Who Were the Yippies?

Pinellas DSA
12 min readFeb 14, 2023

Member Bruce Nissen shares his thoughts about a past political movement

In conversations with my younger comrades in the Pinellas DSA, I have been astonished to discover that virtually none of them has any idea of who the Yippies were in the 1960s — 1980s period. As one who came to political maturity in the ’60s (I was twenty years old in 1968), I was powerfully influenced by them at the time. They were a significant force in bringing together the emerging “hippie” or youth culture and political radicalism at the time. They were in the news fairly frequently, I just assumed that they would remain in the public consciousness up to the present day. How wrong I am!

I still think that the Yippie! phenomenon is worth remembering and examining, so that’s why I am writing this. Let’s start with a little bit of background. The 1960s was a decade of increasingly obvious disaffection from society by the younger generation. The 1950s had produced the beatniks but they were a very small sideshow to the decade of conformity in most things. By the 1960s some of the most obvious failings of the United States became so prominent that they could not help but stimulate a negative visceral reaction from a growing segment of young people. The two most prominent failings were the racist repression of African-Americans, prompting a civil rights movement that was viciously repressed on national TV news each evening, and an imperial war in Vietnam that resulted in a draft to send young American men off to fight a war that made little sense to many of them.

The numerically larger reaction was cultural. Young people began experimenting with mind-altering drugs (especially marijuana but also less frequently more potent drugs such as LSD and mescaline). Some young men grew their hair longer; puritanical attitudes toward sex were under attack. Peace and love and freedom to “do your own thing” became keywords of the growing cohort of those who became known as hippies.

A second reaction was political. The anti-war movement against the Vietnam War grew throughout the final third of the decade and into the 1970s. The civil rights movement morphed into a Black Power movement and a women’s movement seeking gender and sexual equality grew by leaps and bounds. Liberation movements from underdeveloped countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America spurred solidarity movements in the U.S. as well as Latino freedom struggles among Chicanos and Hispanic (primarily Puerto Rican) populations. Militant reform movements in a previously self-satisfied labor movement challenged the power of employers and their often-compliant union leadership.

These two reactions were not necessarily connected with each other. Despite a common vaguely defined opponent — the “system” — there could be enormous differences in both cultural styles and political analyses among these emerging forms of resistance. I distinctly remember in 1967 running into young Marxist revolutionaries who urged me and other radicals to cut our hair, eschew dope, look as straight as possible, get a job in a factory, and integrate into a working class that was perceived as being hostile to the new youth culture. I was lectured that only in this way could I contribute to a transformation of U.S. society. I rejected this invitation to mimic the very attitudes and lifestyle that I was rebelling against.

A big portion of the emerging hippie culture remained apolitical in any conventional sense of the word “politics.” They rejected the striving competitiveness of mainstream culture and attempted to live a quieter life less centered on conspicuous consumption, but did not necessarily engage in political activism or advocacy. But many of us attracted to the hippie culture also were politically estranged because of the war and other reasons, so we felt a compulsion to also rebel through political activity.

Enter the Yippies. As a named phenomenon the Yippies originated in 1967 from a meeting of a small group of leftist veterans of previous demonstrations and movements. The most prominent figures to emerge as Yippie leaders were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. (More on them later in this article.) The name was of course a take-off on the word “hippie” and was intended to indicate joy in living, antics and pranks, and a nullification of the “death culture” that the originators saw as pervasive in America. To make it look more official for mainstream media, they invented a (non-existent) “party” — the Youth International Party (YIP).

The Yippies (and YIP) had no formal membership; one could simply declare oneself a member. The goal was not to establish anything with a formal structure; instead it was to utilize the media to spread among America’s youth countercultural and anti-capitalist messages through the use of flamboyant spectacles and symbols. Some prominent Yippies took outrageous names as part of the theater: Wavy Gravy was a prominent Yippie who became fairly well known for his role at the historic Woodstock Festival in 1968. Here is Wavy at later point in his life:

Others took names like Joannee Freedom or Daisy Deadhead. Some semi-famous people like radical singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, radical lawyer William Kunstler, Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders of the rock group The Fugs, and others were self-declared Yippies.

But probably the most prominent Yippie was Abbie Hoffman, a brilliant media performer who constantly ended up in the news because of his latest outrage against conservative mainstream sensibilities. For all his clowning, Abbie was a serious revolutionary who had a thought-out rationale for his theatrical antics. He had come to believe that people were not moved to radicalism by rational discourse and logic. Instead, they viscerally responded to events and images that shaped their cultural viewpoint through which they interpreted the world. Thus, the way to reach them was to engage in pubic theater that forced them to reevaluate.

Here are a few images of Abbie:

Jerry Rubin was almost equally prominent in the Yippie mythology, but he was not as deep of a thinker as Abbie. Books he authored were fairly shallow, and he didn’t exhibit the same degree of purposive refection on his own actions as did Abbie. In the end he would sell out his ideals and become a Wall Street trader and businessman who Wikipedia claims became a multi-millionaire. But in his earlier incarntaion he did have something of a flair for theatrical messages. Here are a couple of images of Rubin in his revolutionary days:

Abbie and Jerry and fellow Yippies engaged in numerous public guerilla theater events. Among them:

· In the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Yippies induced some in the crowd to surround the Pentagon, handed out witch’s hats and colorful outfits and levitation sticks and held a ceremonial “levitation” of the Pentagon building to drive out the evil of militarism and war. Soldiers guarding the Pentagon held rifles out in the direction of the protesters; a picture of a girl inserting a flower into the barrel of one soldier’s gun went around the world in news media.

· Abbie Hoffman in late 1967 snuck a crew of protesters into the Wall Street Exchange building. When up on the visitor’s balcony over the Exchange floor, they rushed to the rail and threw hundreds of dollar bills down on the trading floor. Trading was stopped for a few minutes; some stockbrokers scrambled to retrieve the bills as chaos ensued. Abbie and crew managed to escape outside where he related the story to reporters who had been tipped off in advance. Then he publicly burned a $5 bill to complete the guerrilla action. Again, publicity streaked around the country.

· In March 1968 the Yippies called for a “Yip-In” at New York City’s Grand Central Station. I happened to be in New York for a spring break from college in Iowa, and my then-girlfriend and I attended. Well over one thousand people showed up. Balloons, music, and a festive atmosphere was everywhere. Then a couple of intrepid youths climbed up on the famous Grand Central clock and removed the hands. (Later Yippie publicity claimed the purpose was to free the masses from the tyranny of the clock and a forced workweek.) At that point the police went crazy and rioted. They waded into the crowd, swinging batons and cracking heads. We were trapped inside the building and could not escape except by running down the stairs into the subway system. As we were running down the stairs, a policeman pursued us and others who were likewise escaping. I still vividly remember an older gentleman who looked very straight and who most likely was not part of the demonstration but simply a commuter. He ran down the stairs with us, but he was slower. The policeman smashed him across the head with such a loud crack that I can still hear the pop. The man reeled and fell heavily to the ground, bleeding profusely. We couldn’t even get him help for some time, as we were trapped inside by a police line. Things like that radicalize you very, very quickly.

· The biggest stage for Yippie! theatrics was the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August 1968. The Vietnam War was heating up; Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was retiring in disgrace; the Democratic Party was planning to nominate VP Hubert Humphrey, a strong war supporter, for president; and Chicago Democratic Mayor Richard Daley had instructed the Chicago police to “shoot to kill” anyone disturbing the peace. Mainstream anti-war movement organizations had called for a massive march during the convention and the city had refused to grant a permit. Hundreds of thousands had been expected for the march, but widespread publicity of Mayor Daley’s threats intimidated most who had planned to come. In the end only about 10,000 showed up. The Yippies had planned a massive Festival of Life with live rock bands and theatrical happenings; again, permits were denied. All the big nationally known bands pulled out in face of the threats; only the MC5, a radical Detroit-basaed band ended up playing. Phil Ochs also performed. The MC5 concert was cut short when the cops attacked the crowd. The Yippies brought in a pig named Pigasus to coronate as President of the U.S. Abbie was arrested and the pig was confiscated by the police. The whole convention was a mess that culminated with a Police Riot outside the hotel where Humphrey was being selected. The TV media brought all of this to the nation on a nightly basis.

· Following the Democratic Convention police riot, the U.S brought felony conspiracy charges against eight organizers who had planned the demonstrations. Most were anti-war political organizers who looked like normal Americans, but Abbie and Jerry were also part of the Chicago 8 (later the Chicago 7 when Black Panther Boby Seale’s case was severed from that of the rest). Abbie and Jerry showed up at the trial adorned in judge’s robes, repeatedly taunted the judge, and were charged withi contempt of court countless times. Because the name of the judge (a real fool who made a joke of himself by his behavior) was Julius Hoffman, Abbie made a legal effort to change his first name to Fuck so he could answer as Fuck Hoffman every morning in court. (For some reason, his application was turned down.)

· When Abbie and Jerry were pulled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Abbie came wearing an American flag shirt; he was promptly arrested as he stated, “I regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.” Jerry, who was wearing a Viet Cong flag shirt, shouted that the cops were Communists for not arresting him also.

· Yippie chapters across the country engaged in similar public theatrical events. In 1969 they stormed and briefly seized the Justice Department building in D.C. during an anti-war demonstration. In 1970 Yippies raided Disneyland and occupied Tom Sawyer’s island; riot police shut down the theme park and arrested dozens of occupiers.

These theatrical radical events fascinated me as a young college student. For about two and a half years from mid-1967 until 1970 I considered myself a Yippie and attempted to emulate their work on my campus. I joined a guerrilla theater group that disrupted officious campus events, participated in the coronation of a male homecoming queen at a homecoming football game, played a minor (and shamefully cowardly) role in a nude-in against Playboy magazine’s spokesman speaking on campus, ran a giant be-in festival of life on campus, hosted various “Digger dinners” with free communal meals outdoors, set up a Free Store in an unoccupied alcove of my college dorm, and more.

The college student government appreciated many of these antics, and they were happy to sponsor a visit to campus by a leading Yippie. We tried to get Abbie Hoffman, but could not find an easy way to reach him. We did contact Jerry Rubin, and he came and spoke to fairly large crowd on campus. I arranged a Yip-in welcome where we inundated the crowd with balloons thrown down from a balcony we occupied. I still have a photo of Jerry and me during his visit in 1969:

Bruce and Jerry in 1969

We interviewed Rubin for our college underground newspaper, and I quickly saw that he was not a particularly deep thinker — I remember thinking that I had thought through a number of these questions more thoroughly than he had. He was warm and friendly and fun to be with, but here was not a leader to work out a strategic direction for the future of our movement. He had nothing to say when I attempted to converse with him about the role and function of the Yippie myth, something I had discovered through reading writings by Abbie.

Still, I thought the Yippies were pretty cool for a couple of years. But subsequent events caused me to lose my fervent admiration and to move to other elements of the movement. First, it became apparent that the Yippies were not anchored in anything that had staying power, such as the labor movement. When youth culture faded so did the Yippies.

Second, it became apparent that behind the flashy exterior many of the Yippie “leaders” were lesser idols than they appeared. All idols have feet of clay, and my infatuation with Abbie Hoffman cooled considerably as later episodes showed him to be a very flawed human being. When I finally got a chance to meet him, at a fizzled demonstration at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in New York City, he was acting paranoid. I asked him if he was Abbie Hoffman (because I wasn’t sure) and he immediately said, “Yeah! Want to drop some acid?” I replied no and retreated in confusion. Upon later reflection I realized that he suspected I was a “narc” (narcotics agent) trying to get him arrested and he knew that narcs are not allowed to consume illegal drugs when they pursue drug dealers and users. He certainly didn’t appear as brilliant in person as he did through his media antics; in fact, he appeared to be an isolated and somewhat paranoid individual.

In 1973 he was busted for being involved in an attempted sale of a huge amount of cocaine (probably set up by narcs, but nevertheless he was there). He disappeared and went underground shortly thereafter. He resurfaced in 1980 as Barry Freed, an environmental activist with a surgically altered face in upstate New York leading a campaign to preserve the St. Lawrence River. He eventually served four months for the cocaine bust and continued his activism against the CIA, the War on Drugs, and similar issues. He was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in 1980 and in 1989 he committed suicide at age 52.

Unlike Jerry, Abbie stayed true to his leftist ideals to the end. He deserves respect but had some large human failings that were exposed in his brother Jack Hoffman’s book Always Running: the Lives of Abbie Hoffman. The larger Yippie project, to influence the country’s culture and politics toward the left through mass media interventions, also deserves respect. But it is flawed as a larger strategy: it should be seen as simply one tactic among many to move the consciousness of the American public to the left. We also need serious analysis and strategy, an affiliation with the labor movement and grounding in the working class.

So I say, may the Yippie spirit carry on, as one of many emanations from a growing socialist movement in the United States. I hope the DSA will be at the center of that movement.

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America