In early 1968, Abbie Hoffman said to Jerry Rubin, his partner in flamboyant protest, “I hate America enough to run the risk of getting killed.”
“No, no, no!” Rubin answered. “You don’t hate America the way that any black [person] you can point to does. America has been in large part good to you.”
That exchange helps explain both the duo’s effectiveness in ridiculing the federal government, the military, and the media, and the philosophical schism — part real, part an early manifestation of “fake news” — that later developed between these brothers in provocation. Hoffman was always eager for a fight or a joke; Rubin was always up for an enthusiastic debate.
In the copiously illustrated Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary, author Pat Thomas’s narrative ricochets like a pinball through Rubin’s collaborations, conspiracies, collisions, and friendships with many of the counterculture heavyweights of the 1960s — including the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, and John and Yoko, to list just a few. Thomas chronicles seminal events from different viewpoints, assembled through multiple interviews with surviving associates as well as dives into Rubin’s personal archives of press clippings, datebooks, letters, canceled checks, and other ephemera.
Rubin’s father was a delivery driver for a bakery in Cincinnati; he won election to a leadership position in the Teamsters Union on the platform of reducing a six-day workweek to five. Years later, when Rubin (1938–1994) was at his height as a rabble-rousing freak, he would remember his father as “a real crusader, out there battling for the working man.” This work ethic rubbed off on Rubin, who landed a job covering sports for the Cincinnati Post shortly after he graduated from high school. In 1960 he was impressed by reports of students at UC Berkeley protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch hunts for so-called subversives. Years later, in his book Growing (Up) at 37, Rubin recalled that his goal became to leave his boring newspaper job and “go to Berkeley and help create events that would become radio headlines in between Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, headlines that would inspire other people like me locked up in the prison of no choice.” He finally made it to Berkeley in 1964, throwing himself into the burgeoning anti–Vietnam War movement; soon, he was organizing teach-ins against America’s increasingly brutal involvement in the conflict, and encouraging activists to lie on the railroad tracks to disrupt the movement of troop trains in Oakland. Equipped with an understanding of the power of the media learned from his earlier newspaper work, Rubin pointed out that if one of the more zealous protesters got run over by a locomotive, “it will be great publicity!” This particular scenario did not play out, but Rubin was proved right a few years later when protesters were gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State, turning more citizens against the war.
Rubin’s budding reputation as an anti-war provocateur got him subpoenaed by HUAC in 1966. Unintimidated, he rented a Revolutionary War costume and penned a barn-burning statement to read before the committee. His getup discombobulated Congress — they refused to let him testify, though he did manage to declaim, “I am wearing it because America is degrading its 1776 ideals.” The key question he had wanted to ask the committee was found near the end of his declaration: “With what madness does America equate destruction of Vietnam with freedom and victory?”
In the summer of 1967 Rubin found himself in New York City to speak at an anti-war rally. As author Thomas points out, “His rhetoric echoed a bit of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl-era poetry: ‘We are a dangerous country, a neurotic country possessing deadly power.’ ” There, he met Hoffman, who had already been working with civil rights activists in the South and honing his theatrical side with the Diggers, a San Francisco group engaged in political street theater and free community services. Rubin went along as Hoffman and some co-conspirators brought the New York Stock Exchange to a standstill by tossing dollar bills from the balcony and laughing as the traders pushed at one another to get at the money (though others booed and shook their fists at the agitators). Rubin and Hoffman quickly became friends, reveling in this guerrilla action that raised questions about the way American corporations were profiting from a savage and pointless war.
In the fall of ‘67 the duo split for Washington, D.C., joining in the spectacle to exorcise the Pentagon by levitating it, with thousands of protesters chanting, “Out, demons, out.” As always, this street theater carried with it the serious intention of bringing more people into the protest, using absurdity to expose the risible lies about the threat the North Vietnamese communists posed to America. Next, Rubin and Hoffman (the Abbott and Costello of revolution) headed to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, where they ran a pig for president under the Youth International Party (Yippie) banner. Mayor Richard Daley’s cops were not amused; they busted heads indiscriminately while newsmen, choking on teargas, recorded the grisly beatings as protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching!”
As the Sixties staggered into the Seventies, Rubin published his most famous book, Do It! Scenarios of the Revolution. He and his comrades endured trials and convictions, basically for disturbing the peace, and then appeals overturning those convictions. They celebrated the lowering of the voting age — those who were drafted into the war could now vote against it — then cheered the end of the draft, President Nixon’s fall, and, finally, the war’s end. But as the decade ground on, Rubin’s speaking engagements and book contracts dried up, and he needed to find a job. Because, as one old lefty pal pointed out, “radicals don’t have good pension plans.”
With his usual focused intensity, Rubin sent out hundreds of résumés, and eventually landed a job on Wall Street with the brief to investigate “new companies of the future, including those producing solar and other alternative-energy sources.” There were no end of folks calling the former stock-exchange prankster a “sellout,” but those who knew Rubin best saw his search for socially conscious companies as an extension of his earlier radicalism. By the 1980s he was organizing mass social-networking parties at Studio 54 (decades before Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up Facebook); photographs in the book show that there were more women and minorities trading business cards on the dancefloor than would ever be allowed onto the exclusive golf courses where the old boys’ network reigned. During this period, Rubin, clad in suit and tie, and Hoffman, still in tie-dye, would sometimes appear onstage together, debating the legacies of their glory days. Yuppies, those Young Urban Professionals of the Reagan era, were on the rise, and Hoffman groused, “You know, they cheer me, but they’re gonna do what Jerry says!” Although he wouldn’t admit it, Hoffman was following Jerry’s lead, too — making a killing in commodities trading.
A prescient booster of Apple computers, seeing them as another way to spread the progressive word, Rubin had moved into marketing health food, seeking — as Stella Resnick, an ex-girlfriend with whom he remained close, put it — a “connection between personal growth and social consciousness, between liberating the mind through therapy and having a healthy body and eating wholesome food.” By this time Rubin was living in L.A., and in the Nineties he began to think of a holistic approach to all he had learned from his years as an activist and a businessman. Resnick recalled, “One of Jerry’s last projects, begun just prior to his death — that of teaching inner-city kids to become entrepreneurs — might have united all the disparate personas of his life, if he had lived long enough.” Unfortunately, in 1994 Rubin was struck by a car as he was crossing Wilshire Boulevard. As Thomas writes near the end of his book, “Having been a New Yorker for most of his adult life, he exercised his God-given right to jaywalk — across eight lanes of L.A. traffic.”
In a 1970 essay, Rubin had summed up his conflicted love for the country he protested against: “I am a child of Amerika. If I’m ever sent to Death Row for my revolutionary ‘crimes,’ I’ll order as my last meal a hamburger, French fries, and a Coke. I dig big cities. I love to read the sports pages and gossip columns, listen to the radio and watch color TV. I dig department stores, huge supermarkets and airports…. I groove on Hollywood movies, even bad ones.” Only his diet would change when he grew up.
Now would be a good time for a Hollywood producer to see the wisdom of a big-budget Rubin biopic — we need it more than ever.