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).