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Chicago Seven Trial

Chicago Seven Trial

The Chicago Seven—or Eight, as they were before one was eliminated from the case—were defendants in one of the most celebrated political trials in American history. The trial was a showcase of 1960s counterculture, which mixed radical—and very youthful—politics with the era's cultural movements, such as self-expression, sexual liberation, recreational drug use, and rock and roll music .

Democratic Convention, 1968

In August 1968, the Democratic Party held its national convention in Chicago, Illinois . (National conventions are meetings of the delegates of a political party held every four years to nominate the party's presidential and vice presidential candidates.) At the time, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75) and the struggle of the civil rights movement were causing passionate protest movements throughout the United States. Two groups, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and the Youth International Party (YIP, known as “Yippies”), planned protest demonstrations in Chicago during the national convention.

As the convention approached, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (1902–1976) denied almost all protest permit requests, and prepared to fight the protesters. The five thousand demonstrators who gathered in Chicago were confronted by twelve thousand police officers, six thousand U.S. Army troops, and five thousand National Guard members. Police repeatedly attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, guns, and clubs. On the worst night, police clubbed and pushed demonstrators through a plate-glass window as television cameras rolled. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and hundreds more were injured in the tumult.

The Anti-Riot Act

Earlier in 1968, a group of conservative senators had passed a provision that came to be known as the Anti-Riot Act. The new statute made it a violation of federal law to travel in or use the facilities of interstate commerce (such as buses or trains) with the intent to incite riot. After the convention, the U.S. Justice Department drew up indictments (official criminal charges) for violation of the act against five MOBE and Yippie leaders, plus three other men involved in the protests.

A committee appointed by outgoing president Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) to investigate the incident concluded that unrestrained police violence had been responsible for the episode. Nonetheless, the newly installed administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) decided in March 1969 to indict eight protest leaders for conspiracy to commit one or more of three offenses: crossing state lines with intent to riot; teaching the making of incendiary (fire-related) devices; and obstructing firefighters and police from performing their duties. Two defendants—John Froines (1939–) and Lee Weiner—were relatively unknown campus activists barely mentioned in the trial and cleared by the jury on all counts. The other six—David Dellinger (1915–2004), Rennie Davis (1941–), Tom Hayden (1939–), Jerry Rubin (1938–1994), Abbie Hoffman (1936–1989), and Bobby Seale (1937–)—were prominent radicals.

The players

Tom Hayden was a long-time leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a social-justice organization. He had also worked with the African American civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1962, Hayden wrote The Port Huron Statement, which described SDS philosophy and served as a general guide for the New Left, the collective term used to describe the 1960s and 1970s movement focusing on college campus mass protest and other radical actions.

Hayden's close friend Rennie Davis was also an active SDS leader, and the two of them had previously organized political events with longtime peace activist and MOBE leader David Dellinger. In early 1968, Davis and Hayden convinced Dellinger's organization to send them all to Chicago to prepare for large-scale antiwar demonstrations at the Democratic Convention.

Jerry Rubin came to Chicago by a different route. A full-time activist for civil rights, he had participated in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 at the University of California's Berkeley campus. Rubin developed a reputation for theatrical politics in 1966 when he was summoned for questioning by the anticommunist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He arrived dressed as a soldier from the American Revolution and started passing out copies of the Declaration of Independence . Rubin had moved to New York to join Abbie Hoffman's efforts to fuse cultural and political radicalism. Together, Hoffman and Rubin had carried out a series of creative and absurd actions, such as throwing wads of dollar bills over the observation ledge of the New York Stock Exchange , causing all business on the floor below to stop as brokers scrambled for the money. In 1967, they created the “Yippie!” movement. In a January 1968 statement, the Yippies announced a “Festival of Life” to serve as an alternative to the upcoming “Convention of Death” in Chicago.

Bobby Seale was chair of the Black Panther Party , a revolutionary organization that promoted the organization and self-defense of black people. Seale was an odd addition to the Chicago Eight. He had been in Chicago only one night and had not even met some of the other defendants with whom he had allegedly conspired. He was one of the few Panther leaders to have escaped exile and jail until then, and many historians believe that law enforcement authorities were eager to pin something on him.

The trial begins

Despite the diverse backgrounds of all of the defendants, government prosecutors alleged that they comprised a single conspiracy. The protest was called a “riot.” The trial opened on September 24, 1969. Noted civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (1919–1995) led the defense. Judge Julius Hoffman (1895–1983) presided. Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) was a 74-year-old Republican millionaire with substantial investments in the defense industry and little or no patience with the countercultural movement or its leaders.

The “Eight” becomes “Seven”

The first clash of the trial concerned Seale, whose attorney had to undergo surgery just before the trial. Judge Hoffman refused to delay the trial, thus denying Seale the attorney of his choice, and refused to permit Seale to defend himself. As the trial began, Seale interrupted every time his name was mentioned, and called the judge names for refusing to let him represent himself. On October 28, Judge Hoffman warned Seale that he could be bound and gagged if he continued, and the next day the judge followed through on his promise. Although physically constrained, Seale managed to free himself a number of times. Eventually, Judge Hoffman ruled Seale's case a mistrial, sentencing him to several years in jail for contempt. The Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven.

Theatrical display

As the trial focused on the remaining seven defendants, it seemed that the entire American counterculture movement was on display. Defense witnesses included a long list of counterculture celebrities: Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997); author Norman Mailer (1923–2007); comedian Dick Gregory (1932–); psychedelic drug research advocate Timothy Leary (1920–1996); and rock stars, leftist political figures, and many other well-known faces of the era.

The trial sometimes had a playful character to it. The defendants found that the trial had given them a priceless opportunity to publicize their views. The defense and the prosecution traded insults and offended the standards of courtroom propriety outrageously. In October, the National Guard had to be called to manage the unruly crowds gathering outside the courtroom.

The defense tried to establish that the primary responsibility for the violence lay with Mayor Daley and law enforcement officials. It also argued that the Anti-Riot Act violated constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly and that it had been introduced by legislators who

wanted to stop the progress of the African American Civil Rights Movement. The defense pointed out that the charge of “conspiracy to incite riot” is so vague that it could easily be applied to people planning a peaceful protest demonstration.

The verdicts

In February 1970, the jury cleared Froines and Weiner of all charges. It found the other five defendants innocent of conspiracy, but guilty of incitement to riot. Judge Hoffman sentenced each to the maximum five years in prison and $5,000 fine and gave them additional jail sentences for contempt. The high-publicity trial had generated a great deal of support for the defendants. Half a million people protested the verdict across the country. Protesters in California burned a bank to the ground.

After the defendants had spent several weeks in jail, a federal court of appeals released them on bail. On November 1, 1972, the court reversed the earlier conviction. Years later, records were released that revealed an unethical collaboration among Judge Hoffman, the prosecutors, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to secure a conviction. Several jurors said that they had been intimidated into a guilty vote. Another trial was held on the contempt charges in late 1973. Dellinger, Hoffman, Rubin, and even Kunstler were convicted, but the presiding judge decided not to sentence them to any time in jail. At last, the Chicago Seven trial was over.

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