The Whole World is Watching: Analyzing The Trial of the Chicago 7

Credit: Library of Congress

We all have our comfort movies. Most of the time they are easily digestible, possibly cheesy films that don’t take too much brain power — unless it is a socially relevant courtroom drama, like mine. On September 25th, 2020, Netflix released The Trial of the Chicago 7, a film based on real-life, starring big names like Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. The actual trial began on September 24, 1969 (almost exactly 52 years before the film was released) after a handful of anti-Vietnam War protestors were arrested for violent demonstrations in front of the Democratic National Convention. Like a lot of historical movies, this one isn’t completely factual, but still provides a satisfactory account of what went down in the late 1960s. Evaluating the film and the ramifications of counterculture on modern-day organizing can help contextualize the anti-war movement in the grand scheme of American history. 

Historical Background

The era of counterculture in America lasted throughout the 1960s and 1970s and primarily consisted of young anti-Vietnam War, anti-imperialist, anti-establishment “hippies.” Between major shifts in politics, social unrest in the Jim Crow south, and new environmentalism initiatives, scholar Germán Labrador calls the time period “an aesthetic and an ethic.” Protest songs, including Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, joined new forms of art and, of course, the adoption of psychedelics. The Youth International Party — also known as the “Yippies” — conveyed their anti-war attitudes by taking pride in “free love, organic farming, vegetarianism, holistic medicine and a lot of marijuana use.” Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, both of whom are portrayed in The Trial of the Chicago 7, led the Yippies in protest. With an almost completely different organization method, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were another anti-war coalition during the time period. The SDS were typically more “serious-minded” as they established teach-ins and voter registration. The SDS was led by Tom Hayden, who is also depicted in the film. 

While claims that “the vast majority of hippies were young, white, middle-class men,” other movements coincided with the counterculture movement, including civil rights organizing from the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party was started by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (Seale was the 8th member of the “Chicago 8” until his trial was severed from the rest, creating the “Chicago 7”) in 1966. The Black Panthers drew from Marxist ideas and launched numerous social projects across the U.S., including free breakfast programs and health clinics. The Panthers were not only anti-Vietnam war, but also anti-war in general. According to the party’s Ten-Point Program: “We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us.” 

So what do the Yippies, the SDS, and the Black Panther Party have to do with The Trial of the Chicago 7? The central conflict of the film begins in August 1968, when many facets of counterculture collided at one of the largest anti-Vietnam war protests of the era. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 28, 1968, protestors from the Yippies, the SDS, the Panthers, and many other organizations voiced support for candidate Eugene McCarthy, who was also anti-war. At the time, it was almost guaranteed that pro-Vietnam, pro-Cold war Hubert Humphrey was going to receive the Democratic nomination, which galvanized the protests. In response to the large number of people in the streets, Chicago mayor Richard Daley deployed 12,000 police, 6,000 members of the National Guard, and 1,000 intelligence officers (including FBI agents) — which ended exactly how you would expect it to. What resulted was a bloody riot, where a myriad of protesters were hurt and many were arrested, including Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale: the Chicago 8. Months later, not only was Humphrey the Democratic nominee, but he lost to President Richard Nixon. 

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The film begins in the office of John Mitchell, President Nixon’s attorney general. Mitchell is talking to Richard Schultz, who would eventually be the assistant prosecutor for the case. Mitchell tells Schultz that he wants to seek a case against the Chicago 8 on charges of crossing state lines to conspire. The Rap Brown Law, also known as the Anti-Riot Law, was passed by Congress in the spring of 1968 as a result of the civil rights movement. The law allows the government to prosecute “whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce.” 

Since the Chicago 8 traveled from all across the country to Chicago, Schultz (under the order of Mitchell) could assist in prosecuting the protesters. Through non-linear storytelling, the rest of the film recounts what happened the weekend of the protest alongside the happenings of the trial, including Tom Hayden’s arrest for letting air out of a cop’s tires and the murder of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party. 

A main plot point in the film is the rocky relationship between Abbie Hoffman, leader of the Yippies, and Tom Hayden, leader of the SDS. In reality, the two had incredibly different political styles — Hoffman participated in typical counterculture activities alongside the “political lightweights” of the movement, while Hayden’s SDS pushed for systemic change. For example, while Hayden was writing political manifestos, Hoffman and the Yippies were performing political theatre and exorcisms. In the film, Hayden seems much more grounded and respectful of authority. In reality, Hayden is considered “one of the primary architects of the New Left.” The film did get the relationship between Hoffman and Hayden correct, though. The beliefs of the Yippies did clash with the SDS; scholar Todd Gitlin even says, “had the government not brought them together at a conspiracy trial, I don’t think Hayden and Hoffman would have had much to do with each other.”

What Now?

While it is heartbreaking and motivating to see what was going down in the 60s and 70s, it would be naive to think that the same things aren’t happening today. Between protests in the streets over racial justice issues, the presidencies of men calling for “law and order,” and the polarization of political parties, the counterculture movement is not that far off from the 21st Century. The Trial of the Chicago 7 came at a perfect time; reflecting on the historical context of the film allows us to see the state of America now. 

Both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump held office during racial reckonings in America. Moreover, both presidents inherited unpopular wars, the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan. Former President Nixon promised to be a president of “law and order,” especially after the DNC protests. Decades later, Former President Trump promised the same thing. In fact, in the late 1980s, Trump took out an ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of Black and Latino boys who were accused of (and later exonerated for) assault in New York City, citing the need for law and order. In his 1968 presidential acceptance speech, Nixon stated: “And to those who say that law and order is a code word for racism, here is the reply. Our goal is justice. Justice for every American.” But why would a push for law and order be considered racist? A call for law and order is also a call for the condemnation of social justice organizations fighting for racial justice. Meanwhile, calls for decreased policing and militarization from Black Lives Matter activists of the 2010s and 20s echo those of civil rights activists from half a decade earlier. According to historian Elizabeth Hinton

“There are a number of obvious parallels, but also really important differences, between what we’re seeing in the streets of American cities today and the 1960s. The proximate cause of the unrest being police violence and the underlying issues that have fueled the protests, which are continued racial equality and discrimination and socioeconomic exclusion, are really at the heart of both… that choice — that investment in policing and divestment from social welfare programs — is exactly the conditions that led some 50 years later to Derek Chauvin jamming his knee in George Floyd’s neck.” 

Another interesting comparison between the 1960s and 70s and today is America’s involvement in a war, never mind the fact that both wars ended in similar ways. In a New York Times article, it’s stated that many Vietnam veterans, “saw stark similarities between Vietnam 46 years ago and Afghanistan today: a swift pullout, an enemy defying peace deals, and an American-made military suddenly left with little support.” While protests against the Vietnam War may seem to have been more mainstream, demonstrations have occurred in America over the war in Afghanistan. A major difference between the two, though, is the level of scale and intensity; Vietnam was a large-scale geopolitical conflict that received attention from the Yippies and SDS because of the recruitment of thousands of American citizens. The war in Afghanistan, on the other hand, had American support in the name of counterterrorism. After 9/11, over 80% of Americans supported going to war, compared to the majority who believed the war should end in 2021. Nevertheless, there are still comparable aspects. Similar to counterculture movements, activists today have called for better treatment of Afghan citizens who have been abandoned by America’s withdrawal from the war. At a recent demonstration at the Texas capitol, I personally heard phrases like “Save Afghan women,” and saw signs urging the government to “Accept Refugees” and “Condemn the Taliban.” While the countries differ, the basic sentiments of the Vietnam war and the Afghanistan war seem eerily similar; both were seemingly justified by America’s stance in foreign relations, yet caused thousands of casualties and injustice. Politically, both President Nixon and President Trump wanted to end their respective wars, but neither of them achieved their goal by the time they left office. Their successors—General Ford and President Biden—were dealt a difficult inheritance and were forced to embark on messy withdrawals. Regardless, Vietnam and Afghanistan prove that continuities exist between the counterculture movement and today’s movements for peace.

Even if The Trial of the Chicago 7 only gives a two-hour account of one of the most important trials in American history, we can use it to reflect on where America stands today. In the late 60s, protestors advocated against U.S. involvement in a foreign war and were frequently arrested in the name of law and order, political party lines were skewed when it came to social issues, and counterculture artistic movements emerged. These narratives—as well as the rhetoric with which they were framed—are echoed today. The 1970s and 80s seemingly brought in an era of conservatism to the U.S. and ended counterculture, but could we be witnessing a resurgence in the 2020s? While only time can tell, films like The Trial of the Chicago 7 can promote discussion and rumination about the relationship between our government and the people by providing an avenue for analyzing the past and preparing for the future.

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