The Trial of the Chicago 7 taught me a million and one things about the world, but there are three distinct lessons which this film seems to have drilled into my skull with just a bit more vigor than the rest: first, that revolutions are easily stopped yet rarely shattered; second, that the courts are anything except an independent branch of government; and, third, that Judge Julius Jennings Hoffman was one of the most crooked individuals to ever determine the fate of another human being.
Before I carry on, let the record reflect that Judge Hoffman bears no relation to the defendant Abbot “Abbie” Hoffman, whose family name used to be Shaboznikov. Not that it’s necessary, though. After all, unlike, I don’t know, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, the two are nigh impossible to mix up: one is an old, vindictive, self-aggrandizing cog of the very establishment that eventually scheme its way into Watergate; the other a young, forgiving, self-deprecating free spirit whose shocking and at times impractical honesty helped him get out of one of the toughest battles in legal history.
Together with his friend and fellow Youth International Party founder, Jerry Rubin (played by Jeremy Strong in the movie), Hoffman brought a much-needed sense of light-heartedness to the damp, dreary courtroom. As difficult as it may be to believe, the comic relief that has been scattered throughout The Trial of the Chicago 7 is almost entirely authentic: yeah, Hoffman really did make fun of the fact that he and the judge had the same last name, and yeah, he and Rubin really did show up to the hearing one day dressed in judicial robes.
But that’s not all as the Yippie duo actually pulled off so many stunts that Sorkin had to choose which one of them to include in his script, with some of the wackier ones never making the cut. For instance, when a Chicago police officer was called upon to testify against the defendants, Hoffman got up and did a handstand. The disturbance angered the Judge, but also lured the media’s attention away from the cop’s testimony. At another point during the trial, he and Rubin brought in a Viet Cong flag to commemorate the dead. Needless to say, the Judge ordered his marshals to confiscate this flag. Needless to say, the Yippies wouldn’t give it up without playing tug-of-war.
Though it may seem as if Hoffman was a highly impulsive person, there was a method to the madness. As co-defendant John Froines put it in an interview, his actions weren’t simply spontaneous; they were “strategic.” The same was true for the Youth International Party in general, which was known to use theatricality as a means to influence mass media, confuse their opponents, and attract new followers. “The more visual and surreal the stunts we could cook up,” Jerry Rubin once said, “the easier it would be to get on the news, and the more weird and whimsical and provocative the theater, the better it would play.”
And yet these stunts were more than mere publicity campaigns—they were also a weapon, and a powerful one at that, especially in the hands of pacifists, and while that Rubin quote doesn’t exactly make this clear, the movie does. See, throughout the trial, Bill Kunstler, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden and even Bobby Seale try to get through to the Judge while using legal vocabulary—and each of them fails miserably. But when Hoffman is asked which state he comes from, he answers: “the state of mind of my brothers and sisters.” Only the Yippies dare to address the court in a language other than its own, and by turning the literal into the metaphorical they succeed at doing what nobody else can: gag the law itself.
Here’s another, though probably less surprising detail that the movie got right: Hoffman and Rubin both loved doing drugs. As shown in the film, the two friends rarely entered the courtroom first lighting up first, and outside of the building they are almost always seen with a joint in hand. For to Rubin, being high only further intensified an already intense ordeal, while Michael Kennedy, one of the lawyers who represented Rennie Davis during the trial, once told High Times that he and Hoffman did acid from a honey jar before they planned their defense.
While many Yippies readily identified as stoners, the word meant something different to them than it does to us. As of 2020, medicinal marijuana is legal in 33 states and recreational in 9, plus the District of Columbia. Back when these guys were doing it, however, the War on Drugs was just beginning. In an article informing the world of his arrest at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Rubin explained that “smoking pot is a political act, and every smoker is an outlaw.” Thanks to the various youth movements that popped up during the Vietnam War, marijuana’s public image changed drastically. Whereas the drug was once believed to make someone lose their sense of motivation, word now had it that as much as one little toke could turn your God-fearing, suburban daddy’s boy into a wild-haired, anti-authoritarian activist.
Beyond ‘The Trial of The Chicago 7’
After their time in Chicago came to an end, Hoffman and Rubin spent the eighties fighting the rise of the yuppies, young urban professionals who wanted to work their way up the social hierarchy rather than dismantle it. That same decade, Hoffman would take his own life. Those who knew him have blamed anything from the cancer diagnosis of his elderly mother to the spiraling state of the world and his increasingly difficult battle with bipolar disorder. Rubin, ironically enough, would leave his old life behind and start anew as a Wall Street stock broker, working in the same halls his former self had once been barred from by security. He also became the owner of a nightclub which in turn would become my freshman year dining hall, so there’s that.
Despite the tragic ends that these two dudes would meet, their legacy continues to inspire peace lovers and weed fanatics alike. Although the type of social and political activism which they represented may have largely withered away with the turn of the century, the problems that plague America have not. In this sense, The Trial of the Chicago 7 hammers home a fourth and final lesson: that past and present are like a maelstrom and a ship, or a rocket and a black hole, or a group of protestors and a squad of nightstick-holding, teargas-throwing cops: they are destined to collide.