The horror of Bobby Seale’s gagging by Judge Julius Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s timely film, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an image of what Black Lives Matter is fighting against. It’s an image of how being silenced provokes rage. The history and trial speak for themselves. But, as a psychoanalyst, I can talk about how personal historical forces in your mind sometimes create violent opposition to speaking out, thinking for yourself, and being who you are. You, any of us, can feel we’re “on trial” for our thoughts if we go against what we’ve been taught we “should” (or “should not”) think and believe. So, how do you not be stopped from speaking out? We can learn a lot from the Chicago 8 about what it takes to stand up against forces that want to shut us down.
The defendants in The Trial of the Chicago 7: Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) of the SDS; Dave Dellinger (John Carrol Lynch of National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE); Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin’s (Jeremy Strong) Yippies; and Jon Froines (Danny Flaherty), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) along with Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) of the Black Panthers might have disagreed on a number of things. But they were a force of unity standing up against being silent about the wrongs of the Vietnam War. And, in 1968, they all crossed state borders, with ideas “not machine guns,” as anti-war protesters during the Chicago Democratic Convention.
What “The Trial of the Chicago 7 (8)” Teaches Us
Despite the refusal to issue them permits for peaceful protest by Chicago Mayor Daley’s pawn, David Stahl (Steve Routman), the Chicago 8 did not back down. Do you need the courage of the Chicago 8 to stand up against those old-guard forces in your mind, not unlike Daley and Stahl, that tell you: “No! BE QUIET. Stay in your box?”
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (8) has a lot to teach us about getting the courage to break free.
Some of the sequences in The Trial of the Chicago 7 have been factually disputed. To honor Aaron Sorkin’s vision, I will use the partially fictionalized version of the film.
Old (Internal) Forces That Try to Gag You
Your personal history can make speaking out or thinking for yourself difficult. Many things might conspire to silence you – a parent, difficult social experiences, your fears.
After Fred Hampton, Chicago head of the Black Panthers, is executed, Bobby Seale asks Tom Hayden an interesting question about himself and the other white activists:
“You all had the same father, right? ‘Cut your hair, respect authority, respect America, respect me.’ Your life is a ‘fuck you to your father, right? A little?” Tom replies: “Maybe.” Bobby goes on: “And you can see how that’s different from a rope on a tree?”
It’s harder to stand up to hateful forces, to any kind of abuse. Standing up to parents when you need their love and are afraid of losing them isn’t easy either. When you grow up with certain “rules,” or societal attitudes, they become insistent voices in your minds.
Those voices aren’t easy to defy or shake. In fact, they can gag you, even though you’re angry and need to speak up. It’s important to break free. We see it happening when Bobby Seale screams in the courtroom, “Fred Hampton was assassinated last night. It was pre-meditated murder,” after the Judge tries to “strongly caution” him into silence.
For expressing his understandable outrage, Bobby’s beaten and chained by Marshalls, brought back into the courtroom with a large gag on his mouth: an example not to defy “authority.” We have judges in our heads, too, that gag us if we try to speak our minds.
Twisting Truth Stops You from Speaking Out
Being gagged, threatened, scared, by the rules of those old internal “authorities” gives you two choices: Shut up, don’t step out of line. Or, refuse to listen, like Bobby Seale. But there are many “methods” that can intimidate you. We see some of those in the film.
One is twisting the truth, even using your own words or feelings against you, creating doubt. We see it when Tom Hayden is blamed for starting the Chicago riots: “If there’s going to be blood, let them see blood all over the city.” He meant, “Let them see our blood …” He meant they’d face police violence if they had to, not to stop speaking out.
Another example? Letters sent to jurors 6 and 11. “We are watching you,” signed The Panthers. It’s a twist on: “The World is Watching,” the anti-war protestors’ own chant.
“Black Panthers don’t write letters any more than the mob does,” William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), the Chicago 7’s angered defense attorney protests. Manipulating truth is one way to try to stop you. You need people like Kunstler who see reality and back you up, so you don’t get scared and “club,” judge, and berate yourself into silence.
Internal “Guns” Pointed at You (Clubs to Berate You)
It’s a rare person who grows up without “shoulds” or rules of life laid down before you. We all soak them in from parents, teachers, or friends we want to emulate. I “should be like this or that …” is a running dialogue inside you. You want to be free to protest.
But the fight in your mind can feel no different than landing in the kind of “police state” Walter Cronkite called Chicago in August 1968, during the Democratic Convention. When you try to speak up, it’s as if you have walls of police standing in front of you with guns drawn, like the ones coming at the protestors – clubbing you, beating you back.
It’s important to have your voice. As Abbie says: “You know when shit happens? When you don’t give protesters a place to go.” We all need “a place to go” and people to listen. If we don’t, it creates a war, inside you and in the world. If you have to “Be Quiet, Sit Down!” as Judge Hoffman continually orders Kunstler and Seale, nothing can change.
Finding Some Courage Like “Ramsey Clark”
Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) knows he’s the Chicago 7’s star witness. But it takes courage to speak out when there are threatening forces standing in front of you – like the Justice Department officials in his office: “It’s against the law to testify, Ramsey.”
Tom Hayden tells him: “You have to find some courage – now.” So, to the officials: “It’s General Clark – and arrest me or shut the fuck up …” He turns to Tom,x “found some.”
General Clark testifies to the truth: “An investigation came to the conclusion that the riots were started by the Chicago Police. There was no conspiracy by the defendants.” His testimony isn’t allowed on record by the Judge. Yet, don’t let anyone silence you.
Don’t Be Quiet – Your Life Depends on It
It may feel like a revolution inside you, to speak out about what you believe. But remember what Abbie Hoffman says? When asked his price to call off the revolution: “My Life.” Your voice is your life. Don’t let anyone or anything silence you.
You have a right to your thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. As Abbie also says: “We had certain ideas and for that we were gassed, beaten, arrested, and put on trial.” Being on trial for your thoughts, as the Chicago 7 (8) were, or the color of your skin is enraging.
Use your rage well, like Tom Hayden at the end of The Trial of the Chicago 7. He defies (the incompetent) Judge Hoffman’s instructions to be “respectful, show remorse, and be brief.” Instead, Tom stands up and does it his way.
“Since this trial began, 4,752 troops have been killed in Vietnam and the following are their names.” The helpless Judge pounds his gavel. But Tom Hayden does not stop.
Don’t listen to the Judge in your head who spouts old rules and tries to stop you. Now’s the time to get some courage. Stand up for your own truth. Take back your voice.