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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



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



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.



[Originally published in NHS 2010, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs10/index.html.]