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Seattle Liberation Front

HistoryLink.org Essay 2131 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) was one of the more flamboyant, if short-lived, radical organizations to rise out of the student movement of the 1960s. Organized in January 1970 by University of Washington professor Michael Lerner, the SLF made headlines the following month by sponsoring a violent protest at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. Federal conspiracy charges were later filed against SLF leaders, who became known as the Seattle Seven and were cited for contempt of court. Although several SLF leaders and members became quite influential, the group itself disintegrated in 1971.

What Was Left of the Left

The collapse of the national Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the summer of 1969 created a leadership vacuum among student-based antiwar and radical organizations across the nation. Newly arrived in Seattle from Berkeley, California, University of Washington professor Michael Lerner (b. 1943) invited his friend and Chicago Eight defendant Jerry Rubin to speak on campus on January 17, 1970. Two days later, Lerner convened a meeting at which the Seattle Liberation Front was created from leftwing organizations, collectives, and individuals "orphaned" by the disintegration of SDS.

The new group attracted a number of veteran activists, including Susan Stern (1943-1976), Roger Lippman (b. 1947), Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), and Charles "Chip" Marshall III (b. 1945). Their first major act was to begin planning a demonstration in anticipation of the conviction of Chicago Seven defendants, who had been indicted for conspiracy in planning protests during the August 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago.

A Conspiracy to Protest Conspiracy

Dubbed "The Day After," the demonstration was held on the afternoon of February 17, 1970, in front of the Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle. SLF leaders soon lost control of some 2,000 protesters, including many teenagers, who began pelting the Courthouse and police with paint bombs and rocks. Twenty people were injured and 76 arrested during the melee.

Two months later, on April 16, a federal grand jury indicted eight SLF members for conspiracy to plan a riot during the TDA demonstration. Michael Abeles (b. 1951), Joe Kelly (b. 1946), and Michael Justesen (b. 1950) were charged in addition to Lerner, Stern, Lippman, Dowd, and Marshall. All were quickly arrested (Lippman was already in custody in Berkeley, California), with the exception of Justesen, who "went underground" and has never reappeared (as of January 2000).

The trial of "the Seattle Seven" began in the Tacoma courtroom of Federal District Judge George Boldt on November 6, 1970. After several disruptions and a walkout by defendants, Boldt declared a mistrial on December 10 and cited all for contempt of court. Charges were ultimately dropped in March 1972, when defendants agreed not to challenge their contempt citations. All but Lerner served brief terms in minimum security federal detention.

The Punishment for Political Celebrity

Despite or because of the trial and attendant publicity, The Seattle Liberation Front was racked by ideological dissension, personality conflicts, and charges of "male chauvinism." It disintegrated in late 1971, but some individual SLF collectives survived and went on to promote social improvements, such as Capitol Hill's "Country Doc" Clinic.

Several SLF members and leaders remained politically active and visible: Susan Stern wrote a memoir, With the Weathermen before dying of an accidental drug overdose on July 31, 1976. Michael Lerner became editor of the Jewish intellectual journal Tikkun and an advisor to President and Hillary Clinton. Jeff Dowd pursued a new career as a screenwriter and film producer. Chip Marshall ran for Seattle City Council in 1977 and later helped to develop Issaquah's Klahanie neighborhood.

Ironically, the federal government never won formal convictions against either the Chicago or Seattle "conspirators." U.S. Attorney General Mitchell, who presided over the indictments, was later imprisoned for conspiracy for his role in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Sources:
Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage, A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); The Seattle Times, April 16, 1970; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970.
Note: Several of the birthdates given in this essay were corrected on July 24, 2012.


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Six of Seattle Seven: Michael Lerner (l), Chip Marshall, Susan Stern, Michael Abeles, Jeff Dowd, and Joe Kelly, 1970
Courtesy Alan Lande


 
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