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The True Story Behind 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

October 23, 2020 3.9k views17 items

In the trial of the Chicago 7, the leaders of prominent activist groups faced prison time for breaking a new federal anti-riot law. This came after antiwar demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention clashed violently with police. According to the Justice Department, the defendants had crossed state lines intending to start a riot. 

Who were the Chicago 7? Initially, they were the Chicago 8. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were leaders of the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies. Thomas Hayden and Rennie Davis represented the Students for a Democratic Society. David Dellinger, a conscientious objector in WWII, led the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Lee Weiner and John Froines were academics. And Bobby Seale was a founding member of the Black Panthers.

During the trial, their defense attorney, William Kunstler, clashed with Judge Julius Hoffman multiple times. The Chicago 7 trial summary shows how the case devolved into a political circus, with defendants swearing at the judge and the judge ordering Seale bound and gagged in court.

Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 turns the court case into a riveting courtroom drama. But the real story of the Chicago 7 is even more sensational than the movie.

  • Antiwar Protests At The 1968 Democratic National Convention Erupted Into Riots

    The 1968 Democratic National Convention took place just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and weeks after that of Bobby Kennedy. Civil rights protestors and antiwar demonstrators converged on the event in Chicago to make their voices heard. 

    In Grant Park, thousands of protestors gathered for a music festival and a mock convention, where they nominated a pig named Pigasus.

    But as the police and National Guard marched on the protestors, the marches quickly turned into a riot. Police beat hundreds of protestors while pummeling them with tear gas. For days, violence dominated the streets of Chicago - and the national airwaves. Among those detained were the soon-to-be notorious Chicago 8.

  • More Than 100 Different Antiwar Groups Converged

    Before the DNC, activists from several organizations coordinated their protests. The Youth International Party, the Students for a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the Black Panthers all planned events in Chicago. But the city denied permits to the protestors and set a curfew during the convention, which took place from August 26-29 in 1968. 

    Demonstrators hoped they could convince the party to nominate an antiwar candidate. As thousands saw their draft numbers called during the Vietnam War, the protests took on a new urgency.

  • Abbie Hoffman, An Iconic Counterculture Activist Known For His Theatrical Approach, Led A Protest At Grant Park

    On August 28, 1968, Abbie Hoffman sat down to breakfast at a Chicago restaurant. Police stormed the building and detained Hoffman for "public indecency" - he'd written the word "f*ck" on his forehead.

    And that was just the start of Hoffman's antics at the DNC. Hoffman and Jerry Rubin organized the "Festival of Life" in Grant Park. As musicians played, crowds danced and smoked pot. The festival's announcement proclaimed: 

    Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers, and artists... It is the last week in August and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY meets to bless Johnson. We are there! There are 500,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony... celebrating the birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.

    It wasn't Hoffman's first brush with authority. In school, Hoffman wrote a paper promoting atheism. His teacher ripped up the paper and called Hoffman a "little Communist b*stard." When Hoffman tackled the teacher, the school expelled him.

  • Hoffman’s Past Antics Included Attempting To Levitate The Pentagon Using Psychic Powers, And Throwing Fake Dollar Bills At Wall Street Traders

    Hoffman’s Past Antics Included Attempting To Levitate The Pentagon Using Psychic Powers, And Throwing Fake Dollar Bills At Wall Street Traders
    Photo: Netflix

    Hoffman was no stranger to spectacle. In 1967, a year before his detainment during the Chicago riots, Hoffman visited the New York Stock Exchange. After tossing fake bills on the traders in the gallery, Hoffman got what he wanted: international media attention.

    Two months later, Hoffman marched on the Pentagon in front of 100,000 protestors. Dozens of soldiers blocked the marchers, at which point Hoffman claimed he could levitate the building with his mind. As beat poet Allen Ginsberg chanted, Hoffman applied his psychic powers to the Pentagon - but the building remained in place.