On August 26, 1968, the Democratic National Convention kicked off its four-day event at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. The year had already proved to be a tumultuous one; racial tensions and political unrest were at an all-time high following the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. So it was hardly surprising when protestors from around the country—many of them speaking out against the Vietnam War—descended on the DNC.
On August 28, approximately 15,000 protestors arrived at the Grant Park Bandshell to attend a rally, which the city had granted the demonstrators a permit to hold. But when the afternoon event ended and several thousand of those in attendance decided to march to the International Amphitheatre, the earlier peacefulness of the event turned to violence. Over the next five days and nights, police and activists found themselves in direct conflict with each other; while the authorities used tear gas and their batons, the protestors threw rocks.
Though many arrests were made, seven of the people put in handcuffs that night would quickly become household names: Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Lee Weiner. Better known as the Chicago Seven, these political radicals were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot and put on trial. By the end of that trial, they'd all be acquitted of conspiracy, but five of them would be found guilty of inciting riots, and even their defense attorneys would score some jail time for contempt of court.
From their March 20, 1969 indictments to the February 19, 1970 verdict, the circus in the courtroom became a national news story. The event has been the basis for a score of songs and dozens of movies, including The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer-director Aaron Sorkin's new Netflix feature. Read on for more facts about the real story behind the infamous trial.
1. The Chicago Seven was originally the Chicago Eight.
Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was initially one of the men charged along with Hoffman, Hayden, and the rest of the Chicago Seven, but he was removed from the case after vocally refusing to have his right to a lawyer ignored. Seale wanted well-known attorney Charles Garry to represent him, but since Garry had a scheduled gallbladder surgery, he requested the trial be postponed. Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to Abbie) denied the motion, but Seale rejected his court-appointed attorney. And since Judge Hoffman wouldn't allow Seale to represent himself, he effectively took away his right to legal representation.
2. Judge Hoffman had Bobby Seale bound and gagged.
After being denied his right to legal representation, Seale called Judge Hoffman a racist and repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, at one time saying, "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!"
Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale be restrained, both physically and audibly. So Seale was chained to a chair and gagged, then removed from the case a week later after Hoffman ordered him to serve four years solely for contempt of court.
3. The Chicago Seven were charged under a brand-new law.
The Chicago Seven were the first people charged under the anti-rioting provision set out in Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (more commonly known as the Anti-Riot Act), which had been signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in April 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil unrest that followed. That was two months before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, who had been running for the Democratic Party nomination, and four months before the protests at the Chicago DNC.
4. Noam Chomsky and other well-known figures came to the Chicago Seven’s defense.
In an open letter to The New York Review of Books, activists/intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Judy Collins, and others rebuked the use of the anti-rioting provision of the law and came to the defense of "The Conspiracy" (another name for the Chicago Seven). Their letter began: “The federal indictment in Chicago of eight political dissenters for conspiracy to promote disorder and riot during the week of the Democratic National Convention is one of the most ominous challenges to political liberty since the passing of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy."
5. Yippies ensured the Chicago Seven’s case would be theatrical.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were co-founders of the Youth International Party, more commonly known as the Yippies. The revolutionary movement used absurdity and dramatics to draw attention to their causes, and the trial of the Chicago Seven was no exception. These "Groucho Marxists" openly mocked Judge Hoffman and, in one instance, wore their own judges' robes into the court. When Judge Hoffman demanded they remove them, they obliged ... only for the courtroom to see that they were wearing Chicago Police Department uniforms underneath.
6. Abbie Hoffman played tug-of-war with a federal deputy marshal over a flag.
In addition to playing dress-up, Hoffman also unfurled a National Liberation Front flag—a popular symbol of support for the Viet Cong—at the defense table. When marshal Ronald Dobroski attempted to remove the flag, he and Hoffman engaged in a round of the classic playground game that only intensified the farcical nature of the proceedings. It was also captured by a courtroom artist.
7. The defense called more than 100 witnesses during the trial of the Chicago Seven.
That included a lot of famous faces. The defense team's core argument was that the protests in Chicago had been peaceful until police had instigated violence. The bulk of their witnesses attested to that fact, including poet Allen Ginsberg, comedian Dick Gregory, musician Arlo Guthrie, and writer Norman Mailer [PDF].
8. Even the Chicago Seven’s defense lawyers were charged with contempt.
The contempt of court citations began on the first day of the Chicago Seven’s trial when Tom Hayden gave a fist salute to the jury and was reprimanded for it. But the rest of the trial was largely an exercise in the defendants showing their contempt for Judge Hoffman's court in response to the judge showing his bias against them. While the jury deliberated, Hoffman announced 159 total contempt citations for the defendants and their lawyers, including eight months for Abbie Hoffman for laughing and four years for defense attorney William Kunstler for addressing the bench as "Mr. Hoffman" instead of "Your Honor" [PDF].
9. Five members of the Chicago Seven were found guilty, but their sentences were eventually overturned.
The jury ultimately acquitted [PDF] all seven men of conspiracy charges, cleared John Froines and Lee Weiner of all the charges against them, and found the remaining five members of the Chicago Seven guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot. After all the chaos and theatricality of the trial, all the sentences and contempt citations were overturned on November 21, 1972, by a three-judge panel that deemed Judge Hoffman had shown bias against the defendants in the jury selection process, in excluding evidence, and in not informing them of his own communications with the jury.
10. Pacific David Dellinger was arrested again at another Chicago Democratic Convention.
Radical pacifist David Dellinger was arrested again at a sit-in protest at the Democratic National Convention when it came to Chicago again in 1996. Abbie Hoffman's son Andrew was among those arrested that day. Dellinger was 80 years old at the time.