"Viewing the trial as a theatrical experience, I had great respect for the judge. He was witty, filled with his own sense of drama, and committed to his role with a furious passion....The part did not call for a Solomon because the law stank. It called for a yippie judge who could play in a real-life political version of 'The Flintstones.' Julie was our man, and together we made it happen." —Chicago Eight defendant Abbie Hoffman on Judge Julius Hoffman, in Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, 1980
Forty years ago this week, the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose a presidential nominee. Protesters—some violent, most not—gathered there too, to denounce the Vietnam War. By the end of the four-day convention, the city's cops had gone berserk on national television, assaulting demonstrators, reporters, and random bystanders while the network cameras rolled. The police, wrote Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times, "beat people beyond the point of subduing them. They chased them down and left them bleeding." Inside the convention hall, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut accused the mayor of unleashing "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."
According to a report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, the week was an extended police riot. According to a federal grand jury, it was a leftist conspiracy. Eight activists were charged with inciting the chaos; the accused included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the most public faces of a loose coalition of radicalized hippies called the yippies. The yippies had called for a Festival of Life in the streets and parks of Chicago—an alternative, they said, to the Democrats' Festival of Death. They brought a puckish sort of guerilla theater to the city, nominating a hog called Pigasus for president and threatening to add LSD to the city water supply. (The authorities actually stationed National Guardsmen by the reservoir, just in case the pranksters were serious.) Hoffman and Rubin weren't the only important yipsters, but they were the ringleaders of the gang. After the riots, when the news of the indictments came down, some other notable yippies—satirist Paul Krassner, disc jockey Bob Fass, Fugs founder Ed Sanders—formed a conga line on Hoffman's roof and sang, "We're not indicted! We're not indicted!"
After a three-ring trial, the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges, though some of them had to appeal the initial verdict before they were completely cleared. The convention and its aftermath had been a victory for the yippies.
It was a victory for their enemies, too. The central story of Chicago wasn't just that cameras captured bloody police violence every evening. It was that the great American TV-viewing public overwhelmingly told pollsters afterwards that they sided with the cops. "That was our shortsightedness," says Krassner. "When we started chanting, 'The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching,' we didn't go to the next step, which was, And how are they gonna feel about it?"
The Polarization Artists
In Nixonland, his insightful study of the period, the historian Rick Perlstein points out that Nixon "welcomed conflict that served him politically. A briefing paper came to the president's desk in the middle of March instructing him to expect increased violence on college campuses that spring. 'Good!' he wrote across the face." Jerry Rubin welcomed the polarization as much as Nixon did. "We yippies must reprint [George] Wallace speeches, get him TV time and open up offices for him all over the country," he wrote in his 1970 book Do it! "He's the best Marxist rabble-rouser in Amerika today. He's our best organizer." And: "To build their myth they exaggerate our myth—they create a Yippie Menace. The menace helps create the reality."
Then there's this remarkable passage:
The right wing is the left wing's best ally.
Who was the first person to call the battles at San Francisco State College "a guerilla war—Vietnam at home"?
(I can now reveal a secret. The last time I voted in an election, I cast my free Amerikan vote for the only movie star in the race, Ronnie Prettyboy.)
I doubt it's literally accurate that Rubin voted Reagan for governor, but there's a poetic truth lurking behind the sarcasm. The party of anarchy thrived on repression. The party of law and order thrived on disorder.