Chicago 10

Review by Kim Bullimore

Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace
Written and directed by Brett Morgen
Limited release as part of the Australian International Human Rights Film and Arts Festival.
Visit www.hraff.org.au for details.

The year 1968 would prove to be a year of turbulence for the US capitalist system, both culturally and politically. By 1968, the Vietnam War was the longest in US history, with more than 14,000 US troops killed and almost 87,500 wounded. Throughout 1968, an average of 1200 US soldiers died each month in Washington’s imperial war against the Vietnamese people.

In April 1968, black ghettos across the US exploded when civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. His murder sparked rioting in more than 125 US cities, leaving more than 45 people dead. Four months later, 12,000 Chicago police and 6000 National Guardsmen violently attacked unarmed anti-war protesters outside the August 1968 Democratic Party convention.

Chicago 10, a film written and directed by Brett Morgen, tells the story of the “Chicago Seven”, the trial of the leaders of the August 1968 Chicago anti-war protests — David Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Friones and Lee Weiner — who were charged along with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale for conspiracy to riot. The film’s title is drawn from a remark by Rubin, who said, “Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist. Because you’re discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we’re the Chicago Ten, because our two lawyers went down with us.” The two lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass (who today is defending the Cuban Five) were sentenced to four years and one year respectively for contempt.

Chicago 10 combines archival footage leading up to, during and after the convention protests, as well as an animated re-enactment of the trail, based on court transcripts and audio recordings from the period. Utilising music by the Beastie Boys, Eminem and Rage Against the Machine, and the voices of Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Liev Schreiber and Jeffery Wright, Morgen succeeds in bringing the viewer into the court room of the infamous trial.

While Morgen’s film is faithful in its portrayal of the violence unleased against the protesters by Chicago mayor Richard Daley, it tends to focus on the theatrics of the trail and shy away from any in-depth analysis of the politics of the defendants. Seven of the activists who were on trial represented the two main groups that organised the Chicago protest – the National Mobilisation to End the War in Vietnam (the “Mobe”) and the Youth International Party (the “Yippies”).

The Yippies, who included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were the more anarchistic of the two groups and sought to hold a 50,000-strong “Festival of Life” in opposition to what they called the “national death party” of the Democratic Party convention. The Mobe, represented by Dellinger, Hayden and Davis wanted to conduct a range of multi-issue demonstrations at the convention.

US revolutionary socialist Fred Halstead recalled in his 1978 book Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War that while “the motivations of Dellinger and Rubin were not the same, their approaches had a lot in common ... for them tactics dominated over the politics. Rather the tactics had become the politics.” Neither group put mobilising protesters around the demand for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam at the centre of their political campaigning.

Between them, the Mobe and the Yippies had hoped that up to 100,000 protesters would turn up for the demonstrations, but only 15,000 did. According to Halstead, one of the reasons for this was the “ultra-left” antics promoted by both the Mobe and the Yippies and that “as the demonstrations approached, the moderate groups, as well as some of the pacifists, took their distance from the actions”. In addition, the support given by some leading members to the Mobe to the Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy’s proved disastrous when “the McCarthy campaign cancelled most of its own plans for activities outside the convention and McCarthy himself appealed to his followers not to come Chicago for the demonstrations”.

The Walker Commission that was established in the wake of the protests outside the convention found that there had been “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence” and that the police had engaged in what amounted to little more than a “police riot”.

After his film was premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Morgen, who took the stage to a standing ovation, said one of his goals in making the film was to “mobilise the youth in the country to get out and stop this war” in Iraq. Chicago 10 certainly captures the dedication of the US anti-war movement of the time, and reminds us that it only through active struggle that can we bring about progressive political change.