The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Allen Ginsberg on the Stand

Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg; drawing by David Levine

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…


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