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The Trial of the Chicago 7
directed by aaron sorkin

The 1968–1970 trial of the Chicago Seven seemed from the outset a made-for-TV farce, and the hippies who followed the trial closely quickly saw its theatrical promise. From a left-wing point of view, the conflict between the “revolutionaries” and the Chicago establishment was a straightforward story of good vs. evil. The script practically wrote itself.

HBO ran a drama based on the trial in 1987. Now we have a remake from Aaron Sorkin and Netflix, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s worth considering its significance, since the movie’s release coincides with the political success of recent rioting.

The story concerns the violence that erupted at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago between the police and the left-wing revolutionaries there to protest the Vietnam War. The Chicago Seven—Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, John Froines, and Lee Weiner—were charged by the government with inciting riots (originally, it was the Chicago Eight—Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was charged along with the others, but the case against him was dismissed during the trial). The drama of the trial, insofar as there is any, revolves around the question of whether the Chicago Seven came to the Windy City as peaceful protesters or as radicals looking to stir up violence.

There’s little suspense in this plot, since the evidence is overwhelming. Hayden, the leader of the Chicago Seven insofar as they had one, made it clear that he came in support of his North Vietnamese brothers. He saw efforts to foment riots—he’d already had some success with the 1967 Newark Riots—as part of an effort to weaken the U.S. and thereby aid his communist comrades of North Vietnam. Hayden had made it clear to the radical writers of Ramparts that he was going to Chicago in order to create a disturbance in which the Chicago police would reveal themselves as the brutal thugs who subverted American democracy.

Sorkin pretends to confront the complexities of the issues in a drama without any good guys. The judge, Julius Hoffman (no relation to defendant Abbie Hoffman), was a character out of a Marx brothers movie. Prim and pretentious, he took every opportunity to present himself for public ridicule. The bombastic Judge Hoffman suppressed exculpating evidence and repeatedly ruled against the defendants. But despite the film’s pretense, the “drama” lacks the depth it demands.

There was quite a cast of characters. Abbie Hoffman was a great admirer of Charles Manson. Along with Rubin, he was a member of the Yippies—the Youth International Party, which was running a pig for president. Hayden was a North Vietnamese flack, though these connections are never mentioned in the Sorkin production. Then there was Seale—who was charged in three murders, but beat the count in two of them—as well as defense attorney William Kunstler, who would become a fixture on the radical scene and defend a variety of miscreants.

In 1969, as the trial was being conducted, theatrical versions were already gaining popularity on college campuses. There were also productions of the Living Theater (Julian Beck and Judith Malina), which bore a helter-skelter resemblance to the Chicago Seven trial. Form mirrored content, as the Living Theater ignored authorial intent the way the Yippies at the trial ignored Judge Hoffman's rulings. In the course of a partly spontaneous performance, the Living Theater tried to break down the barrier between actors and audience, making the judges into the judged. The Yippies were more successful. Through their courtroom antics—such as showing up to court in black judge's robes, then removing them to reveal police uniforms underneath—they succeeded in placing Judge Hoffman's rulings on trial before a national TV audience. 

The Chicago Seven are glorified on the logic that they played a role in ending the Vietnam War; actually, they only lengthened it. The rioting at the Democratic Convention undermined the prospects of the most moderate candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey talked of ending the bombing of North Vietnam as a prelude to peace talks.

Humphrey narrowly lost to Nixon in a three-way race that involved George Wallace. The war would drag on for another six years. But if they failed to achieve their short-term aims, the Chicago Seven helped define what was “cool.” One reason the Minneapolis riots following the death of George Floyd had but a scant effect on public opinion is that the political currents that flowed out of the ’60s and the Chicago Seven trial made whites feel guilty when speaking about race. The image of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in the courtroom as Judge Hoffman pranced through his pretensions, had a searing effect on upper-middle-class whites at the time, contributing to today’s white guilt.

The trial of the Chicago Seven was an important step on the way to abandoning evidence-based arguments—say, about the nature of the North Vietnamese Stalinists—in favor of emotive appeals. The great success of the ’60s—and here I speak of the Long Sixties, the period from 1968 to the present—was to replace logic and empirical evidence with identitarian claims and personal performances. Judge Hoffman’s antics made it hard to defend the “squares,” the Silent Majority who knew that, while the Chicago police might not have behaved themselves, the radicals running through the streets of Chicago had misbehaved with malign intent.

Today’s Black Lives Matter movement is a direct heir of the Black Panthers, though now supported by deep-pocket donations, while Antifa descends from the ’60s radicals who, in the early ’70s, were planting bombs across America. The Sorkin film is part of a decades-long denial of the harms done by the “spirit” of the ’60s. Glorifying the Chicago Seven puts off dealing with the fifty years of social failure since that era.

Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a City Journal contributing editor.

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