Chicago's Trial of the Century and Its Many Heroes, Cinematic and Real

Harvey Wasserman

December 11, 2020

Mayor Richard J. Daley stands at the microphone during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, while shouts resound from the crowd. (photo: Jack Thornell/AP)

This we know for sure about Chicago ’68:

Mayor Richard J. “Boss/Big Dick” Daley was 100% responsible for the “police riots” at the pivotal Democratic Convention that helped elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war in Vietnam for an inexcusable 7 more years.

Daley did this by denying our Constitutional rights — some 15,000 of us, who came to “peaceably assemble” demanding a “redress of grievances” from the war’s prime perpetrators.

Had Daley acted with any sense or grace, he’d have granted our legal right to a daily march/rally permit, plus the ability to camp in Grant and Lincoln Parks (where else were we supposed to go?).

Certainly some among us might’ve broken a few windows and caused some havoc anyway. Certainly some among us were agents paid to do just that.

But mostly we were in Chicago to peacefully march, make our points against that horrible war in Vietnam, tell the Democratic party to CEASE AND DESIST. We figured also to smoke some dope, hear some music, and then go back home to work for peace, justice, and a totally transformed American way.

Instead, the Chicago police were put in the impossible position of “preserving disorder.” Some officers acted with dignity and grace. Many senselessly assaulted us with sadistic violence. Major commissions that studied the violent disaster of that fateful August week correctly termed it a “police riot.”

But in the bigger picture, it was not the cops’ fault. We were a short-fused powder keg of stoned, hormonal draft-agers. The police were ordered to make us disappear. That was not going to happen.

Comment to this article by Bill Resnick a member of this Webzine’s Editorial Committee.

The political core of Aaron Sorkin’s film The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the struggle between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden as to the strategy that should guide the 60’s left to transform this country. Sorkin described it as Hoffman’s cultural revolution vs Hayden’s pragmatic, assess the forces arrayed, and get what you can. Sorkin was sympathetic to both and at the end the film portrayed them reconciling. 

In fact there was another strategy fr the revolutionary left then being practiced — organizing working people, in the army, community, workplace, and unions. Sorkin’s neat dualism erased that other path, particularly doing injustice to Hayden who had spent the previous three years community organizing in Newark alongside the Black Panthers. And it’s also a disservice to our many comrades who in that period were industrializing and whose continued work through the later 60s – 80s had considerable success, institutionaliz  ed in union radical caucuses like Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the monthly journal Labor Notes, and now being emulated by another generation of lefties at Amazon, Starbucks, groceries, other retail, and construction among others. 

Ever since, a bloviating army has somehow blamed US (the demonstrators) for the subsequent defeat of the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey.

In the Democrats’ forever corporate tradition of blaming the activist left for their own inability to win critical elections (see Congressional down-ballot races, circa 2020) we were expected to say to ourselves:

Well, golly gee, the Democrats are running the Vietnam slaughter and trashing our Constitutional rights, but if we don’t let Daley beat the hell out of us we might jeopardize Hubert’s election, so let’s just pack up and slink home.”

There was even worse. Despite Daley’s debacle, by November Humphrey was on the brink of victory. In the campaign’s final days, Lyndon Johnson (the war’s prime perpetrator) readied a truce between North and South Vietnam that would’ve solidified a bombing halt and a likely electoral blue wave.

Despite the Democrats’ Vietnam horror show, Richard Nixon was such a loathsome, twisted monster that Humphrey was still a preferred public choice.

A truce and cease-fire almost certainly would have given Humphrey the presidency … and his own chance to end the war.

But candidate Nixon COMMITTED TREASON to prevent that from happening.

This used to be the stuff of “conspiracy theory.” But thanks to tangible FBI and CIA phone taps (released a mere fifty years after the fact) Nixon methodically sabotaged those peace talks. Simply enough, he instructed his liaison to the South Vietnam regime (a despicable cabal of mob drug dealers) that if they nixed LBJ’s peace offering, he (Nixon) would “give them a better deal.”

The South Vietnamese took him at his word. The cease-fire died. The slaughter proceeded. Tricky Dick won.

And for a rare moment in his despicable career, Nixon kept his word … but not to the American people. In alliance with the Saigon thugs, he prolonged the war another seven years, killing countless Vietnamese and at least 20,000 more Americans.

A private citizen using a secret liaison to a foreign government to undermine an official US foreign policy initiative is the definition of sedition. When peace talks collapsed, Johnson was fully informed. On the phone he screamed to his Republican buddy, Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) “THIS IS TREASON!!!”

When Nixon heard what Johnson had said, he called LBJ to deny any wrongdoing. A lengthy conversation ensued, with a taped transcript now publicly available. Nixon was lying, and Johnson knew it.

But LBJ never uttered a public word about this grotesque betrayal to the American people, who deserved to know and who might have voted otherwise. Thus, Johnson shared responsibility for every bit of that epic backstab.

And yet, even today, we demonstrators are blamed for getting our heads bashed in and somehow costing Hubert Humphrey the 1968 election.

• • •

Which brings us to the next thing the two Dicks — Daley and Nixon — decided to do. And here we get to the film at hand.

It wasn’t enough that various government agencies had conspired to trash our peaceful marches.

When Nixon did take power, he demanded payback from those who’d dared to ask for those permits to march.

Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) is the latest of a slew of dramatizations come out over the years. This one shows us a quirky Attorney General John Mitchell summoning a young prosecutor to take the case. The Nixonian Mitchell — an authoritarian thug — blames the attack on an apparent insult from LBJ’s outgoing attorney general, Ramsey Clark, a legendary liberal.

Mitchell’s anointed lead prosecutor, Dick Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is shown to be a thoughtful, conscientious young man with moral and political qualms about the case.

He wasn’t. For melodramatic purposes, Sorkin wants this guy to be sympathetic and appealing. Nobody remembers him — or his immediate boss, Thomas Foran — for any of that.

Judge Julius Hoffman, on the other hand (as played by Frank Langella), is a crazed, insufferable petty tyrant, a man harsh and unjust almost beyond belief.

And thus we come to his latest cinematic reincarnation.

Aaron Sorkin is the thoughtful producer/director of the entertaining West Wing, a signature American political drama. He makes the very committed real-life peace activist Martin Sheen into a President we can only pray for.

Sorkin’s watchable touch is on full display in Trial.

But unlike Marty Sheen’s Oval Office, Chicago was as real as Nixon’s treason.

We can be grateful for much. We see a Stalinesque circus trial run by a wacko fascist, pre-ordained to nail brave, committed activists for the “crime” of demanding peace.

We see the eight defendants, their lawyers, and the soon-to-be-murdered Fred Hampton portrayed with a sympathetic touch. In the hands of someone less talented or more Reaganesque, our beloved co-conspirators could easily have been smeared as traitors.

But granting all that — and it’s a lot — the named defendants were actual, nuanced people who deserved to be accurately portrayed. And here the film runs a spectrum:

ABBIE HOFFMAN

We start with Sasha Baron Cohen’s astonishing lead portrayal of the older brother I never had. Countless young activists followed Abbie’s career with awe, inspiration, and astonishment. In 1984, I began a cover story on him for New Age Magazine as he was seeing his parole officer. We conspired for peace, No Nukes, and social justice until April 1989, when I learned of his death while on a live talk show. It remains an indescribable moment.

By then Abbie had pioneered the art of science of political chutzpah. He’d been busted for an ill-advised coke deal, then fled underground for seven years. Hunted by federal authorities, Abbie got a nose job and “surfaced” as “Barry Freed,” a high profile eco-activist, fighting (successfully) against the destruction of the St. Lawrence River.

With “running mate” Johanna Lawrenson, a model and literary figure in her own right, Abbie/Barry appeared at countless high profile organizing meetings, public rallies, and media blitzes. As the police searched high and low, New York governor Hugh Carey and US senator Daniel Moynahan proudly cited “Barry” for his civic commitment.

Abbie could talk interminably with my liberal Jewish mother, who also loved him. While smoking various joints, he held brilliant, erudite discussions on community organizing and political theory. He also told the world we’d hold hands, surround the Pentagon, and levitate it off the ground. (The pundits scoffed, but the cops never did let us circle the building.)

In Sorkin’s 7, Sacha Baron Cohen gets Abbie as only a fellow Trickster could do. Abbie would have loved Borat’s piercing punkings of pompous tyrants like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Pence.

As a conjoined spirit, Borat/Abbie’s deeply informed bohemian brilliance and soulful commitment to peace and social justice become the heart of this drama. But Sorkin does it a needless disservice in the final footnotes, when he dismisses Abbie’s post-trial persona merely as having “committed suicide” in 1989.

The scant, dubious epitaph (his running mate Johanna still refers to Abbie’s death as “an apparent suicide”) entirely misses Abbie’s astounding post-trial triumphs as a major ecological pioneer and an inspirational mentor to countless young activists.

There is no excuse for that omission, Mr. Sorkin. There’s no reason you can’t yet change it.

TOM HAYDEN

Abbie’s oddest coupling was with his visionary co-conspirator, Tom Hayden, an equally brilliant, forever activist who also inspired a generation.

As portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, Tom was serious, forceful, and driven to win. Despite his antipathy to hippie theatrics, Tom was (like Abbie) as charismatic as he was relentless.

But Redmayne is physically slight. He doesn’t quite get Tom’s full power. Stocky, strong, and seriously competitive, Tom played varsity tennis at the University of Michigan. He was also editor of the U of M Daily (Class of ’61), where I followed him as editorial director six years later.

Tom unlocked the paper’s library. His evolving leftism resonated through the building for years to come.

After a brief teaching career, Tom moved to an urban ghetto, making tangible the career of a community organizer. When he married Jane Fonda (who was at least as radical as he was) our activist Earth shook on its axis. He later spent twenty very productive years in the California legislature, walking the margins between the grassroots community and the Democratic Party.

Even into our sixties, I felt star-struck around Tom Hayden. Last I heard him speak, he was as fiery, angry, and unbowed as we see him in 7. Some of us had dinner plans with him the week he died, which still hurts.

JERRY RUBIN

Far down the scale is 7’s portrayal of Jerry Rubin. As Abbie’s sidekick, Jerry was bright, funny, and effective. Played by Jeremy Strong, he comes off as a somewhat hapless buffoon, which he definitely was not.

Jerry later burned out on movement work, turning to health food, networking, and the outspoken pursuit of wealth. Married to Mimi Leonard, with two children, he wrote about his sex life and debated Abbie — to mixed reviews — in a not-so-tongue-in-cheek shtick called “Yippie versus Yuppie.” Sorkin’s epitaph cites Jerry merely as having become a “stockbroker.” To say the least, the reality is far more complex.

DAVE DELLINGER

Here Sorkin’s film hits a bad bottom. Played by John Carroll Lynch, we sense a suburbanite whose spiritual roots in a lifetime of pacifism are not quite clear.

In one truly inexcusable moment, Dave is shown punching a court officer (and then apologizing for it).

THIS ABSOLUTELY DID NOT HAPPEN!!!

Dave Dellinger spent years in prison for refusing to take up arms during World War II. He was an elder beacon for countless nonviolent protests.

He titled his autobiography From Yale to Jail. Even when sorely provoked — at least in his adulthood — it was a point of honor that Dave Dellinger would refrain from physical violence.

Years later, as we sat in at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, Dave made a pretty convincing case that Abbie had been murdered. When election protection attorney Bob Fitrakis held hearings on how Ohio’s 2004 election had been stolen, Dellinger came to Columbus while conducting a long water-only fast.

It was also Dave — not Tom — who read the names of those killed in Vietnam. He did it at the beginning of the trial, not the end. The litany included Vietnamese names, not just American ones.

Like Tom (and unlike the actor who portrays him) Dave’s powerful physical presence reflected his heartfelt commitments. There are artistic liberties that work in this film, but that alleged moment of personal violence does not. Mr. Sorkin, please edit it out!

BOBBY SEALE

Opinions also vary on Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s portrayal of Bobby Seale. Clearly the government charged Bobby in hopes of confronting the jury with a “scary black man” amidst all those white defendants. His being bound and gagged in the courtroom was longer and more despicable than what we see.

Many years later, Abbie and I joined him as we spoke together at Temple University. He was formidable, charismatic, amiable … and deep into a cookbook based on the magic of his family’s Texas barbecue. Bobby Seale was really fun to be with … and none of his radicalism had boiled away.

FRED HAMPTON

In 7, Chicago’s legendary Black Panther leader (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is shown as a serious-minded young (21) courtroom attendee who confers frequently with Bobby Seale. The Judge loudly identifies him for the jury. Later Bobby rightfully rages about Fred Hampton’s outrageous, wholly unprovoked official murder.

Along with Mark Clark, Hampton was in fact assassinated after the trial had ended. But Sorkin does us the important service of showing a police state willing to bind, gag, imprison, and murder bothersome black activists for no defensible reason.

THE LAWYERS, THE INVISIBLES & THE YIPPIE

I did not know Attorneys William Kunstler and Lenny Weinglass or Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, all of whom played key roles in 7. Those who did generally say they’re well portrayed.

Co-defendants Renny Davis, Jon Froines, and Lee Weiner are given roles of little consequence.

Except for a fictional under-cover agent, and for one who answers the phone at the “conspiracy office,” no women are granted even supporting roles in this film. Apparently based at least in part on the legendary Judy “Gumbo” Albert, Sorkin names his one female co-conspirator to evoke the image of Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn.

Had more women been present in movement leadership back then, the level of in-fighting might’ve been greatly reduced, and the power of our demonstrations greatly enhanced.

Judy’s partner Stew Albert also does not appear, along with many others who played important roles in organizing those demonstrations.

Also absent is the conspiracy’s real “missing link,” Paul Krassner, which is a shame.

Paul was the genius publisher of The Realist, home to some of the movement’s vanguard reporting and graphic humor (including an iconic portrayal of Walt Disney’s cartoon pantheon wallowing in an obscene orgy).

The original “un-indicted co-conspirator,” Paul walked with a profound limp caused by a police beating. He was gentle, kind, insanely funny, and completely outside the box, especially in places like the countercultural Starwood Festival (still going, after these years) where he annually enlightened stoned throngs of “sky-clad” pagans.

While Abbie and Tom debated hippie versus politico, Paul invented the term Yippie to meld the two. (When called the Yippie Godfather, he declined the honor, saying he was “still awaiting the paternity test.”)

It was Paul who promised to put LSD in Chicago’s water supply. His hallucinogenic trial testimony infuriated Tom and Abbie, who refused to speak to him for months. But eventually they reconciled, as loving activists always do.

• • •

All of which makes us ache with timeless longing just to see and be with these folks again, even for an afternoon.

This film — like many others made about this trial — has rightfully provoked a cacophony of differing views. May it always be thus.

Overall, Aaron Sorkin’s gift is of course imperfect … but one that serves as a sympathetic, astute rendition of a precious activist moment worthy of the ages.

What matters above all is that 50 years after it happened, respectful dramatizations of consequence are still being made about this amazing show of courageous defiance.

It came amidst a terrible war, when a synchronous band of justice fighters refused to bow before a hideous tyranny.

To everyone’s everlasting benefit, we see them emerging … for all time to come … as the genuine, beloved, deeply missed heroes they really were.

Harvey Wasserman’s Chicago ’68 club wounds helped inspire The People’s Spiral of US History (www.solartopia.org). He co-convenes the Grassroots Emergency Election Protection Coalition, joinable by zoom every Monday, 5-6:30 p.m. Eastern Time through www.grassrootsep.org.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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