Return of the Chicago 7

Not long after I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, I dropped in on my old friend Laura Kronenberg at her loft on The Bowery. At the time, I was gung-ho on Trotskyism and preached to both friends and strangers. She was having none of it, insisting that I had to figure out a way to make an impact in Time Magazine, not waste my time with Marxist propaganda. She added, “Why don’t you imitate Abbie Hoffman? He knows how to get their attention.”

I let the matter drop, since as much as I loved Laura, she was far too Bohemian to take me seriously. At the time, she was an Evergreen Books editor and sinking roots in New York’s cultural avant-garde. After she married my friend Frank Cavestani, they became regulars at Max’s Kansas City and part of Andy Warhol’s periphery. Since Frank was an anti-war Vietnam veteran, they decided to use the new and inexpensive 8mm camera to make “Operation Last Patrol,” a documentary about Ron Kovic and other veterans protesting at the Republican Party convention in 1972. When he made “Born on the Fourth of July,” Oliver Stone cast Frank as Ron’s care-giver. You can see him pushing Tom Cruise around in a wheelchair in crowd scenes inspired by “Operation Last Patrol.”

Through most of the seventies, Frank and Laura lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where they became good friends with Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s leading ladies. They were good friends with Viva, who I met once. They were also pals with Abbie Hoffman, who was living in the Chelsea. When there, they made a documentary about how Abbie made gefilte fish for Benjamin Spock. The film shows off his puckish humor.

Looking back at the choices I made, I often rue the 11 years I wasted in the SWP. While other people from my generation like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were having fun, I was something of a worker bee. I remember one cold and drizzly night in September 1967, when I was with a team of comrades wheat-pasting posters on Broadway between 59th and 96th streets for the October demonstration in Washington. Just after we finished, the cops told us to take them all down. Our only reward was seeing a massive turnout that included Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Hoffman and Rubin trying to levitate the Pentagon. During the trial of the Chicago 7, Hoffman used his puckish sense of humor to make prosecutor Richard Schultz look foolish as he tried to make an amalgam between this stunt and the charge of fomenting a riot in August 1968. When Schultz asked Hoffman to explain why he urinated on the Pentagon that day, you could not help but laugh at the exchange.

After having seen Adam Sorkin’s Netflix docudrama and one that aired on HBO in 1987, I can’t remember which film recreated this exchange. What I can remember, however, is the significant political differences between the two, as well as my take on the Chicago protests and the ensuing trial at the time. The seven men on trial were committed to the politics of the spectacle, to put it in DeBordian terms. By the summer of 1968, Dellinger et al. had grown frustrated with the failure of the mass demonstrations to end the war. They believed that “resistance” was necessary as a tantrum by several thousand young people could force the warmakers into withdrawing from South Vietnam. On December 29, 1968, SWP leader Fred Halstead debated Jerry Rubin over “What Policy for the Antiwar Movement.” The Militant newspaper carried excerpts from Rubin’s speech:

The war in Vietnam will be stopped when the embarrassment of carrying on the war becomes greater than the embarrassment of admitting defeat. A lot of things embarrass America. A lot of things embarrass a country so dependent on image: Youth alienation, campus demonstrations and disruptions, peace candidates, underground railroads of draft dodgers to Canada, trips to banned countries, thousands of people giving their middle finger to the Pentagon over national television …

The long-haired beasts, smoking pot, evading the draft and stopping traffic during demonstrations is a hell of a more threat to the system than the so-called politico with leaflets of support for the Vietcong and the coming working-class revolution. Politics is how you live your life, not who you vote for or who you support . . .

Only seven months later, the Chicago Seven led actions based on these premises. Unsurprisingly, the war continued despite the embarrassment generated by the police riots and the kangaroo court that the two documentaries depicted.

After the Vietnam war ended, the sixties radicalization died down and left professional radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin at loose ends. Abbie reinvented himself as an environmentalist to his everlasting credit, while eluding arrest for a drug deal he claimed was a police trap. Meanwhile, Rubin also reinvented himself but only after dropping his long-haired beast act.

He figured out that being a “yippie” was a waste of time when it was so much more profitable to be a “yuppie.” In the 1980s, he went on a debating tour with Abbie Hoffman billed as “Yippie versus Yuppie.” On July 30, 1980, Rubin wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Guess Who’s Coming to Wall Street,” defending his decision to go to work for John Muir and Company, an investment firm that would be sued by clients a year later for shady dealings. He summed up the changes of the past two decades this way: “Politics and rebellion distinguished the ’60s. The search for self characterized the ’70s. Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s.”

In the early 1980s, Rubin sponsored networking cocktail parties for “yuppies” that I attended once or twice out of curiosity. I could not resist confronting Rubin and challenged him about becoming the kind of character he railed about in the 1960s. He smiled blandly at me and moved on. For somebody with such a gift of gab, there was not much he could say.

Unlike Rubin and Hoffman, SDS leader Rennie Davis eschewed the long-haired beast look. Sorkin even exaggerates the straight-laced, nerdy aspects of his personality, turning him into a caricature. If he comes across as someone trying to rein in Yippie adventurism, the reality was more complex. Like fellow SDS leader Tom Hayden, Davis attempted to straddle the fence between respectability and “resistance.” In his thousand-page history of the antiwar movement titled “Out Now,” Fred Halstead describes Davis as sharing Dave Dellinger and Jerry Rubin’s belief that tactics dominated politics. Often, it appeared that tactics had become their politics. However, unlike his fellow defendants, he had practical organizational talent.

Like Rubin, Davis reinvented himself after the seventies began dying down. Even as the war in Vietnam still raged, Rennie Davis became an acolyte of Guru Maharaj Ji, the 16-year-old leader of the Divine Light Mission. In November 1973, the Mission organized “Millennium ’73,” a three-day event at the Houston Astrodome, which they advertised as “the most significant event in human history.” For those still consumed with the need to push for an end to the war in Vietnam, it promised “a thousand years of peace for people who want peace.” In other words, peace could come to the world when individuals found inner peace.

In the mid-80s, Davis described himself as a “venture capitalist” and continued to urge suffering humanity to discover inner peace. An interview with Davis in Forbes magazine described him as a “financial adviser to various CEOs and senior executives from major companies, including Gates Rubber Company, the Manville Corp., HBO, and IBM.” He told the magazine:

To me, money is…a psychological construct. One of the great discoveries occurring in the present time involves recent discoveries in physics about the thought-reactive nature of this world. It turns out our entire reality is a psychological construct, and all our experiences, including those involving money, are coming from ourselves. How you feel about wealth and money — your own perceptions about your own abundance — shape your experiences of money.

Fred Halstead could not have been more different than the Chicago Seven. By trade a cutter in the garment industry, the six-foot-six 350-pounder frequently took odd jobs when the garment industry blacklisted reds during the 1950s. One of them was as a bouncer in a country-and-western saloon.

Fred had a different vision for the antiwar movement than Rubin. He saw the possibility of a mass movement winning GI’s to its cause, in the same way the Bolsheviks won over the Czarist troops weary of four years of brutal and senseless slaughter. My old friend, the late Nelson Blackstock, profiled Fred in his best-selling “Cointelpro: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom”:

Early in 1946 a young sailor named Fred Halstead was stationed on a ship off the coast of China. World War II had just ended, but on the mainland of China the fighting had not stopped. A civil war was raging.

Back in Washington the rulers of this country were very interested in the outcome of that struggle. They would have liked to send their army in to back up Chiang Kai-shek’s crumbling forces, but their attempts to stall the demobilization of American troops after the war provoked massive protests among the GIs. It was clear that large-scale U.S. military intervention in China was out of the question.

Two decades later when the United States began committing thousands of troops to another Asian country in an attempt to hold back a revolution, Fred Halstead remembered what he had seen while he was in the navy. He was convinced that there were important lessons for the growing movement against the war in Vietnam.

Turning now to the two documentaries on the Chicago Seven, I would recommend watching HBO’s “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8” first. Made in 1987, it has the virtue of reenacting the trial using the actual words of the lawyers and the witnesses. It has well-known actors playing the various roles, including Robert Loggia as William Kunstler and Elliott Gould as his fellow attorney Leonard Weinglass. It also has all of the principals reflecting on the experience. Directed by Jeremy Kagan, it takes place entirely in the courtroom with key clips from newsreels showing how the cops attacked the protests with no provocation. The film is on YouTube and carries no rental fee. It is must-viewing for anybody trying to get past Adam Sorkin’s heavy-handed editorializing.

As for the title referring to the Chicago 8, Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale faced charges alongside the seven white activists. Seale had nothing to do with the protests. He also insisted that his own lawyer Charles Garry, who was in the hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery, should represent him. In his characteristically obtuse and racist manner, Judge Julius Hoffman told Seale that he had to live with representation from William Kunstler. Not satisfied with this arrangement, Seale repeatedly demanded on the right to defend himself, which Hoffman would not allow. Finally, Hoffman ordered Seale to be bound and gagged, a sight that generated about as much outrage as the murder of George Floyd. Shortly afterward, perhaps due to feeling the pressure of public opinion, the judge declared a mistrial for Seale, who—like all the other defendants—was found not guilty.

About the best you can say about Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” on Netflix is that it is the product of a seasoned writer and director. Having seen his “The Social Network” and “Molly’s Game,” I can promise you that “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” will be an entertaining 130 minutes. The problem is not art, but politics.

Sorkin weighed in on the Chicago prosecution side even though it might not be obvious to some. Using William Kunstler’s character as a foil, he makes the case that Hoffman, Rubin, and Hayden provoked the cops into attacking the protestors.

As the film begins, he shows Jerry Rubin giving a workshop on making Molotov Cocktails, which he might have done at one point. However, it is doubtful that he gave such a class to those who came to Chicago since the undercover cops would have testified to that effect. Sorkin included this scene to prejudice the audience against the seven.

In the first scene that brings Kunstler together with the defendants, we hear him laying down the law. He did not see this as a political trial but one that focuses on refuting the charges based on evidence. Anybody who knows anything about Kunstler’s career will recognize this as pure bullshit. Unlike Leonard Weinglass or other legendary left-wing attorneys, Kunstler saw all trials as political. If you watch Robert Loggia’s performance as Kunstler in the HBO documentary, you can’t miss his outrage over Judge Hoffman’s continuous siding with the Chicago prosecutors and police department.

Additionally, Sorkin depicts all of the characters as succumbing to the temptation of provoking the cops, even when they initially appear to be on Kunstler’s side. In a key scene, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) almost come to blows over Hoffman’s insistence that they lead a march to the doorsteps of the Democratic Party convention center even if it leads to busted heads, teeth and limbs.

Later on, Kunstler accuses Hayden of being a hypocrite because he uttered these inflammatory words to a mass audience of protestors: “if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city. If gas is going to be used — let that gas come down all over Chicago and not just all over us in this park. That if the police are going to run wild let them run wild all over the City of Chicago and not over us in this park.”

Hayden’s quote is used against him, even by Fred Halstead, who compared him unfavorably to David Dellinger, a man committed to Gandhian nonviolence. (In a total misrepresentation of Dellinger’s principles, Sorkin has him punching out a cop in the courtroom.) However, if you keep in mind that he was reacting passionately to his comrade Rennie Davis being clubbed by a cop in one of the brutal attacks, he appears far more justified as the full quote indicates:

May I briefly — two points; the first is — remember Rennie Davis. Rennie Davis, project director of the Mobilization is in the hospital with a split head. We are in close touch with him. He’s going to be all right, but he would want you to do for him what he is unable to do because he is in the hospital — and that is make sure that if blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city.

Even when Sorkin acknowledged that Hayden had reasons for saying this, he reversed himself later by characterizing the entire Chicago Seven as turning protesters into sacrificial lambs. To some extent, Sorkin had a point given what Jerry Rubin said in his debate with Fred Halstead:

Repression turns demonstration protests into wars. Actors into heroes. Masses of individuals into a community. Repression eliminates the bystander, the neutral observer, the theorist. It forces everyone to pick a side. A movement cannot grow without repression. The Left needs an attack from the Right and the Center. Life is theater, and we are the guerrillas attacking the shrines of authority, from the priests and the holy dollar to the two-party system. Zapping people’s minds and putting them through changes in actions in which everyone is emotionally involved.

Despite my misspent years in the Trotskyist movement, the one thing that I got out of it was the antibodies I retained against this kind of ultraleftism. I believe that the movement grows out of victories, not defeats. When the cops beat the crap out of thousands of demonstrators in Chicago, it did not lead to a feeling of power. It only made Americans feel defeated, especially when the Chicago fiasco was followed quickly by Richard Nixon’s election.

Without fully realizing the significance of their words, the protesters’ chant of “The whole world is watching” revealed the fatal flaw in their tactics. Politics is not a spectator sport where you watch younger and more footloose activists either being beaten by or beating up right-wingers and cops. If that had been the dominant form of protest in the 1960s, GI’s never would have joined in, nor would the average person who turned out for the Moratorium in 1969.

Mass actions did not only encourage such people to take part. They also encouraged a whistle-blower named Daniel Ellsberg to turn over the Pentagon Papers to the NY Times and the Washington Post.

Fred Halstead recounts an extraordinary demonstration of how far the antiwar movement had advanced in 1969. On November 9th, the GI Press Service of the Student Mobilization Committee, a group that included many young Trotskyists, ran a full-paid ad in the Sunday edition of the NY Times. Signed by 1,365 active duty GI’s (many in Vietnam), including their name, rank and serial number, it urged Americans to take part in demonstrations occurring in Washington and San Francisco on the fifteenth. They openly stated their beliefs:

“We are opposed to American involvement in the war in Vietnam. We resent the needless wasting of lives to save face for the politicians in Washington. We speak, believing our views are shared by many of our fellow servicemen. Join us!”

I remember that ad. It made me feel that all the grunt work I had carried out for the past couple of years was worth it. I have only felt as uplifted in recent years by the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. When millions of people take to the streets to protest war and racism, they don’t act as spectators but as people making history. That’s what revolutions are, after all.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.