ON THIS DAY – 18 February 1970 – The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’
A couple of days ago was the anniversary of the handing down of the all-important verdict in the so-called Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’. This was one of the most shocking, alarming, important and influential political trials in the 20th Century.
The ‘Chicago 8’ consisted of some of the most dynamic, passionate, outspoken and controversial of the relatively young contemporary American political activists in the heady days of the late-1960s.
The Chicago 8′ were:
- Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989)
- Jerry Rubin (1938-1994)
- David Dellinger (1915-2004)
- Tom Hayden (1939-2016)
- Rennie Davis (1941- )
- John R. Froines (1939- )
- Lee Weiner (1939- )
- Bobby Seale (1936- )
Glancing at this list of names containing some of the most important and influential American left-wing political activists of the 1960s and 1970s it is immediately apparent that four have passed on, and four remain. It struck me as rather a shame as well as a little disturbing that this notorious trial, the people involved, the events of the trial, and its subsequent influence, could disappear without much notice in the on-going cultural amnesia of the ‘Great Nothing’ that removes all sense of knowledge about the past. Ignorance of The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ evokes the ‘Santayana historic principle’ that ‘those who ignore the lessons of the past are bound to repeat them’; and what happened in The Trial of the Chicago was so shocking that, if you knew, you wouldn’t want it repeated at any cost.
Why this trial came about in the first place, and what happened during it and after it is of enormous importance – and should never be forgotten.
In August 1968, at the height of a very ‘long, hot, summer’, in Chicago during the 1968 National Democratic Convention, there was a number of rather violent anti-Vietnam ‘protests’, in which members of the ‘Chicago 8’ were actively involved. The Right-Wing reactionary conservatives in government, Republicans and Democrats, decided to may them accountable. There were formally charged with, amongst other things, the very real and serious charges of ‘conspiracy’ against the State, including the building of bombs, and for deliberately and illegally ‘crossing borders, in order to incite riot’.
The subsequent trial had more layers to it, greater complexity, and on-going relevance than a mere generational battle between the ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’. This was also a battle of conflicting visions and ideas as well as actions in regard to the US Legal system, ‘crime and punishment’, ‘justice’, and the ‘American way of life’. It was a battle between the old dominant ruling conservative ‘white’ ‘Right’, exemplified by presiding Illinois District Court Judge Julius Hoffman (1895-1983), and Illinois State Prosecutors Richard Schutlz and Tom Foran (? -2000), and the more radical ‘younger counter-culture’ ‘Left’, exemplified by the ‘Chicago 8’ and their equally out-spoken attorney’s William Kunstler (1919-1995) and Leonard Weineglass (1933- 2011),
The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ descended into a complete and utter travesty of so-called American justice and the contemporary US Legal System. It exposed the ruthlessness as well as the determination of both sides, in regard to their vision of the ‘American Way of Life’, what was acceptable and non-acceptable behavior, and a new vision of ‘the American Dream’ that drove fear into the heart of conservative America.
The reasons why this particular group of men from the ‘Left-wing’ of American politics was chosen to be the scapegoats for the violent demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in that hot August in 1968 is not altogether clear. Part of the reason lies with other matters, such as African-American activist Bobby Seale who was a co-founder of the militant African-American organization known as ‘The BlackPanthers’ that had very little to do with the demonstrations in Chicago that August in 1968.
Maybe the ‘Chicago 8′ were charged because of the way they dressed? They were all relatively young men, fresh out of college, smart and ambitious and ready to make their mark on US politics, society and culture. The ‘Chicago 8′, for the most part, and as contemporary photographs of them reveal, dressed in the popular ‘hippie’, ‘beatnik’, and ‘denim’ counter-culture fashions of the late-1960s. Furthermore, they grew their hair. It is sometimes a forgotten aspect of the American counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s that young men growing their hair, and/or having it ‘permed’ to complement modern youth fashions, was also an act of rebellion against the conservative ‘Right’, who preferred and in some places demanded that men and boys had the same militaristic ‘short back and sides’ cut their hair. The song ‘Hair’ from the landmark musical HAIR, which had just opened on Broadway in 1968, reflects and satirizes this contemporary revolutionary obsession with the length of one’s hair.
Whilst to modern eyes it is perhaps too easy to place Judge Julius Hoffman and his associates as the villains, and the ‘Chicago 8′ and their respective attorneys as the victims. The truth is more complex, with neither side behaving with much grace and generosity towards the other. On the contrary, both sides indulged in ruthless, intolerant, and aggressive behavior to one another, as exemplified in the case of Bobby Seale.
From its very beginning, the actual trial of the ‘Chicago 8‘ was surrounded with controversy and relatively strange and inexplicable choices, such as those associated with Bobby Seale. It was a sheer accident as well as blatant manipulative opportunism that saw Bobby Seale suddenly been made to be a part of the ‘Chicago 8’. Prior to this, Bobby Seale had had very little to do with the anti-Vietnam War ‘protest’ leaders, such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Tom Hayden. Bobby Seale was the co-founder of the newly formed militant and relatively subversive and intimidating African-American organization, The Black Panthers. To the conservative ‘Right’, Bobby Seale represented a very real and dangerous threat to their decaying vision of the ‘(‘white’) American way of Life’. Even though he was only in Chicago for two days during the National Democratic Convention, nonetheless, he was considered equally guilty as the others in regard to the charges of being involved in a ‘conspiracy’ against the State, and ‘crossing border, to incite riot’.
What happened to Bobby Seale during the course of this trial came to exemplify and symbolize the worst of this trials abuse of privilege, power, and justice.
From the very beginning of the trial, Bobby Seale fought for his right to choose his own legal counsel and for his case to be heard separately from the others. His appeals were ignored and dismissed, and he became outraged. In every court session, he would speak up loudly and passionately, demanding his rights for his legal counsel and for his case to be trialed separately. He never stopped – ever. Supported by his co-accused, his constant barrage of loud and assertive interjections prevented the relatively smooth process of the trial and the day-to-day running of the court. Finally, after yet another loud and aggressive altercation Judge Julius Hoffman, in order to silence Bobby Seale did the unthinkable. He charged Bobby Seale with ‘contempt of court’, which carried with it a 4-year prison sentence, and then when that still did not silence him, Judge Hoffman ordered the courtroom staff to bind Bobby Seale to a chair in the courtroom, and ‘gag’ him. This was done, not just once – but four times. This drastic and brutal action, known as ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale’became the most notorious incident this trial full of notorious incidents. It came to symbolize the utter travesty of justice, the use, and abuse of privilege and power, and essential American civil and human rights.
Whilst arguably Bobby Seale through his own abusive behavior, particularly towards Judge Hoffman, may have brought this on himself, no one could have predicted the punishment. It shocked the nation and helped turn public opinion in favor of the ‘Chicago 8’. Throughout all this, Bobby Seale stood firm. indignantly defiant and demanded his right for legal representation and for his case to be heard separately. Promises and reassurances were made, but nothing happened, which only fueled his anger and outrage. However, following his controversial ‘gagging’ of Bobby Seale, Judge Hoffman then severed Seale’s relationship with the others, who henceforth were known as the ‘Chicago 7′ for the rest of the two-year trial. Eventually, all charges against Bobby Seale were dropped, nonetheless, he still served time in prison because of his (justifiable) ‘contempt in court’.
The ‘Not Guilty’ verdict that came down on 18 February 1970 may have released the ‘Chicago 7’ from the ‘conspiracy’ charges, but they received a ‘Guilty’ verdict for ‘crossing borders, to incite riot’. This was partially true as they did know that what they were doing was technically illegal, and they did intend to disrupt the National Democratic Conventions. They each received prison sentences for this ‘crime’, in addition to the racked-up years they received for the numerous ‘contempt in court’ penalties they and their attorney’s received from Judge Julius Hoffman. Subsequently, each member of the ‘Chicago 8’ received prison sentences. Essentially, each member of the ‘Chicago 8’ received prison sentences of approximately 10 years each.
In 1972, just two years after the official verdicts, the respective Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and the later Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’, and the case against Bobby Seale were reviewed. The subsequent results of this review were considerable. The charges against the ‘Chicago 7’ and Bobby Seale were dropped and their respective sentences squashed. The respective trials had shown up major inadequacies and flaws in the US Legal System, which included and allowed the suppression of information, ‘extreme prejudice’ by the practicing representatives of the law, and the imposition of intimidating means to maintain order, control, and power.
The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ triggered off numerous judicial and law reforms in the US Legal System, particularly in regard to due process in court proceedings. The importance and significance of The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and later The Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ was partially acknowledged via being the source and inspiration and fact behind the creation of numerous artworks.
The 1968 Chicago demonstrations and the subsequent Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and/or Trial of the ‘Chicago 7’ has featured either directly or indirectly in a number of films and television productions. This includes Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Jean-Luc Godard, Jean- Pierre Grolin and the Dziga Vertov Group’s Vladimir et Rosa (1970), Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), and Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971).
Direct dramatizations, based on the transcripts of the respective trials include the BBC’s docudrama The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1970), and HBO’s docudrama Conspiracy: The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, John Goodchild’s and L. A Theatre Works’ radio play The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1993), Robert Greenwald’s Steal this Movie! (2000), Brett Morgan’s animated documentary Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace (2007), Kerry Feltham’s The Great Chicago’s Conspiracy Circus (1969/2008), Pinchas Perry’s The Chicago 8 (2009 / 2012), and Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune (2010),
In the world of popular music, the Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ has featured in a number of works, notably Graham Nashe’s Chicago from his debut album Songs for Beginners. The opening line, “So your brother’s bound and gagged, and they’ve chained him to a chair”, is a direct reference to ‘the gagging of Bobby Seale’ during court proceedings in the first trial.
One of the most powerful and lasting images associated with the respective trials is Richard Avendon’s 1969 ‘wall-sized mural portrait photograph of the ‘Chicago 7’. First exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1970, it shows the members of the ‘Chicago 7’ in a line very similar to a conventional US Police ‘line-up’ of suspects. The Avedon portrait was shot and made before the verdicts and the official end to the trial. It has subsequently, however, toured and been shown in many art galleries and museums around the world.
The human cost to the individual members of the ‘Chicago 8’, as well as their respective families, was considerable. Despite the verdict of ‘Not Guilty ‘ for the ‘conspiracy’ charges, the members of the now ‘Chicago 7’, were found ‘Guilty’ on other charges, particularly the charge of ‘crossing borders, to incite riot’ and a number of ‘contempt of court’ fines that generally contained the added punishment of a 4 years prison sentence. All-up, each of the ‘Chicago 7’ were facing a prison service for the next 10 years.
The damage to the reputation and integrity of the American legal and justice systems was considerable. In particular, it was the jurisdiction and power of the District Courts and their respective State judges that was profoundly questioned. As with other institutions and organizations, such as the US Arms Forces and the Vietnam War, the US Legal System, particularly the numerous District Courts scattered right across and throughout the USA, experienced a radical change in how they were perceived by the general public.
A general lack of trust in the courts and the US Legal System seems to have permeated across the entire country from which it would take decades to recover.
Maybe that is the reason why when on the anniversary of the ‘Not Guilty’ vote, which marked the end of the ‘Trial of the Chicago 8’, there was barely a mention of it in the news or social media. That as well as it becoming yet another so-called meaningless incident from USA and World History, it has the potential to produce shame for allowing such a travesty of justice to exist in the first place. It has the potential to further damage the US Legal system, government, and administration because it removes trust and confidence with those particular and necessary components of an advanced ‘Western’ democratic country, that advocate the principle of ‘and justice for all’ but in reality cannot always guarantee it.
This is the reason why ‘The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ is so important because it reveals a crack in the system of a democratic government and the law, for which we can be and are both outraged and ashamed. There is a danger to a blind belief and expectation in the basic democratic and human rights involving the law ‘and justice for all’, which cannot always be guaranteed by that government and its legal system, even if it is advocated as an essential part of a so-called ‘democracy’.
We assume that we are all protected by the ‘Law, of the Land’ and that our individual lives, as well as our democratic right to hold differing opinions and beliefs, are sacred. We are wrong. History continually reminds us of this, and we continually ignore and dismiss it. Subsequently, this kind of abuse of power is continually repeated, and we continue to do nothing until the point where ‘and justice for all’ and other basic democratic and human rights are completely removed, and the doors to the gas chambers are opened yet again.
This is of great relevance to those living in the USA today and in other so-called ‘democratic’ countries, where the forces and supporters of far Right-Wing re-active conservatism are on the rise. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ reminds us of the potential vulnerability of this scared democratic principle and human right under the law. It reminds us of the potential and actual use and abuse of this sacred democratic principle of ‘and justice for all’ by the very people who seemingly advocate it, yet some of these people will actively work to suppress it in the face of opposition to their preferred ‘way of life’. This is fascism – the active and brutal suppression of difference, as was seen throughout the entire Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, and by both sides. It resonates with a famous proverbial statement by the 19th Century English historian, Lord Acton – ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Most people, it would seem are cowered and intimidated into states of bafflement, bewilderment, and silence, due to the impassioned vitriol that can spray forth from the extreme ‘Right’ and the extreme ‘Left’. It is far too much ‘noise’ in a world that is increasingly ‘noisy’ and invasive into our personal and public lives. Based on historical precedents, exemplified by life under Nazi Germany, Russian Stalinism, and any other fascistic totalitarian government or organization of ‘like-minded’ people who are intolerant of any difference, to be silenced by the heated words and actions of anger and hatred is the norm.
This is perhaps why the anniversary of the verdict for The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ went relatively unnoticed. What happened in that Illinois District Courtroom so many years ago produced silence as well as outrage. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ was an explosive vitriolic battle of anger and resentment by both sides against each other. The outrage over the proceedings, particularly ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale’ is relatively easy to understand and appreciate because it was so appallingly outrageous – and yet, during four days of the course of the trial it was tolerated. Not by the victims of the oppression, but by the American people. With extensive news coverage of this very open and public display of the Government and the Law to make accountable through the Law any opposition was draconian, to say the least. It is the silence of the majority of the American people that is baffling. Most people were shocked and dismayed at what was happening, especially the image of the ‘bound and gagged’ Bobby Seale, which had all the trappings of the worst cases in Nazi Germany and beyond – but nothing happened, and the trial continued. This whole trial, this travesty of American justice, could have stopped immediately if the majority of the American people wanted it to stop, but they didn’t, and the trial continued for the next two years.
It is noticeable that the ‘voices of reason’ were relatively silent or ineffective during the course of the trial. Maybe it was because of all the ‘noise’ of hatred and resentment firing out of the courtroom that stifled any attempt to stop the trial from proceeding. Maybe the extreme Right was seen as too powerful and intimidating; maybe the extreme Left was seen as too powerful and intimidating? Maybe it was an issue of timing? Waiting for the right moment to fix up and hopefully repair any damage done. This would have been impossible to achieve if the trial continued, as it did continue for the next two years.
The ‘voices of reason and reconciliation needed to wait until all the anger, hatred, and resentment had dispersed. It is noticeable that it was two years after the verdict, in 1972 that the whole schmozzle was unpicked, charges dropped, sentences squashed and the prisoners set free. Two years may sound like a long time, but in actual fact, it is a relatively short time. To go through all the documents, transcripts, in fact, everything to do with the case, then to take any recommendations in regards to the convicted-by-Law, and go through the whole process of reversing judgments and sentences, et. al, could have taken a lot longer than two years after hearing the verdict.
It is possible that all the necessary paper-work and meetings etc may easily have been done by the respective people and organizations involved. A number of the ‘Chicago 7′ were lawyers with extensive and successful practices. It is arguable that some of the friends of the ‘Chicago 7′ had ‘influence’, which would have assisted in getting the necessary people in the US Administration and Bureaucracy to immediately attend to the documents and papers associated with the trial. Nonetheless, that it was all done in two years implies either that the US Administration and Bureaucracy was extremely, extremely efficient at this time (unlikely): or that finally the ‘Voices of Reason and Reconciliation’ were able to move quickly and collaboratively with numerous ‘stakeholders’, including that vast mass known as the ‘American People’.The relative quickness in having the whole things reviewed, overturned and the prisoners released could not have happened if the culture of anger, hatred, and resentment was still relatively dominant; any change to the judgment would have been met with opposition and from a variety of people and places. It wasn’t – which suggests the opposite – that public opinion had swung in to support the ‘Chicago 7’.
You get a hint of the gradual but steadily growing swing in favor of the campaign to free the ‘Chicago 7’ and Bobby Seale in the respective local, state and national newspapers and journals from 1970 to 1972. This swing comes at a relatively tempestuous time for the US Presidency and Administration now under the conservative grip of Republican President Nixon and his team. The campaign to free Bobby Seale and the ‘Chicago 7‘ parallels the call and drive to end US involvement in the Vietnam War, which is finally if somewhat controversially achieved in 1973. That this dominating business of the day was going on at the same time only further suggests that there must have been a lot of quick and easy collaboration between the respective Government Departments to get this matter resolved as quickly as possible.
The campaign to free Bobby Seale and the Chicago 7 catches the wave of change generated by the growing backlash against the reactive and oppressive conservative powers and their responsibility for the disastrous Vietnam War. This backlash was to take another leap forward with the ensuing ‘Watergate’ scandal and the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.
It should also be noted that this change in public opinion was partly due to the fact that The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’, as well as Vietnam War, and the ‘Watergate’ scandal was played out on national television. It has been said that it was the influence of television that assisted in ending the Vietnam War because for the first time the real horrors of war were being broadcasted via television into ordinary American homes across the entire nation. This influence of television on public opinion in regard to the Vietnam War is equally true in regard to public opinion about The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8′; a fact driven home by the respective dramatizations of the trial, as well as in other art forms, which also presented disgust over the trial and sympathy for the ‘Chicago 8′.
To some, the ‘Chicago 8’ are still the radical left-wing, ‘hippies’, ‘traitors’, ‘druggies’, and (of course) ‘Communists’; for others, such as Richard Avedon and his generation of artists they were ‘heroes’. The truth of all this, however, lies somewhere in between. As was obvious then, The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ represented the polarization of the radical Left and the conservative Right in US Politics and Society in the final years of the 1960s. It showed how on both sides privilege and power can be abused, and how on both sides arrogance and entrenched prejudical behaviors and attitudes can lead to a type of physical and psychological violence. This violence unchecked can seriously undermine trust and confidence in a countries legal system and government, and make a mockery of a sacred democratic principle and belief in the right and even existence of ‘and justice for all’. The Trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ revealed how truly fragile is the law when faced with irrational fear, anger, resentment, and hatred.
There is, however, something else about ‘The Trial of the Chicago 8’ that is more positive than the fear and anger it unleashed. I experienced this ‘something else’ when I was first exposed to and learned about The Trial of the Chicago 8. I was only 11 years in 1968 and blissfully unaware of any of the people and incidences that are associated with this notorious trial and ‘travesty of justice’. Two years later, however, in 1970 it was a different story. I remember I watched with my family the excellent BBC docu-drama The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. We were all appalled, outraged and silenced by this event, particularly ‘the “gagging” of Bobby Seale,’ something hitherto we knew nothing about. In many ways, I mark the awakening of my political consciousness with seeing The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. The issues of injustice, civil and human rights discussed in this docu-drama as well as the real trial itself, was also influential in shaping the form and expression of my future social and political activism, something that was given further inspirational stimuli with the changes in Australia ushered in by the newly elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the Labour Party in 1972, the ending of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the end of compulsory ‘conscription’ into the Australian Armed forces, the beginning of the ‘gay’ rights movement in Australia, and the controversial sacking of Gough Whitlam and his Labor Government in 1975.
Looking back, it now seems all so quick, so much social and political change in Australia, the USA, and the rest of the world, within the seven years between the beginning of the Trial of the ‘Chicago 8‘ in 1968, and the resignation of President Nixon, and the sacking of the Labor Government in 1975. Time and again I am reminded of the old saying, ‘From the Ashes of Disaster comes the Roses of Success’. This seems to me rather apt in regard to disastrous actual Trail of the ‘Chicago 8’, and the ‘Roses of Success’ that came from this disaster, including radical legal reforms in the US, and the eventual placement of the radical ‘revolutionaries’ that made up the ‘Chicago 8’ as first victims of prejudice and injustice, and then as ‘heroes’ for their courage and resilience as the world around them collapsed, changed, and was reborn. I was reborn – as it was their story that woke me up to the realities, privileges, vulnerabilities, and brilliant possibilities inherent in living in a ‘democracy’. Their individual and collective heroism helped shape me, and the future – and we are all the better for their trials and tribulations as the ‘Chicago 8‘.