September 24

This Day in History

Crime

Sep 24, 1969:

The "Chicago Seven" go on trial

The trial of the "Chicago Seven" begins before Judge Julius Hoffman. The defendants, including David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden of MOBE and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); and Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the Youth International Party (Yippies), were accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

At the height of the antiwar and civil rights movements, these young leftists had organized protest marches and rock concerts at the Democratic National Convention. During the event, clashes broke out between the protesters and the police and eventually turned into full-scale rioting, complete with tear gas and police beatings. The press, already there to cover the Democratic convention, denounced the overreaction by police and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's handling of the situation.

The Chicago Seven were indicted for violating the Rap Brown law, which had been tagged onto the Civil Rights Bill earlier that year by conservative senators. The law made it illegal to cross state lines in order to riot or to conspire to use interstate commerce to incite rioting. President Johnson's attorney general, Ramsey Clark, refused to prosecute the case.

Although Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was originally a defendant in the trial as well, he angrily denounced Judge Hoffman as a racist for denying his request for a separate trial. He wanted to be represented by his own lawyer, who was recovering from surgery at the time, so he loudly protested by attempting to examine his own witnesses. Judge Hoffman took the unusual measure of having Seale bound and gagged at the defendant's table before eventually separating his trial and sentencing him to 48 months in prison.

With encouragement from defense attorney William Kunstler, the seven other defendants did whatever they could to disrupt the trial through such acts as reading poetry and chanting Hare Krishna. While the jury was deliberating their verdict, Judge Hoffman held the defendants in contempt of court for their behavior and sentenced them to up to 29 months in jail. Kunstler received a four-year sentence, partly for calling Hoffman's court a "medieval torture chamber." Five of the Chicago Seven were convicted of lesser charges.

In 1970, the convictions and contempt charges against the Chicago Seven were overturned on appeal. Abbie Hoffman remained a well-known counterculture activist until his death in 1989. Tom Hayden went on to marry actress Jane Fonda and is still a prominent liberal politician in California, currently married to actress Barbara Williams.

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