POLITICS ARCHIVES

The Trial of the Chicago 7: Indictment and Protest

“The 1968 Civil Disorders Bill had been pushed through Congress by Southern reactionaries who were convinced that there was a combined black power-communist conspiracy to burn down the American cities. Now it had actually been applied”

by

Spring’s Awakening 

It’s been a busy week. Thursday the Federal Grand Jury indicted eight “non-leaders” of the Chicago demonstration for conspiracy to break the law and incite a riot. Friday Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Dave Dellinger held a press conference at the Hotel Diplomat welcoming the indictment as “the academy award of protest” and asking others to “join the conspiracy.” Saturday there was a demonstration at Foley Square while the conspirators surrendered themselves to the authorities. Saturday evening another protest sponsored by Alternate U. and a group called the Crazies ran from the New York Times to Grand Central to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park and then back again. And then late Sunday night Abbie Hoffman’s office on East 5th Street was busted for narcotics and guns.

Spring had come. After months of being restricted to indoor sports everything seemed to burst out into the streets. There was a great deal of excitement and agitation leading nowhere in particular. The events seemed to follow each other in no particular sequence. One after another they would capture one’s attention and then disappear as rapidly as they had arisen, leaving the impression that they were somehow tenuously strung together and yet tracing no discernible pattern.

The indictment came as something of a surprise. After having anticipated it momentarily, waited for it patiently, feared it endlessly, and finally dismissed it entirely, Rubin claims that he was really shocked when it finally descended from the higher courts. “I was into something new and now they bring this whole thing back to us,” he complained. “Will Chicago never end?”

The evening of their indictment, Rubin and Hoffman met uptown in the plush offices of their defense attorneys. Everyone hugged everyone else, talked about how this trial would go all the way, how they’d push it to the Supreme Court, how it might take six months of trial and years of appeals, but how this was what they’d been waiting for.

Most of the speculation centered around why Bobby Seale, (one of the last Black Panther leaders who isn’t in jail or in exile) had been included in the list of those indicted. One of the theories was that the New Left had friends in high places who wanted to see all its various factions unified. Others claimed that whoever had been the architect of the indictment was just plain stupid and clearly had no idea what the consequences of this cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-political indictment would be.

The lawyers seemed more jubilant about the indictment than the indicted. Here was the test case every liberal constitutional lawyer in the country had been waiting for. The 1968 Civil Disorders Bill had been pushed through Congress by Southern reactionaries who were convinced that there was a combined black power-communist conspiracy to burn down the American cities. The bill was passed in order to stop H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael from running around the country preaching revolution. Now, for the first time, it had actually been applied, and would probably face the test of constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

Later that evening, back at Hoffman’s apartment, the grim reality of it all began to come down hard. At first, when his mother-in-law called to ask about the indictment, Hoffman said lightly, “It’s all right, it’s just in the line of work I do.” Then, sitting in front of a color television set, listening to various garbled accounts of the indictment by pink-faced newscasters, Hoffman chewed reflectively on a lamb chop and mentioned for the first time the possibility of jail. Abbie the clown was instantly replaced by a real person. Under the law he is eligible for a grand total of five years and a $10,000 fine.

Saturday morning I arrived at Foley Square in front of the courthouse where Rubin, Hoffman, and Dellinger were to surrender themselves. An impressive contingent of some 20 elite Black Panther troops were on hand to give evidence that the Panthers are not going to be quiet about Seale’s indictment. Standing in formation in the cold morning sun, their uniforms and discipline gave them a presence which the twice as numerous white protestors lacked.

Once the three indicted men disappeared into the courthouse, the Panthers moved up and faced off with the police who were jealously guarding the steps leading up to the halls of justice. Kafka must have been somewhere in the crowd. Each Panther stepped up nose to nose with a policeman, raised his crossed arms in front of him, and started chanting: “No more brothers in jail. Off the pigs.” Then they filed out.

Inside, Hoffman lit up a cigarette in front of the judge and was told to put it out.

Outside, Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, complained bitterly about not having been included in the indictment.

***

The demonstration Saturday evening in front of the New York Times came as comic relief when compared with the seriousness of the indictments. The police, however, did not take it as a joke and deployed such an arsenal of force in front of the truck loading platforms on 43rd Street that only an idiot would have made a move. The Tactical Patrol Force lined the barricades, paddy wagons were invitingly open at each end of the street, patrol cars were illegally parked all over Times Square, and there were more plainclothesmen than people.

The United States is probably the only place in the world where demonstrations have turned into a spectator sport. Sailors, prostitutes, newsmen, printers in four-cornered newspaper hats, passing motorists, theatre-goers, local bartenders, and the whole gang took time off to come out and watch the Crazies do their bit.

“What are they bitching about now,” a cross looking little old lady with a Macy’s shopping bag asked a plainclothesman.

“Are you in this demonstration or reporting on it?” a detective from the Red Squad questioned me as he examined my press card.

“What’s in the bag, kid?” a detective asked a long haired boy who was carrying a sign which read “The Saturday Load and the Sunday Bullshit.” The boy handed the officer the bag. Opening it he found to his eternal disappointment and minimal embarrassment that it was not a concealed weapon of infernal destruction but only a bologna sandwich.

“Move along, miss,” a young cop suggested politely to a beautiful blond girl who was standing on his corner watching the picket line. “I can’t,” she said, batting her eyelashes at him shyly. “l’m with them,” she continued, gesturing toward the demonstrators.

Suddenly there was the very strong smell of puke at the Broadway end of 43rd Street. Apparently one of the stink bombs which the demonstrators had brought with them went off by mistake within their own ranks. It was not the only weapon which ran afoul that evening. Several plastic bags of yellow paint, intended for the windows of the trucks which were taking away the Sunday issue of the Times, fell on the ground and splattered several hapless demonstrators who stepped on them.

A pregnant woman who had been holding a toilet-paper-roll version of the New York Times was snatched out of the picket line and hustled away by detectives for no apparent reason. Attorneys who tried to accompany her were turned back. For a moment it looked as if something might happen. The demonstrators surged forward and the police pushed back, banging their clubs on the barricades in a manner which invoked no less than utter terror.

“Scotty Reston is a You Know What,” one poster teased, “All the News That’s Shit to Print,” someone else claimed, “The New York Times Disguises Bald Racism with a Liberal Toupee,” another whined.

But no one could really get it up for the Times. Everyone had their own little bitch, everyone read it with their own kind of skepticism, but the point was that the picketers knew in the back of their minds that after the demonstration was over they were going to slink off to their local newsstand and buy a copy of none other than the Sunday edition of the Times — the very one they hadn’t been able to stop from coming out. They would buy it Sunday and buy it again on Monday to see if their little display of annoyance had hit the Big Times.

By 9:30 p.m. things were beginning to peter out. The picket line was getting shorter and shorter between the rows of policemen and everyone was just about shouted hoarse. The general movement seemed to be toward Grand Central. There another group of Crazies promised to lay a wreath of flowers at the information booth where last year’s bloody riot had begun when someone had climbed up on top of the clock and ripped the hands off.

At a meeting at the Crazies’ storefront in the East Village several days before, Hoffman had told the others who were planning the demonstration that he didn’t think it was a good idea to go back to Grand Central: “I was knocked unconscious there last year and I don’t plan to do it again. Let’s at least make it a different place next time. Once you’re inside the station the cops can block off all the entrances and you have to run the gauntlet in order to get out.”

“All I hear is fear, fear, fear,” a boy by the name of Danny who was sitting on the floor complained. “People are supposed to be afraid of us. Remember?” he reminded the others.

In the end it was decided that they would go ahead with the Grand Central demonstration in spite of its risks. As one bearded member of the group explained, the strategy of the Crazies is “to walk that thin line between getting your head bashed in and just managing to get away with it — that’s what it is to be a Crazy.”

But by the time the Crazies got to Grand Central on Saturday it was already effectively blocked off by the police who had locked most of the doors and asked for tickets at the few entrances they left open.

“Where’s your ticket, kid,” a policeman asked a Crazy who had decided to make a test of his constitutional right of free movement.

“I don’t have one, but if you let me go in I’ll buy one,” he promised.

“Uh uh, you got to have it with you.”

“But how can I have it if you won’t let me in to buy it?” he argued logically.

“Look kid, we don’t want your demonstration here.”

“I’m not going to demonstrate, I just want to go out to Long Island to visit my grandmother,” he lied.

“Try Penn Station,” the cop countered.

“Here we are at the Prague border, everyone take out their ticket, you can’t travel here without a passport, remember, you’re in Amerika,” the boy shouted at the other freaks who had been listening intently to the dialogue.

According to Howard Smith, who arrived at Grand Central slightly later, the police were not the only ones who were guarding Grand Central against an invasion of crazies. A number of men wearing buttons which read “PFB” (Peter Factor Brigade?) were patrolling the area, promising demonstrators that if they got inside they’d be “only too happy to kick the shit out of you.”

“What does PFB stand for?” they were asked. “You’ll know when the time comes.”

“What time will that be?”

“When Lee gets ready to tell you.”

“All right, now I guess we have to ask who Lee is,” Krassner said.

The question remained unanswered. Lee will remain a mystery … “until the time comes.”

Meanwhile, outside, most of the demonstrators had grown tired of standing around and headed off uptown, some 150 to 200 strong, toward the park where they were scheduled to meet at midnight. Marching together up Madison Avenue they began to feel their strength and [the] disruptive possibilities of such a large mobile force. “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh,” they chanted over and over, as if the second verse (“The NLF is gonna win”) had been forgotten over the winter or had simply disappeared out of pessimism. A few marchers strayed out in the street dodging in and out of traffic, trash barrels were overturned, and then the police arrived. They drove alongside the march for several blocks and people began to think they were just giving them an escort uptown. No such luck. At 50th Street a gray car drove up onto the sidewalk, splitting the marchers in half. All four doors opened simultaneously and plainclothesmen poured out, grabbing whoever was nearest. Half the group was forced back downtown and the other half continued east. A few blocks later it happened again, only this time it became clear that there were police spotters in the ranks who pointed out the demonstrators they thought were ring leaders. Each time it was the same. The police would run toward the center of a group arresting one or two and leaving the rest to wander around wondering where the hell everyone else had gone to. By the time I arrived at the park I was with four other people.

“This is all bullshit,” a boy next to me mumbled as we walked through the park toward the Sheep Meadow. “This isn’t a revolution, it isn’t even a decent demonstration. It’s an outing,” he explained as if he finally divined the truth, “a walking tour of New York City.”

“Maybe the revolutionary logic behind it all is to keep the troops physically fit,” I suggested, “like Mao leading everyone down to the river for a swim.”

“Yeah,” the boy agreed, “it could be listed in ‘100 Ways to Lose Weight,’ or whatever that bestseller is called.”

Sheep Meadow was a bummer. The cavalry had the high rocky ground to the south, plainclothesmen blocked off the east, scooter cops could be seen to the north, and patrol cars covered the west. “We’re surrounded,” someone observed in the dark.

“Let’s go home, the cops have made their point, they can have this place if they need it so desperately. The Viet Cong never try to hold a hopeless position when they’re out-gunned,” a dark-haired politico with a pointy goatee announced. “Go home, no one’s having any fun here anyways. This sure doesn’t look like any festival of life to me.”

After a huddle it was decided to take the young man’s advice. On the way out of the park, the wreath (which was supposed to have been planted in Grand Central) was placed in the hands of a lovely nude statue which stands in the plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel. Cheers went up and everybody got their thrill. Then we walked back down to Times Square again, where again the police insisted on intervening. A fairly large group then subwayed down to Sheridan Square and marched triumphantly over to St. Mark’s Place where they were greeted by those who had been too spaced out to make the trip. It had been a long walk and everyone was fagged out. No one except the most naive thought any of it had been worth it.

***

The next night, Sunday night, Abbie Hoffman’s office on 5th Street — down the block from the police station — was raided and the police discovered a suitcase full of guns and blackjacks and a packet of heroin. It was all vaguely reminiscent of Rubin’s bust last year just before the Chicago convention when the police broke into his apartment, tore the posters off the walls, riffled his papers, and busted him for possession of pot.

While it’s still impossible to say whether the raid on Hoffman’s place was a frame-up or not (the young man who left the suitcase full of guns, for example, has mysteriously disappeared), we may never know for sure. However, Hoffman claims that “it is totally inconceivable that a person in my position would hide an arsenal of guns and dope a couple of houses away from a police station.”

To make matters even more mysterious, rumor has it that heroin was found planted in the Peace Eye Bookstore and at the Switchboard — both likely places for busts if there was to be a heavy crackdown on the Movement in the East Village. Nothing, however is revealed. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2020

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