When you have a Hollywood film with a historical subject, and especially a film as powerfully acted as The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s tempting to accept the new narrative as the foreground. But beware the classic Hollywood dead end of stereotypes and formulas. A better approach is to go review the history, see the film for what it is, a certain kind of critique, and study and learn from the ways in which the film veers from events as they actually happened.
A good place to start is with Dave Dellinger. Dellinger was a committed pacifist, and for his early pacifism as a young man he served prison time twice during the Second World War for a total of some three years. During the trial, Dellinger, not Davis, wanted to read out the names of the Vietnam dead—and his list included both American servicemen and the Vietnamese dead. That the film took the reading of the war dead from Dellinger, and made it only to honor American servicemen killed and not all the dead, and turned the pacifist himself into a kind of Falstaff character who throws his first punch during the trial—a complete fiction—is significant.
Equally so the scene in the movie where a group of women burn their bras. There are no scenes where the role of women in the movement is presented. And thus is lost an opportunity to present the shifts that were starting to happen, and the signs that would lead early in the next decade to the women’s movement and to leadership roles for women in various groups.
From reading the history, what becomes clear is that by August 1968 the reaction to the anti-war and civil rights movements had moved in a sinister and desperate direction. The My Lai massacre and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy had happened that spring, and the war effort was being ramped up by the administration—largely in defiance and denial of the power of the anti-war movement. Universities had exploded that spring as well from coast to coast. The FBI was hard at work undermining and criminalizing the Black Power and other social movements. In other words, the anti-war movement was winning, and the powers that be were fighting dirty because the soul of the country was in play.
Abbie was older than the vast majority of people in the youth movement that he led. In fact, all the defendants were. And this is an important detail that’s lost in the film. Abbie and Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale, both born in 1936, were in their early thirties by the time of the Chicago 7 Trial. Abbie by then had finished college at Brandeis, where he had studied with and been greatly influenced by the pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow. He’d gone on to graduate school at UC Berkeley in psychology, where he’d joined protests against the execution by the state of Caryl Chessman, an abolition movement that failed when Chessman was executed in 1960—a struggle and early defeat that radicalized Abbie. He’d also founded the Free Store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one of his many genius acts, thumbing his nose at our consumer culture.
Other Chicago 7 defendants—Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, John Froines, Lee Weiner—were a few years younger. Jerry, born in 1938, had just turned thirty-one, and the other three turned thirty the year of the trial. Rennie Davis was the youngest, still in his late twenties by the time of the verdict and sentencing in early 1970. And of course Dave Dellinger was decades older, an activist of the old school.
Not one of the defendants was still a college kid. They had come of age in a time of revolutionary struggle in America. They were adults now and organizing was their main occupation. They were deadly serious about their activism and they had gotten very good at it over the course of the decade, by trial and error, after countless demonstrations and alliances.
So, in a sense, President Nixon and his attorney general John Mitchell—the true antagonists who made sure that these men were put on trial, as the film rightly notes (not to mention FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who had by then hounded and harassed, and done nothing to stop the murders of, movement leaders for years)—were right to think they were facing a serious internal enemy, a dangerous threat to their idea of what America stood for.
One of the things we can love about Nixon is that he always elevated his enemies. He took these activists and the threat they posed to him with tremendous seriousness, whether it was the Black Panthers, civil rights leaders, these anti-war movement leaders, or ex-Beatle John Lennon when he came to America a couple years later in 1971 and was immediately radicalized by Abbie and Jerry—or the publication of the Pentagon Papers, whose attempted suppression by Nixon would lead directly to the formation of the “plumbers” and the dominoes cascade ending unerringly with Nixon’s downfall early in his second term of office.
So what’s mostly lost in the film is a true sense of what was at stake. It wasn’t about disagreements between Abbie and Tom any more than it was about Dave Dellinger throwing his first punch. The defendants were very much united and largely stayed that way throughout the trial. They believed in their own innocence, and hoped the judicial system would render a true verdict. Their plan all along was to put the government on trial for turning our democracy into a police state and for turning the judiciary into an enforcer of the police state’s errors. The defendants ultimately and emphatically won their victory in the appellate courts. Abbie spent time in Cook County jail, but ultimately he was vindicated and it was Judge Hoffman whose actions were condemned, not Abbie or any of the other defendants. And yet, and yet, the battle that raged at the ’68 Democratic convention and in the trial rages still today in America, with the lines drawn similarly and again with virtually everything at stake.
Nearly all the witnesses brought forward by the US assistant district attorney were low-level functionaries answerable to more powerful players that did not appear. For the defense, in stark contrast, the witnesses were university presidents, leading musical artists, a former US attorney general. In the end it was a battle between keeping things hidden and airing things openly in public. Abbie always felt that Bobby Seale’s refusal to be silenced in the courtroom was the most significant thing that happened during the trial, the most successful action on the part of the defendants. The murder of Fred Hampton during the trial was the state’s response. And the gagging and shackling of Bobby Seale before he was separated from the other defendants is certainly the most enduring image from the trial—not a hopeful image at all.
The film captures something of the deep conviction and sense of purpose of all these men. But it personalizes it to the point where our sense of what was at stake is obscured.
Abbie gets a lot of the best lines in the film. Here he is being cross-examined on the stand:
Assistant US Attorney Richard Schultz: Do you have contempt for your government?
Abbie: I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, that right now are populated by some terrible people.
Schultz: Please answer the question.
Abbie: Tell me again?
Schultz: Do you have contempt for your government?
Abbie: I’ll tell you, Mr. Schultz, it’s nothing compared to the contempt my government has for me.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an ensemble production, as the trial itself truly was, and perhaps that’s its main appeal.
The sixties were imbued with and powered by innocence and youth, and optimism: everyone wanted equality, an end to the war, and all the rest. It was only a matter of time. Winning was certain, because the cause was just.
Then came the murderous reaction of our newly elected government. Everything got darker. The innocence of a whole generation became the greatest casualty of the war—stolen by an effective political strategy based on the taking of innocent life at home and abroad. And even though people didn’t see it that way yet, already, when Fred Hampton, the Chicago head of the Black Panther Party, is murdered in his bed during the trial, it comes as a shock but not as a total surprise.
Now we’re at another crossroads, when the forces of fairness and tolerance and racial justice are being met by an equal and opposite overreaction. Again. And on this fifty-second anniversary of Chicago ’68 we have this flawed film to begin a deeper inquiry.
I knew Dave Dellinger a little when I was a kid, because Liberation Magazine, which he edited for many years, met sometimes in my parents’ living room. When I was sixteen I invited one of the Attica brothers, Roger Champen, then out on bail, to my high school to give a talk to the entire student body of around 3,000 kids. Champ showed up together with Bill Kunstler and after he gave a great speech and took questions we all became friends. Later, I published books by Bill—his sonnets. Much later, I published Abbie, and, even later, Tom, along with their unindicted co-conspirator, the great American satirist Paul Krassner.
This movie doesn’t help me understand any better than I already did my friend Roger “Champ” Champen—though he was fighting the same injustices. He hadn’t been one of the leaders of the 1971 insurrection at Attica initially, but he was what you call a jailhouse lawyer, meaning that while in prison he read tons and advised other inmates on how to fight for their rights and get new trials. So when the prisoners took over the prison, they naturally went to Champ for his support and he joined the insurrection, a little after the fact, and mostly out of his sense of common cause with the protest, even though he was approaching the final years of his sentence and so he had a lot to lose by joining the rebellion.
And you won’t understand Bobby Seale better either when you watch the movie, but you will at least know who he is, and Aaron Sorkin’s film will go a long way toward making sure this trial and the moment in our history it represents won’t be forgotten.
Maybe the most important idea in Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, the biography of Abbie that I wrote with his brother Jack, appears in the very first paragraph of chapter 1. It’s the idea that a sense of futility was the source of Abbie’s remarkable energy and optimism, and that in the end his deep optimism held the same tragic seed as our despair. What prompted Jack and me to go there was the derailed life of his brilliant aunt Rose, a diagnosed schizophrenic who spent most of her adult life institutionalized. So in that opening paragraph it wasn’t our despair but his aunt Rose’s. No matter.
After I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Abbie and his aunt Rose, and the relationship between despair and optimism. To finish the thought, despair and optimism may share the same seed, and this may lead in the direction of optimism, a kind of optimism that doesn’t hide its kinship with despair, or maybe, to name it more accurately, a kind of faith in people. After Abbie died, we published the book that he and I had worked on together. He had envisioned it to be like the “Best of” albums that the musical artists of his era made—Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Dead—and gave it the title The Best of Abbie Hoffman—his three ’60s and early ’70s books in one volume. We had buttons made: “Abbie Lives.” I still have a few. And he does.
Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon is co-author, with Jack Hoffman, of Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman.