Five months until Marty and Peter would lose their student deferments. What were they going to do? The choices were endless. There were no choices at all.
“Marty, what if you flunk a couple of courses and don’t graduate? You can stay another year.”
“It doesn’t work like that. Anyhow, here’s an article about someone who got out of the draft because he was officially obese,” Marty was reading some information from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “I can’t think of a better way to get out. A six-pack of beer every night. Doughnuts for breakfast. Bags of Oreos. You’re too fat, soldier.”
I picked up one of the pamphlets. “Marty, since they didn’t accept your request for conscientious objector you could ask for 1-A-O status. That way you wouldn’t have to carry a gun.”
“They would make me a medic or something. My job would be to stitch people back together or put them in body bags.”
Convince the draft board you are the sole support of your widowed mother and your brother injured in Vietnam.
Grow six inches. They’ll reject you if you’re too tall.
Become a drug addict. That didn’t work for Jeff.
Move to Canada. You can never come home.
Refuse to go. End up in jail.
What are you going to do Marty? What in the world are you going to do?
I signed up for Rick’s American Subcultures Sociology class. I’m not sure what that even meant but he promised me I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The first topic of discussion was the Chicago 7 trial going on in Chicago, now in its fifth month. “We’re talking about a subculture here.” Rick was lecturing about the trial. “Thousands went to Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1968 to voice their dissent and contempt of the system.”
That’s not why I went. I went because they put me on the train. I went because I needed to scream loud and long and get the sadness out of me. I went because I hated everybody and everything and there was this huge red rage inside of me next to a deep dark black hole. That’s why I went.
“It was their constitutional right to protest,” Rick continued. “They started out as the Chicago 8. Eight protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intent to incite riot. When Bobby Seale, one of the original eight and the only African American, called Judge Julius Hoffman a racist, Hoffman had him gagged and bound to a chair, separated his trial and sentenced him to forty-eight months in prison. Now they are the Chicago 7.”
We had class in the lounge of the religion building with couches, easy chairs, pillows on the floor. My dad never taught in a room without desks. Most of the students came stoned to class. I knew the professor did. I drove in with him every morning. That class became a subculture in itself. Do a paper on that.
I raised my hand. “I think the government is scared of this generation. We speak out. You can’t tell me how to dress or who we can have in our dorm. We don’t say ‘My country right or wrong.’ The government needs to keep us under control. That’s why the trial. They are the pawns taking the fall for us all.”
Rick asked, “Do you think there was a conspiracy to overthrow the government? Does the government even have a case?”
Murmurs throughout the room. One guy said, “Yeah there was a conspiracy. That’s our whole goal. To overthrow the government. They are guilty as hell but the government will never be able to prove it. You heard Abbie Hoffman when he was here. Act crazy and they’ll never get you.”
Someone disagreed. “I don’t think they went to Chicago with the intent to overthrow the government. Only to make their voices heard.”
A third said, “The convention was August 1968. It’s now February 1970. Isn’t there something in the Constitution about the right to a speedy trial? Did they hope we’d forget?”
I spoke again. “Chicago was a chaotic, disorganized mess. Abbie Hoffman was on one corner with his pig talking to the press. Tom Hayden was on the other corner with his SDS folks. I never saw any of the other defendants. I doubt the seven even knew each other.”
Rick began to lecture again, “Change is never tranquil whether it be societal or individual. This country is experiencing a revolution of consciousness. It’s not easy for those who initiated it and it’s not easy for those who went before who watch a generation question everything they thought was important. Change establishes subcultures. How? Why? When has it happened before? What are the effects? Those are the ideas we will explore in the next few weeks. In the meantime, no class for the rest of the week. Attend the trial if you can.”
Attending the trial in Chicago was easier said than done. Hundreds came to the Federal building every day for the chance. A few made it in. Most spent the day outside the Federal Building waiting for the news to trickle out of the courtroom. Their children would probably occupy the streets of New York years later.
“Judge Hoffman has refused to allow witnesses to appear.” “The defendants appeared in judicial robes this morning and refused to rise for the judge.” Inside the courtroom, the defendants kept up their theatrics with obscenities and cries of fascism.
Marty, Peter, Rick and I took the train into Chicago on Friday, February 13. We gathered outside the judicial building with hundreds of people. During lunch, the defense attorney, William Kuntsler, spoke to the crowd.
“The trial is almost over,” he said. “Final arguments are being heard and I predict the jury will begin deliberations within twenty-four hours.” Kuntsler gave his clenched fist salute. “Power to the people.” We took up the chant. “Power to the people.” We were the people.
“We need money,” Kuntsler said. Like a wave upon the sea, the dollars moved through the crowd from arm to arm, hand to hand, hundreds of dollars. Folks stood on the corner begging a buck for a bus ride then walked around the end of the block and gave the dollar to Kuntsler. Panhandling for freedom. It was the entire young generation vs. the United States of America.
Kuntsler announced a rally at a church that night and invited us to come. “The defendants will be there.”
We walked through the cold streets of Chicago that night to the church. It was packed with supporters. We sat with Abbie Hoffman and reminisced about the night he stayed with us.
“That was a great night,” he said. “Sitting around that fire, drinking wine, smoking weed, plotting revolution.”
“Still plotting,” Marty said. “How’s this going to end?”
“Man, this is a revolution,” Abbie said. “It’s not going to end.” Abbie hugged each of us and moved on.
We danced in the aisles, drank a little wine and when we left the church, I saw Dustin Hoffman coming up the stairs to join the rally. I leaned over to Marty, “That’s Dustin Hoffman,” A few sideward steps and Dustin and I rubbed shoulders. He might remember that night, talking with Abbie and dancing in the aisles. But he probably doesn’t remember bumping into me. I remember it though. It was one of those defining life-changing perfect moments.
The jury deliberated for three days and came back the following Wednesday. We gathered in class around the radio to listen. “After one hundred and ninety witnesses, one hundred days of testimony, twenty-two thousand pages of trial transcript, the jury has reached a verdict. The jury has acquitted all seven of plotting a conspiracy to incite riot at the Chicago convention.” We won. When it came down to The People vs. The United States of America. We won. We began to cheer.
Someone said, “Sssh, he’s not finished.”
The newscaster continued, “In what appears to be a compromise decision they found five of the defendants guilty of seeking to promote riots through individual acts. The other two were acquitted on all counts. Four and a half months of trial, forty hours of deliberation. A verdict has been reached at 12:30 on the 23rd floor of the Chicago Federal Building.”
Someone lying on the floor on two big pillow shouted, “It’s a cop out.”
Others joined in the rant. “They’re either guilty or innocent.” “What happened to freedom of speech?” “Where is our integrity as a nation?”
Following the verdict, in protests around the country, police clubbed dozens of citizens. The 60’s were over and a new era of repression began. But we weren’t going anywhere. We would force the government to listen.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 49,438