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The Trial Of The Chicago 7: The Real Story Behind The Netflix Movie

Culture | October 16, 2020

The members of the Chicago Seven (Rubin, Dellinger, Weiner, Froines, Hayden, Davis, Hoffman) pose with others holding a poster of Bobby Seale, Chicago, Illinois, October 1969. Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

Who were the Chicago 7 and why were they on trial? The trial of the Chicago 7 was a court case that concerned the antiwar protests and rioting surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Chicago. The scene resembled a war zone, and it was broadcast into American homes via the nightly news. Eight leaders (later seven) of various groups were charged with having coordinated their efforts to go to Chicago to deliberately incite the unrest.

Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix movie The Trial Of The Chicago 7 centers around the drama that followed of one of the most significant antiwar protests in American history. During a time, not radically different from today, when civil rights and anti-war protests were trying to shed light on heinous abuses and corruption, this monumental trial captured the attention of the nation.

An old story that never should have been forgotten. (houstonpress)

Regrettably, events like these slip through the cracks, untaught and ignored by institutions of higher learning. Thankfully, the film offers creatives an opportunity to remind the public of pivotal moments in history, how far we’ve come, and how very far we still have to go as a society. As with all films based on true events, the movie doesn’t capture all the happenings of this historic trial. Therefore, here’s the real story of the Chicago 7.

The Country Was On Edge In 1968

Police savagely beat these protestors. (allthatsinteresting)

In 1968, the Vietnam War was at its peak, with more American troops than ever fighting, and dozens dying every day. The news was at its bleakest and tensions were high. In Chicago, the Democratic National Convention was set to nominate a new candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson had decided not to run for reelection.

A number of unrelated groups like the Black Panthers, Youth International Party (YIP, or "Yippies"), National Mobilization Committee to End War in Vietnam, and Students for a Democratic Society all planned to march on Chicago during the DNC. Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were all leaders or members of one of those groups marching on Chicago. They all forged ahead despite being denied a permit to protest. 

The Riot Was Actually A 'Police Riot'

The protest that ended in blood. (socialistcall)

Waiting to meet the protesters were 11,900 Chicago cops, 7,500 U.S Army Troops, 7,500 Illinois National Guardsmen, and 1,000 Secret Service Agents. The rioting stretched over five days. Not only did the police and agents use completely unnecessary force on protestors but also beat, maced, and abused bystanders, journalists and doctors trying to administer help.

The Walker Report, which was commissioned to discover the truth about what occurred over those five days found disturbing actions by police. "Individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest. To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at firsthand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot."

In a pattern that has become all too familiar with police behavior, "They started pulling off one person at a time, spraying mace in their eyes, striking their ribs or kidneys with clubs and tripping them.” “They (the police) planned to give what they thought of as a spoiled generation, a good ripping, a good beating and they did." It’s worth mentioning that it starts at the top. Earlier that year, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly gave a “shoot to kill” order to disperse the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Trial Was A Circus

Aaron Sorkin’s vision of the Chicago 7. (observer)

The most disgraceful element of the trial undoubtedly came in the form of Judge Julius Hoffman. The conservative judge's actions deserved every bit of disrespect laid at his feet by what started as the Chicago 8. After Bobby Seale’s lawyer fell ill the night before the trial, his protests of an unfair trial grew.

"This racist administration government with its Superman notions and comic book politics," he said at one point. "We're hip to the fact that Superman saved no black people. You got that?... You have did everything you could with those jive lying witnesses up there presented by these pig agents of the government to lie and say and condone some rotten racists, fascist crap by racist cops and pigs that beat people's heads in and I demand my constitutional rights!" Seale’s tirade earned him a separate trial from the white defendants.

In response, Judge Hoffman took the detestable action of bounding, gagging, and chaining Seale to his chair. Eventually, Seale was severed from the case, and the Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7. Judge Hoffman sentenced Seale to four years in prison on 16 counts of contempt, and his separate trial for the Chicago riots never came to pass.

The fact that Seale was the only black defendant and Hoffman kept him bound and gagged for several days were not unrelated. We know that because the other defendants, who were white, antagonized Hoffman as relentlessly if not more so and received no debasement like Seale.

Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came into court wearing judicial robes. When they were ordered to take them off, their police uniforms underneath were revealed. Abbie Hoffman also referred to the judge as “Julie” and gave him the finger while being sworn in. 

5 Of The Chicago 7 Were Found Guilty

from left, lawyer Leonard Weinglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, David Dellinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and lawyer William Kunstler. (observer)

As the jury was in deliberation, Judge Hoffman’s deplorable and tyrannical behavior continued, with wildly inappropriate charges of contempt. He sentenced one of the lawyers to four years in prison for calling him “Mr. Hoffman” as opposed to “Your Honor.” Abbie Hoffman got a year for laughing. The judge ordered the defendants' long hair shaved and the Sheriff, Joe Woods, held up Abbie’s hair like some trophy at a press conference. 

All seven of the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, but five of them were found guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. They were fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. During their sentencing, Dellinger and Rubin offered powerful critiques of society that sadly ring true to this day.

Dellinger: "Whatever happens to us, however unjustified, will be slight compared to what has happened already to the Vietnamese people, to the Black people in this country, to the criminals with whom we are now spending our days in the Cook County jail."

Rubin: "I am glad we exposed the court system because in millions of courthouses across this country Blacks are being shuttled from the streets to the jails and nobody knows about it. They are forgotten men. There ain't a whole corps of press people sitting and watching. They don't care. You see what we have done is, we have exposed that. Maybe now people will be interested in what happens in the courthouse down the street because of what happened here. Maybe now people will be interested."

Thankfully, while the Chicago 7 (or 8) endured police brutality and an abhorrent judge, America does have a system of appeals. Only Froines and Weiner were initially acquitted of all charges. However, on November 21, 1972, all convictions were reversed mostly due to the fact that Judge Hoffman was found to be biased for refusing to allow defense attorneys to screen jurors for bias. An additional factor in the appeals court's decision was that the FBI had bugged the offices of the defense. 

Tags: Abbie Hoffman | Chicago 7 | The Vietnam War | 1968 Democratic National Convention

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!