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Elders of Protest

Four of the Chicago 8 recall the tumult of the '68 Democratic convention and their conspiracy trial, which is revisited in a film about Abbie Hoffman.

August 17, 2000|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eighty-five-year-old David Dellinger is apologizing because age-related health concerns prevented his being in Los Angeles this week to participate in organized protests during the Democratic National Convention.

The 10-day trip he and his wife made to Okinawa City last month to join tens of thousands of peaceful protesters against American military presence on Okinawa island left the couple feeling somewhat exhausted.

Still, in a recent telephone conversation from his Vermont home, Dellinger showed the same youthful spirit of rebellion that fueled him 32 years ago--as a member of the Chicago 8.

The high-profile trial of eight antiwar activists, charged with conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, took contempt of court to new heights. This free-for-all of outrageous theatrics and flying expletives remains a symbol of a generation's battle for freedom of political expression.

The group included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, both antiwar activists and founders of the yippie movement; Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis, co-founders of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society; Dellinger, an evangelical Christian socialist and editor of Liberation magazine; young community organizers Lee Weiner and John Froines; and Black Panther Chairman Bobby Seale.

Now, 1969's Chicago 8 trial is being revisited in a docudrama about Hoffman's life, "Steal This Movie!" (its title is a takeoff on Hoffman's manual for radicals, "Steal This Book"), directed by Robert Greenwald, a longtime friend of Hoffman's.

In the last few months, the movie, presented by Lions Gate Films, has been shown in a series of benefit screenings across the country, and opens in limited release Friday.

"They call the O.J. Simpson murder trial the 'trial of the century,' but this was the true trial of the century," says Seale, 60, who was bound and gagged in the courtroom for his defiant outbursts. "That daily six or seven weeks of being in the courtroom--I remember getting a report one time that they had put up 10,000 posters all over Paris, all over Europe: 'Free Bobby Seale.' This was about social change, and dealt with the seriousness of many more people's lives."

Froines and Weiner were acquitted, but guilty verdicts were returned for Hoffman, Rubin, Hayden, Dellinger and Davis, all of whose convictions and five-year sentences were overturned on appeal.

Seale's case was later severed from the others and he was never tried, leading the press to dub the group the Chicago 7. But, says Hoffman's longtime attorney Jerry Lefcourt, "to those of us involved, it was always the '8'--because Bobby was one of us."

The Chicago 8 are now the Chicago 6. Hoffman, diagnosed with a bipolar disorder later in life, died in 1989 at age 54 in what was ruled a suicide. Rubin, who shocked the counterculture by reinventing himself as a stockbroker and businessman in the mid-1970s, died in Los Angeles in 1994 after a car struck him during a moment of minor rebellion: jaywalking.

The two acquitted members of the group could not be reached for comment. Froines, currently in Europe, has been active in defending the environment as a professor of toxicology at UCLA's Center for Public Health, where he was involved in a recent six-year study of the effects of diesel exhaust.

Looking Back at 'Conspiracy'

The others are reachable--and still have plenty to say. Looking back, the other four living members say that while the Chicago 8 were linked under the umbrella of the New Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (nicknamed "the Mobe"), this group charged with "conspiracy" could not have been more different from one another.

Dellinger was introduced to Hoffman by poet Allen Ginsburg. A longtime pacifist, Dellinger takes modest credit for keeping Hoffman from responding in kind to the now-legendary violence of the Chicago police toward the demonstrators during the convention.

"During the convention, or maybe just before it, there was a demonstration, and Rennie [Davis] and I were to be the speakers," Dellinger says. "And Abbie came running up to me and he said: 'You know, they're beating the [expletive] out of us, and we've got to resist by fighting back.'

"I said to Rennie, who was at the microphone: 'You go on talking as long as you can because I need to talk to Abbie.' I took him around the back of the building, so we wouldn't be seen.

"Our conversation lasted maybe 15 or 20 minutes--I argued that if we beat up the cops, they would have reasons to beat us up, and that would just hurt our cause." Hoffman agreed, and when it came his turn to speak, preached nonviolence.

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