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Author Says The Chicago 7 Trial Reflected 'All The Conflicts In America'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Jon Wiener, hopes that President Trump does not watch Aaron Sorkin's new film, "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." Wiener wrote in an article published last month in The Nation that he feared Trump would take away the wrong message and tell his attorney general, William Barr, to do with the leaders of today's protest movements, like Black Lives Matter, what Nixon did to the Chicago Seven and put them on trial for conspiracy to cross state lines and incite riot. Wiener is the author of a book about the Chicago Seven trial that includes a very abridged version of the trial transcript. The book, "Conspiracy In The Streets," was first published in 2006. It was reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The Chicago Seven, originally the Chicago Eight, were leaders of the movement against the war in Vietnam. In August of 1968, they organized protests that drew thousands of people from around the country to Chicago to coincide with the Democratic National Convention that was being held there. This was the convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon. The protesters were met with thousands of police, National Guardsmen and soldiers, resulting in battles that were broadcast on national TV, shocking Americans who watched as young people were clubbed and tear gassed.

Eight months later, early in Nixon's presidency, eight leaders of the political and cultural left, including Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, were charged with conspiracy to incite riot. Seale, who was chained and gagged in the courtroom during part of the trial, was later severed from the trial and was not retried for the Chicago charges. Wiener writes, at the end of the '60s, it seemed that all the conflicts in America were distilled and then acted out in the courtroom of the trial.

Wiener is also the author of the book "Set The Night On Fire," about the protest movements in 1960s LA, and he wrote an earlier book about John Lennon's FBI files.

John Wiener, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The antiwar protests that we're talking about were staged to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. Why were they protesting at the convention site in Chicago?

JON WIENER: Well, the war in Vietnam had been, basically, a war started and escalated by Democratic presidents, especially Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson had to withdraw from his own reelection campaign, something that has never happened before or since, because there was so much opposition to him from within his own party because there were now half a million troops in Vietnam, and it was clear that America was never going to win this war.

So if you wanted to protest the war, you had to protest against the Democrats. The Republicans really didn't have much to do with it. And that's why the antiwar leaders set out to organize what they hoped would be hundreds of thousands of people protesting. In the end, it was one of the smaller protests of the '60s. But as you said, the violence of the police - the police riot and the police riot on TV - made it a historic event.

GROSS: How did it turn into a riot? What happened?

WIENER: Well, this is - the subject of the trial raised this issue repeatedly. There's, of course, two views of how this happened. The Nixon Justice Department's view was that leaders of the protest movement conspired to sort of trick naive young people into coming to Chicago and then provoked a riot in violation of federal law. The defense argued that, truthfully, they had tried repeatedly to get permits to make this a legal protest, and they were denied first by the city and then by the courts. They couldn't stop people from coming to protest.

And it's pretty clear that the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, kind of authorized, not formally but informally, the police to attack and beat the demonstrators repeatedly day after day. And indeed, an independent investigation after all these events called it a police riot.

GROSS: And you write that four months before these protests, Mayor Daley issued orders to Chicago police to shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim or cripple looters in Black neighborhoods.

WIENER: Yeah. Daley was determined to stop street protests in Chicago by any means necessary, I think you could say. And I think that's one reason why, instead of hundreds of thousands of people coming, only about 15,000 people came to these protests. The antiwar demonstrations before this - I mean, SDS organized the first antiwar March on Washington in the spring of 1965. That had 25,000 people, which was maybe twice as many as came to Chicago three years later. And during the trial in 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium Day in October had hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating all over the place.

So the threats that Daley had issued in the months before this and the denial of the permits really did have a huge effect on reducing the number of people who were willing to show up.

GROSS: Well, if there were 12,000 police, 6,000 soldiers and 5,000 National Guardsmen, that means there were at least as many of them as there were of protesters. Is that right?

WIENER: Yeah. I think that the Army, the regular Army soldiers were never sent into the streets. It was the National Guard and the Chicago police, so I think it was pretty close to 50-50.

GROSS: So the city issued a curfew at 11 o'clock during the nights of the protest. And when the protesters didn't leave, that, I think, is when the police attacked them.

WIENER: Yes. We need to make it clear here there were two very different protests that were organized. One was the kind of traditional protest march that wanted to go to the convention site and to call on the Democrats to end the war. That was the one that was organized by the National Mobilization Committee - the MOBE, we called it - Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden.

And then there was a separate protest. The Yippies organized what they called a Festival of Life in Grant Park to challenge what they called the festival of death at the Democratic National Convention. Their protest was going to be in the park. It was going to involve music, dancing - they also said perhaps public fornication, perhaps nude bathing at the beaches - the Festival of Life of the counterculture. And everyone was encouraged, who wanted to come to that, to camp out in the park. And the police said they couldn't stay overnight in the park, and so that became the flashpoint - you're right - of the police violence.

GROSS: Many of the protesters were injured. I think hundreds were hospitalized.

WIENER: Yeah. Yeah, including Rennie Davis, who was very - got a concussion, covered with blood, hospitalized. It was bad.

GROSS: So you have these two really different groups standing trial together. You have the Yippies, represented by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and you've got leaders from the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, which is represented by, you know, Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis. As you said, there were two separate protests. One was, you know, a march to where the convention was being held, and the other was this, like, Festival of Life in the park. Did the Yippies and the leaders of the mobilization talk to each other and try to coordinate their ends of this protest? Or were these, like, two independent things?

WIENER: You know, they were inevitably thrown together. They applied separately for permits. But once they got to Chicago, the police didn't really distinguish between them. And a lot of the people who came for the march also wanted to camp out in the park. And during the day was the festival with the music and so on. So they sort of blended together. The idea of the prosecution was that there was a conspiracy. Conspiracy is an agreement to break the law. They never conspired together to do this. It was more the circumstances on the ground that made this into one protest.

GROSS: The defendants in the trial come from the cultural left and the political left. And there's a lot of divisions between them in terms of their tactics, their philosophy, their strategy. And you could see that in how they tried to use the trial to make their larger points about the war and about what was going wrong with America. Can you talk about their different strategies at the trial?

WIENER: Yeah. Both groups wanted to use the trial to present the case to the American people that - they wanted to put the government on trial for the war in Vietnam. That they agreed on. How to do that was where they had different ideas. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin - let's call them Abbie and Jerry - wanted to use ridicule and humor and disruptions to desanctify (ph) the courtroom and delegitimize the judge and undermine the prosecution. And Dave Dellinger was kind of into that, too. He was openly defiant of the judge and the prosecutors.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden wanted to have a more sober kind of trial, where they would challenge the factual basis of what the prosecution was saying and insist on talking about the war at every opportunity. In practice, there was a lot of disruption. And in practice, the judge resolutely refused to let them bring up Vietnam. He kept saying Vietnam has nothing to do with this trial. Objection sustained. So we saw both of these in the courtroom. And the trial, of course, lasted almost five months. So there were many opportunities for both strategies to be attempted.

GROSS: How did the political left - how did, like, Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis react to the more prankish approach of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin?

WIENER: Well, Tom, afterwards, he was kind of contemptuous of Abbie and Jerry. He thought they were not good organizers, was his view. He thought they were - you know, they were masters of television. Everybody understood that. They were masters of the media. But they were not interested in organizing hundreds of thousands of people by the usual organizing tactics. They would just put out the word and hope that everybody came. And that was what they were doing in the courtroom, too, performing for this much larger audience of young people. So Rennie and Tom wanted to make - keep the focus on the war in Vietnam. And Abbie and Jerry were very interested in the desanctification (ph) of the courtroom and the American legal system.

GROSS: So let me introduce you here, Jon. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" was first published in 2006. It was reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's new film about the trial, which is now streaming on Netflix. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELESTE AND DANIEL PEMBERTON'S "HEAR MY DREAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH Air. Let's get back to my interview with Jon Wiener, whose books include "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Seven." And if you want to see a theatrical film based on the trial, there's one streaming on Netflix that was written by Aaron Sorkin.

So the protests we've been talking about take place in Chicago in 1968, coinciding with the Democratic National Convention because the protesters are demonstrating against the Democrats, who have been leading the war in Vietnam, you know, Democratic presidents. So by the time the trial takes place, Nixon is president. Did Nixon have a role in the Chicago 7 trial?

WIENER: Well, it was part of - Nixon's campaign theme had been law and order and to be the voice of the - what he called the silent majority, by which he referred to white conservatives who were opposed to the Black movement in the streets and the movement - the counterculture, the movement of young people in the streets. So in that sense, the trial is perfect - is part of what Nixon promised he would do if he became president. And it's interesting that - I mean, the demonstrations were, as you have said, they were against Democrats. They were not against Republicans.

But the most fascinating thing about the trial politically was that the Democratic attorney general for Lyndon Johnson had made a decision not to prosecute any of the protests at the Democratic National Convention. He was - name was Ramsey Clark. And he was brought by the defense to testify at the trial to emphasize how much this was a part of a Nixon initiative, and that there would - never would've been a trial if Hubert Humphrey had won the election because the Democrats were not in favor of, you know, repressing the protests that were sweeping America, even with federal law, even though they were the targets of them. So yes, this was a Nixon initiative. He was more or less fulfilling a campaign promise, although he hadn't promised directly to go after the Chicago demonstrators.

GROSS: Judge Julius Hoffman, as you point out in your book, he seemed to represent everything that was unjust and oppressive about the status quo at the time. He was 74 at the time of the trial. He had graduated from law school in 1915, which was very far away from the cultural values of 1968. And he did things that were just, really, remarkable by any standard, including having Bobby Seale, when he was still a defendant in the trial - Bobby Seale was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. Hoffman had him bound and gagged.

And Seale's lawyer had been hospitalized. So Seale didn't have representation. He wanted to represent himself. Hoffman refused to allow him to do that. And when Seale kept protesting, that's when Hoffman had him bound and gagged. How are you allowed to do that in an American courtroom? How was Hoffman allowed to do that? Wasn't there anybody who could say, you don't do that in America, anybody who could stop that kind of thing from happening?

WIENER: You know, I'm - I had never heard of it happening before either. And I'm kind of amazed that the prosecution didn't tell the judge not to do this. I mean, it was a completely horrifying spectacle, threw the courtroom into turmoil for - it went on for four days. Bobby Seale was a fiercely proud and strong person who kept trying to shout through his gag that he demanded his right to represent himself. This was - a lot of this was in front of the jury. I would have thought that the prosecution would've been worried about the jury being, you know, as we say, tainted by this spectacle.

And, of course, eventually, after four days, Bobby Seale was severed. And that was the end of his presence in the courtroom. Although, the defense then brought him back as a defense witness a couple of months later. But, yeah, it never should've happened. It was completely horrible. It was a spectacle to the entire country, in fact, to the entire world. You can be sure that in Europe and in Africa and in South America, people saw the courtroom drawings. There were no photographs or film, or video allowed in the courtroom. But there were courtroom drawings of a Black man gagged in chains in an American courtroom.

GROSS: What was Bobby Seale doing as a defendant in the first place?

WIENER: He really shouldn't have been there. He had not been any part of these demonstrations. The Panthers were not planning to - didn't demonstrate, didn't call on their members to demonstrate at the Chicago National Convention. And, in fact, they called it a great phrase, Custeristic. It was like, you know, being Custer heading into the battle that he was sure to be massacred in. So Bobby Seale was in Chicago for a total of four hours. He gave a speech in Grant Park in the afternoon, which was mostly about the Black Panthers' ten-point program - defund the police and, you know, Black power in Black communities.

But since the Panthers were the most famous Black, radical group in America, Nixon wanted to make them part of what was going to be the biggest show trial of radicals in America, so he was added. And probably, it was part of the prosecution's strategy also to, you know, frighten the jury of middle-class white people with an angry Black man.

GROSS: It didn't work out the way they expected, did it?

WIENER: No, (laughter) partly it was, as you say, it was because of Judge Julius Hoffman did this most unexpected thing. He should've allowed Bobby Seale to have an attorney. I mean, that's kind of basic, you know, American...

GROSS: It's his constitutional right. Like, I don't understand how...

WIENER: It is his (laughter) constitutional right.

GROSS: ...This is allowed to happen. Yeah (laughter).

WIENER: You make a good point. It was his constitutional right. And that's what he kept claiming, asserting. Hoffman, in some way - you know, when you read the transcript now, you just can't believe a judge would ever do this. It's horrifying and, in some ways, it's hilarious. I mean, every time the prosecution says objection, the judge says sustained. Sometimes - and every time the defense says objection, the judge says overruled. He doesn't even let them state their objection. So he's unbelievably biased, which, of course, led to the entire - all the convictions being overturned on appeal.

But in some ways, in retrospect, this played very much into the hands of the defendants who wanted to expose, you know, the injustice of the American legal system and how the courts were in the service of the repressive forces of the Nixon administration. I mean, it could not possibly have been any clearer. And any other judge would have had a very different kind of trial that didn't fulfill everything that the radicals were saying about justice in America.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" has been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film, which is now streaming on Netflix. And that film is called "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLING FLOOR")

THE ELECTRIC FLAG: (Singing) If I'd have listened to my second mind - yes, if I had listened to my second mind, you know I wouldn't be here now, people, down on the killing floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jon Wiener. His book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven" was first published in 2006. It's been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film about the trial of the Chicago Seven, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The defendants in the trial were leaders from the political and the cultural left who opposed the war in Vietnam and organized protests in 1968 in Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention was being held. They were met with thousands of police, National Guardsmen and soldiers, leading to battles in which young people were tear gassed and beaten. The defendants were charged with crossing state lines and conspiring to start a riot. The seven were initially eight, but Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panthers, was removed from that trial and was never retried on those Chicago charges.

So we've been talking about Judge Julius Hoffman. What are some of the things that he did, some of the other things he did, that were so norm-breaking for a judge?

WIENER: Well, he, some ways - aside from having a Black man chained and gagged in the courtroom, I'd say the second most outrageous thing he did was not allowing the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, to testify. Ramsey Clark was prepared to testify that the Democratic administration thought there was no basis for a conspiracy trial of these people and that they did not cause a riot. And Hoffman banned the defense from presenting that testimony in the courtroom and from presenting that witness in the courtroom and didn't even allow the jury to know that the former attorney general had been a scheduled witness and was not allowed to appear.

And, of course, the most fundamental thing, which we've mentioned before, was refusing to allow Bobby Seale to have his attorney present and then refusing his repeated demands that he be allowed to represent himself - completely unconstitutional.

GROSS: So while the trial was going on, Fred Hampton, who was a leader of the Chicago Black Panthers and was acting kind of as a liaison between Bobby Seale and the rest of the defense, Fred Hampton was killed by police in a raid on his home. What do we know about what happened in the death of Fred Hampton? And what impact did that have on the trial?

WIENER: Fred Hampton was a very appealing and, some would say, charismatic young guy, one of the most promising and young leaders of the Panthers. Really, everybody liked him a lot. The police said that there was a gun battle and that he was shot while resisting. But the coroner's autopsy determined that he'd been shot twice in the head in his bed, which meant while he was asleep.

This news came in the middle of the trial. It was just a completely horrible thing for all the defendants who knew him, liked him, had been meeting with him. They tried to get the trial to go into recess for a day or two, but Judge Hoffman wouldn't allow that. And it seems like the murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police was part of a national campaign coordinated, probably, by the FBI to attack the Panthers everywhere. Two weeks later, the Panther office in LA was attacked. They didn't kill anybody only because the Panthers there had learned from Fred Hampton's killing to barricade and put - sandbag their offices.

GROSS: So how did the Chicago Seven trial end?

WIENER: Well, here, the film is (laughter) a little misleading. The film has a happy ending, with Tom Hayden defying the judge while everybody cheers. That's the way Aaron Sorkin likes his films to end. But in real life, the trial ended with guilty verdicts against five of the seven defendants. Everyone was found innocent on the conspiracy charge but guilty of incitement to riot. They were then sentenced to five years in prison for that crime. And then the judge also gave each one of them long sentences for contempt of court, some as long as four years more for contempt of court.

Now, normally, if you're being - facing more than a six-month sentence for contempt of court, you get a separate jury trial. He denied them a separate jury trial despite repeated protests from the attorneys. And that also was overturned on appeal. But the end of the trial was a very grim and miserable experience for everybody.

GROSS: Did they have to serve any time?

WIENER: They - I believe they served overnight their - the judge also revoked their bail. Now, the only grounds for revoking bail in America is risk of flight. These guys were not going to flee. These guys were full-time professional organizers. Every chance they had, they were on college campuses or at churches giving speeches. Nevertheless, the judge revoked their bail, which was, you know, improper. And they got that reversed, I think, the next day. And then the trial was appealed. And the contempt citations then had a separate trial, and everything was overturned on appeal, and nobody served any more time in jail.

GROSS: What parallels do you see between the Chicago Seven and the protests of today and how the police have handled those protests?

WIENER: Well, today's - the biggest difference is that today's protests have been a hundred times bigger. It wasn't just in one city that people took to the streets and, in many places, were attacked by the police; it was everywhere in America - big cities and little cities. And it wasn't just young people. It wasn't just Black people. It was a very multiethnic, multiracial wave of protests that we had this summer on a scale that we've never seen before in America. So I think what happened this summer is much, much better, much bigger and stronger and smarter than anything that happened in the '60s, including the Chicago convention protests.

One of the most important things is there weren't these kinds of splits in the demonstrations of the past summer. They were very focused and very coherent. And, you know, the '60s left - the SDS split into two factions which kicked each other out. The Black Panthers had a bitter rivalry with Ron Karenga's US organization. We haven't seen anything like that with Black Lives Matter. And, you know, I've thought a lot about why is that, why is today's protest movement so much better than what we had in the '60s?

I think part of it is that Black Lives Matter is an organization that was founded and is led by Black women, and they somehow do not have the same kind of - let's call them macho rivalries and preoccupations that the men of of the '60s new left and the '60s Black Power movement had.

GROSS: John Wiener, thank you so much for talking with us.

WIENER: It was my pleasure.

GROSS: Jon Wiener is the author of the book "Conspiracy In The Streets: The Extraordinary Trial Of The Chicago Seven." It's been reprinted to coincide with the Aaron Sorkin film "The Trial Of The Chicago 7."

After we take a short break, we'll hear from British writer Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider teenage spy young adult novels, as well as mystery novels for adults. His Alex Rider series has just been adapted into an Amazon TV series. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.