Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, streaming on Netflix, is entertaining, sometimes moving and often funny. But it played fast and loose with the facts. I ought to know. I was a yippie organizer for the ’68 protest and present every day at the trial, working on the defense side— in the beginning with Tom Hayden, tracking down witnesses. As the nature of the trial morphed, I became the “yippie props gal”. I acquired the robes that Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman wore to court in Sorkin’s movie.
Jerry and I had been living together for about 4 years. After the guilty verdict and contempt sentences the judge threw the defendants immediately into jail, and Anita Hoffman, Tasha Dellinger and I burned judges robes at a press conference underneath a huge banner — “We Are All Outlaws In the Eyes of America”— and helped organize a large protest. I spoke alongside attorney Bill Kunstler at Santa Barbara the day the citizens of that town burned down the Bank of America. So we were there, even if invisibly, as women often are.
Although the actors were great, Sorkin failed to reflect the essence of many of the characters. He showed Jerry as a violence-provoking buffoon, one who let a female FBI agent get close to him in the midst of what we had put our hearts and souls into for much of the year. The only woman that was next to him the whole time was me. And I knew Jerry’s faults as well as anyone which is finally why I left him. But I also knew his strengths. He had tremendous courage. Not Rambo courage. It was ridiculous to see him in the film talking about molotov cocktails. He couldn’t even make a smoothie. But he was brave. He stood up 3 times to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). All times in costume. First as a revolutionary war hero with tri-corner hat and all, then as an international guerrilla, and finally as Santa Claus. (It was Xmas time, and the headlines read HUAC BARS SANTA.) Many times bravery involves being able to put yourself out there, even if you are scared, to be outspoken and fight for what you think is right. Jerry had been a journalist and knew how to work the media to expand the movement. He developed theatrical politics and was a creative, brilliant tactician of protest. He helped lead the earlier protests against the war. It was largely his vision, as the Project Director, that guided the 1967 attempt to SHUT DOWN the Pentagon through both levitation and huge civil disobedience action against the war where 800 of us were arrested.
Jerry also arrived at the trial after a secret, harrowing cross-country journey by car from California to Chicago in the custody of US Marshalls, and spent the beginning of the trial in Cook County Jail. He’d served short sentences for anti-war activities. But Cook County Jail was especially challenging. And here is where some of the essence of Bobby Seale comes in. I thought he was played strongly in the film, if one-dimensionally. It was Bobby who helped Jerry get through his time in Cook County Jail. Bobby, facing possible life in prison (or worse), helped the white guy who had invited him to come speak! I was grateful for his help.
The conflict that went on among the white defendants and supporters about how to respond to what was going on in the courtroom with Bobby Seale was essential to those of us at the center. Once the guards dragged Bobby out, should we have disrupted the courtroom? We would forever interrogate ourselves about why we didn’t act. Was it respect for the Panthers’ request that we allow Bobby to define his own situation and not get in his way? But Bobby was now gone, so was it the differences among the defendants that held us back? Or was it our fear and white privilege? Of course Bobby’s severance from the trial, further delegitimized the court, and served to catalyze all that followed.
The one character that Sorkin really got wrong was Dave. Dave was an incredibly firm pacifist and his behavior in the courtroom exemplified it. With a second to decide, it was Dave who stepped up and stood between Bobby and the guards when they went after Bobby. He was jailed for that, not for defending himself. And he would never have slugged a guard.
Sorkin also missed a most important aspect of Kunstler’s courtroom behavior. What made him so different from many lawyers was that he had the greatest respect for his “clients”, and most especially for Dave. And who didn’t? We all loved and admired Dave, even if his stand as a World War II conscientious objector was difficult to come to terms with. I doubt Kunstler ever criticized Dave for his CO stance. And if he did, not in that offhand way.
Rennie Davis was not such a naive stick character. He might have looked like he was just an all-American guy, but he had traveled to North Vietnam and Madame Binh considers him to this day as her adopted son. I was glad the film gave him some respect by having him compile the names of the war dead. Although the names we actually compiled were of Vietnamese dead and not just American GIs.
Sasha Baron Cohen did a reputable job. But Abbie was more charming, and both funnier and more serious. He was as good as most standup comedians but was serious in his devotion to social change. He had previously participated in the Civil Rights movement and in later life he became an environmental activist.
I believe Tom was, at that time, a serious revolutionary. He made a mistake and misread the nature of the trial. He felt that the most important thing was to get the trial over with and go back to doing the real work needed to change the country. That’s a reasonable argument. But it wasn’t a reasonable trial and it was an opportunity to reach and mobilize people around the country and the world. Tom was slow to get that and perhaps didn’t respect the yippies enough to hear it sooner.
The Judge was meaner and more idiosyncratic than portrayed. He really looked like Mr. Magoo and was a nasty piece of work. The prosecutors were also creeps, and we did not have cordial conversation with them as depicted. In fact, I recall Abbie, Anita, Jerry and I escaping to the Museum of Science & Industry, high on what was then an illegal substance, where we bumped into Schultz. Abbie called him out as a “Shanda for the goyim”, yiddish for “a front man of the white anglo-saxon establishment”. He did not wish us a good day.
The missing element in the film was the rest of us, by which I mean the thousands of anti-war activists who came to the trial and waited out in the cold for hours to get into the trial. And all of us who joined the support effort and participated from the audience and were threatened or removed or arrested. Those folks were the engine that drove the anti-war movement, and among them were many WOMEN. In the absence of any of us in the movie, the fictitious burning of bras in Lincoln Park was demeaning. The only other women in this film were the phone answering Bernardine (a ridiculous throw away to Bernardine of SDS/Weatherman fame?) and the fictitious amorous undercover cop who replaced me. We might not have been out there in the limelight, but we were fighting as hard, if not harder, than the men to end the war and bring about a more just world. Sorkin could have had Anita, Tasha and I burning judges robes instead of bras. Our movement was shot through with male supremacy and Sorkin unintentionally reminds us we still have a long way to go.