Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman

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Over the past several years, there have been a number of books published about Weatherman (later known as the Weather Underground organization). These have ranged from participant memoirs such as Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days to secondary analyses of the movement such as Bringing the War Home and Outlaws of America. These have been joined by Thai Jones’s study of his parents (his father was Jeff Jones, who held a leadership position in Weatherman/Weather Underground) titled A Radical Line along with Sing A Battle Song a collection of statements, communiques, and poems produced by the Weather Underground. With the exception of poems written by women and republished in Sing a Battle Song, men have written most of this recent material on the Weather Underground. In that sense, Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman is a welcome addition and will hopefully be joined by other women who were involved with the group. Given the sexism that the entire radical movement grappled with in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Wilkerson has a different perspective than those that have written thus far, while at the same time, she articulates a different position given that she was not in the leadership of the organization.

Cathy Wilkerson was at one time probably one of the more famous members of Weatherman, having survived the 1970 townhouse explosion in which three of her comrades–Teddy Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins–were killed when wires were crossed on a bomb that they were building. The bomb, which was being constructed to target the Fort Dix military bases, was a product of a frenzied time following Weatherman’s failed “Days of Rage” action in which only a few-hundred members of the group came to a “national action” to battle with the Chicago police. Following the lack of turnout for the “Days of Rage” event (and the even more problematic dismissal and criticism of it by the Black Panther Party, whom Weatherman saw as the vanguard of the movement), Wilkerson argues that the townhouse explosion was the consequence of:

“…a bright light burning itself out in its own intensity. We had become a voice of outrage whose single-mindedness had cut us off from the movement, from reality. We had created a bubble of our own reality, and the bubble burst.”

While the Weather Underground would eventually articulate its own analysis of what went wrong at the townhouse in the statement “New Morning, Changing Weather,” describing it as a “military error” borne out of a “tendency to consider only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary with the glorification of the heavier the better.” Wilkerson, while agreeing with portions of the analysis, criticizes the fact that the statement gave the townhouse collective sole blame rather than evaluating the context of what was happening politically, Weatherman’s own violent rhetoric, their actions (ex: the “Days of Rage”), and their political analysis, all of which “helped pave the way to the elevation of armed struggle as the only kind of struggle.” Wilkerson’s analysis of the townhouse explosion and what it meant for the Weather Underground–and to a lesser extent the movement–is interesting and she ultimately argues that:

“Only years later did I realize that it was only because our actions failed, because we had sacrificed some of our own, that our anger could be heard. Had our original plans been successful, any acknowledgment of our outrage against the war would have been overshadowed by others’ outrage at us, for we, too, would have inflicted chaos and hurt without a realistic plan–if one would have been possible–to move constructively beyond our anger and the damage.”

A significant portion of Wilkerson’s book is devoted to her work with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and her awakening to political consciousness in the mid-1960s. She begins by describing her family life in the 1950s, describing stifling gender roles and expectations that functioned as an early impetus towards rebellion in some form. When Wilkerson went to college she got involved in Civil Rights struggles by going to pickets and getting involved with neighborhood organizing efforts. This eventually led to organizing against the Vietnam War and ultimately, SDS. She worked at the national office as an editor of New Left Notes before becoming a regional SDS organizer in Washington DC. Her discussion of SDS is insightful as she addresses the organization’s many successes and failures. Moreover, Wilkerson was involved in SDS throughout most of its existence and she was one of the few who were involved in “early” SDS and the later SDS. Consequently, she discusses the divisions between the two, as well as the common failings, such as a lack of an overall strategy for change. Wilkerson also tackles sexism in the movement, COINTELPRO repression, and the continuing escalation of the war.

Wilkerson’s discussion of SDS is essential to understanding the Weather Underground, because without it, it is almost impossible to see what drove their group to engage in “armed struggle” within the United States. She aptly articulates the trajectory of SDS’s politics and skillfully draws out lessons that would be helpful for anyone doing antiwar and/or radical organizing in the current context. As she talks about the downfall of SDS, she describes the increase in radical rhetoric and imagery, with SDS publications featuring the rhetoric of warfare, imagery of guns, and exultations to militancy that became increasingly undecipherable to those outside the movement. Wilkerson argues that as SDS (and the emerging Weatherman and Revolutionary Youth Movement factions) began to cast itself as a “revolutionary” movement that sought ways to broaden its struggle, it became more narrowly focused and accountable. To her, Weatherman–which emerged out of the disintegration of SDS at the 1969 national convention–quickly became a product of its own rhetoric and began to believe its bold proclamations even when in reality there was not much of a movement behind them, nor were their particularly clear politics. At numerous points during her narrative, Wilkerson describes her doubts and second thoughts that she downplayed and overcame, convincing herself that “the leadership” had a clear plan or that there was no other way.

Throughout her writing, Wilkerson criticizes the politics and actions of the Weather Underground, arguing that it had “tremendous influence and iconic status, despite its small size and enormous, even absurd, failings.” She repeatedly talks of herself and the Weather Underground as an organization moving over “the blurry line between reality and delusion” as they convinced themselves that they had the right analysis and tactics. When people did not show up, they simply convinced themselves that they were the only ones who were willing to make the sacrifices and that they would have “to go it alone.” For the most part, Wilkerson’s analyses of the Weather Underground’s political and tactical failings are insightful, although they do seem colored by her own experience in the group and subsequent political thinking. One of Wilkerson’s assertions that are more questionable is that:

“Presented with both national and world events that were emotionally overwhelming, and ill-prepared to make the choices that lay in front of me, I made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practiced by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity–and each life within it–was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandoned myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.”

Honestly, it is somewhat difficult to accept portions of that analysis, especially when throughout the book Wilkerson advances a far more nuanced critique of the group.

Beyond on her evaluation of the politics and tactics of the Weather Underground, Wilkerson also describes life underground. Following the townhouse explosion, Wilkerson moved from a series of “safe houses” and often subsisted on bare necessities. In part because she was so well-known following the townhouse and in part because she was not part of the leadership collective, Wilkerson reveals only minimal involvement in the group’s activities and much of her life underground appeared tedious and served to isolate her from what remained of the movement. When reading the section, the hierarchy of the group’s operation is striking. The organization operated in a way that left the individual collectives and members often having no idea who else existed and rarely being asked to contribute to the strategic and tactical discussions at hand. Moreover, Wilkerson explains that there was often a significant disparity between how people lived, with those who were more connected to money living in significantly better conditions.

Despite her criticism, Wilkerson makes it clear that among Weatherman’s success was its ability “to serve as a powerful voice of outrage that spoke for thousands of angry young people,” its ability to elude capture and provide inspiration to 1960s veterans who were in the 1970s settling into long-term work, and its addressing racism as a central aspect of struggles in the United States. While recounting its many errors and asserting that it added little to “the broader conversation about change,” Wilkerson argues that despite all of its flaws, “the gravest mistake is inaction.” Flying Close to the Sun–while not the best book on the period–is an important contribution to the writing on the Weather Underground and the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s and is certainly worth reading by anyone seeking to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what happened during that period.

Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

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Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiques of the Weather Underground

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Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974 is a new anthology edited by three former leaders of the militant anti-imperialist organization known as the Weather Underground. From its origins in the student antiwar movement of the 1960s through its ongoing support of liberation movements around the world in the 1970s, the Weather Underground became one of the most controversial groups to emerge from the 1960s movements due to their support for armed struggle and use of political bombings as a means of practicing active solidarity with third world movements. The anthology collects three texts from the Weather Underground’s most active period, a collection of poetry titled “Sing a Battle Song: Poems by Women of the Weather Underground Organization,” “The Weather Eye: Communiques from the Weather Underground May 1970 – May 1974,” and “Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-imperialism.” By collecting these texts in one place, the editors make an important contribution to recent literature on the Weather Underground and to those in current movements against war and racism who want to learn from past struggle as a way of drawing out lessons for the present. In their respective introductions to the text, the editors reflect on the Weather Underground and the lessons that can be learned, with all three former leaders concluding that they were right to challenge white supremacy and imperialism as demonstrated by Bernadine Dohrn’s arguing that “Weather had an unequivocal lucidity about white supremacy and race.” Similarly, they argue that the Weather Underground helped to advance a theory of imperialism that looked at its domestic consequences–economic collapse, incarceration, ecological assaults, etc.–that presented a more comprehensive analysis of power to the antiwar movement and attempting to recast it as an anti-imperialist movement. While still supporting the goals and many of the theoretical positions of the group, the editors agree that Weather’s major failure was in its sectarianism, inflated rhetoric, and its unwillingness to build meaningful alliances with other organizations. To this end, Jeff Jones’ comments that Weather defined only by its tactics is a relic of the past, but if it is considered in terms of its opposition to imperialism and racism it has a relevancy for the present, seem particularly apt.

Following the introductions and a brief excerpt from the “Weatherman Statement” issued in 1969, Sing a Battle Song opens the book. The short book of poetry by “women in the Weather Underground” features a variety of poems that show the ways in which the Weather Underground sought to grapple with a host of different issues and interlocking systems of oppression. There are poems that challenge sexism and patriarchy, poems in support of the Vietnamese struggle for liberation, poems in support of political prisoners, and a host of other poems addressing important issues within both the Weather Underground and the greater left movement of the 1960s and 1970s. According to the 1975 introduction, the poems–like armed actions and written propaganda–are another means of communicating, educating, and building an anti-imperialist movement. The poem writing process itself was a product of the Weather Underground’s experimentation with different methods of collective organizing and structuring of political groups, with each poem being written individually and then critiqued and edited as a group in order to sharpen its clarity and effectiveness as a tool of struggle. Moreover, the book is firmly rooted in the Weather Underground’s internal debate over male supremacy and sexism, a debate that raged not only within the group but also within the movement press.

Weather Eye collects the communiques of the Weather Underground, from its opening “A Declaration of a Sate of War” in which the group announced that it was going to “attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice” within the next fourteen days (it set off a bomb in the New York Police Department headquarters to protest the racist justice system three weeks after the declaration of war) to a 1974 communique explaining why the Weather Underground “attacked” a fundraiser for Nelson Rockefeller for his support of strict anti-drug laws. The communiqués vary greatly from over-the-top rhetoric talking about “pigs” and “amerikan” imperialism to longer, more theoretical pieces that analyzed events of the times and the state of the movement. As the organization became more experienced, its communiqués focused less on the bombing and more on the reasons behind the choosing of a specific target, opting to use the bombings as an act of “armed propaganda” that could potentially highlight an issue that was not receiving an appropriate amount of attention in the media or in the movement. The Weather Underground also released statements exploring their own tactical and political development, perhaps the most famous of which was the group’s “New Morning, Changing Weather” statement in which the group specifically expressed its “military error” in considering “only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary” and advocated the building of a movement that respected a diversity of tactics. Reading them some thirty years later, the communiques show Weather’s evolving analysis and its work towards developing a more comprehensive anti-imperialism theory and praxis and the obligation of white radicals to dedicate themselves to combating imperialism.

Billed as “the political statement of the Weather Underground,” Prairie Fire is an important document in understanding the theoretical development of the Weather Underground. It presents their longest exploration of imperialism, white supremacy, and the tactics necessary for revolutionary movements to succeed. While the statement’s politics have been criticized by some former members for emphasizing class over race, it represents an attempt by an underground organization to stay relevant at a time of lessening popular struggle. The book, published in the mid-1970s, is an attempt to give direction to the organization and to present a strategy for anti-imperialism and revolution. The book is very much written out of an analysis of conditions in the mid-1970s, interpreting imperialism as in decline, and as such sees the prospects of a revolutionary movement as being attainable provided that a new revolutionary organization is formed to guide the movement. It identifies anti-organization tendencies, cynicism, sexism, and racism as the primary reason for the movement being at a “low-point” and prevents its analysis as a means of sparking a larger anti-imperialist movement. To that end, the book presents a lengthy analysis of resistance movements in United States history while also articulating a detailed analysis of imperialism and recent (at the time) worldwide victories against imperialism. For those reading the analysis in the present, it appears quite flawed given that its predications about the direction of the movement and the decline of United States imperialism did not come to pass, yet at the same time, it does offer a number of points worthy of consideration by contemporary activists. The text presents a clear argument in support of an anti-imperialist analysis of United States foreign policy, explaining how the United States prosperity is based on the “super-exploitation” of the third world, how imperialism links domestic, foreign, corporate, and military policy, and how racism functions as a tool of imperialism. The book also presents a solid–although dated–critique and analysis of white privilege and asserts that challenging racism and white supremacy must be a primary focus of radical movements.

Sing a Battle Song is an important book in that it presents materials that were previously available primarily in university libraries and in the collections of aging radicals and makes them available for a new generation of radicals to consider and learn from. Of course, as primary text materials, they feature no secondary analysis and are often lacking the context necessary to completely understand them (the exception would be Jonah Raskin’s introduction to Weather Eye) and as such a reading of these texts should be undertaken along with a reading of Dan Berger’s excellent book on the Weather Underground, Outlaws of America. Nevertheless, these texts provide an intriguing and useful look into a movement that was willing to risk everything in order to commit itself to fighting white supremacy and as such, there is a considerable amount to be learned from them by radicals of this generation.

Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, eds., Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground 1970 – 1974, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).

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).

Author and Activist Dan Berger Speaks on the Local Organizing and the Weather Underground

On Tuesday at the Wealthy Theatre writers and activists Dan Berger and Andy Cornell discussed their books Outlaws of America: the Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity and Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out and led an interesting discussion on progressive and antiwar organizing.

Writers and activists Dan Berger and Andy Cornell spoke with a group of about 20 people about local organizing around progressive causes Tuesday at the Wealthy Street Theatre. Berger is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity and an editor of Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out; Cornell was a contributor to the latter.

Both read selections from the books and led conversations about organizing in Grand Rapids. The first letter was Cornell’s, a letter to the punk rock community. Although his letter had relevance to only a few people in the group, it was particularly poignant as it addressed the frustrations of many who became radicalized through the punk rock scene yet have had little success organizing within it–one member of the group stated that he had “been meaning to write that letter [to the punk rock community] for a long time.”

The second letter spoke to the entire group as it dealt with relationships between young and old activists and the need for cross-generational activism. Far too often, Cornell read, there is mutual demonizing of each other by the old and young, with the older generation being viewed as rigid, narrow-minded liberals who have little younger folks can learn from, while younger activists are viewed as reckless and do not have a firm grip on the reality of organizing yet. Such self-righteous attitudes, Cornell read, must be dispensed with if we are to have a sustained radical movement.

The last selection from Letters dealt with leadership in radical movements. Berger read that while nonhierarchical activist structures certainly are essential and good, it is possible and desirable for leaders—“many leaders”—to emerge within those structures. The letter noted that in the run-up to the Presidential elections of 2004, because of the absence of progressive leaders, celebrities such as Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Ben Affleck took on those roles and were predictably bad at them. A compromise can be found, the letter said, between a complete lack of leaders and hierarchical structure in activist organizing, and that compromise can be nonauthoritative and nonhierarchical.

After Berger read the conclusion to his book on the Weather Underground, a dialogue began on organizing in Grand Rapids. Many different groups were represented, and a variety of opinions given. Several people expressed the opinion that organizing in Grand Rapids is segregated, saying this is a “major barrier to developing the movement.” Another organizer stated that organizing in Grand Rapids is “not a community conversation,” and needs to be. One organizer from the Michigan Organizing Project stated that she is continually frustrated with white activists who expect people of color to operate on the same premises as them, the whites. Another organizer stressed that activists must always speak about issues from a systems-level analysis. The conversation on Grand Rapids organizing was a good one that should happen more often. Events like the grassroots organizing fair held last September at the Wealthy Street Theatre should be utilized as excellent opportunities to be in dialogue with, learn from, and collaborate with other Grand Rapids progressives in order for all of our causes to grow.

The discussion was cut short by the scheduled viewing of the film The Weather Underground. The film showing was followed by a discussion led by Dan Berger. Berger, having spent a good part of the last six years researching the group, gave insight to the group and its relevancy today. He fielded many questions by a small but obviously interested group of viewers. When asked about the difference between Iraq and Vietnam, he spoke of the support for the Viet Cong in the United States and around the world—a factor that is clearly not the case in Iraq. A cursory glance at mainstream media coverage of Iraqi resistance to US occupation shows a very one-dimensional projection, with all fighters referred to as “insurgents” and painted as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, which allows for easy demonization; in addition, the climate is intensely unconditionally supportive of US troops (a sentiment which can be seen in the many yellow magnetic ribbons adorning scores of cars in Grand Rapids and around the country)—these conditions and others make mass-based support for Iraqi resistance like the support for the Viet Cong in Vietnam much less likely.

The predictable question on the use of violence as a means of social change was asked of Berger. Did he think, the questioner asked, violence was acceptable by groups seeking social change? Philosophical questions on whether or not destruction of property can classified as “violence” (as the bombs never killed or injured anyone besides the three Weather Underground members whose bomb accidentally went off in their New York City townhouse in 1970) aside, Berger did not respond with a yes or no, but rather brought up the issue of context. He spoke of groups’ “need for audacity” in their actions, and that this means different things in different contexts. The question for all groups seeking social change to consider, Berger said, is “How do we as a group remain politically relevant?” He pointed to the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 which helped launch the Civil Rights Movement as being particularly audacious and militant in their historical context. Regarding Weather, they emerged in a context in which a largely non-violent antiwar movement had failed to end Vietnam, the US was committing unparalleled atrocities and innocent civilians were dying by the thousands weekly, and violent struggles for liberation were happening all over the world. Rather than condemning political violence wholesale, Berger said it must be understood and considered in its context. He also stated that it is crucial to remember that the state, particularly the US government, is far and away the biggest purveyor of death, misery, and destruction in the world, and that this is also a part of the context necessary when thinking about violence. For further discussion on this topic, see Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology.

Berger’s talk was an important one, for it both opened up dialogue about a subject frequently portrayed as though all on the left are in agreement, which is far from the truth, and shed some light on a frequently misrepresented and misunderstood group which can provide important insights to activist groups today.

Outlaws of America, Letters from Young Activists, and Pacifism as Pathology can all be checked out from the lending library at the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy.

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience

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A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience is the product of a college journalism class, with author Thai Jones writing a personal history of his family and their activities as part of the American left. Jones’ parents, Eleanor Stein and Jeff Jones were both active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Weatherman, and the Weather Underground and were for many years sought by the FBI as fugitives for their participation in the bombing of the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other symbols of state and corporate power during the 1970s. A Radical Line joins a wealth of new material about the Weather Underground–Bill Ayers Fugitive Days, Jeremy Varon’s Bringing the War Home, and The Weather Underground in presenting a well-considered appraisal of New Left militancy in the 1960s and 1970s.

While right-wing commentators have made a cottage industry out of criticizing “sixties radicals” for their excesses and inconsistencies, A Radical Line confronts the common myth that the radicals of the 1960s were acting in a vacuum without tradition and were merely selfish youth–putting the activism of two SDS and Weather Underground members into the context of their families mutual struggles for social justice. Jones’ parents did not simply act out of a newfound consciousness in the 1960s but rather they were embracing their family history and traditions, and to a certain extent, the history and traditions of the American left. Eleanor Stein’s family had a long history of participation in the Communist movement and both her parents were part of the Communist underground (an underground which Jones humorously describes as “the most boring ever” with members simply discussing things and having meetings without any actions) and her father appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) while both of her parents were frequently monitored by the FBI. Stein’s parents were also active in the struggle for civil rights in Washington DC, participating in the movement that would provide the gateway for Eleanor Stein’s involvement in radical politics. A Radical Line describes how she walked out on a class at Columbia to join the demonstrations that would lead to the 1968 “Columbia Uprising” and spent the next ten years involved in the militant fringes of the New Left. Similarly, Jeff Jones father was involved in radical politics, albeit of a much more subtle nature than Stein’s parents were. Jeff’s father was a pacifist and spent World War II at a camp for Conscientious Objectors, dedicating his life to teaching about peace and justice, instilling the values that would lead Jeff Jones from a student at Antioch College to a position as a national organizer for SDS and later the inner circle of the Weather Underground.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of A Radical Line is its honesty and sincerity. Thai Jones is not afraid to identify the many and varied mistakes his parents made during their antiwar activism–from crafting terribly dogmatic Leninist justifications for what was essentially symbolic civil disobedience via bombing during the 1970s and using “toughness” as a means of recruiting youth to their revolution. Jones’ book is full of disagreements between the generations, with neither Jeff Jones’ or Eleanor Stein’s parents fully supporting what their children were doing, demonstrating the ways in which the “Old Left” felt the New Left was failing to learn from their parents’ struggles. One of the most telling passages in the book is a description of the type of “organizing” that Jeff Jones did as a part of Weatherman before the Days of Rage in 1969. Thai writes how his father went to an SDS meeting with a few other Weathermen at the University of Wisconsin Madison, pushed an SDS speaker off the stage as the other Weatherman struck up karate poses behind him and shouted, “You don’t see any motherfucking students at any motherfucking college up here on this stage. All of us up here are stone communist revolutionaries,” while encouraging the confused and annoyed crowd to go “trash” the Army Math Research Center. Of course, the group ignored him, just as the larger antiwar movement ignored both Weatherman and the Weather Underground. While their analysis was almost a step forward and a catalyst towards a truly revolutionary antiwar movement, the macho militancy and praxis of Weatherman, specifically the abandonment of the mass antiwar movement, ended up relegating the group to irrelevancy. Rather than learn from the so-called “Old Left” of which Eleanor Stein’s mother Annie Stein participated in, Weatherman failed to take into account the destructive nature of sectarianism and fractured the student movement. When they realized the error in their politics and turned to Annie Stein and others to teach them about the history of leftwing theory and practice it was too late, and the Weather Underground split apart with most members turning themselves in while others went on to participate in even more irrelevant “armed struggle” groups.

A Radical Line is not a history of the Weather Underground and readers looking for such a book should look elsewhere. However, it is an entertaining a well-written history of one radical family and their missteps, which, to a large extent, were indicative of the historical missteps of the left in the United States. While occasionally suffering from vague descriptions of historical events, A Radical Line is an examination of the human side of historical actors that risked everything they had for what they believed would make a concrete difference in the struggle for social justice and the human consequences of their actions.

Thai Jones, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience, (Free Press, 2004).

Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies

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For many historians and participants in the various social movements commonly referred to as “the sixties,” the formation of Weatherman in 1969 as the faction that eventually came to control Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student-based organization opposed to the war in Vietnam, was the beginning of the end of the antiwar movement. Rather than engaging in a serious evaluation of both Weatherman’s critique of non-violence and United States imperialism, as well as the tactical efficacy of their approach, numerous historians and movement participants have chose instead to ignore questions raised by Weatherman and dismiss the group as a sectarian cult of violence that led to the destruction of the antiwar movement. Of course, while such an analysis ignores many pivotal events that happened both after and during Weatherman’s actions, all of which-Kent State, the Winter Soldier investigation, and protests at Nixon’s 1972 inauguration reflect an antiwar movement that did not simply fall apart with the shift of some in the movement towards more militant tactics. While Varon states that Weatherman’s violence was “a dramatic failure from a tactical standpoint,” he is investigating the political violence of Weatherman to examine the broader revolutionary impetus of the late 1960s and early 1970s-a period in which there were innumerable physical confrontations with the state and, in the period from January 1969 to April 1970, 2,800 attacks on state and corporate property in response to the Vietnam war, with 281 attacks on ROTC buildings and 7,200 arrests on campuses alone.

Numerous individuals and collectives within the United States shifted towards attacks on state and corporate property during the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to the United States’ war on Vietnam-Weatherman was the largest and most well known group to make the shift. As such, Varon concentrates on Weatherman to construct an analysis of the wider violence of the New Left. In Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, the history of Weather is broken down into three distinct events-the Days of Rage in October 1969 and the Flint “War Council” in December of 1969 as examples of Weatherman’s politics, and focuses on the Weather Underground (the organization was renamed after going underground) by way of the townhouse explosion in 1971. These three events, while pivotal events in the history of the Weather Underground, are frequently misinterpreted and used as the basis for dismissing the group, and to each event Varon brings a level of analysis and interpretation that has been sorely lacking from previous examinations of the Weather Underground. Weatherman’s ideology is examined in the discussion of the Days of Rage, a week-long series of “militant” actions that Weatherman hoped would “bring the war home” and inspire working-class youth throughout the United States to engage in militant action against the state in support of black radicals and in solidarity with the Viet Cong. Of course, the Days of Rage was poorly attended-the projected attendance of “thousands” ended up being a few hundred-and many key leaders ended up with multiple felony charges-while fe, if any, working class youth joined the revolution. Varon uses the failure of the Days of Rage as a springboard for a detailed critique of Weatherman’s politics, specifically looking at its attitudes towards class and its conception of revolutionary communism. The December 1969 “War Council” showed the isolation of Weatherman from both the majority of people in the United States, as well as those in the antiwar movement-and cemented the group’s resolve to engage in “exemplary” violence to “inspire” others to “pick up the gun” against the state-violence that, had the townhouse explosion not occurred in 1971, would have likely progressed towards individual representatives of state and corporate power. The Flint War Council allows Varon to examine the popular support of the Weatherman and examine how their isolation led to increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Finally, Varon interprets the townhouse explosion, long a target of scorn from those on the right and the left, as a “recasting” of the Weather Underground’s politics and a shift from violence to the multifaceted antiwar movement that it previously berated rather than just n example of sixties “excesses” as it has been portrayed by many.

By contrast, the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF) was undertaken for a less direct purpose, and in many ways, seemed more random than that of the Weather Underground. As with the Weather Underground, the RAF attacked state and corporate targets in an effort to challenge the West German government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The RAF engaged in “armed struggle” as a result of its sense of “proletarian solidarity” with the Vietnamese and West Germany’s role in supporting the Vietnam War as well as a vague sense that West Germany was becoming “fascist” in its response to domestic dissent. Student radicalism in Germany was met with draconian laws restricting dissent, many of which students and university faculty viewed as the harbinger of a new fascism and as such extreme forms of protest including violence towards property were justified. However, unlike the Weather Underground and New Left violence in the United States, the RAF moved its war from attacking property to attacking people complicit in “the system” and by 1978 and the end of the “second wave” of the RAF, 43 people had lost their lives as a result of the RAF’s “guerilla warfare,” including 28 people who were victims of left-wing violence and 15 guerrillas.

Varon argues that had members of the Weather Underground not been killed in the “townhouse explosion” in 1971 where Terry Gold, Diana Oughton, Cathy Wilkerson, and Kathy Boudin were preparing anti-personnel bombs to use at an uncomissioned officers’ dance, the Weather Underground’s attack on the state would have likely been comparable to the RAF’s and many more people would have lost their lives in a form of “armed struggle” that would have served no end other than to increase state repression. This thesis sheds new light on the Weather Underground, illuminating a shift in the Weather Underground’s approach after the townhouse explosion as Weather purposely shifted towards “armed actions” in which bombings were used to draw attention and embarrass the state while precautions were made to ensure that no lives would be lost. While critics of the Weather Underground have dismissed the group as being ineffective and counter-productive for any number of frivolous reasons, Varon’s analysis allows for a more accurate appraisal of the use of violence by the New Left and a reevaluation of tactics and the New Left, specifically in terms of the role of “violence” and the gains of the movement. Tom Wells’ The War Within has long been cited as proof of the effectiveness of the non-violence of the New Left; with Wells going to great lengths to show how protest directly limited the state’s capacity to wage war, specifically Richard Nixon’s November 1969 withdrawal of a plan to unleash “savage” attacks on North Vietnam, likely with some form of tactical nuclear weapons. However, Varon concludes that it was the diversity of tactics that helped limit the war, not one particular approach, while pointing out that the actions of the New Left succeeded only in adjusting the magnitude of destruction. Rather than reading Wells’ book simply as a testament to the power of non-violent protest as is often done, Varon argues that the book repeatedly makes it clear that the state was worried about the militant attacks on the legitimacy of state power and the very stability of the state while pointing out that had more been known about the United States’ actions in Vietnam, it is likely that more would have embraced militancy. In the end, despite “thousands of violent acts,” New Left violence in the United States unintentionally killed three people (two at the townhouse and one innocent bystander in an attack unaffiliated with the Weather Underground)-a small number compared to the “countless deaths, the toppling of governments, and deliberate assaults on domestic dissidents” by the state, the war continued and no form of domestic protest was able to stop the war.

With the lack of writing on the Weatherman, Bringing the War Home stands out as the best analysis of the movement. While Ron Jacob’s The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, the only other history of Weatherman, provides a more detailed account of some of the specifics of Weatherman, it suffers from a lack of research and analysis. Bringing the War Home‘s contribution to the history of the Red Army Faction is slightly more difficult given the reviewers limited knowledge of the German New Left, but given Varon’s well-crafted analysis of the Weather Underground, it can be generally assumed that he has presented a similarly competent portrayal of the Red Army Faction. By way of comparing the violence of Weatherman and the Weather Underground with the Red Army Faction Varon strengthens his analysis of the effectiveness of political violence. Bringing the War Home makes an important contribution to both scholarship on the antiwar movement in addition to providing an important evaluation of violent forms of protest in the United States and West Germany and the potential ramifications and likelihood of success should contemporary anti-war movements make similar decisions.

Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, (University of California Press, 2004).

The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground

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Earlier this year, I read an anthology published by Ramparts Press back in the early 1970s with a collection of writings by and about the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Due to the age of the book, it naturally focused more on Weatherman as opposed to the Weather Underground, as many of the actions undertaken by the Weather Underground took place after the publication of the Weatherman anthology.

The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground is the only book I have found that attempts to create a history of the Weather Underground and the Weatherman, and unfortunately, it does not accomplish the task as well I would have hoped. There are certainly problems with the tactics of the Weatherman/Weather Underground as well as with their theoretical writings, but I still feel that a good history of the movement is necessary if “the left” in the United States wants to learn from the errors of the Weather People. The main problem with this book is that it lacks depth, especially in terms of its look at the theory that informed the actions of the Weather People. Jacobs fails to make a detailed analysis of Weatherman theory compared to other groups at the time, as the analysis presented in the book lacks depth. Moreover, the book relies primarily on secondary sources (although he did interview some former members of Weatherman), many of which I was already familiar with due to my reading of Weatherman.

Despite its flaws, The Way the Wind Blew is an important book for the time being because it is the only book that documents the history of Weatherman/Weather Underground. However, I highly suggest that anyone interested in the group read both The Way the Wind Blew and Weatherman, as the two volumes together will allow one to judge the historical and theoretical significance of the group.

Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, (Verso, 1997).