EDGEWATER — For some Chicagoans, Netflix’s new movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7” provides a probing look at one of the most contentious periods in the city’s history.
But for one Edgewater resident, watching the movie is like reliving history — in sometimes painful ways.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the story of the federal conspiracy trial that stemmed from the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention held Downtown. It debuted on the streaming platform Friday.
Following the chaos that took place in Grant Park during the convention, President Richard Nixon’s Department of Justice filed charges against so-called protest leaders. Famous anti-war protesters, including Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, were charged with conspiracy and traveling over state lines to incite a riot.
The 1969 trial, held at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop, is one of the most notorious court cases in American history. It has been retold in numerous movies and documentaries, including the recent Netflix production from acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin.
It is also the subject of a museum exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society, 5358 N. Ashland Ave.
“The Chicago Conspiracy Trial” is a museum exhibit curated by Marjorie Fritz-Birch, an Edgewater resident who was an eyewitness to the times.
Fritz-Birch’s mom, Jean Fritz, was a juror in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Fritz-Birch, then a 20-year-old college student, watched some of the events from the courtroom gallery, she said. The exhibit uses Jean Fritz’s diary to retell the story with first-person accounts and artifacts from the time.
It also highlights the months Jean was sequestered from her family, the surveillance she was under by federal authorities and the threats she faced for siding with the anti-war protesters, Fritz-Birch said.
The film gives a good synopsis of the events leading up to the trial. But it only scratches the surface of the chaos in the courtroom — and the tension in the city and country at the time, she said.
“With an event like this, you have a responsibility to be more factual,” Fritz-Birch said.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” took a number of liberties with the story, Fritz-Birch said.
Among the most glaring is the inclusion of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton as an attendee at the trial. Though Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale was being tried, Hampton was never in attendance, Fritz-Birch said.
The scene where Seale is bound and gagged to his chair after being beaten by U.S. Marshals did happen, Fritz-Birch said. Unlike in the movie, Seale was in restraints for days of the trial. The government did not move to have Seale retried after he first appeared in restraints, as the movie depicts, she said.
Much of the movie focuses on the court case and the chaotic atmosphere that surrounded it. But the movie only begins to touch on the absurdities of the trial, Fritz-Birch said.
For one, the only “celebrity” witness included in the movie is former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, played by Michael Keaton. Not depicted in the movie are actual trial witnesses like Norman Mailer, Pete Seeger, Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary and Judy Collins.
The film highlights some of the theatrics that took place in the courtroom, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin wearing judge’s robes.
Left out was Hoffman doing a handstand in the courtroom and the defendants singing during the trial, Fritz-Birch said.
“There were so many outbursts in the courtroom,” Fritz-Birch said. “They purposefully made it a circus atmosphere to protest the charges and the trial itself.”
During the trial, Fritz-Birch, then an anti-war college student, attended an appearance of Chicago Seven defendant Rennie Davis at Northern Illinois University.
Fritz-Birch asked Davis a question and mentioned she was the daughter of a juror in the trial. That was heard by FBI agents trailing Davis and Fritz-Birch, she said.
At a later court hearing in the trial, U.S. Marshals cornered Fritz-Birch and said her mom would get charged with contempt of court for her daughter’s actions.
“I was a basket case,” she said.
The federal government surveillance of the family is one of Fritz-Birch’s most glaring memories from the time, she said.
Federal agents read the family’s mail and listened to their calls, she said. With her mom sequestered, the family could only visit under the watch of U.S. Marshals.
The family’s address was publicized. Following the eventual dropping of charges against the Chicago Seven, Jean Fritz received hate mail and death threats, Fritz-Birch said.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” does a good job drawing parallels between the late 1960s to today, with issues like police brutality and a highly politicized justice system still raging, Fritz-Birch said.
“Fifty years later, we’re pretty much still in the same place,” she said. “It’s sad how little we learned.”
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