In March 1976, Chicago 8/7 defendant Jerry Rubin—after his guilty verdict for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention was vacated on appeal, and after the government announced it would not re-try the case—announced in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times that he and his co-defendants were actually “guilty as hell, guilty as charged.” The prosecution, he wrote, “was right all along … we wanted disruption, we planned for it.”
None of his co-defendants agreed with Rubin. David Dellinger would later say that Rubin had “fallen in love with the prosecution’s case.” Why be a victim of police brutality when you can be a “revolutionary bent on the overthrow of our government,” as prosecutor Richard Schultz put it in the trial?
Aaron Sorkin, in his film The Trial of the Chicago 7, is also in love with the prosecutor’s point of view. In ways large and small throughout the film, Sorkin invents actions and alters history to show that the protagonists—and we should include among those protagonists the character of Fred Hampton—cannot be innocent.
Sorkin invents crimes that simply did not happen: Rubin instructs a rapt classroom in how to build a Molotov cocktail; Rennie Davis assaults a police officer at the bandshell rally; David Dellinger assaults a courtroom marshal.
A film director has no obligation to tell the truth about historical events, even as they use history and the acts and personalities of real people as raw material for a script. But Sorkin exercises more than poetic license in The Trial of the Chicago 7, he alters historical events to show the guilt of the leftist radicals in the film.
Look closely at two film scenes.
What really happened at the General Logan statue?
Sorkin re-creates a couple of riotous events from the protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. One is based on the events of Monday, August 26, 1968. A “Free Hayden!” march was organized to go to the Central District police station at 11th and State, where Tom Hayden was being held, after an arrest for letting air out of the tires of a police vehicle.
In the film—and in reality—the march reaches the police station, but is met by heavily armed police officers. The march turns east; Rennie Davis, who was manning the bullhorn, intended to direct the march to Grant Park in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel, on Michigan Avenue. But before the march reaches the Hilton, it reaches the General John Logan statue in Grant Park, at 9th Street.
In the film, we see a shot from the south of a thick array of police officers—maybe 200—standing on the rise of the Logan statue, some with shotguns and many more with nightsticks at the ready. Someone shouts “Take the hill” and the protestors charge the line of police. Mayhem ensues.
In the film’s trial testimony, Daphne O’Conner, the wholly fictitious honey trap FBI agent, relates exactly what Sorkin has portrayed in his film: “the demonstrators attacked the police and the police responded.”
Guilty as hell, guilty as charged.
Stop the film. Start the history.
The march turned from the police station and reached 9th Street. Someone shouted “Take the hill!” What’s different in reality? What has Sorkin changed? In reality, there were no police anywhere near the General Logan statue.
In reality, hundreds of marchers swarmed an unoccupied hill and clustered around the statue. Some climbed the statue. Among them was David Edmundson, a junior college student from Birmingham, Alabama, who was in Chicago as a volunteer for the Eugene McCarthy campaign. Edmundson clambered onto the general’s shoulders and waved the flag of the National Liberation Front and made the peace sign.
Police meanwhile gathered in Grant Park and formed a line to the north, at the base of the hill. Reality is exactly the opposite of the film. The police swept up the hill to clear the statue, clubbed marchers moving away too slowly, and threw tear gas canisters. Edmundson was the last to come down, his arm broken as the police dragged him off the statue.
The police forcibly removed the demonstrators to clear some young fellows off a Civil War general’s statue. Sorkin reverses roles. His defendants are guilty as charged.
How Was Fred Hampton Killed?
In Sorkin’s film, Fred Hampton, the charismatic chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, participates in defense strategy meetings and acts as the go-between for the defendant Bobby Seale and absent Panther lawyer, Charles Garry. The Hampton of the film has a significant role in the trial proceedings—the judge even identifies him in court. Hampton is a key participant and practically another defendant. But then comes a call in the middle of the night that Hampton has been shot by the police.
Kunstler and Hayden go to the jail where Seale is being held. 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.”
Turns out Seale already knows this. In fact, he knows more than Kunstler. 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.”
In response to criticism that his film is not completely factual, Sorkin said he intended his film to be “a painting and not a photograph.” OK. What is Sorkin painting in this scene?
There was a shootout, an exchange of gunfire with police. Fred Hampton was in this shootout, this exchange of gunfire. He was shot in the shoulder and could no longer aim and fire his weapon. Then he was killed with a shot to the head.
Sorkin paints a picture in which Hampton and police are exchanging gunfire, and Hampton is shot dead by the police. The police were shooting back, in self-defense.
Nothing of the kind happened. The police raided Hampton’s apartment in the early morning. They had a map of the apartment that showed 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.
But in Sorkin’s “painting” Hampton is apparently wide awake and shooting at the police. When you shoot at the police they shoot back. Hampton was killed because he was shooting at the police. Another guilty man. Another guilty black man. Violent death with a gun in his hand. Guilty as hell.
What’s the Point?
The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends in a scene of moral defiance that charms a leftwing audience. But that feel-good ending extracted a price along the way. The film has reshaped the historical events and shown that the protagonists have committed crimes. Why? What is Sorkin’s point?
The Sorkin universe is an old mattress—everything rolls toward the middle.
In the film, the defendants are guilty, but prosecutors doubt their own case. Pacifists slug courtroom marshals; undercover police agents are not provocateurs but urge restraint. Conscientious objectors become Boy Scout leaders and a young man committed to the electoral process finds that sometimes civil disobedience is a better choice.
Sorkin portrays the best as not that good, and the worst as better than expected. In the Sorkin universe, the protest movements of the Sixties tried to take the moral high ground, but they incited riots in their drive to seize it. The Black Panther Party stood up for the rights that had been denied their race for centuries, but their tactics were violent and they were destined to disappear in a hail of gunfire.
Only when Aaron Sorkin is writing the lines would Abbie Hoffman say that “the institutions of our democracy are wonderful things, they are just populated by some less than wonderful people.” In the Sorkin universe, nothing is wrong with America except that everything on earth falls short of the shining ideals he sees in the sky. No need to look any deeper than the acts of individuals. When you fall in love with the prosecutor’s case, all are guilty as charged.
Published by Chicago68.com
Last update: May 23, 2021.
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