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Chicago The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities

By Scott W. Jacobs


WHEN I was young, I would go on one-day excursions from my home in southeastern Wisconsin to the mysterious gateway city of the midwest, Chicago, via the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Winding through the empty stretches of wooded farmlands, the train boomed into the quiet and respectable north shore suburbs of Forest Hills, Glencoe, Northbrook, Wilmette and Evanston and as the density of houses and street corner drugstores began to thicken, my father would lean over and say, "Get your ticket ready. We'll be coming to Chicago any minute now."

Through the backlogs of shopping centers and alongside broken-bottle cluttered parks and sandlot ballfields, the train zipped along, then eased to a slow rumble as it moved into the sunken city trainyards under billboards of Ace Carpet Company and WLS personalities, Walenski Furniture and Jimmy's Discount House.

But mostly warehouses and warehouses as the train rambled alongside Milwaukee Avenue toward the heart of the city. "Get your ticket ready. We're almost there." The faces on the people have turned from white to black and the vaporous mist of the city darkens. Alongside small factories, truckers back their vans up to the landing docks and the license plates on the front grilles form a road map of the route through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and into the Northwest where the trucker will eventually deliver his widgets in Portland. "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," reads a dirty bumper sticker underneath.

The train chugs smoothly through the last stretch of the yards and down into the tunnel. The last view through the iron bridges overhead is of the fish-eye Loop: the 106-story John Hancock building, the Hilton and the Drake, skyscrapers like you don't see in Milwaukee, towering over what always seemed a gaudy wild circus with simple folk and winos and businessmen and dragged-out, bundle-laden suburban housewives all lined up along the elevated platform for the "noon rush hour." And still one more thing. The sheer face of the aquamarine federal court building mirroring the progress of the lumbering train as it dives into the tunnel and pulls into a lower stall under the Loop's Union Station.

I'VE been here before; on grade school field trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, to visit Northwestern in my senior year in high school, to spend a week in the downtown YMCA during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and now a year later for the opening of the Chicago conspiracy trial and the Weatherman Days of Rage. "Nobody in that courtroom was the same person he had been thirteen months before. Nobody had the same intentions," Tony Lukas writes in his new book Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. Certainly not myself, who with a voyeuristic journalistic curiosity kept paying my money to come back to Chicago to see the Circus and now stood outside Judge Hoffman's courtroom holding my press pass-ticket to get in.

"Won't do," the old bailiff said as he sat cross-armed in his metal folding chair and swayed his head, eyes closed, back and forth. He motioned for the guard to clear the three of us (two LNS reporters and myself) from the building, but a defense attorney who had witnessed the short exchange intervened, perhaps out of sheer malice, and found us seating.

Such a circus, such a confrontation, such a grand, truly grand trial. I don't think it is a giant step into mythmaking to say that a spectator could pack all of the great conflicts of America into that one courtroom and live them out day-by-day as the trial unfolded. The Harvard Law School view was that the American judicial process was on trial. Washington columnists thought they were testing the 1968 anti-riot law. Abbie Hoffman said Amerika was on trial. The defense attorneys said the Movement was. Others claimed it was youth versus age or sex versus sterility. Or even Mayor Daley's version of the convention riots versus the media's. Or whatever you like really. Political beliefs were on trial, and attitudes, but also eight men, the judge, and most of the spectators who were curious when they came and troubled when they left.

For years, the fascination of Chicago always seemed to be its nearness (compared to the quiet little village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin) to the America that we read about in the newspapers every morning and debated in our American problems seminar. Three dollars and eighty-two cents bought me a train ticket to the show. In the courtroom of the conspiracy trial that day I felt again like the country boy who could only marvel at all of this Americana (be it good or evil) and feel very lonely in my inability to absorb all that was happening.

FOR A YEAR now, I have felt a peculiar guilt for not having "taken a stand" on that Chicago trial. The experience of a single day in that courtroom, seeing the tyranny of Judge Hoffman, the symbolic conflicts that bubbled out in overruled objections, asides, lunch table conversations, the patient puritan demeanor of the courtroom bailiff and the unconventional defense does not, I suppose, give anyone a superior claim to deeper conscience than the person who reads about the trial in the newspapers. But it does bring the people into focus and makes the pain of silence a little more sharp. I can never clearly say what the roots of the horror are.

Tony Lukas covered the Chicago trial for five months for the New York Times and has now turned out what he calls "A short little book" (107 pages), The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. It's a book of anecdotes, incidents, and bits and pieces from the unofficial trial transcript and purports to be nothing more than "a modest contribution to the growing lore on this extraordinary event."

In contrast to the Jason Epstein book or Tom Hayden's account, Lukas shows that this spectacular extravaganza need not in any sense be construed as a trial. It was a complex network of conflicts, dominated by personalities and fed by all of those issues which have been rightly injected into trial commentary. But certainly there were no winners and the trial has come to no particular end.

There were the obvious conflicts between Judge Hoffman and Bobby Seale (racism), Hoffman and the other seven defendants (radicalism), Hoffman and the defense attorneys (provincialism), the legalists and the symbolists, the Yippie wing of the defendants and the Tom Hayden revolutionary wing, and of course the prosecution and the defense. And there were the nuances of those conflicts, which occupy the major portions of the Lukas' book: for example, Judge Hoffman's fear of his own Jewishness and prosecutor Foran's curious pronouncement that, with the exception of Bobby Seale, the defendants were all "damn fags."

And Chicago-a brutally normal city that drew Rennie Davis to a 4-H convention long ago and produced the eight-ball headed judge and a jury venire "so white, so middle-class and middle-aged they looked like the Rolling Meadows Bowling League lost on their way to the lanes."

It does not take a great deal of imagination to capture the enigmatic social and political conflicts that the city has come to epitomize. The citizens-including the judge in this case-wear their prejudices on their sleeve. And the fault of most of the reportage on Middle America is that no one seems to know when to stop boring people with these petty prejudices.

ONE MIGHT take Lukas' disclaimer that this is just a short little book as an excuse for not telling the whole story of the Chicago conspiracy trial. He calls it a contribution, but it is much more substantive. The tales of Hoffman's tenure on the bench, the glimpses of the defendants, captured in short personal sketches, and the visions of the city and the people are not peripheral, they are the essence, carefully edited and arranged to elucidate the conflicts.

New York Times reporters are the closest thing America has to professional spectators, and one suspects sometimes that the paper's guidelines for news dictates that the more controversial the subject, the more dispassionate, detached, and altogether impeccably facile the coverage must be. The Barnyard Epithet displays traces of this invisible guideline when, for instance, Lukas says Rennie Davis "reminded me of a Kansas 4-H leader but who I knew was a shrewd, resourceful radical."

When such phrases creep in, perhaps Lukas is exorcising the demon Times from his soul. Written in the first person, Lukas makes clear the fact that the trial has forced him to reconsider personal prejudices acquired over 15 years as a journalist. Bewildered as I was during those five months, and even now when the protest marches through the streets have subsided and friends who called this the last indignity they would tolerate in America are making plans for Law School, I can't fault the book's failure to choose sides. The circles of his light narrative explain that courtroom and America much better than a defense of the defense could.

The circus-goer always likes the opening parade more than the grand finale. The man comes out of the cannon and lands in the net before you even see him in the air, and more often than not the whole thing strikes you as a hooked-up way of closing up shop. In a trial so charged with incidental forces and pressures, the isolation of a single major issue or a simple choosing of sides just wouldn't do at all. I've been to the circus and I know.

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