“The whole world is watching!” The Trial of the Chicago 7

Earlier this year everyone was tuning in to watch Tiger King, now a more sobering Netflix special has captured the nation’s attention. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a dramatic portrayal of the circus-like trial of protestors who were charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It paints a very unflattering picture of what goes on in Chicago courtrooms.

The Story Behind The Movie 

According to the Smithsonian, “The road to the trial began the previous summer, when more than 10,000 antiwar demonstrators flocked to Chicago for five days during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The country was in turmoil, reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy and the worsening Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson, beleaguered and defeated by the war, had made the unprecedented decision not to seek a second term; after Kennedy’s death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey stood as the heir to the presidential nomination. But the Democratic Party was as divided as the rest of the nation: The antiwar contingent opposed Humphrey, while Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy appealed to students and activists on the left.”

The 10,000 protestors were confronted by “Democratic Mayor Richard Daley and his law-and-order machine—a tear-gas spraying, baton-wielding army of 12,000 Chicago police officers, 5,600 members of the Illinois National Guard and 5,000 U.S. Army soldiers.” Things soon turned bloody. 

Eight defendants were charged with inciting the riots: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Youth International Party aka the “Yippies,” David Dellinger of the National Mobilization to End the Vietnam War aka “The Mobe,” Professors Lee Weiner and John Froines, and Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party. 

During the trial, Seale was gagged and chained to his chair for failing to follow the judge’s orders. His case was eventually severed from the others, and he was tried separately, leaving seven defendants — the Chicago 7. 

Seale’s treatment gives you a taste of the trial atmosphere and Judge Hoffman’s distaste for the defendants, but that was only part of what made the trial into a spectacle. Protestors packed the courtroom, and frequently disrupted the proceedings. The defendants blew kisses to the jury, deliberately antagonized the judge, and were not shy about speaking to the press. Outside of the courthouse, crowds chanted, “The whole world is watching!”

After a very lengthy trial, “the seven defendants were acquitted of conspiracy charges but fined $5,000 each. Five of them —Davis, Dellinger, Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin—were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to riot. Froines and Weiner were acquitted of all charges. The seven defendants and their attorneys also received prison sentences for the more than 170 contempt citations leveled at them by Judge Hoffman… But the wheels of justice turned, and in 1972, all charges against the defendants were dropped. Among other reasons, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit cited Judge Hoffman’s “antagonistic” courtroom demeanor.”

Sorkin’s Take On The Trial

Writer and director Aaron Sorkin is one of the great storytellers of our time, and he does the Chicago 7 justice. However, this is not a documentary. It is a dramatization. 

“Before a film can be anything else—relevant or persuasive or important—it has to be good,” says Sorkin. “It has to tend to the rules of drama and filmmaking, so I’m thinking about the audience experience . . .This isn’t a biopic. You will get the essence of these real-life people and the kernel of who they are as human beings, not the historical facts.”

The implied story beneath the story, and what makes this film resonate with viewers, is the comparison to modern-day civil unrest and the political and legal response. It’s a valid comparison to make, and one we should all think about, but it is also causing some to question how our current judges compare to Judge Hoffman. 

Are Chicago Judges Really That Bad? 

The short answer is no. The vast majority of the judges in both the state and federal courthouses in the Chicagoland area are well-respected professionals who do not take their responsibilities lightly or abuse their powers. 

Sometimes the judge selected to hear a particular case is not the judge we would prefer to oversee the case, but even in those situations, we are not worried about the judge treating our clients unfairly out of spite. Instead, as experienced litigants, we are thinking about how to best frame our client’s argument, and what evidence will be most persuasive. The Stein & Shulman team has over five decades of combined experience, and we think our results speak for themself