CHICAGO — Lee Weiner was the only defendant in the 1969 trial of the Chicago 7 who was from Chicago. He grew up in South Shore; while facing federal charges of inciting a riot and teaching his fellow protestors to build Molotov cocktails, he was a research assistant in the sociology department at Northwestern University. Yet, in the new Aaron Sorkin movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which hits Netflix on Friday, Weiner is barely a supporting character. Which isn’t far from the truth: If the Chicago 8 (as they were initially) was considered a dream team of magnetic war protestors — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis — Weiner was a relative nobody, “a strangely remote figure,” according to J. Anthony Lukas, the Chicago-based New York Times reporter who covered the trial.
Indeed, if Weiner is remembered from the trial at all, it’s for the contempt charge that he received after loudly correcting the judge’s mispronunciation of his name.
For those with muddy memories, or none at all: The Chicago 7 trial began seven months after fighting exploded across Grant Park and Michigan Avenue between Chicago police and students who converged on the city to protest the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Though many (including federal investigators) decided police instigated the violence, the defendants were dubbed ringleaders and given serious charges. Their trial was an infamous circus, national outrage, generational skirmish and First Amendment milestone. All were convicted, then cleared on appeal.
“Conspiracy to Riot: The Life and Times of One of the Chicago 7” (Aug. 4, Belt Publishing) is Weiner’s new memoir of that moment. It doesn’t go far into the unlikely twists after the trial — Hoffman would get plastic surgery to avoid cocaine charges, Hayden would marry Jane Fonda and became a California state senator, Davis and Rubin would become fabulously wealthy through venture capitalism and early investments in Apple — but Lee Weiner does finally explain Lee Weiner. He became a key figure in the world of direct-mail activism, and also worked for years at the Anti-Defamation League — Weiner would never entirely leave protesting behind. But he did leave Chicago for Florida. He’s 81 now. The following is a shorter version of a longer conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Have you seen the movie?
A: I have! There have been a lot of movies (about the trial), but this is the best. I watched it straight the first time because I figured people would ask me about the movie. You know, no drugs. The second time, I watched it with a lot of weed. So I have a multiple perceptions of it. I caught things the second time I didn’t catch the first. The movie stole my heart! A reporter asks Abbie what he’d give for the revolution, and he says “My life.” That’s in my book, and the film. It’s one of the truly vivid memories in my life. I think this movie does the work. It shows resistance to injustice in the worst of circumstances, on the streets, in biased courtroom, and also that resistance is possible. But am I happy they made Noah Robbins (the actor playing Weiner) look totally straight?
Q: You look like a Muppet in the movie, or a nerdy child.
A: The table where defendants sit (in the film) is a long “L.” I imagine someone walked on the set and saw a long line of dark-haired Jews and said, “No, we got to break this up a little” (laughs).
Q: Describe what you looked like in 1969.
A: Like a maniac! If I was in an elevator and the doors opened, and you decided this was not the elevator to take, I would have understood. My hair was long, my beard was long.
Q: You sort of looked like Rasputin.
A: Yes. Let’s put it this way: During the trial, they made sure I was facing away from the jury.
Q: You were the only Chicagoan on trial. Was there any advantage to being a local?
A: None at all. In fact, other people had reasonable excuses when their friends didn’t come to the trial in support — they weren’t from Chicago. But I lived there and only one ex-girlfriend came in support! Maybe some were a little concerned about being connected to a crazy person.
Q: Did you feel alone?
A: I surrounded by political comrades and people I worked with in the Chicago streets. I was never alone.
Q: You were the quiet defendant, but facing the most serious charges.
A: You mean, teaching the use of incendiary devices? Yeah, I had a big mouth. Here’s what I remember: The 28th of August, there’s a major war on the streets with the police, and on the 29th, I was sprawled out in the grass in Grant Park, talking to some of the people who had been with me on the street the day before and one of those people was an undercover police officer.
Q: He heard you explain how to build a Molotov cocktail. How serious were you?
A: Very serious. The mayor and police thought the Chicago streets were theirs. I thought they were the people’s streets, and that people might get an opportunity at some joint ownership.
Q: How close were you to the other defendants?
A: Jerry was my oldest friend, through whom I had known Abbie for years. I met Rennie when he was a community organizer in Chicago at the same time I was. He was in Uptown, I was in the Near Northside at Cabrini Green. I met Tom on 63rd Street with Jerry. None of us knew Bobby. But we were all part of that world, we all kind of at least knew about one another. Many of us had been jail.
Q: In the film, whenever Seale — the only Black defendant, who had no lawyer present, who protested relentlessly — is treated cruelly, the others are shown silent, with heavy hearts.
A: All of us had been involved in civil rights, some in the South. Which moved us on the notion that one should act, and one must act, on morals and principles. And yet Bobby and the Black Panthers asked us not to respond in any way to what Bobby was trying to accomplish during the trial. So there were a lot of bloodied and sprained fingers between the others. We were holding on the edges of the tables. At one point, when the judge ordered marshals to strengthen Bobby’s gag, that was it: A bunch of us got up and there was a physical confrontation, despite our best efforts.
Q: You write in the book that you had trouble with Hayden.
A: Yeah, Jerry, Abbie and I felt the same way. He was a brave, strong intelligent person but what I didn’t like was this idea that Tom had that Tom was always correct. Some have said this about Hillary Clinton. There are people who believe they are just right. Tom had that quality. I think there were times he wished he didn’t have prominence, that he could have been political without essentially destroying a possibility of a private life. I’m harsh towards him, but I respected him.
Q: Did you keep in touch?
A: Mostly with Abbie and Jerry. Tom and I had confrontations later. When the Democratic convention was going to be re-held in Chicago, years later, with a new Mayor Daley, Tom wanted the new Daley to plant a tree! The New York Times asked me what I thought and that pissed off Tom. I thought (his idea) was a joke. And so Tom called me at home right away — angry.
Q: Your life broke in two pieces after. You lose a job because your reputation …
A: Only two pieces? God willing two pieces! I left Chicago because one day I was crossing the street on Michigan Avenue after the trial and a traffic cop, in uniform, yells, “Hey Lee, we haven’t forgotten!” Which suggested I was putting people in Chicago in danger. Some people have their lives influenced in signifiant ways and they never notice. I noticed. My mother noticed. My sister noticed. Ex-wives noticed. That said, I was lucky. I have six kids now and three ex-wives. I was able to find work later that allowed me to engage in ways, to fight racism and anti-semitism, to help people find access to medical care. But back then I rejected opportunities of show true public leadership, which I think allowed me to slip into life and continue, without many noticing or caring.
Q: Did you feel you couldn’t hold a stage the way an Abbie Hoffman could?
A: I doubt many could. No, I could have had a more (public) role. I’m a smart-ass, I have a degree of humor, I’m bitter, I have a clear political perspective. I saw myself as an organizer. I’m happy to stand on a car with a megaphone, but the real work takes longer. Which is what organizing taught me. Change takes longer than you like. I was basically an operative. There was a guy who stood next to Trotsky on the armored train (during the Russian Civil War) that made sure machine guns went to the right areas. I wouldn’t have been Trotsky, I would’ve been the guy next to Trotsky.
Q: Did you pay attention to the protests in Chicago last summer?
A: Of course. I would like to believe people are stronger and more together now. There are certainly more multi-racial groups of protestors now than there were in the late 1960s and early 1970s, protesting in far more places. I’m not saying it’ll all work out great now. But I’m optimistic.
Q: Have you retired?
A: Excellent question! I don’t know! I just wrote this book! I guess I’m retired. Will I write another book? Will I throw a bomb? I don’t know, it’s only the middle of the week.
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