In late 1969, a trial unlike any other in American history captured the nation’s imagination.
Eight anti-Vietnam War activists went on trial for conspiring to riot at the previous year’s chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The suspects, which included the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and Jerry Rubin, would become known as The Chicago 7, after Judge Julius Hoffman had one of the eight defendants, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in court before ordering that he be tried separately.
Three editors, including Yorktown Heights resident and lawyer and writer Mark Levine, had a book released last fall, “The Trial of the Chicago 7: The Official Transcript.” They edited the more than 22,000 pages in court transcripts from the trial down to about 350 pages in what amounts to a blow-by-blow recap of the trial.
Its printing by Simon & Schuster coincided with the 50th anniversary of the verdict and last year’s release of the film of the same name that was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.
But Levine said the story’s relevance today is more than a recent milestone anniversary of a footnote in American history. It remains a warning for Americans in 2021, with the backdrop of a fractured county and those in power looking to hold onto power at any cost in a changing nation.
“We wanted to show the confrontations, the outrage as well as the humor that was there,” said Levine. “Really, there had neve been a trial like that in terms of both sides, or all three sides actually because the judge was not really an impartial arbiter here, basically showing so much antagonism and bias in the courtroom and the defendants talked back.”
On Monday, June 21 at 7 p.m. Levine will be part of a program at the Bedford Playhouse where he will discuss the differences between the movie and what actually happened in the courtroom. Levine will also talk about how he and co-editors George McNamee and Daniel Greenberg was able to get the transcript of the trial into the book in about 16 days.
What made the trial of The Chicago 7 so different, aside from it turning into a circus, was the defendants and their attorney, William Kunstler, took their protests from the street into the courtroom, Levine said. Even the most spectacular trials of the 20th century to that point, the Scopes trial or Sacco and Vanzetti, never had the out-of-control antics on display.
“Even the significant trials never had a situation where the defendants and their lawyers basically decided to stand up to the judge and continue the protests in the courtroom, and you also never quite had a judge like Julius Hoffman,” Levine said.
The defendants were convicted but won their appeal.
“(The appeals court) basically said the judge provoked the defendants and there were so many errors by the judge and by the prosecutor, and even if there hadn’t been errors, that the attitude and the sarcasm of Judge Hoffman and the prosecutors would have been enough to reverse,” Levine said.
Kunstler and co-counsel Leonard Weinglass made the trial about the First Amendment and the right to protest. The Chicago 7 had sought a permit to demonstrate and the city turned them down.
Levine said the importance of the ability to protest and to have dialogue with others that you disagree with is a lesson that Americans should heed today.
“I think that people have to realize that it’s important to allow peaceful protest to go on and everybody has to listen to people with dissenting view and have a conversation about what’s happening without the violence and without the hatred on both sides,” he said.
To attend the program on Monday at the Bedford Playhouse, visit https://bit.ly/3fzweyX.