Updated: Dec 2, 2020
By Julia Loritz
Image via All That’s Interesting
The Original 8: (from left to right) top - Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis; bottom - Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and David Dellinger.
Chicago, U.S.A., 1968 — The recently released Netflix drama, ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’, is nothing less than an apt field for comparison. Set in the tail-end of a key election year, it displays many similarities to the current reality of politics in the United States. Protesters took to the streets in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The voters also voiced their disapproval for the ongoing war in Vietnam and encouraged the message of non-violence (Town and Country). Unfortunately, thousands of lives were lost due to national affairs but students and youth voters were a significant vehicle for change for their cause, similar to Gen-Z’s today for BLM, climate change, and political reform. The director of the film, Aaron Sorkin, takes on the culminating grounds of the ‘68 Democratic National Convention and the subsequent trial revive relevant themes from the past.
The film focuses on the event of former president Lyndon B. Johnson deciding not to seek a second term. He left the race up to candidates Richard Nixon (R) and Hubert Humphrey (D) (New York Times). The student activists active during the DNC included the Yippies (Youth International Party), the MOBE’s (Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and the Black Panthers. Thousands of protestors arrived in Grant Park, hoping to spark attention outside the convention. For them, this was a pivotal moment to voice against racism, war, and the nomination of a candidate that may not meet the nagging needs of the time. Although expected, police units met them prepared to dispel the group with force. Rocks, glass combat batons, and tear gas were weapons that turned a peaceful protest into a messy one.
Amidst the suffocating chaos stood the notorious Chicago 7 (originally 8) who were the renowned leaders of their respective organizations. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin headed the Yippies; David Dellinger advocated for MOBE. Thomas Hayden and Rennie Davis were at the forefront of the SNS. And finally, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale. It wasn’t until 1969 when the newly appointed Attorney General, John Mitchell, indicted them with several federal offenses. These included conspiracy, inciting a riot over state lines, and violation of the Rap Brown Law. The Rap Brown Law (Also known as The Anti-Riot Law or Title X under the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was passed in order to stop riots at their source, citing H. Rap Brown’s 1967 arrest for carrying a gun over state borders as its namesake. In 2020, it has been used against BLM activists, especially subsequent to the death of George Floyd this past May (Meaww.com).
The prosecutors enlisted by Attorney General Mitchell were Tom Foran and the young Richard Schultz. Lawyers William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass represented all of the defendants except for Bobby Seale. Seale's lawyer was undergoing surgery at the time, but instead of delaying the trial, he was denied representation during his time in court. Frequently, Seale interrupted with demands to cross-examine witnesses. Judge Julius Hoffman denied each request and instead cited him with sixteen counts of contempt. Eventually, Judge Hoffman had Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom — an outrageous display of racism and a continuation of disregard for his right to a fair trial. After the incident, Bobby was to be tried separately from the others (Constitutional Rights Foundation, USA).
The film itself explores the twists and turns of the lengthy litigation. It provides a modern insight of the biases and political statements held by both sides that make activists captivated by the connections they make to their own experiences. Watching the film may spark a call to action, or perhaps a wake-up call to history repeating itself right before our eyes. Particularly, as we navigate the pandemonium of the 2020 election season, the recollection of past events will remind us of the power of protest and political awareness. Take it as a nudge to get out and vote!
Written by writer Julia Loritz