Judy Gumbo was just 26 when she had a second-row seat to history,
The year was 1969. The event was the trial of anti-Vietnam war activists whom the government had charged with conspiring to cross state lines with the intent to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Aaron Sorkin recently made a Netflix movie of the proceedings called “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Gumbo and her future husband, Stew Albert, early members-founders of the Youth International Party (Yippies), were living in Berkeley and were close friends with at least three of the defendants. That allowed them easy access to the trial. (Albert also was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.) While people lined up overnight to grab courtroom seats, Gumbo and Alpert were among the lucky few who had space reserved for them. They got to sit in the second row, right behind the press.
“I was delighted to go,” Gumbo said recently. “It was where the action was.”
From September 1969 to February 1970, when five of the seven defendants were found guilty (their charges were later overturned on appeal), the trial, held in a windowless, austere Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed courtroom (which defendant Abbie Hoffman called a “neon oven”), was the center of the battle between the U.S. government and those who believed the war in Vietnam was immoral. It catapulted its participants to international fame and became a media circus, closely covered by leftist publications such as Ramparts and the Berkeley Barb, as well as many mainstream outlets.
Eight people were originally charged: Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Yippies; Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society; Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization to End the War Committee; David Dellinger, a longtime pacifist who was jailed for not fighting in World War II; John Froines of SDS, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party. All of the defendants except Seale were defended by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass. Seale’s lawyer, Charles Garry, could not attend for medical reasons, prompting Seale to protest often to Judge Julius Hoffman, who was biased from the start against the defendants. Hoffman ordered Seale gagged and bound with handcuffs and leg chains for his comments, sentenced him to four years for contempt of court and eventually severed his trial from the others.
“[The trial] was amazing, life-changing, totally absorbing,” said Gumbo, who has shared some of her experiences on her website, Yippie Girl.
The new Netflix movie, however, has provoked a variety of reactions, from praise to disdain. And nowhere has that been truer than in Berkeley, where many people deeply involved in the anti-war movement and the trial live. They are speaking out online, in Zoom conferences, on webinars and in articles, about the film’s strengths — as well as its shortcomings and distortions.
Steve Wasserman, now the publisher of Heyday Books, was a 17-year-old Berkeley High School student at the time he attended the Chicago trial in November 1969. He knew four of the defendants fairly well. Wasserman was about 13 when he met Rubin, an organizer of the massive May 1965 Vietnam Day Teach-in at UC Berkeley.
He met Hayden in 1969, when Hayden was living at 2917 Ashby Ave. with Gumbo and Albert. Hayden had wandered down from the protests at People’s Park to check out a sit-in at Berkeley High. Hayden eventually taught an informal twice-weekly seminar in the backyard of the Ashby Avenue house to Wasserman and “his radical posse,” he said. Wasserman had gotten to know Seale when he let Wasserman and his close friend use the Panthers’ typesetting machines at its headquarters on Shattuck Avenue to put together Pack Rat, the high school underground newspaper. He also met Hoffman.
“It’s all very vivid in my mind, even a half-century removed,” said Wasserman. “I was 17 and impressionable.”
Wasserman watched the 130-minute movie the day it was released and quickly posted his disappointment on Facebook. He thought Sorkin’s retelling of the trial trivialized the defendants, their political beliefs and the anti-war movement.
“I wanted desperately to like it,” Wasserman told Berkeleyside. “I respect the earnestness. I’m hostage to the reality of those times. This felt appallingly fictive and difficult to watch and more caricature than anything else, tarting it up in a way that was contrary to the sense of the times.”
Younger still was Andrew Hoffman, the first son of Abbie Hoffman, who was not yet 9 at the time of the trial. He grew up in the Boston area but traveled twice to Chicago with his mother, Sheila Karklin, and younger sister Amy to observe the proceedings.
“I remember it clearly; it was scary. I was old enough to realize my father could go to jail,” he told J. in an interview from the East Bay community of Kensington, where he lives with his wife, Tomoko, and their two teenage children.
Despite the stakes for Abbie Hoffman, it was the way Seale was being treated at the trial that most horrified the Hoffman family. “We were very invested in his situation,” Andrew recalled. When he returned home from Chicago, young Andrew went off to Cambridge Commons with a collection can to raise money for Seale’s defense.
“I think I was the youngest Jewish Black Panther ever,” he said.
When the “The Trial of the Chicago 7” dropped in late September on Netflix, “We all climbed onto the family bed and watched it together,” he said.
His overall impression?
“The movie was awfully quiet,” Andrew said. By his description, his father was a short man, unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrayed him, but was powerfully built with charismatic energy.
“He was a tiny little Jewish monster,” Andrew said affectionately, “but he made friends with anyone in a second. Judge Hoffman was also a Jewish monster, but he was Abbie’s absolute opposite. Frank Langella’s portrayal made him easy to hate — but he was even worse than that. He was mean. All he did was say no to everything. No, no, no.”
Paul Glusman was a 22-year-old freelance journalist in Berkeley when Ramparts magazine sent him to cover the Chicago trial. He had also been active in the anti-war movement in Berkeley, and had been arrested and briefly charged for his participation in a sit-in at Moses Hall at UC Berkeley. Glusman was in the courtroom every day. For him, the film distorted the facts and motivations of the defendants so much it “crossed the line to having no value.”
It was scary. I was old enough to realize my father could go to jail.
Particularly grievous, in his opinion, was that Sorkin reduced the motivation of some of the defendants to psychological issues. Instead of highlighting that the defendants opposed the war because it was killing millions of innocent Vietnamese civilians, Sorkin inserted dialogue suggesting that Hayden was an anti-war activist because he was rebelling against his father and Davis was trying to impress his girlfriend’s parents. Sorkin is “personalizing motives of people who had real and sincere beliefs and [he is] trivializing those beliefs,” Glusman said.
“There’s a bit of dialogue in the movie where Seale points out that Hayden was rebelling against his own father, rather than the government,” Glusman wrote in a review of the film. “I wasn’t there for every exchange between Seale and Hayden, but I highly doubt that happened. Whatever you think of Hayden, he was a dedicated radical and a leftist. By the time of the trial he not only had co-written the SDS founding document the Port Huron Statement but had been a community organizer for a decade in places like Newark. And Seale respected (and still respects) the white radical counterparts in the movement. But it makes a nice liberal moment for Sorkin to point out the difference in what’s at stake between Hayden and Seale.”
Gumbo disagrees with Wasserman and Glusman. She loved the film (although she had issues with some parts of it) and thinks it will inform a new generation about the battles of the 1960s, which are still relevant today.
“It presents the Yippies and the anti-war movement as heroes,” Gumbo said. “Therefore, it’s a positive and affirming movie. It brings up things, like racism and that Bobby Seale was targeted. I think the people who are unhappy with it are uber-idealistic and who don’t get, as I, a Yippie, do, the effect I believe it will have on the majority of Americans who watch it.”
Andrew Hoffman agrees, to the extent that he is eager to see the values of the Chicago 7 carried forward.
“I’m still fighting the struggle,” he said.
In regard to his famous father, who suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide in 1989, he said, “We loved him, and I wish he could see his grandchildren, who are fully committed to the movements for social justice today.”
But he is thinking of writing his own book, or making his own movie.
“The real story,” he said, “has yet to be told.”
The connections between Berkeley and the Chicago 7
Bobby Seale spent part of his childhood living at the Codornices Village housing project and attended Berkeley High School. He and Huey Newton created the Black Panther Party in 1966 and, for a time, its headquarters were in South Berkeley, at 3106 Shattuck Ave. When Berkeley hippies and radicals built People’s Park, Seale checked it out. Tom Dalzell, author of “The Battle for Peoples’ Park,” said: “He visited People’s Park in the halcyon days of April-May 1969 and admired the unheard-of coalition of political activists, radicals, street people, neighbors, students, peace activists, etc.”
Jerry Rubin came to study sociology at UC Berkeley in 1963 and closely observed the Free Speech Movement, according to “Berkeley at War: The 1960s” by W.J. Rorabaugh. In May 1965, he was one of the two main organizers of the Vietnam Day Committee, a two-day teach-in at UC Berkeley that drew 30,000 people. One of the speakers was David Dellinger, Rubin’s future co-defendant. In 1966, Rubin served temporarily as the Congressional campaign manager for the activist and journalist Robert Scheer, who lost but carried 45 percent of the Berkeley vote. In 1967, Rubin ran for mayor of Berkeley against the incumbent, Wallace Johnson. Rubin and Albert wrote a 29-page pamphlet printed in rainbow colors that outlined Rubin’s radical views and distributed it to 30,000 households in Berkeley, according to Rorabaugh. It not only urged Berkeley to oppose the war, but advocated for strict rent control, community control of the police, childcare for working mothers, and the legalization of abortion and marijuana. “Rubin’s pamphlet set forth the political agenda that dominated local politics for the remainder of the decade and into the ’70s,” wrote Rorabaugh. Rubin got 7,385 votes, slightly more than 20 percent of the vote. Rubin was one of Stew Albert’s best friends, according to Gumbo. Albert’s other closest friend was Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party.
Tom Hayden first came to Berkeley in 1960, when, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” he hitchhiked across the country from the University of Michigan, according to Rorabaugh. In 1962, Hayden wrote the Port Huron Statement, a political manifesto and the philosophical underpinning of Students for a Democratic Society. He visited Berkeley regularly that decade and, by 1969, had moved into a house on Ashby Avenue that Gumbo and Albert also occupied. Hayden participated in the 1968 Moses Hall sit-in at UC Berkeley and was on campus on May 15, 1969, waiting to address a large crowd gathered in Sproul Plaza. Then Dan Siegel, the incoming student body president, urged people to “take the park,” according to Dalzell. The crowd rushed en masse down Telegraph Avenue. Hayden wrote the “Berkeley Liberation Program,” a platform that suggested that Berkeley serve as a model “for a future revolutionary America,” wrote Rorabaugh. “He was the intellectual wing of the building of People’s Park, and worked long and hard on a manifesto on the Park,” said Dalzell. Hayden became involved with Anne Weills, who started the Red Family commune with her then husband, Robert Scheer. Hayden became a member of the commune, and, in the early 1970s, fell in love with actress Jane Fonda, who had moved to Berkeley in 1971 while filming “Steelyard Blues” in Petaluma. Fonda enrolled her 3-year-old daughter in the Blue Fairyland nursery school on Bateman Street, which had been founded by the commune. (Weills later married Dan Siegel.)
Fact vs. fiction in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
The tension between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman
The film exaggerates the tension between Hayden and Hoffman, who founded the Yippies in December 1967 because he thought theater and antics were effective ways to show people the truth of the war, said Gumbo. Sorkin probably exaggerated the differences between the men to illustrate the breadth and competing visions in the movement, she said. Troy Garity, Hayden’s son, said in a webinar about the film that his father was skeptical of the Yippie approach, finding it less serious than SDS’s fights to end the war. (Garity liked the film, but felt it criminalized the defendants because it had the protestors attack the Chicago police instead of the other way around.) Rennie Davis said in the same webinar that Rubin was “the primo guerrilla political activist” of the times and that “we could never have done it without Jerry and Abbie.”
Jerry Rubin falling for an undercover FBI agent
This never happened. Rubin’s longtime partner, Nancy Kurshan, was at the trial every day. “Possibly the most ridiculous part of the movie shows Jerry Rubin in tears because a Chicago Police Department plant had come on to him, he fell hard for her, and was devastated not only that she would do something like that, but that the government would train her to do that,” Glusman wrote. “This was absolutely false. A female undercover cop followed him around, but he never got involved with her. He wasn’t a 16-year-old child jilted by his first crush. He was near 30 and his long-time girlfriend, Nancy, was with him practically every step of the way. But Sorkin, having infantilized Hayden by attributing his radicalism to his resentment of his father, infantilized Rubin also.”
The bias of Judge Julius Hoffman against the defendants
The judge, played by Frank Langella, is contemptuous of the defendants and their attorneys, William Kuntsler and Weinglass, constantly slapping them with contempt of court citations. In reality, Hoffman was even worse, said Gumbo. “Jerry and Abbie’s name for Judge Julius was Mr. Magoo, a Yippie sendup of the short, grumpy old-man cartoon character who Julius Hoffman physically resembled, his bald head shaped like an egg poking over his judge’s podium,” Gumbo wrote.
Reading the names of the U.S. war dead at sentencing
This ending of the film is completely false and is insulting to those who were there, many people told Berkeleyside. On Oct 15, 1969, Dellinger tried to read off the names of some of the war dead but was cut short by the court. “The part about Hayden giving the speech for all the defendants at sentencing was made up and atrocious,” said Glusman. “Sorkin simply had Hayden read the names of the U.S. soldiers killed in the war as if that was what this protest was all about. It wasn’t. The protests were more about what the United States was doing in Vietnam, to the people of that country. The U.S. soldiers counted, but they were not the main thrust of the demonstrations or the trial.”