Comrades Recall Stew Albert

Richard Brenneman
Friday June 16, 2006

The faces were lined, framed by graying and thinning hair, but the passion that had animated them—and the humor—were rekindled as firebrands of the ’60s recalled one of their own. 

They were veterans of the Free Speech Movement, the battles for People’s Park and Vietnam War protests, who had gathered in a Grizzly Peak Boulevard home in late May to celebrate the life of one of their own. 

A founder of the Yippies and the always merry and oft-arrested prankster who ran a pig for President outside the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Stew Albert was a luminary in a legendary era. 

He died of liver cancer on Jan. 30 at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 66. 

As his friends recalled, Albert was a man whose intellect, skills, charm and ready wit bridged political chasms. 

Born in New York in 1939, he was led to activism by the May 2, 1960, execution of Caryl Chessman, a Californian inmate whose bestselling Cell 2455, Death Row had ignited a national debate about capital punishment. 

Albert came to San Francisco in 1965, befriending poet Allen Ginsberg and other prominent figures of the Beat era before finding his way to Berkeley and plunging into the heady radicalism ignited two years earlier by the Free Speech Movement. 

He never gave up his radicalism or his friends. 

Judy Gumbo, his partner for 32 years, attended Saturday’s event. She didn’t speak during the tributes but listened, smiling and exchanging frequent hugs with the speakers. 

“He was a very effective inciter of disturbances,” recalled Art Goldberg, who met Albert in 1967 and served as emcee of the memorial. 

“Stew Albert was a co-founder of the Yippies and a friend of Jerry Rubin and a friend of Abbie Hoffman and a friend of Eldridge Cleaver and a friend of John Lennon and a friend of thousands who identified with the Movement,” said Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner. 

Rubin and Hoffman were seminal figures in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and later in the Yippies—the Youth International Party. Cleaver was the Information Minister of the Black Panther Party. 

Brunner, who had marched with Albert, quoted from the resolution she wrote and her colleagues passed, which declared Feb. 1 Stew Albert Day in Oakland. 

He “was a target of J. Edgar Hoover and a target of Richard Nixon and a target of the FBI and the victor in a lawsuit against their harassment and an irrepressible critic of the unjust and the idiotic to the moment he died, addressing the power that rules us now,” she read. 

Thrown into Alameda County jail at Santa Rita in 1970 for his role in the People’s Park protests, Albert decided to run for sheriff. “It was (now-U.S. Rep.) Barbara Lee who encouraged him and got him to run,” said Goldberg. 

Albert collected 65,000 votes—a thousand for every day he spent at Santa Rita—carrying Berkeley by 10,000. 

One victim of an Albert prank was Max Scherr, editor of the Berkeley Barb, that legendary paper of the days of “the Movement.” 

“A lot of Jewish kids were converting to Buddhism then,” Paul Glusman said, so Albert cooked up a hoax, getting a letter mailed from Japan to the paper reporting that “all the Buddhist kids in Japan were converting to Judaism.” 

Scherr ran the letter. 

Several speakers spoke of Albert’s fondness for cannabis—he was anything but the model of the puritanical Old Left. 

“I had my greatest moments with him during the conspiracy trial,” said Anne Weills, who met Albert through Jerry Rubin. 

The trial was the prosecution of the Chicago Seven. Hoffman, Rubin and five others were tried on federal conspiracy charges for their part in the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention. 

Several speakers said Albert was frustrated that he wasn’t indicted for his own very considerable role in Chicago events, which included the brilliant inspiration to declare Pigasus the official Yippie presidential candidate. 

Steve Tappis recalled several friends who lamented “Poor Stew” when they heard he hadn’t been charged. “We should indict him posthumously,” he said, drawing laughter and smiles. 

Tappis met Albert during preparations for the Oct. 21, 1967, demonstration at the Pentagon, where more than 100,000 showed up to protest the Vietnam War. 

“I always thought Stew was the ambassador, the Yippie who talked to the Marxist-Leninists. He was no liberal. He was hardline and hard core, but nonsectarian—and that is a trip,” Tappis said. 

“I saw him two days before he died, and he said, ‘I never changed my politics,’” said Conn “Ringo” Hallinan, who recalled Albert’s brief flirtation with the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Maoist faction. 

“The Communist Party liked PL because they made us look like we had a sense of humor,” quipped Hallinan, former editor of The People’s World. 

Gloria Polanski, who met Albert when she was 17, spoke of “his humility and his bravado.” 

Jonah Raskin first met Albert in October, 1970, when he and other radicals flew to Algiers where Eldridge Cleaver was playing host to Timothy Leary after the LSD guru had broken out of prison with the help of the Weather Underground and fled overseas. 

“Eldridge sat around with an AK-47 in his lap,” and much marijuana and considerable LSD was being ingested. 

When Cleaver abruptly decided to put his guest under virtual house arrest, Raskin and Albert were moved to ponder the strange course of events. 

“He had his theory: ‘It’s just that every so often in history there’s this person, Dr. Doom, who intervenes and fucks things up,’” Raskin said, smiling at the memory. “It was his convenient way to explain things in history that are otherwise not explainable.” 

And while Albert wasn’t a man of violence, he had called a press conference to hail the bombing of the U.S. Capitol by the Weather Underground, the revolutionary splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society. 

Jeff Jones, once a leader of both, remembered Albert in a letter. 

“Stew was different. He always had a strategy and a plan,” Jones wrote. “More than anyone, he helped Abbie and Jerry give definition to the Yippie movement. Without his ability to broker their competitive egos and channel their ideas into strategy, what is passing into history as the Yippie story would have been different, definitely diminished and possibly disregarded.” 

Carol Cullum was a young Quaker when she met Hoffman during the Pentagon protest. She was speaking because Albert had asked her to. “You should tell nothing but the truth,” he had said, adding, “but you don’t have to stay with that part.” 

They would later discover that a mutual friend was informing on both of them to the feds. 

“He was a kindly, wonderful, loving, bright and hilarious person who was able to work with everyone,” she said, and he used those skills when he went with Hoffman and Rennie Davis to persuade John Lennon and Yoko Ono to work with the peace movement. 

“Stew was that person who had that connection with people,” she said. “I miss him a whole lot.” 

“I have a sideways memory of Stew and Judy,” said Jean Friedman, who met them as fellow parents at a Montessori school in Berkeley 25 years ago. 

While she’d not been a fan of the Yippies, she discovered in her new friends a model family, “the most wonderful people. So I forgave them for being Yippies,” she said, smiling. 

“What a model for my marriage,” said Naomi Price, when met Albert in a synagogue. “He was a family man. He embodied what a husband and a father should be.” For more on Albert, see his web site, http://members.aol.com/stewa/stew.html. His autobiography, Who the Hell is Stew Albert?, was published last year by Red Hen Press.