A couple of posts back, I reminisced about the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. I left it in the middle of the Battle of the Conrad Hilton, as Mr. Wired and I were in the process of gaining our second bedroom. The Convention had, in many ways, been foredoomed to be a total mess. The cab drivers were on strike. The CTA was threatening a strike. The cops had been subjected to a month-long barrage of scare stories about what the anti-war demonstrators were planning. The Black communities on the South and West Sides were still traumatized and on edge from the assassination of Dr. King earlier in the year. Everybody was jumpy.
Downtown was almost literally an armed camp for the entire week of the Convention. Camouflaged trucks full of troops drove up and down Michigan Avenue and parked in front of most of the major buildings. Police were three-deep on Loop street corners. Like most people who lived in the neighborhoods, I was nervous about the lack of policing out there. I knew exactly what I would do if I were a mugger–go out to the neighborhoods and pick off every little old lady’s purse I could find while the cops were all downtown.
Naturally, after all that, Nixon got elected. And early the next year, the federal prosecutors issued their indictments. They were exquisitely even-handed. Eight police officers, for using excessive force, and eight antiwar activists. All of the cops were acquitted. Then came the trial of the activists, a chaotic mixture of old-line pacifists, student organizers, civil rights leaders, and wild-eyed cultural revolutionaries. Bizarrely, they were charged with “conspiring to incite a riot.” As several people pointed out at the time, most of them had never met or talked to each other before the indictments, and wouldn’t have been able to agree on anything if they had.
The trial was the social event of the year for the local peace movement. Although it was officially a public trial, it was held in a relatively small courtroom, half of which was full of press. Anybody else who wanted to get in had to wait in line for the better part of an hour before the morning or afternoon session. I managed to find the time to wait for admission into the afternoon session one day. While I waited, the federal marshals walked back and forth scrutinizing us. One marshal looked very suspiciously at me, then went on to the end of the line, turned around, came back, and squinted at me again. This time he gestured me to get out of the line and talk to him. “Weren’t you thrown out of Judge Hoffman’s courtroom last week?” he asked. I pointed out that I had not yet managed to get in, much less be thrown out. He shook his head, finding me less than credible, and took me upstairs, to be scrutinized by the female marshal in charge of chucking women out of Hoffman’s courtroom. She looked at me for a long time, before finally saying no, she’s not the one. By the time I got back downstairs, I had lost my place in line, and never did get into the courtroom. The trial rolled on without my ever getting to see it, and came to its end with all of the defendants and both of their lawyers being sentenced to years in prison for contempt. The jury threw out all the conspiracy charges, and acquitted two of the defendants altogether. The others were convicted on relatively minor charges. Later on, of course, every conviction, including the ones for contempt, was reversed on appeal for one or another technical blooper on Judge Hoffman’s part. It was one of the most prodigious wastes of the taxpayer’s money ever to grace the federal court system.
Ten years later, I was a federal law enforcement official myself, working for EPA and going up to Hibbing, Minnesota to serve some warrants on a polluter. My plane came in at the Duluth airport, and a federal marshal was detailed to drive me from there to Hibbing. It was a two-hour drive, and we got to talking. He had been posted in Chicago during the Conspiracy Trial, so I told him my story, wondering if he could tell me which dangerous person I looked so much like. He thought about it a few minutes. “Jerry Rubin’s girlfriend, I think,” he said finally. Great Cosmic Riddle Solved.
My path crossed those of many of the dramatis personae, most notably Abbie Hoffman–our daughter baby-sat for his son (America, whom our daughter could not bring herself to call anything but “Ricky.”) Twenty-eight years later, America was in Chicago for the 1996 Democratic Convention, and so was his brother Andy (ye gads what a gorgeous young man, like a Botticelli angel!) who helped me break into my car when I locked the keys in. That year, I represented one of the defendants in the second Chicago Convention conspiracy trial, which involved another odd lot of activists who could not have conspired to order a pizza for lunch (literally–some of them were hard-line vegans, and some were omnivores.) My client, by the way, was the only person I have ever represented who had a letter from the Dalai Lama attesting to his good character. That trial, held in state rather than federal court this time, ended in acquittals for everybody too. The judge, Themis Karnezis (who is now on the Appeals Court), was nothing like Julius Hoffman. He had a low tolerance for b.s., and could not understand why the Cook County State’s Attorney was willing to spend the better part of a year on and off to get a conviction of such utterly harmless people on such flimsy evidence.
Before that trial, I had been a little skeptical of the conventional wisdom among lefty lawyers that cops routinely lie on the witness stand. But we put a high-ranking cop on the stand on a Friday afternoon and kept him there until 8:30 that night because every time this paragon of perjurers, this prince of prevaricators opened his mouth, he contradicted either the video record, the testimony of another cop, or his own previous testimony. Do most cops lie on the stand? I don’t know. But I know that when they do, some of them at least put on a really bravura performance.
The Chicago Conspiracy Trial shaped politics and law for decades afterward, as well as tweaking individual lives, including mine, in some very strange ways. I cannot imagine the movie being anywhere near as weird as the real thing.