“Did you ever hear of the Seattle Seven? . . . That was me . . . and six other guys.”
And that stonily-intoned quote, culled from the script of the Coen Brothers comedy film classic The Big Lebowski, has likely introduced many to the memory of Seattle’s radical-historical counterpart to the Chicago Seven, the antiwar troublemakers so infamously indicted for their role in disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Continuing the theme of Seattle’s longtime desire to become some other city, for one brief historical moment in the year 1970, Seattle was a shadow of Chicago.
The story of the Seattle Seven began from the story of the Chicago Seven. The similarities between the two stories are uncanny, indeed: both groups were loose collections of antiwar activists who were indicted and brought to trial by the United States federal government for the charge of conspiracy to incite a riot; both groups began as groups of eight, then became groups of seven.
The Chicago Seven trial began in September 1969. The defendants in that profoundly publicized trial were Jerry Rubin (1938-1994), Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989), Tom Hayden (b. 1939), David Dellinger (1915-2004), Rennie Davis (b. 1941), John Froines (b. 1939), and Lee Weiner (b. 1939). The eighth defendant, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (b. 1936), had his trial severed during the proceedings.
The Seattle Seven were all members of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF), a radical anti-Vietnam War organization formed in January 1970 at the University of Washington. They were 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), and Roger Lippman (b. 1947). They all ironically achieved their collective infamy due to their alleged involvement in a February 1970 protest demonstration in Seattle in support of the Chicago Seven, whose verdict was due that month.
The Seattle Seven story played out mostly through the year 1970. It began on January 17 of that year, when Chicago trial defendant Jerry Rubin came to Seattle to speak about the trial. On that Saturday, in the early afternoon, Rubin addressed an overflow crowd of approximately 4,000 in the UW’s Husky Union Building (HUB), where he sermonized on the trial, among other then-controversial topics.
Rubin first gained nationwide fame sufficient enough to attract such a crowd to the HUB when, as a younger and more austere antiwar activist at the University of California at Berkeley in May 1965, he organized the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), an ad hoc coalition which then held a massive antiwar teach-in attended by an estimated 30,000 people. The VDC teach-in was one of the first major public expressions of protest against the U.S. military presence in Vietnam, then rapidly being escalated. On December 31, 1967, after his antiwar tactics had grown more strategically absurdist, Rubin (along with Hoffman and several others) co-founded the Yippies, a group of intentionally irreverent ideological pranksters, later self-designated with mock pomposity as the Youth International Party. The Yippies’ disruptive antics in Chicago led directly to the indictments of the Chicago Eight.
Rubin was invited to speak at the UW by Lerner, who was then a 27-year-old assistant UW philosophy professor and a former VDC comrade of Rubin’s at UC Berkeley. While teaching Philosophy 110, an introduction to Karl Marx and New Left avatar Herbert Marcuse, Lerner was then trying to organize a new antiwar group at the UW to fill the void left there by the nationwide implosion of Students for a Democratic Society (including the UW chapter) the preceding summer. Lerner hoped that Rubin’s appearance in Seattle would be a sufficient catalyst for such a group. Lerner’s gambit soon worked: two days after Rubin’s HUB appearance, Lerner hosted the first formal organizing meeting of the SLF, a group whose own local Yippie-like antics would soon, for better or worse, guarantee Seattle its own aggressively radical and courthouse-bound Seven.
The next chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on February 17, when the SLF sponsored a protest rally in downtown Seattle that turned into a riot. The chaos of that event was reflected in the chaos of the wildly conflicting accounts later given by, respectively, the protest participants and Seattle’s then-two leading daily newspapers. All involved in the story would likely agree, at least, that the Chicago Seven trial was at the heart of the clash that shook Seattle that day.
In mid-February 1970, the Chicago Seven trial was obviously winding down towards a highly anticipated verdict. The seven defendants, cueing the nation’s anti-Establishment masses, had then called for their many disparate supporters to organize local demonstrations nationwide on “The Day After” the impending verdict.
Enter the Seattle Liberation Front.
The SLF wasted no time in planning a TDA demonstration to be held at Seattle’s Federal Courthouse downtown at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street — never mind the inconvenient mystery of the Chicago verdict’s exact date. Seeking to effectively promote Seattle’s TDA, one member of the SLF, Charles “Chip” Marshall, approached the office of Helix — then Seattle’s leading counterculture newspaper — with a copy of a manifesto calling for a “Stop the Courts Day” beginning at 2 p.m. in front of the courthouse on the still-unknown day of the verdict, seeking its publication in the paper. As Helix editor Walt Crowley (1947-2007) would later recall in his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, “While Marshall’s [manifesto] never explicitly called for a violent action, it all but invited it, and this made us very nervous.”
The manifesto was published in Helix on February 12, but not without an editorial disclaimer. Crowley’s anxiety, along with that of his kindred Helixistas, would soon prove well founded.
On the Saturday prior to TDA, Julius Hoffman, the presiding judge in the Chicago trial — already then loathed by much of America’s radical youth — sentenced all of the Chicago Seven, along with their attorneys, for contempt of court. This was before the Chicago jury had yet reached a proper verdict. For the Chicago Seven’s nationwide supporters, Hoffman’s abrupt action served as both a deadline cue and an inflammatory catalyst for the impending Day After. Despite several pacifist pleas for restraint — such as, in Seattle, the earlier, written pledge of Michael Lerner on behalf of the SLF “that we have no intention of introducing violence into [Seattle’s] demonstration” — Hoffman’s pre-emptive legal strike apparently infused the nation’s antiwar movement with a collective rage that no pacifist sentiment could possibly contain.
When 2 p.m. on TDA arrived in Seattle, roughly 2,000 agitated activists — many more than expected, and most ranging in age from juvenile to twentysomething — had assembled downtown in front of the federal courthouse, obviously ready for a confrontation. Seattle’s then-acting police chief Frank Moore would later sum up the situation for Seattle’s mainstream news media:
“The demonstrators came prepared for war . . . They were armed with pipes, clubs, chains, paint, and tear gas . . . and they used them all.”
Thus, what could have been a relatively peaceful demonstration against injustice in the American legal system became instead an anti-everything free-for-all, with protesters tossing rocks and paint bombs, breaking windows, and violently scuffling with police, from the courthouse to the Federal Building at First Avenue and University Street, and several downtown storefronts in between.
One major point of contention between the protesters’ accounts of the melee and those of The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerned the massive use of tear gas, which was plentiful enough for clouds to be seen rising over downtown from Interstate 5. While the Seattle Police Department officially denied using tear gas, and the Times and the P-I both unskeptically reported the SPD’s allegation that it was the protesters who had brought the tear gas with them, eyewitness accounts published in Helix two days later declared the opposite: the police had brought the tear gas, and one sole demonstrator at one point had lobbed a tear gas bomb into the courthouse — after it had been thrown outside by police from inside the building.
Additionally, despite initial statements from the SPD and the Mayor’s Office commending the officers on the scene for their apocryphal restraint, the degree of police violence was apparently drastic enough that the P-I soon joined Helix in reporting several instances of police recklessly attacking protesters and innocent bystanders alike. When the smoke finally cleared — literally and figuratively — up to eighty-nine persons had been arrested, scores were injured, and an estimated $75,000 worth of property damage had been done downtown.
The next chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on April 16, when eight members of the SLF were indicted by a federal grand jury for the charge of conspiracy to incite a riot. The indictments were prompted by the February 17 demonstration. Charges were filed against Lerner, Stern, Marshall, Abeles, Dowd, Kelly, Lippman, and Michael Justesen (b. 1950). These SLF members then became known as the Seattle Eight and, after Justesen quickly disappeared, the Seattle Seven.
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 final chapter in the Seattle Seven story began on November 6, when a pre-trial hearing was held in Tacoma, Washington, presided over by Federal District Judge George H. Boldt (1903-1984). One noteworthy moment in the November 6 hearing occurred when Lerner and Marshall attempted to make the case that the political implications of the pending trial — much like the Chicago Seven trial, according to its respective defendants — reached far beyond the geographical confines of its legal jurisdiction. Lerner, directly addressing Judge Boldt, declared:
“The key issues [in this trial] are the war in Vietnam and the use of the courts as an instrument of repression in this society. . . . You [as a member of the U.S. federal judiciary] are a party to the initial dispute. . . . The federal judiciary has its hands dirtied by not declaring the war immoral and unconstitutional.”
The actual trial, which formally began on November 23, was equally marked by such ideological drama. While roughly 200 protesters picketed outside the Tacoma courthouse in support of the Seven, defendants and supporters alike inside the courtroom refused to stifle either their emotions or their political opinions. Adding to the ideological weight of the legal proceedings, one of the Chicago defendants, David Dellinger, came to Tacoma in person to aid the Seattle defendants in making their case, but Judge Boldt denied a request by Lerner and Marshall to allow Dellinger to speak in the Tacoma courtroom towards that end.
Aggravated by the constant courtroom chaos, Boldt declared a mistrial on December 10 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.
As for the other aftermath, the SLF disbanded acrimoniously in late 1971, but some individual SLF collectives survived and went on to establish social programs in the Seattle area, such as Capitol Hill’s Country Doctor Community Clinic. Stern died on July 31, 1976, at the age of 33 of heart and lung failure from an accidental drug overdose, and Justesen was arrested in 1977 in California by the FBI as part of an infiltration of the Weather Underground. Today, Lerner is 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 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.
Excerpted from City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle, a book-length work in progress.