Thursday, September 4, 2008

Redress of Grievances

Why we were falsely arrested

The Democratic and Republican national conventions have become very expensive and protracted acts of political theater, essentially four-day-long advertisements for the major presidential candidates. Outside the fences, they have become major gatherings for grass-roots movements -- for people to come, amidst the banners, bunting, flags and confetti, to express the rights enumerated in the Constitution's First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Behind all the patriotic hyperbole that accompanies the conventions, and the thousands of journalists and media workers who arrive to cover the staged events, there are serious violations of the basic right of freedom of the press. Here on the streets of St. Paul, the press is free to report on the official proceedings of the RNC, but not to report on the police violence and mass arrests directed at those who have come to petition their government, to protest.

It was Labor Day, and there was an anti-war march, with a huge turnout, with local families, students, veterans and people from around the country gathered to oppose the war. The protesters greatly outnumbered the Republican delegates.

There was a positive, festive feeling, coupled with a growing anxiety about the course that Hurricane Gustav was taking, and whether New Orleans would be devastated anew. Later in the day, there was a splinter march. The police -- clad in full body armor, with helmets, face shields, batons and canisters of pepper spray -- charged. They forced marchers, onlookers and working journalists into a nearby parking lot, then surrounded the people and began handcuffing them.


Sound familiar? How about this one?


A funny thing happened to some folks on their way to making public their disenfranchisement from the then current political establishment in the year 1968.

The police infiltrated their groups (thereby abridging the free exercise of the right to assemble) to gather information. Police actions came to a head when they descended upon unarmed and non-violent demonstrators in riot gear. Once the police's actions triggered an out of control riot situation, many people were arrested including 8 individuals who were tried under federal conspiracy and riot laws: Rennie Davis, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, John Froines, Lee Weiner, and Jerry Rubin. Many of these people were leaders of the following political movements: the National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), the Youth International Party (YIPPIES), the Black Panther Party, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Amongst the celebrities in attendance were: Phil Ochs, William S. Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie, "Country Joe" McDonald, Pete Seeger, and Judy Collins; many of these would later be called as witnesses for the defense during the ensuing trial.

Interesting trial bits:

1) Black Panther defendant Bobby Seale continuously, and in increasingly angry tones, insisted upon his right either to represent himself or to have the trial continued until his own counsel of choice, Charles Garry (who was hospitalized for gall bladder surgery at the time), could represent him. Seale made frequent and bitter attacks on Judge Hoffman, calling him a "fascist dog," a "pig," and a "racist"; but eventually the judge ordered Seale shackled, bound, and gagged. Seale was made to participate in the trial without counsel of choice and completely unable to defend himself. On November 5, the judge severed Seale from the case and sentenced him to four years in prison for contempt.

2) Defense witness Norman Mailer made the point that, "Left-wingers are incapable of conspiracy because they're all egomaniacs." Abbie Hoffman made a similar point, stating, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch."

3) During jury deliberations, judge Hoffman sentenced each of the defendants and the two defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, to lengthy prison terms on 159 specifications for criminal contempt. One specification for Kunstler concerned an incident on February 3 when he said "I am going to turn back to my seat with the realization that everything I have learned throughout my life has come to naught, that there is no meaning in this court, there is no law in this court." The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed all contempt convictions, ruling that contempt convictions resulting in more than six months in prison require jury trials.

4) Prior to his sentencing, Tom Hayden offered the following statement: "we would hardly have been notorious characters if they left us alone on the streets of Chicago," but instead "we became the architects, the masterminds, and the geniuses of a conspiracy to overthrow the government-- we were invented." [Editorial note: many people believe the U.S. justice system is about as effective against crime as would be throwing virgins into active volcanoes to appease the gods -- we have a culture of justice-sacrifice where defendants are often chosen merely to quell public fears about disorder. The actions of the police against Rolando Cruz comes to mind here.]

5) Judge Hoffman sentenced each defendant to five years' imprisonment plus a $5,000 fine.

6) Random juror comments after the trial: a) the defendants "should be convicted for their appearance, their language and their lifestyle.", b)
"These defendants wouldn't even stand up when the judge walked in; when there is no more respect we might as well give up the United States." c) they "should have been shot down by the police." [Obvious Editorial note: not exactly a jury of the defendants' peers, eh?]

7) The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed all convictions on November 21, 1972. Amongst the determinations made by the court of appeals was that the F.B.I, with the knowledge and complicity of Judge Hoffman and prosecutors, had bugged the offices of the Chicago defense attorneys. The Court of Appeals panel said that it had "little doubt but that the wrongdoing of F.B.I. agents would have required reversal of the convictions on the substantive charges. [Editorial note: does anyone else see the complete breakdown of the system here? Isn't this the Judicial branch of govt. acting in concert with the Executive branch to commit crime? How often has this happened that we didn't hear of it?]

8) Later Abbie Hoffman was said to have opined, "I don't know whether I'm innocent or I'm guilty." The reason for the confusion--as Norman Mailer pointed out--was that the alleged conspirators "understood that you didn't have to attack the fortress anymore." All they had to do was "surround it, make faces at the people inside and let them have nervous breakdowns and destroy themselves." [Note: A similar point is made by William S. Burroughs in his essay "Electronic Revolution."]

Excerpts of the trial can be found here:

Many years ago there was an excellent HBO movie called "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8", the great thing about the film is that in addition to having a truly inspired cast there is documentary footage of the events in question and interviews with the actual defendants -- just goes to show how great a film of substance can be despite having an obviously low budget.

You can get a free etext copy of Abbie Hoffman's "Steal This Book" on the internet. Apparently, much of this book was written while Hoffman was in Cook County jail. And if you try you can also find a full download of the recent film about the Chicago incident entitled "Chicago 10."

Abbie would prefer that you illegally download these items, I'm sure.