Originally beginning as the Chicago 8, this group of political dissidents was charged with conspiracy, in particular for allegedly crossing state lines with “the intent to incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot and to commit acts of violence in furtherance of a riot...” during the 1968 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, Illinois.
Charged under a then new federal antiriot law, the so-called H. Rap Brown Act, the eight defendants went on trial 24 September 1969 in what became one of the most celebrated court cases of the Vietnam era.
The composition of the group suggested the federal government was attempting to put the entire “Movement” on trial, as those charged were a virtual who’s who of U.S. radicalism: Yippie leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the cochairs of the National Mobilization to End the War—Rennie Davis and David Dellinger (who was also the pacifist editor of Liberation magazine); Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale; and academic activists John Froines and Lee Weiner.
Seale, who had played a relatively small role in the events during the DNC and was only cited for one violation in the indictment (a single speech made in Chicago’s Lincoln Park), eventually saw his case severed from the other defendants—but not before being physically restrained in the courtroom, at the order of Judge Julius Hoffman.
While Seale’s participation in the proceedings was brief, the image of the Black Panther leader, bound, gagged, and shackled in leg irons became one of the most enduring symbols of the trial.
Aside from the spectacle of Seale’s bondage, the trial proceedings were a raucous affair, with the defendants trading insults with the judge and the prosecutors, creating outlandish disturbances, and attempting to concentrate on the political issues important to the Movement, namely the Vietnam War, racism, and government repression, instead of pertinent legal matters.
Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin provided the majority of the trial’s fireworks with Abbie refusing to be known by “Hoffman” (claiming the judge had disgraced the name), blowing kisses to the jurors, using outrageous props, often laughing out loud, making disruptive speeches, dancing around the courtroom, and, along with Jerry Rubin, even dressing in judicial robes in mockery of the court.
During the five-month legal battle, the defendants succeeded in forcing the court to hear testimony from poet Allen Ginsberg, folksingers Arlo Guthrie, Phil Ochs, “Country Joe” McDonald, Pete Seeger, and Judy Collins, author Norman Mailer, comedian Dick Gregory, and LSD-guru Timothy Leary among others.
Chicago mayor William Daley also took the stand to testify and even evinced a smile when Abbie Hoffman suggested the two of them could settle everything by stepping outside the courtroom. Courtroom surprises were not always a result of the defendants’ actions, however, as the prosecution succeeded in shocking Jerry Rubin by introducing his DNC bodyguard as an undercover informant and prosecution witness.
Yippie and editor of the underground newspaper the Realist, Paul Krassner, a defense witness, succeeded in angering members of the Chicago 7, the prosecution, and the court by testifying while on an LSD trip.
At the conclusion of the trial, in February 1970, the jury found all of the defendants not guilty of charges of conspiracy, but with the exception of John Froines and Lee Weiner they were found guilty of intent to riot. Judge Hoffman also ruled that the defendants and their attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, were guilty of a total of 175 counts of contempt.
Kunstler and Weinglass were sentenced to four- and two-year prison terms respectively, while their clients each received five-year sentences and $5,000 fines. In 1972, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals over-turned the criminal convictions of the Chicago 7 and all but thirteen of the contempt charges were eventually dismissed.
The appellate court based its decisions on Judge Hoffman’s openly antagonistic attitude toward the defense and his refusal to allow for sufficient inquiry into jury biases. Further, the court determined that Judge Hoffman and the prosecutors had knowledge of the FBI’s electronic surveillance of the Chicago 7’s defense attorneys, which it suggested would most likely have allowed for reversal of the convictions upon appeal.