Spring is the traditional time for protest, and with opposition to the activities of multinational corporations mounting, the U.S. left is stirring again. So it's only fitting that a new feature film detailing the life of Abbie Hoffman, an icon of the rebellious '60s, will preview in Boulder next week. Steal This Movie!, directed by Robert Greenwald, stars Vincent D'Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo.
Ellen Maslow, who was instrumental in bringing Steal This Movie! to Boulder, worked with Hoffman during the civil-rights movement. "Years after his death, a psychic told me he created change molecularly," she says. "It was accurate. The man just was channeling change."
Hoffman galvanized and helped define the '60s. He was a skilled organizer, and his objectives were deadly serious -- social justice, an end to the Vietnam war. But to achieve them, he used a blend of inspiration, theater and pure lunacy. He was perhaps the first radical to understand how TV could be used -- against its own inclination -- to radicalize the population, and he set out to create seductive and memorable scenes for the camera. Hoffman and his cohorts brought Wall Street to a halt by tossing dollar bills onto the floor of the stock exchange, providing images of brokers scrambling on their hands and knees for money. He co-created the Yippies, who opposed militarism and conformity with anarchy, free sex and dope. He nominated a pig for president. And he planned a mass demonstration in which participants would surround the Pentagon and attempt to levitate it, describing his plans with such straight-faced conviction that officials ended up haggling over just how many inches the building would be permitted to rise.
The Yippie approach was supposed to inoculate the left against self-righteous authoritarianism, but by the late '60s the movement had turned sour, informed by anger, recrimination and bleakly self-righteous Marxism. For those who remember the times, however, Hoffman continues to represent the idealism of the early days and the concept of laughter as a healing force.
Like most icons, Hoffman was complex and sometimes self-contradictory. In photographs and on film, he comes across as a fascinating fusion of toughness and cunning, sexiness and calculation. He could be frenzied, hostile and unreasonable. He apparently drew thousands of demonstrators to Chicago in 1968 with the clear intention of fomenting violence -- without letting them know it.
Forced underground in 1974, Hoffman cut his hair, consciously assumed a less vivid persona and helped organize a campaign to save New York state's St. Lawrence River. He eventually surfaced to chat about the environment with Barbara Walters. But his demons persisted, and he died of an apparent drug overdose in 1989.
"The new generation of social activists would benefit from understanding some of the history and lineage of street theater and social activism," says Maslow. "And about FBI countertactics. When you saw the Seattle demonstrations, it was like Chicago in '68, a repeat performance."
Bobby Seale, a onetime Black Panther and one of Hoffman's Chicago Seven co-defendants, is also coming to Boulder. Seale spent much of the trial gagged and bound to his chair. A birthday cake he was given and then had confiscated spawned the memorable slogan: "You can jail a cake, but you can't jail the revolution."