At 17, on the Lower East Side of New York, I became Abbie Hoffman's protege in rebellion: he liked to call me "The Littlest Yippie." And one of the core-truths that Abbie embodied -- whether it was fist-fighting pro-war thugs in the streets of New York or marching through clouds of tear-gas at the Pentagon -- was to never look for mercy in any kind of fight.
One night when we were shooting a game of eight-ball in an old Polish billards hall -- after he'd racked up a bunch of $5 and $10 bets from the local wanna-bes -- he started riffing on the subject of Revolutionary-Tactics-As-Pool-Hustling: "This is how ya deal with powah-figures. When ya go to Chicago to demonstrate against the war, ya hustle Mayor Daley at the table. Ya don't beg, ya don't petition, ya don't say 'gee, we've got rights too,' 'cause he don't give a crap about yer rights, ya don't appeal to his sense of decency 'cause he ain't got one -- ya out-shoot him at the freakin' pool-table! Ya sink the eight-ball, look 'im in the eye, and then ya stand up and holla: Who's next?"
That gut-level insight is one of the many, many things that Abbie would have in common with another long-time street-activist: Barack Obama. As hilariously different as Abbie and Obama may be on the surface, they share a history as community organizers -- and the very rare ability to win battles by staying authentic within their own skin.
Case in point: Abbie and I are walking through the Lower East Side in the long hot summer of 1968. Inter-racial tension sizzles off the pavement. Three tough young black men start taunting Abbie: "Hey man, when you gonna cut your hair?" Abbie turns around, walks up to the biggest heckler, and says: "Whenever I feel like it, whitey."
What followed was a moment of stunned, ominous silence so enormous it seemed, briefly, to engulf all of New York -- until the three black men burst out laughing and gave Abbie a round of spontaneous power-handshakes. Within moments they were walking to a demonstration with us.
Needless to say, no modern-day American politician shared that gift of Abbie's -- the guts to believe he can connect with his supposed "ememies", and the brains to actually pull it off -- until Barack Obama came along.
In the mid-'60s, Abbie had been the last white person in SNCC, and was tight with Stokely Carmichael, but when Stokely decided that SNCC should become all black, Abbie was out on his skinny Jewish ass. But his soul-deep identification with black people never wavered, and I know that while he'd be furious that NONE of the candidates, and none of the major media, are even talking about many core issues of the day -- like the ghoulish spectacle of homicide-by-government in the form of capitol punishment; or the wanton cruelty of Bill Clinton's dismemberment of Aid to Dependent Children, and the many social evils that supremely cynical act has spawned; or America's ongoing practice of war-by-corporation, in which companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and Bell-and-Howell are allowed to use dark-skinned peoples as lab-rats in glorified weapons-development projects like the "war" in Iraq -- he would be laughing in sheer delight to hear a black candidate for president, in 2007, actually talking about cutting into Exxon/Mobil's profits, or championing gay rights to a skeptical audience of Texas Longhorn fans, or simply having the stones to buck a media stampede in 2001 by voting against a genocidal invasion at its beginning.
Abbie would've definitely laughed himself silly at the oft-stated idea that, in fact, "Bill Clinton was our First Black President." "Oh yeah? If Bill Clinton was a black man, then he was a freakin' Uncle Tom!" And while he fancied himself a feminist, I can hear him howling when Hillary Clinton trots out the trope that it's time for a woman to take power, and how things will be "different" then..."Oh yeah? 'Different' like things were different under Margaret freakin' Thatcher? Or 'different' like with Madeleine ("the death of thousands of Iraqi children is just a price we'll have to accept") Albright?"
That golden myth from the '60s -- that because women give birth and nurture life, and because their bodies are tuned in to the rhythm of the moon and seas, they would never -- they could never -- become cold-blooded political murderers--has been proven wrong far too many times.
Even so, I'm not ashamed of that dream. It was a good one. But we were shaken awake from it a long time ago, by Thatcher, and Condelezza Rice, and especially by Madeleine Allbright -- who now stands regally behind Hillary Clinton on the podium.
Given the era, it goes without saying that Abbie sampled his share of drugs, but his favorite intoxicant, hands-down, was the one cooked up inside his own body -- a Revolutionary's Speedball, you might call it -- adrenaline cut with endorphins. That's why I believe he would've felt wired-in, soul-deep, to the Obama movement. Abbie knew in his bones and sinews that revolution is the greatest high of all, and his genius was that he embodied that joy for others to see. And though we are certainly not witnessing any kind of revolution yet -- we're only tilling the ground now, but tilling land is noble labor too -- every day it becomes clearer and clearer that for the grass-roots organizers in small towns, and the black-white coalitions in the streets, and the armies of freshly-mobilized kids across the country -- and yeah, for unrepentant ex-"Little Yippies," too -- the Obama candidacy offers one more chance to taste that special adrenaline-rush that can only come from working for social change. As Bob Marley wrote: "Who feels it knows it." And as the great Chambers Brothers sang, "Time Has Come Today."
Man, Abbie loved that tune.
Give it a listen.
It still holds up.
NOTE #1: A Yippie-ki-yay shout-out to the great Steve Earle for his cover version of "Time Has Come Today," which dubs bits and pieces of Abbie's speeches into the song.
NOTE #2: Readers who want real insight into Abbie's life and times should check out Larry Sloman's wonderful Steal This Book: An Oral Biography of Abbie Hoffman.