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The New History of the Weather Underground

Ron Jacobs is an anti-imperialist activist and a writer. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso, 1997).

Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity(San Francisco: AK Press, 2006), 450 pages, paperback, $20.00.

Despite its many detractors and small numbers, the Weather-man/Weather Underground Organization has emerged in the past ten years as a major topic in the growing history of the 1960s. Many of those who knew the group during its existence—personally or in name only—often wonder why this is so. After all, goes this train of thought, Weatherman/Weather Underground represented all that was wrong with the movement against the war in Vietnam and against racism. The group encouraged violence and represented the epitome of arrogance. What about the rest of us?

As the author of the first of a number of recent books about the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), I heard this refrain quite often during the small book tour I took after the publication of my book back in 1997. The only answer I felt necessary to provide then was that if we truly wanted to understand history, then we must examine it all. This meant that WUO was worth examining along with the New Mobe, SCLC, the Black Panthers, and all the other organizations and coalitions that were part of the historical period known in the United States as the sixties. This answer is still met with resistance by those historians and nostalgia buffs that like to pretend that groups like the Panthers and WUO were aberrations and represent the “bad sixties” as opposed to the “good sixties” of Martin Luther King Jr., the early SDS, and George McGovern. Besides the obvious superficiality of this perception, it is also antipolitical.

The most recent book related to the WUO is Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. In his introduction, Berger, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, political radical, and writer, makes it clear that he does not subscribe to the good sixties, bad sixties paradigm. Indeed, Berger understands quite well that “the ‘dream’ was killed, mostly by the state or by those acting in its interest….At the same time, cities across the country rose up in rebellion after rebellion. Therein lies one of the greatest fallacies of the Tale of Two Sixties: it obscures why people embraced radicalism and militancy. Without understanding the impact of state repression, radical movements don’t make sense.” This historical accuracy informs Berger’s text as he winds through the history of WUO and its successors. Furthermore, it informs his discussion of the meaning of that history for today’s anti-imperialist activists.

The facts presented here are well-documented and were derived from a multitude of primary and secondary sources, as well as from personal interviews with former members of the WUO. The interviewees represented various positions within the organization itself and lend a credible insider’s look at life in the political underground of the United States of the 1970s. In addition, the text denotes the larger debates within the movement and insists that people do make life-altering decisions based on politics—even in the United States of America.

Like any vibrant left organization, Weatherman/WUO constantly debated politics and tactics. This is reflected in their brief history. While the role of political violence (and the shape that violence should take) was fundamental to the group’s formation and existence, even more important was its relationship with the struggle for black liberation in the United States. Indeed, not only was that relationship the reason for the group’s birth, it was also the reason for the group’s death according to Berger and those former members with whom he seems to agree.

So, what was the intended relationship between Weatherman/WUO and the black revolutionary struggle in the United States? If one takes a look at their founding document “You Don’t Need a Weatherman…” one finds these words:

The only third path is to build a white movement which will support the blacks in moving as fast as they have to and are able to, and still itself keep up with that black movement enough so that white revolutionaries share the cost and the blacks don’t have to do the whole thing alone.

In other words, the primary role of the white revolutionary organization was to support the black revolution for liberation. This, in turn, meant that one’s concept of black people’s position in the United States and within the U.S. working class was the basis for any type of solidarity with other revolutionaries and activists. Were they just part of the working class? Did they experience a special oppression due to their race? Were they a separate nation? Weatherman subscribed to the latter argument: that African Americans were indeed a separate nation based on their special history and the nature of their oppression.

Once this relationship was understood within Weather, everything else followed. Its use of political violence was partially intended to take some heat off of revolutionary black groups like the Black Panthers, while its struggle “against the people” in the fall of 1969 was intended to draw a line between those who were willing to fight and die for the black revolution and those who weren’t. Much like John Brown and his soldiers, Weatherman/WUO attempted to offer themselves to the struggle for black freedom in the United States.

After a Weatherman-sponsored week of protests and street fighting in Chicago in October 1969—a week that became known as the Days of Rage—Weather retreated and regrouped, ultimately deciding to wage a campaign of bombings and other armed attacks on law enforcement and the U.S. government. This meant that many members would go underground, many would leave the group, and some would operate as aboveground supporters. This entire process was accelerated when three members of the organization died in an explosion that occurred while one of the group was making bombs in the basement of a New York City townhouse on March 6, 1970. These deaths not only forced the remaining members underground, they also forced an organization-wide reevaluation of political violence, with a decision being made that the group would no longer adhere to their belief that the most violent action was necessarily the most revolutionary.

This decision was not lightly taken, and according to Berger’s research, this decision widened some differences in the group between those who supported it and those who saw it as essentially taking advantage of their class and race position to lessen their personal danger. Apparently, part of the argument of those who disagreed with the decision was that they viewed their use of violence as a measure of sincerity and commitment to the black liberation struggle.

Berger begins each chapter of Outlaws of America with a quote from former member and prisoner David Gilbert, who is serving a seventy-five-year-to-life sentence for his role in the failed 1981 Brink’s robbery outside of Nyack, New York. This expropriation was a joint effort of the Black Liberation Army and the May 19th Organization and resulted in the deaths of three police officers after the robbers were stopped during the getaway. Both of these organizations were small in numbers and committed to armed struggle. In addition, both were descended from the Black Panther Party and Weather Underground Organization, respectively. Gilbert was a Columbia University student when he joined SDS and was one of those Weather members most committed to both armed struggle and the theory that white-skinned people in the United States had no choice but to support the black revolutionary struggle as the only true revolutionary struggle.

The insistence that the oppression of black people in the United States was one of the fundamental (if not the fundamental) issues that white-skinned revolutionaries in the United States had to deal with was a position in the New Left that had to be confronted. It ultimately tore apart WUO as the organization tried to construct an approach to communist organizing that would work in the political climate after the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Berger’s book subscribes to the argument that Weather’s betrayal of its original pledge to build a “white revolutionary movement” to support the black revolutionary movement was the primary internal reason for the group’s demise.

As mentioned previously, this argument holds that the reaction to the March 6, 1970, deaths and subsequent attempts to organize the political element of the sixties counterculture constituted but one more example of a U.S. leftist organization turning its back on the black struggle. To this element of the group, the prime example of this betrayal was the freeing of drug guru Timothy Leary from a California prison in September 1970. Why should Weather free a drug guru and not an imprisoned black liberation fighter? This analysis considered that “betrayal” to be exacerbated by the “New Morning” communique in December of that year—a statement full of counterculture rhetoric and language extolling the youth movement and its use of marijuana and psychedelics. The communique was criticized by the New York wing of the Panthers, whose communal experience with drugs was quite different than that of white middle-class youths.

By the time 1974 and 1975 rolled around, this critique had extended to WUO’s attempts to provide a theoretical basis for its future via their publication known as Prairie Fire. This book, which is a succinct and reasonable examination of the state of the United States and the anti-imperialist movement, was seen as another betrayal of the group’s original commitment to the black revolution. The Hard Times economic conference and the documentary film Underground were also attacked for similar reasons. Of course, by this time, it was not the primarily white counterculture that was the focus of WUO’s organizing efforts. Like almost every other leftist formation in the United States by that time, their focus was shifting to the working class of the United States. Despite their analysis that acknowledged the multiracial makeup of the working class (as opposed to other groups like the Revolutionary Union that continued to view it as primarily white and male), the organization was sharply criticized as racist by an ad hoc people of color caucus at the Hard Times Conference who took aim at their aboveground allies, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC). For an organization that defined its very essence by its antiracism this criticism caused major cracks. Some WUO members continued to argue for a more traditional class-based organizing approach—an approach that removed much of the nation status previously ascribed to black people in the United States by WUO. The other members continued to insist on adhering to their revolutionary black nationalist–inspired analysis. Meanwhile, this ongoing debate was overshadowed by the necessity of individuals to stay together and help each other hide from law enforcement. The combination of the two phenomena led to a non-political period within the organization.

One of the advantages given Berger due to the timing of his research was the greater openness of former WUO members to talking about their experiences. Another was the greater availability of government documents detailing law enforcement operations against them and other antiwar and antiracist organizations during the 1960s and 1970s. Berger takes advantage of this and provides the reader with useful information and details about these actions. In today’s world where government spying, torture, and persecution are the stuff of daily headlines, this information makes it clear that today’s headlines are not new or aberrations. Indeed, they are business-as-usual for law enforcement, only with modern technological enhancements. Berger argues that the repression suffered by the black liberation and antiwar movements was a good part of the reason groups like WUO came into being. Not only were nonviolent and open tactics being shown to be ineffective, went the reasoning of those who went underground, they were providing the police with easy targets for arrest, harassment, and, in some cases, murder. The subsequent history of WUO and other such organizations, however, might seem to prove that their turn toward armed struggle rendered them even less effective than they were before they took that route.

Berger subtitles his book, The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. This is what most clearly separates this text from previous books about the WUO. Berger, being of the generation of radicals that came of age in the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, obviously has a different context than those who gained political awareness in earlier times. This is important because it informs the approach he takes in the book and also because it naturally leads to differing emphases regarding the period of history from which Weather sprang.

Berger’s book is one of a very few current books that stresses the politics of racial solidarity. Although the movement against global capitalism is worldwide in scope and includes people of many nations (and consequently many skin tones), it has yet to span the racial divide in the United States in any noticeable way. The same can be said for the movement against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—although there are considerably more U.S. people of color involved in opposing the wars than in the movement against global capitalism.

However, as Berger points out, much of the impetus for today’s struggle against U.S. imperialism and its excesses comes from “people of color, from Porto Alegre to Port-au-Prince, from Caracas to Chiapas, Durban to Detroit, Buenos Aires to Brooklyn, the West Bank to Washington.” This is in part, as the WUO and other anti-imperialist groups of the early 1970s had already pointed out, because U.S. imperialism is the number one cause of injustice in the world.

Berger writes that the WUO’s analysis of the role of prisons in capitalist society, the making of political prisoners, and the need for solidarity with prisoners remains as pertinent today as it was then. As the prison system run by the United States and its client states expands its role beyond serving as a dumping ground for those members of society no longer needed by capitalism into also serving as a holding-pen for those individuals singled out by the state as linked to potentially subversive and “terroristic” activities, the need to insist on the end of such prisons increases. Indeed, the ongoing revelations of mistreatment and murder at the various secret prisons run by the U.S. regime around the world make this insistence a matter of life and death for hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals whose primary crime is often merely being Muslim or Arab.

Outlaws of America measures the Weather Underground by its own yardstick: revolutionary solidarity with third world revolutionaries is the pathway to ending U.S. imperialism. By that definition, this means that the primary role of radicals in the United States is to support those revolutionaries, including those who comprise the black nation in the United States. Although one might disagree with this analysis and its limits, Berger argues that it was the attempt to follow through on this analysis that created the Weather Underground. Likewise, it was the attempt to follow through that caused its demise.