Analyzing The Trial of the Chicago 7’s relevance today (Spoilers Included)


Library of Congress/Netflix

From left to right: Donald Trump, the 45th President, and Julius Hoffman, the judge of the Chicago 7 trial, as portrayed by Frank Langella

Hazel Booth, Online Editor

Spoiler Warning

An old, impetuous white man with an inflated sense of importance because of his title tries in vain to silence the voices of people calling attention to the many who have died as a result of their government’s failure. That sentence describes the plot of Aaron Sorkin’s newest movie based on a true story, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but it could just as easily be describing today’s current political climate. President Donald Trump has steadfastly refused to combat COVID-19, resulting in the death of more than 215,000 American citizens. He has made every effort to deny those who call attention to the many dead, and he also denies placing the blame, rightfully, on the system he controls.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” takes place in 1960’s America, a time when people were embroiled in the Vietnam War. The Chicago 7 came to Chicago to protest the nomination of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B Johnson’s VP, by the Democratic Party. The movie follows the politically-motivated trial where the 8  were accused of starting a riot in Chicago after the police had brutalized them. 

The parallels between then and now stand out upon viewing, as the primary antagonist throughout the film is Judge Hoffman, the impetuous old white man, who effectively represents the very same system that the 7 were fighting against. Throughout the film, Hoffman makes remarks similar to those made by many old, impetuous white men currently in charge of the system. Judge Hoffman explains, “You are the first person to accuse me of discriminating against a black man”  after putting Bobby Seale, the leader of the Black Panthers, in chains and gagging him. After Hoffman has Seale beaten, he orders his bailiffs to “deal with him as he should be dealt with.” Going forward to today, Trump argues “I’m the least racist person in the world” when he’s told four young, women of color congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” commenting that they “couldn’t leave fast enough.”

The film also depicts the divide within the 7 on how to best go about fighting against the government: to spit in its face and tear it down, or to fight to change it from within, that exchanging who’s in power is enough. Abbie, a Yippie (the group of hippies most well known for attempting wacky stunts then using that platform for political change), represents the farther left, and Tom Hayden, a student organizer, represents the more conciliatory fight from within the left. This divide persists today, with the two most obvious examples being embodied by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Sanders represents the far left, embracing the socialist label, supporting radical change such as the Green New Deal and advocating significant police reform. It is not a one-to-one comparison with Sanders as he is still within the system himself, but he does stand for the Yippie ideals. Biden, on the other hand, is more moderate and representative of the emphasis on “respect” that Hayden showed throughout the film while at one point being the sole defendant to stand for Hoffman. As the film progresses, Hayden becomes more radical and more supportive of Abbie, who shares the same flavor of his activism and beliefs, showing that one must have a certain willingness to stand up to the system if they hope to change it.

Police brutality is the incident that incites the riots that the 7 are accused of starting. The police on the scene crack open the head of Rennie Davis, one of the 7, when he tries to protect a young black teenager from police. Later in the riots, the police corner and brutalize the 7 and a few others just outside of a luxury bar. Before this brutalization takes place, they remove their badges and nameplates, the only way for them to be identified by name. This too is sadly reminiscent of 2020, with the waves of protests across the country starting after white police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a black man. Even further reminiscent is how the police, equipped with batons, tear gas and guns, turned peaceful protests into riots. Just months earlier they had showed up to armed protests against quarantines with none of that highlighting the hypocrisy of the situation. At one New York Black Lives Matter protest, an NYPD, New York Police Department, vehicle drove into a crowd of protesters, evoking the image of a white supremacist driving into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville. Just like today, the system tied itself in knots attempting to decry the evils of protesters by attempting to pin riots the police started onto protesters themselves, culminating the prosecution of the Chicago 7.

To anyone who thinks that the system is abusing its power to silence those who disagree with it, scapegoating innocents and making a mockery of justice is a thing of the past: open your eyes. It happened then, and it is happening now.