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Who Were the Chicago Seven?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2014
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By the volatile year of 1968, the counterculture movement in the United States had fragmented along political lines. Some groups remained relatively apolitical, while others pushed hard for radical changes through whatever means necessary. One of the issues which affected all counterculturalists was the continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War.

When the Democratic party announced plans to hold its national convention in Chicago, key leaders of these various factions urged members to hold rallies outside of the facility. The results were horrific. Protesters and law enforcement officers clashed violently, and Chicago's mayor, Richard Daley, ordered in National Guard troops to restore order. When the smoke cleared, eight men identified as leaders of the protests were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. They became known originally as the Chicago Eight, later the Chicago Seven.

During the trial, the eighth co-defendant, Black Panther member Bobby Seale, was improperly denied his attorney of choice by 74 year old judge Julius Hoffman. Seale's heated protestations caused Judge Hoffman to order him bound and gagged while in court. Hoffman later separated Seale's case, leaving seven co-defendants: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, John Froines, Rennie Davis and Lee Weiner. Although their associations before the convention were often vague or non-existent, these men became inextricably linked in the media as the Chicago Seven.

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Of the Chicago Seven, perhaps Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were the two most recognized faces. Both were members of the Youth International Party, or Yippies. The Yippies were notorious for suggesting outlandish acts of sabotage or civil disobedience, but rarely carried out these extreme plans. During the Democratic National Convention, the Yippies gained media attention by nominating a pig named Pigasus for president.

While in Chicago, both Hoffman and Rubin met with other leaders of counterculture groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Mobilization Committee (MOBE). Other defendants, such as David Dellinger and Rennie Davis, attended these meetings as well. Unbeknownst to participants, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had already placed undercover agents at many of these meeting sites.

The Chicago Seven were charged with violating a recently enacted federal Anti-Riot Act, which gave law enforcement officers more legal teeth against protesters. The trial of the Chicago Seven became a media circus, with some of the defendants arriving in black robes or openly defying the authority of the court. Judge Hoffman's questionable pre-trial decisions also hampered the efforts of defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. Potential jurors could not be asked questions pertaining to their knowledge of popular counterculture entertainers, for example. This exclusion allowed federal prosecutors to seat a jury largely unsympathetic to the Chicago Seven's political and social culture.

Despite the theatrics and occasionally heavy-handed tactics used by both sides during the trial, the jury found two of the Chicago Seven, John Froines and Lee Weiner, not guilty of the charges. Weiner and Froines were considered peripheral characters, accused mostly of using their skills to create non-lethal stink bombs. The other five members of the Chicago Seven were found guilty of violating the Anti-Riot Act of 1968 and were given various sentences.

Judge Hoffman did not stop at that point. He also sentenced all of the Chicago Seven and their attorneys to several years in prison for a number of contempt of court citations. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these sentences in 1972, based on Judge Hoffman's behavior during the trial and the excessive length of the sentences.

Following the Appeals Court decision to overturn their original sentences, members of the Chicago Seven resumed their lives during the 1970s. Some returned to academia, while others remained politically active. Tom Hayden eventually became a congressional representative from California. Former radical Jerry Rubin decided to become a mainstream businessman in the 1980s.

David Dellinger, the oldest member of the Chicago Seven, continued to participate in civil demonstrations until his death from a heart attack. Abbie Hoffman, arguably the most impassioned member of the Chicago Seven, tried to reinvigorate the counterculture movement through media events and several books. Disillusioned by the apparent apathy of American society in the 1980s, Abbie Hoffman committed suicide in 1989.

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anon971970
Post 7

This has parallels to the Occupy Movement, without some of the court theatrics. Long live the 60's, if you can remember them. I was too young, at the time.

pollick
Post 6

Black Panther Bobby Seale did manage to get a separate trial, but the results were pretty much the same as the other defendants. There are several good documentaries and dramatic recreations based on actual court transcripts available, so I would recommend that anyone interested in learning more about the atmosphere of the trial watch those programs.

A different judge may have handled the courtroom atmosphere better than the ultra-conservative Julius Hoffman, but some of the defendants also failed to demonstrate a basic respect for the process of law.

Yes, it may have appeared to be a kangaroo court with a stacked deck, but it was still a court of law. If you watch those recreations based primarily on actual court transcripts, you'll get a pretty good picture of what happens when two extreme political ideologies clash in a charged courtroom.

fify
Post 5

Apparently, the Chicago Seven didn't know each other well. In fact, some of them met for the first time in Chicago.

These movements were not exactly the same either. Their ideologies were a little bit different and so were their methods. What I'm trying to get at is, why would the judge try all seven of them as a single case? I think that was a mistake. They should have been given separate cases and tried separately.

ysmina
Post 4

Were the actions of the Chicago Seven in 1968 against the First Amendment because they clashed with the police?

People have the right to peacefully assemble, but how do we determine that? Does it depend on who started the violence first? Since the Chicago seven were taken to court for conspiracy, I guess these counterculture groups attacked law enforcement first. Is it usual for group leaders to be held accountable for all actions of their group?

ddljohn
Post 3

I've read about what happened during the week long convention in Chicago and I think that the situation could have probably been controlled better.

I think there was way too many protective measures taken for the convention. There was a curfew and huge numbers of policemen were patrolling the streets and parks where the protesters wanted to meet up. This was probably more than what was necessary. It might have even incited the protesters to become violent even if they didn't plan to be.

I just got the feeling that the politicians arrived at the convention with the presumption that things would get out of hand and took some decisions that actually made the situation worse.

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