In 1968, anti-war and anti-establishment groups converged in the City of Chicago to protest U.S. participation in the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. The protests eventually turned violent as Chicago police clashed with protestors in the streets, creating some of the most indelible images of the era. The political activists, who infamously became known as “The Chicago 7,” were arrested and later tried in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on charges of criminal conspiracy and incitement to riot. In this 3-part series, CBA’s @theBar shares insights into The Trial of the Chicago 7 through rare interviews with the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case and one of the last two living members of The Chicago 7.
Part 3 of @theBar’s three-part series on The Trial of the Chicago 7. In this episode, host Jonathan Amarilio and co-host Jennifer Byrne continue the conversation about the landmark trial with John Froines, one of the last two living members of the Chicago 7.
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The Trial of the Chicago 7 Edition: Part 3 – Defendant John Froines
Intro: Hello and welcome to @theBar podcast where we have unscripted conversations with our guests about legal news, topics, stories and whatever else strikes your fancy. I’m your host, Jon Amarilio, of Taft Law and this is the third and final episode in our three-part series on the Trial of the Chicago 7. We recommend that you listen to the first two parts of the conversation before this part, but it’s a free country and you can choose your own adventure. I’m joined today by Jen Byrne of the Chicago Bar Association. Hey, Jen.
Jennifer Byrne: Hey, Jon, excited for this one today.
Jonathan Amarilio: SMI. So, Jen, our guest is John Froines, one of the two last surviving members of the Chicago 7. John was a 29-year-old anti-war activist when he came to Chicago to protest the Democratic National Convention in 1968 with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale. He was charged with traveling across state lines for purposes of inciting a riot and with making incendiary devices. He was one of two defendants acquitted by the jury on both of those counts brought against him and following the trial, John went on to have a distinguished teaching career, first at Goddard College in Vermont and later at UCLA, among other positions.
As before, I want to repeat, we understand that even 50 years later, this topic touches on deep-seated memories and emotions for those who supported and those who opposed the Chicago 1968 protests, the Vietnam War and the prosecution of the Chicago 7. We don’t take sides in that debate. We don’t interrogate John and we didn’t interrogate Dick Schultz. Our role in this interview series is to let both men explain to us and to you their recollections and views of the events those many years ago. And with that, John, welcome to @theBar. Thank you for joining us.
John Froines: Thank you.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, John, let’s jump right in. I think one question that our audience will have, especially after viewing Aaron Sorkin’s movie that just came out on Netflix, is, in your words, why did you go to Chicago in 1968? Did you intend to organize a peaceful protest, or did you go with the hope that you might be able to incite the police?
John Froines: There was an organization called Students for a Democratic Society and SDS, it was called, and I was a member of the New Haven, Connecticut group and Tom Hayden was the lead on Newark, New Jersey and Randy Davis was the person who was the lead for Chicago, so you had people who were community organizers. And I say this because there were not as many students and the people who were the community organizers were the people who actually had the experience, so we came and we were the marshals. So, my point is that there was a group of people who were more experienced than others and that was the community organizing group called — it was called Economic Research and Action Project.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right.
John Froines: And that’s where Tom and I hooked up.
Jonathan Amarilio: But what was the objective in going to Chicago? Why did you want to go to Chicago that year?
John Froines: Well, that year, the organization that was responsible for Chicago was first the mobilization committee to end the war in Vietnam and secondly, there were the yippies which was Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. So, there was a real organization that occurred and people were enthusiastic.
The first night of the demonstrations, the police came through about 11:00 at night, beating students from the protesters. And so, that set in motion the plan that was going to happen that week was not that we were violent that the anti-war protesters were strictly non-violent absolutely. And then Sorkin’s film shows some demonstrators fighting the police, but that didn’t occur. So, the demonstrators went along during that week. Basically, it was a non-violent — which is the hallmark of the mobilization committee which is made up of a number of organizations.
Jennifer Byrne: Prior to all of the various groups coalescing in Chicago, it’s my understanding — and correct me if I’m wrong here, but Mayor Daley was already purportedly hostile towards any potential demonstrators that were coming in. I read that permits were applied for the demonstrations but were actually denied. So, you mentioned that once you got there and started with the protests, things turned violent, but what were — as an organization, members of the SDS, what were you expecting? When you came to Chicago, were you prepared for the police brutality, or was it far beyond what you expected?
John Froines: Well, interestingly enough, we anticipated violence. We did not want violence. In fact, demonstrators did not pursue violence, so there was no good protocol in terms of building, what have you. The thing is, of course, important is the permits were denied as you remain, so there were no permits. So, the first thing we did was on the first night of the demonstrations, we were in Lincoln Park and we were waiting to see what would happen and — for example, I had a bullhorn and I was giving instructions to people to leave the park because we didn’t want to create a problem for the rest of the week, so we tried to get demonstrators to leave the park. And as it turned out, nobody left the park.
Jonathan Amarilio: There was an 11:00 curfew that the city announced, correct?
John Froines: Right, right.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, by staying in Lincoln Park past 11:00 p.m., you said you were testing the police to see how they would react?
John Froines: Well, yes. Yes, absolutely. They were both the MOBE people as well as the hippies, both were in attendance. And I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it was in the low thousands, I think. Later during the week, the numbers swelled and there was more activity as you will know.
Jonathan Amarilio: Sure. John, let me ask you this, because the question both Jen and I had, why was the Democratic National Convention targeted for this protest as opposed to, for example, the Republican National Convention.
John Froines: Well, there was no question about why Lyndon Johnson had declared, in fact, that he was not going to run for re-election. And so, with Johnson going out of the political picture, the situation was an ugly situation. When Martin Luther King was killed, there were riots in Chicago that were quite significant. They were really quite striking and Mayor Daley said he was in favor of shooting picketers. And so, he was — followed a law and order kind of ethos.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, did it have more to do with Mayor Daley than the fact that it was the DNC that was gathering there or –? I guess what I don’t really understand is you disagreed sharply with the Democratic Party’s platform which was — let’s say, what we would then probably characterize as center-center-left, but you disagreed more presumably with Richard Nixon’s platform, but you chose to protest the Democrats instead of the Republicans. That seems counterintuitive to me.
John Froines: Well, it was — Hubert Humphrey was nominated to be for the Democratic scene.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right, Johnson’s vice president.
John Froines: Yeah. So, the fact that Hubert Humphrey basically gave every indication of continuing the war in Vietnam even though Johnson had been less infused at that point.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay. So, was it more about sending a message to the delegates at the convention than to the country as a whole?
John Froines: Well, that’s a really good question. For example, Tom Hayden spent time with the demonstrators in the Hilton Hotel. So, he was working politically to try and join forces with McCarthy people. But by and large, there was not much of a linkage between the McCarthy people and the MOBE demonstrators.
But there was also a fair number of people who were from Students for Democratic Society, and they were to the left of the Democratic Party and strikingly so such that there was an organization called Weathermen. And Weathermen were violent decidedly so. Me and tom and I went to a meeting in Flint, Michigan of the Weathermen and Bernardine Dohrn who was a Weatherperson. She talked about putting a knife into the pregnant stomach of the U.S., so she was far and away left to anything that had happened. We were in a sense moderates, if you will.
Jonathan Amarilio: Were the Weathermen in Chicago in 1968 at the protests?
John Froines: Yes. And then they had days of rage some time later.
Jonathan Amarilio: There was a suggestion in the movie, John, that when the confrontation in Grant Park happened that someone in the crowd of protesters yelled and urged the other protesters to take the hill, in other words, to charge the police who had set up a line. Did that occur?
John Froines: Yes. The story goes: Hayden was arrested and then there was some supporter of Hayden. There was a group of demonstrators that went down to Grant Park. And when we got there, there was a young man — I don’t know who he was or what his interests were, but he climbed the statue. And when he climbed the statue, the police got him off the statue and he broke his leg and I assumed he was arrested, but I’m not a hundred percent sure on what actually happened with him. But there was a very large number of demonstrators around the Hayden support group.
Jennifer Byrne: So, circling back to sort of who all the key players were that were involved in the organizing of the protests and you mentioned that there were multiple factions that were involved, some were more left-leaning, some extremely so in the case of the Weathermen, but that begs the question, how did the Chicago 7, or rather the Chicago 8 which became the Chicago 7, how did each of you as individuals get targeted do you believe and have charges brought against you, and what was your connection to one another?
John Froines: Well, that’s why I told you the story about Hayden, about the Economic Research and Action Project that was the community organization project of SDS and because the people who went to Chicago were by and large a number of SDS-type folks, and that’s why I mentioned the community-organizing projects that were chewing Cleveland, Chicago, New Haven, Newark. So, there was an actual well-defined organization of each community-organizing projects that were in lower-income communities. Hayden, for example, was the head of Newark and Rennie Davis was the lead in Chicago, so he’s had a fair amount of activity coming from the ERAP people. But because Hayden and the Newark project was going on and Tom and I knew each other, we’re friends and we were shooting. The New Haven group is close to the Newark group, so we had actual linkages that occurred that were the results of the community-organizing projects.
Jonathan Amarilio: John, did the yippies have any connection to SDS and ERAP?
John Froines: No. No, not from what I know. Abbie and Jerry were pretty much on their own.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay. What about the Black Panthers?
John Froines: Well, there really was no significant activity in the part of the Panthers. But the thing is the most important thing to discuss when you think about the Panthers was the murder of Fred Hampton who was the Panther leader in Chicago.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right.
John Froines: He was an extraordinary leader. He was really something else. And we went to a fundraiser some place in Chicago. And when my wife and I drove home, she was crying. I said, “Why are you crying?” She said, “Because they’re going to kill him.” And Fred Hampton was killed within the week.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right. I think that was December 1969, right?
John Froines: Yeah. I’m not sure of the date, but Fred Hampton was an extraordinary leader. But basically, Bobby Seale did not have much of a role because of the Charles Garry situation where Garry had his gallbladder removed and Bobby Seale would not accept Bill Kunstler as his lawyer, but he went with Leonard Weinglass.
Jonathan Amarilio: That’s a good bridge to the — let’s go to the trial, John, and talk about that a little bit. There is a suggestion — more than a suggestion, I should say, in the movie that the only reason that you were charged and that Lee Weiner was charged was really trial tactics to give the jury someone who was clearly not radical so that they could make the Solomonic decision to acquit you which would supposedly — I suppose the idea was to make it easier for them to convict the other defendants. Looking back on it today, do you think that’s why you were charged?
John Froines: I’m not sure. I would agree with that. What happened was there was a chemical called butyric acid. And butyric acid — the women who were activists in the demonstrations, they would go to, say, the Hilton Hotel and they would take out a cloth and they would pour the butyric acid over the cloth and within three minutes, to empty out the Hilton Hotel. So, the people who were very enthusiastic, just extraordinary fun they had, the government knew that butyric acid had been bought, so I think it was in part due to the chemical warfare, if you will.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, you have the more extreme protesters committing acts of, as you said, chemical warfare in the course of these protests. But what was their connection to you? I’m trying to get at why you were chosen, why you were charged.
John Froines: There was a group of people gathered together on the last day of the demonstrations, and there was a discussion about blowing up the underground garage in Chicago, and I took one look at that and got my way out because the last thing in the world I wanted to do is to get tied in with people who are going to do Molotov cocktails, but I’m a Ph.D. chemist. So, I think that they saw me as the mobilization as a chemist, if you will.
Jennifer Byrne: A person who would have been capable of building a Molotov cocktail or some sort of incendiary device, right?
John Froines: Yeah, yeah. I — so, as the discussion went on for a while and I said — then I got out because I thought it was crazy to pursue that kind of thinking. These were non-violent protests throughout the week and should remain so.
Jonathan Amarilio: And that’s probably a good place for us to take a break. We’ll be right back.
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Jonathan Amarilio: And we’re back. John, let’s stay on the trial for a minute. You mentioned Bobby Seale before. One of the more, I think, shocking and appalling things that happened during the trial was when Judge Hoffman ordered him to be bound and gagged. He was the only black defendant and he had him dragged out of the courtroom bound and gagged by the marshals and then dragged back into courtroom in front of the jury.
John Froines: Right.
Jonathan Amarilio: Can you tell us what that was like?
John Froines: Yes, it was a very interesting period. Bobby Seale was taken — was in jail and the question became what would the other seven defendants do. And the Weathermen, for example, wanted to trash the courtroom and they were angry at Hayden and me and the more moderate demonstrators. So, what happened was we did not stand up for the judge and so we got contempt of court charges instance. But we wanted to figure out what we were going to do and there were different points of view. Abbie and Jerry and the hippies wanted to disrupt the courtroom, and Tom Hayden did not want to take on an aggressive action. And basically, the position that Tom took was that if we lost our bail because of tearing up the courtroom — whatever tearing up would mean, if we lost our bail, then the political effort will be lost because we were going out giving speeches every night of the week. So, you have eight people and you have, say, well, seven people and you had all those people who were giving speeches on campuses, and Hayden and me, I was in the Hayden camp. So, we went back to meet with Bobby, and Bobby Seale said, “The white defendants should not do anything. The focus is on me and I want to keep it that way.” So, the white defendants did not play an assertive role when it came to Bobby Seale.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, it was Bobby Seale’s decision for you to essentially be more passive in the light of his mistreatment by the judge?
John Froines: Yes. Absolutely. He was very insistent and he came back and testified in court later in the year but he had the murder trial in New Haven to deal with. So, what happened was the Chicago 7, Tom and I represented one group and Randy was sort of caught in flame and they wanted — didn’t have much to do with the whole thing.
Jonathan Amarilio: Can I ask getting back to the original question though, when that happened to Bobby Seale, what was the atmosphere in the courtroom like? Was it a reaction of shock? I’m just trying to get at what it was like to be in that courtroom when you saw that happen.
John Froines: Well, it was striking because what they did was they took some cloth and they put it in Bobby’s mouth as an attempt to get him to stop raising his voice in the courtroom, but he couldn’t get it to work. So, Bobby Seale was never a changing game in a sense, in a real sense.
Jennifer Byrne: Just in follow-up to that, obviously, I haven’t seen the Aaron Sorkin film yet but obviously some of the more memorable moments from the trial are, I guess, what the public recalls from reading about it have to do with Abbie Hoffman and, I guess, more theatrical actions that they took.
What was your take on that? And coming from your camp of sort of the more moderate voice or, I guess, more the serious voice, what was your take on that, and would that differ from your philosophy of how the defense strategy should be handled?
John Froines: Well, I can say without a doubt Abbie Hoffman is a genius. He was without a doubt one of the most talented people I’ve ever known in my life and he was — he ended up having troubles later with drugs, but he himself was a remarkable person. And Jerry Rubin wasn’t Abbie’s equal. Abbie was himself basically unique. I love Abbie Hoffman.
Jonathan Amarilio: But, John, there was a divide in the defense strategy, right?
John Froines: Right.
Jonathan Amarilio: As Jen said there were some of you like Tom Hayden and yourself who wanted to take the defense more seriously and there were those like Abbie Hoffman and Rubin who wanted to make more of a circus out of the courtroom and make a larger political statement about the proceedings rather than trying to defend themselves on the merits. Is that accurate?
John Froines: Yes.
Jonathan Amarilio: How did that divide play out?
John Froines: During the course of the trial, Abbie worked diligently to get famous speakers to come testify, so he got — he went to Hollywood, he went to New York. He was very active in terms of finding witnesses. And the person who really was the genius when it came to finding witnesses for us was Hayden. Tom Hayden would — he would buy a half pint of bourbon and we would meet at midnight and we’d spend from midnight to 4:00 a.m. getting our witnesses prepared, so Tom was really quite skilled and knowledgeable. And then what that did, of course, is that it made Abbie and Jerry. There was no question that there was some bad blood between the various defendants.
Jonathan Amarilio: The way you’re describing it is very interesting because it sounds like the defendants were driving the trial strategy and not the lawyers. You had legendary civil rights lawyer Bill Kunstler as your attorney, but the way you’re describing it, it sounds like he wasn’t getting the witnesses prepared to testify. It was Tom Hayden which is very unusual.
John Froines: Yeah, no question. The counselor was not very active. He’s a showman with a strong personality, but he’s not a good lawyer like Lenny Weinglass was. Lenny Weinglass was just as smart as you can find and so, we went to Lenny for any decisions about what was going on. So, counselor basically was seen as a showperson whereas Lenny was a lawyer’s lawyer. And we basically wanted the trial to be a straight trial. We wanted it to be conservative. So, the fact of the matter is there wasn’t much in the way of disruption even though people had thought past what would occur, but we were relatively conservative in so many ways.
Jonathan Amarilio: Well, at one point, Abbie Hoffman did a headstand on counsel table, didn’t he?
John Froines: Right, right.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, there were definitely some antics going on.
John Froines: Well, for example, my — we had mail brought in the courtroom and so, one morning I got a box, it was a 15-pound box, and everybody said, “Don’t open it. Don’t open it. It’s going to be a bomb and you’re going to have everybody get killed.” As it turned out, it was my mother who’s from California who sent me 15 pounds of jelly beans. So, there are things that happened. But in general, the other thing that was noteworthy was Dave Dellinger lost his bail.
And that was too bad because we needed Dave to give speeches, but he was — towards the end of the trial, he was in jail and not available.
Jonathan Amarilio: And that was because he punched a marshal, correct?
John Froines: No, he gave a speech. And I could be wrong about this, but he gave a speech in I think Wisconsin as a guest. His speech was critical, so the judge removes his bail as a result.
Jennifer Byrne: So, it sounds like there was some disagreement between the defendants as you were executing and preparing your defense strategy. But in the end, what do you think your relationship with the other defendants was as a result of all being involved in this?
John Froines: Well, we were playing to the media clearly. There was enormous interest on the part of the media up for the trial, so in a certain sense, one of the things that characterized the entire trial was interest on the part of the news media so that every day people would be interviewed by the news media. For example, there was a Chicago sometimes reporter who interviewed me and pointed out the fact that I was a pretty well-known chemist. And so in general, the mass media was always there. And it’s interesting because the first night when people were in Lincoln Park, I saw a Chicago policeman beat a news reporter and I knew at that point that we were going to — we had won. We had won the battle we are going to be going through because when you have mass media on your side, obviously, the mass media played a crucial role. We would go back to the Chicago 7 office at night and watch ourselves on television. So, there was a lot of personality involved and everything.
Jonathan Amarilio: Would you say that your audience during the trial was more the media rather than the jurors?
John Froines: Yes.
Jennifer Byrne: Well, I guess that kind of brings us to today and the legacy that the trial has left the social imprint and the impact that we’re seeing reflected in today’s events. And I’m just curious, do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to? Do you feel like the message that you were intending to deliver by way of getting a lot of media attention for your cause was accomplished?
John Froines: Yes, I think it was very successful although obviously it had a reputation that was probably greater than what it actually accomplished. But I think the trial really did affect people’s lives and it affected the anti-war movement and it affected the Vietnam peace treaty that was beginning under Nixon. Now the question is, what about now? One of the things that was true of the MOBE and demonstrations in general is we had really a very significant organizational structure. We had a lot of people giving money. For example, Richard Avedon, the photographer who gave us I think it was about $10,000 and it came as a Christmas card with our pictures on it. And so, it was characteristic and he was a really good guy.
Jonathan Amarilio: John, let me ask a similar question. It’s actually from my parents when I told them I was going to talk to you, they were very excited, and they had one question and it’s this: Looking back on this 52 years later, was it worth it? Would you do it again? The events of the 1968 convention were credited with playing right into Richard Nixon’s hands and his electoral strategy and thus, giving him the White House. You mentioned before that you thought it had a positive impact toward ending the Vietnam War, but I’ll end where I began with the question, was it worth it?
John Froines: Yes. It was terrific. I’d do it tomorrow. I could because it really was a special. It’s interesting you have lots of questions and your questions have gotten more deeply into a lot of the issues that went on and so, that’s really useful I think. It’s different now. Now we have massive demonstrations, hundreds of thousands, if not, millions of people, but what I’m trying to get at was we had lots of money in the ‘60s and it’s not clear to me whether students like, for example, in what’s that place in Florida?
Jennifer Byrne: The Parkland students?
John Froines: Yeah, the Parkland students. The question is, are they active? Are they able to function? It’s difficult — I mean, most people have jobs and families and what have you, and the question is, can the kids who are now in the forefront, can they build an organization and effectively as we did? So, I think that it’s very difficult to build political organization. And in France, you have the French Communist Party and you have left-swing groups throughout Europe, and the question of how can we create organizational structures and raise funds and develop teaches and what have you, and that’s the challenge that I think is a challenge that it needs to be addressed.
Jonathan Amarilio: Sure.
Jennifer Byrne: Has America gotten anywhere since the 1960s? Because to me it sort of feels like we’re running in place and we keep hitting the same walls. It sounds, from what you said, that you accomplished what you set out to with the trial because — and correct me if I’m not paraphrasing this right, but you did sway the tide of public opinion, you and some other events that occurred with respect to the Vietnam War. But today, we’re still looking at many of the same problems, especially when we reflect on the incidents that occurred with Bobby Seale in the courtroom and what we’re looking at with the racial injustice we see in our institutions today. Have we gotten anywhere and, if not, why not?
John Froines: Well, it’s really interesting, isn’t it? Intellectually, the question is, you have literally tens of thousands not millions of people protesting at this point. But it’s a different ball game the Chicago trial was. I think that it’s going to be difficult to maintain an organized structure, but on the other hand, there are so many people involved that you hope for the best. I’m optimistic, but I also recognize the fact that building organizations is something that it’s difficult to lead.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, one last question, John, and then we’ll let you go because you’ve been really generous with your time. If you had one message that you could give young people who are protesting today, what would it be?
John Froines: Oh, boy, well, I guess you have to argue that somehow we need to build an organization such that it has really some stability and it’s difficult to do that.
Jonathan Amarilio: That’s all we have for today. John Froines, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a real pleasure.
John Froines: Glad to help. This was a real pleasure. It’s nice to see some of the work we did was really — it had some meaning to it, so it’s a good news story.
Jonathan Amarilio: It is. Thank you, sir.
Jennifer Byrne: Thank you.
John Froines: Sure.
Jonathan Amarilio: Take care, john.
John Froines: Thank you.
Jonathan Amarilio: And that is our show for today. I want to thank our guest, Professor John Froines, for this still topical and ever interesting conversation about the events of August 1968. I also want to thank my co-host and executive producer Jen Byrne, Adam Lockwood on sound and everyone at the Legal Talk Network family.
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