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The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Allen Ginsberg on the Stand

I

Allen Ginsberg was the ninth witness to testify for the defense in the Chicago Conspiracy trial and the first who tried to explain to the jury why at least two of the defendants had decided to come to the Democratic National Convention in the first place. The preceding defense witnesses had testified that whatever violence they had seen in Chicago had been the fault of the police, not of the demonstrators. But Ginsberg, who had been involved in the early plans to protest the Convention, was in a position to talk not simply about what he had seen in Chicago but about the intentions of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin as far back as February, 1968, when the plan to stage a Festival of Life—to contrast with what Hoffman and Rubin called the Democratic Convention of Death—had first been discussed. Since the defendants were on trial for having conspired together with the intention of causing a riot in Chicago, Ginsberg’s testimony about these early plans promised to be important. For this reason as well as for the general curiosity about the famous poet, the courtroom, when he arrived, was filled with spectators and reporters.

Ginsberg, wearing white tennis sneakers on his somewhat pronated feet, entered Judge Hoffman’s courtroom late in the afternoon of December 11, 1969, and walked, slightly slouched but with a bouncing, cat-like gait, to the witness stand. From a sling over his left shoulder a large, woven purse swung at his hip. Facing the bench as he proceeded to the witness stand he paused, pressed his palms together, touched his fingertips to the bottom of his wiry, black beard, and made an elegant little Oriental bow in the direction of the defendants as well as toward the Judge who stared down at him from his high backed armchair. Ginsberg then took his seat and began to explain, under examination by Leonard Weinglass, one of the two defense lawyers, how he had traveled to India to study the religions of the East, whose mantras and other chants had been known to calm large assemblies of people.

Weinglass’s aim was to qualify Ginsberg as a witness who not only spoke out of deep religious convictions but whose spiritual speciality was the pacification of turbulent souls. However, Mr. Foran, the United States Attorney, soon tired of this discourse and upon his objection, which Judge Hoffman sustained, Ginsberg then began to explain how he had first heard from Hoffman and Rubin about their plan to stage the Festival of Life, a sort of rock concert which, they hoped, would attract thousands of young people whose exuberance, presumably, would create a humiliating counterpoint to the pious duplicity of the official Convention.

The aim of Ginsberg’s testimony was not simply to show that the intentions of Hoffman and Rubin had been essentially peaceful—that the disturbance they meant to create was a disturbance of the spirit, a kind of artistic assault against the political philistinism of the Democratic Party: he also wanted to explain to the jury what the defendants mean by what they call their “life style,” for it is this “life style” according to the defendants, and not the alleged transgressions set forth in the federal indictment, for which they feel they are being tried. What the defendants hoped Ginsberg could convey to the jury was that the violence arose at the Convention because the authorities recognized in this “life style” a powerful challenge to their own faith in a dying civilization, that this civilization had become a burden to the spirit and a hazard to life itself, and that in their panic at this recognition the police and public officials responded with guns, clubs, and tear gas, and finally with the indictment under which the seven defendants are being tried. What Ginsberg’s testimony meant to imply was that the official reaction to the Festival of Life was an unusually violent form of theatrical censorship, an example of the ageless assault upon the lamb of truth by the wolf of custom.

To convey such a notion to a jury composed mainly of Cook County housewives is a formidable business—requiring something like an effort at religious conversion—and it is unclear how well Ginsberg succeeded, if he succeeded at all. The jurors, with one or two exceptions, seldom betray their feelings, and perhaps, after three months of testimony, few of them have any feelings available to display. To complicate matters further, Ginsberg had to testify within the rules of evidence as Judge Hoffman narrowly and often whimsically interpreted them, and under the continual objections of Mr. Foran, sustained almost invariably by the Judge, whose compliance with the objections of the Government had by now come to seem habitual.

Moreover, while Ginsberg insisted that the spiritual ingredients of this “life style” were the values of peace, love, and freedom, the outward signs were the uncombed hair, the magenta shirts, the crimson trousers together with the antic behavior which Hoffman and Rubin displayed in the courtroom as well as the obscene and often violent language which was attributed to them by a succession of police spies, paid informers, and undercover agents who had testified during the first nine weeks of the trial.

Nevertheless, Ginsberg addressed the jury with much assurance and in a clear, somewhat musical voice. When Weinglass asked him to describe a speech he had made in Lincoln Park early in the week of the Convention, Ginsberg explained that he had chanted the Hare Krishna Mantra for about fifteen minutes in order to calm the crowd and that he then recited a poem by Blake. To this Foran objected, apparently for fear that Ginsberg would once again chant the Mantra as he had done earlier in his testimony, on which occasion a federal marshal, hearing the booming voice, like a giant cello, and the strange words, leapt to his feet and, in the opinion of several spectators, made as if to reach inside his coat for his gun.

Judge Hoffman, misunderstanding the grounds of Foran’s objection, sustained him anyway and unaccountably ordered the reference to William Blake stricken from the record. At this point Weinglass made the most of the confusion and asked Ginsberg to recite Blake’s poem without chanting it. Before Foran could object again Ginsberg proceeded to recite, in bravura style, Blake’s “Grey Monk,” a poem of nine quatrains which includes the lines “But vain the sword and vain the Bow,/They never can work War’s overthrow./The hermit’s prayer and the widow’s tear/ Alone can save the World from fear./ For a Tear is an intellectual Thing,/ And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King.”

Throughout this recitation, the most apparently hostile of the lady jurors, one whom the defendants call Mrs. Wallace after the Alabama Governor—the ample, peroxided night manageress of a cafeteria, whose permanent scowl flickers through her jewelled sunglasses and whose thin mouth in an inverted V, painted red between her heavy, milk white cheeks—turned her eyes from the witness stand, heaved her bosom and appeared to hold her breath as if the air had been contaminated by the poet’s voice.

The defendants, on the other hand, agreed that they were delighted by Ginsberg’s testimony, for as one of them had said earlier in the trial, “We consider our jury to be the young people of the country—the young people of the world,” of whom hundreds would line up each day in the cold outside the Federal Building waiting for seats in the courtroom. Whatever impact Ginsberg’s testimony might have on the actual jury meant less, according to the defendants, than the impact it would probably have once the press—and especially the underground press, which was well represented in court during Ginsberg’s appearance—had begun to transmit it to the country at large.

Furthermore Abbie Hoffman had derived from McLuhan the idea which he repeatedly expressed and which the other defendants accepted in one degree or another, that events do not exist only in themselves but have a kind of second life as imaginative reconstructions, made like works of art by skilled propagandists, which are then implanted by the media in the public consciousness. History, Hoffman has said, is compounded of “myth and propaganda”—of moral fantasies artfully disseminated. What the defendants hoped, therefore, was that Ginsberg’s testimony, in what Hoffman would call its mythic versions, would soon be propagated by the underground press and, like the events of Convention Week itself, combine in a continuing moral drama with accounts of death in Vietnam, the killing of Fred Hampton, the pollution of air and rivers, the vacancy of public education, and the dishonor of public men and confirm, in the minds of its youthful audience, their own sense of political and cultural crisis.

Ginsberg’s testimony lasted a day and a half. Throughout the morning of the second day Special Agent Stanley of the FBI, who had been assisting the prosecution during the trial, could be seen at the government’s table examining first one then another small paperbound book. These proved to be copies of Ginsberg’s volumes of poems and the agent, a burly, soft-eyed Southerner with a smoothly frozen face, as if his jaws and eyelids were dosed with novocaine, was hunting, as it later turned out, for poems by Ginsberg with which Foran during his cross-examination later in the day could challenge the poet’s religious credentials.

This tactic proved a failure since, far from embarrassing Ginsberg by the homosexual references which agent Stanley’s studies had revealed, Foran supplied the witness with an occasion to lecture the jury on his poetic intentions and particularly on his and Whitman’s idea that political brotherhood might arise from a kind of universal physical communion. These little lectures, which appear in the following transcript, were given without condescension and with such good nature that even the so-called Mrs. Wallace seemed pleased.

A further consequence of Foran’s tactic was that Weinglass, when he came to reexamine the witness, was now free, under the rules of evidence, to ask Ginsberg to recite from his poem, “Howl.” This Ginsberg did and when he came to the lines, “Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Moloch the heavy judger of men!/ Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement!” he wheeled in his chair, pointed an outstretched finger at the seventy-four-year-old judge, and, in a booming voice, completed the passage, “Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!/ Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb! Moloch whose blood is running money!” and so on. Startled at first, the shriveled judge recoiled in his high backed chair but then, in what seemed a deliberate gesture, flung his knotted hands up to his face, in the style of the old Yiddish theater and succeeded if not in matching the poet’s performance, at least in reminding the spectators that political theater—what the defendants call guerrilla theater—is not the exclusive province of the defendants and their witness.

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