This summer, when the Democratic National Convention nominates its historic candidate for president of the United States, it will be 40 years since the shameful events of the August 1968 convention that turned the streets of Chicago into suffering and mayhem. I was reminded of it the other day when I listened to an interview Fresh Air's Terry Gross did with filmmaker Brett Morgen, whose new animated film, Chicago 10, takes a fresh look at that tragic time in our history.
Bearing in mind that just months earlier both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and the outrage at our involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak, the convention drew many protesters, including the men who would become known as the Chicago Eight - Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner.
Chicago police officers, acting on orders from Mayor Richard Daley, beat protesters to a pulp live on national television which, although hard to believe on one level, on another I have a distinct memory of a certain numbness setting in as our society became more and more polarized and violent.
So why was Graham Nash's powerful solo effort Chicago released in 1971? I've tried to figure it out, but it's not very clear to me, unless Nash just held onto it until he could release it on his first solo album, Songs for Beginners. I've seen some mention made of its purpose being to implore Steve Stills and Neil Young to stop fighting long enough to do a benefit concert in Chicago around that time, but haven't seen anything verifiable on that. Here's the history, though, for those who want to take a trip down memory lane or weren't around and just want to know:
The year after the convention, the Chicago Eight were indicted in federal court on conspiracy charges related to inciting a riot under a new civil rights law. (Said Abbie Hoffman, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch.") Their 5-month-long trial, run essentially as a kangaroo court by Judge Julius Hoffman, degenerated quickly when Seale's various outbursts and lapses in court decorum in seeking to represent himself or delay until his own counsel was available to appear resulted in the infamous decision wherein Seale was bound and gagged for the duration of the trial, an event to which Nash refers in Chicago. (After a point, Seale was severed from the case to be dealt with separately, and the group became known as the Chicago Seven.)
The complicated verdict in early 1970 did result in some convictions, which were eventually overturned by the appeals court in 1972. Anyone interested in the minutiae of the trial has a good resource in law professor Douglas O. Linder's account from the Famous Trials website; it's fascinating stuff.
Getting back to the song ... as I sit here in Ohio waiting for the results of our primary on Tuesday (I stood in line for an hour and a half to vote early yesterday), the anthemic nature of this song taps into my sensibilities right now - a burning belief in Barack Obama, a surrealistically inspiring candidate from Chicago who, if he's given the chance, will - with our help - change the world. Of that, I have no doubt.