The most politically relevant film of 2021 takes place in 1969. “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” directed by Aaron Sorkin, snagged nominations in all the major categories for Sunday night’s Golden Globes, though only Sorkin won for best motion picture screenplay. The movie dramatizes one of American history’s most infamous legal cases: a high-noon showdown between the Nixon-era establishment and the loosely affiliated activist left. By putting participatory democracy on trial, the case raised enduring questions. When does protest cross into anarchy? When does people power descend into rioting? And why does it matter?
Abbie Hoffman — the defendant portrayed in the movie by Sacha Baron Cohen — took these questions deadly seriously. In the wake of the Capitol riot, his legacy has never been more vital. Hoffman was a principled and creative activist who got millions of young Americans interested in the democratic process. For him, protest was about bringing people together in joyous communion — a far cry from the violence of the 2021 Capitol insurrection.
Hoffman was, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a “holy clown.” He found his calling as an activist in the early 1960s, when he was a University of California Berkeley wrestler and psychology major protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He fought for civil rights in Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and enlisted young radicals on New York City’s Lower East Side to join his free-love, free-money, antiwar mission. In October 1967, he and his new wife, Anita Kushner, dressed as Uncle Sam and Sergeant Pepper during an antiwar protest with over 200,000 other demonstrators, many armed with smoke bombs and water pistols. When they arrived at the Pentagon, they tried in earnest — or in jest? — to “levitate” the building.
On New Year’s Eve of that year, Hoffman co-founded the Yippies during a pot-smoking session with Jerry Rubin, later a co-defendant at the Chicago Seven trial, and Paul Krassner, a stand-up comic and underground legend. The Yippies stood, cheekily, for the Youth International Party (YIP). Their motto: “Energy —excitement — fun — fierceness — exclamation point!”
Like other Sixties activists, the Yippies opposed the Vietnam War, advocated the redistribution of wealth and espoused the cause of racial equality. But following a lineage that ran through Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the San Francisco Diggers, the Yippies electrified their sense of social justice with performance art, absurdist comedy and elaborate practical jokes. In Hoffman’s words, Yippism “blended fun with struggle.”
For instance, Hoffman took over the New York Stock Exchange. To lampoon Wall Street, he and others showered the trading floor with dollar bills. What happened next unfolded like a morality play: a money-grubbing frenzy among professional stockbrokers that screeched the ticker-tape to a halt. Hoffman’s antics were calculated to grab headlines — and they did! In the process he put powerful institutions in their place, often exposing their base motives, in this case mindless greed.