Guest Blogger and Harper Grey Associate, Caryna Jiwani outlines key takeaways from her recent experience watching the dramatized film “The Trial of the Chicago 7”.
When it comes to movies and shows about court proceedings, lawyers tend to fall into one of two categories: love them or hate them. While I usually tend toward the latter, I made an exception recently to watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 – a dramatized film about the infamous trial of seven leaders of various social movement organizations (including the Black Panthers) opposed to the Vietnam War, who were charged with inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. A poignant illustration of the barriers activists face when pushing for broad and necessary social change, the film left me reflecting on how the cost of such activism varies by race, gender, and other identity vectors, the role of legal institutions in blocking or facilitating such social change, and the concepts of prejudice and privilege more broadly. The film was just released on Netflix and is definitely worth a watch!
My 3 Key Takeaways (spoiler-alerts below – watch first, read later if you’re unfamiliar with this true story):
1. Prejudice doesn’t appear as such within our own frames of reference – it often takes seeing things through someone else’s eyes to recognize injustice that we’re complicit in. This speaks to the power of film and storytelling more broadly. As a lawyer, my effectiveness depends on a certain degree of trust in the legal system as a fair arbiter of wrongdoings; however, getting to “see” legal events such as the trial of the Chicago 7 through the eyes of the defendants granted me access to experiences of systemic oppression I would not otherwise be exposed to.
2. I am aware that privilege takes many different forms and can be hidden behind ideas like “respect” and “patriotism”. In the film, the character Tom Hayden, one of the defendants, exemplifies this sort of veiled privilege. As a clean-cut, well-mannered white man, he receives far more opportunities to tell his side of the story in court than does his counterpart from the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, despite Seale’s involvement in the riot (and therefore the trial) being questionable at best. This insight has led me to look for coded privilege in my own life. While neither white nor a man, like Hayden my privilege likely manifests indirectly. For instance, my Canadian accent may indicate to others that I am a “well-adjusted” child of immigrants, thereby granting me opportunities and leeway denied to other non-white Canadians.
3. The legal system has a dark history that must be kept front-of-mind to ensure that injustices of the past do not re-occur. The treatment of Seale and his associate Fred Hampton (a young leader of the Black Panthers) during this trial appears too horrible to be factual, until you look it up and see that it’s true. While this case and movie are of course American, the Canadian legal system has its own sordid past that must not be forgotten. As a young lawyer early in my career, the film reinforced the responsibility I feel to leverage my position of power to lift up marginalized or oppressed members of society. This can be done by endeavoring to hold the system accountable to the principle of access to justice, and not being afraid to consult our own moral compass in the context of the work that we do.
“If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle, then damn it, you don’t deserve to win.” – Fred Hampton
About the Author
Caryna Jiwani is an associate with Harper Grey working with our Commercial Litigation, Environmental and Construction Groups. She joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2019, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2020.