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In a 1970 publication – ‘The Great Conspiracy Trial’ – author Jason Epstein records an anecdote about the trial of the Chicago Seven: Over the weekend some 150 lawyers from all across USA, had gathered in Chicago to picket the Federal Building in protest against Judge Hoffman’s [arrest of] the four lawyers. The delegation, supported by 13 members of the faculty of Harvard Law School which included four professors as well, submitted a brief, as friend of the Court, which called Judge Hoffman’s actions “a travesty of justice [which] threatens to destroy the confidence of American people in the entire judicial process…” By 10 O’clock the angry lawyers had begun to march around the Federal Building, where they were joined by hundreds of student activists, several Black Panthers, and a hundred or more blue-helmeted Chicago police.

Shortly before noon, about 40 of the picketing lawyers carried their signs into the lobby of the Federal Building, despite the notice posted on the glass wall besides the entrance forbidding such demonstrations within the building. Hardly had the lawyers entered, however, than Judge Campbell himself descended to the lobby, dressed in his black robes and accompanied by a marshal, a stenographer, and his court clerk. Surrounded by the angry lawyers, who were themselves encircled by a ring of police and federal marshals, the Judge proceeded to hold Court then and there. He announced that unless the pickets withdrew immediately, he would charge them with contempt. There could be no question that their contempt would occur in the presence of the Court, and would thus be subject to summary punishment, he warned. No sooner had he made this announcement however, than a voice from the throng shouted, “F**K you, Campbell.” After a moment of tense silence, followed by a cheer from the crowd and noticeable stiffening among the police, Judge Campbell himself withdrew. Then the lawyers, too, left the lobby and rejoined pickets on the sidewalk.

There’re different ways of looking at the episode. One may say the picketing lawyers ‘won’, because they were able to silence the Judge Campbell, and forced him to withdraw. True. But the actual aim of the lawyers’ agitation was perhaps something different. Goal was neither to silence Judge Campbell nor to ensure his hasty retreat; the aim was to protest the arrest of four lawyers, which they felt was the “travesty of justice”, and would “destroy the confidence of American people in the judicial process”. The Judge Campbell ‘thing’ was not something they had aimed or wished for; it just happened and the picketing lawyers, which included some of the best politico-legal brains of the time, could do nothing about it; they simply watched the flow of events without being able to benefit from it.

This is the tragedy of lacking the imagination and political initiative. The picketing lawyers simply threw away a beautiful opportunity to create a huge issue out of it. Offhand, argues Saul Alinsky, they had two choices to achieve this end; either of these choices would have forced the judge’s hand and kept the issue going on… Someone from the lawyers could have stepped up to the judge after the voice said “F**K you, Campbell,” and said that the lawyers there did not support personal obscenities, but they were not leaving. Or, all the lawyers together could have chorused, with one voice. “F**K you, Campbell!” This again would have made very big news – a real shocker and would have kept the issue burning. But they did neither; instead they let the initiative pass from them to the judge, and achieved nothing.

This is what happens when leadership lacks imagination and initiative. There it helped the issue to fizzle out without yielding much for the lawyers; here such inadequacies are bringing huge physical and material losses to the supporting population. Instead of taking cover under the bewildering, unbelievable and meaningless conglomeration of abstractions about freedom, morality et al, it’s time that political leaders go for some soul searching and cost-benefit analyses of their tactics. They should learn to be resilient, adaptable to the shifting political circumstances, and sensitive to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing.

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