Hoffman was arrested and tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot as a result of his role in protests that led to violent confrontations with police during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, along with Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. The group was known collectively as the "Chicago Eight"; when Seale's prosecution was separated from the others, they became known as the Chicago Seven.
Hoffman came to prominence in the 1960s, and continued practicing his activism in the 1970s, and has remained a symbol of the youth rebellion and radical activism of that era.
Early life and education
Hoffman was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to John Hoffman and Florence Schamberg, who were of Jewish descent. Hoffman was raised in a middle class household, and was the oldest of three children. On June 3, 1954, the 17-year-old Hoffman landed his first arrest, being charged with driving without a license. This arrest resulted in his being expelled from his public high school, after which he attended Worcester Academy, graduating in 1955. He then enrolled in Brandeis University, completing his B.A. in American Studies in 1959. At Brandeis, he studied under professors such as noted psychologist Abraham Maslow, often considered the father of humanistic psychology. He later earned a master's degree in psychology from UC Berkeley.
Prior to his days as a leading member of the Yippie movement, Hoffman was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and organized "Liberty House", which sold items to support the Civil Rights Movement in the southern United States. During the Vietnam War, Hoffman was an anti-war activist, who used deliberately comical and theatrical tactics, such as organizing a mass demonstration in which over 50,000 people would attempt to use psychic energy to levitate The Pentagon until it would turn orange and begin to vibrate, at which time the war in Vietnam would end. Hoffman's symbolic theatrics were successful at convincing many young people to become more active in the politics of the time.
Another one of Hoffman's well-known protests was on August 24, 1967, when he led members of the movement to the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The protesters threw fistfuls of dollars down to the traders below, some of whom booed, while others began to scramble frantically to grab the money as fast as they could. Hoffman claimed to be pointing out that, metaphorically, that's what NYSE traders "were already doing." "We didn't call the press," wrote Hoffman, "at that time we really had no notion of anything called a media event." The press was quick to respond and by evening the event was reported around the world. Since that incident, the stock exchange has spent $20,000 to enclose the gallery with bulletproof glass.
Chicago Seven conspiracy trial
Hoffman was arrested and tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot as a result of his role in anti-Vietnam War protests, which were met by a violent police response during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was among the group that came to be known as the Chicago Seven (originally known as the Chicago Eight), which included fellow Yippie Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, future California state senator Tom Hayden and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (before his trial was severed from the others).
Presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie, which Abbie joked about throughout the trial), Abbie Hoffman's courtroom antics frequently grabbed the headlines; one day, defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in court dressed in judicial robes, while on another day, Hoffman was sworn in as a witness with his hand giving the finger. Judge Hoffman became the favorite courtroom target of the Chicago Seven defendants, who frequently would insult the judge to his face. Abbie Hoffman told Judge Hoffman "you are a 'shande fur de Goyim' [disgrace in front of the gentiles]. You would have served Hitler better." He later added that "your idea of justice is the only obscenity in the room." Both Davis and Rubin told the Judge "this court is bullshit."
Hoffman and four of the others (Rubin, Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden) were found guilty of intent to incite a riot while crossing state lines. At sentencing, Hoffman suggested the judge try LSD and offered to set him up with "a dealer he knew in Florida" (the judge was known to be headed to Florida for a post-trial vacation). Each of the five was sentenced to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
However, all convictions were subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Controversy at Woodstock
At Woodstock in 1969, Hoffman interrupted The Who's performance to attempt a protest speech against the jailing of John Sinclair of the White Panther Party. He grabbed a microphone and yelled, "I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison. . ." The Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, was adjusting his amp between songs and turned to look at Hoffman over his right shoulder. Townshend ran with his Gibson S.G. and rammed it into Hoffman's upper middle back. Hoffman turned with mouth gaping, back arched with one hand trying to reach the injury as Townshend, disgruntled, put a hand in Hoffman's face and shoved him backwards to stage right. Townshend then said "I can dig it." The rest of the band looked at one another not sure what was going to happen next. Townshend, frustrated by the interruption, windmilled into the next song. The band regained composure and followed. After that song, Townshend walked over to Hoffman, who was sitting on the right hand side of stage with his arms around his knees. Townshend leaned over and said something to him then gave him a smack up behind the head. Townshend later said that while he actually agreed with Hoffman on Sinclair's imprisonment, he would have knocked him offstage regardless of the content of his message, given that Hoffman had violated the "sanctity of the stage," i.e., the right of the band to perform uninterrupted by distractions not relevant to the actual show. The incident took place during a camera change, and was not captured on film. The audio of this incident, however, can be heard on the The Who's box set, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B (Disc 2, Track 20, "Abbie Hoffman Incident").
According to Hoffman, in his autobiography, the incident played out like this:
If you ever heard about me in connection with the festival it was not for playing Florence Nightingale to the flower children. What you heard was the following: "Oh, him, yeah, didn't he grab the microphone, try to make a speech when Peter Townshend cracked him over the head with his guitar?" I've seen countless references to the incident, even a mammoth mural of the scene. What I've failed to find was a single photo of the incident. Why? Because it didn't really happen.
I grabbed the microphone all right and made a little speech about John Sinclair, who had just been sentenced to ten years in the Michigan State Penitentiary for giving two joints of grass to two undercover cops, and how we should take the strength we had at Woodstock home to free our brothers and sisters in jail. Something like that. Townshend, who had been tuning up, turned around and bumped into me. A nonincident really. Hundreds of photos and miles of film exist depicting the events on that stage, but none of this much-talked about scene.
In Woodstock Nation, Hoffman mentions the incident, and says he was on a bad LSD trip at the time.
In 1971, Hoffman published Steal This Book, which advised readers on how to live basically for free. Many of his readers followed Hoffman's advice and stole the book, leading many bookstores to refuse to carry it. He was also the author of several other books, including Vote!, co-written with Rubin and Ed Sanders. Hoffman was arrested in 1973 on drug charges for intent to sell and distribute cocaine. He always proclaimed that undercover police agents had entrapped him into a drug deal and planted suitcases of cocaine in his office. Hoffman subsequently skipped bail and hid from authorities for several years.
Despite being "in hiding" during part of this period living in Thousand Island Park, a private resort on Wellesley Island on the St. Lawrence River under the name "Barry Freed", he helped coordinate an environmental campaign to preserve the Saint Lawrence River (Save the River organization). In 1980, he surrendered to authorities and received a one-year sentence. On September 4, 1980, he appeared on 20/20 in an interview with Barbara Walters. During his time on the run, he was also the "travel" columnist for Crawdaddy! magazine.
In 1987, Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers wrote Steal this Urine Test, which exposed the internal contradictions of the War on Drugs and suggested ways to circumvent its most intrusive measures. He stated, for instance, that Federal Express, which receives high praise from management guru Tom Peters for "empowering" workers, in fact subjected most employees to random drug tests, firing any that got a positive result, with no retest or appeal procedure — despite the fact that FedEx had chosen a drug lab (the lowest bidder) with a proven record of frequent false positive results.
Back to visibility
In November 1986 Hoffman was arrested along with fourteen others, including Amy Carter, the daughter of former President Jimmy Carter, for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The charges stemmed from a protest against the Central Intelligence Agency's recruitment on the UMass campus. Since the university's policy limited campus recruitment to law-abiding organizations, Hoffman asserted in his defense the CIA's lawbreaking activities. The federal district court judge permitted expert witnesses, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and a former CIA agent who testified about the CIA's illegal Contra war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua in violation of the Boland Amendment.
In three days of testimony, more than a dozen defense witnesses, including Daniel Ellsberg, Ramsey Clark, and former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro, described the CIA's role in more than two decades of covert, illegal and often violent activities. In his closing argument, Hoffman, acting as his own attorney, placed his actions within the best tradition of American civil disobedience. He quoted from Thomas Paine, "the most outspoken and farsighted of the leaders of the American Revolution": "Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. Man has no property in man, neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow."
As Hoffman concluded: "Thomas Paine was talking about this spring day in this courtroom. A verdict of not guilty will say, 'When our country is right, keep it right; but when it is wrong, right those wrongs.'" On April 15, 1987, the jury found Hoffman and the other defendants not guilty.
After being found not guilty, Hoffman prepared for a cameo appearance in Oliver Stone's anti-Vietnam War movie, Born on the Fourth of July. He essentially played himself in the movie, waving a flag on the ramparts of an administration building during a campus protest that was being teargassed and crushed by state troopers.
The movie was released on December 20, 1989, more than eight months after Hoffman's suicide on April 12, 1989. At the time of his death, Hoffman was at the height of a renewed public visibility, one of the few '60s radicals who still commanded the attention of all kinds of mass media. He regularly lectured audiences about the CIA's covert activities, including assassinations disguised as suicides. His Playboy article (October, 1988) outlining the connections that constitute the "October Surprise" brought that alleged conspiracy to the attention of a wide-ranging American readership for the first time.
In 1960, Hoffman married Sheila Karklin, and they had two children: Andrew (b. 1960) and Amy (1962-2007), who would later go by the name Ilya. They divorced in 1966.
In 1967, Hoffman married Anita Kushner. They had one child, america Hoffman, deliberately named using a lowercase "a" to indicate both patriotism and non-jingoistic intent (america later took the name Alan). Although Abbie and Anita were effectively separated after Abbie became a fugitive starting in 1973 and he subsequently fell in love with Johanna Lawrenson in 1974 while a fugitive, they were not formally divorced until 1980.
His personal life drew a great deal of scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By their own admission, they kept a file on him that was 13,262 pages long.
Hoffman was 52 at the time of his death on April 12, 1989, which was caused by swallowing 150 Phenobarbital tablets. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1980; while he had recently changed treatment medications, he had claimed in public to have been upset about his elderly mother, Florence's, cancer diagnosis (Jezer, 1993). Hoffman's body had been found in his apartment in a converted turkey coop on Sugan Road in Solebury Township, Pennsylvania, near New Hope, Pennsylvania. At the time of his death, he was surrounded by about 200 pages of his own handwritten notes, many about his own moods.
His death was officially ruled a suicide, but many who knew him believed that the overdose had been accidental. As reported by The New York Times, "Among the more vocal doubters at the service today was Mr. Dellinger, who said, 'I don't believe for one moment the suicide thing.' He said he had been in fairly frequent touch with Mr. Hoffman, who had 'numerous plans for the future.'"
A week after Hoffman's death, one thousand friends and relatives gathered for a memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts at Temple Emanuel, the synagogue he had attended as a child. Senior Rabbi Norman Mendel officiated. Two of his colleagues from the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial were there: David Dellinger and Jerry Rubin, Hoffman's co-founder of the Yippies, by then a businessman.
As The New York Times reported: "Indeed, most of the mourners who attended the formal memorial at Temple Emanuel here were more yuppie than yippie and there were more rep ties than ripped jeans among the crowd…."
The Times report continued:
Bill Walton, the radical Celtic of basketball renown, told of a puckish Abbie, then underground evading a cocaine charge in the '70s, leaping from the shadows on a New York street to give him an impromptu basketball lesson after a loss to the Knicks. 'Abbie was not a fugitive from justice,' said Mr. Walton. 'Justice was a fugitive from him.' On a more traditional note, Rabbi Norman Mendell said in his eulogy that Mr. Hoffman's long history of protest, antic though much of it had been, was 'in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.'
He was posthumously awarded the Courage of Conscience award September 26, 1992.
Hoffman's life was dramatized in the 2000 film Steal This Movie, in which he was portrayed by Vincent D'Onofrio.
In the 1975 work The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Hoffman briefly appears, having a discussion with Apollonius of Tyana.
In the 1987 HBO television movie Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, Hoffman was portrayed by Michael Lembeck.
He was portrayed by Richard D'Alessandro in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump speaking against "the war in Viet-fucking-nam" at a protest rally at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool facing the Washington Monument.
Hank Azaria's voice is heard as the animated Hoffman in the film Chicago 10.
Sacha Baron Cohen has been cast as Hoffman in the film The Trial of the Chicago Seven.
* Fuck the System (pamphlet, 1967) printed under the pseudonym George Metesky
* Revolution For the Hell of It (1968, Dial Press) published under the pseudonym "Free"
o Revolution for the Hell of It: The Book That Earned Abbie Hoffman a 5 Year Prison Term at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial (2005 reprint)
* Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album (1969, Random House)
* Steal This Book (1971, Pirate Editions)
o Steal This Book (1996 reprint)
* Vote! A Record, A Dialogue, A Manifesto – Miami Beach, 1972 And Beyond (1972, Warner Books) by Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Ed Sanders
* To America With Love: Letters From the Underground (1976, Stonehill Publishing) by Hoffman and Anita Hoffman
o To America With Love: Letters From the Underground (2000 second edition)
* Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980, Perigee)
o The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (2000 second edition)
* Square Dancing in the Ice Age: Underground Writings (1982, Putnam)
* Steal This Urine Test: Fighting Drug Hysteria in America (1987, Penguin) by Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers
* The Best of Abbie Hoffman (1990, Four Walls Eight Windows)
* Preserving Disorder: The Faking of the President 1988 (1999, Viking) by Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers
* Wake Up, America! (Big Toe Records) (1970)