Fact-checking Sorkin

Everything Aaron Sorkin Got Wrong in The Trial of the Chicago 7

Compiled by Dean Blobaum and published by Chicago68.com


Hollywood is not the place for historical accuracy. But the real history is important. If you have seen Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, and want to know more about the trial and what happened in Chicago in August 1968, separating fact and fiction is the first step. Below is an attempt to create as definitive a list as possible, of at least the substantial and misleading alterations of history that Sorkin made in the film. In general, a number of Sorkin’s alterations seem intended to show that the defendants were in fact guilty of the charges. All references are to the scene numbers in the published screenplay. However, the film dialogue does not exactly match the screenplay, so all direct quotations of the characters are from the film dialogue.

Corrections, questions, comments? Contact the writer.

Scene 1: File footage of President Lyndon Johnson announcing an increase in both the number of soldiers in Vietnam and the monthly draft quota.

One might expect a movie set in the years 1968 to 1970 to begin in those years. No, the file footage is from a speech on July 28, 1965.

Scene 2: File footage shows the annual draft lottery, with the date of June 3rd being drawn in the lottery.

Four and a half years have passed since Scene 1. The first draft lottery was on December 1, 1969, and chose the draft order for birthdates in 1970. Prior to that, draftees were selected by local draft boards. There was no draft lottery in 1968 or before the trial began in September 1969.

Scene 10: Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis are speaking to a college audience and are identified with a chyron as “Leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).”

Tom and Rennie were leaders—among the founders—of SDS, but they were not in SDS leadership roles in 1968. Their role in the Democratic National Convention protests in August 1968 was as organizers hired by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (Mobe). Their job was to devise a strategy, plan the protests, obtain permits and facilities, and bring people to Chicago. They worked closely with David Dellinger, other members of the Mobe committee, and other Mobe staff and volunteers.

The SDS national organization debated at length about endorsing and participating in the Chicago 1968 protests, but decided against it; however members of SDS individually came to Chicago for the action.

Scene 12: David Dellinger is introduced loading supplies into an old station wagon parked in a suburban driveway, with a young son and wife fearful for his safety during the Chicago protests. In the screenplay, he is identified as a Boy Scout troop leader (as he himself says later in the film, Scene 158).

As with everything in his life, Dave was very intentional about where he lived. In 1968, he lived in a pacifist commune on a farm in rural New Jersey, and, at other times in his life lived in Newark, Harlem, and Brooklyn; he wasn’t the suburban type. Sorkin is correct in showing that his family was concerned about his safety in Chicago, and that included his 22-year-old son Ray, who was at his side during the Chicago protests, and by Dave’s account saved him from being clubbed by the police twice. Dave as a scout leader? Uh, no. The uniform, the patriotism, the sexism, the homophobia were all alien to who he was.

Scene 13: Bobby Seale is introduced as he is getting ready to leave for Chicago on August 27, 1968; he talks with a woman identified in the script as his girlfriend, Sondra.

Bobby was married in 1968; he and his wife, Artie, had a young son, Malik. In the film, Seale says that Fred Hampton wants him to give a speech in Chicago. No, actually, Stew Albert, a Yippie and an unindicted co-conspirator with the Chicago 8, asked the Black Panther Party Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, to speak in Chicago in 1968. Cleaver could not go, so Seale went in his stead. Fred Hampton did not formally join the Illinois (not Chicago) Chapter of the Black Panther Party until November 1968. Seale’s “girlfriend” refers to “trouble in Connecticut” but in August 1968, Seale was not under indictment in Connecticut. Only later was he accused of ordering the May 1969 murder of a police agent, Alex Rackley.

Scene 15: Jerry Rubin demonstrates how to construct a gasoline bomb, a Molotov cocktail.

It’s hard not to laugh at this scene of Rubin addressing a classroom of students in how to build an incendiary device—students dutifully sitting at their desks, with the instructor’s name “Mr. Jerry Rubin” written on the blackboard. Had Rubin done this, he would be guilty of a felony. There was no testimony presented in the trial that Rubin had done anything like what is portrayed in this unintentionally comic scene.

Scene 26: File footage of the Daley shoot to kill order: Not long after the Bobby Seale character says his words need to be understood in context, and the Rubin character is shown demonstrating how to build a Molotov cocktail, Sorkin inserts a clip of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley stating that Chicago police are to shoot to kill anyone with a Molotov cocktail in their hand.

The viewer will assume Daley’s order is in direct reference to the anticipated protestors, but actually—notable lack of context—the clip is from April 15, 1968 and Daley is addressing the Chicago riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. He said that he instructed the superintendent of police to issue “an order to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand because they’re potential murderers, and to issue a police order to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting any stores in our city.” There is little doubt that Daley had the coming convention in mind when he said this, but the clear warning in his order was directed at Chicago’s African American communities, not the young white people who would come to Chicago. The Mayor’s greatest fear was a rebellion in those neighborhoods during the August convention.

Scene 37: Federal prosecutors Thomas Foran and Richard Schultz fly to Washington, DC, and meet with newly confirmed Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell tells them he wants them to seek indictments against eight individuals for inciting violence during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Schultz is skeptical that the actions of the eight are indictable.

Yes, Foran and Schultz went to DC and talked with Mitchell about the case for the better part of a day. In a recent interview, Schultz spoke about the meeting and said that he and Foran came to Mitchell with a draft indictment and they made “a very aggressive presentation” of the case. “Mitchell approved the indictment,” Schultz said, “and I have always thought he approved it just to get us the hell out of his office.”

As early as September 7, 1968, Mayor Daley said in a phone call to President Johnson, “I think we got the dope on them once and for all on conspiracy to riot” and they just needed approval from LBJ’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark. Clark was opposed. On September 9, a grand jury was convened in Chicago, directed by Foran and Schultz, to investigate the August 1968 disturbances.

Scene A40: Hoffman and Rubin enter the courthouse for the first day of the trial.

Jerry did not enter the courthouse (the Dirksen Federal Building) with Abbie. Jerry was in Cook County Jail when the trial began, serving the remainder of a sentence for obstructing a troop train in California. He came to the courtroom via the Federal lockup one floor above the courtroom along with Bobby Seale. Also, he wore a wig, because his hair had been buzzed off in jail.

Scene 41: In the first view of the courtroom, we see Dellinger talking with his wife and the young son that we saw in Scene 12.

In the real trial, Dave’s daughters, 22-year-old Natasha and 13-year-old Michelle, were in the courtroom. This is one of several cases where Sorkin swaps in a male actor for what was actually a female figure.

Women had essential roles in plannng and carrying out antiwar protests throughout the period, including the Chicago ’68 protests. Three women were among the unindicted co-conspirators of the Chicago 8.

Scene 41: The bailiff calls the court to order, referring to it as “the United States District Court of Northern Illinois, Southern District, Eastern Division.”

A small thing, but can’t they even get this right? The court is the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

Scene 41: Bobby Seale says, “There are eight of us and there are signs out there that say ‘Free the Chicago 7.’

The defendants were known as the Chicago 8 until Seale’s case was severed, or alternatively as the Conspiracy 8.

Scene 41: The judge says, “Charge Mr. Seale with one count of contempt of court.”

Judge Julius Hoffman did not make citations of contempt in open court. At most, he would note that something was contumacious or contemptuous. Or he would say that something would be dealt with at the appropriate time, or appear to jot a note.

William Kunstler, an attorney for the defense, said in court on January 28, 1970, “Your Honor has never used the word ‘contempt’. I agree with that. Your Honor has let filter though the air the unspoken threat that this will be the fate of the lawyers in this case.” The eight defendants and their two lawyers were charged with a total of 175 contempts, but the citations were only revealed at the end of the trial, or, for Bobby Seale, after the declaration of a mistrial in his case. The appellate court said that the judge should have made his contempt citations and imposed sentences immediately after the contemptuous conduct.

Scene 50: David Stahl asks how many people Hoffman and Rubin expect to come to their August ’68 Festival of Life and Rubin says 10,000.

The Yippies always spoke in terms of bringing 100,000 or more to Chicago. Rennie Davis sometimes spoke of bringing 500,000. Ten or fifteen thousand was the maximum that showed up for any one event during the week of the convention and the low number was a disappointment to all the organizers.

Scene 60: Hayden and Davis meet with Stahl, who tells them that demonstrations will not be permitted near the Conrad Hilton Hotel. Hayden replies: “We need to demonstrate near the Hilton. That’s where the convention is.”

The Hilton is on Michigan Avenue and across the street from the Hilton is Grant Park, where protestors gathered many times during the week of the convention. But the convention was not at the Hilton; the convention was held in the International Amphitheatre at 42nd and Halstead, five miles away from Grant Park and the Hilton. No marches or protestors got anywhere near the convention hall.

Scene 61: Fred Hampton is sitting behind Bobby Seale and talking to him, and the Judge identifies him for the record as “head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party.”

Hampton was in the courtroom, probably on more than one occasion, but he was not whispering advice to Seale or handing him talking points on a legal pad; the US marshals in the courtroom prevented Hampton from speaking with Seale. Nor was Hampton able to visit Seale in Cook County Jail; Hoffman refused to sign authorization for such a visit. Hoffman did not identify Hampton in the courtroom.

Seale was getting legal advice relayed from his attorney, Charles Garry; that advice was coming to him via an African American law student who worked on the case, Mickey Leanor. She sat behind Seale in the spectator section exactly as Sorkin portrays Hampton doing; this is another instance of Sorkin swapping a male film character for the female individual who was really there.

Scene 61: Sorkin has Seale attempt to cross-examine David Stahl.

Stahl’s testimony did not implicate or mention him; Seale only rose to cross-examine a witness when he was implicated by their testimony.

Scene 63: The Conspiracy office is described as a three-bedroom apartment that looks like a college dorm.

The Conspiracy office (The Committee to Defend the Conspiracy) was in an office building at 28 E. Jackson in the Chicago Loop, two blocks from the Federal court. However, the defendants and their lawyers frequently met in the evenings at the apartment Leonard Weinglass rented in the Hyde Park neighborhood.

Scene 64: Kunstler says that he doesn’t want the defendants talking to the press.

In reality, Judge Hoffman forbade the lawyers from talking to the press during the trial; Kunstler would have had no problem with the defendants talking to the press.

Scene 64: Kunstler and Weinglass believe that jurors 6 and 11 are on their side, saying that juror 6 was carrying a James Baldwin novel.

Juror 6, who dropped off the jury, was Kristi King. But the juror who read James Baldwin on her train ride into the Loop from her home in Des Plaines was Jean Fritz. During jury deliberations, Mrs. Fritz held out for days for a finding of not guilty on all the charges and after the trial revealed the judge’s refusal to accept a hung jury, which formed part of the appeal of the case.

Scene 67: Judge Hoffman says that the two jurors who received threatening notes, supposedly from the Black Panther Party, are jurors 6 and 11, who the defense see as sympathetic to them.

The existence of the notes was disclosed on September 30, 1969. Two jurors received notes; one was Kristi King, the youngest juror, and she left the jury. The other was Ruth Peterson, who the defense judged as hostile to them, and who was the last holdout for conviction on all counts; Mrs. Peterson said that she could remain impartial after reading the note, so was retained on the jury.

Scene 69: Referring to the notes and the dismissal of jurors, Rubin says, “We’re going to make this public.”

Been there, done that. Six of the defendants (not including Rubin and Seale, who were still behind bars), even prior to the notes being revealed to the two jurors, held a press conference and revealed the existence of the notes.

Scene 69: The defendants are unhappy with the first alternate, who will now deliberate with the jury, and Kunstler says, “We were out of our peremptory challenges.

In fact, the defense did not exhaust its challenges, but agreed to accept the jury as it stood, because they believed they had one or more jurors who would resist conviction.

Scene 69: Kunstler is handed a note informing him that the jury will be sequestered.

Judge Hoffman’s first act, immediately after the notes came to light, was to announce to the jury in open court that they would be sequestered.

Scene 70: Rubin and Hoffman are wearing judicial robes and take them off to reveal Chicago police uniforms underneath.

This happened, but four months later in the trial, a couple of days before closing arguments. Only Hoffman was wearing a police uniform; Rubin later said, “Abbie always took a joke a step further.”

Scene 73: The screenplay says the scene is set in Grant Park.

The events in this scene occurred in Lincoln Park, located more than two miles from Grant Park. The Yippies’ Festival of Life was staged in Lincoln Park, where the recurrent conflict was over the 11pm curfew. The Mobe’s antiwar rally and the attempts to march to the Amphitheatre were in Grant Park. Sorkin collapses the locations and so tends to elide the very distinct aims and tactics of the groups; just as prosecutor Richard Schultz says in his opening statement in the film, “They’re the radical left in different costumes.”

Scene 73: The band in the park is playing a version of the R&B hit “Just One Look” slowed down to a gentle, blissed-out tempo.

The band that played at the real Festival of Life was the proto-punk MC5 who sang “Kick Out the Jams, Motherfuckers!” A totally different vibe, to say the least.

Scene 73: In the park, women are shown dropping bras into a flaming trash can.

Not long after the convention protests, on September 7, 1968, the earliest public protest of the women’s liberation movement took place outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Organizers labeled a “Freedom Trashcan” and all manner of things representing the oppression of women—including bras and girdles—were tossed in. But not burned. There was no public feminist protest in Chicago in August 1968.

Scene 73: Rennie reveals to Tom that his girlfriend, Sara Beth, doesn’t approve of his radical activities and that her parents, whom they are staying with, don’t know about his other life.

Rennie’s name was in Chicago (and national) newspapers numerous times before the convention demonstrations started, so Sara Beth’s parents must not have been paying attention. Throughout the spring and summer of 1968, when Rennie was organizing for the Mobe, he lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago with his girlfriend. During the trial, his girlfriend Susan Gregory worked in the Conspiracy office.

Scene 75: Hayden attempts to flatten the tire of a police vehicle.

Hayden was joined in this act by Wolfe Lowenthal, an unindicted co-conspirator. Like just about everything that happened in August 1968, the cast of characters and the relevant “leaders” of the events was far wider than the eight men who were indicted. There were eighteen unindicted co-conspirators—presumably the prosecutors had evidence of illegal acts by these eighteen, but either lacked the evidence needed for a federal charge (for example, crossing state lines) or other considerations deterred indictment.

Scene 93: FBI agent Daphne O’Conner strikes up a relationship with Jerry Rubin.

The actual undercover officer attached to Rubin was not so comely. Robert L. Pierson was a Chicago police officer who served as Rubin’s bodyguard for most of the week of the convention, under the guise of a motorcycle gang member. Pierson was a prosecution witness at the trial (October 8, 1969). Jerry and his wife, Nancy Kurshan, were constant companions throughout August 1968 and the trial. Kurshan also worked in the Conspiracy office.

Sorkin maligns most of the defendants, but perhaps none more than Jerry Rubin, who was a brilliant and creative organizer and, until the conspiracy trial, was better known than Abbie Hoffman. Prior to 1968, Rubin formed the Vietnam Day Committee (1965), ran for mayor of Berkeley, California, on a platform opposing the Vietnam War (1967), and was the primary organizer of the 1967 March on Washington.

And, by the way, a female FBI agent in 1968? No, there were none. Only after the death of J. Edgar Hoover were women allowed to be agents in the modern FBI; the first joined in 1972.

Scene 94: Lee Weiner wonders if the August ’68 demonstrations were comprised of 7 protesters and 10,000 undercover cops.

Nice line and 7 in 10,000 is just a little high; the best estimate is one in six demonstrators was an undercover agent (according to Christopher Pyle, who served in Army intelligence at the time and later worked as an investigator for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights when it was chaired by Senator Sam Ervin).

Scene 105: Eight hundred people march to the police station at 11th and State to free Tom Hayden.

Sorkin places Davis, Dellinger, Hoffman, and Rubin in this march. Davis organized and led this march and Rubin was there; Dellinger and Hoffman were not.

Scene 119: Someone shouts, “Take the hill!” and the 800 protestors rush at a thick line of about 200 police that are in formation in front of the General John Logan statue. Mayhem ensues.

The whole sequence of the Free Hayden march and the turn of the march to Grant Park is not too far from reality, except for a critical difference: there was no police line in front of the statue, or even near the statue, when the protestors rushed up the hill. Protestors swarmed the unoccupied hill and the statue, and later a police line formed north of the statue and swept everyone off the hill. Plenty of mayhem, but a different sequence of causation. David Edmundson, a defense witness at the trial, was the last to be pulled off the statue and his arm was broken in the process.

This is one of Sorkin’s most consequential alterations of the history; by placing a police line where there was none, he creates a scenario consistent with the claim of Daphne O’Conner, “the demonstrators attacked the police and the police responded.” Guilty as charged. Read “Aaron Sorkin in Love with the Prosecution’s Case”.

Scene 123: In the aftermath of the Logan statue mess, Abbie says, “We have to protest in front of the convention, Tommy, plain and simple.”

Abbie and the Yippies had little interest in a march to the convention site. They saw their Festival of Life in Lincoln Park as an alternative to the Convention of Death. They wanted to ignore the convention and live the counterculture future in Lincoln Park; they wanted to draw attention away from the convention; they wanted to steal the spotlight. Dellinger was the stalwart advocate of marching to the International Amphitheatre; he believed the Mobe had a chance of getting a permit for the march at the last minute.

Scene 124: Fred Hampton stands up in court and says, “Four hours, That’s how long Bobby Seale was in Chicago. Four hours.”

Seale wasn’t in Chicago long, but it was longer than that. He gave one speech Tuesday night in Lincoln Park (August 27, 1968) and another speech in Grant Park before noon on Wednesday. Seale was in Chicago about twenty-four hours.

Scene 151: Seale says to Hayden, “Your life, it’s fuck you to your father, right?”

That the rebellion of young men springs from Oedipal conflict was familiar armchair psychologizing in the 1960s. Though never in the literature of the Black Panther Party, so far as I’ve discovered. The cliché had already been stood on its head in the Port Huron Statement—the founding manifesto of SDS primarily authored by Hayden—which urged the rebellious to “see the political, social, and economic sources of their private troubles.” Or, as feminists would formulate it a few years later, “the personal is political.”

Scene 151: Kunstler says to Seale, “Fred Hampton was shot and killed last night. There was a police raid and there was a shootout and he’s dead.”

Sorkin shifts the sequence of events; Hampton was killed a month after Seale was separated from the trial. Hampton was murdered in the early morning of December 4, 1969. Bobby Seale was bound and gagged for several days beginning on October 29 and the judge declared a mistrial for his case on November 5.

Scene 151: Seale says of Hampton: “He was shot in the shoulder first. You can’t aim a gun if you’ve been shot in the shoulder. You can’t squeeze the trigger. The second shot was in his head.”

This description would be consistent with a scenario in which Hampton and police were exchanging gunfire, or Hampton was preparing to fire at the police; in either case the police would be acting in self-defense. Nothing of the kind happened. The police had a map of the apartment where Hampton was sleeping, provided by an FBI informant within the Panther organization. Dozens of rounds were fired into Hampton’s bedroom before the police ventured beyond the front and rear entrances to the apartment. Hampton was still alive but had multiple wounds. At that point, he was shot twice in the head. He may have never woken up, as there is some evidence the same informant had drugged him.

This is another of Sorkin’s most consequential alterations of the history. Kunstler says there was a shootout and Seale implies that Hampton was involved in that shootout, so Hampton is legally responsible for his own death. Read “Aaron Sorkin in Love with the Prosecution’s Case”.

Scene 156: Seale is bound and gagged and the prosecution moves for a mistrial.

A week elapsed between the first time Seale was bound and gagged and when the judge declared a mistrial for Seale. At least three of those days he was bound, gagged, and chained to his chair. Through the gag, Seale continued to advocate for the right to defend himself in court and question his accusers. Hoffman’s treatment of Seale drew condemnation literally from around the world. After a week, Hoffman announced a mistrial in the case of Seale; the prosecutors did not move for a mistrial in court.

Scene 158: Abbie says, “Lee, John, have you guys asked yourselves what you’re doing here?… You’re a give-back.

Why were Lee Weiner and John Froines indicted? Because on August 29, 1968 they allegedly engaged in a conversation, in the presence of an undercover informant, about making Molotov cocktails and using them to destroy a parking garage. For some reason, Sorkin turns Rubin into the bomb instructor; the US Attorney believed there was evidence to convict Froines and Weiner of the charge.

Scene 158: Davis says it would be ironic if John Mitchell went after the Chicago 8/7 defendants “just to get back at Ramsey Clark.”

This sentence of dialogue captures the political imagination of Sorkin: reducing an ideological difference to a personal dispute stemming from a psychological wound. In reality, there was nothing personal or trivial about the differences on issues of law between the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The core (practically sole) issue of the 1968 Nixon campaign was law and order. In the Nixon administration, the Justice Department became much more conservative (some would say repressive). Nixon and Mitchell brought an end to the liberal era in the administration of federal laws and at the Supreme Court.

Scene 162: Ramsey Clark’s appearance in the courtroom.

Clark appeared in court on January 28, 1970 and gave testimony out of the presence of the jury. Judge Hoffman ruled the testimony inadmissible. Very little of the dialogue in the film at this point reflects the court transcript. Kusnstler attempted to question Clark about conversations with President Johnson, but the prosecution argued that would be a breach of national security. The prosecution argued that what Clark had to say would either be irrelvant to the case or, if relevant, would merely repeat testimony of previous witnesses; the judge agreed.

Scene 162: David Dellinger calls the judge “a thug” and then has an altercation with the marshals and punches one of them in the face; in response, the judge revokes his bail.

Dellinger didn’t take a swing at anyone in the courtroom—or out of it. He was a practitioner and a teacher of nonviolence. Perhaps Sorkin is using this scene to comment on the turn away from disciplined nonviolence by protestors of the era, but to use Dellinger to make that point is to malign one of the most stalwart practitioners of nonviolence in US history.

Dellinger’s bail was revoked late in the trial (February 4, 1970) but the circumstances were very different. When a police officer testified about Dellinger’s actions after the attempt to march to the Amphitheatre disintegrated, Dellinger said, “Oh, bullshit. That is an absolute lie.” For that, the judge revoked his bail.

In the film, Sorkin has a response shot of Dellinger’s young son looking wounded and sad after his father punches the marshal. What were his actual children like? As noted above, Dave’s daughters, Natasha and Michelle, were in the courtroom. During his summation, the prosecutor Thomas Foran said, “Can you imagine Martin Luther King supporting these men?” Natasha, knowing her father had worked with Dr. King, stood up and said, “Yes, I can imagine it because it’s true.” For that, she was hauled out the courtroom and taken to the federal lockup. Michelle jumped up in defense of her sister and was taken out too.

Scene 163: The disagreements between Hayden and Hoffman come to a boil. Hayden says that winning elections is a prerequisite for achieving progressive social change and that Hoffman’s actions make it less likely that progressives will win elections.

Sorkin’s Tom Hayden character is an incoherent jumble. The first thing that Hayden says in the film is that it makes no difference whether Humphrey or Nixon wins the 1968 election. In this scene, he says that the most important thing is winning elections. Which is it? If the electoral process is so important, why wasn’t he inside the convention hall in 1968, rather than outside protesting what was going on inside? If electing Robert Kennedy would have made a difference, why wasn’t he working in the RFK campaign? Sorkin wants to portray the acts of the real Tom Hayden in 1968, but he cannot bring himself to portray Hayden’s ideology in 1968. Hayden was not a politician in 1968, or 1969, or 1970. He was a revolutionary. He did not believe that an American election would end the American war; only direct action in the streets by Americans could bring the American role in Vietnam to an end.

Sorkin gives these lines to Hayden: “My problem is, for the next 50 years, when people think of progressive politics, they’re gonna think of you. They’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.” Did Hayden say that? No, but Sorkin used almost exactly the same lines in an episode of Newsroom titled “112th Congress.” Dialogue so good, you can use it twice.

Scene 163: The prosecutors have given William Kunstler a tape of Hayden’s speech at the bandshell rally on Wednesday, August 28, made “by somebody in the crowd.” Oddly, this prosecution evidence comes to light in the middle of the defense portion of trial: “No foul play, there are affidavits, they really did just get this.”

Really? No, not really. In reality, a tape of the rally, including the entirety of Hayden’s speech, was placed into evidence by the prosecution on November 21, 1969. The tape was played in court. The tape was made by Naval Intelligence officer Richard Schaller, who was in the crowd at the rally with his portable reel-to-reel and testified at the trial. There was no element of surprise. Prosecutor Richard Schultz had already quoted from Hayden’s speech in his opening statement to the jury. The words that Sorkin finds so incendiary were already quoted in contemporaneous 1968 news stories about the bandshell rally.

Scene 165: An antiwar rally sets up the events known as the Battle of Michigan Avenue.

Sorkin’s recreation of the bandshell rally and its aftermath differs from reality at many points. The rally was not at night, it began about 2pm. The climactic events in front of the Conrad Hilton hotel were six hours later. Sorkin shows six police officers at the rally, while actually the rally was ringed by 600 police officers and National Guardsmen were posted on the roof of the Field Museum.

Scene B169: Rennie Davis is clubbed by a police officer when he tries to pull officers away from a young man who is lowering the American flag flying near the bandshell.

The young man’s name was Angus Mackenzie, 17 years old, and in reality he was arrested by police without interference. Following that arrest, Davis directed Mobe marshals to create a line between the police and the rally crowd. Dozens of officers came at the crowd when six people tried to raise a red flag (or a red shirt) up the flagpole. Davis was clubbed in this second altercation.

Scene 174: In reaction to the clubbing of Davis by police, Hayden seems to want revenge. Dellinger tells him to calm the crowd, but Hayden says, “No,” and steps to the microphone. He shouts to the crowd, “If blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city! If gas is going to be used, let it come down all over Chicago! We’re going to the convention! Get on the streets! Get on the streets!”

In reality, Hayden didn’t want to march to the convention and his words were not so imperative. As the rally came to an end, Hayden and Dellinger did have a disagreement, but it was about tactics—Dellinger wanted to march the five miles to the International Amphitheatre; Hayden wanted people to break into small groups and disperse around the Loop.

They presented the crowd with alternatives. Dellinger spoke first and laid out instructions to assemble for the march; Hayden spoke next and concluded: “If blood is going to flow, let it flow all over the city. If gas is going to be used, let it come down all over Chicago. If police are going to run wild, let them run wild all over the city.… Don’t get trapped in some kind of large, organized march which can be surrounded. Begin to find your way out of here. I’ll see you in the streets.”

Scene 181: At the end of the rally, Sorkin shows Hayden directing protestors over the bridges that connect Grant Park with Michigan Avenue.

In reality, immediately after his “let blood flow” speech, Hayden left the park and was gone for at least an hour. He changed into a disguise to elude his police tails and then returned to the park, just another protestor mingling in the crowd. Meanwhile 6,000 people joined Dellinger’s march to the Amphitheatre. The march was not permitted and after an hour the march line broke up.

Scenes 182 to 185: Three groups of protestors who try to cross the bridges are met by police and National Guard and blocked from reaching Michigan Avenue.

Thousands of would-be marchers, including Dellinger, made it from the rally site to Michigan Avenue and headed south to the Hilton. Coincidentally, an anti-poverty demonstration by the Southern Christian Leadership Council, a mule train led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, was also headed south on Michigan Avenue, and it had a permit to go the Amphitheatre. For a short time, the march seemed possible. But at Michigan and Balbo the crowd was halted and only the mule train was allowed to proceed.

Many protestors sat down in the intersection. Police squadrols were brought in on Balbo and Deputy Police Superintendent James Rochford ordered the police to clear the streets.

Demonstrators and bystanders were clubbed, beaten, maced, and arrested. Some fought back. The melee lasted about seventeen minutes and was filmed by the TV crews positioned at the Hilton. It was seen by the nationwide audience watching the convention coverage, as well as by delegates watching monitors at the convention hall.

Scene 204: Hayden, Hoffman, Rubin and 11 others find an unguarded bridge and find their way to the front of the Hilton, are surrounded by police, and pressed up against the glass window of the Haymarket Lounge. When the police move forward, the glass breaks and all tumble inside.

After the street in front of the Hilton had been cleared, the police turned their attention to a crowd of protestors, marchers, and passers-by clustered on the sidewalk in front of the Haymarket Lounge, which was at the southeast corner of Balbo and Michigan. It’s now about 8pm. The police pressed forward into this group with Mace and the crowd was pushed against the glass. One or more pounded on the glass with a helmet or a boot and the glass shattered, everyone tumbling inside.

Hayden was in this group. Hoffman and Rubin were not. Abbie had been arrested that morning and was still in jail; as he says in his autobiography, “The cops had kept me away from the Battle of Michigan Avenue.”

Scene 207: Abbie Hoffman testimony.

Abbie was not the only defendant to testify; Rennie Davis also testified, as did Bobby Seale, after his case had been severed. Abbie testified over the course of five days, from December 23, 1969 to December 30. Much of the dialogue in the film was spoken by Abbie, though not necessarily during his testimony; he did not quote from the New Testament though.

Scene 208: The defendants have elected to have Hayden make their pre-sentencing statement to the court. Hayden reads the list of the US servicemen killed in Vietnam since the start of the trial.

Each of the seven defendants, plus their attorneys Kunstler and Weinglass, made statements prior to their sentencing on contempt charges. The five convicted defendants also made statements prior to their sentencing on the substantive charges. Some of these statements were quite powerful; none of them involved reading a list of US servicemen.

The reading of the war dead happened earlier in the trial, on October 15, 1969, the day of the first Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, when rallies and marches were held across the country. Dellinger began the day in the courtroom reading names of the war dead, until Judge Hoffman gaveled the court into silence. Unlike in the film, Dellinger read names of both US and Vietnamese casualties of the war.


The major errors of omission: Of course, much has to be omitted in a film. But some omissions have significant consequences for the viewer’s understanding of what happened, both in the trial and in August of 1968. Some of these are:

The case mounted by the defense featured a broad array of cultural and countercultural figures. The indictment criminalized the state of mind of the defendants, so the defense called as witnesses a variety of people who influenced their state of mind. Defense witnesses included Allen Ginsberg, Judy Collins, Norman Mailer, Timothy Leary, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and many others.

Journalists were beaten too. Dozens of reporters and photographers were struck by police batons and teargassed during the 1968 DNC protests. Photographers had equipment destroyed and had to surrender their film to police. Law enforcement made little distinction between protestors and journalists. The police attacks on journalists are an important element in understanding why the violence happened; any explanation has to include why journalists were police targets.

A wide variety of groups were in Chicago in August ’68. Those in the crowds of demonstrators included groups such as Women Strike for Peace, Mathematicians for Peace, convention delegates, McCarthy volunteers, and a contingent of clergymen. Not all were young or hippieish; plenty were middle-aged folks and some were just bystanders.

There was a lot of disorder and dissension inside the convention hall during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. A sizable and vocal minority of the delegates advocated for a quick end to the war in Vietnam. A filmed tribute memorializing Robert Kennedy was followed by a half hour of chanting, singing, and marching around the hall by the antiwar delegates. Senator Abraham Ribicoff, in his speech nominating George McGovern, famously denounced the “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago.”

Sorkin’s brief sketch of the race for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination leaves out the reason there was a race at all: the antiwar candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy. Without McCarthy, the path would have been clear for President Lyndon Johnson to be nominated for another term.

Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination even though he ran in no primaries; eighty percent of the voters in the Democratic primaries had voted for antiwar candidates. Condemnation of the undemocratic process of the 1968 nomination led to reforms in the rules and processes of primary elections; a lasting result of 1968 are these profound changes in our election system.




Published by Chicago68.com