Is it surprising that the 20th anniversary of Abbie Hoffman's death this month received scant mention in the media? At a time of economic turmoil, continuing war, and widespread newsroom downsizing and press layoffs, reporters and columnists have other things on their minds.
But it still shows how far back in time the sixties seem in 2009. In the past few weeks, the only passing mention of Abbie Hoffman that a Google search reveals in any major media was a reference to Abbie killing himself in a snide NY Daily News column about the impending 40th anniversary of Woodstock.
It's true that Hoffman was at Woodstock, and his resulting book Woodstock Nation was a crucial artifact of the sixties' most seminal countercultural event. He was shoved off the stage by the Who's Pete Townshend, impatient for him to relinquish the microphone. At the time, Abbie was doing what he did best, rabble rousing the crowd about John Sinclair, a Michigan activist who had been sentenced to ten years in jail for possession of two joints.
But it was two decades ago this month, on April 12, 1989, that Abbie was found dead in his New Hope, PA apartment. The cause was apparently suicide, an estimated 150 phenobarbital pills in his system. Hoffman was only 52.
Abbie was not only the most celebrated and irreverent activist of the 1960s New Left, but a dedicated community organizer and civil rights movement veteran who never gave up trying to change the world.
Relatives and close friends initially rejected the idea that Abbie killed himself, holding out other possibilities. One was that the overdose was accidental.
"Abbie, as many of you know, was somewhat careless with pills, and we always warned him about this kind of thing," his brother Jack Hoffman told the Associated Press. David Dellinger, one of his Chicago Seven co-defendants, voiced doubts at Hoffman's memorial service. "I don't believe for one moment the suicide thing." Dellinger said he had been in fairly frequent touch with Hoffman, who had "numerous plans for the future."
According to writer Marc Catone, some friends "claim that it was side effects from a new medication that may have contributed to the state of mind leading to his death. Others suspect a more sinister situation in which Abbie was murdered, but made to look as if he had taken his own life."It is undeniable that Abbie was a thorn in the side of the US power structure as one of CIA's most prominent critics. As Catone puts it, "in the late 1980s, Abbie became quite a visible figure on the lecture circuit, detailing the illegal activities of the CIA, particularly in the wake of the Iran/Contra 'arms for drugs' scandal of the Reagan Administration." His brother Jack echoed these feelings, reminding the Philadelphia Inquirer that "his brother's controversial life led him to take many risks and earned him some powerful enemies."
"Hoffman's brother, Jack, was adamant yesterday in his refusal to believe Abbie would have gone without a word, at a time when their elderly mother, Florence, 83, was suffering from a recurrence of lymphatic cancer...'He played with death a lot. Look who he was. There was always someone around the corner,' Jack Hoffman said. 'It's not a simple suicide in my mind, in my heart, in my head,' he said. 'There are too many unanswered questions.'"In 1994, Jack Hoffman released a book about Abbie, titled Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman. After exhaustive research, he concluded Abbie probably did kill himself, overwhelmed by his poorly-medicated bipolar disorder during a particularly bleak state of depression. "This book is a coming to terms with the contradictory emotions and the questions I had after Abbie committed suicide," said Jack Hoffman, "and the guilt."
I met Abbie in 1987, when I shook his hand after hearing him speak at Brown University alongside Timothy Leary, and will always regret not taking him up on his offer to come rap with him and some other young activists at a nearby coffeehouse. Not content to rest on his legendary sixties laurels, during his last few years he tried to help spark a revival of the student left. The thing that shook Abbie up the most about the 1988 presidential race was how, in his words, "Students went three to one for Bush. That was the most depressing part of the election for me."
Barely six months after his death, in October 1989, his dream was partially realized when 1,700 student environmental activists came to UNC-Chapel Hill for Threshold, the Student Environmental Action Coalition's first national conference. It was the largest gathering of student activists since the demise of SDS in 1969. SEAC chapters sprung up at 2000 colleges and high schools around the country, and SEAC spent the next several years helping rebuild student organizing on US campuses.
The Student Action Union, a national student activist group that Abbie advised and promoted, had brought organizers to Chapel Hill the previous year, in July, 1988, for a "Unity Meeting" that followed on the heels of the SAU's National Student Convention, held at Rutgers in February, 1988. That meeting was one of the inspirations in the minds of SEAC activists when they began planning for their own national conference the following year, and the rest was history.
In what may have been his last print interview, conducted in February, 1989, Abbie said he'd like to be remembered as "An American teacher. Teaching by the act."
On April 6, 1989, six days before he died, Abbie spoke to a crowd of students at Vanderbilt University and delivered a powerful message about how people who care enough can bring about change:
"In the 1960s, apartheid was driven out of America...We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war that the people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. The big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, we were arrogant, silly, headstrong...and we were right. I regret nothing!"