Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

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The Weather Underground and the larger militant antiwar and anti-imperialist movement of the 1960s and 1970s occupy a precarious place in history. Its legacy has been largely shaped by conservative critics who have cast the group as spoiled rich kids who hated the United States for a variety of selfish psychological reasons ranging from being neglected by their parents to some members alleged feelings of inadequacy due to concerns over the size of their respective penises (see David Horrowitz’s Destructive Generation). However, at the same time the group’s legacy has been similarly colored by liberal scholars who have maligned the Weather Underground and dismissed the militant movement as a whole (for example, early Students for a Democratic Society president Todd Gitlin) while arguing that it turned away potential supporters and was morally indefensible. Such an argument has been used by activists in contemporary movements to attempt to enforce strict codes of nonviolence based on the so-called “experience” of the 1960s and largely based on readings of Tom Well’s lengthy examination of the movement against the Vietnam War in The War Within. However, over the past few years there has been more attention on the Weather Underground and the militant antiwar movement in the United States, with books such as Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, former Weatherman Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days, and the recently released collection of Weather books titled Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974. While all of these books and the 2003 film titled The Weather Underground have brought renewed attention to the group, few of these works have attempted to engage the Weather Underground’s complex legacy and the lessons that can be learned by today’s movements from the Weather Underground, instead choosing to focus primarily on the group’s history and activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Berger’s book, subtitled “The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity” engages the question of the Weather Underground’s legacy and through extensive research of movement documents and newspapers, oral interviews, and reviews of relevant secondary sources, creating a work that both presents a critical history of the Weather Underground and articulates the contributions of the Weather Underground to the left in the United States.

Unlike many previous attempts at exploring the Weather Underground’s history, Berger’s interpretations are fresh and written from the perspective of an activist clearly interested in learning from past struggles. Berger begins by exploring the Weather Underground’s origins in the white “New Left” of the 1960s and describes the context from which it emerged. Berger describes Weather’s actions as emerging from an antiwar movement that, feeling pressure from organizations of color who articulated an anti-imperialist analysis of the Vietnam war that saw the war in Vietnam and racism in the United States emerging from the same system of white supremacy and capitalism, slowly developed an anti-imperialist analysis of their own. Berger explains the context of the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and other third world groups organizing and the sense among some in the white left–particularly in the major student organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–that something more needed to be done to support third world movements both within and outside of the United States. This realization, coupled with government repression of third world movements within the United States and the increased antiwar militancy in 1968, led a group of activists in SDS to form the faction (Revolutionary Youth Movement) that would eventually split from the group and form Weatherman (the group later changed its named to the Weather Underground Organization after going underground). While this split did ruin the largest student and antiwar organization at the time, Berger reinterprets the split as white radicals breaking from white supremacy and clearly aligning themselves with people of color and third world movements and sees it as a major step in the development of an anti-imperialist movement. Following the split, Weatherman–overcome by their own egos and machismo–held a small number of highly militant actions around the country that culminated in 1969’s Days of Rage. After limiting their potential to build alliances due to their excessive egos and incurring significant legal troubles from their actions, the group decided to become an underground organization that would use bombings and other such tactics as means of highlighting the government’s repression of third world movements and–ideally–developing another front that would lesson repression against people of color. While Weather’s actions were cast by some at the time–and many now–as “extreme,” Berger argues that they need to be seen within the context of a government war on activists of color that resulted in the murder and imprisonment of several Black Panthers and a movement that became militant even without Weather’s influence. Berger explains that the militant tactics employed by Weather both before and after they went underground were common place in the antiwar movement by 1970 with street fighting and property destruction being used across the country.

While the book does of course mention the Weather Underground’s various actions–ranging from bombing the Pentagon to Kennecott Minerals for their role in the Chilean coup–its focus is less on the specifics of the bombings and more on how they were used as an attempt to foster solidarity across movements and as a way of building an anti-imperialist left. Berger’s history examines Weather’s attempts at building anti-racist and anti-imperialist solidarity by following Weather up to its end in the late 1970s, bringing the story of the anti-imperialist armed struggle into the 1980s, and exploring its present context by discussing at length the fact that many political prisoners remain in prison for anti-imperialist actions undertaken decades ago. Berger provides a critical history and analysis of Weather’s attempts at building an anti-imperialist theoretical framework, its numerous printed works (the group published and a newspaper while underground), its relationship with other organizations on the left, and its attempts to do mass organizing work in the post-Vietnam era. Berger describes how the Weather Underground, born out of a politics that emphasized an understanding of white supremacy and white skin privilege, shifted towards the end of its existence and advocated for a strictly Marxist-Leninist analysis of class that focused on the need for developing a mass communist organization, out of which the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee was born. At this point, several members started thinking about surfacing and eventually the majority turned themselves in and in so doing exercised a privilege that Berger points out was only available to white militants. Despite the shifting politics of the Weather Underground, Berger’s explanation of how they came to specific theoretical views, the internal conflicts within the group, and the response of the aboveground left is a fascinating read that holds many lessons for white activists and organizers seeking to build a stronger anti-imperialist movement.

Unlike other authors, Berger is willing to criticize the Weather Underground while also critically engaging their history, theoretical writings, and actions to properly assess their role both on the left and among organizations working for social change. Berger argues that despite the organization’s flaws, particularly with regard to their sexism and bravado, it advanced an analysis of race that was unprecedented in the white left. Weather fought racism by showing that racism was a defining feature of the United States domestically and in foreign policy, calling for the white progressives to support people of color, and mandating that whites challenge themselves and other whites at a personal and institutional level in the struggle for racial justice. Berger argues that the Weather Underground injected an analysis of white skin privilege into the movement and developed an analysis of it years before it became a popular subject of academic study, and more importantly, developed a politics of active solidarity that saw anti-racism as something that needed to be lived. Of course, in a lot of ways–whether it was failing to communicate with organizations led by people of color or in failing to provide more concrete support to radicals of color–the organization was not accountable to people of color, but it did achieve success in making a staunch and unyielding opposition to racism a prerequisite for social justice movements in the United States. It was this opposition to white privilege–more than its symbolic bombings–that made the Weather Underground a real threat:

“The political threat to white supremacy–not physical damage to government or corporate buildings–is the central tenet of what the Weather Underground Organization means. White activists, mainly from the middle class, rejected what people of color were never offered, at least not in a meaningful way. The refusal of white people to embrace the system was significant because it tied their hopes and aspirations to the oppressed world majority rather than the oppressor minority. The organization grounded its strategic decisions in the issues facing most people of the world, rather than white North American people alone–a pivotal difference from most white-led social movements in this country.”

Outlaws of America is an important read for activists on a number of levels, but particularly for those wanting to build an anti-imperialist movement against the war in Iraq as part of an overall strategy of revolutionary anti-imperialism that presents a challenge to the status quo in the United States. To that end, Berger’s book provides numerous lessons and insights into one of the most misunderstood organizations on the left. Moreover, the book provides a valuable analysis and definition of what it means to be anti-imperialist for those who might be organizing against the war but have not yet developed such an analysis, and as such, a close study of both Outlaws of America and the politics behind it would bring great clarity to the seemingly directionless antiwar movement.

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, (AK Press, 2006).

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