Protesting the treatment of the Chicago Seven and Black Panther Bobby Seale, the Seattle Seven in 1970, 47 years ago to this day, became martyrs for their cause — all the while sparking the inspiration for The Dude.
You might have heard: Seattle has a bit of a protest culture. That much is evident in the past month’s headlines, with a women’s march downtown, 30 arrested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and bloodshed at a recent University of Washington demonstration.
Before that? Almost too many demonstrations to count, including one protest that happened on today’s date 47 years ago and touched off one of the most tumultuous political court dramas Seattle has known — and one that inspired a 1998 Coen brothers classic.
The saga centered around a group of activists who would later be known as the Seattle Seven. They — and a crowd made up of 2,000 “predominantly young and many bearded and long-haired” people, according to a news report at the time — gathered on Feb. 17, 1970, in Seattle to participate in what was dubbed “The Day After” protest.
Led by the radical left-leaning Seattle Liberation Front, the demonstrators swarmed a downtown federal courthouse to protest the impending sentencing of other activists to the east, who were known themselves as the Chicago Seven.
They chanted “Free Bobby!” in solidarity with Bobby Seale, a Black Panther who was in prison after protesting at the 1968 Democratic convention. They also chanted “Stop the war!” in protest of military actions in Vietnam.
At 3 p.m., following a peaceful but tense demonstration earlier in the day, mayhem broke out and about 200 protesters rushed the doors of the courthouse, throwing paint and rocks.
There were reports of Seattle Police using tear gas (which they later denied). Seventy-six people were arrested.
Two months later, a federal grand jury indicted eight of the protesters for conspiracy to plan a riot.
They were Michael Abeles, Joe Kelly, Michael Justesen, Michael Lerner, Susan Stern, Roger Lippman, Jeff Dowd and Chip Marshall. All would see trial, except for Justesen, who mysteriously disappeared and was never located by authorities. (Only his fingerprints were found in a San Francisco apartment in 1979 by the FBI.)
The Seattle Seven’s court case quickly became politicized, mainly by the Seven themselves. Lerner likened the trial to “the general escalation of repression in this country,” he told The Seattle Times in 1970. “There is an attack on anyone who wants to alter the status quo whatsoever.”
In the fall, the trial began in a Tacoma courthouse despite the objections of the defendants, who wanted to be tried in Seattle. U.S. Judge George Boldt declined multiple requests to have the trial held in the same building outside where the violent protest took place.
People from around the country came to Seattle to witness the trial and the swirling controversy. On Dec. 2, Dowd said Judge Boldt was “deaf, blind or something.” That was after one of the U.S. attorneys called a 23-year-old woman in the gallery a “gal.” Stern, the only woman of the Seattle Seven, said in court that “to a woman, being called a ‘gal’ is the same as calling a black person a n—–.”
At one point, a government informant who had infiltrated another radical group that participated in the protest took the stand. He testified that one of the Seven told followers, “Get in a good tight affinity group, practice karate … and be prepared to defend yourself in case the pigs try to rip you off.”
Lerner blamed the infiltrating FBI agents themselves for precipitating the violence on the day of the protest.
There were regular disruptions. At one point during the trial, the Seattle Seven even walked out during court proceedings. Then, on Dec. 10, Judge Boldt declared a mistrial and cited all of the defendants for being in contempt of court.
The federal government dropped most of the Seven’s charges in 1972, when the Seattle Seven, except for Lerner, agreed not to challenge their contempt citations.
Lerner’s charges were later dropped after his contempt-of-court conviction was overturned by the 9th Circuit Court.
Stern died at 33 in 1976 at University Hospital in Seattle. Other members of the Seattle Seven were involved in political and religious activism later in life.
But not Jeff Dowd, who became an independent film producer in Los Angeles, where he met prolific filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and became the inspiration for Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski.”
He remains friends with the Coen brothers to this day.