Kit Bakke’s “Protest on Trial” looks at a slice of local history.

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Book review

“Protest on Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy”

by Kit Bakke

Washington State University Press, 241 pp., $22.95

At the start of “Protest on Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy,” Seattle author Kit Bakke poses a series of questions that seem aimed straight at the Trump era.

“How do you tell your country that its democracy is looking less democratic every day? How do you protest when your elected government is killing civilians in undeclared wars abroad and allowing racism and bigotry to flourish at home? How do you stop the passage of laws that benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the basic health and welfare of the majority?”

But Bakke’s focus is the 1970 trial of a group of leftist activists known as the Seattle 7. She serves up this slice of history with delicious let-me-tell-you-a-story gusto.

The six men and one woman on trial were members of an outfit called the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF). Its activities went beyond anti-Vietnam War protest to include the founding of a food co-op, an immigrant-advocacy group and a medical clinic (the Country Doctor), which still flourishes today.

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The spark for the arrests was a Seattle protest against the February 1970 jailing of the Chicago 7 for contempt of court. This was when Abbie Hoffman and company were on trial for their role in violent confrontations with the authorities during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In Seattle, 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside the federal courthouse. Rocks were thrown along with paint-filled balloons supplied by an undercover FBI provocateur/informant. The police responded with baton blows and tear gas. Eighty-nine people were arrested, but the Seattle 7 weren’t among them. Two of them weren’t even in Washington state at the time.

Only in April were conspiracy charges filed against them. The push to indict them came from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who believed the SLF was “in reality nothing but a Weatherman front.” It didn’t seem to matter that key figures in the SLF — including Seattle 7 defendant Michael Lerner, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Washington — publicly opposed Weatherman violence. Arrests were made and the trial, in Tacoma in late 1970, proved zanily chaotic.

Bakke, a former radical leftist herself, clearly sympathizes with the 7 while acknowledging their foibles and follies. She can be droll about the spot they were in: “[T]he seven captured conspirators had to meet and learn to work together, something conspirators should already be good at, but, since there hadn’t been a conspiracy, that camaraderie didn’t exist. Simply agreeing that racism, capitalism and the war were bad things wasn’t a strong enough foundation to coordinate an effective legal defense.”

Bakke also has wry sympathy for the prosecutors who had to deal with this unruly, longhair mob and the jurors who unsurprisingly were confused about how to evaluate conspiracy charges where “[t]he crime itself need not occur.”

The 7 were pranksters as much as radicals. They dropped acid, slept around and partied hard between court hearings. One of them, Jeff Dowd, became the inspiration for “the Dude” in the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebow­ski.” Another marveled at how “the Feds took us much more seriously than we took ourselves.”

Lerner and Seattle 7 lawyer Carl Maxey were the grown-ups in the room, but they didn’t prevail. A mistrial was declared and the boisterous defendants, like the Chicago 7 before them, were jailed for contempt of court. All charges against them were dropped in 1973. By that time the “warrantless wiretapping and other illegalities” of the FBI, as it monitored civil-rights and anti-war activists, had been exposed.

Bakke, inferring clear parallels with the present day, concludes with a reminder of how vital it is to preserve the freedom to protest.

“Most dissenters,” she concedes, “are not movie heroes or villains. … Their timing might be ill-advised, they may misjudge the strength and rootedness of the problem they wish to fix, and they may have only a partial grasp on the consequences of their actions. Still, they choose to step beyond a life of family, home, and career in order to engage with others in some of our world’s greatest challenges.”

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Kit Bakke will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 29, at Third Place Books in Seward Park; free, 206-474-2200, thirdplacebooks.com/seward-park. She will make a number of additional local appearances to discuss the book throughout April and May; see kitbakke.com/news-events/ for a full schedule.