Forty-four years ago, Abbie Hoffman and a few friends made a statement on Wall Street. His merry band of pranksters took a tour of the New York Stock Exchange on August 24, 1967. The tour ended at a gallery overlooking the actual trading floor. Hoffman and his friends rushed to the railing, and began throwing money onto the heads of the traders below. The stock ticker (at the time, the sacred heartbeat of the American financial system) was halted for six minutes, while the crowd grubbed for the money on the floor. Hoffman's group was then escorted out, where they spoke to a crowd of reporters.
Hoffman wasn't protesting any one thing in particular. His group didn't have a list of demands. It's not even correct to call his action a "protest" or "media event" -- it was more properly "street theater" or "guerrilla theater."
From Hoffman's autobiographical book Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture:
It all began with a simple telephone call to the Stock Exchange. I arranged for a tour, giving one of my favorite pseudonyms, George Metesky, the notorious mad bomber of Manhattan. Then I scraped together three hundred dollars which I changed into crispy one-dollar bills, rounded up fifteen free spirits, which in those days just took a few phone calls, and off we went to Wall Street.
Thus began what CNN Money would call (forty years later) "perhaps the most striking act of guerrilla theater in American history, certainly in the financial world." At least until now, of course.
Watching the belated news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is currently happening on the streets of New York, spurred the memory of Abbie's stunt. I have to warn you that I don't have any sweeping conclusions or parallels between the two events, rather I'd just like to provide a historical backdrop for the conversation happening around the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The day after Hoffman and his group disrupted the Stock Exchange, the New York Times soberly reported the occurrence:
Dollar bills thrown by a band of hippies fluttered down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange yesterday, disrupting the normal hectic trading pace.
Stockbrokers, clerks and runners turned and stared at the visitors' gallery. A few smiled and blew kisses, but most jeered, shouted, pointed fingers and shook their fists. Some clerks ran to pick up the bills. After a few minutes, security guards hustled the hippies out, to cheers and applause from the floor.
The news article goes on to recount the hippies' antics in front of the press, after they had been ejected from the building. Abbie Hoffman lit a five-dollar bill on fire, but "an outraged exchange runner charged into the middle of the circle shouting 'you're disgusting,' and grabbed the flaming bill and stamped on it."
Hoffman, years later, recounted his version of the event in an extensive interview:
But once we got into the gallery and we were all spread out, I passed out the money, and people had their own money they kicked in. You know, it was communal money. And at one moment, when they were all busy down there in the pit, ticker-tape going like crazy, we gave the signal, and ran to the railing. Even though there were a couple of guards positioned on the gallery, there was no way to stop eighteen of us coming from different directions, all with money, handfuls of money, going "Take the money! Here's the real shit!" throwing it over the railing, and screaming and yelling while we're doing it! So, imagine... they looked up, I mean all these brokers, and they start booing, cheering. A lot more boos than cheers. And the ticker-tape had stopped. I read that the ticker-tape had stopped six minutes. I couldn't tell that at the time, but the normal hubbub of buying and selling stopped. They didn't know what to do. Then pandemonium broke out, and they started yelling "Money, money!' And they start running, they were all over on their hands and knees, gobbling... After we threw the money, the guards were stunned. They didn't know what to do, we had them outnumbered. They had to send for reinforcements. The guards were saying things like, "You can't do that, you're not allowed to do that. That's illegal, we're going to get the police." "What do you mean? People throw away money all the time here! This is the way you do it, isn't it?'"
In Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, Abbie elaborates on the basic story: "A tourist from Missouri was interviewed who said he had joined in the money-throwing because he'd been throwing away all his money all over New York for several days anyway and our way was quicker and more fun." There are similar reports from the Occupy Wall Street site that many tourists have been stopping by and taking photos -- that they've become another "stop" on the New York tour, in other words. Again, I don't have any point to make or brilliant conclusion to any of this, I just find it interesting, that's all.
For two years now, the tactic of drawing attention to your cause by dressing up and holding public demonstrations has been almost solely the purview of the Tea Party. While I fully support anyone's right to put on such protests, rallies, and marches, it has been a little odd that all the energy has come from one side of the political spectrum. Seeing the true anti-Wall Street populism emerging now may change this equation somewhat. Or maybe it won't. It's still too early to tell, really.
Which is why I decided to provide this historical interlude. The hippies didn't really change much of anything on Wall Street, or in capitalism in general. They had their fun, and moved on to protest more important things. But there was one tangible change, which makes a good end to this story as well (again, from Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture), as Hoffman reflects on what it all meant:
Guerrilla theater is probably the oldest form of political commentary. The ideas just keep getting recycled. Showering money on the Wall Street brokers was the TV-age version of driving the money changers from the temple. The symbols, the spirit, and the lesson were identical. Was it a real threat to the Empire? Two weeks after our band of mind-terrorists raided the stock exchange, twenty thousand dollars was spent to enclose the gallery with bullet-proof glass. Someone out there had read the ticker tape.
Follow Chris Weigant on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisWeigant