Remembering Jerry Rubin

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Robert Fitch

WHEN JERRY RUBIN died in December at 56, after being hit by a car crossing Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, the obituaries were mostly on the obituary page. Rubin hadn’t been a front-page figure for some time.

Nearly thirty years had passed since he led Vietnam Day Committee activists in stopping troop trains bound for the Oakland Army Terminal — a series of demonstrations that shook Pentagon planners and inspired antiwar protests around the world.

It had been almost that long since those protests earned him a subpoena to appear before one of the most powerful witch-hunting institutions in America — the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC.

The whole premise of HUAC still depended on witnesses’ fear of being identified as Communists. Jerry dressed up for his committee appearance as an 18th-century American revolutionary, proudly claiming to be a descendant of Jefferson and Paine. “Nothing is more American than revolution,” Jerry insisted. He used his time before the committee to expose the segregationist past of key committee members and their ties to Pentagon contractors.

Rubin continued to make protest his vocation, organizing more protests, guerilla theater, media events that dramatized the illegitimacy of the powerful. In 1968 he threw all his formidable energies and media savvy organizing techniques into the Chicago demonstrations.

The Democrats sought to carry out a smooth leadership transition from the discredited Lyndon Johnson to Hubert Humphrey, the prowar progressive. Humphrey would be anointed in the standard party ceremony while villages continued to be napalmed. But when Mayor Daley’s police gassed and beat demonstrators bloody on national TV, the war re-emerged as the supervening reality facing the nation.

Many of Rubin’s critics in the movement attacked the theatrical character of his war resistance. The Youth International Party (Yippies) existed mainly in press releases drafted by Rubin and his co-founder Abby Hoffman. And while Rubin moved from protest to protest, wherever the media eye could be focused, no long-term constituencies for change built up as a residue.

The ebbing of the `60s movement left Jerry without a vocation. He moved on, like so many others; but instead of going back to school (he had been considered perhaps the most brilliant graduate student in the Berkeley Sociology Department), or finding a staff job in a union or community-based nonprofit, Rubin announced he was a Yuppie.

He would follow the Zeitgeist from professional demonstrator to Wall Street professional. And for a while, before he got fired, Rubin actually worked for John Muir and Co. on Wall Street.

He wrote several books that didn’t sell. He got some notoriety as a promoter of co-ed networking at the 14th Street Palladium in New York City. But when he died he was working as a vitamin salesman and having trouble with the FDA. With typical media flair he insisted he was making $60,000 a month.

His progression from anti-imperialist to health food salesman made it possible for a lot of people to feel smug. In a way, you could argue, he was like Woody Allen’s Zelig, with no core beliefs, filling the content of his character with whatever seemed fashionable. Having become famous beyond the expectations of a Cincinnati bread truck driver’s son, he refused to return to Cincinnati.

But the Jerry Rubin I knew was among the most thoughtful and self-reflective of activists. He studied philosophy with the Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufman. He idolized C. Wright Mills, Che Guevara and Bertrand Russell.

His very real anti-intellectualism grew out of an analysis that can’t be laughed off. Jerry felt that the 1930s generation of Stalinist radicals had made a mess; and that given the America we inherited, the creation of a European-style left complete with socialist parties and powerful labor federations was probably beyond the strength of middle class radicals.

But the sixties generation of radicals, he argued, had immediate tasks: We would be guilty of a monumental failure of nerve if we failed to stop the Vietnam War. He gave up a promising academic career to devote his full time to stopping that war.

He showed, in addition to the courage of his convictions, unusual physical courage. I never saw him give ground, at 5’5’ and 135 pounds, much less run away, when the police charged a demonstration he’d organized.

Jerry’s weaknesses were those of our generation of radicals. His virtues were uniquely his own.

The strength of the anti-war movement of which Rubin was a part seems, today, to have been foreordained. Yet it might never have achieved what it did without Rubin’s flair. There are monuments everywhere to those who fought in the Vietnam War, but there would be many more names on those monuments without Jerry Rubin. He deserves to be remembered and honored by those who shared his commitments.

ATC 55, March-April 1995