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Activist, individualist and entrepreneur Jerry Rubin was the quintessential American.
In the 1960s, counterculture icons Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came together and, along with several other men and women, formed the protest group known as the Yippies (Youth International Party). Their main goal was to protest the ever-expanding war in Vietnam and the military industrial-complex spearheaded by Presidents Johnson and Nixon.
Rubin and Hoffman used humor, rock music and bizarre theatrics to capture the imagination of young people, encouraging them to stand up against military recruiters, their own communist-fearing parents and the status quo. More often than not, the Yippies were successful, encouraging people to vote and rebel. They’re partially responsible for Nixon lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971.
As the ’60s became the ’70s, Rubin shaved his beard, left Manhattan and went back to Northern California to embrace health food and yoga. In 1980, he returned to NYC, touting investments in environmentally oriented products on Wall Street and hosting salons at Studio 54 where people in similar professions came together to network and exchange contact info—perhaps a precursor to today’s social media.
Hoffman was busted for dealing drugs in the early ’70s and spent the rest of the decade hiding from the cops. He became mythological for popping up and disappearing before anyone could catch him. He surrendered in 1980 and later became an outspoken advocate of environmental concerns before committing suicide in 1989.
Rubin again went back to the West Coast where he became known for marketing health drinks and vitamins. He was killed jaywalking in 1994.
In today’s repressive political climate, it’s important to remember stories like Rubin’s.
Editor’s Note: Over the past five years, Pat Thomas conducted interviews with 75 people who knew Rubin and combed through Rubin’s unpublished journals, along with hundreds of vintage interviews and out-of-print books. The following is adapted from the resulting book Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary published by Seattle’s own Fantagraphics Books.
Abbie Hoffman: I knew Rubin before he knew me. Jerry had defied the arch-villain [House Un-American Activities Committee] in a unique way. Dressed up as an American revolutionary, Jerry successfully engaged the enemy in symbolic warfare; he was a lovable, cunning bastard. I had begun to track his efforts—he organized political rallies emphasizing the cultural ingredient.
Barbara Gullahorn (Jerry’s first girlfriend/Berkeley anti-war activist): Jerry went off to Cuba, where he met Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and I went off to stay with my mother. I can remember looking out the window of my bedroom one day and seeing this curly-headed mop go by the window. “Oh my God. That’s Jerry!” He just somehow discovered us in the depths of suburbia. My mother never liked him. She wouldn’t let us sleep together in the house, so Jerry had to sleep in the garage.
Che Guevara to Jerry Rubin: The most exciting struggle in the world is going on in North America. You live in the belly of the beast.
The Yippies started in 1967 by dropping hundreds of $1 bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, which shut down trading while brokers scrambled to pick up the money. In October of that year, they staged a march on the Pentagon with the goal of having thousands of hippies surround the iconic structure while chanting “Out, demons, out!” in hopes of levitating the building. These events became front page news and arguably were the precursor to modern-day protests such as Occupy and the music/political group Pussy Riot.
Jerry Rubin: The day I arrived in New York, a friend told me, “Abbie Hoffman thinks it’s more important to burn dollar bills than draft cards.”
Jim Fouratt (One of the first Yippies and a longtime gay-rights activist): We wanted to bring home the message that the war was really being fought at home. American soldiers were being killed, Vietnamese people were being killed, but where this was really being financed was Wall Street, and they were completely detached from this sort of human tragedy of the war. We went and looked at the stock exchange and they had no glass up. You just got the balcony. And so we decided we would go and shower money down on the floor, with the proper slogans about “Stop the war,” “the war lives here” and all that.
John Sinclair (pot-smoking manager of the band MC5): Jerry was a tremendous inspiration to me. First time I saw anybody on the left with a sense of humor.
Norman Mailer (author), The Armies of the Night: To call on Rubin was in effect to call upon the most militant, unpredictable, creative—therefore dangerous—hippie-oriented leader available on the New Left.”
Paul Krassner (Yippies cofounder, editor of the political magazine The Realist): Mailer knew I’d interviewed George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi party. The first thing Norman asked me about him: “And what was his style?” He was always interested in style. I said, “He’s a Nazi! It’s probably Nazi style.” Mailer liked the style of the Yippies. He appreciated the style of the Yippies, as well as their purpose.
The Yippies and other activist groups descended on Chicago during the August 1968 Democratic Convention, which led to the Chicago police teargassing and smashing the heads of thousands of college-age kids while they chanted “The whole world is watching!” And they were, via Walter Cronkite, who was broadcasting the riots on CBS Evening News.
Gil Rubin (Jerry’s younger brother): Jerry said, “I’ve got a great idea. We’re gonna march, we’re gonna get thousands of people, be on the news every night, it’ll galvanize the country.” I said, “yeah, right,” and walked out. And a couple of weeks later, that pipe dream was on Walter Cronkite. It was incredible.
Ron Davis (Founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political theatre group): Jerry called me to go to Chicago; he wanted the Mime Troupe to do a show in Chicago. I said, “Jerry, if I do a show in Chicago, I want armed guards. I wouldn’t do a show in Chicago, the cops are gonna beat the shit out of you.” I told him over the phone, “We’re not gonna go.” Jerry replied, “Oh, but we’re gonna have a festival there.” I said, “Yeah, you could have a festival, but I wouldn’t do anything except have a marching band, with everybody having a crutch as a sword. As a defense mechanism, so when the cops come with their billy clubs, you could at least have a weapon in your hand, so you could fend off the cops.”
After the demonstrations, Rubin visited Cronkite at his CBS News office in Manhattan. Cronkite was flattered by Rubin’s enthusiasm to meet him. Rubin wanted to tell him, “We’re going to let you announce the victory of the revolution.” What Rubin did tell him was, “Watch out, Walter, [Vice President] Spiro Agnew is going to get you.” Cronkite replied, “When the Nazis come to my door, I hope you guys are going to be outside on the barricades.”
Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI did their best to have Rubin and Hoffman locked up forever during the infamous Chicago 8 Trial. Two months after Nixon’s 1969 inauguration, they (along with Rennie Davis, Dave Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale and Lee Weiner) were indicted by the federal government and charged under the new Anti-Riot Amendment for crossing state lines with the intent to riot at the 1968 Presidential Democratic Convention. They were all there to protest the war in Vietnam.
Was it coincidence that the eight were a blend of Yippies, college-student organizations and Black Panthers? No. Nixon considered all of these groups enemies of the state.
During this “show trial,” authorities gagged and chained Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers to a chair in the courtroom. Images of Seale were circulated worldwide, stoking public outrage.
Dick Gregory (Comedian/activist): Bobby Seale trying to defend himself, ended up shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped. In a courtroom where the worldwide press is watching. You dig? If a man trying to defend himself in a courtroom where the worldwide press is watching ends up getting shackled to the chair, hands cuffed, mouth taped, what do you think is happening in these courtrooms in America where there ain’t nobody looking?
Rubin: The day we were indicted we had a champagne and grass party. We were thrilled. It was like receiving the Academy Award of Protest.
Hoffman at the Chicago 8 Trial: “Do it!” was a slogan, like “Yippie.” We use that a lot and it meant that each person that came should take on the responsibility for being his own leader—that we should, in fact, have a leaderless society.
Sam Leff (Yippie, close friend of Hoffman’s): It’s ironic that Jerry’s longest-lasting legacy is that the big shoe company co-opted his slogan. Nike has Just Do It in all of their ad campaigns.
Mark Rudd (SDS member, cofounder of the Weather Underground, which became infamous for blowing up government and military buildings as a protest against the Vietnam War: I first ran into Jerry at an IHOP [pancake house] in Berkeley in the fall of 1968. He was with [folk musician] Phil Ochs!
In 1971, Rubin inspired John Lennon and Yoko Ono to become more politicalized and they joined him in an attempt to oust Nixon from office via recordings such as their Some Time in New York City album and public performances decrying John Sinclair’s (the MC5’s manager) prison sentence and the riots at Attica State Prison. Nixon retaliated by trying to deport Lennon.
Gary Van Scyoc (Bassist of the band Elephant’s Memory): Jerry used to come and jam with us at Max’s Kansas City with bongos. Jerry took a tape of us and slipped it to John and Yoko, so we owe it all to him [for us playing on the John & Yoko album Some Time in New York City].
Rubin dropped out of political protests after Nixon’s landslide victory against George McGovern. After being based in Manhattan for many years, Rubin popped up in San Francisco just days after the November ’72 election, short-haired and beardless for the first time in years. He immersed himself in yoga, health food and psychotherapy, trying to wrestle with the inner demons—and real ones—he’d encountered during his life so far. He spent most of the 1970s lecturing about the pitfalls of the 1960s as well as advocating for focus on exercise, nutrition and personal well-being.
Rubin: I remember predicting the ’70s to Nancy Kurshan [his partner throughout his Yippie years]. I said, “The party’s over. I’d rather do yoga than go underground. As a matter of fact, I’m going to yoga class tomorrow. You want to go underground? Hey, have a good time!”
Rolling Stone April 10, 1975: “Earlier in the week, Jerry Rubin was lunching with Patty Hearst’s ex-fiancé, Steven Weed. Weed told him that DO IT! [Scenarios of the Revolution, published in 1970]. had been Patty’s favorite book. Nostalgia buffs will recall that the book urged the children of America’s elite to rebel against their parents.”
Rubin: I was a battered soldier who hated his ego, feared his power and was contemptuous of his name. Pain had become my teacher. I moved from New York to San Francisco in November. New York is a city for the ego. “What do you do?” That same question is an insult in the Bay Area, where nobody does anything. Instead the question is, “What are you into?”
Martin Kenner (Fundraiser for the Black Panther Party): In the 1970s, Jerry had a hard time, and Abbie was underground. Abbie was like a Japanese soldier left on the island after World War II. Jerry had to do the adjustment in public, and it was hard. When the movement fell apart—and it fell apart with a thud—somewhere between ’71 and ’73, a lot of these guys were scrambling to find a new path.
In the 1980s, Rubin resurfaced in New York City sporting a suit and tie, working on Wall Street. Despite claims that he’d become a stockbroker and a “sellout,” he was actually marketing solar panels and green energy years before most people took those ideas seriously.
Mimi Leonard (Rubin’s wife and mother of his children): Although Jerry did take and pass the stockbrokers exam, he never acted as a stockbroker. Instead he was named Marketing Director of the John Muir Company and his job was to bring in new accounts to Wall Street. His company focused on ecology and green energy.
Partially for the money, partially for the thrill, Rubin and Hoffman embarked on a tour of Yippie vs. Yuppie debates in the 1980s. Despite crowds mainly cheering for Hoffman, the truth was that most of Hoffman’s fans had become like Rubin—clean-shaven, liberal Democrats eager to make a living and support their families.
Rubin didn’t live up to most people’s nostalgic 1960s dream. He was bored of being a counterculture icon. But he was ahead of his time.
David Spaner (Canadian Yippie): Jerry did not become right-wing. His political transformation was closer to Tom Hayden’s. He became a Liberal Democrat, essentially.
Rubin was searching for new ways to blend his entrepreneurial skills with a renewed interest in social activism when he was killed by a car while crossing the street outside his apartment in Los Angeles in 1994.
Judy Gumbo (Yippie and wife of Jerry’s best friend, Stew Albert): Jerry’s legacy is changing as the times change. I know for a while, it was that Jerry betrayed the movement, Abbie didn’t. Even though Abbie got busted for cocaine and Jerry didn’t. Right? And Jerry quote-unquote “went to Wall Street.” But I remember a conversation with Jerry about how he was working with gangs in Los Angeles to help them become entrepreneurs. It wasn’t this black and white, “Jerry bad, Abbie good.” I don’t believe that at all.
Nancy Kurshan (Cofounder of the Yippies): The Jerry I know was sharply critical of U.S. society and the government and passionately identified with people who were struggling for a better existence, and was willing to turn 100 percent of his life over to try to help transform the world. He was willing to take unpopular positions and do unpopular things and really challenge the existing order. He was very brave. There needs to be more people like that.
The United States was built on revolution, individualism, and capitalism—making Jerry Rubin the quintessential American.
Author Pat Thomas will read from Did It! at Elliott Bay Books on Friday, Oct. 20.
Archival photos courtesy of the Rubin archives. All photos remain copyrighted by their respective photographers.