Our covid days have pushed the limits of what we’ll watch on Netflix. Maybe you caught the series on the Chicago conspiracy trial of 1969, starring Yippie defendant Abbie Hoffman? This story is about my conspiracy with Abbie:
One sunny afternoon in the Go-Set building in Drummond Street, a cop wearing jeans and a black leather jacket walks in and pulls a chair up across the desk from me.
‘G’day Phillip,’ he says, ‘I’m Detective Sgt. Jeff Coote, and I’ve been told to talk to you about an article you printed in Go-Set dated February 13, 1971.’ He produces a page from the pop music paper I edit, and reads: ‘Here are suggestions from Abbie Hoffman on how to live on nothing.’
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘and…?’
‘Well, you see mate,’ says DS Jeff, scratching his slightly roguish beard, ‘I’m in charge of robberies in central Melbourne, and someone higher up told me I have to serve you with this summons,’ waving another document, ‘for printing Mr Hoffman’s suggestions which include going into a supermarket that sells record albums and sliding two LPs into a frozen pizza packet so when you get to the cash register you only pay for the pizza. Remember this article?’ he says.
‘Yes’ I say, eyeballing the summons. ‘So what I’m charged with, according to this, is “inciting diverse persons unknown to commit larceny at supermarkets” for printing an excerpt from his book, ironically titled Steal This Book?’
I raise my eyes to look directly at DS Jeff, and we exchange tiny smiles.
‘For printing some cheeky tips by Abbie Hoffman who protested the war on Vietnam at the Democratic Party Convention, along with twenty thousand other diverse persons unknown?’
Jeff wriggles in his seat, looks at his Cuban heel boots, then leans forward to tell me a secret.
‘Just between you and me, this might have something to do with the fact that Mr Rupert Hamer,’ I nod – I know Hamer is Victoria’s Chief Secretary, the minister of police – ‘well, Rupert has two teenage daughters, and they read Go-Set, and daddy was not pleased that his kids are reading Abbie Hoffman, in between the Johnny Farnham pinup and Molly’s gossip column – know what I’m saying?’
Seven months later, in a courtroom in Russell Street opposite police headquarters, DS Jeff reads from his record of our interview: Frazer, age 25, is editor of Go-Set which sells 50,000 copies a week, lives at etc. Next, my lawyer Peter Heerey asks Coote how this issue of Go-Set came to his notice and Coote says it came from the Chief Secretary’s department. Then Heerey asks if there’s been a rash of stealing from supermarkets over the 12 months since this issue went on sale, and Coote says he wouldn’t know about that, though you’d think he should.
Then Heerey points out that this section of Go-Set called Link-Up is designed for kids living on their wits, and they would get it that Abbie Hoffman ‘is writing in a sardonically humorous style’, which the police prosecutor (I’ll call him PP) reckons is also something DS Coote wouldn’t know.
I take the witness stand and say that Hoffman was provoking us, through sardonic humour, to consider the relative moralities and legalities of corporations, as in the paragraph after Supermarkets, called Pay Toilets, where Abbie’s advice is: ‘Sneak under’.
When court decorum returns, I point out that Link-Up mostly gives serious advice, for example, a section called Ways To Save The Earth says ‘never use dyed dunny paper, and always use biodegradable containers’.
I continue, seriously: ‘Abbie’s provoking people to rethink their concepts of who’s thieving what from whom, and nobody would take his hints like revelations,’ to which the PP asks ‘Why not?’ and I say ‘because even though our readers are, on average, 17-and-a-half years old, they already know that our society runs, in part, on legalised robbery.’
The PP pounces: ‘Your magazine sells for twenty cents right? It’s full of advertisements and sells 50,000 copies an issue? So you make a very good profit out of it?’
Me: ‘No. Our costs, over the five years since startup, have been enormous, and we are an independent company with paid up capital of exactly three dollars.’
PP: ‘It’s still going isn’t it?’
Me: ‘Since this article came out, Go-Set has been taken over by our printers, as compensation for the debt we owe them.’
This appears to have exhausted the PP, but he gives it one last shot: ‘Why didn’t you explain in the first paragraph that you did not endorse any of the ideas of the author, that you put them out as a matter of interest on how the head of the Yippies thinks?’
I repy ‘What we said was “these words could be of some use to you, the reader. It may be that the only use you find for them is to wrap rubbish in… it’s your choice”.’
The magistrate committed me to trial, but it never happened. Hamer became Premier of Victoria, and maybe his daughters told him to grow up, and Whitlam became PM. The times were a’changin’.
Phillip Frazer isolates cheerfully at coorabellridge.com.