The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited

Still from “The Chicago 10.”

It is among the white youth of the world that the greatest change is taking place. It is they who are experiencing the great psychic pain of waking into consciousness to find their inherited heroes turned by events into villains. Communication and understanding between the older and younger generations of whites has entered a crisis.

– Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1968)

– “Hoffman, Hoffman’s a Jew.” Richard Nixon, White House Tapes (1971)

In my early childhood days we played Cops and Robbers, or Cowboys and Indians. Things were simple, black and white. We never asked about moral issues. We never wondered if maybe the Indians had a legitimate beef (let’s say genocide) and maybe the Cops should be pursuing the Cowboys instead. We watched Dragnet, Adam-12 and the FBI on TV and thought policemen were wonderful catchers of evil people; their corruptibility was beyond our fathoming and we knew (however so ruefully) that their truncheons would only be used on Black heads. We sighed, but lived on.

Then one day evil Viet Nam came on the airwaves and — wham! — like after Dylan hit the Beatles with magical obscurantism — our consciousness switched on and we turned off the TV and met in the streets to protest this hiccup in our heritage. Suddenly, it bothered us what had happened with the Native Americans — the smallpox blankets, the fire-water, and, later, the Bingo parlors. We started thinking about the robber barons and the cops they lined their pockets with to keep it safe. Wow, we thought, some cowboys have black hats, like Paladin, “A Knight without armor in a savage land,” who seemed all the world like our foreign policy. ‘Nam was the smoking gun. We began to play Cops and Protesters.

So that by the time we got to 1968 and the end of a decade of escalating death statistics in the MSM, having managed, along the way, to murder four leaders, at home, Black (MLK, MX) and White (JFK, RFK), we were pretty feisty and wanting change. It was a very traumatic year globally. As Nietzsche once said about ‘maturity being about regaining the seriousness of a child at play’, so we brought our role-playing forward into adulthood, with serious intentions, but always about actions. We practiced non-violence, which frustrated the fascists to no end, and Abbie Hoffman called it “guerilla theatre.” The cops played it forward too, getting ever meaner: Call it “gorilla theatre.” It was all theatre — absurd, oppressed, battlefields — and all about expression versus repression.

On July 28, 1965, President Johnson announced to the nation an escalation in the war; more troops, more draftees. Most of these draftees, between the ages of 18 and 21, had no right to vote (that came in 1971), and consequently had no say in going to Viet Nam. Blacks had only been given the right to vote in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They could hold jobs, pay taxes, but have no say in representation and how their tax money would be spent. A bunch of Abbie Hoffmans once threw tea into Boston Harbor and started a revolution for less.

In March 1968, LBJ announced that he would not seek re-election, opening up the Democratic party to a brokered convention in Chicago later that year. After Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were murdered earlier in the year, the national anxiety level and shock of gun violence, but Democrats went forward with nominating a status quo candidate — Hubert Humphrey — who seemed intent on continuing the war in ‘Nam. Anti-war protesters were determined to come to Chicago and get their message heard; forces of the state, controlled by Mayor Richard Daley, cops, army and national guardsmen were equally determined to ‘protect’ convention delegates from swarming, angry protesters.

Two strands of leadership organized the protests in Chicago, the first was the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the other was an umbrella group called National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE). In response to the city’s intention to give the war protesters a daily dicking with billy clubs, horses, and the manly scrunch of leather accessories, the hairy, peaceniks decided to hold their protest in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and call it, in contrast to what was happening in ‘Nam, The Festival of Life. It would include bands rockin’, nudity, political speeches, stand-up comedians, the nomination of a sow, named Pigasus, for the presidency — in short, a kind of staging of the smash hit musical Hair. Right on!

But things didn’t go as planned (or didn’t they?), as there were daily marches on the convention, resulting in myriad confrontations, and the protesters were not allowed to sleep in the park at night, which brought evening police raids to snuff out the Festival of Life. Demonstrators became more Bolsheviky™, cops got even scrunchier, bedlam even broke out inside the Democratic convention, where reporters were pushed back — why, Dan Rather even took a sucker punch for the team. “All in a day’s work,” he chimed, chin up, Korean War veteran smile. Facing the public, Walter Cronkite, who earlier in the decade had given us the teary-eyed bulletin on JFK’s demise, now declared the violent events in Chicago as “a police state.”

Well, the long and short of it is, when it was over days later, The Police State blamed the peaceniks for the mayhem (apparently, many had recklessly thrown their heads at truncheons and boots), and rounded up the alleged leaders who would be known as the Chicago 8 — MOBEsters, Yippies, and a token Black man (and Panther) named Bobby Seale (it was supposed to be Eldridge Cleaver). They were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with the intention of inciting rioting — a felony charge, with serious prison time implications.

Abbie was quick to take exception to the word “intention,” as it seemed to suggest a criminalization of “a state of mind” (a thought-dreams/guillotine kind of precedent), rather than a trial over Amendment rights — to wit, freedom of expression. What became startlingly evident during the trial was the government’s loose view of “conspiracy” — essentially, “just two guys talkin’” could be seen as a criminal activity, with equal punishment later, even if only one of the guys went ahead and nuked New Jersey. The Chicago 8 were eight guys talking, and the riots were New Jersey, in our scenario. Further, the government argued, conspirators only had to have the intention of a criminal act to have committed a crime.

When the trial for conspiracy began more than a year later, presiding Judge Julius Hoffman and the defendants had friction from the outset, and they seemed to be doomed to be handed contempt of court violations for their unruliness. Abbie called the judge, “Dad.” He regularly interrupted, used Yiddish pejoratives, called the judge a Nazi and “a shame” to his race. He seemed to figure that if it was going to be a trial about “state of mind” and intentions therewith, he was going to get at the judge’s psyche and get him to reveal his prejudices.

Jerry Rubin, too, saw that the judge was a playable figure. As Rubin describes the scene in Larry Sloman’s Steal This Dream: “I was upset with the judge because of his name. It gave Abbie the total edge. You couldn’t have planned that better if a playwright had written it. Oh, the judge was great, a total Yippie judge. Whatever we planned for him, he outdid it.”(186) Guerilla theatre in the justice zoo.

The pair flew paper airplanes in the courtroom, raised power-to-the-people fists at the jury, and generally addressed the judge as if he were a Marx Brothers character from Duck Soup. One day the pair came in dressed up in judge’s robes (213), and when told to remove the robes, Abbie had on underneath the uniform of a police officer. They seemed to be working the judge like a classic Marx Brothers maneuver. Judge Hoffman took note of these antics, which later led to the contempt charges, but carried on tolerantly.

But when it came to Bobby Seale, the dynamic was anything but tolerant. Seale’s lawyer had been unable to make the opening of the trial on time, and Judge Hoffman forced William Kunstler, the attorney for the other seven defendants, to represent him in the session (and beyond) — something Seale vociferously refused to accept. Seale interrupted the proceedings, pointed out to the judge the portraits of slave-owning presidents (Washington, Jefferson) on the wall behind him, and continuously demanded that he be allowed, in the absence of his preferred lawyer, to defend himself.

Abbie and Jerry had run a pig for president, and kidded about “eating it for breakfast,” in what amounted to a biting, yet harmless criticism of capitalist excesses. Bobby Seale, on the other hand, had also given a speech about “pigs” at the Festival of Life that ran against the generally non-violent expectation of the protesters, as he was talking about police and had suggested that “barbecuing some of that pork” might be an option.

When things eventually got so hot they couldn’t continue as is, the judge had Seale bound and gagged, creating a tremendous tension in the courtroom, and bringing into living color a symbol of what the State appeared to be wanting to do in Chicago anyway — gag freedom. Eventually, Seale was removed and sentenced to four years for contempt of court (eventually overturned after he’d served two years).

It was a celebrity trial — all kinds of musical, political, and literary luminaries got up on the witness stand to attest to the peaceful, non-malignant design of the Festival of Life. Judy Collins took the stand and favored the courtroom with a rendition of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Norman Mailer described a meeting he had with Jerry Rubin when they discussed the planning for the Chicago events: Rubin said, “We won’t do a thing. We are just going to be there and they won’t be able to take it. They will smash the city themselves. They will provoke all the violence.” Reverend Jesse Jackson told the court of how he’s heard that “the shoot to kill order had come out” and that he had seen “shotgun shells that had overkill pellets.”

In the battle of intentions, the State appeared to be losing. Chicago not only seemed prepared to encounter violence; it was aching for it. But that’s not the way it turned out with Judge Hoffman presiding. The now Chicago 7 were acquitted of conspiracy. Five of the defendants — David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin — were found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Eventually, it was all overturned for reasons to do with Judge Hoffman’s state of mind. Abbie and Jerry became celebrities in their own right, making, for them, lots of money from writing and speaking gigs.

The real undertold story of conspiracy is the one that followed a couple of years later. After Richard Nixons’s White House tapes were released to the public, it became evident that the president was so rattled by war protesters that he sat down with Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman to identify and consider beating them. In it, they bring up the Chicago 7, the president identifying them as “Jews” and the discussion rounding up violent options for dealing with protesters during the coming May Day events in Washington (during which some 10, 000 people were arrested, the largest one-day round-up in US history). They crossed more than state lines. Abbie had his nose broken by a thug. Nixon should have been tried — for conspiracy.

Abbie was right to call the trial, even the era, a defense of the right to have “a state of mind.” My Lai followed, and Kent State, and riot squads were restless, as Bobby Dylan would say, and the protesting got shriller, Nixon got more evil, and it looked like the whole spangling shebang was going to collapse. Now we live in a global digital panopticon, our states of mind probed by the State for “terrorist” tendencies and monetized with algorithms by monster commercial interests. Abbie wanted to laugh the Bastards out of office, but not many people are laughing anymore.

Note: The film Chicago 10, part animation, part documentary, is a useful and entertaining re-telling of events.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.