Abbie, we hardly knew you.

Abbie, we hardly knew you.

 

That the film Born on the Fourth of July by Oliver Stone (1989) and an article about resuscitating President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy from the ashes of the Vietnam War (“Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy,” The New York Times, February 15, 2014) were seen and published a day apart is perhaps serendipitous?

 

What may strike the movie viewer and reader are how powerful the images and reality of that war still are so many, many years later and the hold it has on those who lived through those times. The Times article deals with LBJ’s civil right legacy and how a small group of family and friends is attempting to rehabilitate Johnson’s legacy on civil rights and the programs of the Great Society in the shadow of his disastrous policy toward Vietnam. Incredulously, the late president’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, states in the article: “Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson.” Perhaps Ms. Johnson had the wrong war in mind when she uttered those words for the article, because that’s not what history tells us! Johnson orchestrated the most vicious war imaginable by the most powerful military force in history and left millions dead in Southeast Asia and nearly 60,000 dead American troops (when Richard’s Nixon’s final toll in that war is counted). Even the environmental destruction continues to this day in Vietnam from Agent Orange and among veterans and their families! Many war resisters still remain abroad,  while many like me had their lives transformed forever!

 

But this piece does not seek to rehash the arguments of old about the Vietnam War, but rather, pay tribute to an antiwar activist who had a cameo role as a strike organizer and speaker in the film’s depiction of a student strike, part of a national campus strike, at Syracuse University, held in the wake of the Kent State and Jackson State murders of unarmed students. Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran, is the subject of Stone’s movie and was also at the rally along with Abbie.

 

April 12 will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Abbie Hoffman, whose persona and activism were the hallmarks of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Hoffman was perhaps best known for his activism at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. His resulting trial as part of the Chicago 8 was legendary among activists. Abbie’s chutzpah was such that he could castigate the judge, Judge Hoffman (no relation), in both English and Yiddish at the trial and ultimately get away with it!

 

Jonah Raskin’s biography of Abbie, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (1996) is the seminal work on Abbie’s life. The work is an honest depiction of the great successes Abbie had as a longtime activist, his vibrant personality that could be described as a joining of the personalities of Grocho Marx, Karl Marx, and Che Guevara (my assessment based on Abbie’s writing), and the deep personal and emotional conflicts that dogged Abbie and those who loved him until the untimely end of his life. Abbie’s own writings need to be read with a caution: Books such as his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture (1980), tend to have a measure of hyperbole built into the writing, but nevertheless, are fountains of information of some of Abbie’s humor, his views on activism and revolution, and the sagacity of the way he met the challenges of his time head on.

 

Abbie accomplished much in bringing change to the world and ending a war despite a battle with manic-depression that fueled the great heights of his achievements and brought him to the pit of despair. But, he kept going on long past the time when the activism of the Vietnam War era had long since ended.

 

One of Abbie’s greatest speeches was given near the end his life to students at Vanderbilt University. While encouraging another generation of activists, he admitted that the halcyon days of rebellion of the 1960s and early 1970s would “never happen again.” However, Abbie was astute enough to know that every generation needed to find its own voice of protest.

 

I knew Abbie in only the most superficial of ways. His lawyer and my lawyer both practiced at the Law Commune on Broadway in the East Village of New York City. We’d say hello to each other as he would be walking out of the law office while I waited for my appointment. But, even at that superficial level it was extremely gratifying to engage someone who fought the good fight and never turned away from the movement he so typified.

 

At Abbie’s memorial service in Worcester, Massachusetts, his hometown, I passed by his fellow activist, Jerry Rubin, as Rubin gave an interview to the national media about Abbie. Despite Rubin’s turning away from activism after the Vietnam War, he expressed what many of us at the memorial were thinking about Abbie: “A great soul is gone.”

 

That twenty-five years have passed since Abbie’s death seems unimaginable. His voice was sorely missed at all of the antiwar demonstrations protesting wars that have been fought since his death, as was his knowledge and organizing skills that he could have brought to the environmental movement struggling to save our planet. His ability to use the media to promote an activist agenda was also legendary! I can imagine Abbie as an elder spokesperson on the Left at the Occupy Wall Street encampment  near where he made history throwing money onto the floor of the Stock Exchange in August 1967. Abbie was also generous to a fault, giving away money to people and worthy causes. So Yippie (Youth International Party-of which Abbie was a founder), Abbie, you were a great soul in the universe and we hardly had time to know you…

 

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

The Rhode Island Raid on Pensions… Will It Continue?

Will the raid of retired teachers, state, and municipal workers’ pensions continue in Rhode Island?

Like lightning strikes, robberies usually don’t happen twice in the same spot and to the same people. But Rhode Island is different in respect to robbery. In the Fall 2013 issue ofCompass, the newsletter of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, the general treasurer of Rhode Island, Wall Street-friendly Gina Raimondo, recounts the action she, the governor of Rhode Island, and its General Assembly took to stop the payment of the cost of living adjustment  (C.O.L.A.) to thousands of retired Rhode Island teachers and state workers in 2011. She makes a point in the newsletter of emphasizing that the pension system in R.I. still pays out more than it receives in revenues each year. Later in the newsletter, she states that “In order to have the money needed to pay pensions the system needs to earn an investment rate of 7.5 percent after all fees are paid. By fees, I understand her writing to mean costs associated with the pension fund such as payments to investment advisors, etc. Also noted in the newsletter is the last fiscal year’s rate of return of 11.1 percent on the fund’s investments, and a 10.43 percent return on investments over the past three years after fees were paid. The message to pensioners here is clear and echoes in George Harrison’sTaxman: “Be thankful I don’t take it all.” In other words, pensioners just might be “hit” with another reduction in pension payments if investments don’t work out as planned.

What’s not stated in the newsletter is that Raimondo has orchestrated the transfer of frozen pension fund C.O.L.A.s. payments to the fees charged by hedge funds in which the state is investing pension money. In other words, state officials in R.I. are taking roughly what they have “saved” by looting the pension funds of teachers and state workers and sending them to what Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone identifies as “billionaire hedge funders” (Democracy Now, “Matt Taibbi on How Wall Street Hedge Funds Are Looting the Pension Funds of Public Workers,” September 26, 2013).

In the same Democracy Now report, Matt Taibbi identifies a former Enron commodity trader, John Arnold, who under the guise of pension reform, donated lots of money to an organization called Engage Rhode Island, to help promote “pension reform policies… in that state.” And what happened to the money “saved” by the pillage of C.O.L.A. funds in R.I.? Well, some of those funds went directly to “Wall Street-managed funds.”

Readers do not need Ph.D.s in economics or an M.B.A. from Harvard to figure out what’s going on here. And since my wife and I have teacher pensions from R.I., we know all too well how this Robin Hood system in reverse is affecting the way we live and the way we plan to live in the future!

And of course we are not alone, as pensions from Central Falls, R.I. were slashed for city workers a few years ago. And, the case of Detroit pension cuts were a low-water mark of the pension slash and burn tactics going on all across the U.S. as the effects of the Great Recession hit towns, cities, and states all across this nation! These hits were placed squarely on the shoulders of those who could least afford them, the retirees!

The remarkable part of all of this is that average folks are literally being made to pay for the poor investment decisions of government officials and financial markets of the past, an economic system nearly devoid of regulatory mechanisms at all levels, and the red ink these policies create that are almost immediately foisted on the backs of working people. And these slash and burn pension policies seem to hit a chord with many throughout the country as people reel from the effects of flat wages, a poor job market, monumental personal debt, and the loss of trillions of dollars in housing values because of the decisions of the wolves who now are taking pension fund money, all the while licking their lips and whispering “trust” us, we know what’s best!

I interviewed Michael Downey, President of Rhode Island Council 94-American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, for this article. He discussed the Compassnewsletter article I cite above and stated that he believed its contents constituted a “political” point of view as opposed to providing information on Rhode Island pensions to Compass’ readers.  He noted that the point of view of the state treasurer, when political, ought not be funded by taxpayer money in this publication.

Speaking about the transfer of funds from the C.O.L.A. to Wall Street hedge fund managers, Downey remarked that he believed it was a “license to steal.” He elaborated that while the state brags that over $200 million have been saved by the pension overhaul, between $70 million and $100 million have gone to Wall Street. The A.F.S.C.M.E. hired a financial analyst to parse what has happened since the pension overhaul, and the results of that analysis determined that the payout to Wall Street was close to the amount cited above, or in other words equal to the money that has been taken away from those promised that money when they retired. Downey believes that the general treasurer “brags about how much money she saved cities and towns,” through pension “reform,” but much of that money has gone to the hedge fund managers. He imagines that a stereotypical Wall Street tycoon is now able to buy a new jet from the fees that have been paid from the end of the cost of living adjustment of Rhode Island pensions.

Downey feels that the state has harmed thousands of pensioners who not only contributed to their pensions, but were also taxpayers during their entire working lives and beyond. He views the pension system in Rhode Island as having always been run by politicians and the victim of political winds and ineptitude since its inception. He sees this latest attack against pensions in Rhode Island as being a completely opaque process when the scrutiny of pension investments needs to be both transparent and public.

Downey briefly addressed the issue of the pension fund crisis in Central Falls, Rhode Island. In that city, firefighters, police, and other municipal workers suffered a 25 percent across the board reduction in pension benefits when their private pension plan could not maintain its promised pension payments to retirees.

Downey noted that the issue of the C.O.L.A. in Rhode Island’s Employees’ Retirement System is an ongoing case in the court system of Rhode Island. Another source in Rhode Island, who requested to remain anonymous, said that a settlement on the dispute over the C.O.L.A. between the state and retirees is near.

However that case is resolved, the fact remains that retirees in Rhode Island have had their promised pensions partly looted by the same forces that caused the Great Recession, foisted trillions of dollars of lost value on the backs of U.S. homeowners, and continue to resist regulatory oversight of their actions. It is an example of how those who are least able to fight back and resist cuts to their income are drawn into the race to the economic bottom and made to pay for the increasing wealth disparity in the U.S. today!

Raimondo’s raid on pensions can be seen as part of the larger attack against unions, teachers, and workers’ rights in general. These attacks reflect the political meanness afoot in this nation today. Meanwhile, the general treasurer of Rhode Island is running for governor of that state as a progressive.

The author Lillian Hellman wrote of the meanness of the far right during the McCarthy era in her memoir Scoundrel Time, which recounts the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s. Today the scoundrels wear business apparel, hold high political office, and have close ties to Wall Street!