Weather Underground, Revised
Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (Oakland: AK Press, 2006).
The Weather Underground -– an armed, clandestine, white revolutionary group that formed out of the 1969 break-up of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) -– is currently a fashionable topic of discussion amongst radicals and historians of the left. This is not surprising. The historical context in which the Weather Underground formed is similar to contemporary realities. The United States is again waging a bloody imperialist war against a non-white, former European colony. And young American radicals are, again, searching for effective ways to counter their government’s actions in an atmosphere hostile to dissent. The current crop of student radicals has the potential advantage of being able to learn from the successes and mistakes of their “sixties” forerunners.
Outlaws in America is a voluminous historical account whose author, Dan Berger, goes further than any other young radical in his efforts to mine the usable past of the sixties. Berger is both a committed leftist and a serious scholar. The work is not without its problems -– such as the author’s apparent need to apologize for former Weather Underground members. But these problems stem from what gives the book its distinctive quality: it draws on interviews with an impressive number of the protagonists (more than twenty). This speaks to the contradictions of oral historical research. Berger’s subjects have become his friends and mentors, particularly David Gilbert, one of the founders of the Columbia chapter of SDS and a former Weather Underground member.1 But despite this weakness, there are too many good things about Outlaws to not take it seriously.
Most astutely, Berger works to counter the myth of “two sixties” -– one good, one bad -– a myth often propagated by former sixties radicals themselves, such as Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin. According to this conventional wisdom, whereas non-violence, interracial cooperation, participatory democracy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Port Huron Statement marked the “good” early sixties, violence, irrationalism, nihilism, narcissism, nationalism, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the Weather Underground signified the “bad” later sixties. Similarly, whereas the “good” antiwar movement understood Vietnam as a tragedy of good intentions gone awry, the “bad” variant couched their critique of the war in “crude” anti-imperialist rhetoric, which alienated those working-class Americans who were doing the overseas fighting and dying –- those whom the “good” left sought as allies. Berger works to unmask this dichotomy as false, pointing out that, by this simplistic formula, King himself voluntarily made the transition to the bad sixties in 1966 when he began critiquing the war in language similar to Malcolm X.
Berger belabors the point that the Weather Underground was a product of their times. This truism is ironically built into the very concept of the group, named after an indicative Bob Dylan verse -– “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” If the Weather turned to violent forms of resistance, it was because the state was violently repressing dissent. This brings to mind an oft-cited passage from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.” By the fall of 1967, violence was in the air and in the streets. With the onset of draft riots in places such as Oakland and New York, antiwar protesters “were beginning to look, talk, and act like urban guerrillas,” taking up Che’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams” (Outlaws, 45). An increasing number of white antiwar activists wanted to join with anti-colonial forces across the planet. They wanted to show solidarity with the Third World. Solidarity, according to Berger, is the key to understanding the Weather Underground and the 1969 SDS split.
Although “two, three, many” factions would eventually spell the demise of SDS, the two most important splinter groups at the infamous 1969 convention were the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which eventually became the Weather Underground, and the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Maoist sect. The essence of the split was over whether to prioritize race or class, an “either-or” problematic that has long divided the American left (and spawned scholarly sub-fields such as critical labor and whiteness studies). The RYM (proto-Weather) sect believed that Ho Chi Minh, the Black Panthers, and non-white nationalists throughout the world were the vanguard of the revolution, and that militantly opposing white supremacy was the best way for white revolutionaries living in the “belly of the beast” to support that vanguard. The PL faction, on the other hand, “saw race as divisive” and insisted that all nationalism was reactionary, including that of the Black Panthers. They believed that organizing the American working class was the most important task for activists.
Berger does not hide his sympathy for the RYM/Weather faction. To him, their willingness to walk out on SDS signaled that hundreds of white radicals had consciously chosen to side against white supremacy. Berger smoothes over a complex history of the American left when he writes that the RYM faction “did not want… to fall victim to the same fate as all the major social justice movements in the United States, from populism to unionism to women’s suffrage” (85). Here Berger seems to imply that the left’s historical racism has weakened its position on the American political spectrum. Although there are obvious instances of this being the case, more often the opposite has proven true: the organized left has consistently taken less racist stances than the rest of American society, stances that, if anything, have relegated it to the margins. Consistent with this lack of nuance, Berger inaccurately portrays the SDS split as between the Old and New Lefts. “PL’s hostility to anti-racism and national liberation,” Berger argues, “showed that the organization was part of the Old Left” (78). Actually, SDS was re-living a 1930s Old Left debate over the Communist Party’s “Black Belt Nation Thesis,” which explicitly supported black nationalism as a legitimate form of working-class resistance rooted in the international struggle. To stretch this line of argument even further back, SDS was in some ways replaying sectarian battles that took place within an even older left, when southern Populists such as Tom Watson sought an interracial alliance against the “special interests.”
After the dissolution of SDS, the Weather Underground built what David Gilbert describes as “an unprecedented if seriously flawed group that carried out six years of armed actions in solidarity with national liberation struggles” (91). The first violent Weather action occurred in Chicago in October 1969, during what came to be known as the Days of Rage, as young radicals intentionally did battle with the police to prove their willingness to fight against the racist war machine. Spanning three days, Days of Rage resulted in over 300 arrests, some based on serious felony charges, and dozens of injuries, including eight protesters with gunshot wounds. These actions were not widely supported by the larger movement –- only a few hundred participated as opposed to the thousands Weather predicted.
Perhaps the most significant if unintended result of Days of Rage was that it compelled Weather to go underground in order to avoid lengthy and costly legal battles. Once underground, Weather rhetoric became increasingly violent, due in part to the fact that their comrades in the black liberation struggle were being murdered by the state, such as when Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot in his sleep by Chicago police. But until a powerful bomb accidentally exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse on March 6, 1970, killing three members of the group, Weather’s conception of revolutionary violence was little more than an abstraction. Afterwards, it became something much more personal and visceral: the horror of the accidental death of their friends in the townhouse explosion engendered a sense of sympathy for their projected victims. (The intended target of the bomb was an Army officers’ dance.) Although they did not entirely eschew the philosophy of violent resistance -– especially since the violence of the state had increased both overseas and at home -– the group made a firm commitment to refrain from harming people.
In the course of the next seven years, the Weather Underground set off dozens of bombs that damaged millions of dollars worth of property, but never seriously injured anyone again. Weather termed its property-destroying bombs “armed propaganda” because their targets were carefully chosen in response to state and corporate violence and because they issued widely distributed “communiqués” explaining their rationale after each bombing. They had become the masters of the revolutionary spectacle. For example, they bombed the U.S. Capitol on February 28, 1971, as a response to the invasion of Laos and the continued fighting of the war under the auspices of “Vietnamization” –- an action Nixon described as “the most dastardly act in American history” (165). In retaliation to a massive increase in the scale of bombings in North and South Vietnam, Weather bombed the Pentagon on May 19, 1972. They responded to the killing of Soledad Brother George Jackson and to the infamous Attica prison massacre of 1971 by bombing various corrections offices. In 1973, the Weather Underground bombed International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) headquarters in New York City for its complicity in the overthrow of socialist Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected leader.
Berger thinks these symbolic bombings were widely cheered by young rebels and that the Weather was generally popular in the larger New Left movement. It is true that, for most of their time underground, very few Weather members were ever caught, reflecting a tremendous aboveground network of support. However, cleverness notwithstanding, surely Berger overestimates the degree of popular support for the Weather’s “armed propaganda” campaign, an overestimation that might be rooted in a more serious misunderstanding of the times. In his close reading of the radical sixties, Berger misses the broader history of that important decade. When he writes that “to speak of revolution in 1969 was not hyperbolic,” he seems to forget that student radicals were not the only ones on the move. The 1960s is best understood as a time of polarization, as the American conservative movement grew even more rapidly than did the New Left. Berger neglects to mention that although a majority of Americans came to oppose the Vietnam War by the end of the decade, an even larger majority opposed and even disdained the antiwar movement. Thus, just as the Weather Underground had a network of support, so too did the FBI, demonstrated by polls that showed a majority of Americans supporting violent crackdowns on student and black unrest. Nixon was elected less for his assurance that he would end the war in Vietnam than for his promise to bring order to the streets of America.
Despite these problems, Berger’s book deserves wide attention and should be viewed as an important scholarly revision of sixties radicalism. Berger correctly posits Outlaws of America as part and parcel of the “ideological battleground” and “contested space” that are the “sixties,” entreating us to fight for the radical sixties. In this sense, his work is guided by the historical philosophy best enunciated by Frankfurt School Marxist Walter Benjamin, who, in the midst of Nazi barbarism, wrote, “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
Reviewed by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
4. Gilbert is serving a life sentence in various New York state prisons for his role as driver of the getaway U-Haul during a 1981 Black Liberation Army “expropriation” that resulted in the deaths of one Brinks armed guard and two police officers.