Sunday, October 18, 2020

Aaron Sorkin Remembers the Trial of the Chicago Seven—So Does the Old Man

Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin enter the federal courthouse in The Trial of the Chicago.  The film set showed a neo-classic building instead of the modern steel and Glass Dirksen Federal Building.

Last night we watched Aaron Sorkin’s widely anticipated The Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflicks.  Sorkin, of course, is the writer/director who specializes in taught, smart, and sometimes funny political drama like the acclaimed TV series The West Wing and The Newsroom as well as the movie script based on his own play A Few Good Men and other film projects including An American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Steve Jobs, and Molly’s Game.  No American writer was a better choice to chronicle a courtroom drama like no other set against the tumultuous crescendo of 1960’s anti-war movement, the youth counter culture, Black militancy, and Nixonian paranoid repressive backlash.

The film captured the moment brilliantly with crackling dialogue, striking character portraits, and brilliant acting.  Many of the courtroom scenes drew heavily from the actual trial transcripts.  But Sorkin would be the first to acknowledge for the movie certain dramatic liberties were taken, time lines compressed or jumbled, and fly-on-the-wall scenes of private interactions between the defendants and their lawyers invented.  I understand that, although it has proved troubling for some of those involved.

The real Chicago 7 and their lawyers.  Left to right attorney Leonard Weineglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, Dave Dellinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and lead lawyer William Kunstler.  Not shown is original Chicago 8 defendant Black Panther Chair Bobbie Seale.

The most minor quibbles are over the appearance of the characters.  Sasha Baron Cohen may have been born to play Abbie Hoffman but he is so tall that he looms over everyone else.  On the other hand six foot tall defense lawyer William Kunstler was portrayed by the diminutive Mark Rylance.  John Carroll Lynch’s Dave Dellinger was balder and heavier than the oldest of the defendants. But those trivialities were quickly forgotten given the fine performances.  Particular note should be taken of Eddie Redmayne as Abbie Hoffman’s foil, the serious and conflicted Tom Hayden and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the tautly wound Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale.

I the courtroom scenes the historical nits to pick are more substantial.  Bobby Seale was gagged and bound to his chair on October 29 by order of Judge Julius Hoffman and appeared daily in court that way for several days before his case was severed from the others.   Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton was murdered by the police on December 4 after Seale was gone.  Life-long pacifist Dave Dellinger did not punch a bailiff.  And however satisfying as a film climax, Tom Hayden did not try to read the names of more than 50,000 Vietnam War dead in his pre-sentencing statement.

Other issues arose from the flash backs to actual events during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests.  Glaringly the events in Lincoln Park on the first nights were completely omitted despite the fact that police charges there were probably the most violent of the whole convention week perhaps because almost no film footage and damned few new photos exist.  The request for permits to sleep in the park was for Lincoln Park, not Grant Park as depicted.  The critical events of Wednesday were telescoped and skewed.  I know.  I was there.

The Band Shell rally was held in the early afternoon, not at night as shown in the film.  Hayden did not lead demonstrators almost immediately to the confrontation by the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Avenue.  Hayden, Rennie Davis, and Abbie Hoffman were not pushed through the window of the Haymarket bar.  I know because I witnessed people going through the plate glass windows from directly across the street on Balbo.  And I knew that Hayden was not there because I had unexpectedly shared a taxi with him shortly before.

The following excerpts from my memoir series Chicago Summer of ’68 is how I remember that afternoon and evening.

Everyone knew that Wednesday of Convention Week was going to be the Big Day.  That’s when the Democrats down at the International Amphitheater were supposed to select their Presidential candidate.  The press and cameras of the nation were on hand for the event.

For the first time I had a running buddy when I left the church Movement Center that morning.  My friend Amy Kesselman came with.  Amy stood a good 5 foot nothing.  She had short black hair, deep brown eyes, and a little mole on her upper lip.  Cute as a bug’s ear.  Hey, I was 19 and noticed such things.  But I would never dream of putting a move on her. She was so intensely serious, in her 20’s and a dedicated SDSer of the community organizing stripe.  Out of my league, for sure…

We took the train down town.  It was a very pleasant day, the warmest of the week, but still cool enough for me to wear my denim jacket.  Tuesday the city was under a high haze or light clouds, but that day there was a glorious clear blue sky.  Most of the seating in front of the Band Shell in Grant Park was taken when we got there.  Speechifying had already begun.  The park swarmed with cops in their baby blue helmets, but they seemed to be keeping their distance.

We found a spot just to the right of the seats but within ten feet or so of the stage.  We had a very good vantage point for the program.  Phil Ochs was there to sing again, but this program was more about the speeches.  Boy was there a parade of them.  All of the by now usual suspects—Dellinger, Gregory, Ginsberg, Rubin, and Hayden made appearances…

While we were listening to speeches in the Park, so were delegates in the Convention Hall who were debating a “Peace Plank” to the Platform proposed by Eugene McCarthy’s forces.  Word got to the rally that it had been soundly defeated.  As the crowd booed and jeered someone started to haul down the flag from a pole on the left of the stage, just across the crowd from us.  I couldn’t get a good view, but evidently a gaggle of cops surged forward to arrest him starting a small melee around the flag.  After he was dragged off others succeed in bringing the flag down and hoisting a shirt smeared with real or fake blood.  It later turned out one of the hoisters was an undercover cop.

Realizing that this would bring a full scale assault the word went out for Mobe marshals to deploy around the crowd.  I never heard the call, which undoubtedly saved my ass.  Most of those in the seats still watching the stage were unaware as the cops closed in from three sides, swinging their clubs.  The line of marshals was pinned against the seats, many beaten senseless, including Rennie Davis.

Chicago Police charge the crowd at the Grant Park bandshell on Wednesday afternoon.

The crowd stampeded many falling and stumbling amid the seats.  The cops beat them unmercifully where they fell.  Amy and I had room to maneuver and stayed out of harm’s way.  We could see a few objects being thrown back into the police lines, but the battle was one sided.

If you ever say the movie Medium Cool, you may remember a blurred shot of the red-headed leading lady streaking across the screen in terror.  Haskell Wexler was filming with his cast on the scene and they were caught up in the attack.

After a few heart pounding minutes, the police retreated dragging their prisoners with them.  People began to attend the wounded.  I dabbed blood from a few broken heads from the collection of my father’s old handkerchiefs that I carried in the old ammo pouch on my utility belt.

From the stage Dellinger and Hayden tried to regain control of the crowd.  Except that they couldn’t agree on what we should do.  Dellinger wanted to go ahead with the announced big march from the rally to the Amphitheater.  Hayden, recalling the tactics of Lincoln Park wanted people to break up into small groups to try and infiltrate the city then join up on Michigan Ave. for a march.

Like most of the crowd, I decided to stay with the March.  I figured there was safety in numbers.  The far more adventuresome Amy, I believe, opted to go with the small groups.  Anyway, we got separated.

We lined up on a sidewalk alongside the Band Shell, but headed north, probably to get to the nearest bridge over the Illinois Central tracks.  But we were unable to move.  The police blocked the march for lack of a permit.  Dellinger and others tried to negotiate a deal to let us pass.  We stood in that long line for at least an hour.

After while a small knot of cops, a couple of brass in uniform and hulking Red Squad cops in mufti came down the line.  They had a young guy with them—either a stool pigeon or an undercover agent.  He was picking out people in the line and identifying them as one of the Red Squad goons scribbled furiously.  When they got to me one of says, “Oh we know who this guy is.” I didn’t recognize the guy from either of my two earlier personal encounters with Chicago’s finest. Now I admit with my cowboy hat I stood out, but I was astonished that any one as insignificant as me would be even be noticed.  Later I figured that because of the SDS folks, our Movement Center was probably under much more intense surveillance than other places.

After it became apparent that the March was going nowhere, the crowd began to break up to try and find a way out of the park.  This was not easy as most paths were quickly blocked.  A large group of us headed into the park in search of a route.  We were hemmed in at a distance on either side by cops. 

We came on a set of tennis courts each surrounded by 10 foot high chain link fences.  But there were narrow open doorways and on the far side an opening to what looked like an open road to the north.  Those in the lead plunged into the courts. I dutifully followed, but was sure that once a two or three hundred of us were inside the cops would shut the gates and we would be trapped.  I will never know why we weren’t, but it was an immense relief to get out of those cages.

We were finally headed north on Columbus Drive.  We tried to get across the tracks at Congress.  But the first Illinois National Guard troops we had yet seen were blocking the way.  The same was true at Jackson.  A suburban mom type in a respectable sedan drove passed us up to the road block.  Where she came from or how she got there I don’t know, but she didn’t seem to be a demonstrator.  She had picked up an injured kid who was in the back seat.  She argued with a Guardsman that she just wanted to get the kid to a hospital.  The trooper was having none of it.  She tried to inch forward, which is when another Guardsman punctured her front tire with a bayonet.

We kept moving north through the park until we found a bridge unattended at Jackson.  Somehow I was near the head of the column, which probably happened when we reversed directions.  When we finally found an open bridge over the rail tracks at Jackson we could see something moving south on Michigan Avenue.  To our astonishment the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train was coming down Michigan Avenue heading south.

The crowd swelled around the Poor People's Campaign wagons heading south on Michigan Ave. late Wednesday afternoon.  Ralph Abernathy and the SCLC folks did not seem all that delighted with our company as they inched up the Avenue  from Jackson to the police blockade at Balbo.

If things had worked out differently in Memphis that April, Dr. King himself might have been in the lead wagon.  The Poor People’s Campaign was his dream to unite the poor of all races into a new movement for economic justice.  But he was dead and Ralph Abernathy was left to carry on.  He was on the seat of the lead wagon dressed in overalls.  The mule train was meant to recall the promise of 20 acres and a mule free and clear to Freedmen after the Civil War.  Their presence in Chicago was really just to publicize a planned encampment in Washington to pressure Congress for a whole new economic deal for the poor.

Most importantly, the Poor People’s Campaign had secured what almost no one else had—a permit to drive their wagons right up to the doorstep of the International Amphitheater.

We surged over the bridge and joined the procession.  Others were already with them.  More joined as we inched south filtering in from the Park or coming from elsewhere in the city. 

To tell the truth Abernathy and his people did not look exactly thrilled to find their wagons suddenly engulfed by disheveled youth, many of us still reeking of tear gas or nursing wounds.  They had good reason to believe that their permit would not be honored if we were with them.  And these folks who had themselves endured so much police violence in the South, worried that we would draw the same response down upon them again.

It is only a few blocks south from Jackson to Balbo.  But at the methodical, plodding pace of the mule drawn wagons and as we clogged the street with swelling numbers it seemed like an hour, or so to reach it as the Chicago Police scrambled to get a large force in front of us and redeploy the forces from Grant Park and other sites in the city.

When we finally reached Balbo, the cops had enough massed force to block the march further south.  The marchers pushed up tightly, filling Michigan Avenue and spilling into the edge of Grant Park.  It looked, as best as I could tell in the press and confusion, that the crowd stretched back a block or more, but there were probably no more than a couple of thousand folks.  It was a standoff.

As the crowd went into a chant after chant, Abernathy and his people negotiated with the police.  Eventually, they were allowed to pass, but the cordon of cops quickly closed and blocked the rest of us.

I was getting uncomfortable in the crowd. I noticed that the sidewalk was clear right around the corner on Balbo across from the Conrad Hilton.  I stepped over there to get my bearings.

The light was fading to dusk when I heard my friend Amy Kesselman’s voice.  She had found me again after we had been separated earlier at the Band Shell.  At six foot two and wearing the only cowboy hat around, it was a lot easier for her to find me.  I would never have picked all five foot nothing of her out the crowd.

We tried to decide what to do.  Amy wanted to try and find other staffers from the Movement Center.  She thought that they were well back on Michigan.  Since there was no way to push through the crowd on Michigan, we decided to head north on Wabash then cut back to the Avenue.

There were some cops forming on Wabash, so we went on to State.  It was amazing.  Life seemed to be going on as normal.  The sidewalks bustled with ordinary folk going about their evening as if nothing at all extraordinary was occurring two blocks over.  We cut back to Michigan and sure enough found ourselves to the rear of the crowd.  But a glance made it clear that it would be unlikely that we would connect with the others.  Now Amy wanted to go back where we started because she was sure things were going to get interesting.

She spotted a cab coming down Michigan behind the crowd.  She grabbed my hand and said “come on!”  We hopped in the cab.  Amy asked to go to State and Balbo.  The driver looked disgusted, whether at the short fare or our appearance.  But just as he was getting ready to pull away from the curb, the door of the cab flew open and two guys tumbled in, both looking the worse for wear.

One of them was Tom Hayden.  He was babbling a non-stop monologue that didn’t seem to make much sense.  “He thinks he’s Thomas Jefferson,” the other guy explained.  I’m not sure if he had gotten bopped in the head at the Band Shell like Rennie Davis or if maybe Abbie Hoffman had shared some dope with him.  Anyway, the second guy said, “We gotta get him to safety.”  He mentioned the name of a hotel.

After delivering Hayden and his pal to safety, we took the cab back to Balbo.  Amy must have paid, because by this time in the week I was down to pocket change.

It was full dark by the time we got back to where we started, on the Balbo sidewalk directly across from the entrance to the Hilton’s Haymarket restaurant.  Bright TV lights shined down from the upper floors of the Hilton, the official convention headquarters hotel were the media and many delegates were encamped.  We could barely make out a line of blue helmets across Michigan.  Protestors surged against them from time to time.

Suddenly, a large phalanx of cops appeared from Wabash and massed on Balbo.  They had their batons out and looked like they meant business.  They marched in military formation right down the street sweeping passed us on the sidewalk and plowed into the mass of demonstrators, clubs flaying.  The cops along Michigan joined the fray.  I am told that another unit hit the crowd on Michigan from the rear.

Chicago's Finest slam into the crowd of demonstrators at Michigan and Balbo.

If you were alive and sentiment in the ‘60’s you probably remember the scene, which was broadcast live on network television shooting the action from Hilton windows.  The police violence that had largely been hidden from public view all week was there for the nation to see in all of its savagery.

It was like we were invisible on our side of the street, still in the shadows not illuminated by those lights.  Folks right across from us in front of the Haymarket were not so lucky.  Several of them looked to delegates, staffers, and other associated with the convention, not protestors.  But a handful of cops waded into them with gusto.  They pushed some through the plate glass windows of the restaurant.

Batons were still flaying as demonstrators began waving and pointing at the TV lights chanting over and over “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

As the beatings continued those in the relative safety of Grant Park began pointing at the bright lights of the TV cameras aimed from the upper floors of the Conrad Hilton and took up the chant, "The Whole World is Watching, The Whole World is Watching!"

As the beatings continued those in the relative safety of Grant Park began pointing at the bright lights of the TV cameras aimed from the upper floors of the Conrad Hilton and took up the chant, "The Whole World is Watching, The Whole World is Watching!"

Some of the wounded began to straggle up our side of the street hugging the building for safety.  We guided a couple of them back up the street toward Wabash where I set up a kind of rough aid station using the first aid kit on my utility belt and more of my dad’s handkerchiefs.  Amy ferried more to me as I dabbed blood and washed tear gas from eyes until my canteen was dry.  I was soon out of what meager supplies I had.

Amy and I and our patients were still in danger.  Squads of cops were now breaking off chasing demonstrators.  We told our charges to scatter as they were able.  We helped some get to State Street.  We clamored down the stairs to the subway and headed north.

We evidently were just ahead of adrenalin pumped squads of cops who swept up Wabash and State beating any one they could find, including folks emerging from theaters.

We got off at Diversey and stumbled into the church Movement Center exhausted. Amazingly it was not yet 11 o’clock.  We huddled around the radio trying to find out what was happening.

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