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Letter From New York: The Weathermen revisited

by Lenny Quart


Our regular correspondent from New York is prompted by the release of a new documentary film on the Weathermen to look back to the heady days of student radicalism in New York.

Posted 06 January, 2004

I recently screened a new documentary film, The Weather Underground -- an affecting mixture of archival footage, FBI reports, and some penetrating contemporary interviews with some of the main Weathermen: Bill Ayers, Bernadette Dohrn, Mark Rudd. Afterwards I was moved to reflect on my time as a “radical” professor in the late 60s when I became the faculty adviser to my college’s nebulously defined SDS (Students for Democratic Society) chapter. Like much of what occurred in the 60s, the role I was supposed to play wasn’t clearly defined. In those heady days, whose emotional intensity I loved, we were suspicious of all structure, and believed that acting spontaneously was more authentic and preferable to making things run effectively. Even during that era of infinite possibilities and of lunatic acting out, however, I was uneasy with much of the political dogmatism of the late 60s national SDS (an organization that numbered close to 100,000 members by 1969). Still, despite my wariness with SDS, the deep feelings I had for my emotionally fragile, intellectually tentative, working and lower middle class students (many of them older than the usual college age), moved me to offer them political advice and moral support.

Except for a few relatively privileged students who had transferred to my experimental branch of New York’s City University from elite schools like Columbia and the University of Chicago (and had read a bit of Lenin and Marx), most of my students never talked of “revolutionary struggle.” We were graced with visits from a number of SDS’ major figures, like the then strutting and ranting Mark Rudd, in his Columbia sit-in pre-Weathermen days. He came to rally our students to the cause, but most of the students were left unmoved by the appearances of these self-important radical stars (movement “heavies”). In fact, they found their humourless jargon and slogan-ridden, polemics (e.g., “fascist pigs,” “white skin privilege”) alien to their own much less abstract and more personal longings. The students may have been hostile to authority and opposed to the war, but they were much more interested in “getting into their own heads” than overthrowing capitalism.

Some of those same movement heavies, hair greying, and faces lined, resurface as the focus of Weather Underground. The film begins with the Weathermen’s faction’s take -over of SDS, the organization then splitting into a number of impotent fragments. After that, the Weathermen went underground for a decade, eluding the FBI, helping acid-guru Timothy Leary escape from prison and engaging in a series of bombings of police stations, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and army bases. But by the end of the 70s, sensing that their tactics and the movement itself were played out, they turned themselves in (though because of FBI malfeasance in their cases they did not go to prison). The film, though never endorsing their actions, is more sympathetic to the Weathermen and their grand intentions than I ever was. 

Of course, one can understand the Weathermen’s momentary appeal. It was an optimistic time when you could believe that every political and personal vision you had could be realized. Most of the group were well off, articulate, good looking graduates of elite colleges, who projected a risk-taking, glamorous aura. They embraced drugs and sexual experimentation (“everyone was supposed to sleep with everyone else”), and saw themselves as self-styled revolutionaries, street fighters, and terrorists. The group viewed sit-ins and demonstrations as “defeatist,” refusing to be "spectators.” And felt the Vietnam War machine and government violence against groups like the Black Panthers could only be stopped by violent action--“bringing the war home.” Yes, it was a volatile time, and our government was guilty of countless atrocities; but these young, egocentric fantasists acted with little sense of politics and history and a great deal of lethal (though they luckily killed nobody but themselves) and incoherent self-righteousness. 

The Weather Underground member most critical of their past activities in the film, Brian Flanagan, declared: “If you could had right on your side, you could do some terrible things.” But most of the other Weather Underground members, with a few reservations about tactics, to this day more than three decades later, still feel little remorse about what they did. Some convey great pathos, like the low-key, seemingly harmless, David Gilbert, serving a life sentence in prison for participating in a politically motivated armed robbery. But Gilbert, though he has lost everything, continues to hold, like a majority of the others interviewed, that in a period of government sanctioned violence, it was important to do something that made a stir. In effect, they advocated revolutionary theatre --that destroyed real buildings and that could have cost real lives. 

The Weather Underground was isolated both from mainstream America and from much of the American Left in the 70s. The film views them as idealists who took the wrong road, and ended up becoming an anachronism. Idealists who genuinely believed the world had to be changed they may have been, but also absurd, destructive, and self-destructive radicals, who blindly misread the nature of American society. Most striking about the film is that it’s Mark Rudd, once one of the angriest of the group, who hits the most poignant note. He expresses guilt and shame about what he did during that period. And though he still feels his analysis of America’s horrific role in the world was correct, he admits not knowing what to do about it. One hopes that if ever the student movement is revived again, it takes its lead from Tod Gitlin’s humanistic, non-violent SDS of 1963, and not from its later rigid Stalinist and Maoist incarnations, nor from the Weathermen’s romantic nihilism, that led the student Left into a political abyss. 

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