Over the past three decades much has been written about the Weather Underground, often in fiction, including Don Silver’s Backward-Facing Man, Russell Banks’s The Darling, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, Marge Piercy’s Vida and Neil Gordon’s The Company We Keep. Writing novels about a largely invisible group of individuals has given authors free rein to imagine almost anything and everything, and not be bound by facts. Several scholarly studies have appeared, including Ron Jacobs’s The Way the Wind Blew (1997) and Jeramy Varon’s Bringing the War Home (2004). These offer insightful comments but cannot be considered authoritative histories of the organization, since the authors did not have access to key documents or to reliable interviews with former fugitives. An authoritative history would have to provide facts about bombings -– who made the bombs, who planted them, who decided what targets to hit and why –- and other illegal activities that might still today lead to government investigations and even indictments.
An authoritative history would also have to explain the workings of the central committee of the Weather Underground, identify the members, describe how they hammered out strategy, their often intricate sex lives that became entangled with the politics of the organization, and how they were corrupted, in my view, by the power they held. The truth might be too dangerous to tell and perhaps too embarrassing to the ex-undergrounders themselves. After all, who now among the former fugitives wants to describe the armed robberies committed in the early 1970s or the cult of dynamite that mired the organization?
Writing about the underground doesn’t come easy to me. I’d rather not incriminate myself, and I reject the idea of informing on radicals, or ex-radicals. But I also don’t like the lies and untruths that have concealed the real underground. I also don’t like the kind of spoken and unspoken blackmail that has gone on: don’t talk about me and I won’t talk about you.
What no one has yet described is the role that the Weather Underground — and its intricate network of friends and sympathizers — played in aboveground activities, including anti-war demonstrations in the 1970s. You don’t build an underground without aboveground support, financial and otherwise. In the Weather Underground organization money always went in one direction: down. I tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade Sam Green to tell the story of the aboveground networks in his movie The Weather Underground. I am sorry he omitted it, and I am sorry that Bill Ayers chose not to tell it in his book Fugitive Days. It is my story, and it is the story, as well, of lost, forgotten and largely unheralded activists and organizers—the sort of people whose life stories rarely if ever make the history books. Without all the ample help from friends, lovers, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, the Weather Underground never would have existed.
The Weather Eye—a collection of communiqués from the Weather Underground, which I created half underground and half aboveground, with help from fugitives and from law-abiding citizens—is one small part of that still untold larger story. It seems increasingly unlikely now that it will ever be told since it would mean disclosing the identities of dozens of individuals all across the country who violated the law and worked with fugitives to end the War in Vietnam and to wreak havoc everywhere. I’ve never named names and I am not about to name them now, though I don’t mind fingering myself, and so let me say here that my code name was “Rocco,” and that I also had fake identification papers in another name.
I edited and published The Weather Eye, with its bright red cover, all 124 pages, and illustrated, too, at the last minute and in the nick of time, just as I was leaving New York and the United States to live in Mexico. I thought that I was leaving the underground behind forever, and I thought of The Weather Eye as a parting gift to all the fugitives I had known under all sorts of aliases — Rita, Alberto, Joe, Molly, Jason — and had worked with for years. My work on the book began in 1973 and ended in 1974, the year that the US Justice Department dropped its indictments against the Weathermen for their riot — the “Days of Rage” demonstrations — that rocked Chicago and shocked America in 1969.
No one had predicted, and no one had imagined, that the federal government would opt not to prosecute the leaders of Weatherman, among them Bernardine Dohrn, Billy Ayers, Mark Rudd and Jeff Jones, who had been fugitives since the winter of 1970. But that’s exactly what the federal government did do in 1974, and it felt as though the air had suddenly been let out of the underground. The organization wasn’t as dangerous as it liked to think. So it seemed that the Weather Underground had come to a dead end, or at least to a fork in the road. And yet it wasn’t clear to me — and perhaps not to the fugitives themselves — where the organization might be headed.
In 1974, I was caught up in my own revolutionary romanticism. It looked to me as though there might really be a profound shift of power in America. There might really be peace, love and justice, I allowed myself to dream. We could see that the war in Vietnam would at last be over, and the defeat of American imperial power was cause for rejoicing, my own and many others, too. Richard Nixon and his cronies—many of them criminals — were in flight and disarray, perhaps never to return to Washington, or so I hoped. So “we” (I allowed myself to make generous use of that pronoun) hoped — all of us in the tribe of radicals, revolutionaries, protesters, rioters and would-be guerrilla warriors. In fact, although the Weather Underground set off several bombs in 1974 — in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh — it was moving gradually away from making bombs and planting them in the bathrooms of public buildings like the US Capitol and the Pentagon. It was also moving toward the writing of propaganda for the masses, that entity it once disdained. Prairie Fire, the Weather Underground’s fiery account of world revolution, oppression, liberation and communism, came out just as we were printing The Weather Eye. And Prairie Fire gave the organization renewed life and a raison d’être for a few more years.
To put The Weather Eye in the hands of readers, I created my own publishing company, Union Square Press. The notion of going to Random House or Simon & Schuster, or any major New York publisher, did not cross my mind. After all, those were the days of paperback books with subversive titles that urged us to commit ourselves to rebellion and more, including the notorious Anarchist Cookbook and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. My collection of communiqués was meant to have the look and the feel of a clandestine publication, and so the cover featured the Weather Underground’s symbol of the rainbow with a lightning bolt running through it. It had to be black and red, the colors of anarchism and revolution. I raised money from friends, printed 2,500 copies and sold them for $2 a piece. Book People in Northern California included the book in their splendid catalogue, and distributed it nationally. I gave my introduction to the leaders of the underground to read, which led to heated debates, but I stood my ground, as best I could.
Three decades have passed since then, but that era still feels raw and volatile. My own impressions and recollections are discordant and untidy and I write this new preface now with great trepidation. Perhaps I will never have closure on that literally explosive time. Perhaps the pieces in my own life can’t ever be put back together again. If this political essay swings back and forth, like a seesaw, that’s because I have contradictory feelings on the subject at hand. And, if I’m writing this for you, the reader, to introduce you to the Weather Underground as I see it, I’m also writing it for myself to provide a sense of personal closure. But first I might have to open an old wound or two, and perhaps “Let It Bleed,” as Mick Jagger put it in a song I once sang in the company of the fugitives and which served as a kind of anthem for the organization, after “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy for the Devil.”
How odd it was that a self-proclaimed Maoist group took its cues from rock ‘n’ roll songs, and read secret messages in songs like The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which depicts a student named Maxwell who bludgeons fellow students and teachers. Maoist, indeed, the organization proclaimed itself. The initial Weatherman document, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” borrowed the basic Maoist view of the world as an economic and political entity divided between the imperialist center and the colonial periphery. The squads of Weathermen who broke into high schools in the fall of 1969 in an attempt to persuade students to leave their “jails” were inspired by the Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And, of course, there were those picture of Chairman Mao on the walls of the Weather Underground’s apartments –- I remember one in particular in the Bronx in the mid 1970s and thought, “Oh dear, it’s too late for Mao to help us now.”
In 1974, I thought that the underground had mostly run its course, and that it would only be a matter of time before the fugitives surfaced. But to what sort of world I didn’t know for certain. I edited and published The Weather Eye for several reasons. First, I wanted to coax the fugitives out of hiding. Second, I wanted to open a dialogue between them and the movement at large that ignored them or pretended they didn’t exist, as though that would make the underground disappear. Third, I wanted to make the organization less mythical and less mysterious. The impulse of the fugitives seemed to be to mythologize themselves in the tradition of Robin Hood, the 19th-century Underground Railroad that brought slaves to freedom, and the 19th-century outlaws of the wild American West—from Jesse James to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Sometimes it strikes me that the Weather Underground wasn’t really underground at all — that the whole notion of the underground might be called a myth. If you think the fugitives were living in basements and wearing fake beards, or that their underground was highly secretive, think again. The organization was as open and as porous as could be and yet not be penetrated by police agents. As a rule, the more accessible the underground, the more successful it was politically. The more closed down and paranoid, the less successful. Unfortunately, paranoia reigned all too often and skewed judgments.
Sometimes, too, it strikes me that the Weather Underground was as much a life style as a political entity. After all, at the start of the 1970s, it emphasized the necessity of taking LSD trips to prove one’s revolutionary mettle, and also engaging in sexual promiscuity to demonstrate one’s total commitment, and then at the end of the 1970s, in an about-face, it touted the necessity of having babies, reconstituting the nuclear family and the gospel of hard work. Whatever it did, it did in an extreme way.
“If you want to find us, this is where we are,” Bernardine Dohrn proclaimed in her typically provocative manner, in the first communiqué, which was issued in May 1970, just two months after the infamous townhouse explosion when three members of the organization accidentally blew themselves up. (I say accidentally, and yet the explosion was no accident at all. When you play with dynamite and isolate yourself and use drugs and push yourself to the edge of consciousness, as they did, explosions will inevitably happen.) Bernardine—whose personal élan and charisma helped to hold the underground together through the worst and the best of times—went on to describe where the FBI might find her and her fugitive comrades: “in every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns.” It wasn’t the literal truth. While those kids in communes and dorms were, in fact, smoking dope and making love, they weren’t loading guns. They didn’t own guns. More often than not, you’d find the fugitives themselves in their cozy houses in the Hamptons, for example, or the Catskills, or in Marin County, California, and in the comfortable apartments they rented in towns and cities across the country, from Brooklyn to San Francisco. No one I ever met underground lived in a slum, or experienced material deprivation. In fact, the point was to be underground and still live well.
The armed insurrection that the Weather Underground hoped it would ignite — the way a burning match might set off a prairie fire — existed largely in the imagination of the fugitives themselves. So, the entire Headquarters of the New York City Police Department were not actually destroyed by a bomb blast on June 10, 1970, but the communiqué that accompanied it gave that impression. “We blew up the N.Y.C. Police Headquarters,” the undergrounders proclaimed, not bothering with details or facts. The blast caused minor damage. The Yippies didn’t actually levitate the Pentagon, either, though Abbie Hoffman swore he saw the building lift off the ground.
The first communiqué, and the dozen or so that followed through the 1970s, created a compelling myth that caught on in pockets of the counterculture¾that amorphous entity that thrived on myth. Elsewhere, there was condemnation of the blasts. Nearly every communiqué and every bombing by the Weather Underground brought a flurry of hostile comments from spokesmen, sometimes self-appointed, for the anti-war movement. Indeed, the fugitives polarized and antagonized the left, and leaders like Todd Gitlin and Michael Lerner among others denounced their actions. (Earlier, while still members of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], Dohrn, Rudd, Ayers, Jones and company had also antagonized the left.) The Weatherman faction inside SDS had destroyed the largest and most powerful student organization in the history of America, critics argued.
In the fall of 1969, I had moved in and out of the Weatherman collective in Manhattan and had enough of a taste of the organization to know I didn’t want to commit my life to it, as others did. Though the organization was ostensibly committed to the forging of disciplined revolutionaries — “cadre” in the Leninist terminology—and used criticism and self-criticism as a means toward that end, it also brought out neurotic behaviors. Honest criticism and self-criticism turned to sadomasochism; individuals berated and tormented one another, denouncing “bourgeois” attitudes and fighting to be more revolutionary than thou. It hurt for me to admit it, but the criticism of Weatherman by the old guard of SDS often rang true.
Many of the same critics argued in the early 1970s that the underground did more harm than good, alienating students and workers, and giving the anti-war movement a bad name. Indeed, it did. The Weathermen and the Weather Underground were also charged with elitism and arrogance, but in those days, elitism and arrogance spared few in the movement, no matter what faction you belonged to. The 1970s radicals who insisted that the American working class would make the revolution — and who went into factories to organize — were often as elitist and arrogant as anyone else — and as misguided. Moreover, anyone who suggested, as Todd Gitlin did, that the movement died in 1969, just as the decade of the 1960s ended, just wasn’t there, in the streets or on campuses, protesting en masse.
While the Weather Underground was widely rebuked, it was also welcomed and its actions applauded. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the Yippies defended the Weather Underground. For a while, there was a sort of Yippie-Weather Underground alliance, and it proved difficult if not impossible to say for certain where the Yippies ended and where the Weather Underground began. After the bombing of the US Capitol in February 1971, Judy Gumbo Clavir and Stew Albert, both Yippies, both of them longtime activists, held a press conference in Washington, D.C. and announced, “We didn’t do it. But we dug it.” All across America, many hippies, Yippies, freaks and anarchists dug it, too. Still, the freaks, the hippies and the Yippie rank-and-file weren’t prepared to follow in the bomb-making footsteps of the Weather fugitives. For the most part, they played the part of spectators, and they regarded the Weather underground as a kind of spectacle. I did, too, though I played a part in the spectacle as well as observing it.
My own connection to the Weather Underground was as much personal as it was political. My wife, Eleanor Raskin, was a fugitive, and though the organization aimed to “smash monogamy” and to break up couples, I tried for a time to preserve our marriage. I felt as though I had married the underground and extricating myself honorably proved to be difficult. I went underground initially to see and to be with Eleanor — perhaps to bring her back home — but one step led to another, and before long I met most of the members of the organization. I lived with them, on and off, for nearly two years on Amity Street in Brooklyn, on Long Island and in the Catskills. In those days there was no official membership. Having just destroyed SDS, with its membership lists and organizational structure, the Weather Underground was not about to bring them back. It seemed awfully floppy. And yet the Central Committee felt that it not only could but should direct “aboveground” political activity. Perhaps the model of an armed underground controlling legal protest worked for a time in Ireland with the Irish Republican Army, but it did not sit well in the USA in the 1970s. Young protesters tended to distrust leaders, especially when they were invisible, and by-and-large they did not appreciate the notion of an elite clandestine group telling them what to do.
I saw the undergrounders on the West Coast, too, and spent time with Bernardine and Bill who befriended my parents, ex-Communist Party members. In many ways, it felt like an extended family, and indeed the underground fulfilled many of the needs and the demands of the family unit. It also shared the dysfunctionality of many a family, perpetuating family secrets and maintaining a rigid structure that kept members locked in a hierarchy. But a great many members seemed to like taking orders from leaders, and doing what they were told.
I revealed none of this background information in my 1974 introduction to The Weather Eye, and someone coming upon the book by chance might have thought that I was an independent scholar studying radical movements in America. Indeed, I wanted the book to sound, and to be, even-handed, even objective, and I began by writing with as cool a head as possible and provided a clear political context.
“The Weather Underground was born in the winter of 1970 in the midst of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, shortly after the murder of Fred Hampton, a few months before the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State murders,” I wrote. I knew that the FBI would read the book. Indeed, two FBI members purchased copies for the Bureau and for Mark Felt, who was busy advancing his own career and chasing down fugitives. If the FBI had launched an investigation of me, and the book, it might have helped to publicize The Weather Eye — and it could have provided free advertising. I didn’t want that to happen, and I kept as low a profile as I could in the introduction. I gave away as little personal information as possible that might lead to the apprehension of fugitives or prosecution of me and suppression of the book.
So I did not reveal that I had helped to write the communiqué entitled “New Morning — Changing Weather.” Indeed, the ideas and their expression are as much mine as anyone else’s. “It is time for the movement to go out into the air, to organize, to risk calling rallies and demonstrations, to convince that mass actions against the war and in support of rebellions do make a difference,” the New Morning communiqué proclaimed. Then, too, I taught writing workshops to the fugitives and urged them to write simply and clearly and to avoid revolutionary rhetoric — advice I ought to have taken myself. Even now writing about those times, I find it hard not to devolve into clichés.
I was also a courier for the underground and that gave me a sense of importance, perhaps illusory. I delivered messages to Dave Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman and most importantly to Eldridge Cleaver in North Africa in an attempt to mitigate the damage that Dr. Timothy Leary had caused. In September 1970, the Weather Underground aided and abetted Leary’s escape from minimum-security prison in California, then sent him on his own way to Algeria, where Eldridge persuaded the government to grant him sanctuary — as a political dissident from the USA. “The Weatherman Underground has the honor and pleasure of helping Dr. Timothy Leary escape from the POW camp at San Luis Obispo, California,” Bernardine Dohrn wrote in the fourth communiqué — one of the briefest — from underground.
She went on to say that the organization committed itself to freeing “all prisoners of war in Amerikan concentration camps” — but that was mostly all talk with little if any action. Before long, Bernardine’s sense of honor and pleasure had turned to alarm. Leary broke a promise of silence and confidentiality. He talked about how he’d escaped from prison and who had helped him — naming names. The safety and security of the organization was at stake and something had to be done to fix the damaging leak. Accordingly, I delivered a message from the underground to Cleaver warning him not to trust Leary. Cleaver promptly placed Leary under house arrest, which didn’t help matters. Eventually, I came back to New York feeling that both Cleaver and Leary were as mad as could be and that the underground’s liberation of Leary had backfired. Indeed, it seemed opportunistic, a kind of public relations ploy to win over followers of Leary and the drug culture. Abbie Hoffman would always say he was “leery of Leary,” but his words had gone unheeded.
The attraction I felt for the Weather Underground was undoubtedly romantic; it appealed to my sense of adventure. At the same time, it was an intellectual attraction. Like many of my contemporaries, I read the inspired and inspiring writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Franz Fanon, Regis Debray and the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral — to whom I dedicated The Weather Eye. I called myself an internationalist, and I believed in the coming Third World revolution that Sartre and Debray predicted. The American left — the new left as well as the old — seemed, unfortunately, to be an island apart from the global upheaval that swept from continent to continent, oblivious of race and nationality. I took on all the rhetoric of that era and felt intoxicated by it. I thought that there had to be, ought to be, in the words of Debray — the French intellectual who supported Che Guevara’s guerrilla war in Bolivia — “a revolution in the revolution.” For a time, I allowed myself to think that the Weather Underground would be the instrument to rejuvenate the American left, and to link our political shrieks and cries in the heart of the empire to the roar of revolution in the Third World. Let me add, as well, that I worked with the Black Panthers, especially in New York, and that I often found myself in agreement with Bernardine and Eleanor and Jeff Jones and Bill Ayers on the subject of black liberation in America.
For all my admiration and respect for the courage of the fugitives, however, I could never bring myself to actually throw in my lot wholeheartedly with the Weather Underground. (In the late 1970s, when members were formally recruited and there was a Marxist school for prospective members, I declined an invitation to join.) I knew that I could never have made a bomb or planted one in a building, and I could not have given myself over entirely to an organization that made bombs and that also demanded and expected the kind of discipline and loyalty you’d find in a communist party. The freewheeling individualism of the Yippies seemed more inviting to me. Besides, I had a full-time job teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a part-time job as one of the editors of a monthly magazine called University Review. Underground, and in the company of the Weather fugitives, I argued vociferously against the bombings, and in the introduction to The Weather Eye, I slapped their wrists. “The underground has relied too heavily on the tactic of bombing,” I wrote. In the midst of aboveground, anti-war organizers and activists, I changed my tune and often defended the politics of the Weather Underground. “The Weather people are explorers,” I argued in the introduction to the communiqués. “Like all explorers they have followed some dead ends, but they have continued their journey.”
I found voices in support of the underground and their brand of violence in all sorts of unexpected places. When the French author Jean Genet visited the United States in 1970, as a guest of the Black Panthers, I asked him what he thought about the Weather Underground. “The United States has big bombs. The Weather Underground has little ones,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, as if to say that he wasn’t troubled by underground bombers. In part, Genet spoke for me. I know that I felt impatient when someone I knew attacked the “violence” of the Weather Underground and then didn’t attack, or even see, the violence of the US government. Still, I observed a certain obsession with violence — in myself as well as in the fugitives — that seemed unhealthy, even morbid. And members seemed capable of making a bomb and planting it as though wrapping a Christmas present and placing it under a tree.
If anyone had been killed by a Weather Underground blast I don’t think I would have or could have supported the organization. Fortunately no one was killed — no one, of course, except for the three members who died in the March 1970 townhouse explosion. The deaths of Teddy Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins on W. 11th Street in Manhattan shocked me but didn’t surprise me. I had talked with them not long before, and they seemed to have lost touch with reality — and were incapable of making sensible decisions about almost everything.
In hindsight I have wondered, of course, whether or not the Weather Underground might be labeled a “terrorist organization.” Undoubtedly, George Bush would label it “terrorist.” So would everyone else in the Bush administration. It wouldn’t count much in their scheme of things to remind them that a member of the Weather Underground always made a telephone call to warn that a bomb was going to go off, and to urge everyone inside a building to evacuate instantly. Everyone always evacuated the buildings where bombs went off, and though walls crumbled, no one was killed or injured. George McGovern, who was then a Senator from South Dakota, got the message. Soon after the bombing of the US Capitol, McGovern noted at, a press conference aired on the nightly news, that as long as the War in Vietnam continued, there would be bombings at home. George got that right. The war had to end, and we would end it by any means necessary.
In the 1970s it never felt comfortable to defend bombings by left-wing radicals who were opposed to the war in Vietnam. It seems far harder — and impossible today — to defend bombings especially in the wake of 9/11, and real terrorism, and real, big bombs that strike fear and terror in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Ever since I went to Vietnam in 1995, on the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, I have thought of myself as a pacifist. I have come to believe that in our world of suicide bombers, smart bombs, torture, Bechtel, mercenary armies, corrupt governments and media lies, no one wins a war. Everyone loses. Everyone is defeated on all sides. Violence begets violence and around and around we go. The answer to a bomb isn’t another bomb.
I have been told that non-violence only aids the state, but I don’t believe it. Gandhi’s non-violence didn’t aid and abet the British Empire, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence didn’t bolster the apartheid regimes in the American South. In hindsight I wonder about the rationality of the decision, in 1969, to go underground. I know that many of us felt then that the United States under Nixon was headed toward fascism, or if not overt fascism then toward a repressive regime that would silence dissent and jail dissenters. Under those circumstances, an underground that could act without detection by the government looked like a necessity. Then, Watergate, and the end of the war, surprised us and I began to see the flaws in my own reasoning. I remember a conversation I had with the author Kurt Vonnegut, on the front steps of his apartment house in New York, about underground movements. Vonnegut — who has been as savvy about politics as any American politician — argued that as long as one can operate openly, one should do so for as long as possible. I saw and still see his point of view. To quote an old SDS slogan, “Democracy is in the streets.” Now, it seems to me that the men and women who created the Weather Underground gave up too quickly, and too soon, on democracy, on free speech, and on protest in the streets.
Then, too, the underground network became an end in itself. Literally, the feeding, the housing and the caring for the mental health and physical well-being of the fugitives became a fulltime job that drained energy away from political organizing against the war and for women’s groups and in support of men and women in prison. That’s one reason why I ceased to have much to do with the organization after I published The Weather Eye. The underground depleted valuable movement energy and resources. I remember on one occasion, the organization felt that its security had been breached and that everyone might be arrested. In Brooklyn, we — myself and four fugitives — acted swiftly, cleaning every surface of the apartment we had rented, so as not to leave any fingerprints or incriminating evidence and removing every personal item. We escaped. But had we acted rationally? Would the FBI have found us? To this day I don’t know. What I do know is that the underground moved a lot; moving seemed to be in the nature of the organization, and moving drained energy. But we all became adept house cleaners.
For the fugitives, surviving day-to-day was a big deal. Not getting caught by the FBI was a big deal. But that day-to-day vigilance seems to have militated against any sort of long-term plan or vision. I remember asking the fugitives what they saw ahead of them, and how the revolution might actually take place. In the mid-1970s, no one seemed to have a clue and that was disappointing.
The organization that had come into existence largely because of the war in Vietnam proved impossible to sustain when the war ended, though on numerous occasions the fugitives tried to reinvent “The Eggplant,” as the Weather Underground was known to insiders. The fugitives supported the women’s movement and the prison movement that worked with inmates. Ironically, the fugitives came around to embracing the Old Left they once lambasted, and decided that what America needed most of all was a new communist party. That next-to-last incarnation seems like the desperate act of an organization that was self-destructing. Indeed, in the late 1970s, the Weather Underground dissolved in bitter sectarian splits, and so the organization that was born with the tragedy of the townhouse explosion died with the farce of factional disputes.
When I collected the communiqués in 1974 I thought of them as historical documents. More than 30 years later, their value may have gone up. Still, it feels strange to see them again, and rereading them after all these years I am saddened by the shrill tone, the stridency and the bombast. There is so much bravado and so much posturing — empty threats and macho taunting of the powers-that-be. Just listen to these comments: “revolutionary violence is the only way,” “our job is to lead white kids to armed revolution,” “we will never live peaceably under this system,” “arm yourself and shoot to live,” and “we could shut down every international airport in America within 24 hours.” Yes, those comments were made in a particular political context, but while they’re understandable, the writing and the thinking are deplorable.
Revolutionary violence is not the only way. Perhaps this seems obvious, but let me say the obvious: violence wasn’t the only way in the 1970s and it isn’t the only way now. It never has been the only way to effect change in human history. If the Weather Underground felt that its job was to lead white kids to armed revolution — and it did feel that way for a time — then the organization failed miserably. White kids did not take up armed revolution, and it was clear at the time that they wouldn’t. I wrote an essay on this subject entitled “Children of Imperialism” that was published widely in the underground newspapers of the day, and was meant specifically to refute the Weather Underground’s notion that white kids would be armed revolutionaries.
Then, too, the former leaders of the Weather Underground have certainly had to eat their own words — “we will never live peaceably under this system.” For the past quarter of a century, they have lived peaceably under this so-called “system” that has grown more not less barbaric all around the world and at home as well. Perhaps they still believe in revolution. Perhaps they think of themselves as continuing revolutionaries. Perhaps in their heart of hearts they embrace armed struggle and want the defeat of imperialism. But for the most part, as I see it and as I see them, they have bought into the system with their private property, bank accounts, retirement funds, cars and all those consumer goods. Perhaps that was inevitable all along. I certainly knew intelligent individuals, like the British novelist Doris Lessing, who said in 1970 that that’s how it would all end – with the fugitives going back, for the most part, to the comfortable middle class from which they had come.
I write these remarks without bitterness or sarcasm, or even sadness. No, I take that back. I do feel a great sadness and a great sense of loss. Here were “good terrorists” as Doris Lessing described them. Here were idealistic young men and women who bombed because they believed they could create a better world. How sad to see a circle of American radicals who believed, and who insisted, that they would always wage unrelenting warfare against the empire, go all-too quietly and all-too silently into middle age, and with most of the comforts, privileges and luxuries of the social class into which they were born. And — what’s most depressing — with a sense of nostalgia for their revolutionary youth. What strikes me now is the remarkable ability of the American empire to reinvent itself, absorb protest and crush rebellion, even as political and economic crisis intensifies. Indeed, even as the Nixon administration came apart, and the Weather Underground boasted its success, the architects of empire — men like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — rose up and put themselves back into power.
In Paris, in October 1970, on my way home from Algiers and the fiasco with Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy Leary, I spent an evening with the poet and folksinger Phil Ochs. Phil had been reading the communiqués — as well as the Black Panther newspaper, and Yippie agitprop — and was appalled by the writing he found in the movement. “You’re a professor of English,” he said. “Can’t you do something about the way that our side is murdering the English language!” The communiqués did murder the English language. They also improved a bit — just a bit — over time, though I can’t take credit for that. They became more informative and less rhetorical. But the fugitives never quite found a way to get beyond browbeating, shaming and cajoling hippies, freaks and students into the streets to protest the latest injustice. One of the last communiqués in The Weather Eye defends the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), and though I printed it I didn’t like it or the SLA, and the whole Patty Hearst fiasco.
I don’t know whether there will ever again be a left-wing, ideological underground in America, and whether radicals will ever again turn to violent means, including bombs, to make political points. But these communiqués tell of a time when that did happen, and knowing about that history surely can’t hurt. To anyone today who wanted to create an underground and to engage in acts of violence in America, I would say, “Don’t do it. Be visible. Talk openly. Go out and meet people. Organize. Educate. Avoid violence. Democracy is in the streets, on the Internet, and wherever people meet.”
After all these years, I have come to understand that we are all in this together. If we are going to change the way the world runs we’ll have to change it together, bit by bit, stone by stone, heart by heart. No one will or can do it for us, no miraculous underground organization, no left-wing political party and no bomb and no gun, either. The Weather Underground committed what it called, in the “New Morning — Changing Weather” communiqué, a “military error.” I’d like to end my essay by quoting from that document, that I helped to write in 1970, these words that can bear repeating: “This tendency to consider only bombings or picking up the gun as revolutionary, with the glorification of the heavier the better, we’ve called the military error. People become revolutionaries in the schools, in the army, in prisons, in communes, and on the streets. Not in an underground cell.” Of course, the fugitives themselves remained in their underground cells for another decade, ossified in outmoded ideas and strategies.
Weatherman and the Weather Underground reflected the society they sought to destroy. Both organizations romanticized violence, confused and conflated sex and violence, and rarely if ever escaped that characteristically American habit of placing itself at the center of the world and in the forefront of history. Though they meant to reject what they called “white skin privilege,” their actions revealed how privileged they were, and how unwilling they were to surrender their privilege. Oddly enough, the fugitives who aimed to destroy the American Empire proved to be the children of that same empire—and for the most part never could or did see themselves as they really were.