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The Real Story Behind ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Let’s take a look at the true story that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix drama.
The Trial Of The Chicago
By  · Published on September 16th, 2020

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Aaron Sorkin is no stranger to legal dramas. Between The Social Network and his To Kill a Mockingbird Broadway adaptation, he’s received heaps of appraisal in this realm of entertainment. The latter even saw him involved in a real-life legal dilemma, as Harper Lee’s estate had issues with his script and launched a lawsuit against the creator. However, those experiences don’t come close to the drama faced by the real people that his new movie is based on.

Netflix’s The Trial of the Trial 7 chronicles one of the most infamous trials in American history. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the story follows a group of activists who were blamed for inciting riots during a period of civil unrest in the United States. Check out the trailer below, and then read all about the true story that inspired the film.

August 1968. Politicians gathered at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to nominate a candidate for the presidential election that year. Hubert Humphrey received that honor, though he lost the subsequent race to Richard Nixon. The convention came about during a turbulent period in American history, especially with regard to the protests over the Vietnam War and racial issues.

Several antiestablishment groups and protestors converged in the city during the event. The Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, the Youth International Party, and MOBE were among those organizations. While they were united over their disdain for the war, many also wanted justice for Dr. Martin Luther King. The civil rights leader’s assassination almost four months earlier spawned riots all over the country. Violence was anticipated in the lead up to the convention as a result.

As The Washington Post noted, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley vowed to keep order. Earlier in the year, the Mayor had commanded police to shoot protestors who were angry about King’s murder. In preparation for the convention, Daley deployed thousands of cops, soldiers, and National Guard members to contend with the inevitable chaos.

Riots ensued. Police tried to impose curfews as most of the protestors slept on the streets. When they were met with resistance, they beat down activists with clubs and tear gas. The rioters responded by throwing rocks. The Yippies tried to spike the city’s water supply with LSD, and they nominated a pig to be president. Violence erupted across Chicago. Hundreds of protestors were subsequently arrested, including the “Chicago Eight.”

Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner made up the collective protestors whose trials made the headlines. All of these individuals were viewed as protest leaders who ordered brutality against the police. Hayden allegedly told the audience to make blood “flow all over the city.” Rubin supposedly echoed similar sentiments by telling the activists to “kill the pigs.” The other six protestors reportedly spouted similar orders.

The timing of their arrests also happened to coincide with a desire to put a stop to the antiwar protests within political camps. This introduction of the 1968 Civil Rights Act meant crimes pertaining to rioting became a federal matter. Until then, rioting and incitement to riot were local law enforcement issues. But congress wanted to crack down on the violent protests across the nation, and the laws were changed.

At the time, there were calls from the top to indict the police for their participation in the riots. By the time the grand jury returned its indictments for the aforementioned eight, however, the Nixon administration was in power. Republican Attorney General — and soon-to-be convicted criminal — John Mitchell was more than happy to prosecute the protestors.

All of the defendants were subsequently tried on conspiracy and intention to incite riots. Their case became shrouded in controversy due to the hostile judge who oversaw it. The new administration was high on law and order, and they wanted to make an example out of these social justice advocates.

The trial took place in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It lasted from September 24, 1969, to February 18, 1970. Seale was eventually given his own trial after he allegedly accused the judge of racism and unfair treatment. If that was the case, he had a good reason for doing so. More on that later.

Judge Julius Hoffman received criticism from the beginning of the trial. He was evidently in favor of the prosecution and did everything in his power to make life difficult for the defendants’ counsel. For example, he rejected many of their pretrial motions while accepting requests made by the opposition. The defense was at the mercy of the courtroom, and they hoped logic and a good case would see them to freedom. That proved to be difficult.

The judge was very antagonistic during the trial, which caused the defendants to become combative. They disrupted the trial by wearing extravagant clothes, cracking jokes, eating candy, and insulting Judge Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman, a member of the Yippies, was very critical of the judge and wasn’t shy about really letting his unrelated namesake have it.

Abbie Hoffman generated most of the headlines. He showed up for the trial dressed in judicial robes. Instead of raising his hand in the name of God, he gave the judge the middle finger. On one occasion, he told the judge that he’d have given Hitler a fairer trial. His antics were entertaining and justified. In a court of law, however, he didn’t do himself any favors.

Most of the criticism aimed at the judge was due to him silencing the defendants. He kept interrupting their lawyers when they tried to present their case. He also refused to let the protestors represent themselves when their counsel was denied the opportunity to present a strong case. In the most extreme example of silencing the defendants, he ordered that Seale be shackled and gagged in the courtroom. Seale was subsequently given a four-year prison sentence for contempt of court.

Ten white and two Black jurors eventually acquitted the renamed “Chicago Seven” of conspiracy charges. But they found Hoffman, Rubin, Dellinger, Davis, and Hayden guilty of crossing state lines to incite riots. Froines and Weiner got let off the hook in regard to the riot charges.

The judge sentenced the five defendants to five years in prison and fined them $5,000, plus court costs. All seven, along with their attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, received prison terms for contempt of court. This decision was overturned in 1972 following an appeal. In a separate appeal that same year, all the criminal convictions were also reversed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit claimed that the judge was biased in his refusal to allow the defense to screen witnesses.

The Chicago Seven went their separate ways after being granted their freedom. Some of them had impressive careers. Hayden entered politics and became an influential figure in the New Left movement. He was an advisor to the Clintons, who praised him following his death. Rubin became a businessman and worked on Wall Street, while other members continued to pursue activism.

Abbie Hoffman remained a rebel. In 1973, he skipped bail after being hit with a cocaine charge and went into hiding. During that time, he received plastic surgery to alter his appearance. He hid from the authorities for several years, abandoning his family in the process.

Some commentators have described the trial as a “monumental non-event.” But it was an event as it represented so much more than justice. The trial reflected the cultural mood in America at the time. The animosity that the conservative prosecutors and activist defendants had for each other was symbolic of the conflicting societal values of the era.

Sorkin believes that the movie is relevant to contemporary America as well, especially in light of the current administration’s reaction to protestors in 2020. But that recent context is another real story altogether.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.