The Weather Underground’s Place in History: A Response to Jonah Raskin

Jonah Raskin offers a valuable perspective on the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) thirty years after its dissolution and amidst its modern resurgence in popularity. His position as both an insider and an outsider makes him well-placed to offer current reflections on the complexities of one of the most famous groups of the 1970s. With an Oscar-nominated documentary about the group, a spate of novels based in some way on its life, and a small crop of memoirs and history texts about it — my own contribution, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006), the most recent among them—there is definite interest in making sense of the Weather Underground and of “the Sixties” more generally (a period which started before and extended beyond the decade for which it is named). Young activists in particular are examining this earlier time of mass-based social movements as a way of understanding the mess we now find ourselves in, with the hope that history can offer a glimpse of ways forward.

By virtue of its flashy actions, its often inflated sense of self, and the dynamism of its leadership, the Weather Underground has achieved perhaps more than its share of this Sixties resurgence. As a result of such popularity, not only have other parts of “the Sixties” been under-studied, but the Weather Underground itself has achieved mythic status: the underground becomes the elusive fodder of comic books and spy novels, and the full range of militancy and clandestine actions that defined significant sectors of the movement gets ascribed to a single group. Most significantly, the group’s political perspective is obscured or ignored by an almost exclusive focus on its tactics. Given all this, Raskin’s attempt to locate himself in the matrix of the underground is a welcome reminder of the expansive networks and connections that defined attempts at living away from the eyes and ears of the government. It is a reminder that the Weather Underground as an organization would have been impossible without thousands of supporters who aided it in ways small and large — reflecting the fact that the Weather Underground was part of a larger movement which it emerged from and helped shape but did not by itself define. The original introduction to Raskin’s Weather Eye (1974) impressively located the group in such a fashion, noting its strengths and weaknesses related to broader opposition to U.S. imperialism on many fronts: the war in Vietnam, economic and political support for Latin American tyrants and European colonialism in Africa, and domestic repression against the Black liberation movement.
It is precisely the fact of Weather Underground’s being part of a movement that makes Raskin’s piece at times frustrating or equivocal on key issues. For all his insistence on the myriad individuals and groups who enabled the WUO to exist — those who gave money, established safe houses, donated cars or houses, refused to cooperate with government grand juries and other attempts to locate fugitives, and distributed the group’s printed propaganda—Raskin still individualizes the underground to this one group, and then picks its most well-known members to stand in for the group overall. Despite his focus on telling the story of the WUO from the perspective of “the sort of people whose life stories rarely if ever make the history books,” he sometimes plays into the established trajectory of focusing on the dynamic leaders of the group rather than its foot soldiers. This occurs most notably when he says that he found himself “in agreement with Bernardine and Eleanor and Jeff Jones and Bill Ayers on the subject of black liberation in America” — when the subject of Black liberation was central to the analysis, formation, and existence of the Weather Underground as an organization. It also occurs in another instance where a broader criticism of the organization is in order: If Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins (the three members who perished in the accidental explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse while making bombs in March 1970) were, as Raskin notes, “incapable of making sensible decisions about almost everything” — a criticism I don’t have a hard time believing — was characteristic of much of the organization at the time.

There is some rationale for such a singular focus on the group as the summation of underground existence and on the leadership of Weather as synecdoche for the group: Weather, as he notes, cultivated an image of itself as the leading figure among the white Left. This trend was particularly prevalent in the group’s frenetic beginning, when it claimed to be the only anti-racist whites, and its tumultuous ending, when it claimed to be building a communist party to lead the multinational working class to revolution. (Would that such stilted language or ill-advised posturing were limited to this one group!) There is definitely a need to understand how power functioned in the organization, including the inflated sense which leaders often had of themselves and the deleterious impact this had on the organization’s culture and actions.

Still, such an image of the Weather Underground as a stand-alone entity needs to be challenged. There were several underground people and groups at this time, and some of the problems (and successes) Raskin points to for the Weather Underground are equally applicable for others, aboveground or underground, in the U.S. Left in this period. While he acknowledges that there was “a particular political context” in which Weather existed, this admission is too vague to capture the full range of clandestine and militant activity. From the Black Liberation Army to the Berrigan brothers, from Puerto Rican independentistas to clandestine abortion providers, from white anti-imperialists to indigenous insurgents and beyond, the underground was viewed as a viable and necessary political strategy by more than a few renegade activists.

Furthermore, the underground was not synonymous with violence: not only were there pacifists working on a clandestine basis (such as Catholic anti-war activists), but significant sectors of the aboveground movement were turning to violence. Approximately 300 rebellions in Black ghettoes shook the nation between 1964 and 1968, and property destruction and fighting police became increasingly common in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, Kirkpatrick Sale reports in SDS, there was one bombing or attempted bombing every day between September 1969 and May 1970. All of this occurred against the backdrop of (seemingly) successful and humanist armed struggle by revolutionary Left movements worldwide: in Algeria, Angola, Cuba, Mozambique, South Africa, Vietnam, and elsewhere. A significant minority of the U.S. Left — Yippies and students and veterans and Third World liberationists and feminists — was turning to bombs and other illegal forms of protest. Not all of this militancy was expressed at the level chosen by the WUO: few of the thousands of bombings carried out by the movement in this period targeted institutions as big as the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, or the assorted corporate headquarters that drew attacks by the Weather Underground. But the movement had clearly moved to a much higher level of militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And given the numbers of people and the amount of resources needed to sustain an underground movement, the expansive network and widespread support involved is itself staggering. This network didn’t just feed and house those living underground; the underground was sewn into its very fabric.

And the Weather Underground didn’t start off with the goal of bombings. Indeed, it is often overlooked that when the group formed, it set out to build an anti-imperialist movement among whites at both the legal and clandestine levels. Writing featured prominently in the process. The first document that might be viewed as a communiqué did not accompany a bombing but instead anticipated the group’s existence. At 10,000 words, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” was a lengthy manifesto — the title, as is well known, was swiped from a Bob Dylan lyric — around which a dynamic group of organizers, activists, theorists, militants, and footsoldiers from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) gathered in 1969. (Unfortunately, this statement was not included in the original Weather Eye or in various Sixties anthologies, but it remains an interestingand valuable essay.) It was obtuse and exciting, dense and all-too-relevant in its assessment of the times.

The statement emerged out of fights within and external to SDS, the largest expression of radicalism among white youth at the time. Due to its massive numbers — SDS had an estimated 100,000 members in 1968 — the group became a prime target for takeover by the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist cadre organization that attempted to impose its political platform on SDS as a whole. And what was its platform? PL declared all nationalism to be reactionary and thus withdrew support from the Black Panthers, the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, and other progressive Third World struggles in this period. PL also eschewed the counterculture as contradictory to organizing the working class. It was not just a struggle over political line, but a fight over what it meant to be on the Left. In a period with successful revolutionary nationalist struggles the world over and open state repression of the Black Power and other movements domestically, Weatherman” threw down the gauntlet that any worthwhile movement among white people needed to make the struggle against white supremacy and colonialism primary. Their up-front insistence on staunch opposition to war, racism, and repression deserves particular attention in these days of permanent war and expansive racist imprisonment. Indeed, the group was on the front lines among white people in building support for the prison movement and seeing incarceration as the vanguard of state repression.

From its founding statement onward, Weather borrowed from Mao and Maoism but was far more ecumenical in its Left dogma than others in that time period. Its politics emerged from a variety of Marxist schools of thought while avoiding some of the dead-end fights over the “correct political line” that consumed other leftists in this orbit, who argued bitterly over whether the Soviet Union or China was the true revolutionary (or imperialist) power. More than a few individuals and groups ceased supporting national liberation movements based on what either China or Russia did. The Weather Underground, by and large, insisted that the primary factor was support for national liberation movements. These politics of staunch support for self-determination were what gave the Weather Underground a fresh appeal, particularly as relating to white solidarity with the Black liberation movement.

Raskin eloquently describes the group’s formation in opposition to the war in Vietnam, but it would be hard to overestimate the centrality of the Black liberation struggle in giving rise to the Weather Underground. Indeed, the importance of expressing solidarity with that movement complicates Raskin’s analysis of Weather as alienating and weakening the anti-war movement. Simply put, the Weather Underground was never simply an anti-war group — it defined itself as an anti-imperialist organization, noting the prime role that Black people (and other “internal colonies” within the United States: Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans) played in domestic attempts at social change. The Black movement in particular catalyzed most Weatherpeople and other white New Leftists to action. And it was the lack of significant outpouring in response to repression of the Black liberation movement — including dozens of Black Panthers murdered, various revolutionary nationalist groups being constantly harassed and imprisoned on bogus charges, and a nonstop racist onslaught against liberation groups that was either sanctioned by or directly involved the state — that further pushed the group underground and seemed to support its analysis of racism being an entrenched part of even the Left. (Raskin writes convincingly about this in the other book he published in 1974, a now out-of-print memoir entitled Out of the Whale: Growing Up in the American Left.)

Central to the Weather Underground’s formation was the need to, as radical journalist Andrew Kopkind noted in 1969, “pull the machinery of empire off … [the] backs” of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary Third World groups within the United States. Such solidarity, Weather argued, was important — even if (or, especially because) most white people weren’t ready or willing to support the Black liberation movement. In a time that saw dozens of Black, Latino, and Native activists murdered by the government and scores entangled in arrests and trials aimed at destroying their movements, it seemed that more was required than what free speech and protests in the streets allowed. Sparked into action by the civil rights and Black Power movements, Weather and its allies argued that the widespread repression demanded an urgent response by white activists.

Indeed, the split of the Weather Underground in 1976 proved particularly acrimonious because many former members felt the group had abandoned solidarity with the domestic liberation movements. As Raskin notes, everything that made the Weather Underground seem fresh and cutting edge — “an 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” — was seemingly betrayed by the group’s turn to building a new communist party in the mid-1970s
I don’t think, as Raskin suggests, that there is a need to know who made and planted bombs in order to have an authoritative history. The important thing is why the group did what it did — and what it did was not just plant two dozen or so bombs in a seven-year period. What it did was attempt to build a revolutionary anti-imperialist movement, focusing on white people’s solidarity with liberation movements in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. And it endeavored to do this through a combination of illegal, extralegal, and perfectly legal means. Such solidarity, the attempt to organize other whites against racism, was and remains a difficult challenge. To be sure, the group’s track record was spotty in this regard, but it was a defining feature of the group — much to its credit.

It engaged in this task not only through bombs or through living underground – though these were, for better or worse, central tenets of its strategy — but also through media savvy. The communiqués, released with bombings but also to share thoughts, ideas and analysis with the movement, were an important part of the organization’s work — along with the 1974 book (Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism) and the 1975-76 newsmagazine (Osawatomie)that Weather wrote, published, and distributed from the underground (via its clandestine print shop, the Red Dragon Print Collective). The aboveground remained part of the group’s work, most notably through the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), a public organization Weather helped start, secretly of course, after the publication of its book.

Indeed, the relationship-building and communication was not all as public as Prairie Fire and Prairie Fire were. Raskin mentions that he delivered messages to figures as diverse as Dave Dellinger, Abbie Hoffman, and Eldridge Cleaver — three men whose opinions varied widely on issues of violence (among other things), which suggests the impressive array of people that Weather was in dialogue with. Such relationships were cultivated through both surreptitious messages and public ones: Weather fugitive Howie Machtinger released a letter on why he jumped bail and went back underground after being captured in 1973, a valuable inclusion in Weather Eye; the group released a statement of support to Catholic Left activist Daniel Berrigan after he was captured by police (shortly after Berrigan released a statement of critical solidarity with the Weather Underground); and, after years of minimizing or maligning the women’s movement, the group attempted a public dialogue with it. Dialogue with the women’s movement, as more than a few ex-Weatherwomen expressed in interviews, left much to be desired and was generally too little, too late. There were other political shortcomings as well, such as when the group elected not to answer a constructive and generally favorable criticism raised by members of the Black Panther Party in early 1971. But the group relied heavily on communicating with the aboveground and maintained relationships with broad sectors of the Left. Indeed, for all its grandstanding, the Weather Underground conceived of its actions not as a military challenge to the U.S. empire but as propaganda statements in and of themselves, dramatic and high-risk attempts to highlight systemic oppression.

Communication, especially but not only through communiqués, was a defining feature of the Weather Underground. The early communiqués that the Weather Underground released were, to be sure, bombastic: a mixture of counterculture swagger, macho posturing, and genuine enjoyment at being able to successfully outwit the state. But they were also deeply concerned with details and facts, particularly as the group institutionalized itself and dug in for the long haul. The celebration of violence which Raskin correctly criticizes did subside — all of the snippets he quotes are from 1970 communiqués — being replaced with a sophisticated and in-depth political analysis explaining the reasons for actions, exposing the perfidy of U.S. imperialism and white supremacy, celebrating an array of progressive responses to oppression, and offering support to Third World liberation movements.

Listen, for instance, to these comments:

— Promises of peace [emerge] from a government that bombs Cambodia while talking about an end to war, that killed students at Jackson and Kent while calling for responsibility on campus, that murdered Fred Hampton and hundreds of blacks while calling for racial harmony.

— We hope people in the streets realize that they inspire us through difficult times as much as we intend our freedom to be a source of small victories and encouragement to them. We give strength to each other. Our differences are our strength when we respect and affirm each other’s passionate ways of acting to end the war.

— The prisons are part of a strategy of colonial warfare being waged against the Black population.

— The main question white people have to face today is not the state of the economy (for many, the question of selling their second car) but whether they are going to continue to allow genocidal murder, in their name, of oppressed people in this country and around the world.

— A people united with a vision of independence and liberty are a powerful human force.

— We can try and break through this wall of misinformation by explaining what happened there [in the 1973 coup in Chile], and why, and by letting the Chilean people themselves speak through our media.

No snippet could give a full picture of the communiqués, but there was a deep rationality and level of research that almost always accompanied such statements. The point is not to highlight a “good” as opposed to a “bad” Weather Underground, but rather to acknowledge that it, like any political organization or movement, was complex and complicated. And, as with any other organization or movement, we must draw upon its achievements as well as learning from its failures.

Ultimately Raskin is concerned with the illegitimacy of violence as a means of protest or social change. In reaching such a conclusion from his experience, he is not alone: Weatherman co-founder Mark Rudd similarly eschews violence. Even those members who have not embraced pacifism have all had to rethink the often simplistic notions of violence and armed struggle they embraced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Raskin correctly identifies the “obsession with violence… that seemed unhealthy, even morbid” (an affliction not just characteristic of the underground, of course). Raskin’s criticisms here are valuable, although it would be worthwhile to acknowledge that one does not need to be a pacifist to avoid fetishizing violence. He raises other criticisms, however, that are unduly harsh. He seems to take at face value, for instance, the ubiquitous but highly debatable claim that Weatherman destroyed SDS, without mentioning alternate viewpoints or other issues occurring within SDS. He doesn’t mention Progressive Labor, the sectarian, dogmatic, and rather conservative group (at least for a self-proclaimed Maoist organization) that attempted a take-over of SDS. More than that, however, the widely stated view that Weatherman destroyed SDS misses the spirit of the times: an organization of 100,000 geographically and politically diverse people could not survive the frenetic tenor of the times. When the organization split, most people joined neither Progressive Labor nor Weatherman — nor, it should be said, the various groups attempting to constitute new communist parties, although each of these factions had a sizable following. Most people continued the anti-war or anti-racism or working-class organizing they were doing, or they left to join and build one of a number of movements then beginning to blossom: for women’s or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender liberation; for the environment; for the rights of people with disabilities; or to join “back to the land” communes. While Raskin correctly criticizes the simplicity of blaming “the end of the Sixties” on the end of SDS, even suggesting that Weather is responsible for the end of SDS misses the nuance of the time period. That doesn’t excuse the specific role the bombastic Weatherman played in the process, of course, but it does push us to seek more layered understandings of history. While Weather’s hubris played a role in hastening the decline of SDS, blaming it for the organization’s death misses all the other contributing factors. It also misses the real political contribution that Weather-style politics offered relative to an anti-imperialist paradigm.

Although situating blame for the end of SDS is a matter for debate, it is especially disturbing to read Raskin chastise his former comrades for buying into the system they pledged to destroy — even if in “their heart of hearts they embrace armed struggle and want the defeat of imperialism.” Ironically, this critique presumes the dichotomy Raskin asks us to reject, in which violence is thought of as the only progressive or revolutionary expression. If former members of the group refrain from the bombast and bravado of their youth while still looking to be a progressive force in the world — as, I would argue, is the case — that is a positive step and in line with what Raskin calls for. Indeed, although few have renounced violence altogether, most former members of the group are involved in an array of progressive activity without preaching (or practicing) violence or nostalgia. Even if some of them have nice jobs and retirement plans, that does not suggest they have necessarily “sold out” and live in decadence — and here, too, he seems to be speaking more of the former leaders than the rank-and-file members, especially when considering that, by his own definition, several former members of the group have not lived “peaceably under the system.” This is true in two ways: first, several ex-Weatherpeople (and others) continued underground activity throughout the 1980s and 1990s after the group broke up. Indeed, former Weather Underground member David Gilbert remains in prison with a life sentence for his role as a white ally to the Black Liberation Army in the failed and ill-advised Brink’s robbery of 1981. He is one of dozens of political prisoners who engaged in militant actions emanating from the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s. But, more generally, former Weatherpeople also are not living peaceably under the system to the extent that they continue to be involved in an array of movements for radical social change.

The fact that members of the group were generally able to surface without major legal repercussions testifies exactly to their political argument of how significant white privilege is to the structure of U.S. society. Class privilege features into this as well, though Weather members mirrored the class background of most post-SDS organizations: its members came primarily from solidly middle-class backgrounds, with some from wealthy families and others from working-class ones. But it would be a mistake to characterize Weather as a posh clandestine organization. I don’t dispute Raskin’s experience of seeing the nicer homes that existed as part of its clandestine infrastructure, but it strikes me as an overstatement to say that everyone lived decadent lifestyles while on the run, or that the underground was a fanciful vacation spot. Here, as well, there was a split between leadership and rank-and-file members. But something deeper was also going on: As one ex-member, who recalled living in both run-down and well-maintained dwellings while underground (saying the former was far more common than the latter), said to me, it was better to have meetings and bring people to the nicer places than the run-down ones.

In some part due to the Weather Underground’s work, the notion of white privilege has not only informed modern organizing but has even become a respectable area of study among academics. The group acknowledged in its own communiqués precisely the irony Raskin says they never realized: that they were children of the empire. More than a few public statements identified the group’s formation as emanating from the fact that as white people in the United States, they could not allow the government to murder and oppress in their name or for their benefit. Indeed, it was precisely because they did see themselves as the privileged children of U.S. imperialism that they endeavored to build an underground, that they put forth the politics that they did. This was true from the very first “Weatherman” statement, when it wasn’t so much a group as a bloc or a wing of a faction within SDS. Undoubtedly, confronting and surrendering privilege proved (and remains) a lot more difficult than the Weather Underground or other white anti-racists of that generation ever imagined it to be, and the group placed too much emphasis on its own existence or analysis as overcoming such privilege. But — taking inspiration from the Black Power ideas pioneered by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, and other expressions of the Black and Third World liberation movements — Weather’s emphasis on white supremacy, white privilege, and the specific role white people needed to play in working for racial justice and opposing the system that grants whites benefits is at the heart of the group’s legacy.

Despite the overblown proclamations of “leading white kids to armed struggle,” the WUO and other similar formations saw their main job as leading white kids to anti-racism and anti-imperialism (of which support for armed struggle was often too simplistically thought to be a part of the equation — but, it needs to be said, only one part). While they largely failed at this goal, it was not due only to their own shortcomings or naiveté. Part of the failure testifies to the ongoing responsibility — and the tremendous difficulty — of organizing whites against white supremacy and white privilege. Indeed, the Weather Underground and others from that sector of the U.S. Left — including the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and the May 19th Communist Organization, as well as the Sojourner Truth Organization and others — remain of vital interest if not inspiration to new generations of white radicals, eager to understand the political (and not military) models of resistance. The Weather Underground’s insistence on staunch, active solidarity represents an important contribution to the history of activism for social justice — especially around the complicated fault lines of white supremacy.

In my interviews and experiences with former Weather Underground members and others from that era, few express nostalgia. Indeed, it was like pulling teeth to get some people to focus on the past; conversations always focused on current social justice movements — and, centrally, on how the past could inform such endeavors. They have not, in my view and in my experience, gone “all-too quietly and all-too silently into middle age.” Quite the opposite: all of the twenty or so ex-Weatherpeople that I spoke with remain active in an array of progressive causes, some as visible and vocal veterans of the Weather Underground and others as steadfast organizers not looking to draw attention to themselves. The same issues that once led them to build an underground organization — solidarity with the Third World, opposition to war and racism and repression — now find former members working to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners; organizing against torture such as through the 2005 “Attica 2 Abu Ghraib” conference at the University of California at Berkeley; educating and agitating about U.S. imperialism in Haiti, the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and elsewhere. They lead public and legal lives as activists — even revolutionaries — doing exactly what Raskin encourages people to do: talking openly, meeting people, being visible, avoiding violence, organizing, and educating (in and out of the classroom).

Raskin says very little about why Weather Eye is being republished now. What does he make of the resurgent interest in the group and in the period? With such stated ambivalent feelings toward the group, why does he want to republish this booklet of communiqués, particularly now? What relevance does something he produced to coax fugitives out of underground—and why did he think this booklet would accomplish that task? — and to spark conversation between the underground and the aboveground have in today’s world? There is more to say about this besides “knowing about that history surely can’t hurt.” I would argue, in fact, that the reason to do this is precisely because, for all their rhetorical verbiage, the communiqués also expressed a certain intellectual and fiercely radical political discourse about U.S. war and racism that remains as relevant today as when they were penned amidst a world in flames thirty-some years ago. They can, in other words, help people today think about ways to organize, educate, and conduct other political activities without necessarily resorting to violence. After all, the communiqués explain the political rationale for a bombing — they don’t explain how to do one. Raskin’s admission of his “intellectual attraction” to the group would seem to underscore this point: for all its hyperbole, there was also something rational and politically engaging about the Weather Underground — an appeal that understandably continues to resonate with activists and academics into the twenty-first century.

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