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On September 24, 1969, eight anti-war demonstrators went to trial for the outbreak of violence that occurred at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Known as the Chicago 8 (later, the Chicago 7), the U.S. government wanted to make an example out of them. The charges? Conspiracy and inciting to riot.
The eight activists who went to trial were: David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Thomas Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner and John Froines.
During the court proceedings, all eight defendants took turns making a spectacle out of the event in their own way, using it as an opportunity to protest their causes as well as attacking and mocking presiding judge Julius Hoffman, who had a clear bias towards the prosecution.
With the exception of Bobby Seale — the only Black member of the group — the rest of the defendants shared the same legal counsel. The Chicago 8 would turn into the Chicago 7 after Judge Hoffman ordered Seale to be bound and gagged (after his multiple outbursts) and for his case to be tried separately.
In February 1970, the trial came to a close, with the jury dropping the conspiracy charge but finding five of the defendants guilty of inciting to riot. (Only Weiner and Froines had both charges dropped.)
For their disruptive actions in court, Judge Hoffman sentenced all the defendants and their attorneys to prison — between two to four years — for contempt, while the remaining five defendants were slapped with an additional five-year prison sentence and a $5,000 fine. However, the case was appealed and in 1972, both the contempt and criminal convictions against all the defendants were overturned with the exception of Seale, whose criminal sentence was upheld, forcing him to serve four years in prison.
Here’s a deeper look at the eight defendants — who they were, what they stood for and where their lives took them after making history.
Although David Dellinger came from a wealthy family with a Yale and Oxford education, he walked away from it all to become a pacifist and non-violent social activist. Originally studying to be a Congregationalist minister, Dellinger relinquished his intended profession to focus on anti-war causes.
Refusing to register for the draft during World War II, he was thrown into prison and later protested America’s involvement in the Korean War and later the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He joined various freedom marches during the Civil Rights Movement and held hunger strikes while in jail.
When the Chicago 8 trial started in 1969, Dellinger was 54 years old — the oldest member of the group. Still, he exhibited a fire in his bones, often yelling at Judge Hoffman, calling him a “liar” and “fascist” when he believed the group was being treated unfairly.
After the trial, Dellinger continued his activism all the way up to his death in 2004, decrying the drug wars, promoting racial equality, and fighting against free trade zones.
After graduating from Oberlin College and receiving his masters at the University of Illinois, Rennie Davis immersed himself into anti-war movement activities, starting in the mid-1960s.
As the National Director of SDS’s community organizing programs, Davis was 29 when the trial began and one of two defendants to take the stand and testify (Hoffman was the other).
In his later years, Davis became a business investor and lecturer on spirituality. In the 1970s he was a student of Guru Maharaj Ji and reunited with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) co-founder Thomas Hayden in 1996 at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago to give a public discussion on “a progressive counterbalance to the religious right.”
Political intellectualist Thomas Hayden was co-founder of SDS and drafted the organization’s famous 1962 manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, which expressed the central goals of the New Left. Among his civil rights and anti-war activities, Hayden traveled to the South and worked with the Newark Community Union Project to fight for racial injustice. He also made a number of trips to North Vietnam and Cambodia in an effort to help end the war in Vietnam.
Hayden later married actress Jane Fonda and had a longstanding political career, serving in the California Assembly and California Senate. He also became director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Los Angeles.
Referring to himself as “a child of the Woodstock Nation,” Abbie Hoffman was a counterculture icon who supported the nonviolent Flower Power movement, among others. After receiving his master’s at Berkeley, he began experimenting with drugs and later tried to use his psychic powers to make the Pentagon levitate during an anti-war protest. Soon after, he co-founded the Yippies, which became known for its use of comedic stunts to make political statements, most notably when members threw dollar bills at traders who worked at the New York Stock Exchange.
After the trial, Hoffman continued his activism into the 1970s but went into hiding (getting plastic surgery and using the false name Barry Freed) to avoid charges for selling cocaine. However, after coming out of hiding in 1980, he served a year in prison for his crime. He was arrested again in 1987 after protesting the CIA’s recruiting efforts at the University of Massachusetts. In 1989 Hoffman committed suicide by drug overdose.
As Hoffman’s co-founder of the Yippies, Oberlin College graduate Jerry Rubin also protested at the Pentagon and promoted the Free Speech Movement. But unlike Hoffman’s relaxed, freewheeling style, Rubin was known for his intense edginess, which was conspicuous during the trial. Among his antics, he marched around and gave the Nazi salute to Judge Hoffman, shouting “Heil, Hitler!”
After the trial, Rubin pulled away from his radical activism and in the 1970s focused on human potentiality via meditation, yoga and alternative medicine. In the 1980s, he worked on Wall Street and found success as an entrepreneur. He died of a heart attack after being hit by a car in 1994.
Prior to becoming co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale served in the U.S. Air Force and later moved from Texas to Oakland, California, studying politics and engineering at a community college.
Seale wasn’t supposed to be in Chicago in 1968. He had been sent as a last-minute replacement for Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, who was unable to make the convention. It is believed that Seale was brought in as a defendant in the trial because the government wanted to use his past radical speeches as a means for the defendants to look guilty of conspiracy in front of the jury.
During the trial, Seale repeatedly jumped up from his seat and declared Judge Hoffman was denying his constitutional rights to hire his own attorney or to represent himself. Over Seale’s continuous interruptions, Judge Hoffman ordered his case to be severed and that Seale be bound and gagged. (Henceforth, the Chicago 8 became the Chicago 7.) Seale would ultimately be sentenced to four years in prison.
In 1970, Seale was tried for being involved in the 1969 murder of a fellow Black Panther who was purportedly an undercover informant. The charges were eventually dropped, and he soon renounced violence from his political ideology and focused on bringing change within the system, helping poor Black communities as well as environmental causes.
Lee Weiner worked at Northwestern University as a teacher’s assistant of sociology when he was arrested and went to trial. He was not only charged for crossing state lines “with intent to incite a riot” but also for teaching protestors how to make incendiary devices (i.e. stink bombs).
For Weiner, he was convinced he’d be found guilty and sentenced to jail. With that in mind, he paid little attention to court proceedings, opting to read about Eastern philosophy and science fiction and occasionally looking on with amusement.
To Weiner’s surprise, charges on both counts would be dropped against him. He’d continue fighting for civil liberties for minority groups and bring attention to funding AIDS research.
Chicago-based chemist John Froines was slapped with the same two charges as Weiner, which would later be dropped. He came from an impressive academic pedigree, with a degree from Berkeley and a Ph.D. from Yale, specializing in toxicology.
He became an activist starting in 1964 and would later become a member of SDS. In court he was described as a personable and reserved individual who had an ironic wit about him.
After the trial, Froines would serve as OSHA’s Director of Toxic Substances under the Carter administration and would become a faculty professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health from 1981 until his retirement in 2011.
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