The Practical Nomad blog

Monday, 19 October 2020

How the Chicago 8 ("Chicago 7") might have been the Chicago 9

There's a footnote to the trial of the Chicago 8 (popularly but wrongly known as the "Chicago 7") -- featured for the fourth time in yet another cinematic adaptation that premiered this past weekend on Netflix -- that few people know, and maybe nobody other than me knows:

The eight defendants indicted and tried for "conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot" in Chicago in 1968, reduced to seven after the case of Bobby Seale was severed from the others, might have been nine (or perhaps a different eight) if the FBI had been able to figure out when, where, and how Eric Weinberger crossed the Illinois state line en route to Chicago for the demonstrations outside the Democratic Party's national convention.

Who was Eric Weinberger? How do I know about his close call with indictment in the Chicago conspiracy trial? Why might the government have considered including him along with the Chicago 8? And why does this matter (or does it matter at all)?

Who was Eric Weinberger?

Eric Weinberger (1932-2006) was one of those activists (most of whom were women) whose contributions to movements against racism, war, and injustice have been largely overlooked by history and mass culture because of their modesty, low self-esteem, and role just behind the scenes and just out of the spotlight as organizers and facilitators.

Eric shows up in many of the standard histories of the anti-war and civil rights movements of his time, but often only in passing mentions or relegated to the footnotes as one of the sources for descriptions of meetings, events, and activities "led" by other more public figures. Eric shows up in some photos of the demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968, for example, as the person holding the microphone and running the sound system in Grant Park rather than as one of those speaking into that microphone. In exemplary anarcho-pacifist fashion, Eric led by example rather than by exhortation, coercion, or cooptation.

Eric saw racism and war as part of the same pattern of oppression. Already active in campaigns against nuclear weapons in the 1950s, he was one of the first northern white folks to go to the Deep South in the early 1960s to support Black struggles for self-determination and voting rights and against police and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. He worked to set up a handicrafts cooperative to help Black sharecroppers in western Tennessee replace some of the income they had lost when they were kicked off their farms for trying to register to vote. As the only Yankee trouble-maker in the area, he was repeatedly targetted for police and vigilante beatings, some of which were nearly fatal. When he was arrested, he refused to cooperate with his incarceration and in some cases refused to eat. He barely survived one hunger strike in an Alabama jail, a story told in Tom Cohen's "Three Who Dared". As a seasoned veteran and disciplined practitioner of nonviolence, he was one of the lead trainers for Freedom Summer volunteers, travelled throughout Mississippi with the Free Southern Theater, and took on a particularly scary assignment staffing the community center in Meridian after the first pair of Freedom Summer volunteers to arrive in Meridian, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman, and local Meridian activist James Chaney, were lynched while investigating a church-burning in the next county (a story some of Eric's part in which is told in Seth Cagin and Philip Dray's "We Are Not Afraid").

Eric played a key role in connecting anti-racist and anti-war activists and movements. One of the campaigns of which he was (justifiably) most proud was the Assembly of Unrepresented People, a tent city in Washington, DC, in 1965 that marked one of the most explicit convergences to that date of the civil rights and anti-war movements. In his autobiography, "From Yale to Jail", Dave Dellinger notes that, "The Assembly had grown out of a meeting of Black SNCC activists with Staughton Lynd, Eric Weinberger, and myself", and it was Eric who followed though on organizing many of the logistics. There's more on the Asesembly of Unrepresented People and the subsequent founding of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee in Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan's "Who Spoke Up".

Eric was part of a delegation of U.S. anti-war activists invited through later Chicago 8 defendants Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden to a meeting with Vietnamese diplomats in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, in 1967. Eric's impression, he told me years later, was that the meeting was intended by the Vietnamese as a sort of "moot-court" rehearsal for the upcoming Paris peace talks, with the U.S. activists as stand-ins for U.S. government representatives. Eric was annoyed at some of the student activists who played hookie from the official sessions -- arranged and attended at great difficulty and expense by the Vietnamese participants, some of whom had come from, and were returning to, South Vietnam -- to hang out and drink beer with Czechoslovak youth. Eric, whose talents included remarkable ability as a character actor and singer, put his best effort into helping the Vietnamese prepare to meet and negotiate with their U.S. government enemies.

Why did the government consider including Eric Weinberger with the Chicago 8?

Having moved back North and taken on an office job for the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, one of the largest groups organizing anti-war protests in the streets, Eric was one of the first people to endorse the idea of a mass mobilization outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968.

With typical modesty, Eric disclaimed being the sole originator of the idea. According to David Farber's "Chicago '68", one of the first histories written after, rather than during, the events, "Eric Weinberger, the young treasurer of the National Mobiliation and administrator of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, said later that the answer 'occurred to millions of people simultaneously.'"

The idea may have occurred to many, but Eric was one of the few who did the most to make it happen, representing the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee at meetings of the organizing coalition for the Chicago demonstrations. Farber describes part of Eric's role in evangelizing for the Chicago demonstrations as follows:

In New York, Eric Weinberger, the mild-mannered Mobe administrator [I doubt from this description that Farber had ever met Eric], tried to light a fire under the national Mobe staff. He wanted them to print up and distribute the formal call to Chicago that had been approved at the July 20 meeting. But the Mobe staff, many of whom were uncertain about the demonstration and some of whom felt handcuffed by the declared policy that organization would be done locally [rather than controlled from some national headquarters], did nothing. Finally, in exasperation, Weinberger produced the flyers himself, but he succeeded in getting out only fifty thousand -- for the April 27th march in New York, five hundred thousand flyers had been issued.

Eric wasn't a stranger to the scene or the setting of the demonstrations in Chicago. He had attended (and dropped out of) the University of Chicago, and his then wife, who he had met through his civil rights work, was from the Chicago area. But while movement media figures were barnstorming the country giving speeches recruiting for the demonstrations, and then flew to Chicago, Eric was holding down the office in New York and then drove to Chicago -- doing his best not to attract the notice of the FBI or local police who would have loved a chance to sabotage the demonstrations -- with a truckload of sound equipment, literature, and other supplies.

Just before and during the convention, Eric was part of continuing last-minute efforts to obtain permits from the City of Chicago for the demonstrations and other planned counter-convention activities. Older and "straighter" appearing than the Yippies or student activists, and representing one of the most "moderate" groups in the coalition (despite his personal radicalism), he was one of those who thought they might have a chance of working out a copmpromise with city officials. Again according to Farber, as of the day of the Mobe's first planned march in Chicago, "David Dellinger was, that morning, still hoping he could finesse the permit snafu. He and Eric Weinberger thought that they had managed to set up a breakfast meeting with Deputy Mayor Stahl to discuss the problem. But Stahl simply didn't show up, sending in his place flack catcher Al Baugher. Nothing happened." During most of the rest of the convention week, Eric was either in the streets or at what Eric later described to me as a seemingly endless -- and inspiring -- open mike in Grant Park. Several accounts, including those of Abbie Hoffman in "Revolution for the Hell of It" and eyewitness Marty Jezer in "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel", place Eric with the portable sound system next to Dick Gregory and arguing with Abbie over tactics at the head of the ill-fated attempt to march south from Grant Park toward the convention site at the International Amphitheatre. What infuriated Abbie was that, at that moment, Eric controlled the microphone and wouldn't give it to Abbie to exhort the crowd toward the police line.

By the time the indictments of the Chicago 8 were handed up in March 1969, Eric was busy with a new baby and, I presume, relieved not to have been included among the defendants. It wasn't until the 1980s, when I was studying his FBI file with him (more on that below), that we realized how close he had come to being one of what might have been the Chicago 9 -- or perhaps some even larger number.

My interest in the Chicago conspiracy trial

In 1968, I was a third-grader with little awareness of race or war beyond what I read in the newspaper. Yes, I was reading the New York Times when I was eight years old -- that was expected in my family -- but there was much in it that I didn't understand. I had never seen a political demonstration of any sort. Politics was what happened in local elections or when my parents and my friends' parents got together for a few nights a year in the junior high school auditorium for the Town Meeting. I remember vividly how distraught my teacher was the day after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, shortly before the end of the school year, in June of 1968. But the impression I got at the time was that her identification with RFK was about his being Irish-American, Catholic, and from Massachusetts, rather than about his political principles.

A few years later, I was at some sort of gathering with my mother where someone she knew through town politics, and who had been a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Party convention, was talking about seeing fighting between police and protesters in the Loop outside their hotel. What I remember is my inability to imagine the events they were describing, or the motives of the participants.

While I knew nothing about radical activism or tactics, by the time I was in high school my fascination with the intersections of law, politics, and forensics led me to avid but haphazard reading in whatever I could find of the literature of political prisoners (including prisoners of war) and political trials, from "Inherit the Wind" (still, to my mind, the best stage or film dramatization of a U.S. political trial) to Louis Nizer's "The Implosion Conspiracy". Only later, in San Francisco in the late 1980s, would I meet Morton Sobell after he had been released from Alcatraz, or read his much better book about the same legal case and its aftermath, "On Doing Time".

It was thus natural that, when I arrived at the University of Chicago as a first-year college student in the fall of 1977, I became increasingly interested in the Chicago conspiracy trial whose legacy loomed over Chicago student, youth, and anti-war activism. At that time, the unresolved traumas of the police riot, the conspiracy trial that followed, and the related emergence of the Weathermen out of the SDS national office in Chicago, continued to haunt all attempts at progressive, much less radical, organizing in Chicago.

Since it was still too soon for any of these events to be considered "history", I began of necessity with the primary sources that had been been published during the events and in their immediate aftermath: trial transcripts, government reports, and books by the defendants, their lawyers, and journalists and legal commentators who had covered the convention-week events and the conspiracy trial. Even today, I think that the thick volume of excerpts from the trial transcripts edited by Judy Clavir and John Spitzer, "The Conspiracy Trial", published in 1970 just after the trial, provides a better introduction to the case, and why it matters, than any of the subsequent secondary sources.

The Chicago conspiracy trial was the most significant U.S. political trial of my lifetime. As political theater, it transformed, perhaps permanently, the concept of what a political trial could be, to such a degree that some of the most novel tactics (in some cases deliberately innovative and in others inadvertent or improvisational) of the Chicago 8 defendants, their lawyers, and the larger conspiracy of their supporters have come to be expected as the norm for political defendants, lawyers, and defense committees. (A treatise on these lessons for contemporary political defendants, lawyers, and defense committees is something still missing from the extensive literature of the Chicago conspiracy trial, but would require a separate essay and would warrant an entire book.) On the government's side of the aisle, the then-unusual and highly controversial charge of "conspiracy" has become the taken-for-granted norm for Federal prosecutions of both political and "common" criminals.

My independent study of the Chicago conspiracy trial, initially focused on the courtroom drama as politico-legal theater, was my point of entry into learning about the movement(s) and the individuals who were placed on trial, and the forces of the government that were deployed against them. Over the years since, I've filled an entire bookshelf, and more, with books by and about the Chicago conspiracy trial and its participants -- many of whom I later met in person.

(If you are looking for my short list of recommended reading about Chicago '68 and the conspiracy trial, John Schultz' "Motion Will Be Denied", brought back in print by the U. of Chicago Press, deserves its reputation as the best blow-by-blow narrative of the trial by a courthouse journalist. Of the participants' books, Tom Hayden's "Trial", coupled with his testimony about the events in Chicago to the House Un-American Affairs Committee in "Rebellion and Repression", puts his attitude toward the trial in a very different perspective than its portrayal in the latest movie. Dave Dellinger's commentaries on the trial in "Revolutionary Nonviolence" and "More Power Than We Know", among others of his books, help put the trial in context and draw out some of its lessons for activists and movements, then and now.)

During my second year in college, Dave Dellinger of the Chicago 8 came to the U. of Chicago to speak at a campus teach-in about the war crimes of Robert McNamara, who was being awarded a prize by the U. of C. for his "outstanding contributions to international understanding" [sic]. That night, I was arrested for the first time in the street outside the University hall where McNamara was being fĂȘted. Among the 25 others arested with me were the anti-war Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic and C. Clark Kissinger, a U. of C. alumnus and former SDS president who had been an alibi witness for Tom Hayden during the Chicago conspiracy trial.

In 1980, Dave Dellinger was one of the initial endorsers of a call for resistance to the reinstatement of draft registration. In 1982, Dave came down to Boston from his home in northern Vermont to attend my trial for refusing to register with the Selective Service System for a possible military draft. Eric Weinberger was one of three people arrested for chaining themselves in front of the courthouse doors that morning in a show of solidarity and a symbolic attempt to block the trial from proceeding.

While it was staged by the government, including then Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller, as a show trial, my trial for organizing resistance to draft registration had little of the drama of the Chicago conspiracy trial. But I consider it a success in having encouraged the resistance by helping spread the message that there was both safety in silence and safety in numbers for most nonregistrants for the draft (as there still is today).

Dave Dellinger was especially sympathetic and supportive because, like me, he had chosen to refuse to register for the draft (a story he tells in "From Yale to Jale") despite pressure from older peace movement leaders who thought that resistance was the "wrong" anti-draft tactic and that he and his classmates at Union Theological Seminary should register and apply for classification as conscientious objectors and assignment to alternative service.

I was, and remain, profoundly grateful to Dave for the talk he gave at a teach-in the night before my trial, in which he criticized those anti-draft leaders and lawyers who were trying to talk me and my cohort of nonregistrants into registering, or into making technical legal defenses (as he had chosen not to do during the Chicago conspiracy trial). He explained his support for the strategy and tactic of nonregistration and noncooperation with the courts, not as "protest" but as an exercise of the revolutionary power of nonviolent direct action. (If anyone reading this has any records of that event, who else spoke, or what any of us said, please get in touch.)

I heard heard Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman speak at several events later in the 1980s. In 1987, at a college student organizing conference at U.C. Santa Barbara where we both spoke, Abbie spent some time talking with me and collecting literature about draft registration to pass on to his son america, who was turning 18 then and facing the decision of whether to register with the Selective Service System.

Later still, in the 1990s, I worked on defense committees for political trials in which the legal teams were led, in different cases, by Lennie Weinglass and Bill Kunstler, who had been the lead counsel for the Chicago 7.

What I learned about Eric Weinberger and the Chicago conspiracy indictments

I met Eric Weinberger through draft resistance contacts in the early 1980s, and lived with him and his son Jeffrey in group houses in Allston and Cambridge before and after my time in prison for draft resistance in 1983-1984. Eric was an eloquent but reluctant raconteur as well as a perceptive observer. As I came to appreciate how many valuable stories he had to tell, I spent a lot of time hanging out with him and gently prompting him to share his recollections and analysis of the history he had lived and seen. Like Dave Dellinger, Eric Weinberger listened to and sought to learn from younger activists, sharing his stories as teachable moments rather than sermons. He became one of my most important political mentors. I was honored to be one of his friends, and we stayed in touch until his death in 2006, although less closely after I moved to California.

At some point after the enactment of the Freedom Of Information Act and the exposure of COINTELPRO Eric had gotten a copy of the file the FBI had kept on him, which filled a couple of battered binders piled on top of the birdcage in his bedroom. After one of our conversations about Eric's encounters with FBI agents during his time in the South (when civil rights workers reported threats or attacks by local law enforcement or the Klan, the FBI used it as an opportunity to investigate the civil rights workers), Eric finally allowed me to borrow his FBI file. It made for fascinating reading, not least because, in Eric's case as in that of many other activists, it was the FBI that kept the most thorough clipping files and documentation of the chronology of movement activities.

One thing that leaped out at me in Eric's FBI file was a series of increasingly urgent telexes sent from FBI headquarters shortly before the indictments of the Chicago 8, directing a widening number of FBI field offices to track down and forward to FBI headquarters, in conjunction with the investigation of the "riots" in Chicago, any evidence or information they could obtain as to when, where, and how Eric travelled from New York to Chicago to take part in the demonstrations outside the Democratic Party convention.

I can see no other plausible reason why the FBI would have wanted this particular information about Eric's travel to Chicago, at that time, in that context, unless the government was considering including him in the group to be indicted for conspiring to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot.

"Conspiring to cross state lines with intent to incite" is, if I'm counting correctly, four steps removed from actually rioting, which was one of the reasons the charges were considered so outrageous at the time. (Not so today. The outrage should be no less great, but conspiracy charges have become the norm in the war on drugs, the war on terror, and many other Federal prosecutions.) But while it wasn't necessary for a conspiracy conviction to show that any of the defendants, or anyone else, actually crossed state lines, crossing state lines was an element of the underlying offense and of the "overt acts" in furtherance of the alleged conspiracy.

Moreover, the urgency of the telexes from FBI headquarters suggests to me that a decision might already have been made to include Eric among the alleged conspirators, subject only to being able to fill in the blanks on the proposed indictment with respect to his overt act of crossing state lines.

So far as was reflected in the redacted files the FBI released to Eric, none of the field offices consulted by FBI headquarters responded with any leads on Eric's itinerary. Unlike the eight defendants indicted for the Chicago conspiracy, Eric didn't fly to Chicago, he drove, doing his best to avoid police notice. Apparently he wasn't being tailed by the FBI, at least on that trip.

Eric hadn't attached any particular significance to these pages of his voluminous FBI file. But when I pointed out the dates in relation to the Chicago conspiracy indictments, and the particular focus on evidence of crossing state lines, he agreed with my reading that they were indicative of a desire to have him indicted as one of the Chicago conspirators.

"There, but for fortune may go you or I."

I don't know what happened to Eric's copy of his FBI file. My guess is that the file was inherited by one of Eric's relatives. Eric's lawyer and the administrator of his estate, Lee Goldstein (who I believe was also involved in the legal team for the Chicago conspiracy trial, although I'm not sure of his role) may know where it is.

Further new and targetted FOIA research would probably be required to learn more about what happened behind the scenes and why Eric was considered for indictment but not ultimately included with the Chicago 8.

Why does any of this matter?

Would Eric Weinberger have been indicted as an additional Chicago conspiracy defendant? Or named as an additional "unindicted co-conspirator"? Or would he have been included rather than one of the others who had been less involved than Eric in organizing and mobilizing for the demonstrations in Chicago?

One of the ongoing themes in analysis of the Chicago conspiracy trial has been how the defendants were selected to represent a cross-section by race, age, and ideology of the movement against the U.S. war in Indochina. That discussion has always presumed that the eight defendants indicted reflected the prosecution's choices. Knowing that there was at least one other person who they wanted to indict, but couldn't find sufficient evidence against, obviously raises the question of how many others there may have been, who they were, and what other segments of the movement they would have represented at the defense table and in the media spotlight.

The most obvious omission was, of course, that of anti-war women, including anti-war feminists. But Eric's omission is a reminder that there were whole generations of men as well as women who were omitted from the picture of the anti-war movement painted by sketch artists drawing the people at the defense table in the Federal courtroom in Chicago.

There was a twenty-year gap in the ages of the Chicago 8 between Dave Dellinger (born in 1916, and imprisoned for draft resistance during World War II) and Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale (both born in 1936). Eric Weinberger is part of the generation in between, who came of draft age during the Korean War and at the height of McCarthyism. The role of members of the Beat Generation with which Eric identified in radical and in particular anti-war activism, while significant, has been largely overlooked in historical narratives. (Notable exceptions, mostly focusing on the same circles of activists, include Maurice Isserman, "If I Had a Hammer": James Tracy, "Direct Action"; Scott H. Bennett, "Radical Pacifism"; and Neil Katz, "Radical Pacifism and the Contemporary American Peace Movement".)

Perhaps I'm particularly sensitive to the elision of Eric's Cold War and Korean War generation from anti-war history because of the similar elision of my own generation, those who came of draft age during the late 1970s and the 1980s, from anti-war history, despite the unprecedented popular anti-war mobilization during the Reagan era of "Star Wars", "Euromissiles", first-strike threats, and resurgent U.S. imperialism. There are always counter-currents, counter-cultures, and communities of resistance, even in times of superficial hegemony.

It's also worth speculating how Eric's inclusion -- as someone with experience as an actor and extemporaneous performer, who worked with and for "liberal" organizations but had profoundly radical personal values, and who was inured by temperament, training, and experience to any attempt at verbal or physical intimidation -- might have affected the dynamics of the Chicago conspiracy and the trial. Eric wasn't immune to fear, but he was capable of thinking on his feet and speaking truth to power -- whether a gun-wielding KKK nightrider or a gavel-wielding judge -- despite that fear. Eric seems like exactly the sort of person a movement would most want, and who would most effectively serve its interests, as part of a group of "representative" defendants in a political pageant / trial / media circus.

Another lesson in the extent to which history has relegated Eric and others to its footnotes (in a way that would have been unlikely if he or any of those others had been among a "Chicago 9" or larger number), is that behind every "leader" or media figure in a mass movement there are other people whose contributions are at least equally significant but unheralded. It's a typical failing of Hollywood, but not one limited to Hollywood, to portray grassroots, participatory, and anarchist movements through the lens of a "Great Man" theory of history and leadership.

If you want history rather than Hollywood, I recommend the 1987 made-for-HBO movie, now available for streaming on Amazon, which features a script based more closely on the trial transcript than any of the other movies about the Chicago conspiracy trial, as well as cutaways to interviews and commentary by the real-life defandants and attorneys. But whichever movie version of the Chicago conspiracy trial you watch, keep in mind that the figures at the defense table and on the screen are only a small and incomplete sample of the scale and scope of activism and organizing against the war, then or now.

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 19 October 2020, 16:56 ( 4:56 PM)
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