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Abbie Hoffman and the Four Corners Defense


The late great activist, Abbie Hoffman, used to phone the basketball Hall-of-Famer, Bill Walton, to give sports advice when Walton was playing for the Boston Celtics. I don’t know if the team ever took his suggestions.


When I was helping to organize a national convention of student activists at Rutgers University in February 1988, Abbie was our student group’s major adviser. In the lead-up to the convention, officially called National Student Convention ’88, we took most of his suggestions. Indeed, it was an Abbie trick months earlier that had led some Rutgers organizers into putting together and hosting the conference in the first place.


About a half-dozen Rutgers activists, including my then-partner, Christine Kelly, had gone up to watch Abbie, Amy Carter (Jimmy’s daughter), and about nine other students put the CIA on trial. Arrested after sitting down in the middle of a road to make a statement against CIA recruitment at the University of Massachusetts, they put on a trial that should be much more well-known than it is. I wonder if it isn’t more well-known solely because it wasn’t as theatrical as Abbie’s most famous trial, the trial of the Chicago 8?


Arguing the “necessity defense,” Abbie, Amy, and witnesses for the defense like historian Howard Zinn and former CIA–agent Ralph McGehee convinced a jury of six average New Englanders that the minor crime of trespassing was necessary to attempt to halt larger crimes of CIA covert actions around the world, especially, at that time, the support of murderous right-wing paramilitary groups in Central America. In Abbie’s closing argument, he told the jury that “democracy is not something you believe in, or a place you hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles and falls apart.” Appealing to the jury’s sense of patriotism, he asked the jurors to “say what Thomas Paine said: Young people, don’t give up hope. If you participate, the future is yours.” The fact that this jury agreed with Abbie and the rest of the defendants was amazing proof that typical Americans would oppose U.S. foreign policy if they only had more information about what their government was doing.


During this 1987 trial, Abbie told the students who had come up to watch, most of whom were organizing CIA-off-campus campaigns at their own schools, that some students had called a big meeting to talk about creating a new mass-based, multi-issue, democratically structured, national student activist group modeled after the 1960s group, Students for a Democratic Society. When people went to the meeting, everyone looked around to see which students had called it; no one had. Abbie had tricked over 100 student activists into getting together to talk about starting a new national activist group! Abbie always believed that young people had the impatience needed to create social change, and he thought a new national student activist group was desperately needed to change the increasingly conservative American political landscape of the late 80s. The Rutgers students at the meeting agreed to host a founding convention.


As the convention date approached, the Rutgers organizers were expecting about 200 students to come from around the country. That would already be almost four times as many student activists as went to Port Huron, Michigan, for the founding conference of SDS. As part of the organizing process, Abbie sent Christine long 10-page letters filled with organizing strategies and contact names, and he did a speaking tour of universities around the country, telling students that our upcoming conference was going to be the most important student-activist gathering of the decade. Since the convention had to be seen as student-led in order to have any chance of success, Abbie’s time-consuming work in providing strategic advice remained behind the scenes, contradicting the myth believed by some critics that Abbie was a chronic attention-seeker. In the end—through a combination of good organizing by Rutgers students, compelling times and a worthwhile project, and Abbie’s speaking tour—700 students from 46 states registered for our convention.


The opening, welcoming event on Friday evening was scheduled for a room that comfortably fit 250 people. Abbie loved the idea of seeing 700 students crammed into that room—he thought it would send a powerful message to the media that a fast-growing new student movement was bursting beyond anyone’s expected seams. But university officials had a different idea—they thought it would be a major fire-code hazard and they demanded the organizers move the welcoming event into a 2,000-person gym, threatening to shut down the conference completely if the organizers didn’t comply. The student-organizing Logistics Committee was leaning toward accepting the university’s demand, not wanting to take a chance on having the conference shut down, and figuring the administration did have a point about the risk of squeezing 700 students into a much-too-small lecture hall.


When Abbie heard that the Logistics Committee was thinking about acceding to the university’s demand, he immediately told me that was a terrible idea, that the gym was way too big, that the media would see the conference as an underwhelming failure, and that students with different political ideas would immediately, like boxers entering a ring, go into their own separate corners. Instead of having a unified, bursting-at-the-seams opening event, we would have a convention hopelessly divided from the opening bell. I trusted Abbie’s insights and experience and brought him into a side room to meet with our Logistics Committee. I think the committee took Abbie’s ideas seriously, but still thought the university’s threat to shut the convention weighed more heavily. So the welcoming event was moved to the 2,000-person gym.


Within two minutes, Abbie was proven prophetic. A large group of student anarchists, who had come to this national convention to push the idea that any new national group would necessarily be structurally oppressive and that students should organize locally and regionally instead, went into one corner. The anarchists at the conference were mostly from Boston or Berkeley, where there were many universities with progressive students capable of forming strong regional groups, and they didn’t understand the way that a new national organization might help small activist groups in Utah or Alabama feel much less isolated. Democratic-left students who believed in the goal of creating a new SDS-type national student group went into a second corner. And students who were already members of existing activist groups and who wondered whether a new national formation might be a threat to their own organizations went into the third and fourth corners.


And that was the end of the idea of forming a large, multi-issue, democratically structured national student activist organization in the late 1980s. Some difficult issues came up during the conference, including the question of whether there was yet enough multi-racial unity in the U.S. student movement to justify starting a new national student-activist group, or whether more work should be done on that front before a new organization was formed. At the close of the convention, a few smaller projects were initiated, and in following months, several different organizations were created. The democratic-left students at the conference, including those of us from Rutgers, created a group called Student Action Union that was founded in North Carolina at a meeting organized by an energetic law student, Joel Segal, who later went on to work as a Senior Aide in Congress for John Conyers, where Joel wrote a bill for a national single-payer Medicare for All health care reform plan for which tens of thousands of health care activists around the country are still advocating. The anarchists at the convention formed their own group, based in Boston, beginning with a meeting of 200 and reaching consensus on the group’s founding principles and structure early the next morning with about a dozen students left, a perfect illustration of why Abbie had given speeches in his later years about the need for larger activist groups to use majority instead of consensus decision-making—according to Abbie, small groups in the early 60s used consensus, but it became more difficult to reach consensus when the groups got bigger and there were often three FBI agents and two schizophrenics in the room! Both of these new student activist groups created in the late 80s lasted only a few years and then dissipated, dissolving themselves into larger coalitions that came together to oppose the first Gulf War. As America moved from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush’s son, I considered the inability to fulfill Abbie’s vision of a national student activist group in the late 1980s to be a sadly missed opportunity for young people to potentially shift the direction of the country.


Abbie had an amazing overarching vision of how to create social change with a combination of wit, humor, information, and creativity. He also had a great instinct for the details.