Talking Protest and Revolution with Chicago 7’s Lee Weiner
A protest leader and Chicago 7 trial codefendant has a new book, ‘Conspiracy to Riot’
Chicago 7/Conspiracy 8 activist, protester and codefendant Lee Weiner’s memoir Conspiracy to Riot came out last week. It barely made a splash in U.S. media, who seem more intent on building hype for movies such as the Aaron Sorkin and Sacha Baron Cohen drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” due next month, and “Judas and the Black Messiah,” due in 2021.
While I talked to him in February, before the pandemic and huge protests in the streets, Weiner’s book, and his take on the late 1960s protest movements, are highly relevant to a protest-heavy 2020.
The historic protest leader, Chicago 7/Conspiracy 8 codefendant, former Rutgers professor and Anti-Defamation League staffer is still sharp, a highly intelligent, highly political, Leftist Jewish grandfather vaguely reminiscent of a crankier, more-radical Bernie Sanders.
“I like [Bernie],” Weiner (pronounced WINE-er) told me. “I mean, what the fuck, he’s an old Jewish socialist. What’s there not to like about him? Fuck, for all I know he was in the fucking streets with me in Chicago. I wonder if anybody ever asked him.”
But whereas Sanders has spent a lifetime in Congress, Weiner was accused by federal officials of making incendiary devices during the Chicago 7 trial.
Weiner is among the lesser-known Chicago 7/Conspiracy 8 codefendants, who included Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis and John Froines. He jokes that in Sorkin’s new movie, he’ll be played by a “hairy scarecrow,” or “automaton-dummy.”
What Weiner knows is highly relevant right now, as protests and “riots” careen from my Portland to Weiner’s Chicago, as intertwined antifascist, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements rivet the nation, a half-century after the nation was similarly upended.
Weiner’s book is worth interest for what it reveals about the nature of activism, protest, the complex process of creating political change, and, inevitably, state repression.
“Power doesn’t change,” Weiner told me. “They want to destroy, humiliate and denigrate — delegitimize — alternative solutions and different ways of living, being, that threaten the existing power. That was true then, it’s true now. People resisted then, and people are resisting now.”
“Hopefully even more effectively than we were able to manage then.”
One thing Weiner’s book makes clear, in his writings both about the Chicago of his childhood and political coming-of-age and about the Chicago 7 trial itself, is this: Race matters.
It matters in protest. It matters now, of course, in an era when any Black person may suddenly find themself a target of lethal police violence over a $20 bill. But it also mattered greatly in 1968, when Bobby Seale became the epicenter of the trial that made Weiner’s fame. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t the only one assassinated then, remember. Malcolm X was killed. Fred Hampton and another Black Panther were killed even as Weiner sat in jail.
The first chapter of his book is titled, “A Semi-Tough Jewish Kid from Chicago’s South Side.” Weiner writes that one park in the Chicago of his youth was “a green moat that separated two worlds, [one] desperately poor, oppressed, and black; the other comfortably middle-class, academic, and white.”
In his early career, Weiner worked in the black “projects” of Cabrini-Green, which would eventually come to symbolize for those on the political right all that is evil about public housing.
But Weiner’s book also makes clear the crucial role Black codefendant Bobby Seale played in the trial. Seale, infamously, was bound and gagged during the trial in Judge Julius Hoffman’s slavery-reprising attempt to stop him from making frequent comments, interjections and outbursts about what a sham the whole proceeding was.
One of the most dramatic moments of the trial was when the court bailiffs’ violence against Seale finally caused Weiner and his codefendants to lose their cool: “Bobby said something through the gag like, ‘You’re kneeing me in the balls,’” Weiner writes. “Despite our promises not to intervene, that was the ball game.”
Such down and dirty policework is hardly unknown today. On July 4 in Portland, hip-hop emcee Mic Crenshaw warned listeners that police were aiming their weapons at people’s genitals.
After Judge Julius Hoffman separated out Seale’s case from the rest, Weiner writes, the whole process felt “hollowed-out.”
The Chicago 7/Conspiracy 8 trial was significant for many reasons, one of which was that in their mad attempt to control the uncontrollable, federal, state and Chicago city officials in the late 1960’s decided to make an example out of the broadest possible range of activists, from Seale’s Black militancy to Dellinger’s peacenik nonviolence to Hoffman’s hilarity-loving Yippies to Hayden’s radical SDS or Students for a Democratic Society to Weiner’s academic and tactical contribution. By doing so, on the heels of a contentious and protest-embroiled convention, they inadvertantly created a a trial for the ages, a media spectacle, and a whole cottage industry of which Weiner is just the latest (and perhaps among the last) participant.
Just as the civil rights movements of the early 1960s helped birth the wider collective action of the late 1960s, Seale’s defiant attitude and racial consciousness-raising during the trial was a big part of what made it required viewing for millions.
The way in which Black militancy has sparked wider protests that encompass goals outside of race has been, perhaps, a case of history repeating itself in recent months. #BlackLivesMatter has, in many ways, been the spark that has lit the match to a much broader movement.
Similarly, now as then, some are more—or less—inclined to violence than others.
After the police killings of Fred Hampton and another Black Panther, Weiner writes, he felt “anger and desperation,” and bought a shotgun. On July 4, I listened to a hip-hop emcee at a rally in Lownsdale Square in downtown Portland exhort the crowd to plant zucchini—and go buy guns.
This question of tactics, both on the part of the protesters, and a repressive state apparatus led by police, federal law enforcement and National Guard members, is arguably the key to the success, or failure, of protest movements.
Weiner codefendant Dave Dellinger believed that nonviolence is not only morally and ethically superior to taking up arms (or lighting fires) against the government, it’s more effective.
Weiner’s take is, like antifa’s “St. Paul Principles,” more nuanced.
Weiner played the role of a kind of de facto strategic leader in the 1968 protests outside the Democratic National Convention. “We taught the kids to use rolled-up magazines — I remember using an issue of Ramparts — to block a policeman’s downward-swinging club,” he writes. The protests featured Japanese “snake dances,” a presidential “nominee” named “Pigasus” (a 145-pound pig), music and many other strategies.
Similarly creative tactics have been used by many groups in recent waves of protests; here in Portland alone, they’ve included the “Wall of Moms,” the “Banana Bloc” or “Unpresidented Marching Band,” anime cosplay, humorous signs, milkshakes, music, snack vans and media savvy.
These days, hilarity is one tactical position of the many marchers, more confined to daylight hours; the other edge happens more at night, and dons gas masks, holding shields, lighting fires and aiming laser pointers.
During the 1968 protests, Weiner writes, he told federal marshals, including an undercover cop, that “my car, with its tank of gasoline, a six-pack container of thin-glassed soda bottles in the back seat along with a pile of dirty clothes and a high phosphate laundry soap like Tide was all we needed to seriously contest the ownership of the streets.”
While neither was a star of the Chicago trial, it was actually Weiner, and University of Oregon chemistry professor John Froines, who faced the heaviest legal charges relating to the protests: making incendiary devices. As Weiner writes, they were the only non-First Amendment-related charges, and therefore gave the government a chance of winning a case that otherwise could easily have been thrown out on First Amendment grounds alone.
Here in Portland, a hard-core cadre of perhaps 500 well-organized, black-clad agitators continues to assemble into a nightly cutting edge for the movement. Last weekend it lit the Portland Police Union headquarters on fire, again.
The response by police and other state actors, then as now, has been violent.
Back in 1968, Chicago police, Weiner wrotes, Chicago police didn’t just crack skulls with billy clubs. They also “borrowed a gas-dispensing machine of some sort from the army, rigged it onto a garbage truck, and then sent the truck into the park.”
Here in Portland, officers have used a leaf blower to dispense tear gas.
If you haven’t tasted it, that stuff is vicious. So much of it has been used in the Chapman-Lownsdale area of downtown Portland between the federal courthouse, county courthouse, police headquarters and City Hall that it’s now being reported as a possible environmental hazard.
But the tear gas is nothing compared to some of the injuries sustained by protesters at the hands of police apparently firing rubber bullets and other “non-lethal,” but highly injurious, munitions.
Weiner says that such violence is an attempt to shore up or conceal the shaky foundations of the entire edifice.
“The political structures, structures of power, the organization of authority, power, economics, are shaky. They were shaky then, and they’re shaky now, because people then and people now are increasingly angry and willing to act against them to make change.”
The in-fighting, the drug use, and the cooptation are the things that typically bring down American collective action movements. The Chicago 7 trial was followed by some serious redrawing of political lines in the movement, including racial, class and gender lines. The fractures are visible in Weiner’s book Conspiracy to Riot.
For example, Weiner writes that he was devastated by the police killings of Fred Hampton and another Black Panther while still in jail, and so his sister tried to bring him “a consoling box of Frango Mints,” a fancy dark chocolate candy and favorite treat the two shared from Marshall Fields, “the grand department store on State Street in the Loop.”
The idea of using fancy chocolates as a palliative for trauma and grief suggests how much class may separate activists, especially across the color line. How many in Chicago’s Black community reacted to Hampton’s killing this way?
In addition, Weiner’s relationships with women, and four failed marriages, appear a cause for contrition in the book. During the trial’s “windup,” Weiner writes, he left his wife and their young son, following the spectacle and leaving behind a child.
This dynamic is also playing out already in this go-around; one minor example is the division and in-fighting in the “Wall of Moms” group here in Portland, which has included both racial and class aspects.
Then there’s (as always) drugs.
While the sixties are known for their trippy, acid-and-marijuana culture, at one point in Weiner’s book, he bemoans the use of hallucinogenics. He writes that “the hard-core political radicals who, like me, also regularly indulged in recreational drugs and hallucinogenics failed terribly in not explicitly and consistently condemning the use of certain drugs, or discouraging the apolitical, smiling quietude that some of those drugs promised.”
In 2020, amidst the continuing protests that have rocked downtown Portland and gained national attention, there has been little or no focus on drugs. It’s probable this is because marijuana is legal in Oregon, and normalized. But the amount of cannabis smoke in the air at Portland’s protests has been a frequent reminder that more than a few are high as kites.
People who are high do not act with a great seriousness of purpose. If we celebrate radical protesters like King, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez or Mahatmas Gandhi—or, for that matter, the legions of Southern black church ladies upon whose back, Angela Davis notes, civil rights leaders like King stood—we are celebrating their gravity, and their sobriety.
In Weiner’s case, the sensation of the trial was followed not long after, as he notes, by a 1972 Miami convention notable for excess, apathy, inebriation.
Then there’s the question of commercialization.
Quoting Robert Newman, Weiner notes that capitalism can “always coopt a movement’s reformists and isolate its radicals.” Will Colin Kaepernick’s recent signing with Disney (after Nike) become an example of capitalist cooptation of the Black Lives Matter movement? History has shown that profit has a way of making the purest cause either more toxic, less impactful, or both.
In his interview, as in his book, Weiner sounds sorry at times that the protests of 1968 didn’t lead to deeper change, instead of Richard Nixon.
“I’ve managed to apologize to all my kids at not having done a better job at revolution,” he told me. “Right? Sorry. But people are joyfully, happily, strongly, with courage and strength, engaged in the same kinds of struggles [today] and antifa folks are three steps beyond, four steps beyond [laughs] — why not seven steps beyond? — where much of the dissident political movement in the late ’60s was.”
Weiner says he has at least one child living in the Portland area. Even back in February, it sounded like he was hearing more than a little about antifa.
“Look. There were people [in the late Sixties] who robbed banks and blew up buildings, and themselves, and talked literally fighting back. But. There were damn few instances of those kinds of [modern] physical confrontations on the street, of antifascist counter work on the streets. That’s certainly more common now than it was then. Also the breadth of issues and the felt urgency, some of those issues are exactly the same.”
Weiner says he wonders at times if he too is cut from the antifa cloth:
“My private questions are, if I was younger, would my political commitments and perspective have me on the street dressed in black? The truth is that I ain’t on the street; I’m barely on the fucking sidewalk. So I can’t answer that question.”
In any case, Weiner says, protesters needn’t worry when pundits or politicians bemoan things like “polarization.”
“Polarization? Excuse me? People wouldn’t get on an elevator with me. Now, I ain’t blaming them, because I looked like a fucking maniac. But still, you know. I was white. (Laughs.) So people should have gotten on. LGBTQ, women’s movement, all that stuff strengthened, changed, became stronger in those days. And they are similarly changing and becoming stronger now. I mean, in 69, right before the trial, but after the convention, Stonewall happened.”
The radicalization of the public space is part of making change, Weiner says.
“One of the first public speeches I made after I was indicted was at a gay rights rally. That strengthening of people’s commitment to their better natures, to their hopes, and not acceding to their fears, is, I’d like to believe, one of the half-assed, partially understood, but still viable legacies of that time.”
Below is a partial interview of my interview with Weiner on Valentine’s Day, when a whole new world was just a breath, and a shout, away.
Partial Transcript, Phone Interview with Lee Weiner Feb. 14, 2020:
In 2018 you told Time that the Chicago protests were “the only time in my life I thought a revolution might happen in the United States.” Do you think there’s any chance of one now?
One goddamn night. August 28th. One goddamn night. Do I think it’s possible? Look. If I’m … no, I’m not going to say that. Because you’re recording. Clever me. I’m shutting my fucking mouth. Because I was about to say something that would be sure to be a lede for you. I’m not as good at this game as I used to be, but I still ain’t bad.
I’d like to think so. I think it’s necessary. I don’t believe that we have yet developed a strategy to overthrow private wealth, concentrated private wealth and government power. I don’t think a strategy has been worked out yet. I wish it had, but it hasn’t.
I have fond hopes, but that’s what they are. If I get truly wrecked, you know, a little tequila, a little weed, manage to score some mescaline, you know, that particular evening, as I’m laying down with a huge smile on my face, I might be able to think that such a thing might happen. But normally, nah. Not yet. Not now. Irrespective of my wishes and hopes.
For those who would dream of either substantial changes to the sociopolitical structure of this country, or an outright revolution …
Uh uh, no no, no fair, no fair. Big difference. Big difference.
You can start talking about fucking substantial change and progressive change, but when you start talking about revolution … You know what I think the difference between progressive change and revolution is? Revolution doesn’t lie. It doesn’t hide the fact that in a revolution, some people get hurt.
The losers get hurt. Progressive social change kind of hints around at that, but oh well, so you’ll only have one billion dollars left instead of 64 billion. That’s not really hurting. In revolution, his kids are going to be sent to revolution to work on a fucking farm, and he’s going to be drawn and quartered on television. So I mean, yeah, there’s a difference. [Laughs]
What are your hopes for the book?
My hopes for the book are that it prompts a hard-left revolution in the United States and ends up with every fourth banker being strung up on lampposts, and taunted, and starved until they die. That’s my hopes. Don’t put that in your fucking article.
Is that the mescaline talking, or the lack of mescaline?
The lack of mescaline. I mean look. Obviously, I’m writing this to strengthen people who are currently in the political struggle. Right? That’s why I’m writing it, to drive some sense of some of the things we did worked, some of them didn’t work. And I’m hoping what I’m writing will help encourage people to fight stronger and fight better. I think it’s worth more now than it has been in the past. I didn’t write this fucking book before. I’m writing it now. But I do think there are many people who are mobilized, mobilizing and are mobilizable — Jesus Christ, what a weird combination of words. I think people are readier now, to act, politically, and effectively, and I hope that they do, and I hope what I’m writing will encourage that kind of activity. Because what my book is about, is that you can in fact live your life on the Left. You can in fact be political. You should be political. It’s the only way of living your life.
Who’s your favorite Democrat right now?
(Laughs) You’re not the only person who has asked this question. I usually give a rotating answer. I can’t remember where I am in the rotation. I suppose somewhere Warren-Bernie, Bernie-Warren. I think Warren’s not going to … it doesn’t smell good for Warren’s campaign.
So you’re not feeling the Bern?
No. I’m not feeling the Bern. I like him. I mean, what the fuck, he’s an old Jewish socialist. What’s there not to like about him? Really. My brother. Boom, boom. [Imitating pounding chest?] Fuck, for all I know he was in the fucking streets with me in Chicago. I wonder if anybody ever asked him.
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