The Chicago Seven (originally eight) were political radicals accused of conspiring to incite the riots that occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During the five-month trial, the prosecution stressed the defendants’ provocative rhetoric and subversive intentions, while the defense attributed the violence to official overreaction. The case drew national attention for the artists and activists that testified as witnesses, as well as defendant Bobby Seale’s actions, which earned him four years in prison for contempt of court. In February 1970, five of the seven were found guilty, but an appeals court overturned the convictions in 1972.
There were originally eight defendants: David Dellinger, a pacifist and chairman of the National Mobilization against the War; Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, leaders of theYouth International Party John Froines and Lee Weiner, local Chicago organizers; and Bobby Seale, cofounder of the Black Panther Party.
Except for the Panthers, who were uninvolved from the start, all the groups represented had planned massive demonstrations during convention week. But with the withdrawal of their principal target, President Lyndon B. Johnson, as a candidate for reelection and Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s increasingly threatening public statements about maintaining order, the appeal to “come to Chicago” became more muted. In the end, some ten thousand or so demonstrators gathered—enough to trigger a week of violent confrontations with the police, including one later termed by a federal commission a “police riot.”
The five-month trial of the Chicago Eight began in September. While Weathermen, (a splinter group) proclaimed “Days of Rage” in the streets outside, the prosecution stressed the defendants’ provocative rhetoric and subversive intentions. William Kunstler—lawyer for all the defendants except Seale—attributed the violence to official overreaction rather than conspiracy and brought singers, artists, and activists into court to explain what the demonstrators found troubling about American society. Prosecutor Thomas Foran and Judge Julius Hoffman clashed continually with the defendants. In particular, Seale’s manner of conducting his own defense led to his spending three days in court bound and gagged; his case was then declared a mistrial, and he was sentenced to four years for contempt of court. The Chicago Eight thus became the Chicago Seven. In February 1970, five of the seven were found guilty, but an appeals court overturned the convictions in the fall of 1972, citing Judge Hoffman’s procedural errors and his overt hostility to the defendants.