One of the more outlandish and short-lived groups of the 1960s American counterculture, Yippies were members of the Youth International Party, which was officially formed in January of 1968 by founding members Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in Washington, D.C. The group was essentially defunct as an activist organization within three years. During their brief life span, the Yippies were an influential presence at some of the later New Left's key protests, notably the mass demonstration at the Chicago Democratic Convention in August 1968, and the March on the Pentagon in October 1967, a demonstration which Rubin claimed as the birth of Yippie politics. Frequently reviled by other New Left activist groupings for the countercultural spirit and the carnival ethic which infused their activism, the Yippies were renowned for a surreal style of political dissent whose principle weapon was the public (and publicity-driven) mockery of institutional authority of any kind. The Yippies' departure from an earlier generation of 1960s radicalism which had been seen through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the first mass demonstration against the Vietnam War the following year, is one way into the story of what happened to the American New Left. Yippie activism captured perfectly the chaotic final years of the "movement," as the New Left subsided into a factionalism and confusion over political objectives which replaced the relatively focused thinking of the first generation of 1960s radicals.
The politics which Hoffman and Rubin brought to Yippie activism had its roots in the broad coalition of dissent which grew out of the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s, and which, outside of the southern states, grouped itself initially around Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Hoffman had worked for a northern support group of the civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) before the group abandoned its integrationist stance in 1966 and purged the organization of white members. Rubin had enjoyed a high profile in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) founded at Berkeley in 1964. But the presence of poets (Allen Ginsberg) and musicians (Country Joe and the Fish, Phil Ochs, the Fugs) in the founding ranks of the party is one way of highlighting how far Yippie politics had travelled from the relatively orthodox activist strategies of the first generation New Left. In the place of politics, as such, Yippie activism preached the political dimension of culture, stressing the subversive potential inherent in spontaneous acts of individual dissent exercised through the free play of imagination and the integration of an erotic theatricality into daily life. SDS itself may never have adhered to a coherent political agenda, but with Rubin and Hoffman, any attempt at sustaining a structured theoretical programme was abandoned altogether. Separating itself abruptly from the early New Left emphasis on community organizing and relatively directed acts of protest, whilst retaining the New Left's pursuit of individual liberation, Yippie politics thus arrived as an untheorised synthesis of 1950s "Beat" thinking, Dadaism, and various positions taken within Marxist criticism from the 1930s onwards (notably the thinking of Bertolt Brecht and Herbert Marcuse).
Summarized by Ochs as "merely an attack of mental disobedience on an obediently insane society," the "cultural politics" of Yippie took American state capitalism, the Vietnam War, and the University as its principal targets, with Rubin and Hoffman staging a range of theatrical street events in which the moral bankruptcy of "the system" was exposed, or (ideally) was forced into exposing itself. As early as 1965, Rubin could be found rehearsing the Yippie ethos following his subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Summoned before the Committee alongside a group of radicals drawn mainly from the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL), Rubin arrived in full American Revolutionary War costume and stood stoned, blowing giant gum bubbles, while his co-witnesses taunted the committee with Nazi salutes. In 1967, Hoffman was among a group who scattered dollar bills from the balcony of the New York stock exchange, whilst newspaper photographers captured the ensuing scramble for banknotes among the stockbrokers on the floor below. In October of the same year, Hoffman led a mass "exorcism of demons" during the March on the Pentagon.
But it was in Chicago, during the Democratic Convention of August 1968, that Yippie tactics were to find their defining moment. With the war in Vietnam dragging on, and frustration mounting among the various different groupings of the New Left, a series of mass demonstrations were planned to coincide with the Convention. From the very beginning, the lack of a coordinating voice or coherent agenda threatened to collapse the demonstration from within and bring violence to the streets of Chicago. All of the significant dissenting groups apart from SDS agreed on the need for a large scale protest of some kind, but each grouping had its own agenda. Dave Dellinger of National Mobilization to end the War in Vietnam (MOBE) argued for a combination of routine speeches, marches, and picketing against the War, while the old guard of SDS made plans of their own, independently of the reluctant SDS leadership. While representatives of PL, the Black Panther Party (BBP), and New York anarchist group the Motherfuckers also planned to attend in some capacity, young Democrats sought to tie a more restrained demonstration to the proceedings of the Convention itself.
The confusion was compounded by local Chicago residents, who turned out to stage a Poor People's March, and by a late change of heart by SDS who urged its members to attend. Against this backdrop, Mayor Daley announced that he would turn Chicago into an armed camp, and laid plans to call in the National Guard and the United States Army. It was the perfect scenario for the Yippies' own brand of chaotic theatrical dissent. With Hoffman and Rubin at the Yippie helm, the group embarked on a campaign of maximum publicity and misinformation, first announcing that it would leave town for $200,000, and then spreading the word that the City's water supply was to be contaminated with LSD. In Lincoln Park, the Yippies staged a free-wheeling carnival, a "Festival of Life" in opposition to the Convention's "Festival of Death," the high point of which saw the nomination of a 150 pound pig named "Pigasus" as the Yippie's own presidential candidate (a direct reference to the International Dada Fair of 1920, in which the figure of "Pigasus" had made its first appearance). As had always seemed likely, the "Festival of Life" was broken up by violent police action which escalated over the following two days into a full blown riot, many officers notoriously removing their identification badges before wading into the crowds. Hoffmann and Rubin were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit violence, alongside representatives from SDS, MOBE, and the BPP.
Before being given prison terms, Hoffman and Rubin used their bail conditions to good effect, hounding the judge from table to table while he lunched at a private members club, and then introduced Yippie politics to the judicial process itself, appearing in court dressed in judge's clothes and the white shirt of a Chicago policeman. Having summoned Ginsberg to appear before the court, the prosecution again drew attention to the cultural dimension of Yippie politics by cross-examining the poet on the seditious (meaning homosexual) content of his writings. The Yippies achieved massive press coverage during and after the trial, and by the time that Hoffman and Rubin were jailed in 1970, the pair had become international celebrities. Rubin's book Do It!, and Hoffman's Revolution for the Hell of It subsequently became international bestsellers. Although an organization calling itself the Yippies continued to publish protest literature into the 1980s, the party was more or less finished as an activist political movement soon after the trial.
Albert, Judith Clavir, and Stewart Edward Albert. The Sixties Papers: Documents of a Rebellious Decade. New York, Praeger, 1984.
Caute, David. Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades. London, Paladin, 1988.
Hayden, Tom. Trial. London, Jonathan Cape, 1971.
Hoffman, Abbie. Revolution for the Hell of It. New York, Dial Press, 1968.
Rubin, Jerry. Do It!. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970.
Steigerwald, David. The Sixties and the End of Modern America. New York, St Martin's Press, 1995.
"Yippies." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yippies
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