Chicago Seven return in play that shows why '60s won't die
By Denny Walsh
Bee Staff Writer
(Published March 20, 2001)
As jurisprudence, the trial of the Chicago Seven stunk up the joint. As
theater, it was marvelous.
It's no wonder, then, that "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" is a
discomforting theatrical experience and, at the same time, a very
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton summed it up: "I loved the play and
how it was done. But, more than just an injustice to the defendants, the
trial inflicted profound injury on the legal system."
This seminal event, which stretched from late September 1969 into February
1970, was a fitting way to ring down the curtain on the decade that won't
die, the 1960s.
And why should it die? America lost its innocence. A president, a
presidential candidate and the nation's greatest civil rights champion died
at the hands of assassins. People had to take to the streets before their
political leaders would listen on the two issues that defined those times,
racism and the Vietnam War.
The decade opened with African Americans in Greensboro, N.C., sitting down
at a whites-only lunch counter and demanding service.
It closed with the trial of eight anti-war demonstrators charged with
conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in
Both symbolize the class struggle of the period.
Following a special performance of the play Sunday afternoon at River Stage
on the Cosumnes River College campus, the players and audience adjourned to
the adjacent Recital Hall for what was billed as a symposium on the legacy
of the ^A'60s.
In addition to Karlton, the panel included Frank Condon, the River Stage
artistic director who directed and co-wrote the play; Paul Goldstene, a
California State University, Sacramento, professor who teaches contemporary
political thought and theory, and two icons of the era:
Mark Rudd, the last national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society
who later went underground as part of the radical Weathermen splinter group.
Bobby Seale, founding chairman and national organizer for the Black Panther
Party. He was the eighth defendant at the Chicago trial, whose case was
ordered severed by U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman when Seale wouldn't
shut up about wanting to be his own lawyer.
"It was all about my Sixth Amendment right to represent myself," Seale
said. He explained that his attorney, the late Charles Garry, had undergone
surgery and was not able to be there.
Hoffman insisted that Seale be represented by the late William Kunstler,
who, along with Leonard Weinglass, defended the seven others.
When Seale became vocal and combative, Hoffman had him bound to a chair and
gagged for three days before deciding on a separate trial.
The proceedings degenerated on occasion into literal brawls between deputy
marshals and the defendants, who pitted their passion and intellect against
Hoffman's obstinacy and arrogance.
It was a mismatch in every way except the guilty verdicts, all of which
were overturned on appeal.
"A judge who looks like a jackass loses control," Karlton said. "Once they
(the defendants) realized he was a crazy old man, it was all over."
To the delight of the audience, Sealestill motivating inner-city youth and
preaching progressive coalition politics, demonstratively described being
strapped to his chair with tape over his mouth.
On the third day, he recalled, his attempt to get a hand to the tape
resulted in a wrestling match with the marshals and they all went tumbling
into the part of the spectator area occupied by the press.
Rudd, who had led student protesters in shutting down Columbia University
earlier in 1968, credited the trial as "the moment when a lot of people,
including myself, decided that repression was on the agenda. Legal protest
was no longer viable."
He was among the demonstrators outside the federal courthouse and was a
leader of the so-called Days of Rage in October, when protesters raced
through downtown Chicago smashing store windows, overturning cars and
clashing with police.
"I think we made a tragic mistake identifying violence as a response to
repression," he said.
Rudd, now a self-described "mild-mannered mathematics teacher" at a New
Mexico community college, said David Dellinger's example should not have
Then in his 50s, Dellinger, the trial's lead defendant, was a lifelong
pacifist who had gone to prison rather than participate in World War II.
"He stuck to his beliefs," Rudd said. "We should have listened to him."
At one point, Rudd's wife, Marla Painter, went to the audience microphone
and scolded the panelists for their lack of focus.
"You're all out of touch except Bobby, and that includes my husband," she said.
"This was supposed to be about the legacy of the '60s, but no one has
talked about that. The legacy of the '60s is a belief in grass-roots
efforts to create change. People now believe they can make a difference. We
see it all around us, right down to our neighborhood associations."
Later, as the discussion ended, Rudd, who is quick to admit his radical
days are over, said: "Before we leave, I would like to respond to my wife:
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