From the Chicago 8 to the Camden 28: Some History of the Great “Political Trials” of the Long 1960s

By Michelle Nickerson,  Loyola University Chicago and Heidelberg Center for American Studies

In October 2020, the streaming service Netflix started making a feature film adaptation of the historic 1969 trial of new left radicals known as the “Chicago 7” available to viewers. In this dramatic production by the celebrated American filmmaker Aaron Sorkin, famous actors played famous activists who faced charges of conspiracy and crossing state lines in order to incite a riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.  Most audience members who tuned in to watch this slice of history probably do not realize, however, that the Chicago 7 episode was one of several political trials that animated the leftist activist landscape of the United States in the 1960s.  From the “Catonsville 9” to the “Harrisburg 7,” the news media covered an onslaught of these place-name-numerals, which indicated a trial location and number of defendants facing charges. The notoriety of the defendants and aggressive behavior of Justice Julius Hoffman attracted widespread interest to the Chicago 7’s trial as it unfolded at the time, and in subsequent historical accounts (Farber, David R. Chicago ’68. University of Chicago Press, 1988).

Vietnam War Protest, Washington D.C.,1967

High school students might encounter the event in their history classrooms and university professors commonly teach it as part of a post-world-war-II American history curriculum. Justice Hoffmann sealed the place of this trial in American memory when he literally ordered Black Panther Bobby Seale to be bound and gagged, which resulted in a mistrial for Seale and made the “Chicago 8” into the “Chicago 7” moving forward.

Americans at the time, however, voraciously consumed news of other political trials which were just as important, in terms of their outcome, though they have not endured in the collective historical memory or scholarship of the 1960s as much as the Chicago 7. Among the most important, described by Supreme Court Justice William Brennan as “one of the great trials of the 20th century,” was that of the Camden 28. This three-month-long event captured the imagination of Americans, who read reports of the arguments, testimony, and motions in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers over the course of February, March, April, and May of 1973. A grand jury had indicted the defendants for breaking into a draft board office, damaging government property, and destroying draft files. The twenty-eight were part of “Catholic Left,” a movement within the larger “Vietnam Resistance” that focused protests against the war specifically on the American system of conscription. It targeted demonstrations against class and race discrepancies in the selective service process that produced military force over-represented by working-class and non-white men. The activists on trial in Camden had been charged in connection with the August 1971 raid of the Federal Building which housed — above the very court room in which they faced their jury — three draft board offices representing adjacent geographical areas in Southern New Jersey. All 28 defendants had been found to, in some way, have participated in the conspiracy to burglarize the upper-story offices that housed selective service operations. Though only eight activists actually broke into the building, many others supported the action by either staking out the site over the summer, furnishing accommodations for the activists to organize or couch surf, providing groceries, transporting the burglars, or supplying tools to assist with the action.

Though mostly forgotten by history, I would argue that the Camden 28 litigated the most successful political trial of this period and, perhaps, the entire twentieth century. A “political trial” is one that its defendants utilize as an opportunity to assert and publicize a political position. Unlike Roe vs. Wade or the “Central Park 5” which are politicized either by the media, political critics, activist supporters, or the prosecution, the defendants in political trials typically proclaim their willingness to face prison for the sake of the political principle. The Camden 28 won a uniform acquittal — the jury ruled all defendants to be “not guilty.”  This decision was shocking and remarkable mostly because the defendants declared, from the outset, that they committed the crime. They refused, moreover, to apologize for the offense.  It is, in fact, worth noting how they sustained control over the course of the trial, both by conducting their own cross and direct examinations of witnesses as well as their own arguments. Though they had strong representation by talented attorneys, several of the defendants did much of the work of representing themselves and each other before the jury. They also succeeded in calling illustrious scholars or nationally recognized activists to serve as witnesses. This all-star lineup included historian Howard Zinn, sociologist Robert J. Lifton, and brother priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan.

The success of the trial can, moreover, be attributed to the unconventional style and behavior of the defendants, who intentionally ignored trial protocol by addressing participants (except the Judge) by their first name, used unconventional evidence like poems and music, and started many trial days by wishing happy birthday to someone in the courtroom. The riskiest and most important decision they made with respect to their defense, however, was to put the Vietnam war on trial. From the first opening arguments to the closing statements, the defendants maintained that the government, not they, had engaged in criminal activity by waging such a deadly and destructive war in Indochina. Most of their case relied on witnesses who, in some way or another, provided testimony of the violence and suffering in Vietnam at the hands of the U.S. military. These tactics were not unique, but in no other trial did defendants maintain such a defense so effectively for weeks on end. They had learned these techniques in part from other trials even more famous, like that of Chicago 7 as well as Black Panther Angela Davis, but in these other instances the presiding Justice blocked the efforts to bring political argumentation into the trial.

The Camden 28 can claim a great deal of responsibility for their victory, but not all of it, since they could leverage advantages – like the safety of their white identity and historical circumstances turning in their favor – not available to the defendants in other political trials.  The Camden 28 can, for example, thank earlier political trials for the tremendous leeway they enjoyed in their performance before the jury. Their judge, U.S. District Court Justice Clarkson Fisher, wanted to avoid mistakes caused by his colleagues on the bench. The conviction of the Chicago 7, later overturned because Judge Julius Hoffman was hostile to all the defendants and overtly racist in his treatment of Bobby Seale, stood as one such outcome that Fisher did not want on his own record. The Camden 28 had expected that Justice Fisher would be obstructive to their case because he was a Republican appointee of Richard Nixon. Fisher thus surprised them, and most other observers, by giving the defendants extremely wide latitude to present almost everything they wanted to — from the slideshow of demolished Vietnamese villages and decrepit Camden row houses to the readings of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his clerks reported years later of how a fuming Justice Fisher, irritated by activist courtroom antics, stormed from the bench into his quarters mumbling about giving the defendants a fair trial whether they deserved it or not. The Camden 28 thus succeeded in their effort to politicize the trial, meaning that they took advantage of the court’s and public’s attention to show the atrocities of the war.

Victims of the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War

A third important reason for their success was the mix of race, class, ethnic, and religious identity. Though the twenty-eight included many students and temporary college dropouts, they and their middle-aged cohorts were mostly working-class Catholics. They included a handful of priests and a nun. Black Panther Party activists on trial, such as Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, faced unremitting hostility for the threat their organization posed to law enforcement, racial segregation, and white economic privilege. Not so the Camden 28 defendants. Nearly all of them came to the Vietnam Resistance via earlier involvement in the civil rights movement, but their ranks did not include black activists. They did not intentionally aim for a segregated movement and, in fact, did their best in the voir dire stage of the trial to secure a racially and economically diverse jury. Though racial injustice had been a central motivating factor for their political activism, they found each other and their movement in the mostly white world of American Catholicism.  They could, moreover, engage in risky criminal behavior with the reasonable expectation that they would face jail time, but probably not get shot and killed. Black activists could expect a different outcome, like that of Black Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago, who was shot more than twenty times by Chicago police while the Chicago 7 trial was underway. White racial identity and Catholic backgrounds thus helped the Camden 28 defendants to create the informal “living room” atmosphere, as they called it, in Justice Fisher’s courtroom.

More surprising than the allowances by Judge Fisher was the successful verdict won by the Camden 28. The jury completely disregarded the instructions of the Judge to rule on the break-in and ultimately rendered a “not guilty” verdict, a move known in the American legal system as jury nullification. Juries have a right to rule as they wish, a tradition in the United States that dates back to British courts in the colonies, though they rarely choose to spurn the charges for which they are convened. After the jury foreman read the verdict to a shocked courtroom, tearful supporters of the defendants hugged each other and spontaneously began singing “Amazing Grace.” Some of the jurors surprised observers by making no attempt to hide the affection they had developed for the defendants over the course of three months, accepting hugs from them and, later that evening, joining them at parties to celebrate the verdict. Such highly unusual behavior would usually be avoided for fear of raising questions with respect to their impartiality, but the jury handed down its decision in a moment when the American public was less likely to scrutinize them. The release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 revealed that they federal government had been lying to the public about the war in Vietnam. The Watergate investigations against President Nixon that had recently broken moreover softened public perceptions of antiwar activists. As trust in the government had reached an all-time low, it seemed less important to punish protestors who worked to expose its crimes. By taking full responsibility for the break-in and demonstrating the non-violent tactics that they maintained throughout the action, the indicted twenty-eight could easily challenge any prosecutor or critic trying to cast them as dishonest or unprincipled, especially in contrast to the Nixon administration.

No other trial at the time managed to both draw such attention from the media and also win a resounding victory for its defendants. The trial then mostly vanished from history as the activists went their separate ways. The lack of celebrity status partly explains their disappearance. Unlike the Chicago 7 and Angela Davis, none of defendants became well-known outside of their circles. Oral histories I conducted with several of the Camden 28 defendants indicate that they were generally quite happy to put the trial in their past and live the new lives that the jury had granted them without putting that freedom at risk again.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the trial, it behooves us to reconsider the impact of the Camden 28. They are worth the attention of scholars precisely because they lacked celebrity and ceased ongoing activism in a shared movement. For a short few years, these non-professionals managed to make themselves into temporary yet highly-effective jurists. Their activism and trial did not end the war, stop U.S. military interventions in distance lands, or force the selective service office to close. They did, however, contribute to the larger Vietnam Resistance movement that stopped the government from drafting men to fight in wars. This is the small but valuable part that they aimed to play in this larger history, and it demonstrates how Americans operating outside the halls of power can have meaningful collective influence.


References

Header Image: Anti-War March at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1968.

Vietnam War Protest, Washington D.C., 1967.

My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.


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