By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
A few days ago, Fox News, Official Broadcaster of the Republican Party, began softening the public-opinion beachhead ahead of the November election, saying Democrats have returned to the failed anti-war policies of the 1960s and '70s. In just those few words, Fox got everything wrong: elected Democrats today don't invariably oppose George W. Bush's Iraq adventure any more than elected Republicans uniformly support it; far from opposing the Vietnam War, Democrats at the time were its architects; it was left to Republican Richard Nixon to end the war.
Finally, the fact that Nixon abandoned an immoral war was hardly a failure; it may mark one of our nation's great social achievements.
Nixon did not surrender easily; peace activists drove him to it. The Fox Nation could know all this from just one event: the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There, some 20,000 activists gathered to protest the Democrats' war in Southeast Asia. They collided with Mayor Richard J. Daley (note to Fox: also a Democrat) and nearly 26,000 police, soldiers and National Guardsmen. Official investigators called that run-in a "police riot." By the time Hubert Humphrey won the nomination, police had arrested 589 and beaten and injured scores of others—not just demonstrators, but tourists, party officials and convention delegates; in one notorious instance, taped and broadcast for conventioneers, police and National Guardsmen tried to clear the street outside convention headquarters and succeeded in pushing a group of fine, upstanding Americans through the front window of the Hilton Hotel. Once there, they might have heard Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff denounce Daley and police for their "Gestapo tactics." Watching Ribicoff from the convention floor, Daley yelled, "Fuck you, you Jew motherfucker!"; he later said he was shouting that Ribicoff was a "faker."
Nixon officials charged eight men with conspiracy and intent to riot in Chicago. That prosecution reveals creepy parallels between America in 1968 and 2006; those parallels are clear in Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight, a new, brief, funny and terrifying collection of greatest hits excerpted from the sprawling trial transcript.
OC Weekly: What was the Chicago Eight case about?
Jon Wiener: At the most fundamental level, the case was a government attempt to de-legitimize the anti-war movement and to portray it as a small group of violent extremists. The defendants tried to show that they were standing up for morality and fairness and justice and democracy.
During the trial, there was a disagreement among defendants over strategy.
For the Yippies—the cultural radicals—the courtroom was famously regarded as a theater, one that commanded that the network news and mainstream press cover it in an extremely dramatic way. The Yippies wanted to make the most of this opportunity to expose the arbitrariness and the repressiveness of the judge and the prosecutor and for themselves to represent freedom and free expression.
For the politicos—Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis—the top priority was continuing to organize more and more people against the Vietnam War. That meant they wanted to stay out of jail if at all possible, and that meant they'd have to present a serious defense against the charges. It would be more legalistic, in some ways accepting the terms of the judicial system and playing by the rules to prove their innocence.
In his afterword to the book, Tom Hayden writes about the "reverberations" of the 1960s today. It seems the current generation of activists can't escape the historical shadow cast by the 1960s and are constantly being evaluated in terms of the 1960s.
I think Tom makes a strong argument that the anti-globalization protests and the anti-war protests of the last five years are much better organized and much more impressive—and in a lot of ways more politically coherent—than what we were doing in the 1960s. The 1960s are sort of the gold standard for protest in popular culture, but if we just look at the 1968 demonstrations, many fewer people showed up to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago 1968 than they had hoped: 20,000 to 30,000 rather than 200,000. The demonstrations on Feb. 15, 2003, before the Iraq War started, were the biggest anti-war demonstrations in history. Millions of people demonstrated, completely dwarfing what was going on in '68. Just by those measures, I think the enthusiasm for the '60s, or taking the '60s as the standard for what constitutes an effective anti-war movement, is really a mistake.
Six of the defendants were not only charged with conspiracy but with intent to riot. Was there any legitimacy to these charges?
I think there was pretty good evidence—that the defense tried to present in this trial—that, in their planning for these demonstrations, the defendants emphasized that they didnot want a violent confrontation. They were afraid that would greatly reduce the number of people that were willing to come to Chicago. The judge didn't allow that evidence to be introduced, but we can see it: there were minutes of meetings, letters the defendants were writing to each other. And it's a very understandable concern. Also, all of the efforts they made to get permits to make the protests legal, to provide a nonviolent framework, all suggest there was no intent to riot, and of course the commission that investigated the violence outside the Democratic National Convention concluded that it was a police riot. So I don't see evidence supporting the government's position that there was a conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot.
Judge Julius Hoffman made some unusual decisions . . . .
In retrospect, it seems almost too perfect that the judge was so repressive, such an extreme representative of conservative mentality.
I figured central casting must have played a role.
He was almost beyond central casting because he was kind of a weird person who wanted to argue with these young people in ways that I don't know if any other judge—then or now—would do. It was just the famous luck of the draw getting this judge, and he provided a news angle and a daily drama that the newspapers and TV couldn't resist and rightly emphasized.
What are your favorite colorful moments from the trial?
My favorite part is the testimony of Abbie Hoffman. The defense decided to present two of the defendants, and Abbie was just completely brilliant and delightful, but also politically incredibly sharp the way he describes his own political development, his political ideas. He's the one who, when asked if he participated in a conspiracy to cross state lines to incite state violence, answered, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't even agree on lunch!" That's what Abbie was like.
The Allen Ginsberg testimony was also wonderful. Allen chanted "Oooommmmm" on the stand to demonstrate how he had tried to calm the confrontation between police and protesters, and the judge found it completely outrageous and tumult broke out in the courtroom, so Allen Ginsberg started chanting "Ooooommmm" all over again!
Unfortunately, many people in activist circles today don't know about Abbie Hoffman. What would you like people to know about Abbie Hoffman?
Abbie was quite an experienced longtime radical activist. He had worked with the civil rights movement in the South during the early '60s. But he pioneered this kind of political theater where he felt that anti-war protests needed to have more innovative and frankly more enjoyable forms than the traditional protest march where you march down the street chanting and waving signs.
Kind of like Emma Goldman's quip, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution."
Yeah. And this should be not only the goal of the revolution, but part of the tactics should be fun and exciting and provoke people to think. Abbie was in on the planning for the march on the Pentagon where he said the purpose was to levitate the Pentagon. And they applied for a permit to raise the Pentagon 20 feet into the air, and he did so in a very straight-faced way. They wanted this to be legal. He also was very famous for going to the tourist gallery above the trading floor at the Wall Street Stock Exchange and throwing dollar bills into the air—showered the floor with dollar bills. And the traders all stopped trading and were jumping into the air trying to grab the money. It was a very dramatic demonstration of what capitalism was about. So Abbie tried to bring these tactics not only to the streets of the anti-war movement but also into the courtroom. He was a brilliant guy, and he knew what he was doing, and he was good at it.
This is a debate that hasn't really gone away—the question about how seriously to take ourselves as a peace movement.
You have to remember that the Yippie strategy was directed at young people. "Don't trust anyone over 30!" "Young people must together stand for freedom, liberation and need to confront the older generation, which has screwed up the world and is doing terrible things in Vietnam." Of course, I'm no longer under 30, so I'm more, let us say, interested in the other strategy. But I think the generation gap is nowhere near as broad today. If you look at who's been an active opponent of the war in Iraq, there are probably more people over 30 at the big demonstrations than people under 30. So it isn't quite as important a tactic to mobilize young people to rebel against their parents. The challenge today is to get everyone who's against the war to change the politics in Washington.
During the trial, Abbie Hoffman said, "To make demands upon the Democratic Party is an exercise in wasted wish fulfillment." In fact, the Democratic Party takes quite a beating in the court case. I think it's interesting that much of what's remembered about Chicago '68 isn't the protest or the riots or even the trial per se, but rather the failure of the Democratic Party to take advantage of a golden opportunity to adopt an anti-war platform. With the victory of Ned Lamont in Connecticut, and with the current political and cultural climate, how relevant is the lesson of Chicago '68 to the Democrats in 2008?
I think it's incredibly relevant. Of course, in '68 there was an incumbent Democratic president who was responsible for the massive escalation of the war in Vietnam. That made it harder for his hand-picked successor Hubert Humphrey to criticize the president for the previous four years, to turn against his mentor and the policies he'd been a part of. I mean, he could have done it and should have done it, but the Democrats today have a much easier time because it's Bush's war. And Humphrey almost won! Humphrey was within a few hundred thousand votes of winning! It seems quite clear that if Humphrey had taken a strong anti-war position he would have won. So I think the lesson is quite clear: in order to win in 2008 the Democrats need to pose a clear and strong alternative to the status quo.
Are you hopeful they will?
Well, the leading candidate is Hillary Clinton, who has the opposite view—that triangulation is the way to win. Triangulation is the strategy of trying to find a middle path between the Democrats and Republicans, something Bill Clinton was famous for and something that Hillary has adopted. She wants to win over some Republicans by conceding the legitimacy of some of their positions. That's the opposite of offering a clear and bold alternative to the administration's policies. I'm against Hillary's strategy, and I hope there's a clear and strong alternative to Hillary when the Democrats get around to picking their candidates a year from now.
The war in Iraq is often compared to the war in Vietnam. How accurate is the comparison?
There is much more opposition to the war in Iraq, and it arose much sooner than the war in Vietnam. Vietnam ended up with 58,000 Americans being killed and two to three million Vietnamese. What's the death toll of Americans in Iraq today, 2,500, 2,600? So the anti-war movement is much more advanced at a relatively early stage of the war. I mean, the war has been going four years now. That's as long as our involvement in World War II, just about, but still, Vietnam went for nine years or more, depending upon when you count the beginning. So the anti-war movement today is much bigger and was much bigger from the day the war started. It hasn't been any more effective in bringing the war to an end, but it certainly is bigger and stronger than anything that happened in the '60s.
The idea of such a trial today, putting the anti-war movement on trial today, I simply don't think it would work.
I don't think it would either. What we have instead today is Guantanamo and NSA eavesdropping and the library surveillance program and other parts of the USA PATRIOT Act. That's where we see government abridgement of rights and challenges to freedom. But it's much more targeted at immigrant Muslim men, non-citizens. One of the things I learned from doing this book was that if Nixon had not been elected in 1968 there never would have been a trial of 1968. The Democrats were not interested in indicting and bringing to trial this group of people. In fact, the Democratic attorney general, Ramsey Clark, was prepared to testify for the defense that he thought the indictment was wrong. But the judge wouldn't allow him to testify. And you know, the Chicago Eight trial was certainly not a slam-dunk event for the Nixon White House. It was an experimental effort that ended up succeeding, but another president could have made quite a different decision.
It's interesting—if not disconcerting—that a book about government efforts to prosecute the anti-war movement could be so laugh-out-loud funny.
Well, believe me, a lot of the 22,000 pages of trial transcripts were not funny.
Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight edited by Jon Wiener; New Press. Paperback, 304 pages, $16.95.