The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is most-remembered for what happened on the streets outside of it. Before the convention began on August 26, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley refused protest permits to most anti-war demonstrators and deployed 12,000 police officers, 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard and 5,000 Army soldiers on the streets to meet any who showed up. These police and military forces violently clashed with Vietnam War protesters, resulting in hundreds of injuries and 668 arrests during the four-day convention.
“One day in Grant Park somebody took down a flag and the police used that as an excuse to go through the crowd beating people with nightsticks,” recalls John Froines, who helped organize the DNC anti-war demonstrations with Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. “Rennie Davis and I were hit on the head with night sticks.”
Froines, who is now a professor emeritus of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, wasn’t arrested that day. But a year later, the U.S. government accused him, Davis and six other men of conspiring to incite a riot at the DNC. The others were Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party; David Dellinger, a longtime anti-war activist; Tom Hayden, cofounder of Students for a Democratic Society; Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the Youth International Party (whose members were called “yippies”); and Lee Weiner, who had volunteered as a marshal for the DNC demonstrations to help with crowd control.
The evidence against the Chicago Eight, as they became known, was always slim. None were convicted of conspiracy, and although five of them were convicted of inciting a riot, an appellate court dismissed the charges because it found that the judge had been biased against them. Fifty years later, here’s why the Chicago Eight trial that opened on September 24, 1969 was such a big deal.
1. The Chicago Eight were the first people tried under the first federal anti-riot law.
Anti-riot laws were all at the local or state level until the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which included a provision making it illegal to cross state lines to incite a riot. After violence erupted at the Chicago DNC, Mayor Daley wanted the government to prosecute some of the demonstrators under the new act. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s attorney general Ramsey Clark didn’t think there was a case.
“I interviewed [Clark] and he said he saw there was no evidence to try the defendants,” says Nick Sharman, a researcher at the University of Melbourne and author of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and the Press. “He thought that there was more evidence against the police, who had violated the civil rights of the protesters in Chicago.”
The next year, Richard Nixon took office and appointed John Mitchell as the new attorney general. Mitchell—who was later convicted for his role in the Watergate conspiracy—was much more receptive to Daley, and decided to prosecute the Chicago Eight under the new federal anti-riot law.
2. Prominent voices challenged the legitimacy of the anti-riot law.
Three months before the Chicago Eight trial began, a group of prominent writers and thinkers published a letter to the editors of The New York Review of Books arguing that the anti-riot law set a dangerous precedent.
“The effect of this ‘anti-riot’ act is to subvert the first Amendment guarantee of free assembly by equating organized political protest with organized violence,” it read. “Potentially, this law is the foundation for a police state in America.”
The letter was signed by 19 people, including Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Benjamin Spock, Judy Collins and Norman Mailer (Collins and Mailer would also testify at the trial). Because the Chicago Eight had begun referring to themselves as “The Conspiracy,” the 19 signers dubbed themselves the Committee to Defend the Conspiracy. They pledged to raise money to fund the Chicago Eight’s legal defense and encouraged readers to make donations.
3. There was a clear cultural clash between the judge and the defendants.
During the trial, yippies Hoffman and Rubin sometimes used unusual tactics to draw attention to their arguments. In one instance, they showed up to court wearing judicial robes to protest Judge Julius Hoffman’s decision to revoke Dellinger’s bail. When the judge demanded they remove their robes, they took them off and stomped on them. Underneath, they were wearing Chicago police uniforms. Another time, Hoffman unfurled a National Liberation Front (aka “Viet Cong”) flag on the defense table, and engaged in a tug-of-war over it with a court marshal who tried to remove it.
Sharman says the media tended to emphasize moments like these because they were so unusual. However, he thinks it’s important to understand these incidents in the context of the judge’s behavior toward the defendants.
“Even on the first day, Tom Hayden gave a fist salute to the jury and he was given a contempt of court citation,” he says. “It was like nothing could be done without the judge sort of stamping on them, so that sort of encouraged them to do it, I think.” By the end of the trial, the judge had charged all of the Chicago Eight as well as defense attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass with contempt of court.
4. The judge ordered Bobby Seale to be chained and gagged in court.
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Froines argues Hoffman and Rubin’s robe incident “was basically a minor disruption,” and that “the main event in terms of disruption was Bobby Seale being chained and gagged.”
Seale had chosen lawyer Charles Garry to represent him in court, and because Garry needed gallbladder surgery, he asked Judge Hoffman to postpone the trial. To Garry’s shock, the judge denied the request and assigned Seale a new lawyer. Seale in turn rejected the court-appointed lawyer and asserted his right to defend himself. When the judge told him he couldn’t, Seale—the sole black defendant—called him a racist, and continued his attempts to represent himself in court.
On October 29, about a month after the trial started, the judge became irate and ordered staffers to chain Seale to his chair and gag him so he couldn’t speak anymore. There were no cameras allowed in the courtroom, but newspapers printed the shocking sketches of Seale bound and gagged in court. (The incident inspired the Graham Nash song “Chicago” released a year and a half later.)
“It was a horrendous thing that occurred,” Froines says. “It got a lot of attention, and should have.”
5. The judge sentenced Seale to four years for contempt and removed him from the trial.
A week after Judge Hoffman first chained and gagged Seale in court, the judge sentenced Seale to four years in prison for contempt of court. He also declared a mistrial in Seale’s case and removed him from the trial, turning the Chicago Eight into the Chicago Seven.
Judge Hoffman intended to try Seale separately for conspiracy in a new trial next year. However, after a jury failed to convict the Chicago Seven of conspiracy, the U.S. attorney in Chicago told Judge Hoffman that “it would be inappropriate to try Seale alone on a conspiracy charge,” and the judge dropped Seale’s charges.
6. Famous writers and performers took the witness stand.
During the trial, the defendants argued that the anti-war demonstrations had been peaceful, and that the violence was instigated by the police. To make this point, the defense called over 100 witnesses, many of whom had been in Chicago during the protests. At the time, a lot of prominent writers and performers were involved with the anti-war movement, and the witness list reflected this. The court heard testimony from comedian Dick Gregory, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, writers William Styron and Norman Mailer and singers Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins.
It even heard testimony from Country Joe McDonald, a musician newly famous for singing the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at Woodstock just a month before the trial began. McDonald tried to sing the anti-war song in court, and when the judge forbid it, he recited the lyrics out loud.
7. The conservative judge’s disdain for the defendants helped overturn the convictions.
On February 18, 1970, the jury acquitted all seven defendants of the conspiracy charges, but still convicted five of them—Davis, Dellinger, Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin—of individually crossing state lines to incite a riot. Everyone (including the lawyers) already had prison sentences for contempt of court; and in addition to this, Judge Hoffman sentenced the five convicted men to five years in prison and gave each a $5,000 fine.
Rather than being happy with his acquittal, Froines says, “I was very upset by that because I wanted to be with my friends, of course. And having five people found guilty and two people being acquitted—I cried at that.”
Two years later, an appellate court threw out all of the convictions and the sentences Judge Hoffman had handed down—including Seale’s four years for contempt—citing the fact that the judge had been obviously biased against the defendants. At one point, Judge Hoffman even prevented former attorney general Ramsey Clark from testifying in front of the jury in favor of the defense, arguing that Clark had nothing useful to say.
After the appeal, most of the Chicago Eight continued their activist work, with Rubin standing out as the infamous yippie who became a yuppie in the 1980s. The four members who survived to see the trial’s 50th anniversary in 2019 are John Froines, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale and Lee Weiner.
WATCH: Fight the Power: The Movements that Changed America, premieres Saturday, June 19 at 8/7c on The HISTORY® Channel.