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Free the Seattle 7! A Persecution From the Past

The radical antiracist and antiwar movements of the 1960s were often the object of severe repression. Besides the attacks on protesters and the attempts to destroy their media outlets by the state and vigilantes who worked for the state, there were the prosecutions of the movement’s luminaries and leaders. Some of those prosecutions are well-documented: the trial of Dr. Benjamin Spock for encouraging draft resistance, the numerous trials of different Black Panthers, the prosecution of Muhammad Ali for refusing the draft, the trial of the Chicago 8, and the trial of Angela Davis rank among the better known. Others, like the trial of the Silver Spring 3 for destroying draft files and the trial of the Seattle 7 on charges of conspiracy to intend to riot are less known. However, their importance is equal to those better known.

The Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) was an ambitious attempt by young radicals to create a united front of revolutionary groups and individuals in Seattle, Washington. The effort began in the fall of 1969 and was generated by a group of local Seattleites and a few newcomers from New York state. Instead of organizing along traditional coalition lines, the individuals formed collectives. These collectives came together more or less organically and resembled affinity groups—an organizing model which became quite popular in the 1970s antinuclear movement and was revived during the anti-capitalist globalization protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The SLF was a multi-issue organization. Their program called for a liberated culture and an economic system that was socialized, grassroots and fair. They were anti-imperialist and antiracist. Together with other Seattle groups like the Black Panthers, they set up free stores, community health clinics and schools. Their members brought donuts and coffee to the unemployed at the unemployment office and attempted to educate them about capitalism and imperialism. They put on a rock festival and organized protests and theater events. Seattle authorities did not know what to make of the organization and federal authorities were nervous. So nervous, in fact, that the Nixon White House discussed the group. According to author Kit Bakke, what made the authorities nervous was the group’s rhetoric and its success among section of the population usually left alone by the New Left. In other words, the authorities were nervous about the group’s ability to reach working people.

Despite the concern of the authorities, there was little they could do other than infiltrate the organization. The SLF had sworn off the violence of groups like the Weather Underground and most of what they did they did in public. Of course, this did not prevent law enforcement from trying to convince members of the group to use violence and, according to the trial transcript, even provide the materials for such actions—all for naught.

On February 16, 1970, Judge Hoffman of Chicago handed down contempt of court charges to most of the Chicago 8(7) defendants and their attorneys. The trial itself had been a show trial from the beginning; a blatant attempt by the Nixon regime to intimidate and destroy the antiwar and Black liberation movements in the US. The defendants and their attorneys realized this fact early on and turned the trial into a work of theater that exposed the farce of American justice. Judge Hoffman fell into their trap, playing the arrogant and inflexible arbiter of the State to near perfection. Anyhow, left and counterculture radicals had a plan to respond to the end of the Chicago 8 trial. Protests would be held in cities around the United States in the days after the trial ended. Those protests would be known as The Day After (TDA) protests. The Seattle Liberation Front had been organizing for Seattle’s protests for weeks. On February 17, 1970 a rally and march were held. The march ended up at the heavily guarded Federal Courthouse in Seattle. Soon afterwards, all hell broke loose. Police attacked the crowd, tear gas was used, windows were broken and several people were arrested. Most of the members of the future Seattle 7 were at the protest. Others were in other cities that day. By the month of April, federal charges were brought against seven members of the Seattle Liberation Front. Their names were Michael Lerner, Michael Abeles, Jeff Dowd, Joe Kelly, Susan Stern, Roger Lippman, and Charles Marshall. Like other prosecutions of radical left and anarchist organizers during the period (and throughout US history), the charges were flimsy. They included inciting a riot, conspiracy with intent to incite to riot, and conspiracy to damage the Seattle Federal Building, Indeed, the charges mostly involved gauging what the defendants thought—thought crimes. The trial began in the fall of 1970. It ended in a mistrial after a series of disruptions by the defendants and their supporters and some serious miscues on the part of the prosecution and judge.

For decades, the Seattle 7 trial was a footnote to history. Relatively few mentions are made of it in books on the period known as the Sixties. That is, until now. Former SDS and Weather Underground member Kit Bakke has written a captivating and clearheaded text titled Protest on Trial: The Seattle Conspiracy. Utilizing her understanding and knowledge of the revolutionary left of the period, the transcripts of the trial, interviews of participants on all sides, and hindsight, Bakke’s text brings to life the revolutionary optimism of the time and the consequent fear of those whose power was being threatened. She explains the legal strategies of the defense and the arrogance of the prosecution. The political nature of the prosecution is made clear in Bakke’s telling. She also discusses the political differences among the defendants, especially the sexism of some of the men and the movement in general. Combined with her inviting narrative style, Bakke has produced a great book about an important trial in US history.

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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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