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Abbie Hoffman: the Man at Gate 5

Abbie Hoffman in 1968.

Netflix has a new film out entitled “The Trial of The Chicago 7.” It’s quite good, and it reminded me of one of my childhood heroes, Abbie Hoffman, and an odd little encounter I had at Logan airport in Boston in the early seventies.

Abbie Hoffman was a co-founder of the Youth International Party – or Yippies – whose semi-serious political antics dotted the political landscape of the sixties.

And Hoffman was a co-defendant in the Chicago 7 trial, one of the most important political trials of the sixties. Originally there were eight defendants, but Black Panther Bobby Seale’s trial was severed after Seale repeatedly disrupted proceedings when he wasn’t allowed to choose his own lawyer, and after he was bound to a chair and gagged in the courtroom.

The defendants all faced serious charges, but that didn’t stop Hoffman. Early in the trial, when Judge Julius Hoffman said of Abbie Hoffman, “He is not my son,” Abbie Hoffman immediately called out, “Dad, Dad, have you forsaken me?”

Chicago Mayor Richard Daly and his police had instigated a blood-soaked police riot outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention. On foot and on horse, Daly’s cops waded through throngs of youth with billy clubs flailing away, smashing heads – a real police riot. And these weren’t just any youth. They were children of the middle class, and they were there not just to protest the Vietnam War, but to stop it dead in its tracks, to shut it down.

America was at war with itself. Five months earlier, the anti-war movement had essentially ousted President Johnson from the White House. This was serious, play-for-keeps politics. This was serious business. The Chicago 7 were charged with inciting and conspiracy to riot – for a riot of the cops’ making. Hoffman and four others were convicted and sentenced to five years and $5,000 fines, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.

But Abbie Hoffman wasn’t just an activist. He was a political prankster and a showman, and he was one of my childhood heroes. Hoffman took his politics seriously, but he also believed in having fun, and I liked that combination.

In 1974 Hoffman went underground to avoid facing charges for intent to sell and distribute cocaine, a charge Hoffman said was fabricated. Later on, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton said of Hoffman, “Abbie was not a fugitive from justice. Justice was a fugitive from him.”

Hoffman remained underground until 1980, and it was during this time that I had an odd little encounter at Logan Airport in Boston.

I was 15 at the time, and I was traveling home to Charlotte, North Carolina after a visit with my mother in Maine. I had long hair, and my hair was as unkempt as my clothes. I was waiting for my connecting flight when I fell into conversation with a man in a waiting area. He was an ordinary-looking man, nothing unusual, and we somehow discovered we had kindred politics.

“You ever heard of Abbie Hoffman?” the man asked me.

“Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of him. I love Abbie Hoffman. I’ve got his book ‘Steal This Book.'” That book was like a bible for me. It told how to live on next to nothing so one could dedicate all of one’s energy to revolution. I liked that.

“Cool,” the man said. “Well, I’ve got an idea. Let’s page Abbie Hoffman to come to Gate 5, right over there. Then we’ll go over there, hang out around the corner and see whether the cops show up.”

So we did. And no cops showed up, which was pretty amusing considering Hoffman was on the FBI’s most wanted list at the time.

Eventually the man and I parted company, he to his flight and me to mine, and it never occurred to me until years later that that might have been Abbie Hoffman who suggested that merry little prank to that 15-year-old hippy kid. To do that would have completely fit with Hoffman’s personality and style.

In fact, Hoffman’s entire six years underground were like one long game of calling the cops to Gate 5, and not once in all those years did the cops ever show up. Hoffman got plastic surgery, but other than that he hid right out in the open. He adopted the tongue-in-cheek name of Barry Freed and moved to New York’s Thousand Islands, in the St. Lawrence Seaway. There he fought a successful years-long battle against a plan to expand the shipping infrastructure of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a major economic artery for the entire midwest. The expansion project threatened the low-lying Thousand Islands that had become Hoffman’s home.

Hoffman came out of hiding and surrendered in 1980, and it was a spectacular embarrassment for the chronically inept FBI when it came out that through much of his years underground Hoffman had been a prominent activist and spokesperson for the Thousand Islands fight. He had traveled about and spoken publicly, and had even testified before Congress about the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway expansion and the damage it would wreak.

The FBI has always been much better at political spite than fighting actual crime, and it’s hard to imagine the Bureau wasn’t quite keen to have the book thrown at this commie bastard that had embarrassed The Bureau. The FBI file on Hoffman, who was never accused of laying a finger on anyone, ran to 13,262 pages – which says a lot more about the FBI than Hoffman.

Hoffman pled guilty to the cocaine charges, apologized to the court for his errant ways and threw himself at the mercy of the court. He was sentenced to a relatively lenient one year, and Hoffman, in true form, immediately held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps and told the world he apologized for nothing and had basically just conned and suckered the court. I was in love all over again. That was a man after my heart.

But life was not all fun and games for Hoffman. He was bipolar, and if the band Steppenwolf was born to be wild, Abbie Hoffman was born to be young. He didn’t take well to middle age. Though a prankster at heart, he was also a revolutionary. He believed in revolution and he believed revolution was happening right then, in real time. He grew despondent over young people losing interest in revolution after the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s reign ended. Though there continued to be important and dynamic leftist and radical political movements, those movements never had the possibility of societal transformation that the movement against the war in Southeast Asia had. That can be a rough landing.

And so he sank down, as the bipolar sometimes do. And in 1989, Hoffman took an estimated 150 phenobarbital and ended his life at the age of 52. Or allegedly did. Some dispute the official account and say Hoffman would never have taken his own life. Interestingly, in his latter days Hoffman toured about and lectured, often on CIA wrongdoings, and particularly on alleged CIA assassinations disguised as suicides.

Fellow Chicago 7 co-defendant and famed long-time radical activist Dave Dellinger said he was in fairly frequent contact with Hoffman and that Hoffman had told him he had numerous plans for the future. Well, maybe there was foul play, but sometimes the bipolar have no shortage of future plans.

RIP, Abbie. I miss you. But I’ll see you in heaven. At Gate 5.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at thedeftpen@gmail.com.

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