Who Were the Chicago Eight?

Mary McMahon

The Chicago Eight were a group of individuals indicted for conspiracy, inciting to riot, and several other charges related to the riots which took place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The trial of the Chicago Eight in 1969 attracted national attention, and proved to be the first test of the rioting provisions in the 1968 Civil Rights Act. In addition to the eight protesters brought to trial, eight police officers were also indicted on charges pertaining to the riots.

Abbie Hoffman was one of the Chicago Eight.
Abbie Hoffman was one of the Chicago Eight.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention was marked by violent protests which devolved into rioting. Police and demonstrators alike participated in the rioting, making the city a very dangerous place to be. In the wake of the riots, a grand jury was convened to determine who was responsible, and the jury moved to indict the Chicago Eight and the eight policemen, formally bringing them into court in March 1969, with the trial starting in September of that same year.

Bobbie Seale was involved in the trial of the Chicago Eight in 1969.
Bobbie Seale was involved in the trial of the Chicago Eight in 1969.

The eight men involved in the trial were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Lee Weiner, John Froines, Rennie Davis, and Bobbie Seale. The trial of the Chicago Eight was accompanied with massive protests outside the courtroom, leading the City of Chicago to request assistance from the National Guard. In the courtroom, the men displayed great contempt for the court, sneering at the judge and jury, appearing dressed in judicial robes, and generally behaving poorly, as far as typical courtroom behavior goes. Bobbie Seale was so contemptuous that the judge severed him from the trial, sentencing him to five years in prison for contempt of court and turning the Chicago Eight into the Chicago Seven.

At the conclusion of the trial in 1970, two of the men, John Froines and Lee Weiner, were acquitted altogether. The other five were acquitted of conspiracy, but convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot, and sentenced to prison. In 1972, the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, arguing that the defense lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler, were not allowed to fully screen jurors, meaning that jurors with clear bias were admitted to the trial.

Of the eight policeman, the charges against one of the officers were dropped, and the other seven were acquitted. The disparity in treatment of the civilians and police officers was often criticized, with protesters suggesting that the officers should have been convicted and subjected to punishment for their role in the rioting.

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Discussion Comments


The defendants' actions were indeed contemptuous, however, they were responding to a situation in which the judge, who is supposed to remain the impartial adjudicator of the law, was clearly in favor of the prosecution. Bobby Seale's actions, more than any of the defendants, were justified because of the judge's bias. It was due to the judge's rulings that the trial would not be postponed so Seale's lawyer could recover from surgery. It was due to the judge's rulings that Seale was not allowed to represent himself, in violation of Seale's constitutional rights. Before classifying someone's actions as poor, one needs to examine the motives for their actions.

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