Today is the 45th anniversary of the exorcism and levitation of the Pentagon. It’s an anniversary worth mentioning for the sheer joy and uniqueness of the event itself, and also for its historic and seminal merging of a creative “happening” with political intent, the engagement of ritual towards political ends and the blatant usurpation of corporate media techniques in service of a movement. The action’s absurdism extended even to the process of securing a permit beforehand; the authorities finally agreed to allow the Pentagon to be elevated three feet in the air, down from the 300 feet that organizers had initially requested — but three feet is not nothing when you’re talking about the largest office building in the world!
It was 1967, and sentiment against the Vietnam War was in the air nationwide. The counterculture was flourishing on the heels of the Summer of Love. Organizers from Mobe — the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam — initially called for a massive march on Washington. When activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman got involved, a plan was hatched to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon (which would, of course, have the secondary effect of ending the war). When the day came, about 100,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as part of what seemed like a typical Washington, D.C., rally. After the speeches from David Dellinger and Benjamin Spock, and after the Peter, Paul and Mary performance wrapped up, about half the crowd marched over the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon.
This is when things got interesting. Several hundred people — led by Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, the Fugs and others — started chanting and singing, since, as Time magazine dutifully explained:
[B]y chanting ancient Aramaic exorcism rites while standing in a circle around the building, they could get it to rise into the air, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled. The war would end forthwith.
Beforehand, research had been conducted on the proper components of an exorcism ceremony, including purification, calling upon the elements, surrounding the Pentagon with cornmeal, singing and shreiking. Fugs band member Ed Sanders crafted the following exorgasm text:
In the name of the amulets of touching, seeing, groping, hearing and loving, we call upon the powers of the cosmos to protect our ceremonies in the name of Zeus, in the name of Anubis, god of the dead, in the name of all those killed because they do not comprehend, in the name of the lives of the soldiers in Vietnam who were killed because of a bad karma, in the name of sea-born Aphrodite, in the name of Magna Mater, in the name of Dionysus, Zagreus, Jesus, Yahweh, the unnamable, the quintessent finality of the Zoroastrian fire, in the name of Hermes, in the name of the Beak of Sok, in the name of scarab, in the name, in the name, in the name of the Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky, in the name of Rah, Osiris, Horus, Nepta, Isis, in the name of the flowing living universe, in the name of the mouth of the river, we call upon the spirit to raise the Pentagon from its destiny and preserve it.
Meanwhile, on another side of the building, several thousand federal troops — soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division — and a couple hundred U.S. marshals tried to protect the Pentagon steps using tear gas, rifle butts and arrests to stay on top of the chaos. Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “nonfiction novel” The Armies of the Night recounts the scene there, including the author’s arrest and subsequent overnight imprisonment while hoping to make it back to New York in time for a cocktail party.
No one claims that the Pentagon actually moved. Maybe there was a mistake in the incantation. But this fabulous spectacle, an absurdist response to the absurdist reality of war in Vietnam, served as a predecessor to many creative actions over the past 45 years. The Yippies (as they were later named) who dreamed up and executed this ritual set the path for the Women’s Art Movement (WAM) of the 1970s and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) of the 1980s and ’90s. The levitation was a precursor for effective, in-your-face public spectacles like WAM’s 1972 projections of women’s artworks onto the walls of the museums they were denied entry into and ACT UP’s “Kissing Kills” ad campaign.
The Yippies themselves didn’t simply materialize out of a cloud of pot smoke or a particularly good LSD trip, though some might have you believe that. They stood on the shoulders of the 1950s Beats, who in turn walked in the footsteps of the 1940s Dadaists, as well as the Diggers’ “Free Frame of Reference” theater work. The Diggers were experts in “creating the condition you describe” to manipulate the media’s reporting — a lesson Abbie Hoffman took to heart.
What is perhaps the Yippies’ most well known event — the throwing of real dollar bills into the the Stock Market and inciting mad money-grabbing antics — is also a powerful example of pointing out the insanity inherent in given practices on their home turf. Michael Simmons recalled in 2004:
[O]n August 24, 1967 … a group of hippies entered the Visitors’ Gallery at the New York Stock Exchange and showered the stockbrokers below with hundreds of dollar bills. The Greedheads went Grabby Ga-Ga for the Green and trading screeched to a stop. The media lapped up the story and America got its first taste of The Politics of Ecstasy. Among the psychedelic cash clowns were Abbie, Jerry, Fouratt, Albert and Lampe. Albert was “joyous.” He’d found “a new way to demonstrate, a theatrical turn of politics that invaded sacrosanct places and turned them into a stage set full of props for our use.” These long-haired, cannabinoided shit stirrers saw no contradick twixt Consciousness and Conscience. Same lobe, bay-bee.
Abbie Hoffman was an astute observer of the media, which helped him create events that the media would love. There had to be conflict, chaos and challenges to the status quo, and there had to be music, costumes and other trappings of the counterculture to stand in contrast with everything else. The exorcism and levitation of the Pentagon was a direct reaction to the manipulation of the news about the Vietnam War, which seemed like so much smoke and mirrors to those opposed to the war. Fighting such absurdity with anything short of the same seemed counterproductive and insignificant, because the mass media was so good at its war-mongering job.
The levitation of the Pentagon and the stock market money toss were part of Yippie events that pioneered the art of guerrilla or earned media. Another compelling action was the Soot-In — anything followed by “-in” was all the rage at this point — in New York City, also in 1967. Consolidated Edison’s building became overtaken with soot bombs, smudge pots and black crepe paper, along with a banner that read, “Breathing Is Bad for Your Health,” calling out the coal-burning energy company. It was a harbinger of environmental protests to come.
Hoffman wrote in “Museum of the Streets,” a chapter of his autobiography:
No need to build a stage, it was all around us. Props would be simple and obvious. We would hurl ourselves across the canvas of society like streaks of splattered paint. Highly visual images would become news, and rumor-mongers would rush to spread the excited word. … For us, protest as theater came natural. We were already in costume. … Once we acknowledged the universe as theater and accepted the war of symbols, the rest was easy. All it took was a little elbow grease, a little hustle.
Whether the issue was greed, idolatry of money, toxic soot, or the cult of the military industrial complex, these actions made the invisible visible. Yippie!
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Something like the Yes Men on Acid.
A confidence in their social vision, and the sea they swam in, that allowed them to manipulate the media more than any political groups of the time.
What if Occupy converted their camp-outs into theatre? Stop trying to occupy the unoccupiable and seize the imagination!
We need more examples of “what could be” than we need more camping space.
One could argue that OCCUPY was ( is) theater… just as all political actions could be considered art/theater. And the flip side– all theater is political ! Perhaps OCCUPY was as successful as it was because it did capture the imagination of the masses, and hopes, dreams and fears of action and inaction across generations… Especially when you consider the measure of popular dialogue, it certainly changed the discussion across the board to the economic realities and struggles currently, and pointed out causes that had not been out in public. The living , breathing encampments were, in many cases, rehearsals for another way of living together, based on alternative systems of relationships in comparison to the current societies where they were based. But the camps came with a huge cost– maintenance and community building,particularly, that is very difficult to hold on to in the long haul especially under duress of many kinds ( internal issues and external threats.) So I do support the call for more imagination, continued imagination, of other ways of building the future we’d like to be part of!
When I attended my first GA in Montreal, I cried. I had that intense feeling of community and creativity that I remember clearly from the 60s.
I completely agree with what you’ve said, but I think they did it by accident. And from my discussions with Occupiers in Toronto, they still don’t understand what they did nor how to convert it to a vision of the future — or use it to overthrow a system they so eloquently described.
But it’s not over yet.
I definitely think Nadine is right there. The centrality of art in Occupy is/was tremendous. In fact, many have argued that artistic features of the movement were too much emphasized — resulting in its capacity to create a rupture in the public consciousness but not really to fill that rupture with organizing and concerted action.
Raging Grannies are a twenty-five year old international phenomenon–not organized, but we do have UNConventions. There are Gaggles in the cities across Canada and the U.S. More in Greece, Japan and Jerusalem and more each week! See us on You-Tube and we are always looking for more outrageous ideas to make a political point. Thanks for reminding us of some of the things we or our contemporaries did in the 70’s. Maybe we’ll re-cycle them!!!
Thanks, Nadine. Perhaps the 1967 ritual at the Pentagon actually worked, but in ways that were not immediately obvious. A few years ago I read that the Pentagon—as you point out, the largest office building in the world—is actually sinking. My guess is that Abbie Hoffman’s action loosened up the foundation and is responsible for its gradual descent.
But this action probably worked in other ways, too. Tom Wells, in his magisterial study of the anti-Vietnam War movement entitled “The War Within,” highlights how then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was in his office that day and watched the entire proceedings. He is quoted in the book as saying that if he had been in charge of the civil disobedience it would have been much more strategic and effective; I recall him saying that it would could have ended the war! McNamara, of course, came out years later in opposition to the war he prosecuted.
Seems that the exorcism worked.
Ken, I *love* this comment! Furthermore, I would have to agree that we are not always able to accurately determine what ‘winning’ is, either because of our short-sightedness, our physical limitations to sight/sound, or limited comprehension.. The Vietnam war did end, and not too long after the Levitation– I’m happy to go with your theory.
8 years after.
In October 1967, there wasn’t a “typical Washington, DC demonstration”. At the time, the size itself was mind-boggling. By the time of Nixon’s 2nd inauguration, people were used to large DC demos, but not in late 1967.
Big Brother’s spying under Obummer and Clinton is 1 million times worse than Nixon ever was. Wake up people! they are the 1% and you are the useful idiots who keep them in power. Hail the King and Queen!
Hoffman and Rubin didn’t conceive the event Ed Sanders did