I first remember finding out about Judy Gumbo in 1971. A friend of mine at the high school for US military dependents in Frankfurt am Main, Germany subscribed to the DC underground newspaper Quicksilver Times. After he read each issue, he would pass them on to friends. In an issue published before the Mayday protests in 1971, an article quoted her regarding the Weather Underground bombing of the Capitol building: “I didn’t do it, but I dug it.” Being that I was thousands of miles away from an antiwar action I really wanted to be part of, I have to say I truly dug her statement. Plus, the picture of her and her cohorts was cool. The Yippie symbol and the Weather Underground logo painted on her face represented the revolution I was determined to join. In the male-dominated world of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Stew Albert, Bill Ayers, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and the Berrigan brothers, women like Gumbo, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Bernardine Dohrn were personalities whose commitment was worthy of imitation. The inspiration they provided went with me to the antiwar protests I attended in the days that followed—protests organized by German leftists and pacifists to coincide with the Mayday Actions against the war in Washington, DC and elsewhere around the United States.
By the time I got back to the US in late summer 1973, the Yippies were composed of a different bunch of folks than the original members. During the time I lived in the Bronx in 1973 and early 1974, I would run into different members in the Village and Lower East Side. There was an Impeach Nixon rally in Manhattan that featured Phil Ochs, too. Then, I moved to Maryland where I decided to attend the University of Maryland in College Park. The spring before I matriculated, campus cops joined together with state troopers and various local police agencies in a series of dormitory raids. The cops wanted to bust people for marijuana and LSD. They were successful. They also provoked several days of on and off battles with the cops that were organized by campus radicals and DC area Yippies. In the years that followed, the Yippies would host smoke-ins at the university and in DC on July 4th. They were always fun and often confrontational, depending on whether or not the police wanted to enforce the marijuana laws of the time.
The last Smoke-In I attended in Washington, DC was in July 1977. Most of the bands involved were of the punk rock variety and the crowd size went from a few hundred to maybe ten thousand over the course of the two-day festival. I had spent a few days prior to the event at a Yippie house in DC. We must have rolled at least five thousand joints to give away. The papers we used were facsimiles of the US flag and the weed was some good Colombian red donated by a friendly smuggler. On July 4th, my friend and I imbibed some punch laced with Everclear alcohol and LSD. When the cops cleared the grounds near the Washington Monument at curfew, we took a DC Metrobus back to Silver Spring. The next smoke-in I attended was in San Francisco’s Civic Center.
Anyhow, Judy Gumbo’s memoir will be published in early May. Titled Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, it is a joy to read. It is also an important and significant addition to the history of what is now known as the Sixties. Part memoir and part confessional, this text is mostly a history of the period told by one of its primary participants and instigators. The fact that the author has been writing (and one assumes rewriting) it for years lends it a credibility and thoughtfulness that is well-deserved and worth the wait.
Gumbo describes her childhood in Toronto as a daughter of communists; her impresario father who brought Soviet film to Canadian audiences and her frustrated mother who worked on the Canadian communist party newspaper. A tragic but important aspect of her mother’s life was her alcoholism. After leaving home, Gumbo describes a rather standard trajectory for many women of her generation looking for something besides whatever version of June Cleaver their mother provided. After marrying and then leaving her unfaithful spouse, she headed to the United States and ended up in a San Francisco Bay Area milieu that would introduce her to leftist political activist Stew Albert, the man who would become her lifelong friend and oft-time lover. It was this chance meeting (when she also met Jerry Rubin) that would help define her political and cultural commitments for years to come. Perhaps most importantly, it would place her in the apartment on New Year 1967-1968 that saw the birth of Yippie!
This New Year’s gathering is where Yippie Girl truly begins. The reader tracks the exploits of this small but influential group of radical activists from the Lower East Side to Wall Street; from Chicago to the Pentagon and further. The presidential candidate Pigasus makes an appearance or two, as do the MC5 and the FBI. Gumbo describes Albert’s and her friendship with Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver while she considers the sexist elements of both relationships and the underlying sexism of the movement and counterculture in general. As she chronicles her exploits, she discusses the ego conflicts and gender battles between the people she worked, lived and played with. Her discussion of these conflicts is honest, even-handed and genuine, always keeping the political struggle at the center. There are periods of estrangement in her relationships—especially with Albert—but in the spirit of the times, they are seen as opportunities for growth. Indeed, it can be reasonable concluded from her narrative (as she does) that the estrangements were crucial to her becoming a more complete and confident person, politically and otherwise. One somewhat surprising revelation in Yippie Girl is Gumbo’s amorous relationship with Vietnamese poet, writer and diplomat Do Xuan Oanh. After meeting each other in Canada when Vietnamese revolutionaries invited US antiwar activists to a discussion, the two carried on their relationship in person and through the mails for decades. Gumbo’s descriptions of their meetings and letters remind the reader that the revolutionary truly is guided by love. This is echoed in her telling of the life she and Albert lived after the revolution went back to its hiding place to appear all too rarely.
This is a superb and delightful book. Intimate and comprehensive in its telling, Yippie Girl stays true to the politics of the radical left of the Sixties while reflecting on its mistakes, successes and tragedies. Gumbo’s writing shows a depth that expertly expresses the personal and political calamity of the Sixties with a sensitivity found more often in fiction. This text resounds with anger, sadness, joy, even fear and an attitude displayed best by her words to the Chicago police at the end of the chapter on the Chicago police riot in August 1968: fuck you, motherfuckers.