How the New York Stock Exchange Gave Abbie Hoffman His Start in Guerrilla Theater
Abbie Hoffman was just a protester with something to prove the morning of August 24, 1967. But by the time he’d finished his stunt in the New York Stock Exchange, he and his collaborators were well on their way to becoming media celebrities. They were mocked and admired for the trick they’d played on Wall Street, showering the traders with dollar bills—and it cemented Hoffman’s reputation for a new form of political agitation: guerrilla theater, a form of protest that harnessed absurdity and humor to make a point.
Before coming to New York, Hoffman was a psychologist and a participant in community theater. His involvement with social activism increased with his move to New York City, where he worked at Liberty House (a store that sold products made by black women in Mississippi, who couldn’t find a market in their hometowns) and became immersed in—but also remained critical of—hippie culture. It was the era of LSD, antiwar demonstrations, Civil Rights activism and Central Park “be-ins” (gatherings meant to create solidarity and openness between people).
Like the New York “be-in,” the inspiration for Hoffman’s earliest protest came from San Francisco. A community-action theater group called the Diggers believed everything should be free, giving clothing and food to homeless people and hippies on the streets of San Francisco as well as throwing free concerts with musicians like Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane. From them, Hoffman learned the value of spectacle in conveying a specific message. As Hoffman later said, “If you don’t like the news, why not go out and make your own?” The NYSE seemed like the perfect stage for his commentary on greed.
Hoffman wasn’t the first to target the financial industry; two years earlier, activists from the Students for a Democratic Society organized a sit-in at Chase Manhattan Bank. They wanted to force the bank to divest its holdings in South Africa, where apartheid was still in place. Hoffman’s group had a broader message in mind—they wanted to target capitalism in general.
Working with gay-rights activist Jim Fouratt, Hoffman assembled a group of protesters to meet outside the NYSE for a tour of the building. Among those invited were Marty Jezer (editor of WIN magazine, a publication of the War Resisters League), Korean War veteran Keith Lampe and Berkeley peace activists Jerry Rubin and Stewart Albert.
“I saw Abbie’s idea as simply a funny Marxist zap to expose the greed of capitalism,” Marty Jezer wrote years later in Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel. “Because I associated Marxism with conspiratorial politics and assumed we would have to look respectable to get into the stock exchange, I got a haircut and put on a suit and tie.”
But Jezer’s straight-laced appearance was at odds with Hoffman, Fouratt and the others, who had donned their most ostentatious hippie outfits. At first, Jezer was sure they would be rejected by the security guard. Sure enough, the guard told them the stock exchange didn’t allow demonstrations. But Hoffman’s response was to claim they were Jewish, not demonstrators, and the guard, uncomfortable by the prospect of being deemed anti-Semitic, let the group pass—and Jezer realized the costumes were just another piece of the theatrical nature of their protest.
“It became obvious that the contrast between the creatively dressed hippies and the well-tailored Wall Street stockbrokers was an essential message of the demonstration,” Jezer wrote.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. “Descriptions of the event differ, and to this day it’s uncertain exactly how much money was dropped and precisely how many people took part in the event,” writes Jonah Raskin in For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. Since the media weren’t allowed inside the stock exchange, they were forced to wait until the protesters returned from their foray into the belly of the beast.
Before entering the stock exchange gallery, Hoffman had passed out handfuls of dollar bills to each of the protesters. Once in the gallery above the trading floor, the protesters threw the dollars over to the stock traders. Participant Bruce Dancis recalled, “At first people on the floor were stunned. They didn’t know what was happening. They looked up and when they saw money was being thrown they started to cheer, and there was a big scramble for the dollars.”
The protesters exited the Stock Exchange and were immediately beset by reporters, who wanted to know who they were and what they’d done. Hoffman supplied nonsense answers, calling himself Cardinal Spellman and claiming his group didn’t exist. He then burned a five-dollar bill, solidifying the point of the message. As Bruce Eric France writes, “Abbie believed it was more important to burn money [than] draft cards… To burn a draft card meant one refused to participate in the war. To burn money meant one refused to participate in society.”
For Hoffman himself, the success of the stunt was obvious. “Guerrilla theater is probably the oldest form of political commentary,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Showering money on the Wall Street brokers was the TV-age version of driving the money changes from the temple… Was it a real threat to the Empire? Two weeks after our band of mind-terrorists raided the stock exchange, 20,000 dollars was spent to enclose the gallery with bullet-proof glass.”
Because no one but the participants and the bemused stockbrokers had witnessed the incident, and Hoffman refused to supply journalists with real answers, the story was reported differently from one outlet to the next. Some claimed Hoffman used fake money for the demonstration; others said it was real, and worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. Later, the protesters themselves claimed trading stopped for six minutes, costing millions in lost trading, writes Kembrew McLeod in Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World. But the confusion only added to the mystique around Hoffman and his group. As Raskin writes, “The stock exchange incident made New York and the whole nation sit up and take notice of Abbie Hoffman.”
From New York, Hoffman crisscrossed the country for more stunts. He assembled a group of warlocks and witches to levitate the Pentagon in the fall of 1967 as part of a Vietnam War; formed an amorphous group called the Yippies (a play on “hippies” that stood for Youth International Party); and disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago by proposing an actual pig (named Pigasus) as a candidate for president. Even when riots erupted at the convention and Hoffman found himself charged with conspiracy to incite riots, he still couldn’t take the judicial process seriously. He came to court dressed as a judge, then as a cop, earning himself eight months in jail for contempt of court.
Hoffman’s response? “When decorum is [political] repression, the only dignity that free men have is to speak out.”
With his willingness to get in trouble, to push the boundaries of social acceptability, and to make a fool of himself, Hoffman left his mark on the riotous 60s. As Hoffman’s lawyer William Kunstler said, “He taught people how to bring theater into political demonstrations. No one else but Abbie has ever been able to create political protests by creating laughter.”
For Hoffman, the goal was to get people engaged and thinking about the society they lived in. “In organizing a movement around art we not only allowed people to participate without a sense of guilt but also with a sense of enjoyment. The use of fun in struggle was a new notion,” he wrote. “There’s no incongruity in conducting serious business and having fun.”