Jerry Rubin gets a bad rap. He was a lot of things: an activist, a provocateur, a showman who orchestrated media blitzes with the expert precision.
But for a lot of people familiar with Rubin through his facetious, rabble-rousing activism, he devolved into a sellout. For all the legend-making surrounding Abbie Hoffman, Rubin’s collaborator, creative partner and eventual sparring partner in the Yippie vs. Yuppie debates, his mythos survived only because he remained true to his ideology up to his untimely death by suicide in 1989. It’s a narrative that lends itself to lore. Not so with Rubin.
“He’s been pretty much written out of the history books,” said Pat Thomas in an interview with KQED. Thomas, who wrote Did It! — the first biography dedicated in Rubin’s honor — captures Rubin’s life in painstaking detail.
Thomas interviewed upwards of 70 people who knew Rubin closely, from exes to fellow activists to his younger brother, Gil. Every page is laden with Thomas’ quest to cohere the contradictions between Rubin as ‘60s revolutionary and Rubin as ‘80s yuppie.
With Hoffman and master snarksmith Paul Krassner, Rubin co-founded the Youth International Party in 1967. Members of the Party — who branded themselves the Yippies — were notorious for their flair for the theatric. They staged endless interludes within the political theater of Capitol Hill.
Among their list of “accomplishments,” the Yippies ran a pig for president, levitated the Pentagon, and staged protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that resulted in a violent retaliation by police — and the Chicago Seven trials that followed.
If the SDS were the straight-and-narrow honor roll students of ’60s-era activism, Rubin and the ragtag collective of Yippies were the guileless class clowns. And, according to Thomas, the true legacy of Rubin was the sense of humor embedded into his political action.
“[Humor] can win people over way more than dogmatic rhetoric or browbeating people in a classroom or the jury room,” said Thomas. “Rubin’s great legacy is humor disarms you.”
The ground zero for his irreverent, oftentimes off-color form of protest was born right on the UC Berkeley campus — a site that remains rife with political tension.
One Step Further
Rubin became fascinated with spectacle-driven activism while he attended Cal. After a stint as a cub reporter for the Cincinnati Post, he entered the graduate sociology program at UC Berkeley. But but his zeal for front-line protesting outweighed his ambitions in academia, so Rubin dropped out of Berkeley after a six weeks. It was then he became a full-time protestor. At the height of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, captured by Mario Savio and his acerbic polemics, Rubin staged what would become the largest teach-in on the UC Berkeley campus.
“Rubin took the Free Speech Movement one step further, taking Savio’s message and turned it against what was happening in Vietnam,” Thomas said.
With renowned mathematician and Berkeley professor Stephen Smale and his then-partner, fellow activist Barbara Gullahorn, he co-founded the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC). A loose organization of activists based out of Victorian home on Fulton St., the VDC lasted for a year.
The organization’s most outsized impact was facilitating the Vietnam Day Teach-In. Nearly 30,000 students and residents were in attendance during the three-day event held right on Sproul Plaza. It was the largest teach-in to ever take place in American history.
Folks like novelist Norman Mailer, comedian Dick Gregory and folk crooner Phil Ochs were among those who participated in the torrent of lectures, musical performances and assorted rallying cries over the three days.
The momentum following the Teach-In was enormous; it was the catalyst, according to Thomas, with which the larger anti-war movement in the Bay Area and the New Left was born.
At a certain point, however, Rubin’s vision shifted from public intellectualism to public performance.
All for Good Causes
For Rubin, a protest was only as impactful as the media attention that it could garner — a belief that lingered during his time as a cub reporter for the Cincinnati Post. His stunts included dressing up as a Viet Cong member, portraying a Founding Father at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and, later on with the Yippies, levitating the Pentagon.
Rubin’s first big shift into political theater was inspired by a Yale professor who urged for mass civil disobedience at the VDC teach-in. Trains filled with troops and war munitions being shipped off to Vietnam would travel through Berkeley en route to the Port of Oakland; Rubin and a mass of his friends in the VDC, says Thomas, “started literally lying down on the tracks.”
Later, Rubin would man a truck that would follow anonymous vehicles filled with Napalm, which was manufactured in the Bay Area. Attached to the side of the truck was a banner that read “Danger! Napalm! Bombs Ahead.”
Rubin was in pursuit of mobilizing a critical mass of the Bay Area into a united front, from middle-class folks who drove by the napalm trucks, to the hippies whose concerns for peace were overshadowed by the lust for the Summer of Love. At the Human Be-In, Rubin hopped on stage with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, taking the occasion to foment anti-war sentiment among the largely apolitical San Francisco hippies. Rubin even ran for mayor of Berkeley.
But in his pursuit to get the hippies involved, he butted heads. Jerry Garcia, Thomas notes in the book, wasn’t a fan of his antics. The hippies he preached to at the Human Be-In resisted his aggressive diatribes. Ronald Reagan, who was still an actor-turned-conservative pundit in the late ’60s, stumped against Rubin and his ilk, condemning them as Communist traitors. Even Jack Kurzweil, a core member of the Vietnam Day Committee, grew distrustful of Rubin after an incident at the Port of Oakland where a man nearly got killed on the tracks.
“Jerry’s response,” according to Kurzweil’s account in the book, “was ‘Oh no, let him stay there. If he dies, it will be great publicity!”
Rubin would abandon Berkeley to find notoriety elsewhere. After his stint at Berkeley, he went to New York and dropped dollar bills all over the New York Stock Exchange, which caused so much chaos the exchange shut down. It became an international incident — Rubin’s first of many.
The New Left was splintered by Rubin’s antics. It was clear he was driven by this endless quest for publicity — a fact that Thomas will readily admit to.
“Jerry had a big ego,” he admits. “You got to have a big ego to want to get up on a soapbox, and it was ego that drove Jerry. But it was all for good causes.”
To see more stories and photographs from KQED’s series about the impact of the Vietnam War on the Bay Area and other communities in California, visit kqed.org/vietnamwar.