The Trial of the Chicago Eight Exemplifies Conflicted 1960s

city of chicago, trial courtroom show split america

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In August 1968, Vietnam tensions came to a head in Chicago. Conflict ratcheted up between antiwar demonstrators and police, leading to intense teargassing and clubbing. The Chicago Eight Trial for riot conspiracy was one of a kind.

Protestor holding sign saying No War
Older, established peace activist groups formed the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE) and met in Chicago in 1968 to organize demonstrations against the anticipated DNC nominee announcement for president. Photo by Nuva Frames / Shutterstock

The Democratic National Convention in August 1968 seemed an ideal place for antiwar protesters to make their voices heard. Then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson would likely announce his intention to run for a second term, and his ties to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War would cement a time, place, and agenda to be met by the voices of the opposition.

Unfortunately, police clashed with activists. Several prominent demonstrators—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale among them—were arrested and put on trial under the Civil Rights Act’s provision to make a federal crime of crossing state lines to incite a riot. Was inciting a riot the intent of the demonstrators?

In his video series The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, Professor Douglas O. Linder, Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, reviews the trial and its example as a microcosm of the rift between the United States populace.

Rioting Boomer Style

Older and established peace activist groups merged to form the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE). MOBE leaders met in Chicago in March 1968 to discuss organizing demonstrations against the Democratic National Convention’s presumed August announcement of LBJ as their nominee for president of the United States for the 1968 election. Johnson chose not to seek reelection, and his replacement Robert Kennedy was shot, leaving the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, but the planned demonstrations stood.

Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, founders of the newly formed Youth International Party, were unimpressed with MOBE. They planned elaborate pranks, sit-ins in parks, and a Woodstock-like festival in the city the weekend before the convention. When followers of the movement, called Yippies, broke the city parks’ curfew, they were warned by police to disperse. The Yippies threw objects at police cars and the police responded by teargassing and beating them. Hoffman encouraged the Yippies to “[mess] up the pigs and the Convention” and to “hold the park.”

“Sometime after midnight, Rennie Davis stood at the barricades in Lincoln Park with a megaphone and told people to, quote, ‘fight the pigs,'” Professor Linder said. “Black Panther leader Bobby Seale spoke to a crowd in Lincoln Park; Seale told the crowd that police violence must be met with violence. Abbie Hoffman […] met with the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago street gang.

“He discussed with the Rangers the possibility of them coming to the park that night with weapons.”

Things only escalated from there. A march of 1,500 people was met with police force on Sunday, August 29, and televised nationwide. Some activists discussed bringing Molotov cocktails.

Seven or Eight

A grand jury was summoned to decide whether to indict the Chicago rioters. In 1969, eight men were indicted on riot conspiracy charges and for crossing state lines to incite a riot.

“The eight indicted demonstrators were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale,” Professor Linder said. “The defendants chosen seemed to be chosen as representatives of various strands of the antiwar movement: Hoffman and Rubin from the culturally focused Yippies; Hayden, Davis, and Dellinger from MOBE; and Bobby Seale from the Black Panther Party, an organization focused on racial justice issues.”

After Richard Nixon won the election, all eight men were charged. Bobby Seale was bound and gagged after an outburst in court and sentenced to four years in prison for contempt, eventually tried separately from the rest. The Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven.

The trial was highlighted by incessant mockeries of the court by the defendants, their attorneys, and their witnesses, who ranged from the poet Allen Ginsberg to singer “Country Joe” McDonald. Defendants blew kisses to the jury, ate candy and read newspapers during proceedings, wore judicial robes, planted a National Liberation Front flag on their table, and more. In the final two weeks of the trial, alone, Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation to defendant Abbie Hoffman) issued 48 citations for contempt of court to the defendants.

“In the end, jurors acquitted all defendants on the conspiracy charge, while finding guilty each of the five defendants charged with having an intent to incite a riot while crossing state lines,” Professor Linder said. They were each sentenced to five years in prison, but never served a day of their sentences since the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned all their convictions in 1972.

Meanwhile, all eight officers charged with police brutality and violating the civil rights of demonstrators either won dismissal of charges or were acquitted.

The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily