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Court of Chaos

A new memoir by Lee Weiner — the member of the Chicago Seven that was actually from the city — gives fresh insight into how the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests and trial really went down.

Six of the seven goof around outside the Federal Center in February 1970, near the trial’s end. From left: John Froines, Lee Weiner, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, and Tom Hayden.   Photo: William Yates/Chicago Tribune

1 Chicago’s segregation helped radicalize Weiner. A product of South Shore, the welfare caseworker witnessed dire poverty in Black neighborhoods. “Every day … the work I did drove punishing truths into my head about what was wrong in America,” he writes in Conspiracy to Riot: The Life and Times of One of the Chicago 7, out August 4 on Belt Publishing. He found it “gut-wrenching” to see families living in shoddy housing on the South Side, blocks from the Midway Plaisance, “a green moat that separated two worlds.”

2 Magazines were part of the protesters’ defensive arsenal. When activists were preparing for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Weiner’s tasks included training protest marshals to protect crowds. They practiced using rolled-up magazines to shield themselves from police batons. Weiner was “a little doubtful about its practicality.”

3 Weiner hid some evidence. Charged alongside raucous leaders like Abbie Hoffman with conspiring to incite a riot, Weiner became the “quiet defendant” at the famously rowdy trial. But prosecutors planned to show the jury a more menacing image: a shot of him charging at a photographer with his fist raised. During the trial, Weiner removed it from a pile of pictures, slipping it into a book he was reading at the defense table. The jury never saw it.

4 Groucho Marx was asked to testify. Weiner wanted him to teach the courtroom about satire. Groucho said it would be “an honor” but declined, thinking his last name would bias the judge against him.

5 The spectacle didn’t end when they got to Cook County Jail. While Weiner was acquitted of the charges (five of the others were found guilty), he was locked up with the rest after the judge cited them all for contempt of court for their various trial antics. When they reached jail, the high jinks didn’t stop: They “almost immediately” stood on top of tables in the common areas and gave speeches of “defiance,” getting applause and laughter from fellow inmates. They were quickly put into isolation cells. (All of the guilty verdicts were later reversed.)

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