Will Bunch: The chilling part about 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'? It's all happening again in 2020

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale in "The Trial of the Chicago 7." - Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX/TNS

There’s a shocking real-life plot twist in the middle of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” — Aaron Sorkin’s occasionally flawed but mostly compelling and timely new film that washed across an entertainment-starved nation over the weekend — that I imagine sent a lot of Netflix addicts from Gen Z racing to their Google machine.

One minute the charismatic young Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a presence in the late-1969 trial as a daily adviser to his fellow Panther and defendant, Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The next minute Hampton is disappeared — riddled, as we see in gruesome black-and-white photos, by bullets fired by cops aided by an FBI informant in a killing that dramatizes the ever-rising stakes for those seeking to air grievances against their government during the Vietnam War era.

What the movie suggests — and which years of investigations and lawsuits conclusively proved — is that Hampton didn’t die in “a shootout” as the FBI and prosecutors falsely claimed, but was in fact assassinated as he lie in bed by a federal government that was waging an escalating war against political dissent. Nearly 51 years later, it’s hard to say what is more disturbing about the incident. That the U.S. government — to meet the demand of notorious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to stop the rise of a potential “Black Messiah” like Hampton — would straight up murder a sleeping American citizen in cold blood?

Or that it’s happening all over again in 2020?

Just hours before “The Trial of the Chicago 7” opened wide on Netflix, The New York Times published an early but exhaustive investigation into the Sept. 3 death of Portland, Oregon, anti-fascist activist and murder suspect Michael Reinoehl in a fusillade of bullets from U.S. marshals. The Times journalists found no evidence to support the government’s claim that Reinoehl had “produced a weapon” — a handgun was still in his pocket — and a lot of proof that the agents simply arrived and started firing, a troubling backfire echo of the Hampton assassination in December 1969.

Of course, there are considerable differences between Hampton’s murder and the killing of Reinoehl, but here’s the one that should alarm you. In these imperiled times, the president of the United States is openly describing the death of the Oregon anti-fascist as a premeditated, extrajudicial killing — and bragging about it.

“We sent in the U.S. Marshals,” President Donald Trump said in a gloating tone to a North Carolina rally. “Took 15 minutes, it was over. Fifteen minutes, it was over; we got him. … They knew who he was. They didn’t want to arrest him, and 15 minutes — that ended.” In so many words, the American president is describing both a major escalation in his “law and order” war on left-wing activists, and a chilling human rights violation.

Yes, Reinoehl’s penchant for showing up at protests armed was deeply wrong, in my opinion, and it played a role in a confrontation and fatal shooting of a right-wing extremist that I condemn. But the antifa activist’s claim of self-defense against a man armed with bear spray deserved an airing in a court of law — the kind of justice enshrined in our Constitution. Instead, Trump is admitting exactly what the evidence suggests, that his agents took the law into their own hands.

The death of Michael Reinoehl is the extreme edge of a disturbing development — that in 2020, your constitutional right to protest is again under assault from a government that’s made “law and order” the basis of their politics, much as Richard Nixon and his attorney general, John Mitchell, did in 1969. Also last week, Trump’s right-wing nominee to the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, stunned experts when she forgot one of the fundamental guarantees of the First Amendment, the right to petition the government with grievances. But did she forget, or did that promise from our founders get lost in a shroud of federal tear gas?

And so to call Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” timely is something that Sorkin himself would never be guilty of: an understatement. Yes, like every Hollywood adaptation there is a feeding table of inaccuracies for history geeks like me to feast upon (including the fact that Hampton was busy running the Panthers’ chapter in the Windy City and not really attending the trial). But the zeitgeist of the movie — whether the ballot box or political revolution is the right course in the face of an increasingly authoritarian government in Washington — correctly captures both the world then and the world now.

As the film rightly lays out, Nixon’s new government came into power in 1969 looking to find vague federal laws as an excuse to lock up folks — including America’s best-known radicals like Seale, the Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society — because they didn’t like their politics. The unrest they were accused of inciting was actually, a government panel found, a “police riot” started by club-swinging cops.

It took a very long time, but actual justice did prevail over the course of the 1970s. Not only were the wrongful convictions of five of the Chicago 7 thrown out by a federal appeals court, but some of government leaders of an illegal FBI bugging and break-in campaign known as COINTELPRO — including the bureau’s deputy chief Mark Felt, later famous as Watergate’s “Deep Throat” — were later charged criminally. Indeed, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have noted that the scandal that toppled Nixon and sent John Mitchell to prison happened because of their paranoia over the Vietnam protest movement. You probably know that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but apparently Trump and his “John Mitchell” — Attorney General William Barr — are unaware.

In June, Barr announced he was forming a task force to go after “anti-government extremists,” charging that many protesting the government in 2020 “pretend to profess a message of freedom and progress, but they are in fact forces of anarchy, destruction, and coercion.” In the four months since then, all the president’s men have ping-ponged between bluster — declaring cities like Seattle and New York “anarchist jurisdictions” — and dangerous actions, like sending a federal goon squad to Portland that made tensions there worse and on several occasions even tossed protesters into unmarked vans, real banana republic stuff.

The focus of our so-called Justice Department on the political left seemed deeply misguided as the extreme right emerged as a much greater threat, from the killing of a federal guard in Oakland, California, to the vigilante murders in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to a credible plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor. Even worse, the feds seem eager to lock up political dissidents on — pun intended — trumped-up charges, just as the Chicago 7 once were.

In Jackson, Tennessee, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney for the region held a news conference last week to hail the arrest of the 29-year-old bass player in an anarcho-punk rock band who’d made some edgy Facebook postings and marched for Black Lives Matter — after a raid of his home showed no evidence of political crimes but did find a small baggie of marijuana that wouldn’t even be a criminal offense in many American cities.

Here in Philadelphia, city police stunned a 38-year-old leading activist for Vietnamese immigrants, Nancy Nguyen, by showing up at her home while she was changing her baby’s diaper, arresting her and detaining her for 21 hours. Her alleged crime? Misdemeanor trespassing and littering, because she’d recently joined other activists in protesting at the Virginia home of a top official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These are the stakes with early voting in the 2020 presidential election underway. If Trump and Barr can ride their fearmongering over the antifa boogeymen to win in November, or at least make the tally close enough to steal victory in the courts and in the streets, then their paranoid style will get four more years to fully crush the American dream. Or we finally can turn our hunt to the real killers of democracy, who hide behind their tear gas and flash-bang grenades.

In the meantime, I suggest watching “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as motivation because, while I won’t spoil it, Sorkin’s tortured, bickering characters will ultimately show us that moral political choices are neither the easy ones nor the obvious ones. In 2020, our trial is not just to halt the injustice but to create an America where our grandchildren won’t be condemned to repeat it.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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