The Trial of the Chicago 7 tells us the powerful story of the brave stand taken by the anti-war movement in the late sixties
Aaron Sorkin’s latest film recently released on Netflix is a masterful dramatisation of the attempt to indict the leaders of the protest-turned-riot in Chicago 1968. The star-studded cast includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Keaton.
The film opens with footage of President Lyndon B Johnson announcing the ramping up of the Vietnam War and doubling of the draft for soldiers. Martin Luther King, shortly before he is assassinated, is shown saying:
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, ‘Vietnam’”
Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, was one of the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society and one of the defendants on trial. He explains to a lecture hall of students why they’re organising a protest outside the Democratic National Convention:
“The Democratic Party is going to end up nominating Hubert Humphrey next month in Chicago. Now, when it comes to the war, when it comes to social justice, there is simply not enough of a difference between Humphrey and Nixon to make a difference. And so, we’re going to Chicago.”
Hayden represents one tendency of several that came together for the protest including pacifists, anarchists and socialists. Throughout the film, we are shown the different strands of the anti-war movement at the time and both the schisms and solidarity between them. We also see the confluence with the anti-racist movement.
The film weaves between humour and tension and even manages to make political organising look cool. Any activist will recognise the types of meetings the lead characters are involved in, and as they shape the story, the importance of that organising is clear.
But above all, the film shows just how corrupt the US state is, the lengths it will go to to crush dissent (especially that which threatens its imperialist ambitions) and that it is racist to its core.
When the film starts, a government representative announces ahead of the protests that “these people are revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the government of the United States of America” – the theme of disloyalty to the government being a treasonous act repeated in the trial. The mobilisation of the Chicago police by Mayor Daley to confront the protesters and the violence meted out by them is laid bare.
During the course of the trial, the state calls in 37 witnesses who were in fact undercover police or from the FBI’s counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) who had infiltrated the groups and the defendants’ circles. And then there is the gut-wrenching moment when Fred Hampton is assassinated by the Chicago police.
It’s clear that the attack on the Chicago 7 was Nixon’s attempt to destroy the anti-war movement and the growing spirit of radicalism at the time. John Mitchell, Nixon’s Attorney General, when telling the prosecutor why he wants to seek an indictment, says,
“We watched for a decade while these rebels without a job, who never bothered to get their hands dirty fighting the enemy, tell us how to prosecute a war. The decade’s over, the grown-ups are back, and I deem these shitty little fairies to be a threat to national security.”
Shattering any misconception that the judiciary is neutral, the glaringly obvious bias of the judge is an infuriating spectacle throughout the film. The defendants’ lawyer William Kunstler, played by Mark Rylance, is by the end charged with 24 counts of contempt of court for the most trivial of things.
Judge Hoffman is openly venomous about the Black Panthers, he refuses Bobby Seale’s right to legal representation and repeatedly tries to jeopardise his defence by trying to force Kunstler to represent him against his wishes – and when Bobby refuses to cooperate, he is at one point bound up and gagged.
Although the lead prosecutor Richard Schultz is portrayed as sometimes sympathetic with the defendants and their cause, it is clear that he isn’t. He tells John Mitchell that he thinks of them as “vulgar, anti-establishment” figures and the jury that they are “the radical left in different costumes” in a way reminiscent to a Trump campaign rally. His biggest fear is that the defendants become martyrs for their cause, “we’re giving them exactly what they want: a stage and an audience”.
Even so, there are exaggerations of the niceness of Schultz’s character and as in any adaptation there are inaccuracies including, for example that Bobby Seale was severed from the trial immediately after being gagged when in reality he was brought in to court that way for 3 days. But these don’t take away from the overwhelming clarity of the film about what happened and how the state behaved.
Moreover, the film places a radical emphasis on the ideas that were present, how they developed and influenced each other during the protests as well as in the course of the trial, and their importance in both the movement and in the state’s mission to crush them.
The film ends on a victorious note with the court up on its feet as the names of the US soldiers killed in Vietnam since the trial began being read out for the record. While the defendants are convicted, they are given 5 years instead of the maximum of ten which the Attorney General makes clear at the beginning is the goal, and the defendants go on to have their sentences overturned in the Court of Appeal. What’s clear is that this wasn’t a case of one bad judge, but the state recognising that the principled defiance of the defendants and the re-energised movement demanding their freedom had beaten them.
The film’s release is timely in the lessons it has for the left today. As the US braces for an election between a kind of Nixon and Humphrey, there is a need for an independent and organised movement, and that when you fight – even when it’s directly against the state and it seems impossible – you can win.
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Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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