To the Editors:
The federal indictment in Chicago of eight political dissenters for conspiracy to promote disorder and riot during the week of the Democratic National Convention is one of the most ominous challenges to political liberty since the passing of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. It calls for a clear and considered response from all who believe that the preservation of political dissent is now, more than ever, crucial to the survival of democratic process in America.
The undersigned have formed a Committee to Defend the Conspiracy. Through newspaper ads and mailings we intend to raise funds urgently needed for the legal defense of these eight men and to clarify the critical political and civil libertarian issues at stake. We are now organizing a large group of sponsors for a national campaign built around the following statement:
“Eight political activists who were prominent in the mass demonstrations of protest during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago are now under federal indictment for criminal conspiracy. They are the first persons to be so charged under Title 18 of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which makes it a felony to “travel in interstate commerce…with the intent to incite, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot….”
“The effect of this ‘anti-riot’ act is to subvert the first Amendment guarantee of free assembly by equating organized political protest with organized violence. Potentially, this law is the foundation for a police state in America.
“In this decade, countless Americans have contributed to the revitalization of politics through freedom rides, peace marches and other demonstrations of protest against impacted political institutions. Yet, from Bull Connor’s Birmingham to Richard Daley’s Chicago, civil authorities have employed police violence to suppress ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble,’ repeatedly invoking the spectres of conspiracy, incitement and riot. The Justice Department has now joined the assault on free political action.
“Title 18, the ‘anti-riot’ provision, was attached to the Civil Rights Act of 1968 by a repressive coalition in the Congress and was aimed at black civil rights activists. Enacted in the wake of the urban riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King, the rider found support even among members of the Congress who might ordinarily resist the delusion that social disorder is the sinister work of ‘outside agitators.’
“The ‘anti-riot’ clause and the indictment in Chicago are legally and Constitutionally dubious. While acts of violence, incitement and disruption are explicitly covered by numerous, long-established state and local laws, conspiracy—which deals not with act but with intent—is a vague concept at best. Prosecution for conspiracy requires no proof of the commission of a crime, nor even of an attempt. Thus the prosecution of conspiracy all too easily becomes political harassment of persons who hold dissenting ideas.
“It is especially surprising that this new law should first be tested in connection with the Chicago disorders. For the events of convention week do reveal, with terrible clarity, that it is local authority and police who decide whether violence attends civil demonstration. In this case, the responsibility of the Chicago authorities is the more striking when it is remembered that several of the eight men under indictment have helped to organize major public demonstrations in other cities, both before and after the week of the Democratic National Convention. None of these demonstrations resulted in riot.
“The nature and origin of the Chicago violence, the lack of specificity in the indictment, the doubtful constitutionality of the charges and the singling out of men who enjoy national prominence on the left, strongly suggest that the federal government is now embarked on a program to constrain dissenting political activity. The eight defendants—Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John Froines, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale and Lee Weiner—represent a broad range of styles and commitments on the political left. Their indictment reveals how sweepingly Title 18 can be applied to control and limit free political activity. If convicted, each faces up to ten years imprisonment and fines up to $20,000.
“Confronted by a patently political challenge, the eight defendants have determined on a political response as well as a legal defense. Through their trial they will carry forward the first constitutional challenge to the anti-riot act. They intend, as well, to refocus public attention on the root issues that brought them and thousands of others to Chicago and the Democratic National Convention—the war, racism, the widening power of the military-academic-industrial complex, the enfeeblement of the nation’s political process. As a sign of their refusal to be intimidated by the scare label the government would hang upon them, the defendants are calling themselves The Conspiracy; and they are inviting other Americans who are similarly committed to radical change in this nation to join The Conspiracy. They are also appealing for financial and moral support to Americans who find in this indictment disturbing implications for the safeguard of constitutional liberty and a democratic political life.
“Broad-based support for the eight defendants is urgently needed both to defend the right of political dissent and to insure that the costly and protracted process of litigation does not effectively immobilize political dissent.”
We appeal to readers of The New York Review to support this effort by contributing toward the cost of the initial advertisements. This is the only effort of this sort that has been undertaken; the need for financial support is immediate.
Checks should be made out to Chicago Defense Fund and mailed to: Committee to Defend the Conspiracy, 28 East Jackson Blvd., Chicago, Illinois 60604.
Peter Babcox, Noam Chomsky, Judy Collins, Harvey Cox, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Michael Harrington, Nat Hentoff, Donald Kalish, Christopher Lasch, Sidney Lens, Herbert Magidson, Norman Mailer, Stewart Meacham, Larry David Nachman, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Susan Sontag, Benjamin Spock, I. F. Stone, Harold Taylor