I Was an Intern for Abbie Hoffman
Well, sort of …….
While watching the coverage the Presidential elections I am always intrigued by the people that show up at rallies to either support or protest a candidate. I’ve always admired people that take a public stance and put themselves out there because they have a deep-seated need to vocalize their opinions. But I have to admit, I’m not one of the them. I learned that a long time ago, while a college student, interning with an environmental group in the 1980s.
My illuminating journey began when I picked up the Ithaca Times one day while I was bored of studying in the college cafe. I happened upon an article about Save the River, an environmental group formed by Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman was one of the leaders of the protest at the 1968 at the Democratic Convention, founder of the Yippie movement, and author of books, including the famous ‘Steal This Book’ a virtual ‘how to’ for the counter-culture movement of the lates 60s’.
Hoffman had gone into hiding after a warrant for his arrest on drug charges in the 1970s. By the 80s he was living under the alias Barry Freed and living with a partner on the St. Lawrence River which straddles the U.S. and Canadian border. It was there he started the environmental group Save the River to fight a proposed plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to break up the ice for winter navigation. It was an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen for a number of reasons, so Abbie aka ‘Barry’ Freed too up the fight against it.
In 1983, the group was looking for interns.
I remember glossing over the point of the article, which was about Abbie Hoffman and the storied way he ended up hiding from the law for drug possession charges. I had no idea who Abbie Hoffman was, nor did I care, I just wanted to work for an environmental group that was working to Save the River.
I had spent some time in the area, had a few connections there and was looking for something to do that summer, so an internship sounded like a great idea. When I called the number listed at the bottom of the page I was told that they would send me an application. It is ridiculous I know, but when I filled out the section about my skills, I put down waterskiiing. No kidding. I had no idea what I was doing. But I was to find out later, neither did they.
When I told my advisor at college I wanted to do this internship he asked me, ‘Do you know who Abbie Hoffman is?’ I looked at him blankly. ‘You better look him up,’ he said.
I went straight to library and learned about “Yippies” and the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, and the trial of seven that followed. WOW. I had never even learned this part of American history.
By the time I got to the the River to do my internship things at Save the River had taken a turn. The organization was in disarray. They were run by volunteers, their leadership was fractured when Abbie Hoffman stepped down as their spokesman, and they had never had an intern before. Big donors that had contributed to the fledgling organization when it started in 1978 were trying to disavow any relationship with Hoffman. Many believed he had deceived them by covering up his true identify so as to avoid jail time.
I took a part time job as a waitress at a local resort on Wellesley Island. When I told people that frequented the bar I was interning with Save the River I was given varying accounts of what happened. Overall, people felt duped by Abbie Hoffman when he finally revealed his true identity in 1980 and surrendered to the authorities.
But not everyone felt this way. Many still believed it was worth protecting their river and would stand by any organization working toward that end. Unfortunately, the leadership vacuum had taken its toll. One day when I went into Save the River’s office to find out what assignment they wanted me to work on, I was told by a volunteer to go through a stack of mail. I went to the dust covered desk in the corner to find unopened envelopes with checks inside that were well past the date when they could be cashed. I suddenly realized my internship was not what I had expected it to be, the organization was in crisis.
During all of this I still wasn’t sure who Abbie Hoffman was, and had yet to meet him. He was a larger than life figure looming over this environmental group and nobody knew what to do with his legacy. Then one day I ended up at his house on the river. A friend of mine was painting there and asked me if I wanted to come. By this time, Hoffman had disassociated himself from Save the River and I figured it would be the only time I would get to meet the man so I went.
Talking with him in his kitchen was like trying to swim in a whirlpool I couldn’t get out of. He sucked me right in with his diatribe. He was angry, he said, students my age had no idea what his generation had accomplished for us, we had no appreciation for their activism. We had no idea how to organize. He missed the time when there was a cause worth fighting for. I have it all recorded in my diary. I remember leaving with my head spinning. I don’t think I said a word the whole time. I just listened.
Periodically that summer I would run into Hoffman. Once he came into the resort bar when we were closing down for the night and I introduced him to the Mexican cook who was sitting with me drinking a beer. I had enough grasp of Spanish to provide polite introductions. Hoffman told me to introduce him as a “Revolucionario”. The man scared me.
If anyone had asked me at the time about my internship, I wouldn’t have called it a success. I was young, not an activist, trying to learn something, but lacking any guidance because the organization had none. Well into the middle of the summer a young women, better equipped than I to deal with the disarray, showed up and started taking the reins, but by then I had checked out. However, I still needed to earn three college credits. I needed a project.
At the urging of a state official that worked for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, I ended up starting a campaign to get people that lived on the islands along the river to check their waste disposal systems by flushing small dye tablets down their toilets to see if the dye ended up in the river outside their camp. Yes, that became my project.
The official from the state sent me a box of dye tablets. I used old envelopes I commandeered from the resort, blacked out the return address with a marker, and stuffed hand written instructions along with the tablets into them. I rode my bike around Welleseley Island and handed them out to cottage owners. I had no idea what I was doing. I was just doing something so I could get college credit.
By the end of the summer I felt like a huge failure. I knew I would never be the type of activist Abbie Hoffman was talking about: one that stirred things up, started movements, got people thinking.
Then one day about ten years later I was working for a non-profit and attending a, environmental conference when a young, vibrant speaker popped up, a staff member of Save the River. She told the audience about a program that had huge success rates for public involvement in cleaning up the river.
“It is the Riverkeeper program,” she told the audience. “One of our most successful ideas has been to hand out red dye tablets to homeowners on the river and they flush them down the toilets. If the dye ends up in the river then they learn where their raw sewage is going as well.” They had convinced hundreds of people to update their septic systems as a result.
By then Abbie Hoffman was dead. He committed suicide in 1989. But I smiled, thinking about him, that summer that I always regretted as a time when I failed to live up to an expectation; when I thought I was part of a generation of people that didn’t know how to get things done, change the world, stir things up. And I finally realized: it wasn’t true.