Paul Krassner on the Chicago Counterconvention
Paul Krassner: My name is Paul Krassner, I was most notorious for editing a magazine, uh, The Realist, from 1958 to 2001. And also I, um, do stand-up satire in the tradition of Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul. I had poor posture as a kid … and, let’s see, what else?
So when we realized that we were going to go to Chicago for the counterconvention, uh, I was in on the planning and we held open meetings. We held them at the free university in New York, on Union Square, and twice when it was really nice weather we held them outside, and so, you know, any government agent was welcome to come because we had nothing to hide … so we thought.
Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.
So, the plans were to have um, a lot of music, uh, there would be rock bands playing while they were making speeches at the Convention Center, uh, to have booths around with information on the draft, information on drugs, um, it was, uh, … sort of a premonition of what Woodstock turned out to be, you know. A “festival of life” is what we were calling it, to oppose the Democrats’, uh, festival of death. And the reason we went there and not the Republican Convention in Miami was, well, first of all, it was off-season, and who wants to go to Miami off-season? Uh, but it was a bipartisan war and we felt that it was under the Democrats’ watch then, and so it was more appropriate to go to Chicago.
And, you know, we tried to get permits for the revolution and, uh, were unsuccessful. I mean, literally we tried to get permission for young people to sleep in the park … it has been granted before to the Boy Scouts. Uh, but when we went to try and get permits, we went to see Mayor Daly, we were instead shunted to his assistant, David Stahl, and, um, he asked me at one point, “Come on, what are you guys really going to do in Chicago?” And I said: “Did you see ‘Wild in the Streets’?” which was a movie about, um, young people dropping LSD into the water supply and taking over Washington and lowering the voting age to fourteen. And, so, uh, the Mayor’s assistant said to me, “‘Wild in the Streets’? We’ve seen ‘Battle of Algiers,'” which was a black-and-white documentary-style film by, uh, Costa Gravis, about the Algerian War. And there was one scene where a woman, wearing a chador— just her eyes were showing— and she walked past the border guards smuggling in a bomb, which they showed, and uh, was going to leave it in the cafe, and the camera panned around and you could see the face of innocent children eating their ice cream. And so, this meant that was what was going to happen in Chicago was, uh, our mythology clashing with their mythology. And so, uh, they were prepared for the worst and we were prepared for the best.
We had, um, a band from Detroit on the first Sunday there, the MC5, and in the middle of that the police raided the whole scene with, uh, tear gas. And another time there was just a peaceful demonstration and they just tear-gassed people, uh, and one after another there was provocation like that, which ended in what was officially labeled, um, as a police riot. I was recently at a college and somebody asked me, you know, “Well, weren’t the police provoked?” And other people, young people in the audience, you know, tried to shut him up, and I said, “No no, that’s a fair question.” You know, “Let him talk.” And then I assured him, I said, “Look, don’t worry, nobody is going to taser you.” And so, um, I, I made the point that the police were provoked by police provocateurs who pulled down the flag, who cursed the cops, threw, uh, rocks at them, and at the particular event in Grant Park that triggered, uh, the police riot. So I explained that to him.
And my feeling always is that when the police attack indiscriminately and then don’t arrest the people that they’ve knocked down to the ground, it’s, it is really just sadism. And there was a lot of that. And I think it was on a deeper level than, uh, … because they resented, um, … These were mainly white cops in Chicago who weren’t concerned about their kids growing up to be Black Panthers, but they were concerned that they, uh, would be influenced by us fun-loving folks, uh, you know, to smoke pot, to practice free love until it was perfect, to, uh, you know … they didn’t like the music, uh, so we represented a cultural threat to them in that sense.
Uh, the Yippies, uh, were the Youth International Party and it was an organic collection, coalition—willing— of stoned hippies and, uh, straight politicos and they began to sort of cross-fertilize at various civil rights demonstrations and anti-war rallies and, uh, a kind of new breed came out of that which was stoned politicos. At first there was an adversarial relationship, uh, ’cause the straight politicos thought that the hippies were being irresponsible by not getting involved in the anti-war movement, and the hippies thought that the straight politicos were, uh, playing into the hands of the administration by even recognizing the war. But then, um, as there was this intermingling, the straight politicos saw that the hippies, if they were at a smoke-in in the park, were, uh, committing an act of civil disobedience to protest an unjust law. And the hippies, as they learned more, uh, realized that there was a linear connection between, um, busting kids and making them go to prison in this country for smoking flowers and, um, dropping napalm on kids on the other side of the world. And what that connection was was that, uh, it was the ultimate extension of dehumanization, but there was definitely that link. And so that was, as a journalist I knew there had to be a ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘when,’ ‘where,’ and ‘why’ for the lead paragraph, and so I came up with that name for that purpose. So they would have a ‘who,’ and that’s what happened. After our first press conference one of the Chicago papers had a headline saying: “Yipes! The Yippies are coming.” So, um, now it would be called branding.
Um, humor was an integral part of the Yippies because, first of all, it feels good to laugh. It feels good to make people laugh. Uh, people don’t like to be lectured at, and so uh, if you make them laugh, that means they’ve accepted, for that moment, the truth that you’ve just told without it being forced down their throat. And, um, it was as much a part of our activities as music was. You know, it was just integral. Um, it was, uh, what Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution,” or something to that effect.
The Filmmakers: What are your recollections of the trial?
Krassner: Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed in the courtroom, um, before I testified because they have the right to exclude potential witnesses. And so the first time I was actually in court was when I testified. And I, I had brought, uh, a few tabs of LSD with me, uh, because I thought we would have a party, and I realized that things were just too tense, too intense to, uh, to have an acid party. Um, but, at the lunch table, when they were passing around a chunk of hash, I decided to take, uh, one little tablet of 300 micrograms of Owsley acid, for those who are brand-name conscious.
And so, um, Abbie said, he looked at me and said, “Is that acid?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” And Jerry Rubin said, “Oh, I think you should do it.” I think he was just advertising his book, ‘Do It,’ at every opportunity.
And, but, um, I ignored both of them and took it, and, um, when I testified … well, I was in the witness room when it began to hit me and everything was swirling around, and, uh, Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin came to bring me in the courtroom. So at that point it was Looney Tunes, and I was being brought into the courtroom by Tom and Jerry. And, uh, the furniture was kind of dancing around in nice gay pastel colors, uh, Judge Julius Hoffman looked very much like Elmer Fudd, and, um, when the bailiff, who was sort of like Goofy, um, said, (in the voice of cartoon character) “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” (In his normal voice) And um, I said, “No.” And um, everybody looked at me, you know, the jury, the spectators, the courtroom artists, and you know, like, “What’s he going to do now?” And I looked at me, “What am I going to do now?”
And it was a leap of faith, because the cell of my brain that was awake in junior high school, um, in a civics class when we learned about the Bill of Rights … and, um, I found myself saying, “I choose to affirm, as is my right under the First Amendment, um, which guarantees separation of church and state.” And so the judge, Elmer Fudd, said, (in the voice of a Elmer Fudd) “Let him affirm. Let him resort to the goddamn Constitution if that’s what he wants …,” you know, “… you pesky radicals.” So that leap of faith was justified, but I, I … the acid began to get stronger and stronger, and now I had to psych myself up to do this.
Uh, the previous night I would imagine the prosecutor saying to me: “Now, where did this meeting take place?” And I would say, uh, hoping … hoping not to be able to answer because the reason I took the acid was twofold. I, uh, I wanted to vomit in court, and I knew that eating a big meal with acid would … would do the trick. And so, um, I would say, “This meeting took place …,” and “Blaaaaa …” And, uh, you know, they would say, “Bailiff, get him out of here!” and I would get one more projectile onto the judge’s, uh, podium, “Blaa…,” and they would drag me out, and I would have made my theatrical statement about the injustice of the trial. So that was my plan. Um, but, um, there were questions crossed at me, and I was waiting, and I didn’t … I felt great, I don’t know why– maybe just saying no to swearing on the Bible, uh, was a liberating thing and took away all the tension—but, um, you know, sometimes when you want to throw up, you just can’t. That’s … that’s the breaks of the game.
So I was answering questions, okay, but then there were dates and names and places, which I hadn’t … it was like a history exam, and I didn’t want to mention them in the first place. So, um, now they said, “Where did this meeting take place on Aug 23rd?” or whatever it was. And I, uh, couldn’t think of the name ‘Chicago.’ You know, it’s simple now, and Abbie was kinda going, like, “three syllables,” you know, as if it was a game of charades. And, uh, the bailiff ran up to him and said, “No coaching from the audience.” And anyway, um, um, Bill Kunstler, uh, did a wonderful job of tolerating what I was doing there. And he would say, “He may need to refresh his memory, Your Honor.”
And, uh, anyway … uh, Abbie stopped speaking to me for almost a year because he thought I was being, um, irresponsible. And in a way I could see it from their point of view, you know. They were facing years in prison, and … but Abbie had the previous night said, “There’s nothing you can say that will help us, it can only hurt us because we’ve mentioned you at all these meetings and we just need you to verify it.” And they were different from what I had known as a participant and as a reporter, but I had to, um, commit perjury in order to, uh, verify what they had already testified and give these false dates, and so … which I thought I could avoid by vomiting, and, … uh, so let’s see, what did I leave out here?
Uh, of course I felt bad. I felt bad that it interfered with my friendship with Abbie. Um, and I felt bad that I was kind of ostracized from the others, the other defendants, and, um … but, you know, it was a lesson to have more empathy than I must have had during that trial.
Filmmakers: What was the significance of the trial at the time?
Krassner: Um, … the trial had a different significance for the prosecution, which was to have scapegoats. Originally there were something like twenty-one that were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines. I was among them, and they cut it down to eight because eight police had been, uh, subpoenaed. And so I guess that was the scales of justice trying to be balanced. But Bill Kunstler told me, he said that their records showed that I was not … that I was an un-indicted co-conspirator because to have me on trial, they were afraid that I would use the First Amendment— freedom of the press— defense, and so, um, I was off the list. And also, they, in Chicago, uh, the defendants like Jerry and Abbie and Tom Hayden, they all got arrested during the convention, and so that made it easier to somehow imply that they deserved to be arrested.
Courtesy of the filmmakers.
I mean, they arrested Abbie for having “Fuck” written on his forehead. And, uh, I was in having breakfast with him at a hotel restaurant there, and he had made the mistake of tipping his hat in the morning to the cops who were following us all the time. And, um, so that was his mistake, and so they came into the restaurant and said, “Lift up your hat.” So Abbie did, there was the word “Fuck,” and they arrested him. And Abbie was struggling, saying “No, no, it’s the duty of a revolutionist to finish breakfast.” But they took him anyway, and I had to finish his breakfast.
Filmmakers: What was the surveillance by the cops like at the time?
Krassner: Well, um, we were in Lincoln Park, this is before the convention started, and we saw, uh, people just watching us, you know, a lot of people, just out of curiosity and, uh, to see these freaks in action. And I knew there must have been plainclothes cops there too, so I said, “Let’s get in the car and see if any guys in suits get up and follow us.” And so, um, we got in this car— I think there were like five, six, seven of us—and, um, sure enough, two guys in suits got up and got in the car and it looked like they were following us. And finally, when there was no question about it— we stopped and they stopped across the street— we got out and said, “Are you guys following us?” And they said, “Yeah.” And, uh, we said, “Are you federal or painclothes?” “We’re plainclothes police from the Chicago Police Department, and you’re under surveillance for twenty-four hours.” And I said, “Wow! Three shifts just for us!” you know, and the cops said, “No, uh, we’re short on manpower, so there are two shifts, twelve hours each.” And I said, “Well, it’s nice just to be nominated.”
And so, um, then they introduced themselves, you know, we shook hands with them. We said, “This is Abbie, this is Paul, this is Jerry,” um, and, uh, we shook hands with them. They said, “Oh, I’m Herbie, this is Mack.” But then this … because this conversation had been started and it was two-way, and now they said to us, “Aren’t you guys tired? You know, aren’t you gonna have lunch? We’ve been following you for an hour now.” And so, um, we said “Okay, well, we’re new in Chicago. What’s a good restaurant?” And one cop said, “I would recommend the Pickle Barrel on North Wells Street in Old Town. They have pretty good food.” And the other cop said, “Yes, and their prices are quite reasonable.” It was like being in a commercial of the future when all of the authority figures were police, and so, you know, (in an authoritative voice) “Ask your doctor … or else!” And so, um, I said, “Well, uh, what’s the best way to get there? We’re new in town,” and the cop said, “Well, follow us.” And this was a, a rare moment, it should have been stored in amber for future generations to see, and, um, so we followed them and got to the restaurant. We sat at separate tables. I think that is what Martha Stewart says, you should sit at separate tables when you are having lunch with the police who are following you.
Filmmakers: What wisdom do you have to share with the next generation of activist dissidents, rebels, nonconformists?
Krassner: Um … whenever I think about what advice I have for, um, young rebels and iconoclasts and dissidents today, I always feel that I should ask what advice they have for me because they are living in a different era now. You know, they have the Internet, which we didn’t have, we had messy mimeograph machines. And the Internet has changed the nature of protest. Instead of getting messy mimeograph ink on you, uh, you just, um, click, send, and, uh, you don’t have to distribute a flyer from door to door or at demonstrations, um, so it’s cheaper, you reach more people, and quickly, instantly. And so, uh, you know, I have advice for anybody, like, uh, if you’re going to a restaurant and order a club sandwich, be sure to take the toothpick out before you bite into it.
And then the philosophy can come, and then, um, the action based on the philosophy. But it has to do with an awareness that when you begin to trust the government, I think it’s important to realize that the function of the government is to act as a buffer between the status quo and the force of evolution. And so, you know, you can work with them, but you have to know that they have their own agenda, which is to get reelected and to maintain power. And they will make all sorts of compromises like that. The most recent one I can think of is, the Democrats got some Republicans to vote for the children’s healthcare bill by authorizing twenty-eight million dollars for their abstinence programs. So, uh, you know, that’s the kind of compromise I’m talking about. And it’s a compromise of principle. It’s not about negotiation or diplomacy in the purest sense, it’s just, uh, mutual bribery.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.