Harman Patil (Editor)

Chicago Seven

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Chicago Seven

The Chicago Seven (originally Chicago Eight, also Conspiracy Eight/Conspiracy Seven) were seven defendants—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner—charged by the federal government with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges related to anti-Vietnam War and countercultural protests that took place in Chicago, Illinois, on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Bobby Seale, the eighth man charged, had his trial severed during the proceedings, lowering the number of defendants from eight to seven.


Seale was eventually sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court, although this ruling was later reversed.

After a federal trial resulting in both acquittals and convictions, followed by appeals, and reversals, some of the seven defendants were finally convicted, although all of the convictions were reversed.


The 1968 Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in late August to select the party's candidates for the November 1968 presidential election. Prior to and during the convention—which took place at the International Amphitheatre—rallies, demonstrations, marches, and attempted marches took place on the streets and in the lakefront parks, about five miles away from the convention site. These activities were primarily in protest of President Lyndon B. Johnson's policies for the Vietnam War, policies which were vigorously contested during the presidential primary campaign and inside the convention.

Anti-war groups had petitioned the city of Chicago for permits to march five miles from the central business district (the Chicago Loop) to within sight of the convention site, to hold a number of rallies in the lakefront parks and also near the convention, and to camp in Lincoln Park. The city denied all permits, except for one afternoon rally at the old bandshell at the south end of Grant Park. The city also enforced an 11:00 pm curfew in Lincoln Park. Confrontations with protesters ensued as the police enforced the curfew, stopped attempts to march to the International Amphitheatre, and cleared crowds from the streets.

The Grant Park rally on Wednesday, August 28, 1968, was attended by about 15,000 protesters; other nearby activities involved hundreds or thousands of protesters. After the large rally outside of the venue, several thousand protesters attempted to march to the International Amphitheatre, but were stopped in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, where the presidential candidates and their campaigns were headquartered. Police worked to push the protesters out of the street, using tear gas, verbal and physical confrontation, and police batons to beat people; protesters retaliated by throwing rocks and bottles, and damaging private commercial property. The police made scores of arrests. The television networks broadcast footage of these violent clashes, cutting away from the nominating speeches for the presidential candidates.

Over the course of five days and nights, the police made numerous arrests, in addition to using tear gas, mace, and batons on the marchers. Hundreds of police officers and protesters were injured. Dozens of journalists covering the actions were also clubbed by police or had cameras smashed and film confiscated. In the aftermath of what was later characterized as a "police riot" by the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, a federal grand jury indicted eight demonstrators and eight police officers.

Grand jury and indictment

Following the convention on September 9, 1968, a federal grand jury was convened to consider criminal charges. The grand jury focused on the possible grounds for charges in four areas:

  • A conspiracy by protesters to cross state lines to incite a riot;
  • Violations by police of the civil rights of demonstrators by use of excessive force;
  • TV network violations of the Federal Communications Act; and
  • TV network violations of federal wiretap laws.
  • Over the course of more than six months, the grand jury met 30 times and heard some 200 witnesses. President Lyndon Johnson's Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, discouraged an indictment, believing that the violence during the convention was primarily caused by mishandling of the protests by the Chicago police. The grand jury returned indictments only after President Richard Nixon took office and John Mitchell assumed the office of Attorney General. On March 20, 1969, eight protesters were charged with various federal crimes and eight police officers were charged with civil rights violations.


    The eight defendants were charged under the anti-riot provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot. The Chicago Eight indictments alleged crimes of three kinds:

  • That all eight defendants conspired (together with another 16 other co-conspirators who were not indicted) to cross state lines to incite a riot, to teach the making of an incendiary device, and to commit acts to impede law enforcement officers in their lawful duties.
  • That David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale individually crossed state lines to incite a riot.
  • That John Froines and Lee Weiner instructed other persons in the construction and use of an incendiary device.
  • The 16 alleged co-conspirators who avoided prosecution were: Wolfe B. Lowenthal, Stewart E. Albert, Sidney M. Peck, Kathy Boudin, Corina F. Fales, Benjamin Radford, Thomas W. Neumann, Craig Shimabukuro, Bo Taylor, David A. Baker, Richard Bosciano, Terry Gross, Donna Gripe, Benjamin Ortiz, Joseph Toornabene, and Richard Palmer.


    The original eight defendants indicted by the grand jury on March 20, 1969, were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. The trial began on September 24, 1969. The defense attorneys were William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the judge was Julius Hoffman, and the prosecutors were Richard Schultz and Tom Foran. On October 9, the governor of Illinois requested the United States National Guard for crowd control as demonstrations increased outside the courtroom.

    When the names of the defendants were mentioned in court, at the early part of the trial, Judge Hoffman made a comment about defendant Abbie Hoffman; "He is not my son." In an immediate reply, Abbie called out, "Dad, dad, have you forsaken me?!"

    Early in the course of the trial, Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale was denied his constitutional right to counsel of his choice and was thereafter illegally denied his right to defend himself. Seale requested that the trial postponed so that his attorney Charles Garry could represent him (as Garry was about to undergo gallbladder surgery). The Judge denied the postponement, and refused to allow Seale to represent himself. Seale vehemently protested the judge's illegal and unconstitutional actions, and arguing that they were not only illegal, but also racist. The judge in turn accused Seale of disrupting the court, and on October 29, Judge Hoffman ordered Bobby Seale to be bound, gagged, and chained to a chair, citing a precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court case Illinois v. Allen. For several days, Seale appeared in court bound and gagged before the jury, struggling to get free and managing to make muffled sounds. Defense attorney Kunstler declared, "This is no longer a court of order, Your Honor, this is a medieval torture chamber." (This was alluded to in Graham Nash's song, "Chicago", which opened with: "So your brother's bound and gagged, and they've chained him to a chair"). Ultimately, Judge Hoffman severed Seale from the case, sentencing him to four years in prison for contempt of court, one of the longest sentences ever handed down for that offense in the U.S. up to that time. Due to the judge's unconstitutional actions, the contempt charges against Seale were soon overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

    The Chicago Eight were then reduced to the Chicago Seven. The defendants, particularly members of the Youth International Party ("yippies"), Hoffman and Rubin, mocked courtroom decorum and the widely publicized trial became a focal point for a growing legion of protesters. One day, defendants Hoffman and Rubin appeared in court dressed in judicial robes. When the judge ordered them to remove the robes, they complied, to reveal that they were wearing Chicago police uniforms underneath. Hoffman blew kisses at the jury. Judge Hoffman was a frequent target of the defendants, who insulted him to his face. Abbie Hoffman (no relation) told Judge Hoffman "you are a shande fur de Goyim [disgrace in front of the gentiles]. You would have served Hitler better." He later added that "your idea of justice is the only obscenity in the room." Both Davis and Rubin told the judge "this court is bullshit."

    The trial extended for months, with many celebrated figures from the American left and counterculture called to testify, including singers Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and Country Joe McDonald; writers Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg; and activists Timothy Leary and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Ochs, who was involved in planning for the demonstrations, told the court that he had acquired a pig to nominate as a presidential candidate. Rubin had tried to deliver the acceptance speech for the pig, named Pigasus, but before he could finish, police arrested him and Ochs under a livestock ordinance; this charge was later changed to disorderly conduct.

    Contempt citations

    While the jury deliberated on the verdict, Judge Hoffman cited all the defendants—plus their lawyers Kunstler and Weinglass—for numerous contempts of court, imposing sentences ranging from 2½ months to four years.


    On February 18, 1970, each of the seven defendants was acquitted of conspiracy. Two (Froines and Weiner) were acquitted completely, while the remaining five were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. The crime was instituted by the anti-riot provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, a provision that was introduced in the House by Representative William C. Cramer of Florida. On February 20, they were sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000 each.


    On November 21, 1972, all of the convictions were reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on the basis that the judge was biased in his refusal to permit defense attorneys to screen prospective jurors for cultural and racial bias. The Justice Department decided against retrying the case. During the trial, all of the defendants and both defense attorneys had been cited for contempt and sentenced to jail, but those convictions were also overturned on appeal.

    The contempt charges were retried before a different judge, who found Dellinger, Rubin, Hoffman, and Kunstler guilty of some of the charges, but did not sentence any of them to jail or fines.

    Documentary, musical and dramatic presentations

    Mixing fact and fiction, Haskell Wexler's 1969 film, Medium Cool, centers around the relationship between a cameraman and young widow as they are surrounded by the turmoil and violence during the "long hot summer" of Chicago. Wexler mixed staged scenes with documentary footage he shot at the demonstrations, creating a film in which his characters interacted seamlessly with the protesters. At one point, the viewer can hear another filmmaker telling Wexler he is getting too close to the action.

    French left-wing political filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, under the collective Dziga Vertov Group, made a film depicting the 1970 trials called Vladimir et Rosa. In it, Judge Julius Hoffman is referred to as "Judge Himmler" and the accused become microcosms of French revolutionary society. The historic figures of Lenin and Karl Rosa also appear, played by Godard and Gorin, respectively.

    In the 1971 Peter Watkins film Punishment Park, fictional members of the counterculture are put on trial for similar "crimes". Like Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale, one of the African-American defendants is bound and gagged as he was at the historic trial.

    Woody Allen satirized the trial in his 1971 film Bananas. Allen's character, Fielding Melish, is on trial and defending himself. The judge orders Melish bound and gagged. In the next scene, a bound and gagged Allen coerces a confession, à la Perry Mason, from a prosecution witness in his cross-examination.

    Graham Nash wrote the song "Chicago" for his debut album, Songs for Beginners. The song refers to both the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the trial of the Chicago Eight. The songs's first line, "So your brother's bound and gagged, and they've chained him to a chair", is a reference to Bobby Seale.

    In 1972, playwright and screenwriter David Petersen's play Little Orphan Abbie based on the transcript of the trial, opened in Seattle, directed by Jody Briggs and starring Glenn Mazen. It got good reviews and sold out every night; its run was extended twice. It was slated for production in New York by director Joe Papp, but had to be postponed and finally cancelled due to extended runs of other plays. It was later produced in Los Angeles, first on stage at the Burbage Theater, directed by Ron Hunter. It was later shot for television by Telemedia Productions, directed by Dick Studebaker. The television version used stock footage of the events in the parks and on the streets of Chicago during the riots.

    In 1987, HBO aired Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, a docudrama based on the court transcript as the primary source for the script. All eight of the original defendants, along with defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, participated in the project and provided commentary throughout the film. It was awarded the 1988 CableACE Award for Best Dramatic Special.

    In 1993, British playwright John Goodchild adapted the original trial transcripts for a radio play produced by L.A. Theatre Works, titled The Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Its cast included David Schwimmer (Abbie Hoffman), Tom Amandes (Richard Schultz), George Murdock (Judge Julius Hoffman), and Mike Nussbaum (William Kunstler). The play received an award at the New York Television Festival in 1993.

    The 2000 film, Steal This Movie, is mostly about Abbie Hoffman (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), but also looks at the trial.

    In the 2007 film Chicago 10, Oscar-nominated director Brett Morgen intercuts archival footage from the period, including the events of August 1968, with animated scenes based on the trial transcript. The film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and was released in theaters in February 2008.

    The Great Chicago Conspiracy Circus, by Cannes-winning director Kerry Feltham, was a feature film made at the time of the trial, based on the trial transcript and distributed by New Line Cinema. It was released in January 2008 on DVD. The film won the Berlin Film Festival jury prize, as well as positive reviews from the New York Times and Newsweek.

    Archival footage of events at the Chicago demonstrations was featured in the 2010 documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune. The film also featured interviews with many of Ochs' associates, including Rubin and Hoffman. It was a dual portrait of the singer-songwriter's career and the protest movements of the 1960s.

    The Chicago 8, written and directed by Pinchas Perry, was filmed in September and October 2009 and released on October 23, 2012. The film is based closely on the trial transcripts and most of the action takes place in the courtroom.

    Writer Aaron Sorkin wrote a script entitled The Trial of the Chicago 7, based on the conspiracy trial. Producers Steven Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes, and Laurie MacDonald collaborated on the development of Sorkin's script, with Spielberg intending to direct the film. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast as Abbie Hoffman, while Spielberg approached Will Smith for the role of Bobby Seale, and planned to meet with Heath Ledger about playing Tom Hayden. The Writers Guild of America strike, which started in November 2007 and lasted 100 days, delayed filming and the project was suspended. Sorkin was later to continue to rewrite the script for Spielberg, and the director intended to mostly cast unknowns to keep the budget down. Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller were rumored as replacement directors, but the project did not move forward.


    Chicago Seven Wikipedia