Last Friday, Netflix released the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 and I immediately watched it. For those who are not familiar with the true events that it depicts, this was the infamous trial held in Chicago in 1969 in which eight people (yes, eight initially but it got reduced to seven midway) were accused of conspiracy and inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic Party convention in that city in August 1968. (You can read about the event here.)
That convention was a shambles. Due to the intense opposition to the Vietnam war, president Lyndon Johnson had decided not to seek re-election and the party establishment had decided to force through vice-president Hubert Humphrey as the nominee although he was widely seen as complicit in prosecuting the unpopular war. It was also the year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert K. Kennedy had been murdered, the latter just three days after he had won the California Democratic primary, dashing the hopes that Humphrey would not get the nomination. There were riots all over the country.
Thousands of young people went to Chicago to protest the war and the convention but that city was run with an iron fist by its mayor Richard M. Daley, an old-school machine politician who viewed the city as his personal fiefdom and the police as his personal army. He created such oppressive conditions in the city that the highly esteemed CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, not one given to hyperbole, described it as a police state. He had given orders to deny the protestors permits and that enabled his police to treat the demonstrators who came as taking part in illegal activities. As a result, people witnessed massive numbers of police in riot gear waging war on the protesters, wading into them with batons, tear gas, and mace and cracking open skulls with blood flowing everywhere.
Among the young organizers of the demonstrators were two groups. The Students for a Democratic Society was led by Tom Hayden while the Youth International Party (better known as the ‘Yippies’) was led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. While all were opposed to the war and wanted to stop it, their tactics were quite different. SDS was a more traditional activist youth group seeking to work within the party system and get more progressive candidates while Hoffman and the Yippies were a bunch of counterculturists seeking to expose the hollowness of the system using pranks and other attention grabbing devices, whose projects included holding a mass meditation to levitate the Pentagon. They also ran a pig named Pigasus as their presidential candidate with the slogan ‘Pork Power’. Just before the formal nomination speeches for the pig, the Chicago police arrested Rubin and Phil Ochs and charged them under a local livestock ordinance. You get the idea of how crazy things were.
After Richard Nixon won the election and became president in January on 1969, his attorney general John Mitchell decided to make an emphatic statement against these activists by indicting Hayden, Hoffman and five other members of the SDS and the Yippies with conspiracy to create a riot. To this group they added an eighth, Bobby Seale, the national head of the Black Panthers, who hardly knew the other seven and had only been in Chicago for four hours. The government strategy for including Seale seemed to be that having a militant Blank Panther leader as one of the defendants would make the jury less sympathetic to the defense.
The defendants were indicted in March 1969 and the trial began in September and lasted six months and from the beginning it was a circus. The defense was represented by the flamboyant and well-known civil rights defense attorney William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass and some other lawyers who do not make it into the film. If the actions of the Chicago police and its mayor exposed the seedy underbelly of a corrupt political system, the trial exposed how the federal government, the FBI, and a judge could massively abuse their power and make a mockery of the legal system.
The murder by the Chicago police while the trial was going on of Chicago Blank Panther leader Fred Hampton, who had been advising Seale during the trail, the packing of the jury, and the intimidation by the FBI of jurors whom the prosecution considered might be sympathetic the defense, were all the stops pulled out by the government in its determination to get a conviction. A rarely-used law that made it a crime to cross state lines with the intent of starting a riot was used in order to find a conspiracy charge to use against the defendants.
Right from the beginning, the US District Court judge Julius Hoffman demonstrated his antipathy to the defendants and their lawyers and made the most outrageous rulings, denying all their motions and repeatedly citing the defendants and their lawyers with contempt, resulting in a total of around 175 contempt citations in all. Kunstler was sentenced to “four years in prison for addressing him as “Mr. Hoffman” instead of “Your Honor”, Abbie Hoffman received 8 months for laughing in court, Hayden one year for protesting the treatment of Seale, and Weiner two months for refusing to stand when Judge Hoffman entered the courtroom.”
The ultimate degradation of the legal system occurred when Bobby Seale, a black man, was bound, gagged, shackled in chains, and tied to his chair in the courtroom. It was an unbelievable scene. If a writer of fiction had conjured it, it would have been dismissed as absurd. And yet it happened. And it became a powerful metaphor around the world for what America had become.
This is a reality-based film where rather than the writers having to add things to the actual history to make it more interesting, they had to leave out some good stuff because to include all the craziness would have made the film too long. For example, none of the celebrity witnesses who testified in the trial such as Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Jesse Jackson made it into the film. Parts of Ginsberg’s testimony alone, as this article from back in February 1970 shows, would have made for riveting drama.
As is often the case with the dramatization of historical events, writer and director Aaron Sorkin changed and simplified things but not too much and the film moves at a fast clip. If you want to compare the details of the film with the actual history, this article will fill you in. The film interjects actual news footage of that time, sometimes in black and white, with re-enacted scenes and you can see the similarities with how the police have been responding violently to the recent demonstrations. We know that police brutality in the US against minorities is an old story but similar brutality against young and mostly white protestors, while less common, also goes back a long way and 1968 saw it on full display. While the film deals with a historical event, you can also see it as a commentary on where America is now.
The performances in the film were excellent, especially Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Frank Langella as judge Hoffman, and Mark Rylance as Kunstler. I am not a fan of Cohen generally but playing the part of an irrepressible prankster was just tailor-made for him.
On a personal note, I followed this trial closely even though I was in Sri Lanka at the time. I also read an edited version of the actual court transcripts that had been published as a book by Jules Feiffer and it was both utterly hilarious, because of the absurdity on display, as well as disturbing, because it showed what a travesty the justice system in the US had become. Then when I was working at the University of Rochester in 1987 and 1988, Abbie Hoffman came to give a talk, so of course I went to hear him. The passage of two decades had not changed him that much and he was as impish and manic as ever. I was sad when I heard that he had taken his own life in 1989. Then during the time when I was at CWRU, Leonard Weinglass came to give a talk and after the talk I had a brief conversation with the soft-spoken lawyer about the infamous trial.
Here’s the trailer.