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The Trial of Abbie Hoffman's Shirt

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In 1776, American hero Nathan Hale, before being executed by the British, said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

On a recent Sunday, as if to honor that statement, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists from across the United States converged on Washington for the annual Rollling Thunder memorial ride to honor America’s war veterans. Gathered at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlilngton National Cemetery, the bikers were wearing vests, black T-shirts and leather jackets with Vietnam pins.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Richard Myers, joined the parade, which rumbled toward the national mall for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam War Memorial. He was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the American flag.

Ah, if only Abbie Hoffman could have witnessed that.

In October 1968, he was arrested in Washington for wearing a shirt that resembled the design of an American flag. Authorities at the maximum security penitentiary did their worst to harass and humiliate him. They gave him a preventive de-lousing. They took a blood sample against his will, without affording him the sterile courtesy of a disposable syringe.

Two months later, Abbie was hospitalized in New York City for serum hepatitis. The recuperative process didn’t prevent him from helping doctors to organize themselves against some of the oppressive tactics of the medical profession.

When the flag-shirt case came to court, defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt asked, “Is wearing a shirt dishonoring the flag? Does Uncle Sam, when he marches in the parade on July 4th, dishonor?”

Prosecutor Benton Becker argued, “Uncle Sam himself is a national symbol, just as the the flag is a national symbol, and one national symbol, recognized as such, cannot deface and defile and cast contempt upon another national symbol....the Government has a legitimate interest in maiantaining the sanctity of its symbols.”

Hoffman testified, “I was playing with a Yo-Yo, and I had on a shirt that resembled the American flag. I wore the shirt because I was going before the un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives, and I don’t particularly consider that committee American, and I don’t consider that House of Representatives particularly representative. And I wore the shirt to show that we were in the tradition of the founding fathers of this country.”

“And were you subsequently arrested?”

“Well, the police approached me, and proceeded to rip the shirt. There was a struggle. I was trying to get the Yo-Yo off my finger. They got the Yo-Yo, see, and it was pulling my finger. It hurt. My wife saw that I was struggling and tried to come to my aid a little, and then a whole fracas broke out, in which the police ripped the shirt off my back.”

On his back, incidentally, was a painted Viet Cong flag.

When the judge declared him guilty, Abbie uttered the immortal words, “I only regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.”