The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Background

The Police Riot

In August 1968 in Chicago, during the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating convention, Chicago police viciously attacked – with teargas and nightsticks – a crowd of several thousand anti-Vietnam War protestors peacefully marching to the convention center where the Party was holding its sessions.  Over 500 demonstrators were injured. Demonstrators chanted “The whole world is watching” as TV cameras, in Chicago for the convention, broadcast the events live.  An independent investigating commission three months later called the events “a police riot.”

Seven months later, in March 1969, the administration of President Richard Nixon — who had defeated Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey the previous November – indicted eight men whom the government claimed had helped plan the five days of demonstrations that preceded the march.  The  indictment charged the eight with conspiring to cross state lines “with the intent to incite … and carry on a riot,” a law passed in April 1968 by Congress following riots in several American cities after the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated earlier that month.

Those indicted were 32-year-old Abbie Hoffman and 30-year-old Jerry Rubin, both “Yippies” and masters of political theatre; 53-year-old Dave Dellinger, a long-time pacifist and non-violent activist who graduated Yale in 1936 with an economics degree; Bobby Seale, 32, a co-founder and Chairman of the Black Panther Party;  Tom Hayden, 28, an anti-war and civil rights activist who co-wrote SDS’s (Students for a Democratic Society) political manifesto; Rennie Davis, 27, coalition coordinator for the convention week demonstrations and a leader of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; and two 28-year-old college professors, Lee Weiner (pronounced Winer),  and John Froines.   

The Trial

The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, as it became known, was far more than a court case.  It was a clash of cultures, political theatre at its best:  the staid, tradition-bound and conservative Establishment vs. antiwar protestors, civil rights activists, loud music, long hair, free love, hippies and Yippies —  viz., the Counterculture of the 1960s.

The trial lasted 4 1/2 months – it began on September 25, 1969 and ended on February 20, 1970 – and was in no way an ordinary  trial.  From the very beginning,  the judge — Julius J. Hoffman, a conservative, arrogant and spiteful 74-year-old – demonstrated his antagonism toward the defendants and their case.  Throughout the trial, it was clear that Judge Hoffman had no respect for any of the defendants and certainly the defendants had no respect for the judge.  And each told the other so. 

Verbal clashes between Judge Hoffman and the defendants, and between Judge Hoffman and defendants’ lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass dominated the entire trial.  Who was right and who was wrong – whether it was horrifying or outrageously funny — generally depended on whose side you were on.

Each side provoked the other, often intentionally, sometimes not.  At times the provocation was something the judge did or said, other times it was something a defendant – or one of their lawyers – did or said.  And like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it seemed that each such action or statement by one side was met by an opposite reaction or contrary statement from the other side … which in turn would trigger yet another counter reaction or unseemly response.

Sometimes the courtroom proceedings seemed like a trial, sometimes a circus.  And sometimes, an outrage:  When Bobby Seale, one of the defendants, tried to represent himself because his lawyer was hospitalized and Judge Hoffman refused to postpone the start of the trial, the judge ordered Seale bound and gagged.  Literally.  For five days, Seale appeared in the courtroom – with the jury present — shackled to a chair and with a gag on his mouth.  Never before had anything like this ever occurred in an American courtroom.  This travesty ended only when Judge Hoffman held Seale in contempt of court, sentenced him to four years in prison for his conduct in court and severed his case from the others (the “Chicago 8” becoming the “Chicago 7”).

The government, which brought the charges against the defendants, wanted to demonstrate its commitment to “law and order” – a 1960s dog whistle directed against blacks and young white activists.  It also wanted to demonstrate its steadfast opposition to the scores of youth-led political and social movements sprouting throughout America in the 1960s.  It thought it could prosecute the case as an ordinary criminal trial, one with the full might and authority of President Nixon’s repressive government behind it.  

The defendants and their lawyers put on a defense — by the witnesses they called to testify (e.g., Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Dick Gregory), their constant verbal sparring with the judge, and their own provocative actions in the courtroom – that attracted coverage in the media and called the country’s attention to the Vietnam War and the government’s racist and repressive policies.