Celebrating Abbie Hoffman's life
"Revolution is not about suicide; it is about life," Abbie Hoffman wrote in 1970. In April 1989, suffering from bipolar disorder, he took a drug overdose and crawled into bed.
On June 10, 1989, my wife, our two nine year-olds, and I decided the Hoffman memorial "Steal This Picnic" celebration at Washington Crossing Park, near New Hope, would make an great family outing.
We were not disappointed. An estimated crowd of 2000 turned out to honor Abbie and share information on causes he espoused.
It was put together by Del-AWARE Unlimited, Inc. -- the environmental group Hoffman was assisting with its fight against a proposal by the Philadelphia Electric Co. to construct a pump on the Delaware River at Point Pleasant to divert water to cool the Limerick nuclear power plant.
The name of the picnic was a takeoff on the title of Hoffman's Steal This Book.
I will not attempt here to describe Abbie's life or character. I never knew him, and that has already been aptly done in the pages of this newspaper by some who did. But he influenced me, as he did much of a generation.
Hoffman was a pioneer of The Old Revolution, and one of my role models as an adolescent. Believing I was following his example, for offenses ranging from swearing at the principal to more serious offenses against the social order, I was suspended from school at least a dozen times before I was 15 and incarcerated briefly in a secure juvenile facility.
Hoffman first urged disruption of the system as revolutionary action. Later in life, he gained. an appreciation for his connection to the earth, and focused his creative energies there. He devoted much energy to preserving the St. Lawrence and Delaware rivers.
Eulogies at the picnic were offered by defense attorney William Kuntsler, Black Panther organizer Bobby Seale, singer Richie Havens, poet Allen Ginsburg; the former national officer of Students for a Democratic Society, Bernadine Dohrn; and a score of others.
Remarks were simultaneously translated into American Sign Language.
Havens performed a set that began with Jackson Browne's "Lives in the Balance" and included his "Freedom" rendition from the 1969 Woodstock festival.
To honor Hoffman, Ginsburg read a lengthy piece about cocaine trafficking, and then one about a sunflower. About a week before Hoffman's suicide, Ginsburg said he attempted to reach him but got an answering machine. "I heard he was depressed about his mother's illness." "He was a wonderful client," recalled Kuntsler, who represented Hoffman in the Chicago Seven trial. "He was a wonderful friend. What he also was, I guess, was a symbol of struggle against a system."
Kuntsler described Hoffman as one who "ridiculed all the worst aspects of American life", hailing him as "an example of all that is fine in American society."
"He made ridicule and theater a part of the American political left," Kuntsler said. "Abbie is dead. Long live Abbie!"
"Abbie was an imp, a joker, a Shakespearean fool who sees and suffers," said Dohrn.
A few dozen Viet Nam veterans'were posted at the park entrance, mostly dressed in motorcycling leathers.
Several carried signs denouncing the celebration. One called Hoffman a "pinko commie fag", while another declared, "Suicide is a cowardly act".
Attempts were made by some to disrupt the speakers, and the Trenton Times reported pushing and shoving between veterans and picnickers along the pathways into the park.
Tracy Carluccio, a Del-AWARE organizer, noted the park administration refused the initial request to host the picnic, but backed down when First Amendment legal action was suggested.
Anne Hawkes Hutt9n, who chairs the Washington Crossing Park Commission, sided with the flag-waving protesters. "I feel this is a sad day in, many ways; a sad day when we're honoring the wrong kind of person," she said.
But Bobby Seale seemed to speak from his heart when he recalled his friend and compatriot as an existentialist who stared into the void, who fully understood the reasons for despair.
"The system is the totality of the universe," Seale said, "You can't drop out of the universe."
Suicide is an act which reaches into the deepest shadows of our minds. It can be rooted in cowardice, but can also be a revolutionary statement or ultimate expression of moral qutrage, resignation, depression or despair.
The theme from the movie "M*A*S*H*" asserts: "Suicide is painless, it brings on many changes..." So, if -- as the banner behind the picnic stage stated -- Abbie's spirit indeed lives on, it flows in the river. It burns in the fire of passion, blows with the breeze, and fertilizes Mother Earth.
Abbie Hoffman is free.
It was first published here on December 27, 2003
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