The year was 1968. The Vietnam war was at its height and the Democratic National Convention was coming to Chicago. And so were tens of thousands of protesters, mostly known as Yippies. The Chicago Ten is a semi-animated documentary based on real events that transpired during the several days of the convention and the protests in Chicago, as a result of which, the city unleashed its police force on the protesters and in the end, eight of the organizers were arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite a riot.
The film is essentially an animated reenactment of the trial that is based on transcripts and rediscovered audio recordings and this is blended in, often times, with real footage from the trial and the protest. What we eventually get to see is the personification of free speech and how it was put on trial in 1969. While the trial was first called the Chicago Eight, one of those charged, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was sentenced to four years in prison by judge Julius Hoffman, for his outbursts in the court, and was even severed from the case, hence the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven. Seale’s outbursts were based on his desire to postpone the trial till he could be defended by his lawyer who was undergoing gallbladder surgery at the time. When he was denied, he then requested to be able to defend himself, as guaranteed him under the constitution. When this request was continuously denied him by the Judge, he became more and more outspoken, demanding his rights. Judge Julius eventually had Seale bound and gagged to his chair, literally, in an effort to stop him from speaking, before eventually sentencing him to four years for contempt; the harshest sentence ever handed down for that crime in US history at the time.
In the end, all seven defendants, including Seale and the two lawyers that defended them, were all sentenced to jail, mostly for contempt. The trial became a circus, where the defendants would throw insults at the judge, blow kisses, throw paper airplanes at witnesses and even come to court dressed in judicial robes. Meanwhile, in between the trial dates, they would travel America rallying up support on college campuses, which resulted in crowds of people protesting outside their court on trial dates. Even novelist Norman Mailer and poet Allen Ginsberg took to the stand, with the latter attempting to calm the courtroom – which at one point saw the attorney, prosecutor and judge clashing loudly – by chanting a “hummmm” over and over again.
I read about the Chicago “Eight”, back in high school and the story always fascinated me. Here was a group of people of various backgrounds, color and beliefs, who had one thing in common: their detest for the Vietnam war. They were able to mobilize tens of thousands of people to Chicago, just to protest the war, and just as specifically, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination (they brought a pig to be “nominated” in his stead).
It is a lesson in free speech for everyone in the world really. You get to see how ludicrous the state can be. How speech needs to be regulated, and human beings need to be given permits just to speak. I mean, think about that in the most theoretical of terms: you have to go to the city to ask for a permit to be able to speak or march or protest, non-violently. The very thought of it sounds so inhuman.
It is an experience that we know all to well in the Arab world, and especially in Jordan where such a permit requires several channels of permission, which usually denies it. And I don’t know if it’s worse or better. In the US, these people have constitutional rights and these rights were denied to them. At home, no such rights exist. In both cases, the people remain at the mercy of the state, however, only one can argue in defense of their rights. (Although I would argue that free speech is a God-given right and not state-regulated)
It’s rumored that the Chicago Seven will become a feature film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Aaron Sorkin, but until then, this one is definitely worth checking out. It is entertaining and enlightening at the same time. A slice of American history that everyone, every where, can empathize with.