The political context of ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a slice of 1960s’ America. The movie, which is currently streaming on Netflix, shows the trial of eight anti-war activists (one would be given a mistrial and taken out of the proceedings), representing the different streams of the anti-war movement of the decade. They were charged by federal prosecutors with conspiracy and crossing State lines with the intention of inciting riots. Sorkin, known for his dialogue-heavy dramas, has dramatised real-life incidents to show how a vengeful administration and a corrupt system dealt with dissent in the U.S.

The Chicago protests and the ensuing police violence took place in August 1968 when the Democratic National Convention was under way in the city. It was one of the bloodiest years in post-war America. The country was dealing with many upheavals. And Sorkin has drawn out the political context clearly in The Trial of the Chicago 7 understanding which is important in understanding the movie itself. Predominantly, there are five historical layers in the movie.

Vietnam war

The American invasion of Vietnam and the anti-war movement at home loom large in the background of the The Trial. The protesters, from counterculture activists to students, assembled in Chicago to demonstrate against the war. The context is that 1968 was an election year. U.S. troops in Vietnam peaked during the year with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, sending more soldiers, taking the total number of U.S. troops to 549,000. It was also the deadliest year of the Vietnam war for the U.S. and its allies. During the year, 27,915 troops of the U.S.-allied South Vietnam and 16,592 American troops were killed. The body bags of soldiers reaching the country intensified the protests in the U.S. Tom Hayden, one of the anti-war protesters who were charged by the federal prosecutors along with others, reading out the names of the fallen soldiers in Vietnam during the course of the trial, in the courtroom, in defiance of the judge, captures the spirit and essence of the anti-war movement.

Radicalisation of blacks

On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, by a white racist gunman. The murder led to widespread riots across the States in which dozens of were killed and thousands injured. Several black communities were ravaged by violence. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy, a Democratic Presidential candidate who was making waves in the campaign with his strong anti-war, pro-poor positions, was assassinated by a Jordanian gunman of Palestine origin. The assassinations of Dr. King and Kennedy were a setback to the gradualist movements that were pushing for reforms and policy changes through the democratic means, and contributed to the radicalisation of the youth.

The Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966, focussed on self-defence, in sharp contrast to Dr. King’s non-violent methods. The assassination of Dr. King only strengthened the resolve of the panthers to militantly organise the Black youth against police violence and racism. Sorkin brings these widening fault lines among the Black power movement to the movie. Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, says: “Dr. King… is dead. He has a dream? Now he has a f*****g bullet in his head. Martin is dead, Malcolm [X] is dead. Medgar [Evers] is dead. Bobby [Kennedy] is dead. Jesus is dead. They tried peacefully, we are going to try something different.”

Structural racism

Seale was only briefly in Chicago when the riots took place, but he was also charged with conspiracy to incite riots. Sorkin tells the viewers how John Mitchell’s prosecutors exploited the panthers in the case. “I’m not with them. And speaking frankly, the US attorney wanted a Negro defendant to scare the jury. I was thrown in to make the group look scarier,” Seale shouts in the courtroom on one occasion. The judge repeatedly denies him the rights to speak in the court-room. And the brutal treatment meted out to Seale — he beaten, chained and gagged — shows how racist American courts were in the 1960s. Not just that, a member of the jury who had a James Baldwin book, was taken out of the trial. The killing of Fred Hampton, the socialist activist who was leading the Illinois chapter of the Panther, is a critical moment in the movie, which throws Seale off balance in the courtroom.

Counterculture movement

Two of the Chicago 7, Abbie Hoffman (played by the brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin, belonged to the counterculture revolutionary Youth International Party (also known as Yippies). The counterculture movement was an anti-establishment cultural movement that celebrated Bohemianism, and the hippie and other alternative lifestyles. The movement swept through the U.S. in the 1960s. The Yippies joined the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests, and used theatrics to mock America’s political leadership, such as naming a pig (Pigasus the Immortal) as a presidential candidate for the 1968 elections. Hoffman’s dark wits and satirical takes on the American judiciary lightens up the otherwise tense moments of the court-room scenes in the movie. In one scene, when Hoffman was asked if he has contempt for the government, he responds: ‘I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.”

Resentment against Democrats

The counterculture and anti-war movements were increasingly at odds with the Democratic Party, which, under President Johnson, steadily expanded the war despite the setbacks and protests. While it was clear that the party establishment would pick Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the 1968 Presidential election, the activists planned to go to Chicago and disrupt the National Convention. Humphrey was largely seen as a representative of the war lobby. Different groups were involved in the protests. The Youth International Party of Hoffman, Students for a Democratic Society of Tom Hayden, and the Panthers were among them.

The protesters assembled in Chicago. But before they could march to the convention, Chicago Police and Illinois Guardsman broke them up using brute force. Humphrehy won the Democratic nomination, with blessings from the party bosses, but lost to Richard Nixon in the November election, who ran his campaign, in a year marked by protests and violence, over the theme of ‘law and order”, something which President Donald Trump is trying to do in 2020, another year that saw widespread race-related protests across America, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in October.

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