In protests against the Vietnam war, greed and uptight politicians, theYippies blended politics and street theater to raise the country's consciousness and later the Pentagon. Stew Albert, who currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, was one of their founders. He recently spoke at our annual conference about building a social movement.


DIGNITY REPORT: What did it take to become a Yippie? Did you have a platform or specific ideals people had to embrace?

STEW ALBERT: Chutzpah! In Yippie analysis that means having a bold willingness to take your life into your own hands. It means working with others but also on your own to do the imaginative, or daring or satiric stunts and actions that are required to revolutionize the political and social situation. And it means having the kind spirit that will genuinely enjoy and feel liberated by that kind of activity. Yippies ran a pig for President, threw money at Stock Brokers, levitated the Pentagon, broke up a live television show in London, ran for Sheriff, had a demonstration in Disneyland, wore judges robes at their trials, and in doing all this - they merged surrealism and practical politics.


 
DR: Please explain tell us about the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC). How it was related to the Yippies?

STEW: The Vietnam Day Committee was a grass roots student and street people based peace organization -- that dominated the protest scene in Berkeley during the 1965-1966 period. It organized massive teach-ins and marches against the war. It also engaged in acts of civil disobedience like trying to stop military troop trains. It was a non-exclusionary organization in which people like Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey could work with old time labor organizers and Communists. The Yippies really took off nationally in 1967 after the VDC had collapsed and after their headquarters were bombed by right-wingers. Yippie founders like Jerry Rubin and I were very active in the VDC and when we helped start up the Yippies - we brought our love of the mass movement and its confrontational energy to the Yippie table.
 


DR: What kind of relationship did the Yippies have with the Black Panthers? Did you approach them or did they approach you? What did you learn from the Panthers?

STEW: I became friends in Berkeley in 1967 with a Black writer named Eldridge Cleaver. He was the author of Soul On Ice. Eldridge was recruited to the Black Panther Party and he sort of recruited me as a political and personal friend. I recruited Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and the others. The bond was solidified when Panther Bobby Seale was indicted along with several Yippies after the Chicago riots of 1968. The Yippies were, of course, never members of the Panthers but we created an alliance with them. I learned the concept of total commitment and putting your body on the line for your beliefs from the Panthers. And also the idea that however much we might see the need for black nationalism, the ultimate solution rested in political solidarity and universal family. Also the Panthers were great at combining extremist actions like publicly carrying guns with moderate practical stuff like serving free breakfasts to poor kids.
 


 
DR: Please explain some of the Yippies' more creative stunts. Were you hoping just to make people think a bit, or did you follow this up with specific actions to win a certain organizing victory?

STEW: Throwing money off the balcony at the New York Stock Exchange was about making fun of greed. Here were these millionaire stock brokers jumping over each other to catch the dollar bills we were throwing at them. It got world-wide publicity, broke everyone's ordinary train of thought and made them think about selfishness and how silly it was. Running a pig for President? We were saying all the parties are running pigs -- but at least you can eat ours (we would have provided chickens to religious Jews and Moslems)- so vote for him. We took people's cynicism about politics and found a way to inspire them not to be passive -- but to fight the system. One of our major weaknesses was that we never found a way to organizationally follow up on our stunts. We did start newspapers, went on speaking tours, wrote books, hustled media time and even did some one-on-one organizing but our work was never sufficient to the task.
 


DR: Whose idea was it to give the Hells Angels LSD?

STEW: I believe it was Ken Kesey's idea. The Angels had attacked VDC marchers and the Oakland police just folded their hands. A second march was coming up and the Angels were once again threatening us. Many in our ranks wanted to fight back this time -- but Allen Ginsberg insisted on nonviolence and wrote a poem to Angel President Sonny Barger - and the ever-friendly Kesey gave them acid so the word on the street was that the day of the march they were too stoned to stand up.


 
DR: Did the Yippies get along with the "hippies"? How did you answer questions like "what is a Yippie?" if a reporter asked you what you were?

STEW: Our main goal was to politicize the hippies. We got along with a lot of them. They were recruited to our ranks and emulated our political style. Our friendship with Tim Leary was very important in solidifying our ties to hippies. But a lot of hippies didn't like us. They thought we were, by virtue of our confrontational style, bringing on "the heat" and repression and "bumming everyone out." We had mixed reviews from the hippies. But we did better than any other group in getting them to think in a political manner.



 
DR: Were the Yippies an organization, a social movement? Can you compare yourselves to an organization today?

STEW: We didn't fit easy categories. The FBI was never sure how to describe us. We were certainly an affinity group - we had bonds of loyalty - we made political alliances, especially with the Panthers. We tried to encourage young people to start their own affinity groups and carry out their own actions. We tried to provide the leadership of inspiration but not of bureaucratic control. We were not ourselves a social movement but we were part of a youth culture rebellion which certainly was a social movement. As for today I see certain similarities to the Yippies among the Seattle demonstrators and in the world wide movement against corporate capitalism. Groups that employ theatrical approaches and try inspire others to emulate them. This movement is still very young and I'm watching, and hoping and in bold moments, I'm giving timid fragments of advice to small numbers of activists.



 
DR: Can you give us an overview of the trial in Chicago and its significance?

STEW: It's hard to be brief about that trial. Eight radicals were indicted including two Yippies, a Black Panther, a founder of SDS and also another person, a major figure in US pacifism. FBI files prove that it was meant to be a "show trial" aimed at destroying the protest movement. The judge was so biased that eventually all courtroom order broke down. Panther Bobby Seale was actually chained and gagged in open court. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin showed up wearing judges robes and when they were ordered to take them off they were wearing Chicago police uniforms underneath. The trial ended in a split verdict which was thrown out on appeal. The main thing was that it did not destroy but rather it helped build the movement. In the original Chicago demonstration of 1968 which lead to the indictments only ten thousand people showed up. But the day after the verdicts, maybe a hundred thousand people, all over the world, went into the streets.



DR: What are three things that the Yippies could teach social movements today?

STEW: 1.) How to have a good time while protesting. 2.) To realize you don't have to be boring in order to be serious. 3.) How to think creatively about protest tactics. How to originate new tactics that entertain and educate and mobilize. How not to commit the sin of too much repetition.
 




Stew Albert is the author of the forthcoming '60's memoir, Who the Hell is Stew Albert? from Red Hen Press. This interview appeared in The Dignity Report, Fall 2000. The Dignity Report is a publication of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity.





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