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The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the Patriot Act

In late September of 1969, the US Department of Justice opened its prosecution of eight men on charges that included “conspiracy to cross state lines and/or us interstate transport with the intent to incite a riot.” These eight became known to middle America as the Chicago 8. After the one black member of the indicted-Black Panther Bobby Seale-was severed from the trial due to the rather overt racism of the presiding judge, the defendants became the Chicago 7. To their supporters, they were always known as “the Conspiracy”, as in “If there is a conspiracy to end the war, if there is a conspiracy to end racism, if there is a conspiracy to end the harassment of the cultural revolution, then, we, too, must join the conspiracy.”

These men, (all men despite the fact that several women had been as intimately involved in the planning of the 1968 demonstrations against the Democratic party convention in Chicago), were picked by the government to represent all those forces arrayed against the United States-Black Panthers, hippies, antiwar radicals, student radicals-you name it, these were the guys who ran it all. The charges stemmed from the battles at the Democratic convention a little more than a year earlier: battles that began when the Chicago Mayor’s office refused to give the organizers permits to stay in certain city parks overnight or to march on the convention site itself. The battles ended in front of the Chicago Hilton where police brutally attacked protesters, media workers, and bystanders alike. Some of the heat was even felt inside the convention center itself as antiwar Democrats faced off with those who supported the murder in Indochina.

When it was all over, the Democrats had nominated Hubert Humphrey, who went on to lose to Richard Nixon in a very close race. These two men were joined in the campaign by third party candidate George Wallace, who openly campaigned for the racist vote. It was Wallace’s campaign that would inspire every GOP campaign since then, in what has become known amongst mainstream political pundits as the “Southern Strategy.” As any honest political pundit might tell you, this is nothing but an appeal to white racism-an appeal that has worked only too well ever since 1968.

The constitutionality of the law under which the Conspiracy defendants were charged was a matter of some debate back in 1969. Its origins can be found in the attempts by various (mostly) Southern congressmen and senators who wished to craft a law that could be used against black activists who traveled the nation speaking to mostly black audiences about changing their situation in America. Occasionally, these speeches were followed by vigorous protests, which sometimes ended up in battles with police. Two of the activists most often mentioned in the testimony that crafted this law were H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. Hence, the law itself became known as the H. Rap Brown law. Rather ironically, it was part of the larger 1968 Civil Rights Law.

It was the defendants’ attorneys’ (among them William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass) belief that this law was unconstitutional because it constituted a “state of mind” prosecution. Indeed, their argument went, this law was not about rioting or even inciting a riot, but about what was going on in the accuseds mind when they crossed a state line. The only way to even begin to attempt to prove such a thing would be by entering as evidence speeches, writings, and other comments-actions protected under the First Amendment. The ACLU summarized the inherent problem with this part of the law like this:

Any “outside agitator” (who by virtue of being such will have crossed state lines and have committed an overt act) runs the risk that he will be accused of having done so with “evil intent.” The college student who helps black sharecroppers in Mississippi to organize may be found to have had the intent to “aid and abet them in carrying on a riot.” The speaker who urges residents of the slum or ghetto to “do something about their situation” may be found to have had the “evil intent” if some months later those persons riot-there is no requirement in the statute that his action has had anything to do with the riot.”

The attorneys further argued that the only way the government could prosecute its case was through the use of illegal wiretaps. Indeed, this turned out to be the case. Despite the objections of the defense, the government argued that the wiretaps should be allowed because the prosecution involved a matter of “national security.”

Five months later, the verdicts were in. The defendants were not found guilty on the charges of conspiracy, but most were individually found guilty of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. The trial was a trial of the movement and the counterculture and was a harbinger of the immediate future for those who had a vision of the United States that differed from the Nixon administration. Many of the convictions were thrown out years later due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Jump ahead to 2003. The PATRIOT Acts have made legal most of what was illegal for the Justice Department back in 1968. Many forms of protest are now potentially considered terrorist acts by the government. US citizens are disappeared under the guise of national security and, if the second series of these laws pass, many citizens risk losing their citizenship and being deported. Prosecutor misconduct is a thing of the past in the United States after 911. Not only are wiretaps conducted without knowledge, they are expected. Attorneys who represent so-called terrorists can count on their conversations with their clients taped. Law enforcement can break into someone’s house, take whatever evidence they feel is appropriate and not let the victim of the break-in know until after the fact.

Secret courts can convict defendants who may or may not have been involved in antigovernment actions. Indeed, antigovernment actions are being re-defined as any actions that block commerce. FBI agents can approach libraries and bookstores and ask demand that they turn over information regarding an individual’s book purchases or library loans and the store proprietor or library worker is not allowed to acknowledge that such an incident took place. People who donate money to a charity organization that the Justice department eventually ties to an organization the US government has deemed terrorist can be charged with aiding and abetting. This can happen even if the designation is made months or years after the donation was made. Just as the H. Rap Brown law was an attempt to prosecute someone based on the government’s perception of their “state of mind.,” it is clear that the purpose of the PATRIOT Acts is to expand these types of prosecutions even further.

The Chicago Conspiracy trial was one of several such trials in the 1960s and 1970s. They were part of the US government program known as COINTELPRO. Most of these trials were opposed in public demonstrations and other such displays. It is due to this opposition that many of the defendants walked and many others had their convictions overturned. Unfortunately, many others (usually black of Latino) ended up dead or in jail for life. One is fooling themselves if they think that their skin color and ethnicity had nothing to do with their fate. In the United States of 2003, a similar scenario is occurring. Jose Padillo, a Chicago man who was designated as an enemy combatant by the Justice Department, has spent over 500 days in prison. He has yet to have any charges filed against him. His fate is matched by hundreds of others-natural born and immigrants-from Arab and other Central Asian countries. Many of these individuals have had only minimal contact with their families or an attorney since they were rounded up. Even if the charges against those who have had charges filed against them turn out to be true, these prisoners have a basic human right to an attorney and contact with their families.

Unless those of us who are still on the outside make the fate of these individuals our business, they may spend years in detention without ever having done anything. If this can happen to them, just because they are currently marginalized, what’s to stop the police state apparatus from silencing us next?

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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