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On this day… September 24th, 1968 – The Chicago Eight Trial begins

On this day… in 1968, The Chicago Eight trial began before Judge Julius Hoffman.

Antiwar protests in the United States had reached new levels by 1968. Increasing involvement in Vietnam, coupled with heightened organised protest around student campuses culminated in violent clashes between police forces and demonstrators in Chicago on the week of the Democratic National Convention (August 26-29).

The eight alleged ‘leaders’ of the organised protest – Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines, and Bobby Seale – were issued with indictments, being charged with ‘unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly’ conspiracy to travel ‘with the intent to incite, organise, promote, encourage, participate in, and carry on a riot and to commit acts of violence in furtherance of a riot.’

The trial highlights key legal questions of freedom of speech and institutional bias. Many publications considered the move to scapegoat the ‘leaders’ as politically and – in the case of Seale after his dismissal, making the trial ‘The Chicago Seven’ – racially charged. One ACLU lawyer claimed ‘vindication’ was the justification for Chicago city officials who sought to delegitimize reporting that indicated the violence in the protests around the DNC were the fault of the city itself.

The Chicago Eight group were among the first to be tried under the newly legislated Anti-Riot laws, provisioned in the 1968 Civil Rights Act. (Title X: An Act to prescribe penalties for certain acts of violence or intimidation, and for other purposes – effective: April 11, 1968; enacted by the 90th United States Congress)

On February 18th, 1970, the jury for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illonois returned its verdict finding five of the remaining seven defendants guilty of violating the Anti-Rot Act of 1968, with the other two acquitted.

The defendants appealed to the United States Court of Appeal (7th circuit) which reversed and remanded the case in full.

For further reading on this captivating trial, see:

Kraft, Sandra, Contention in the Courtroom: The Legal Dimension of the 1960s Protests in the German and US Student Movements, Journal of Contemporary History, vol50:4 (October 2015), pp.805-832 (https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.st-andrews.ac.uk/stable/pdf/43697404.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_SYC-5455%2Ftest&refreqid=fastly-default%3A8e0347eaeb5a9ecbdc74614ed97322ed)

Stalmack, John M., Constitutional Law – 1968 Anti-Riot Statute Up-held in United States vs. Dellinger, Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, vol4:2 (Summer 1973) (https://lawecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2408&context=luclj)

By Oliver Roberts

Editor in Chief, Co-Founder and Co-Managing Editor

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