And so we came to Chicago.
Of all the accounts of our protest at the I968 Democratic National convention, mine well may be the mildest. Violence was clearly to be expected, and I couldn't manage to get hysterical in detail about it when it came. Even in the streets, dodging with practiced skill and blind luck, or in Grant Park, as we waited to get creamed, my mood was mostly reflective -- for me, Chicago was a kind of action-meditation. Not that I wasn't fiercely concerned with the violence coming down there, where Myth was being forged. But my mind was on deeper aspects than its familiar blow-by-blow –- on how we were moving to meet it, and of what it portended.
Outside of ingrown political groups, the counter-culture has always been weak at responsible self-criticism. Though we bite ourselves a lot, we still haven’t developed common standards to tell useful criticism from destructive, especially when it focuses on personal cases. So I feel as awkward now in reprinting this letter as I did wben I first made it public in the Berkeley Barb. But we must learn to speak of these things.
Letter to Jerry Rubin
I6 March I968
Dear Jerry, Brother:
I've put off for a long time writing you about this Yippie thing. I feel bad about that, because you asked a personal thing of me when you asked me to organize for it, and deserve a real response. I've delayed, because I've been trying to pin down my deep unease with the way Yippie's coming about; and because I've been trying to find a way to talk about it that wouldn't play any of my warring fragments false, or be untrue to the perceptions and dreams we share.
Let me tell you what I see happening. A scant handful of guys -- centering around you, Abbie, Krassner, etc. -- are pouring charismatic energy into an unprecedented style of organizing. In the first stage you people run up and down the Coasts, turning on rock groups, head shops, happeners, underground mediamen: "Come to Chicago to do your thing, be the Festival of Life confronting the Convention of Death; and spread the word." Many are coming, from Ginsberg and Country Joe and the Fish on down. And then you click on the second stage, the freaky amplified Media Stage, to amplify your offer. Through this promised convocation of singers and seers you evoke potent symbols, pitched directly to the unexplored mythic consciousness of the young. We talked about this in New York last December, about making an experiment; and it's a genuine one, for its results are impossible to predict. Will a great swarm of kids lemming upon Chicago? Or will it turn out to be a Media Event, a Media Shuck, like last year's flowers-in-yr-hair invitation to come visit the Haight? As you do, that predicted 200,000 pilgrims; but only a tenth that many showed.
However many go, the ground condition they will find there seems clear. There will likely be blood. The black thing there is near blowing, black radicals are warning white organizer friends, "Stay off the street, we won't be able to protect you." Chicago has more cops per capita than a nightmare, Daley's preparing the sewers for mass arrests. Chicago in August will harbor the nation's richest pool of uptight bad vibes, set to flash. Pack 200,000 kids in there, with where we are with America these days when not even our inner millennium has come, and it's sure to blow.
Even 20,000 makes it likely. Remember how that number -- spread over three months -- left the Haight exhausted, closed, her hospitality broken; and left themselves bitter, wanting and pained? Here there is not even a fictional brotherly community: no guide, no protection, no refuge in this flat hostile landscape, which offers not even a space to sleep. Shit, what makes you think they'll give us the parks (or that we'd be safe there)? You credit them with being rational. But they're not, they're stupid. Why should they change their behavior to avert a human catastrophe which any fool can see coming? They run by the Law. And also, they'd like to see us go down. You know that, you've been writing about what the revolution means: "Is America going to let us humanize her without a bloody fight?"
So given that there's probably going to be violence despite what any of us want -- and maybe in part because of what some of us want, yes, those are our boys too, Jerry, just as it's part of myself that's standing there with a brick in his hand aching to smash a cop -- how do we act responsibly, or well, or in tune with that which we would like to build and be? That's what's been puzzling me. And I don't know much that's new, but I think I recognize some old mistakes being made: one by the Yippie group, one by you.
The Yippie thing really troubles me, man, because it's deeply and dangerously irresponsible. So are the politicos working around Davis and Hayden, projecting their clockwork peaceful vision of multicentered independent demonstrations around and at the Convention. For both streams of organizing are raising serious false expectations. The brilliant formless Yippie publicity, in waving the magical beckoning symbol of our Music, projects grooving and warmth, and does not warn that joy there must be won from within -- not absorbed from others -- in a landscape of total hostility whose ground condition may well be the terror and death of one's brothers. "I don't think anyone will come to Chicago innocently," you tell me. Perhaps. Do you understand the seventeen-year-olds in Des Moines? I don't. All I know about organizing, as opposed to Leadership, is that you have to help people see clearly all that is of irnportance to them. Can Yippie's mythy publicity be modified to include an accurate portrayal of the landscape's dangers? I doubt it. Can it be damped, defused? Maybe.
It's dangerous to bandy about a figure like "200,000," especially coupled with sugarplum visions of a freebies post-Monterey rock festival and all kinds of fun games, which you so lovingly articulate. For the expectation becomes that the Event is organized and can be attended, that it's set up to process great drifts of people. Such events mostly draw our young as spectators, not participants. That might be cool: somewhere else, some other time. But if we're mythmaking, let's build our symbols with deliberate care. The lasting radiance of a Festival of Affirmation would depend less on its immensity than on its quality. If it is to demonstrate a real alternative, be a celebration of glad freedom, then let those come who are able to move freely, fed by what they value, choosing the possible risk of their skins: not the passive kids. Let those come who have genuine reason to be present -- feeling the need to be there is enough -- and let their free joy build what it will, creating in the unpredictable open space that confrontation affords. But a multitude of kids loaded with false expectations will at best dilute the symbol, and may render it unworkable, or, at worst, help transmute it helplessly into quite a different symbol, dark with despair and pain. And if a lot of our people come away from Chicago feeling tricked, endangered beyond their consent, their expectations and more betrayed, then whatever is growing within us of public trust will be seriously set back.
This kid Dennis, your advance man, came by a month ago, and I tried to talk about these puzzles with him. I tried to tell him my sense of it, that the Call to Chicago must be moral to be worth making; but he was wrapped up in visions and energy, and wasn't having any; he found my concerns a bit abstract. I was remembering FSM, when Mario and Bettina, especially, drove it home to us: if there's any ethical principle we can fix for our actions in this fractured time, it's that we must keep straight with our own, with those we speak for, lead, and invite. That means telling it (and setting it up) straight and in public, with Where We Are spelled out explicitly and vividly enough to help people not enter the Event with false expectations. But I was speaking from my own experience, and not to his: a bit abstract.
You and I, we have common experience: the Vietnam Day Committee, which despite its numerical glory was humorless, unimaginative, and unliberating. This was connected with its elite style of leadership, which escaped the control of the open meetings and twice brought the community into totally unexpected dangers: in the narrowly averted confrontation with the cops on the I5 October I965 night march, and in coldly setting up the bloody April I966 clash on Telegraph. We ought to learn from that, yes?
Here in Berkeley, after October in Oakland and the Rusk demonstration and whatnot, we have now a wiser population, no one needs to remind us: we expect to get beat on the head whenever we show up in public in a political context. It changes our consciousness, makes for apocalyptic visions maybe. But the kids in Cincinnati haven't had our luck; and what's more, they really wish they could've made it to Monterey for the Pops Festival last summer, see you in Chicago. They aren't the kids from the Haight, now familiar with tear gas and clubbings, who will go to Chicago wise and to express who they are, with their warm danger and cold joy, and who are the people you want there to fashion a symbol, the best of our own at joy. They would go without a YIPPlE symbol fashioned in the plastic media-air. Most of those whom Yippie itself will draw will be endangered and superfluous for the occasion. And this sort of organizing, however spectacular, is neither moral nor efficient, effective.
Enough of that. Let me switch to a different perspective, by talking about you yourself, and the mistake I think you're making.
I ran into you at Whitehall, after the most inept and endangering demonstration I'd ever seen. The East Coast has more Authority Complexes than the West -- come back, it's warping your head! -- and the N.Y. version of "mobile tactics" let itself be Led, hopelessly so. We both were delighted to see that kid climb a car after the fiasco, rip off his monitor armband, set fire to it, and cry "Follow me!" We went for coffee, rapped for the first time in years. I was amazed and gladdened to find us both so much on the same frequency about what was happening and how it projected. We talked about that burning armband and what it meant, of new styles of organizing and organization that had to be developed for a new population, of our need for myth to crystallize our consciousness. of how to begin creating myth.
Since then, I've been digging heavily on much that you've been writing. What I do as sort of pop sociology of youth culture, comes from you out in a useful political rhetoric, almost a poem or an incantation, and sometimes brilliantly; I mean sometimes your clarity really stuns me. You are saying important things well, even if most of them are already known in some way to those in the center of change. Singing informed by politics and acid, you are helping articulate a myth of central significance to us.
But when you come to the Yippie thing, you play it false. You're wearing a media armband. In our developing theology of organizing, you're into the Leadership Heresy; Yippie is a hippy bureaucracy that decrees. Look around you at the structure: already a central permanent office, regional chapter contacts, regular weekly meetings, press conferences, proclamations. It's starting to look like preparations for an SDS or NSA convention. So the resource people play drums instead of write grant-proposals. So what? It still looks unpleasantly familiar. I don't care that the Yippie publicity announces proudly, "Activities and resources will be planned so that everyone who comes will become involved." I don't believe you can legislate participation any better than LBJ can.
"We teach by doing," you say. And you're right: at our best, we make change, not by calling for it rhetorically to a mass anonymous audience, but by creating real examples of what we want to build. Their presence blows people's minds, breaks expectations; and within this expanded sense of the possible, they move to make their own things. So act true to your understanding, man. Don't be a media pitchman busy Organizing a Festival; what is this shit? In your columns sing our changes and our dawning identity and our struggles. Proclaim the importance of Chicago, offer in public your reasons for going there, tell us about the Quality of Life you dream to bring to that complex classroom with your presence. That's groovy, that's true. But don't Organize a Festival. Tell us your brothers whom you touch or encounter, one-by-one, what you see, what you're doing; write me a letter, as you did. But don't Organize a Festival. That's not Right Action.
Your perception of what's needed in Chicago is absolutely accurate: our being there should create a symbol embodying not only our opposition, but also a real alternative, born from our new dimensions. And you are right about the broader context: for us Chicago will be a theater and a school. It is our Convention too, gathering the most diverse delegation ever from our multiform Movement.
And that is the key: that the warring strands of our nature must come together. The politicos make no provision for the nurture of joy there. You are mirroring their mistake, seeking too easy an alternative. The joy and the polities must be fused, as they began to be in FSM, and in Oakland in October. To create a separate Festival, even in the same place, plays much of our nature false: those others who come to demonstrate at the Convention are ours too, and we must teach and learn from each other, together.
I think there are better ways of coming to Chicago, and working for the goals we share, than by making the Yippie Festival. Simply accept that Chicago will happen, that it will be a diverse learning group of our peers, operating in what well may be a spastic spectacular classroom. And come there to do your thing. That's all. Music is needed; let rock groups come of their own accord and play on sound trucks, or get their own permits. If you want to help them get bread for travel, you can do so just as well without all of this Official Festival bullshit. Let those who wish to, crown a pig; let guerrilla theater happen; run a free newspaper yourself. If our creators and free spirits recognize a need, and want to come and learn to work among their brothers -- well then, they will, and will spread the idea and help each other; and if they don't they won't. The Festival isn't helping them learn how at all. Instead, it's setting up an us/them split within our own ranks that may prove quite costly to us.
What matters is beyond Chicago: how we will move next, with the learning we do there. Me, I'm going because it's my Convention and my people, and I want to be with them and make my presence known. I'm going to go there with my fragments -- my political man and my singer, my cop-killer and my lover -- and try to do something whole. I think we share this complexity and this desire. And I wish I could find better words to tell you my sense that you are going about it wrong, in a way that plays it and yourself and us false.
Living in New York, you have forgotten San Francisco. I see you surrounded by Death, wanting to reach out in a gigantic gesture of Life. But you can't do it save by leaving the old behind. A redefinition of Leader in the new wilderness of the Media won't do, you can't reach out larger than yourself. Years ago I asked one of my students what she thought of Leary and his League of Spiritual Discovery, traveling pitchman selling the Way. "Leary," she said, "is a Harvard professor who dropped acid." Don't become known as a politico who dropped acid, Jerry. Step up on the car, rip off your armband, and burn it, yelling (if you wish) Yippie! as you do; and disappear into the crowd. Let what happened at Whitehall, and your own words, teach you. As long as we wear armbands -- no matter how gaudy, or if they're labeled "This is not an armband" -- we will never create the mobile tactics of the heart.