Rennie Davis had come to protest peacefully. The police had come to riot. Wielding batons, they stormed forward yelling, “Kill Davis!” he recalls. He was cracked on the head, knocked to the ground and felt lucky to escape with his life.
It could be a scene from this year’s summer of civil unrest in America. In fact it was a demonstration outside the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago that descended into a violent clash with police and the national guard.
The story of Davis and other organisers of the protest is told in The Trial Of The Chicago 7, a film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin that premieres on Netflix on 16 October. Its star-studded cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance.
In an interview with hlcarpenter.com, Davis, 80, says he was not consulted during production of the film and expresses serious reservations about how he and fellow activists are portrayed. But he also welcomes the timeliness of its release.
“Coming out at this time is just really perfection,” he says by phone from his home near Boulder, Colorado. “There are some things that I wouldn’t agree with how Sorkin has characterised certain figures in the trial, myself included. But the impact of the movie is there and I certainly endorse and support it.”
The tumult of 2020 – a global pandemic, economic crisis, an uprising over racial injustice – has frequently been compared to 1968, when the Vietnam war was raging, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and major cities were engulfed by violence.
From a farm community in Michigan, Davis’s political awakening came in the early 60s. He helped created Students for a Democratic Society, effectively the voice for students in the north. Davis was an activist and community organiser and joined the antiwar movement in around 1965.
By the summer of 1968, Americans were dying at a rate of more than 1,000 per month in the worst year of the Vietnam war. Davis became the national coordinator of a coalition of 150 organisations dedicated to nonviolence that went to Chicago.
“Our initial plan was to bring 500,000 people to Chicago and it was simply because the mayor refused to grant permits that the numbers reduced, but the result was a police riot. That’s how a presidential commission defined what happened. But it was watched on television by more people than watched the moment the first man landed on the moon. It was incredible.”
Eventually the city did grant a permit for a demonstration in Chicago’s Grant Park that was so benign it included parents with babies. Davis remembers that a young person lowered a flag to half-staff, later explaining it as a symbol of international distress.
“The police saw the flag coming down and basically came in and beat people as they arrested this person. We had a very highly organised team of close to 4,000 marshals so I was able to put up a human chain where arms were linked.
“We faced out towards the police to just bring the whole situation under complete control in a matter of minutes. Then I announced to the police that we have a permit and you can see we are able to secure this properly, so if you could withdraw, that would be in everybody’s best interest, or words to that effect.
“That just set off the police and they came crashing in. As they approached me, I literally could hear police yelling, ‘Kill Davis!’ I was hit on the head and knocked to the ground. I was on the ground crawling with my two arms trying to get away and just being clubbed and clubbed and clubbed. I think what saved me that day, honestly, was a little chain fence in the park. I was able to get under the chain fence and it gave me three seconds to get away, stand up and get on the other side. I did pass out for a while.”
Davis went to hospital and was given 13 stitches and managed to avoid arrest. “The police realised I was seen as the organiser of this event so they came into the hospital and did a room-by-room search trying to find me to arrest me. One of the most amazing things of the impact we were having on the city is that there were nurses who literally risked their entire career.
“This was a county hospital, they were employees of the county, and they put me on a trolley and covered me with a sheet and literally moved me from room to room to evade the police search until I could get to an exit and get out. I did, and didn’t get arrested. It really is amazing. Even today I think: wow, that was some courage there.”
But the incoming Richard Nixon administration successfully pushed for the purported ringleaders of the protest – including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden and Davis – to be charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. They were originally the “Chicago Eight”, but the case against the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale – who was silenced in court by being bound and gagged – was eventually dropped.
A chaotic and raucous trial began in 1969 and forms the backbone of the Netflix movie. Davis continues: “The trial went forward with eight people and, on the opening day, the New York Times said on the front page: ‘This is the most significant political trial in American history’ – and it certainly lived up to its billing.
“Certainly none of us want to go to prison for many years, so it’s not to say we weren’t mindful of the likely outcome, but quite honestly this was a group of people, myself included, who really saw the opportunity to basically speak to the country about the Vietnam war. We had different styles and we came from different organisations but, while the movie characterises us as squabbling and fighting a fair amount, it really wasn’t the case.”
When the trial ended each day at 4.30pm, the accused, out on bail, would travel far to deliver speeches to crowds of thousands of people. “This was every night with every defendant and people were stamping their feet and screaming. It was really that support of, especially, students that made such a difference.
“We also had press conferences at the lunch break that were larger than the press conference at the White House: the entire world press was present in a massive room that could barely hold everybody. All three networks carried our story pretty much as the lead story every single day for six months.”
The trial lasted five and a half months. At one point all the defendants read the names of people who lost their lives in Vietnam. Five, including Davis, were found guilty of inciting a riot and all seven, plus their lawyer, were sentenced to prison terms for contempt of court. The convictions were reversed on appeal.
Davis became friendly with John Lennon and proposed that the onetime Beatle undertake a 42-city tour to revive the waning antiwar movement and raise funds for local causes. The first was held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1971, but was so successful that Nixon tried to to have Lennon deported and the tour was abandoned.
Davis still recalls the day when Lennon took him to a recording studio in Manhattan: “Basically the entire audience is just me and Yoko and we sit there and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. John starts and he’s basically recording the final overdub of Imagine. It was really spectacular.”
He moved to Colorado and set up a business, consulting to chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. But his counterculture streak also saw him living alone at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for four years. “Today I teach earth whispering, how to basically deepen yourself and become more self aware and things like that. It was largely triggered by that Grand Canyon experience.”
Davis is played by Alex Sharp in the movie. Sorkin, known for the White House TV drama The West Wing and the Facebook origin story The Social Network, started writing the screenplay in 2007, but filming did not begin until late 2019. It is his second go in the director’s chair, following Molly’s Game in 2017.
Davis has mixed feelings about the finished product. “I was the coordinator of the coalition that went to Chicago and I brought back American prisoners of war from Vietnam at a time when places where I was living were being bombed by US military. In the movie, I’m made out to be a complete nerd who’s afraid of his own shadow.”
He adds: “Sorkin was seven years old when the trial was occurring and clearly had no understanding of the defendants or, maybe more importantly, the tens of millions of people that were just passionately supporting us.”
Half a century later, Donald Trump is again swimming against the tide of public opinion, according to every poll, by playing down police brutality and using the Nixon “law and order” playbook to seek re-election. Hoffman, Rubin and Hayden are no longer alive but for Davis, the echoes are inescapable. “Of course, there are very decent police officers in every state but the systemic racism in the police department just can’t be denied.
“It’s very similar to the anti-war movement. There was a period where the protests represented a segment of society but gradually the anti-war movement came to represent the majority of society and that’s exactly what I see happening now. It is Black Lives Matter but it’s also the women’s movement and the youth movement and the environmental movement and the Extinction Rebellion movement and how they see themselves as basically being, in a way, one voice.
“They don’t have the kind of coalition that we had in the 60s but I suspect that’s going to be coming. As we move towards this kind of authoritarian tendency in the government – and the government just has really lost his way – the greatest hope right now is that movement, just as it was in the 60s.”
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now showing at select cinemas and will be available on Netflix on 16 October