January 19, 1970: The Seattle Liberation Front

The Seattle Seven and two of their attorneys in summer 1970
photographer unknown
courtesy Steve Hudziak

When radical Seattle stumbled into the 1970s, dissonant sectarian leitmotifs accompanied every local collective manifesto.

After the nationwide collapse of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in summer 1969 — including the University of Washington chapter — several Seattle antiwar activists became determined to create a replacement movement in SDS’s wake. On the date in focus here, UW visiting philosophy professor Michael Lerner (b. 1943) convened the founding organizing meeting of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) in the Husky Union Building (HUB) on the UW campus.

Among those attending the founding SLF meeting were certain youthful political activists who would soon become reluctant members of the Seattle Seven, a group of defendants on trial in United States federal court for the problematic charge of conspiracy to incite a riot.

The meeting was preceded by a high-profile public speech in the HUB on January 17 by Chicago Seven defendant Jerry Rubin (1938-1994). Rubin was invited to speak in Seattle by Lerner, a comrade of Rubin’s from circa 1964 when both were students at the University of California at Berkeley, later a strong locus for early organizing efforts against the Vietnam War.

Lerner would later discuss the Rubin event and his motivations for staging it when he spoke in 2012 with longtime Seattle activist Kit Bakke (b. 1946), as quoted in her 2018 book Protest on Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy:

“I was waiting for the right moment to bring people together, and to form an organization around some of the ideas that I had . . . The meeting was definitely the biggest political event that wasn’t a demonstration that had happened in Seattle for a long, long time.”

Along with Lerner, three key people who attended the Rubin event were Michael Abeles (1950-2016), Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), and Charles “Chip” Marshall III (b. 1945). All three had just arrived in Seattle in December 1969 after driving cross-country together from Ithaca, New York, where they were members of the Sundance Collective. Marshall would prove particularly crucial to the SLF’s birth and growth, approaching Lerner after the January 19 meeting with a proposal to base the new Seattle movement on collectives modeled after Sundance.

The SLF’s high-flying ideological origins would quickly go south on February 17, 1970, when the leadership sponsored a protest rally supporting the Chicago Seven in downtown Seattle that became a violent riot. When eight SLF members were indicted by the U.S. federal government on April 16, 1970, for conspiracy to incite that riot, the Seattle Eight were born. After Michael Justesen (b. 1950) went underground that same day to avoid arrest, the Seattle Eight became the Seattle Seven.

After collapsing in collective acrimony, the Seattle Liberation Front disbanded in late 1971. Michael Lerner would eventually become an ordained rabbi, Palestinian rights advocate, and co-founder and editor of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun, launched in 1986. Chip Marshall remained active in Seattle progressive politics and ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council in 1975 and 1977. The SLF’s positive legacy today remains in the local form and function of the Central Co-op, the Country Doctor Community Clinic, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Sources: “Conspiracy Seven’s Rubin Speaks Here Tomorrow,” University of Washington Daily, January 16, 1970, p. 1; Richard Simmons, “Rubin Plays Youth Or . . . Consequences,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 1970, p. 11; Bruce Olson, “‘Future on Trial,'” University of Washington Daily, January 20, 1970, p. 3; 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://roger.lippnet.us/trial.htm, December 1990); Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995); Kit Bakke, Protest on Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy (Washington State University Press, 2018).

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