POLITICS ARCHIVES

The Trial of the Chicago 7: Birth of a Conspiracy

“To some on the left, the Chicago indictments represent the most brazen attempt since McCarthy to crush active dissent, and anything less than acquittal will signal the start of a massive governmental drive.”

by

Courtroom in Chicago

CHICAGO — Conspiracy. See conspire. To join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

A conspiracy is what they throw at you when mere causality is not enough, or when the absurd becomes too painful to bear. The great explanation.

Conspiracy. Bear that word in mind. You’re going to have it shoved down your throat before the year is out.

Jerry Rubin is in Chicago because of the Conspiracy. He is charged, with Rennard (Rennie) Davis, and Bobby G. Seale, and John R. Froines, and Lee Weiner, and David T. Dellinger, and Thomas Hayden, and Abbot H. (Abbie) Hoffman, with crossing state lines to foment disorder or to otherwise violate the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Or to use such means to accomplish a lawful end. To act in harmony.

“With my indictment,” he wrote in the underground press not long ago, “I join the list of outstanding world figures who have crossed state lines to create disturbance: the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the late Marilyn Monroe, rock bands, the President of the United States, and Joe Namath.”

Ever the Yippie. He wears a Jimmy Hoffa for President button over one nipple, a Jerry Rubin for Mayor over the other. On the plane to Chicago, he talks about Cincinnati (where he grew up, and where he plans to return for a visit in late April). He talks about television (both he and Hoffman own color sets and find the viewing experience essential — the watched watches). He expounds on why the assassinations must be viewed as positive events (they helped inch America toward a revolutionary context) and he speculates on the chance that he himself might some day be the object of someone’s insurrectionary ardor. He admits he is afraid of being killed, sometimes. I admit I am afraid to travel with him, sometimes.

In Chicago, we go to meet Bobby Seale’s plane. Three Panther bodyguards greet us in the lounge. The brother who is currently under indictment, charged with stealing 710 ice-cream bars, nods and whispers, “Power to yuh.” I lean forward and offer a bleached handshake.

***

The lawyers meet their clients in a banquet hall on the fourth floor of a Y which stands in the shadow of the Conrad Hilton. From the window, you can see the hotel’s worn brick backside, and beyond that, Grant Park. You keep expecting to find a commemorative plaque along the walk, but the city fathers have done all they can to restore that strip of lake front to its former gentility. Freshly planted grass and newly sprouting flower beds face the hotel. The masquerade is reflected in the faces of pedestrians. They want very much to forget that the equestrian statue of General Logan, which guards the park, was ever aswarm with grimy, vulgar conspirators.

The attorneys sit around a long table, fortified with legal pads and iced tea. Even the veteran defenders seem like mavericks on this case. With good reason. To some on the left, the Chicago indictments represent the most brazen attempt since McCarthy to crush active dissent, and anything less than acquittal will signal the start of a massive governmental drive. Even those who are not about to read pogrom into the charges admit that a conviction would stunt the movement. “At the very least,” suggests one attorney, “it would have a chilling effect on those not really committed yet.”

This little scenario hangs over the proceedings as the defense begins to construct its case. It’s an awesome task, and the odds against aquittal seem formidable. Which could explain why the men sitting around that banquet table seemed so sober.

***

Chicago’s Federal Building stands like a glass and steel truncheon. A skyscraper with style … polished gray stone lobby … the great seal embossed in black … the jails upstairs and outasight.

Ten marshals and 45 policemen keep the crowd outside the courtroom in order. I wait my turn, then file past the world’s spiffiest crewcut plainclothesman, who searches me for weapons and then lets me pass. The galleries are already filled with people — many black kids and a few unrepentant freaks.

“Take that hat off,” a marshal orders a brother in a purple beret.

The man points to a cop in uniform. “If he take his hat off, I take mine off.”

“Throw him out,” the marshal snarls, and the crowd begins to hoot.

The judge enters, Julius J. Hoffman, a balding, 74-year-old man who settles into his chair, casing out the surroundings. He stares hard at the press section, trying to fathom the presence of long hair. His eyes wash over the defendants, settling momentarily on Abbie Hoffman, who has come to court in a blue shirt with Chicago Police Department insignia affixed to the sleeve. Finally, he turns his attention to the attorneys, and even here, he is displeased to note the presence of facial hair around the earlobes.

“These men taking bread out of the mouths of our Chicago bar?”

William Kunstler, who defended Jerry Rubin at the recent HUAC hearings, stands and answers: “Your honor. It’s not bread. It’s only water.”

And then the arraignments begin. This is a preliminary hearing, designed to set a date for trial. But there are crucial matters to be decided such as travel restrictions. The U.S. Attorney has requested that the defendants be confined to the district of Southern Illinois, and the defense intends to contest that motion, as an abridgement of free speech. The decision will serve as a fair indication of what the conspirators can expect from Judge Hoffman when their trial begins.

But now it is time to plead, and David Dellinger stands against the lectern. “Obviously not guilty,” he announces. “The guilty party has not yet been indicted.”

“Sir, you were asked to plead guilty or not guilty,” Judge Hoffman says. “There will be no speeches. How do you plead?”

“I said obviously not guilty.”

“Obviously has nothing to do with it,” the judge scowls, and then be instructs Dellinger’s lawyer to help his client out.

“Sir, he has pleaded.”

“No, he has not pleaded. There will be no speeches or embellishments.” Titters from the gallery. “If there is any further laughter or any other disturbance, I will have the courtroom cleared. Now, how do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” Dellinger mutters.

“Now that’s the way to do it.”

The procession continues with Abbie Hoffman, who pleads not guilty in the softest voice I have ever heard him use in public. He has never been convicted in court. It’s a record he’s fiercely proud of. Now, charged with defacing the American flag by wearing a starred and striped shirt at HUAC, and charged with possessing guns and narcotics after a raid on an apartment registered in his name, he is not about to risk contempt of court.

Jerry Rubin grips the lectern and pleads with his fist raised. “Let the record show,” the judge intones, “that Mr. Rubin pleaded guilty with a fist raised in the air.”

“He pleaded not guilty, your honor,” Kunstler interrupts. “That was a Freudian slip.”

“I’m sorry, but that raised fist confused me. I didn’t know whether it was directed at me or not.”

“Sir, that is a symbol of defiance against certain things these defendants think is wrong.”

“Certainly they don’t think I’m wrong.”

Kunstler lets a quick sharp smile cross his lips. “I won’t even bother to answer that, sir.”

***

It had been a small but energetic lunchtime rally. Four hundred people filled the courtyard of the Federal Building, and when the Conspiracy Eight (as they had already begun to call themselves) emerged from the arraignment, the shouts of “power to the people” managed to drown out the canned organ music which came from hidden speakers and was audible from blocks away.

First to speak was Bobby Seale, who denied that the Panthers were a racist organization, and buoyed his audience with the chant “Black power to black people; white power to white people.” Tom Hayden said the movement was expanding despite the indictments, and he offered as evidence a mutiny at Fort Carson, Colorado. He said 80 soldiers had gone over the wall with M-16s and ammunition, and had set up a camp somewhere in the Rockies. He said the Army knew about it, but was afraid of the publicity a confrontation might produce.

And Abbie called the hearing “the beginning of the spring offensive. We are joyful at this attempt to combine our forces,” he intoned, “and we thank these people for getting us together because these are the signs of a dying system and we shall dance on the graves of the empire.”

It was true. If the federal sweep had drained the movement of its jaunty brashness, it had solidified some unsteady alliances and created, in the eight men under indictment, a potential popular front for radical youth. The government itself had suggested, by its choice of conspirators, that the best defense lay in unity. And in the tradition of generational combat, the strongest response to a parental attack was to turn the oppressor’s weapons back on himself. Or as Jerry Rubin told the rally: “The only way to defend ourselves is offensively.”

So it looks as though the United States of America may actually succeed in creating a conspiracy in its midst.

***

It had been a depressing morning and a grueling afternoon. They had to admit that Judge Hoffman had intimidated them. And it was true that the government had coerced the defense into negotiating, against its will, for the lifting of travel restrictions. Despite repeated appeals, the judge bhad refused to consider the defense motion on confinement, but he suggested rather broadly that the two sides work it out together. When the defense refused to engage in collective bargaining, the judge shelved the issue, and sustained a prosecution motion that the bonds for out-of-state defendants be transferred to Illinois. That seemed innocent enough, but when the actual transference was attempted, it became apparent that the law would require confinement anyway, as part of the process of re-establishing bond. With the futility of their resistance finally clear, the defense retired to the U. S. Attorney’s office, where it was agreed that the prosecution would drop its demand for travel restrictions if the defendants would keep the government informed of their whereabouts. This smacked of surrender, but the alternatives were exhausted, so the defense retired to a conference room to lick its wounds, when Tom Hayden and Gerald Lefcourt (an attorney) spotted a man with a transmitter outside the door. When they pursued him, a second man appeared and told him not to say anything. The prosecuting attorney identified the men — who were indeed FBI agents — and insisted that, while they had been relaying information on the defendants’ whereabouts, they carried no recording equipment.

But the incident set the mood for the rest of the day. By the time they left court, the charter members of the Conspiracy had achieved some measure of their own legitimacy. At least they knew when their trial would start (Judge Hoffman had set the date for September 24) and they knew what to expect from the court, the newspapers, and the government. And these were important discoveries, because a knowledge of your environment is the first step toward mastering it.

So they went off to have their picture taken in Grant Park, around the statue of General Logan. And as they got closer to the Hilton, each began to feel again something of the rush which was Chicago last August, and Jerry Rubin waved to the cars along Michigan Avenue, and Tom Hayden, in his new beard and his wrap-around shades with the purple lenses, looked at all the frowning faces on the pedestrians around him, and he hugged Abbie Hoffman and shouted: “It’s us. It’s us.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 5, 2020

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