Stealing Back to That Same Old Used to Be
The notorious counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman, lives on in the recent re-release of his infamous Steal This Book. First published in 1970, the classic alternative guide to life is considered by some to be “the single most important piece of pop culture to come out of the Viet Nam era.” The consummate 1960s radical, Hoffman wrote the introduction to the book while in jail in Cook County IL. He’d been on trial for what the American Civil Liberties Union later called “the political trial of the century” as one of the “Chicago Seven.” Hoffman’s instructions include how to shoplift, grow marijuana, prepare for a legal defense, and even how to start a guerilla radio station.
How does the 1960s social revolutionary stand up to 2002?
Some of it is amusing. Hoffman’s outlaw wisdom: “Avoid all needle drugs—the only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon.” Parts of it are timeless. On living in communes, “a cheap and enjoyable way of living,” he writes:
Although urban and rural communes face different physical environment, they share common group problems. The most important element in communal living is the people, for the commune will only make it if everyone is fairly compatible. A nucleus of four to seven people is best and it is necessary that no member feels extremely hostile to any other member when the commune gets started. The idea that things will work out later is pigswill. More communes have busted up over incompatibility than any other single factor. People of similar interests and political philosophies should live together. One speed freak can wreak almost any group. There are just too many day-to-day hassles involved living in a commune to not start off compatible in as many ways as possible. The ideal arrangement is for the people to have known each other before they move in together.
That much applies to any social grouping. Hoffman’s instructions at to what to wear to a demonstration seem almost humorous.
Everyone should have a helmet. Your head sticks out above the swarming crowd and dents like a tin can. Protect it! The type of helmet you get depends on what you can afford and how often you’ll be using it
The snappiest demonstrators use the familiar motorcycle crash helmet. They are the highest in price, running from $10.00 to as high as $40.00. . . . Get only those with removable [plastic face guards] since you might want to make use of a gas mask.
There are sections of the book that can be considered as insidious today as they were in 1970. The politics of revolution alarm most members of a collective society. Today as much as ever. I hesitate to say “now more than ever” because this country was founded by war and violence is our heritage. Thomas Paine’s publication Common Sense helped incite a revolution in 1774. Hoffman may have thought he was doing the same with his 1960s protests.
The existence radical fringe groups (The Branch Davidians, citizen militias in rural compounds, New World Order cults, religious cults, and terrorists, the Unibomber, Timothy McVeigh, as well as the events at Ruby Ridge, etc.) make the next paragraph onerous and almost apocalyptic:
Communes have continually been targets of attack by the more Neanderthal elements of the surrounding community. In Minneapolis for example, “headhunts” as they are called are commonplace. You should have full knowledge of the local gun laws and a collective defense should be worked out.
Physical attacks are just one way of making war on communes and, hence, our Free Nation. Laws, cops, and courts are there to protect the power and the property of those that already got that shit. Public harassment, strict enforcement of health codes and fire regulations and the specially designed anti-commune laws being passed by town elders, should all be known and understood by the members before they even buy or rent property. On all these matters, you should seek out experienced members of communes already established in the vicinity you wish to settle. Work out mutual defense arrangements with nearby families—both legal and extralegal. Remember, not only do you have the right to self-defense, but it is your duty to our new Nation to erase the “Easy-Rider-take-any-shit” image which invites attack. Let them know you are willing to defend your way of living and your chances of survival increase.
Well, hell. No wonder my parents shit a brick when they found Steal This Book in the back seat of our van when I was in high school in 1972. I bought it because I thought it made me look cool. I wore it like a merit badge. The only parts I read were the sections on marijuana, phone phreaking, and free clothing and furniture. I completely overlooked the instructions for making a Molotov cocktail. (Hoffman warns: BE CAREFUL! THROW FAST!) Did you know you use a gas-soaked Tampax, Styrofoam, rubber bands and gasoline to make a Molotov cocktail for throwing? I wonder if my parents freaked because I had tampons in the bathroom cabinet and a couple of huge empty wine jugs in my room.
I’m sure anyone who wanted to know about “classic street fighting weapons” before the release of this edition of Steal This Book found the recipe on the Internet or in their public libraries. Hoffman’s book has been in print continuously for over three decades. It has “educated and inspired countless thousands of young activists” and is considered a timeless handbook for revolution. Many of the concepts and procedures outlined in the book are now “old school” and common knowledge.
Cutting edge publishing house Four Walls Eight Windows’ edition of Hoffman’s survival guide contains introductions by activists Al Giordano and Lisa Fithian.
This is more than pop culture. This is not a nostalgic walk through time to Lisa Fithian. Fithian, friend of Hoffman, union organizer, and “non-violent activist” who was “arrested, searched, and detained while preparing protests for the G-20 summit in Ottawa”, writes a letter to the dead Abbie as the foreword to this edition. She tells him, “Planes turned into bombs. The Twin Towers collapsed. The Pentagon in flames. Two of the most powerful symbols of capitalism and militarism left gaping and destroyed in a matter of moments. The foundations of the old order were cracked open.” She continues:
Meanwhile the Government Inc. propaganda machine is in full-tilt boogie and the right-wing is doing everything it can to consolidate its power. Our democratic system is a joke. Would you believe the Supreme Court actually chose the last President? You know when his wife’s nickname for him is STUPID, we’re in trouble. Yup, baby George W., son of the ex-CIA director drug dealer and oil man, George Bush, is now the Prez. He can barely articulate a coherent sentence. Just makes you sick. Now he gets to wage a war in the name of fighting terrorism.
In reality this war is just another front in the capitalists’ efforts to expand and control world markets, keep the rich, white boys in charge and squash an intensely amazing, growing resistance movement. A movement that captured the attention of the world on your birthday! November 30, 1999 over fifty thousand people swarmed the streets with song and dance to shut down the Millennial Rounds of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
This movement arose from the fact that corporations with the support of elected officials are selling our water, endless polluting our air, genetically modifying our food, clear cutting our forests. For them, “developing” means “destroying.”
same shit, different generation
Al Giordano sees the release of this issue of Steal This Book differently. The biographical blurb about Giordano says he is “. . . a free speech defendant currently being sued by billionaires in the Drug War on Trial case in New York City.” A longtime friend of Hoffman, Giodarno describes him as a man who thought “. . . a task was either worth going to jail for, worth dying for, or it was not worth doing.” While admitting that, of all Hoffman’s seven published works, Steal This Book is the most widely read and notorious, Giordano claims much of the book is obsolete.
. . . He found cracks in the system, and he spotlighted them. Some long-accepted “facts of life”—that teenagers must obey their parents and other authorities, for example, simply fell by the wayside. Other “cracks” discovered by Abbie and his pals were later sealed up by the system. (Techniques revealed here for hacking public telephones have long been technologically correct and thus are obsolete.) For that reason, many—but not all—of the tips in Steal This Book are obsolete. Hitchhiking, anyone? Ripping off automats? (Anyone under 30 know what an automat is?) Draft dodging? Yes, there was a military draft to avoid back then; there’s not one today. Thank you, Abbie.
So when you get to the points of the book that are merely pointing out the obvious and you exclaim, “Jesus! He’s telling us how to make a bookcase out of cinderblocks and lumber?” that is the precise moment to pay attention. On those pages, we see just how far behind American society was only a few decades ago. Kids didn’t have the Internet then to seek out the information that their parents and the media didn’t want them to have. They didn’t even have a hundred cable TV channels. They had three television networks in the major markets, and maybe one or two in rural areas. It was an atmosphere of total control . . .
Giordano labels Hoffman a hero.
. . . And a whole hell of a lot of what we take for granted today as basic “rights” are here and present because real human beings fought for them, and were persecuted for waging that fight. His era was full of heroes. But none were as effectively heroic as Abbie.
I suspect Senator John McCain would argue that point. But, what does he know? He wiled away his time in the leisurely confines of the Hanoi Hilton. And that, my friends, is the reason to revisit Mr. Hoffman’s diatribe. It is a historically significant text. Readers will approach Steal This Book from varied backgrounds, diametrically opposed ideologies, and radically diverse political philosophies . . . but everyone will come away from the experience with a improved insight into the decade that was the 60s.
One final note: A current school of thought among many sociologists, criminologists, psychologists and school guidance counselors seems to be that the violent unconscionable actions of today’s youth can be blamed on the availability and rapid dissemination of information. The Internet is a target of blame as well as subversive counter-culture music. This book could disprove their theories. Widely available, it was purchased for under $5.00 by teenagers all over the US in the early 1970s. Teenagers who held, in their hands, the instructions for violent protests and radical revolution. Young citizens who neither blew up schools nor stockpiled guns and shot their classmates. But, then again, it could be argued one of those teenagers grew up and became a Unibomber.