Jerry Rubin, my friend of 30 years is dead. He was hit by a car while crossing L.A.'s Wilshire Blvd. He put up a great fight after surviving 14 hours of full body surgery but at last his slugger's heart gave out.
Mr. Rubin was once a household name in America. His mere mention would put politicians, cops, and millionaires into a blithering state of apoplexy. And horrified parents would warn their nascent hippie children "that if you keep it up you'll grow up just like that foul smelling traitor, Jerry Rubin."
And Jerry loved their opprobrium. When he was federally indicted, along with seven others, for his part in the riots that took place during 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, he publicly described the grand jury finding as "the Academy Award of protest."
How did Jerry get so infamous? When I met him in 1965 he was organizing the first of the massive peace marches in Berkeley. By now the image of tens of thousands of joyous and angry anti- Vietnam protesters taking to the streets is a familiar American icon, but it did start in a particular point in place and time. And it was Jerry Rubin who almost single handedly had the original vision and will to promote these dramatic confrontations. Even fellow peaceniks warned him against too much militancy or thinking he could draw a respectably sized crowd. The conventional wisdom decreed that when America was at war everybody supported the conflagration even against their common sense and decency. "Be polite Jerry, they said, maybe a couple of hundred will come to the rally." When 25,000 boldly marched through the streets of Berkeley and Oakland our conversations shifted to talk of revolution.
Right-wing America did not sit idly by. Jerry was subpoenaed by the then much feared HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) and responded by renting an American Revolutionary War uniform and wearing it to the Committee's meeting. And again the conventional leftists warned him against his outlandish and self-defeating behavior.
But HUAC refused to let him testify. They threw him out of the room. HUAC was embarrassed and humiliated. This Draconian agency of McCarthyite inquisition never recovered from being treated as the butt of an international joke. Denunciation and fear they could handle, but political kibitzing from a wise guy Jew from Cincinnati was a little out of their league.
Rubin and I formed a fast friendship. We agreed on politics and lifestyle and I think my poor boy from Brooklyn folk pessimism somewhat anchored his midwestern all-American belief that "By golly Stew, anything is possible." And he taught me that "reality" did not set limits but rather offered almost infinite possibilities if you had the chutzpah to seize them. So the best I could do at his hospital bedside was to keep telling him to wake up because " you'll get big book contract for coming back from the dead. Your coma is an opportunity!" (Forgive me, but that's the way people talk in Los Angeles.)
1968 was Jerry's year for fame. He teamed up with a wild gang that included some of the best minds of his generation. Into this revolutionary cabal came outlaws like Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Phil Oches, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Gumbo, Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders myself and many more. It was a crossing as potent as when John Dillinger teamed up with Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson.
We targeted the Democratic National Convention. The Democrats who under Lyndon B. Johnson were the war party chose Chicago as the site of their convention. The city was governed by Mayor Richard Daley Sr. whose power in that windy town much resembled a South American caudillo. Having Daley do your security was similiar to hiring the mob - the only difference being that the Mafia was more likely to show some business-like common sense.
Daley talked about using sewers for prisons and ordering his police to shoot either to kill or maim, which ever seemed morally appropriate. Chicago was bloody debacle in which the police brutalized not only demonstrators but all kinds of reporters, tv cameramen, bystanders and gawking tourists.
Daley, the police and the FBI cried out for revenge. They indicted eight organizers and planned a show trial. They should have placed themselves in the docket. Maybe five thousand answered our call for protest. Most were frightened away. Had Chicago granted a few permits our rebellious efforts would have been minor footnotes. But America's rulers were spoiling for a fight and they wound up with a nightmare.
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial of 1969 turned Jerry and Co. into national celebrities. They became official victims of injustice. Movie stars like Dustin Hoffman and film directors like Nick "Rebel Without a Cause" Ray came trekking to Chicago to pay homage and offer respect. Even one of the prosecutors asked Dustin for his autograph and the D.A.'s little daughters came to the trial just to see "Jerry and Abbie."
The Judge Julius Hoffman threw away the constitution with the same abandonment as a 300 lb. Chicago cop throwing a teen-age Yippie girl off a bridge in Lincoln Park. At one point the judge had Black Panther leader Bobby Seale chained and gagged in full view of the jury. Jerry and Abbie responded by wearing judicial robes to court and calling Hoffman a Nazi.
Jerry and most of the others were convicted and this verdict put the American legal system on trial. If it stood and the defendants went to prison for five years, it meant that the American courts would soon resemble Hitler's and Stalin's.
Rubin was out on bail while awaiting the appeals court verdict. He wrote a best selling book "Do-It" and fulfilled countless speaking engagements which made him a most familiar and incendiary face on America's campuses. The government had succeeded in fulfilling Jerry Rubin's greatest dream. He now had a large devoted audience of young people and what seemed like an unobstructed opportunity to preach rebellion.
But all good things come to an end. The appeals court freed Jerry, the war wound down and younger rebels began to annoyingly contest his position of leadership.
In the early 1970's Jerry an I traveled through Europe and South America, we started a riot on the London based David Frost tv show, were deported from Belfast and developed a friendship with an admiring John Lennon, who thought the Yippies were the Beatles "without guitars." It was all a great adventure but Jerry realized we were becoming a little dated, like the cinematic Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid trying to make a go of Bolivia.
Sometime in the mid-70's Jerry reinvented himself as a businessman.
First it was Wall Street, than "networking" and finally vitamins and life
extension. And he made a good living at it. He happily wore the title Yuppie, hoping
to become a leader of this new class and give it the rudiments of a conscience. He
got into an unfortunate series of Yippie vs. Yuppie debate with Abbie Hoffman. Both
guys did it for the money and the hostility was supposed to be of the WWF pro-wrestling
variety "i.e. fake pain and you go out for sushi afterwards.) But as can happen
in even the most scripted of performances, the blood started flowing for real and
a friendship was damaged.
Jerry didn't want to fight over the bones. It was too petty an aspiration - and Jerry's visions were never small. His new ambition was giving a capitalists a social consciousness. He went from utopian socialism to utopian capitalism. Talk about dreaming the impossible dream.
When Jerry was brought into the UCLA hospital they worked on him for 14 hours and said his survival would take a miracle. And the funny thing is for those of us at his bedside - that didn't seem like too tall an order. After all, we were talking about Jerry Rubin, the guy who took apart LBJ, HUAC and the entire city of Chicago. When Jerry's eyes opened a bit and he showed some sign of recognition our confidence seemed justified. But Jerry's injuries were too great even for his giant will to live. Besides we're living in the 90's and we have just about run out of miracles.
Click here to read other works by Stew Albert