In the wake of the political violence encouraged by Donald Trump and his allies, the government is now embarked on a wholly necessary enforcement offensive against the growing threat of right-wing terrorism. Some argue that prosecuting domestic extremists will, inevitably, lead the Department of Justice to confront a problem the nation has faced repeatedly since its founding: How should we draw the line between legitimate political dissent and criminal conduct?
Over 50 years ago, Richard Nixon’s Justice Department brought a case under a then new anti-riot law against a diverse group of left-wing political activists, charging them with responsibility for violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention. As the resulting trial of what became known as the Chicago Seven demonstrated, the violence was actually the work of the Chicago Police Department. Indeed, the defendants and their counsel—including Yippie activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin along with eighth defendant and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale (whom the judge ordered chained and gagged during the trial, before the charges against him were eventually dropped)—managed to use the trial as a national stage to demonstrate that it was actually the police that planned and carried out a brutal and violent riot against largely peaceful demonstrators.
While the Chicago Seven posed no real threat, their case—and past cases of other politically charged prosecutions—are, once again, becoming highly relevant as law enforcement agencies confront a quite different, and very real, threat of politically motivated violence from the right.