The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial

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What did it all mean? Was the Chicago Seven Trial merely, as one commentator suggested, a monumental non-event? Was it, as others argue, an important battle for the hearts and minds of the American people? Or is it best seen as a symbol of the conflicts of values that characterized the late sixties? These are some of the questions that surround one of the most unusual courtroom spectacles in American history, the 1969-70 trial of seven radicals accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Culturally and politically, 1968 was one of the most turbulent years America has ever seen. Two groups met to discuss using the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago to highlight their opposition to the Vietnam War and establishment values. Although there was some loose coordination between the two groups, they had different leadership, different agendas, and favored different forms of protest and demonstrations. The more politically focused of the two groups was the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE). The group more focused on promoting an uninhibited lifestyle was the Youth International Party (YIPPIES). In addition to these two groups, organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also planned to have representatives in Chicago to press their complaints concerning racism in American policies and politics. Until enactment of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, rioting and incitement to riot was a strictly local law enforcement issue. Congress, however, felt compelled to respond to the ever-increasing numbers of anti-war protests around the country. The new law made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent to incite a riot. Even after passage of the law, Attorney General Ramsey Clark and the Justice Department were reluctant to enforce the new provisions. Clark viewed what had happened in Chicago as primarily a police riot. The Attorney General expressed more interest in prosecuting police officers for brutality than in prosecuting demonstrators for rioting. The Justice Department's lack of interest in prosecuting protest leaders outraged Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Daley convinced a close friend and federal judge, William Campbell, to summon a grand jury to consider possible violations of the anti-riot law. On March 20, 1969, the jury returned indictments against eight demonstrators, balanced exactly by indictments against eight police officers. The eight indicted demonstrators included Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. By the time the grand jury returned its indictments, the Nixon Administration had begun. The new attorney general, John Mitchell, exhibited none of his predecessor's reluctance about prosecuting demonstrators. Mitchell gave the green light to prosecute.

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