Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Chicago Seven + 1

It's time for a history lesson. I got most of this from wikipedia, but I watched it on TV when it happened 40 years ago, and we may be ripe for it to happen again this year.

The 1968 Democratic National Convention, held in late August – convened to select the party's candidates for the November 1968 Presidential election – was the scene of massive demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War, which was at its height. Thousands of people showed up with signs and banners, music, dancing and poetry. Some people responded to a night-time curfew announcement with rock-throwing. Police used tear gas and struck people with batons, and arrests were made. In the aftermath of what was later characterized as a "police riot" by the U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, a grand jury indicted eight demonstrators and eight police officers.

The original eight protester/defendants, indicted by the grand jury on March 20, 1969, were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Bobby Seale. Early in the course of the trial, Black Panther Party activist Bobby Seale hurled bitter attacks at Judge Hoffman in court, calling him a "fascist dog," a "pig," and a "racist," among other things.When Seale refused to be silenced, the judge ordered Seale bound and gagged in the courtroom, citing a precedent from the case of Illinois v. Allen. Ultimately Judge Hoffman severed Seale from the case, sentencing him to four years in prison for contempt, one of the longest sentences ever handed down for that offense in American history at that time.

On February 18, 1970, all seven defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy, two (Froines and Weiner) were acquitted completely, and five were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot. Those five were each sentenced to five years in prison and fined $5,000 on February 20, 1970. At sentencing, Abbie Hoffman suggested the judge try LSD, offering to set him up with a dealer he knew in Florida.

All of the convictions were reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on November 21, 1972, on the grounds of bias by the judge and his refusal to permit defense attorneys to screen prospective jurors for cultural and racial bias (Case citation 472 F.2d 340). The Justice Department decided not to retry the case. During the trial, all the defendants and both defense attorneys had been cited for contempt and sentenced to jail, but all of those convictions were also overturned. The contempt charges were retried before a different judge, who found Dellinger, Rubin, Hoffman and Kunstler guilty of some of the charges, but opted not to sentence the defendants to jail or fines.

Of the eight police officers indicted in the matter, seven were acquitted, and charges against the eighth were dismissed.

The selection of a Presidential nominee was particularly difficult for the Democrats that year because of the split in the party over the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to seek re-election, and Robert Kennedy's assassination. On one side, Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, ran a decidedly anti-war campaign, calling for immediate withdrawal from the region. On the other side, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who did not participate in any primaries but controlled enough delegates to secure the nomination, called for a policy more in line with President Johnson's, which focused on making any reduction of force contingent on concessions extracted in the Paris Peace Talks.

The Democrats eventually nominated Humphrey, who went on to lose the election to Richard M. Nixon. The confusion of the convention, and the unhappiness of many liberals with the outcome, led the Democrats to begin reforms of their nominating process, increasing the role of primaries and decreasing the power of party delegates in the selection process.

So have we now come full circle so we can let the party delegates (the superdelegates) make the decision this year? The world will be watching this convention.

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