The spring of 1970 was an intense time to be a radical in Seattle. The members of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) knew that all too well on the date in focus here, when eight of them were indicted by a federal grand jury for the charge of conspiracy to incite a riot.
The SLF was a radical anti-Vietnam War organization formed in January 1970 at the University of Washington. The indictments were prompted by a demonstration in front of the United States Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle on February 17, 1970. The demonstration was organized by the SLF to protest the controversial Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, the verdict of which was expected that same day. During the demonstration, approximately 2,000 protesters clashed with Seattle police, pelting the courthouse and the police with rocks and paint bombs, and leading to 76 arrests and 20 injuries.
Charges were filed on April 16 against Michael Lerner (b. 1943), Susan Stern (1943-1976), Charles Clark “Chip” Marshall III (b. 1945), Michael Abeles (1951-2016), Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), Joe Kelly (b. 1946), Roger Lippman (b. 1947), and Michael Justesen (b. 1950). These SLF members then became known as the Seattle Eight and, after Justesen disappeared, the Seattle Seven.
The SLF consisted mostly of former members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had collapsed the previous summer due to internal dissent at its national convention. It was deeply ironic that the February 17 demonstration was organized to protest the Chicago Seven trial, since the Chicago defendants had also been indicted for conspiracy in planning protests during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — an event which had also turned violent. The Seattle event, along with several others held nationwide that same day, was called “The Day After” (TDA) in anticipation of the Chicago verdict. The violence in Seattle occurred despite the SLF’s stated wishes for a peaceful demonstration. The SLF had in fact been created as a nonviolent alternative to the Weathermen, the SDS-derived radical organization that openly advocated violent tactics against the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the SLF was blamed for the February 17 riot, and the indictments thus followed.
Five of the Eight were arrested on the same day the indictments were issued: Lerner, Stern, Abeles, Dowd, and Kelly. Marshall was arrested two days later at the Century Tavern on The Ave in the University District, where the SLF were then known to congregate. Lippman was already in jail in Berkeley, California, having been arrested the day before in conjunction with an antiwar protest there, while Justesen immediately went underground to avoid arrest. All of the Seven were soon released on personal recognizance pending trial.
Some SLF members and supporters suspected that the timing of the indictments was intended to provoke a riot at an antiwar march in downtown Seattle planned for that weekend on April 18. Stephanie Coontz, then a leader of the UW’s Student Mobilization Committee, told The Seattle Times about that suspicion on April 17.
“The Student Mobilization Committee feels that yesterday’s arrests were timed in an attempt to provoke an incident,” Coontz said. “We are not going to fall into the trap that the Justice Department has set.”
Contrary to the charge of conspiracy, the Seattle Seven in fact only became acquainted with each other as a group after the indictments. Roger Lippman would later recall, writing in 1990 for the twentieth anniversary of the conspiracy trial:
“While some of the defendants actively organized TDA, several of them didn’t like or didn’t even know each other. This conspiracy existed primarily in the minds of the U.S. Department of Justice. Chip Marshall, Jeff Dowd, Mike Abeles, and Joe Kelly were recent transplants from SDS in Ithaca, NY, but Kelly didn’t move to Seattle until after TDA. I didn’t meet Abeles until after the indictment. Susan Stern, who had been an activist in Seattle for several years, had differences with most of the defendants, as did I. Mike Lerner was a visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Washington. As far as I could tell none of the other defendants got along with him.”
The Seattle Seven were tried in Tacoma before Federal District Judge George Boldt (1903-1984). The pre-trial hearing occurred on November 6, 1970. The trial was quickly sabotaged by the defendants’ vocal disruptions, a protest walkout, and their eventual refusal to enter the courtroom. Because of these antics, Boldt declared a mistrial on December 10, 1970, and cited all seven defendants for contempt of court. He then summarily sentenced them all to six months in prison and refused to grant bail.
While most of the Seattle Seven eventually did serve time for Boldt’s contempt charges, the original conspiracy charges against them were unsuccessfully prosecuted. Most observers agreed that the prosecution’s case was weak, and the defense was aided greatly by the admission of federal agents testifying at the trial that they had played a covert role in instigating the violence at the February 17 demonstration. The contempt charges were settled in court on March 28, 1972, and the Seattle Seven, save for Lerner, all served brief sentences in federal minimum security prison. The original conspiracy charges were quietly dropped in March 1973.
During the trial’s conclusion, the SLF succumbed to internal dissent and disbanded acrimoniously in late 1971. As for the other aftermath, Stern died in 1976 at the age of 33 of heart and lung failure due to an accidental drug overdose. Justesen was arrested in 1977 in California by the FBI as part of an infiltration of the Weather Underground. Lerner is currently an ordained rabbi and editor-in-chief of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun. Dowd eventually became a cineaste and helped found the Seattle International Film Festival in 1976. He’s now most famous as the inspiration for “The Dude,” the celebrated fictional character from the classic Coen Brothers comedy film The Big Lebowski.
Among the many things the Seattle Seven and the Chicago Seven had in common, the most important historically is that both were ultimately examples of government intimidation of antiwar activists by way of the American legal system. In both examples, a group of loosely affiliated activists was charged with conspiracy to incite a riot that was in fact beyond their control; in both examples, the prosecution’s case was ultimately too weak to withstand courtroom scrutiny. Today, history has proven much kinder to the memory of these two kindred groups than to the war that ultimately created them.
Sources: Don Carter and Larry McCarten, “Grand Jury Indicts 8; Lerner, 4 Others Held,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. 1; Don Carter and Larry McCarten, “Indicted 8 Linked to 2 Named in U Post Office Bombing,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. B; “Half at Courthouse Melee Took Active Roles,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. B; Dee Norton, “8 Indicted for Conspiracy,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A; “Officials Give Background Of Those Indicted,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A14; “Indictments Here Termed Provocation,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A14; Don Hannula, “New Cause at U.W.: ‘Free Seattle Eight’,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A14; “Judge Lowers Bar for ‘Seattle 5’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 18, 1970, p. 1; “S.L.F. Target Of U.S. Plot, Say Members,” The Seattle Times, April 18, 1970, p. A11; “UW Regents Won’t Act Against Lerner,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1970, p. 1; Don Hannula, “Seven plead no contest,” The Seattle Times, February 23, 1972, p. B8; Dee Norton, “Some of conspiracy defendants sentenced,” The Seattle Times, March 28, 1972, p. A4; “U.S. closes books on ‘Seattle 7’ case,” The Seattle Times, March 27, 1973, p. C7; Susan Stern, “With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman” (Doubleday & Company, 1975; Rutgers University Press, 2007); Dennis P. Eichhorn with Cynthia King, “Seven-Up Seattle style,” The Rocket, May 1987, p. 23; Roger Lippman, “Looking Back on the Seattle Conspiracy Trial” (http://terrasol.home.igc.org/trial.htm, December 1990); Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).