He is rumored to have said while watching the broadcast, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Hard to imagine in the 21st Century, one of the three national networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) declaring a war unwinnable and the President stepping down in defeat.
About a year later, Rubin paid Cronkite a visit at his CBS news office in Manhattan. Cronkite was flattered by Rubin’s enthusiasm to meet him. Rubin wanted to tell him “we are going to let you announce the victory of the revolution.” What Rubin did tell him was, “Watch out, Walter, Spiro [Agnew] is going to get you.” Walter replied, “When the Nazis come to my door, I hope you guys are going to be outside on the barricades.”
“Walter Cronkite is SDS’s best organizer.” Jerry Rubin
In Do iT! Jerry said, “Walter Cronkite is SDS’s best organizer. Uncle Walter brings out the map of the U.S. with circles around the campuses that blew up today. Every kid out there is thinking, ‘Wow! I wanna see my campus on that map!’ Television proves the domino theory: one campus falls and they all fall.”
In the book Can’t Find My Way Home, Jerry told Martin Torgoff, “the real drug was Walter Cronkite — it’s hard to describe how excited we were when we realized how easy it was to get on those sign-off pieces at the end of the evening news broadcasts…. the more visual and surreal the stunts we could cook up, the easier it would be to get on the news, and the more weird and whimsical and provocative the theater, the better it would play.”
I would argue this is a primary reason that scholars like Todd Gitlin resent the Yippies to this day — they despise the inspired short-cuts the Yippies took to band together their followers, rather than using traditional methods like door to door campaigning and organizing disciplined student groups.
In 1994, just a week after Jerry’s death, Gitlin saw fit to pen a negative letter to the New York Times in response to their positive obituary:
Your obituary of Jerry Rubin repeats the canard that the Yippies were “the quintessential 1960s protest group.” The Yippies were the brainchild of a stoned New Year’s Eve party in 1967, at which fewer than a dozen people, including Jerry Rubin, decided to invent something the media would pay attention to…The media endlessly declared the Yippies and their stunts “quintessential.” …the never numerous Yippies did capture (indeed “inhaled”) one of the spirits in the air of those days. But most of that decade’s activists belonged to less photogenic civil rights, anti-war and women’s groups.
I asked Todd in 2013, if he’d care to revise that statement, he responded:
I would add that the Yippies expressed quite widespread sentiments – insouciance, rambunctiousness, flamboyance, aggressiveness, bravado, boldness, etc. but as a group they were minor….and that [Jerry and Abbie] are not famous [in 2013] because they were leaders of a group but because they had various forms of genius in public performance via media.
Authors Note: While I would agree with Gitlin that there were many other important groups and factions besides the Yippies, I strongly disagree with his attempt to marginalize Jerry, Abbie, et al.