There are certain years that contain events so prominent that they take on an understood identity. 1789, 1848, 1914 and 1929 are such years. For America, 1968 is also such a year. The country was polarized and awash in violence. In January, the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive convinced many Americans that the war in Vietnam was nowhere near a successful conclusion. As President Johnson increased U.S. troop involvement in that conflict, anti-war protest at college campuses and beyond ratcheted upwards. The daily death tolls of American soldiers were inescapable. Much of the promise of progressive leadership disappeared when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in the span of sixty-three days. Riots were common and the predominant feeling for many was of a downwards spiral.
That year, the Republican party held their national convention in Miami and endorsed a ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. The anti-war constituents saw their only hope in the Democratic party. Without Kennedy, hope turned to Eugene McCarthy. In the end, the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie at their national convention in Chicago.
In the years that have passed, that convention has perhaps become better known for the way America treats protest than the official endorsement of politicians practically indistinguishable from the establishment Republicans. Chicago became the place to be that August for anyone disenchanted with the U.S. government. The violent reaction to protestors by the Chicago police under the direction of mayor Richard J. Daley was front page news and the protestors knew it evidenced by their shouts of “the whole world is watching”.
Which brings me to the film The Trial of the Chicago 7, currently available on Netflix. The trial took place from September 1969-February 1970 while Nixon was president and John Mitchell was his attorney general. As the film makes clear, the trial was a thinly veiled attempt to round up divergent anti-government forces and throw them in jail based on a law that had never been used before. The so called “Rap Brown Law” made it a crime to cross state lines with the intent of participating in mischief. Mitchell had attorneys round up Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of Students for a Democratic Society, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party (Yippies), David Dellinger, a conscientious objector and anti-war movement organizer, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers and Lee Weiner and John Froines, two lesser known activists. What followed was one of the most notorious trials of the decade complete with an unhinged judge, thinly veiled racism, courtroom theatrics and underhanded tactics.
The trial has long been a well known cultural touchstone, but what makes it and the Aaron Sorkin film about it so fascinating now are the numerous parallels between 1968 and the present day.
SPOILER ALERT—WATCH THE FILM BEFORE CONTINUING FURTHER.
Some of the parallels are depressingly obvious. The racist treatment of Black Americans is evident in the inclusion of Seale in the trial to begin with and then the refusal to grant him basic rights during the proceedings. Seale being bound and chained in the courtroom is the most lasting image of the trial and one of both unjust authority and blatant racism. Fifty years later, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and numerous others speak to the systemic racism that is still very much a part of the American fabric. Familiar too is the extreme polarization of Americans; the division over the war in ’68 is matched today by the schism over Trump. Lack of faith in the justice system is another link between now and then. Judge Julius Hoffman’s bias and recklessness reminds us that the U.S. Supreme Court has been ideologically stacked and that it is difficult to function as an independent branch of authority when the legislative branch shapes the judicial one in such a partisan manner. Police brutality unleashed in Chicago and sanctioned by Daley is painfully reminiscent of the never ending video clips of contemporary police engaging in excessive and often fatal force against unarmed citizens. So too can we see echoes today of the division within the Left. Where Hayden and Hoffman clashed on tactics, today we have a fundamental division within the Democratic Party about how to proceed. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are as distanced politically from Joe Biden as Biden is from Trump, if not more so. Interesting too that the Democrats chose the conservative Humphrey in 1968, just as they ultimately chose the safer Biden this year. Even Ramsey Clark’s refusal to participate in the transition to John Mitchell as Attorney General reminds us of Trump’s petulant refusal to prepare for a Biden administration.
Meanwhile, some of the connections between the film and our present are subtler, but still edifying. Two of the more progressive jurors receive written threats supposedly from the Black Panthers but clearly arranged by the prosecution as a means of removing them from the trial. Is it that different from right wing extremists who commit vandalism and arson during protests to paint peaceful protesters as radical threats and to sow fear among the ignorant? The FBI and other organizations infiltrated protest groups with people working to undermine them and then called on them as witnesses in the trial. Today, huge numbers of people are manipulated on social media by forces that have ready access to their interests and opinions and the means to influence them. Americans in 1968 heard nightly statistics on the number of U.S. deaths in Vietnam while Americans in 2020 tune into daily figures on COVID testing. The prosecution in the film successfully bars critical evidence from the trial on the grounds that it could compromise national security just as the current Trump administration has done on numerous occasions including Trump’s impeachment. Finally, a President uses his position and resources to attack those he feels slighted by—sound familiar?
One of the most compelling scenes in the film is a disagreement Abbie Hoffman has with Hayden about the nature of what they are facing. Hoffman calls it a political trial while the pragmatic Hayden says there’s no such thing as a political trial, but only criminal or civil trials. In light of the past fifty years, I think we can agree with Hoffman. As much as someone snatched from 1968 into our world might be bewildered by the internet and other technological advances, the racism, political circus, polarization, disillusionment with authority and general despair would inevitably evoke a forlorn déjà vu. Like so many films about recent history, The Trial of the Chicago 7 succeeds not only because of its subject matter, but because it’s holding a mirror to ours.