November 6, 1970: The Seattle Seven

Several of the Seattle Seven and friends, circa November 1970.

“Did you ever hear of ‘The Seattle Seven’? … That was me … and six other guys.”

And that stonily-intoned quote, culled from the script of the Coen Brothers movie classic The Big Lebowski, has likely introduced many to the memory of Seattle’s radical-historical counterpart to the Chicago Eight, the antiwar troublemakers so famously indicted for their role in disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The quoted character, “The Dude,” was closely based on the personality of Jeff Dowd, these days an independent screenwriter and movie-preservation activist, a close friend of the Coens and, yes, one of the Seattle Seven back in the day.

The Seven were all members of the Seattle Liberation Front, a radical anti-Vietnam War organization formed in January 1970 at the University of Washington. One of the co-founders of the SLF, and one of the most outspoken members of the Seattle Seven, was Michael Lerner, then a 27-year-old visiting philosophy professor at the UW whose academic (and activist) home was the University of California at Berkeley. Along with Dowd and Lerner, the other five of the Seven were Michael Abeles, Joseph Kelly, Roger Lippman, Charles “Chip” Marshall III, and Susan Stern. They all ironically achieved their collective infamy due to their involvement in a February 1970 protest demonstration in Seattle in support of the Chicago Seven, whose verdict was due that month. The demonstration, held at Seattle’s Federal Courthouse on February 17, attracted a turnout of roughly 2,000 — many more than expected — and the crowd, mad about the bum rap given to the Chicago Seven the day before, quickly got out of hand. Rocks, bottles, and paint bombs were thrown, 20 were injured, and 76 (not including the Seven-to-be) were arrested.

Two months later, on April 16, a federal grand jury indicted the aforementioned SLF members on charges of inciting the February 17 riot, along with an eighth, Michael Justesen, who immediately went into hiding. Justesen’s disappearance denied Seattle our own Eight, and thus our Seven, with their name’s alliteratively superior scansion, were born. The case was assigned to Federal District Judge George H. Boldt, whose Tacoma courtroom hosted a pre-trial hearing on the date in focus here.

One noteworthy moment in the November 6 hearing came when Lerner and Marshall attempted to make the case that the political implications of the pending trial — much like the Chicago Seven trial, according to its respective defendants — reached far, indeed, beyond the geopolitical confines of its legal jurisdiction. Lerner, directly addressing Judge Boldt, declared:

“The key issues [in this trial] are the war in Vietnam and the use of the courts as an instrument of repression in this society. … You [as a member of the U.S. federal judiciary] are a party to the initial dispute. … The federal judiciary has its hands dirtied by not declaring the war immoral and unconstitutional.”

The actual trial, which formally began (after certain delays, mostly legal in nature) on November 23, was equally marked by such ideological drama. While roughly 200 protesters picketed outside the Tacoma courthouse in support of the Seven, defendants and supporters alike inside the courtroom refused to stifle either their emotions or their political opinions. To add to the ideological weight of the legal proceedings, one of the Chicago defendants, David Dellinger, came to Tacoma in person to aid the Seattle defendants in making their case, but Judge Boldt denied a request by Lerner and Marshall to allow Dellinger to speak in the Tacoma courtroom towards that end.

Eventually, on December 10, Boldt declared a mistrial, citing all the defendants for contempt of court. The contempt charges were settled out of court in 1972, and the Seattle Seven, save for Lerner, all served brief sentences in federal minimum security prison.

As for the other aftermath, the SLF disbanded acrimoniously in 1971; Stern (b. 1943) died in 1976 (reportedly of an accidental drug overdose); Justesen was arrested in 1977 in California by the FBI as part of an infiltration of the Weather Underground; and Lerner is currently editor of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun.

The Dude, meanwhile, likely remains in his own very stony kind of limbo.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Conspiracy Trial Delay Expected,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 6, 1970, p. 1; Larry McCarten, “Tacoma Trial Judge Won’t Step Down,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1970, p. 1; “Correction: Defendant in Seattle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 7, 1970, p. 3; Don Hannula, “Judge refuses to disqualify self in conspiracy trail of 7,” The Seattle Times, November 6, 1970, p. A 4; Don Hannula, “Judge ousts two at conspiracy trial,” The Seattle Times, November 23, 1970, p. D 6; Stephen H. Dunphy, “Selection of jury for conspiracy trial begins,” The Seattle Times, November 23, 1970, p. D 6; Paul Henderson, “8 arrested at beer party for trial defendants,” The Seattle Times, November 23, 1970, p. D 6; Larry McCarten, “Conspiracy Trial Disrupted,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 24, 1970, p. 1; “Conspiracy Trial Opens to Shouts Of 200 Picketers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 24, 1970, p. 2; Don Hannula and Stephen H. Dunphy, “Conspiracy-trial defendant shakes fist at attorney,” The Seattle Times, November 24, 1970, p. A 10; Don Hannula and Stephen H. Dunphy, “Social, political queries delay trial,” The Seattle Times, November 24, 1970, p. A 10; “150 protest outside trial,” The Seattle Times, November 24, 1970, p. A 10; Larry McCarten, “Conspiracy Trial Juror Is Removed,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 25, 1970, p. 1; “Marriage Query Lightens Trial,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 25, 1970, p. B; “Courthouse emptied,” The Seattle Times, November 25, 1970, p. A 15; Don Hannula and Stephen H. Dunphy, “10 storm out of courtroom,” The Seattle Times, November 25, 1970, p. A 15; Larry McCarten, “Jury Set at Tacoma; Wild Court Melee,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 26, 1970, p. 1; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995).

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