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The trial of the Chicago Eight: when ruling class revenge backfired

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With a new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, now in cinemas, Yuri Prasad examines how the events were a blow for the US establishment set on crushing an anti-war movement
Issue 2726
The trial of the Chicago Eight: when ruling class revenge backfired
Anti-war demonstrators gather opposite the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 21, 1967. (Pic: TommyJapan79)

The year 1968 marked a high point of radical struggle in America. But the trial of the Chicago Eight in September 1969 was a chance for the state to get revenge.

The establishment viewed it as an opportunityto crush representatives of all the long-haired trouble makers who had turned so many people against the Vietnam war. And they had also made the youth into an ungovernable army of rebellion.

But like so much else in late 60s America, these ruling class fantasies would soon be turned on their heads. Instead of the trial spreading fear among the unruly, those who levied the charges instead found themselves objects of mass ridicule.

The case centred on a series of protests outside the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago in August 1968.

Only a few thousand demonstrators had joined, far fewer than expected. It was certainly a lot less than the 300,000 that had marched in New York a little over a year earlier.

Organisers blamed the poor turnout on the actions of Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley. This authoritarian Democratic Party boss had banned any rally points, music stages or camping areas.

This effectively rendered the protests illegal.

But some also recognised that the focus of anger at the Vietnam War had shifted. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had escalated the conflict, had been forced to concede he would not seek re-election in November.

Thousands of young people were being drafted into the army just as it seemed the war had become unwinnable.

This disastrous turn in fortunes was ruining the economy and had destroyed Johnson’s ambitious social programme. Everyone knew the Republicans would annihilate him at the polls.

Now, an opportunist senator from Minnesota called Eugene McCarthy had captured the imagination of much of the left with his talk of being a Democrat president who would bring peace.

Many of those only recently radicalised by the anti-war movement were captivated by McCarthy.


Few of them now saw the need for a mass protest at the convention which would decide who would replace Johnson as the Democrat presidential nominee.

So the radicals gathered in Chicago found themselves isolated— and that in turn sent a signal to Daley to go on the rampage.

A mixture of police, National Guard and soldiers cracked hundreds of skulls. The whole central district was enveloped by tear gas.

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The cops showed no mercy, and outside the Hilton hotel, where many delegates were staying, anyone was fair game.

The Village Voice newspaper reported, “Demonstrators, reporters, McCarthy workers, doctors, all began to stagger into the Hilton lobby, blood streaming from face and head wounds. The lobby smelled of gas. A few people began to direct the wounded to a makeshift hospital on the fifteenth floor, the McCarthy staff headquarters.”

Even senior Democrats were shocked at the scale of the police violence, with one describing it as the worst thing he’d seen since “the films of Nazi Germany”.

Despite the carnage outside, on the convention floor a combination of conservativism and Daley’s thugs maintained their reign. The delegates endorsed continuity candidate Hubert Humphrey to lead them into battle against Republican Richard Nixon— and Humphrey lost. After long years of Democrat rule, the state’s attack dogs were eager for Nixon to become president.

And, after his victory they set about terrorising those who fought against racism and the war.

Eight months after the convention, federal prosecutors indicted eight “leaders” of the protest and charged them with conspiracy and incitement to riot. Everyone knew that the 74 year old judge, Julius Hoffman, was set to hear the case—and that he would be itching to dish out maximum sentences.

As far as Nixon was concerned all eight defendants were as one. But in reality they came from different movements, with different understandings about what was wrong with the world.

The cultural radicals of the Youth International Party—the “Yippies”—were represented by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

These hugely popular figures, they had previously been involved with a plan to levitate the Pentagon by mass chanting. They now wanted to expose the court as an “absurdity”.

Abbie Hoffman appeared in court wearing judicial robes. Knowing he and the judge were both Jewish, he repeatedly insulted the judge in Yiddish.

The political radicals of the New Left were represented by Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis. They were committed activists who knew a ten-year sentence would be a huge setback for the anti-war movement they led.

Hayden was the head of Students for a Democratic Society, a group with more than 30,000 members.

They took the case seriously in the hope of forcing a hung jury, and they argued the trial was an affront to freedom of speech and assembly.

Black radicalism was represented by Bobby Seale, the chair of the Black Panther Party.

Everyone knew that Seale had no real involvement in events. He had spoken at a rally during the convention but played no role in the organisation.

Seale was in the line-up not because he had incited anyone to riot but because the state wanted to persecute the Panthers. They were the first Marxist organisation in the US with a mass base since the Communist Party in the 1930s.


Seale was deprived of his own lawyer and denied repeated demands to represent himself. In return he called the judge “a rotten racist pig” and a “fascist pig liar”.

Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale should be bound and gagged. It led to the horrifying spectacle of a black man in chains in an American courtroom, shouting through a gag to demand his rights.

As it became clear the evidence against Seale amounted to nothing, the judge removed him from the case.

But he still sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt of court— the longest ever sentence of its kind at the time. And the state didn’t let up on Seale.

He was almost immediately put on trial for a murder in New Haven that he didn’t commit.

The last defendants were John Froines, a PhD chemist, and Lee Weiner, PhD sociologist. They seemed to have been randomly selected having played no significant role in the Convention protests.

The trial lasted for months, with many celebrated actors and artists called as defence witnesses. This helped to make it a lead item on TV news. And even inside the courtroom it became clear that the state’s aim of intimidating its opponents had failed.

Singer Judy Collins sang, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” from the dock, while the defence hung the Vietnamese resistance flag from its table.

While the jury finally deliberated, the judge proclaimed that the defendants and most of their lawyers were guilty of contempt of court.

He imposed sentences ranging from ten weeks to four years in jail. Abbie Hoffman received eight months for laughing in court. Weiner got two months for refusing to stand for the judge. The verdicts came in February 1970 and each of the remaining seven defendants was acquitted of conspiracy. Froines and Weiner were acquitted completely but the rest were convicted of intent to incite a riot—which carried a five-year sentence.

Judge Hoffman must have felt vindicated. But it was a hollow victory.

The trial drove many reform minded people who were sickened by the spectacle into the arms of revolutionaries who insisted the whole system needed to be overturned. And crucially, the context of the Vietnam War had changed.

Most of the ruling class were now determined to find a way out of the conflict. It was a military and economic disaster, and an embarrassing blow to US imperialism. It had also driven a wedge into American society that threatened the stability of the capitalist system.

The following year saw an appeal. In 1972 a judge overturned all of the convictions, ruling that not only had Judge Hoffman been wrong in law, but he’d been “systematically biased”. A year later all the contempt of court charges—which had collectively totalled 19 years—were thrown out. But the ruling came too late for four defendants who had already served jail terms.

The war came to an end in January 1973 with a treaty that conceded a humiliating US defeat.

It was a resounding blow to the American ruling class. The trial that was supposed to put the anti-war movement in the dock had instead helped declare the warmongers guilty.

  • The trial of the Chicago 7 film is currently in selected cinemas and on Netflix from 16 October

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