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[Law On Reels] 'The Trial of The Chicago 7' : A Courtroom Drama Mirroring Present Day Realities

Manu Sebastian
25 Oct 2020 4:42 AM GMT
[Law On Reels] The Trial of The Chicago 7 : A Courtroom Drama Mirroring Present Day Realities
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The movie shows the tragedy that can happen when a Court of Justice acts like a mere Court of Power
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"We are not going to jail for what we did. We are going to jail for who we are", Abbie Hoffman.

The 'Trial of The Chicago 7' has some gruelling scenes of blatant injustices happening inside a courtroom. While a trial is progressing, an accused is dragged out of the court-room by the cops for being beaten up, and is brought back with his hands chained and mouth stuffed. This ghastly act was done at the direction of the presiding judge because he felt that the accused, who was without legal representation, disrupted the court proceedings by repeating his demand for the right to cross-examine the witnesses. The actions of the presiding judge Julius Hoffman were driven by his racial prejudice against the accused who was a Black Panther leader named Bobby Seale(played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II).

When Seale is brought back, bound and gagged(literally), the judge asks him to cooperate with his "fair and impartial" trial.

The scene, punctuated with a powerful silence, can shake you to the core. In another scene, another defendant, a sworn pacifist who feels exasperated at the repeated violations of due process, blurts out at the judge : "If we are guilty, why not give us a trial".

The judge with a stunted sense of justice keeps on handing down contempt charges at every demur from the defendants.

The proceedings mirror the tendencies of authorities and institutions to extract obedience through coercion and to assert power by suppressing rights and gagging dissenting voices.

The historical movie, written and directed by Academy award winner Aaron Sorkin, is about a sham-trial held in the US in 1968 against a group of anti-Vietnam war activists who were charged with criminal conspiracy to incite riots. The defendants - drawn from a motley group of students leaders, hippies, pacificists, and black rights activists - are projected as anti-nationals on account of their stances against the government and their speeches laced with wit and rhetoric are alleged to have incited riots.

These events hold a strong parallel to the present-day happenings in India, where there is a frighteningly increased use of laws of sedition, UAPA, preventive detention etc., against human rights activists, civil liberty defenders and those raising critical voices against the government. Two Supreme Court judges(Justices D YChandrachud and Deepak Gupta) have publicly expressed concerns about the rising tendency to criminalize dissent. In the Delhi riots cases, we saw how the courts invoked the stringent UAPA against student activists by terming the plan to organize chakka-jam to protest against CAA-NRC as an "unlawful activity.. causing disaffection against India"[1]. We are seeing how the Delhi police is linking the Delhi riots which took placein February to the anti-CAA protests which started in December last year. We saw how Dr. Kafeel Khan was detained under the National Security Act because a District Magistrate felt that his speech against CAA threatened national security. When the High Court quashed his detention, it observed that Dr. Khan's speech was actually a call for national integration. In the Bhima Koregaon FIR, we saw how the police treated the poetry of Brecht sung by Elgaar Parishad activists as a seditious call for violence.

The Chicago trial too had a similar situation, when the prosecution cited a rhetorical statement given by one of accused as an incitement to violence.

One of the defendants, Abbie Hoffman(played by Sacha Baren Coehn), responds that 'You can do anything to anything by taking it out of context'.

Abbie explains that if Abraham Lincoln had given in the summer of 1968 his 1861 speech – where he said that citizens have the revolutionary right to overthrow the government on the failure of constitutional means- he would also have been put on trial along with the rest of the defendants in the case.

Defendants Abbie Hoffman and his friend Jerry Rubin are aware that the trial is a politically motivated charade and have no expectations of a fair process. They use it as a stage to propagate their ideas and employ theatrics to mock the farcical process; something similar to what Bhagat Singh and his allies did during their trial for conspiracy against the British rule. In fact, the theatrics employed by them during the trial adds a dose of subversive humour to the otherwise tense and morose proceedings held by an unabashedly pro-establishment judge.


Bobby Seale in the movie

Contrasting approaches of lawyers

The film also offers an interesting study in contrast of the character and approaches of different lawyers involved in the case.

The Prosecutor is Richard Schultz(Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is not personally convinced about the guilt of the defendants, but still takes up the case after being handpicked by the Attorney General for the job.

When the Attorney General asks Schultz how he saw the defendants, he replies "I see them as vulgar, anti-establishment, antisocial and unpragmatic but none of these things are indictable".

He also has the awareness to understand that the Rap Brown Law, under which the defendants are charged, was created by the southern whites in the Congress to limit the free speech of Black activists. He even cautions the AG that if the case is pursued, the public will feel that the justice department is threatening free speech.

Though the movie does not expressly spell out the motivations behind him reluctantly taking up the case, we are given to understand that it is more out of a sense of obedience within the structure of institutional hierarchy than out of the lure of office.

And Schultz is not depicted as a diabolically evil minded person; rather he comes across as a mild-mannered, middle-class, family man who goes about his job with a sense of duty, following superior orders. One can see a similar character in Chaitanya Tamhane's masterpiece "Court", where the Prosecutor is an ordinary middle-class woman, who dutifully does her job without being mindful of the larger concepts of rights violation and social injustice.

When Seale is blatantly ill-treated by the judge, Schultz walks up to the judge to express his disapproval. He moves a motion to separate Seale from the other defendants and to declare his case as mistrial.


Richard Schultz in the movie

The lead defence counsel William Kunstler(Mark Rylance) is a slightly more flamboyant character when compared to Schultz. He has a sense of irreverence and contempt towards the sham trial, which he makes public on certain occasions. He is bold enough to call out the racist prejudices of the judge and steadfastly raises objections whenever the prosecution resorts to under-hand tactics to manipulate the jury(The prosecution plays dirty tricks to remove one of the jury member who was found to be reading James Baldwin). Kunstler repeatedly clashes with the prejudiced judge and earns several counts of contempt. Yet, he is careful so as not to cross the line too far, and tries to exploit the flaws and prejudices of the jury system to the advantage of his clients to the maximum extent possible. The scenes where he brings out the fallacies and contradictions in the testimonies of official witnesses through strategic cross-examination are delightful.

A remarkable feature in Kunstler's approach – which can be an inspiration for defence lawyers – is that he did not become disheartened despite facing several setbacks at the different stages of the heavily biased trial. Though he was in complete alignment with the values and beliefs of the defendants, and shared their thought that the trial was political in nature, he still maintained a degree of detachment from the ultimate cause so as not to get too overwhelmed and dejected at the different turns of the case.

A powerful scene in the movie is where the former Attorney General, Ramsey Clark(Micheal Keaton), is brought as a witness in the case to prove the defence argument that the trial was politically motivated. When the justice department was under Clark, it had found no criminal charges against the defendants to link them to the Chicago riots. Astonishingly, the justice department had even found that the police started the violence. But the case was altered and conspiracy charges against the peace activists were brought in at the behest of the new Attorney General who was using the case as a tool to settle his personal scores with Clerk.

The prosecution stiffly opposes the deposition of the former Attorney General and the judge (unsurprisingly) sustains their objections.

The judge says that Clerk cannot depose as he was bound by the attorney-client privilege.

The reply given by Clerk to the judge's query is powerful and educative:

"The President of the United States is not the client of the Attorney General".


Masterful writing

The writing of the film is masterful and some dialogues convey deep thoughts and subtle political points.

When the black activist Booby Seale is brought to the court-room physically bound and gagged, defence lawyer Kunstler walks up to him and asks "Can you breathe?" - quite a powerful statement alluding to iconic slogan "I can't breathe"(the last words uttered by George Floyd) of the 'Black Lives Matter' movement.

Some of the exchanges between Abbie Hoffman and the prosecutor during the trial are quite meaningful.

Prosecutor : Do you have contempt for your government?

Abbie : I think the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things that right now are populated by some terrible people.

Prosecutor : Please answer the question. Do You have contempt for you government?.

Abbie : Its nothing compared to the contempt my government has for me.

When asked why he thinks he is on trial , Abbie replies :

"We carried certain ideas across the state lines. Not machine guns or drugs or little girl. Ideas. And for that we were gassed, beaten, arrested and put on trial"


Abbie Hoffman in the movie

The movie demonstrates how power and justice are often at loggerheads. Power is often gained through lies and deception and consolidated by trampling upon the rights of others. Power often acts out of vested interests, malice and ego. It demands unquestioned conformity and detests critical thinking. Therefore, the agents of power feel challenged and disturbed by those speaking for truth, equality and common good. That is why authoritarian regimes reserve the most brutal force to be used against thinkers, writers and intellectuals.

"The Trial of Chicago 7" shows the tragedy that can happen when a Court of Justice acts like a mere Court of Power. And this tragedy is now repeating as a farce in several courtrooms now.



(This is the twentieth article in the "Law On Reels" series, which explores legal themes in movies)

[1] The bail orders in the cases of Safoora Zargar, Umar Khalid, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal etc. More reading : https://www.livelaw.in/columns/safoora-zargar-bail-order-when-muddled-reasoning-defeats-personal-liberty-157841

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