Who else but Jerry Rubin would tell a large crowd of college kids that their failure to get thrown out of school was evidence of their failure to truly learn?
That delightfully wild slice of advice was one of many similar zingers that the infamously flamboyant antiwar agitator, Youth International Party co-founder and, at the time, member of the “Chicago Seven” would offer up in Seattle on the date in focus here. On that Saturday, in the early afternoon, Rubin (1938-1994) addressed an overflow crowd of 4,000 in the University of Washington’s Husky Union Building (HUB), where he pontificated on the “Chicago Seven” trial, among other then-controversial subjects.
The “Chicago Seven” were, of course, a group of antiwar activists then on trial in federal court in Chicago for interstate conspiracy to incite a riot in that city during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Along with Rubin, the other defendants in the highly publicized trial were Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, John Froines, Rennie Davis, and Lee Weiner.
Rubin first gained nationwide fame sufficient enough to attract such a crowd to the HUB when, as a younger and more austere antiwar activist at the University of California at Berkeley in May 1965, he organized the Vietnam Day Committee (VCD), an ad-hoc coalition which then held a reportedly massive antiwar teach-in attended by an estimated 30,000 people. The VCD teach-in was one of the first major public expressions of protest against the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, then rapidly being escalated. In January 1968, after his antiwar tactics had grown more strategically absurdist, Rubin (along with Hoffman and others) co-founded the “Yippies,” a group of intentionally irreverent ideological pranksters, later self-designated with mock pomposity as the Youth International Party.
Rubin was invited to speak at the UW by Michael Lerner, then a 27-year-old visiting UW philosophy professor and a former VCD comrade of Rubin’s at Berkeley. Lerner was then trying to organize a new antiwar group at the UW to fill the void left there by the nationwide implosion of Students for a Democratic Society (including the UW chapter) the previous summer; Lerner reportedly hoped that Rubin’s appearance in Seattle would be a sufficient catalyst for such a group.
It should be noted here that, as the Chicago Seven trial unfolded, many among the American antiwar movement had begun to view Rubin as a liability to the cause, viewing his increasingly reckless and (truth be told) profoundly inarticulate anti-authoritarianism as counterproductive to more serious and studied arguments against the Vietnam War and the military-industrial complex in general. No one at the time seemed to deny, however, that Rubin, for all his apparent self-infatuation, was an unusually magnetic public speaker, as amply evidenced by his HUB speech, in which he proved, by turns, equally flippant, poignant, and provocative.
For example, the flippant Jerry Rubin, on the proceedings in Chicago: “The court is like a classroom. We’re there to see if we’re bad or good. At the end of the trial we’ll get a grade.”
The poignant Jerry Rubin, on the prosecution’s deeper motivations: “The Establishment is afraid of youth. But the only weapon they have against us is punishment. The court system is a messenger for the political system, and people are beginning to see that the political system in America is a farce.”
And the provocative (and previously paraphrased) Rubin, urging the students in the audience away from superficially “liberal” passivity and towards genuinely radical activism: “If you’re still in college today, you haven’t done enough. Because if you had, you’d have been thrown out by now.”
After Rubin returned to Chicago to resume his role in the conspiracy trial, Lerner’s gambit soon worked: two days after Rubin’s HUB appearance, Lerner hosted the first formal organizing meeting for the “Seattle Liberation Front,” a group whose own local Yippie-like antics would soon, for better or worse, guarantee Seattle its own aggressively radical and courthouse-bound “Seven.”
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Conspiracy Seven’s Rubin Speaks Here Tomorrow,” University of Washington Daily, January 16, 1970, p. 1; “Rubin Plays Youth Or . . . Consequences,” Richard Simmons, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1970, p. 11; “‘Future on Trial,’” Bruce Olson, University of Washington Daily, January 20, 1970, p. 3; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).