The Seattle 7 Conspiracy
a review of Protest on Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 2018) by Kit Bakke
by John M Repp
In Seattle in January 1970, after the factional split of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main national organization against the Vietnam War, a new antiwar organization was formed, called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF). By April 1970, eight leaders were indicted for conspiracy. One of the activists went underground before he was arrested and that is why there were seven. The more famous Chicago 7 conspiracy indictments came out of the antiwar demonstrations in Chicago in 1968 at the Democratic Convention. Those demonstrations were later declared to be “police riot(s)” by the Walker Report. While the jury was still deliberating in the Chicago 7 trial, the judge ordered contempt sentences for the defendants. In response, the national antiwar movement organized TDA (The Day After) demonstrations all over the country.
Even though some of the TDA demonstrations in other cities were bigger than in Seattle, only in Seattle did the Federal Government convene a Grand jury and issue conspiracy indictments against organizers of Seattle’s TDA demonstration. Author Kit Bakke contends that Seattle was singled out because the SLF was a growing community, not just campus-based organization, was multi-issue and cooperated well with the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party. The only group the Nixon Administration and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, hated worse than SDS was the Black Panther Party.
The author of this book review was at the Seattle TDA demonstration on February 17, 1970, having started to hang out with the SLF a week before. The plan was to enter the Federal Building, occupy it, and stop the courts. Several thousand people showed up. The front doors were locked so we could not get in. I spent a few minutes talking to the Federal Marshall in charge. I did not know at the time who he was. He seemed completely unafraid of us. He was walking around asking demonstrators “who are your leaders?” Then, writes Bakke, “a rock was thrown from the edge of the crowd” (p.46) and Seattle police came out of the Federal building and out of the Seattle City Library across the street and started attacking the demonstrators. I was in the front facing the Courthouse and could not back up because of all the people behind me. I was hit on the head several times with a police baton, my head bloodied. The Medical Committee on Human Rights, a group of young medical workers against the war, pulled me out and took me to the Open-Door Clinic and stitched up my head.
Later that spring at another demonstration in downtown Seattle, protesting Boeing who had laid off 50,000 workers, I saw a “demonstrator” named Fred throw a rock. The night before, several women talked to me about their suspicions that Fred was an undercover agent provocateur. I did not know what to do. But we watched him the next day. With hindsight, it looks like that thrown rock was a signal for the Seattle Police to attack the demonstration. The demonstration was dispersed and some of us were chased by police all the way up to Volunteer Park. We never saw Fred again.
So a Federal Government agent provocateur may have started the “riot” that the Seattle 7 were being accused of organizing. To tell a bit more of a complicated story, after I was taken out, more than a few of the demonstrators went downtown and broke store windows. Ninety-seven were arrested. The SLF had a Weatherman contingent in it, including several of the defendants, who believed property damage, i.e. specifically breaking windows was justified as a tactic to protest the war. This idea was debated constantly that spring.
But the issue that finally split the SLF, weakened by its leaders being under indictment, was how many of the men, including some defendants treated the women.
The trial was in Tacoma in November of 1970. Stan Pitkin, an inexperienced young prosecutor was taking his orders from the Nixon White House and the FBI. Pitkin wrote later that the case was based on 4 informants (a memo from Pitkin, p 186).
At the trial, Chip Marshall, one of the defendants who acted as his own attorney, got the prosecution’s star witness to say in court that he hated antiwar people and he would lie to put them behind bars. After that the prosecution did not seem to know what to do and did not call another witness. The judge declared a mistrial and issued contempt citations for behavior of the defendants, behavior that he had been ignored earlier. Many of the defendants, years later, told Bakke that they played right into the hands of the authorities by their courtroom behavior. They paid with prison time.
The author Kit Bakke did a masterful job in writing this book. When SDS split, the Weatherman faction destroyed a viable student organization and moved to the bombing of symbolic targets. Bakke explains that the reason the Weather Underground leaders were not prosecuted when they surfaced years later was because of the secret and illegal wiretapping of so many antiwar and civil rights activists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The government did not want that to come out in new trials (p.187). Protest On Trial tells us that the tactics of the government went way beyond tapping phones. They infiltrated the movements and encouraged illegal behavior, including bombing. They also planted stories in the press. And they tried to frame some good activists using the courts.
It is also true that the antiwar movement was for the most part unable to pivot to using an electoral and legal strategy which could have been combined with nonviolent direct action. To be sure, Gene Sharp had not yet published The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973). Above all writes Bakke, the movement radically underestimated the strength and adaptability of the government.
After the Vietnam war ended in 1975, the United States was not involved in active warfare for several years. Establishment politicians considered this hiatus a problem they named the “Vietnam syndrome” The U.S. resumed active warfare in Grenada in 1983 and again with the invasion of Panama in 1989. In spite of mistakes, the student movement against the war in Vietnam along with the G. I. resistance and the fierce fighting of the Vietnamese played a role in what was a setback for the American empire.