Opinion | When Mob Inciters Become Lions of the Left

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Opinion | When Mob Inciters Become Lions of the Left

The Chicago Seven were countercultural heroes in the 1960s. They thumbed their noses through one of the country’s most notorious political trials, taunting the judge and making a mockery of the proceedings with flippant courtroom pranks.

Aaron Sorkin

wrote and directed a movie about them last year, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which will probably win a few Oscars.

One thing people forget about the Chicago Seven is that most of them were guilty.

Jerry Rubin

admitted as much later: “We wanted disruption. We planned it. . . . We were guilty as hell. Guilty as charged.”

The crime they were accused of was crossing state lines to incite a riot. The defendants believed that Vice President

Hubert Humphrey’s

1968 nomination for presidency was illegitimate. Nominations in those days were decided not by primaries but by backroom deals among party power brokers. The antiwar movement believed that a more democratic process would have produced a candidate opposed to the Vietnam War.

The question was whether the violent clashes between protesters and police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were an unfortunate consequence of peaceful marching that got out of hand, or whether the organizers intended for things to get violent.

In February 1970, a jury convicted the five ringleaders—Rubin,

Abbie Hoffman,

Tom Hayden,

David Dellinger

and

Rennie Davis.

Peaceful protest is one thing, but attempting to disrupt a legitimate election procedure by violent intimidation is never acceptable. After last week’s incursion at the Capitol, can the rest of us finally agree?

Federal prosecutors had good reason for thinking the defendants had arrived in Chicago intending to incite violence. The Youth International Party, or Yippies—young radicals with whom some of the Seven associated—handed out flyers with maps of the convention venue, as well as local hotels, with the annotation: “Break in Break in Break in. . . . Security precautions taken by Convention bigwigs are a farce.” Mr. Davis, whom Mr. Sorkin’s film depicts as the nice one, in contrast with wild men Hoffman and Rubin, told a reporter that storming the convention hall was “obviously not out of the question.”

In the event, no one did storm the convention hall. But that was in part because turnout for the protest was much smaller than expected. Rubin originally predicted 500,000 attendees for the Yippies’ “Festival of Life,” which wasn’t outlandish considering that they hoped to book big-name musical acts like

Janis Joplin

and

Bob Dylan.

(In 1969, Woodstock attracted more than 400,000 people.) Mr. Davis more soberly planned for up to 100,000.

Actual turnout was one-tenth of that. Buses chartered by Mr. Davis’s organization to bring protesters from out of town went empty. Word had gone out that the Chicago protest would be a bad scene.

Rolling Stone publisher

Jann Wenner

wrote a column urging readers to boycott the convention, accusing Hoffman of “exploiting rock and roll for his own power trip.” An old friend of Rubin’s wrote an open letter in the alternative press accusing him of enticing naive protesters to Chicago knowing it would be a bloodbath. Three years earlier, Rubin had reacted with pleasure at an Oakland, Calif., protest when a young man was almost run over by a troop train, reportedly saying, “If he dies, it will be great publicity!” Former comrades suspected Rubin had fantasies of being America’s

Lenin.

All but one of the bands booked for the festival dropped out when it looked as if Mayor

Richard J. Daley

would refuse to grant the Yippies a permit, which also reduced turnout. Mr. Sorkin’s movie depicts the Daley machine’s dithering about the permits as an example of underhanded behavior, but by keeping the number of protesters low, it spared Chicago a far worse disaster. If hundreds of thousands of protesters had been in the streets, storming the convention hall would have been a realistic possibility.

America came very close to seeing the nominating convention of a major political party violently disrupted, potentially altering its choice of nominee. Those worst-case scenarios didn’t materialize, but as the prosecutors argued, should the revolutionaries have gotten away scot-free just because their plans were thwarted?

Opposing violent disruption of legitimate political procedures should be something everyone can agree on. But it’s hard to commit to that basic principle when the left is still making rosy biopics about men who did exactly that.

Ironically, the Chicago protesters ended up getting what they wanted. Humphrey was nominated, but by 1972 the Democrats (and the Republicans) had altered their nomination process to give greater power to the average voter rather than party insiders, just as the New Left wanted. After all, they had a point. The old method was undemocratic.

It would be good for the republic if the millions of Trump voters who harbor doubts about the election were able to extract similar concessions. Tightening up voting procedures and reducing the use of mail-in ballots would make elections less vulnerable to fraud. But any legitimate points they had will now be ignored, thanks to the double standard that has existed since the 1960s: Only one side of politics gets to romanticize its violent revolutionaries. It would be better if neither did.

Ms. Andrews is author of “Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.”

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