APRIL 29, 2015
FOR DECADES after its heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Weathermen were mostly hidden in the shadows of American consciousness and memory. Already by the mid-1970s, the radical group struggled to assert its relevance as the revolutionary enthusiasm of the late 1960s waned. The Weather Underground finally cracked up in 1977, divided over the value of maintaining clandestine struggle. With the ascent of conservatism in the 1980s, the group was further relegated to bygone, radical exotica.
Some individual Weathermen surfaced in the early 1980s, quietly built careers and raised families, reticent to discuss their former lives. Historians, meanwhile, showered attention on the “good sixties” of the early and middle decade, when plucky American optimism drove movements for radical change. The “bad Sixties” of the decade’s end — pocked by assassinations, riots, cults, and Mao-quoting ultra-radicals like the Weathermen and Black Panthers — appeared harder to face
As I researched the Weathermen for a book in the late 1990s, scholars and librarians typically responded to my queries with “Weather-who?” Even some veteran ’60s activists badly misremembered the group as the kidnappers of Patty Hearst (really the Symbionese Liberation Army) or the ringleaders of the mayhem at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (Yippies and others).
The early 2000s changed all that. The attacks of September 11, 2001, inspired sprawling interest in terrorism, including backward glances to see what precedent the country had with such threats. With exquisitely bad timing, Bill Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days was released while lower Manhattan smoldered, accompanied by a publicity photo of the author stomping on an American flag. Thus began Ayers’s remarkable career as a bogeyman of the political right, later accused — along with fellow Chicagoans Saul Alinsky and Jeremiah Wright — of schooling Barack Obama in his alleged America-hating, get-Whitey socialism.
Other former members broke their silence. Their candor yielded several academic studies drawing heavily on interviews, a host of fine memoirs and historical novels, an Academy Award–nominated documentary, and a forest of reviews of all these works providing their own summary judgment on the group. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 further spiked interest in the Weathermen. Sensing chilling parallels with the Vietnam War, young people especially saw in the group’s history an engaging morality play about the appeal and perils of militancy in the face of a death-dealing government, unmoved by tame pleas for peace.
The 2008 agita over candidate Obama’s alleged relationship with Bill Ayers brought the Weather Underground’s resurgent notoriety to ludicrous heights. A Saturday Night Live spoof of the controversy gave the group its decisive imprimatur as pop culture icon, more luminous in its second tranche of Warholian fame than in its own era.
By the end of the 2000s, Weather fatigue was palpable. History teachers like myself struggled to bring students’ outsized image of the tiny group into reasonable proportion. Sixties veterans begged that greater attention be paid to the far more consequential struggles of the era’s blacks, latinos, women, and gays. Even former Weathermen — long familiar with America’s fascination with young, white, attractive middle-class rebels — relished turning the page.
Into this overflowing pool of memory now jumps Bryan Burrough and his splashy new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Billed as the rescue of the underground from the jaws of amnesia, its frequently pallid retellings of oft-told tales make the book feel terribly late to the conversation, expecting us to be mesmerized regardless of all the prior chatter. But even so, marshaling his skill as a journalist in squeezing hard facts from usually unyielding stones, Burrough has managed to do something valuable: he gives the first inclusive account of the radical political underground of the 1970s. Though leading with the Weathermen, the book has sections on the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the Puerto Rican independence group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the shadowy United Freedom Front. The underground at last appears as what it was: a multicultural, multi-issue armed struggle thinly linked by tactical alliances but broadly unified by a shared vision of revolution.
Burrough’s stated aim is a “straightforward narrative history.” The marvel of the book is how many new details he turns up, especially through interviews. The underground comes to life as a real, if dispersed, place — one supported by safe houses, gunrunning, furtive transfers of cash, and donated healthcare by sympathetic doctors. But more than that, the underground emerges as a locus of a violent, revolutionary politics unique in American history.
The book’s strengths, however, become its weaknesses. Burrough’s narrative approach and fascination with the operational specifics of the underground pushes the political motives of the radicals to the deep background. So too, Burrough minimizes attention to the larger movements of which the armed struggle remained a part, and to the broader landscape of the 1970s and early 1980s. The result is political history as a true-crime epic. By turns riveting and dull, it largely renders the underground as a penny dreadful tale of “cops and bombers,” ripe for CSI-style plotlines and character-driven melodrama. The book seems the final act in the mainstreaming of the underground, helping its meaning to fade, even as its deeds and key players come into sharper focus.
That said, Burrough at times both fills in and subtly revises common portraits of the Weathermen, using revelations drawn mostly from former members and the law enforcement officers who hunted them. The import of the newly opened secrets depends on how much one knows and cares about such things. Following the notorious Greenwich Village Townhouse blast in 1970, we learn, Ron Fliegelman became the group’s “bomb guru,” without whom it could scarcely have continued its armed struggle. By the impression of her own memoir, Cathy Wilkerson was a passionate but pliable young Weatherwoman, prone to control by imperious men. But in Days of Rage Wilkerson reemerges as herself a skilled bomb maker and eager participant in armed actions. With granular detail, Burrough records who planted what bombs, how they penetrated their targets, and how attorneys, just shy of criminals, funneled money to the underground.
The biggest disclosures concern the ends of Weathermen’s violence. Burrough attributes to the group a February 1970 bombing of a police parking lot, which injured several officers and whose intent, by anonymous admission, was lethal. He thus pushes back against a view of the Weathermen, widely promoted by Ayers, as kinder, gentler guerrillas. But for the rogue plot to bomb a military dance ending in the Townhouse catastrophe, this sanitizing version holds, the Weathermen forswore harm to persons. Disputing this, Burrough asserts what Mark Rudd all but confirmed in his 2009 memoir, and which some researchers have long suspected: that early on the leadership endorsed bombings whose aim was to kill police and military personnel. Burrough quotes a former member who confessed to him a risky plot to kidnap a prominent capitalist, long after the alleged, post-Townhouse injunction against actions with a high chance of injury. The Weathermen’s new tack of “responsible terrorism” was less a sharp turn than a gradual course correction.
Bringing forth more candid voices to balance that of Ayers’s, Burrough mediates an internecine struggle among former members over the public image of the group. Part of the fascination of the book is speculating on what would prompt veteran Weathermen — guilt, rivalry, ego, the skill of a tenacious interviewer? — to confess to past crimes and give away the secrets of their illicit trade. Days of Rage is thus itself another chapter in the contentious afterlife of the group. Former members, tethered by friendship and email, will doubtless quarrel over the decision of some to open up to Burrough and what he made of their testimony.
Burrough’s section on the Black Liberation Army and its successor groups is both the most important and most troublesome part of the book. Previously published work on the New York City–based BLA could fit into a thimble. Many in law enforcement and the Movement long wondered if the BLA was real or merely a mythic signifier attached to more or less random violence. Burrough portrays it as far less than a national army but far greater than a loose assemblage of independent cells claiming a common name.
After tracing the BLA’s roots in black nationalism and the militant line of the exiled Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, Burrough focuses on the BLA’s signature tactic: assaults on police. He reveals the pattern of BLA violence by connecting the dots of sundry busts and murders (some still unsolved) in the early 1970s. Burrough further chronicles the slow recognition of law enforcement and New York City’s political fathers — reluctant to admit to a raging race war while Mayor John Lindsay ran for president — of the danger the city had on its hands
Here Days of Rage slides into history as police blotter. The BLA narrative becomes a blur of murders, shoot-outs, robberies, and prison escapes. Privileging the perspective of the police, Burrough offers dubiously florid portraits of young blacks out for cop blood. I was of two minds about his account. By the body count alone, not to methion the grisly particulars, Burrough offers a sobering reminder of just how nasty cop killing is. I wondered what goal, beyond a visceral desire for payback and a tenuous bid to deter police violence, was achieved by making orphans, widows, and grieving parents of the families of small numbers of police victims in an implausible war of liberation. They were sometimes targeted at random, and sometimes also black. Declaring oneself soldiers, as the BLA did, does not necessarily make killing politically productive or morally just.
At the same time, I felt that Burrough was telling only part of the story. The book does little to illuminate the very local sources of anger among New York City’s poor blacks: the dismal employment opportunities, the substandard housing and healthcare, the terrible schools, and the predations of police. It doesn’t consider whether BLA members had an agenda larger than murder or any legitimate roots in their community. And it ignores the ways in which the war was brought to them. The notorious COINTELPRO program, by which the FBI sought to crush the Black Power movement, is only a bit player in Burrough’s narrative. The secret NYPD unit “BOSSI,” deployed to infiltrate, hound, and likely frame the city’s black radicals, is left out entirely.
Straying from his role as dispassionate narrator, Burrough engages in idol-smashing that feels mean-spirited. The autobiography of the BLA’s Assata Shakur has an iconic status among many African Americans, figuring into the personal and political becoming of generations. But for Burrough, Shakur is an unexceptional figure, save for being “intelligent” and “attractive,” a person whom the police themselves elevated into a superwoman-villain.
George Jackson, the acclaimed prison author and “Soledad Brother,” gets the worst treatment. For Burrough, Jackson is a brute who used his prison-ripped body and animal sexuality to prompt fawning white women to puff him up as a revolutionary hero. Jackson’s supporters are dupes, bamboozled by radical chic. Lesser black radicals are introduced as “charismatic thug[s],” “squat, muscled gangbanger[s],” “burly” veterans, and “angry niggas” with a “zeal for gunplay.” The BLA appears a felonious crew of self-righteous badasses, prone to blame white society for their personal failings. Here Burrough makes caricatures of serious political lives. He also misses an opportunity to probe how economic conditions fed black criminality, which New York City’s Panthers tried to channel into politics and convert into local, economic empowerment. The implication is that people who come up from the streets and have criminal pasts cannot be trusted to transcend their rage and do politics responsibly. This is an especially fraught message at a time when so many African American men — building energy and leadership to combat a new age of Jim Crow centered in the carceral state itself — are entangled in the criminal justice system.
Those few former BLA members whom Burrough interviewed and got to know come off considerably better — because multidimensional and conflicted about their violence — than those he describes from afar. That dynamic alone says much about how racial stereotypes work. While the former Weathermen will puzzle over who shared what with Burrough, former BLA members and their associates will doubtless scrutinize whether Burrough’s recognition of their movement is worth the baggage of his skewed perspective.
Burrough’s scant attention to historical context comes at a price. The missing element in his workup of the era’s radical ideology is the critique of imperialism and the global attraction to revolutionary nationalism. This lacuna permits him to say silly things, such as that the underground had nothing to do with the Vietnam War and was solely oriented to promoting the black struggle. Within an anti-imperialist framework — whatever one may think of it — the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination was roughly equivalent to the African American bid for radical autonomy. White revolutionaries bombed sites of military, corporate, and racial power, seeing little tension in the choice of targets. Black and Puerto Rican revolutionaries saw themselves as part of a global, anti-imperialist insurgency. Asian communism, epitomized by the rebellious Vietnamese, held out for American radicals of all colors the promise of an alternative modernity that was at once anticapitalist and antiracist.
Burrough also reduces complex storylines to clichés. Nineteen sixty-eight, when the world “explod[ed] in protest,” “changed everything.” By 1969, with the revolution not yet arrived, the movement was already “crumbling.” Come late 1970, “change was in the air” yet again. Activists, Burrough reports, dropped out of politics en masse, trading world-changing militancy for “Me” Decade solipsism. By the Jimmy Carter era, “what Americans most wanted was to dance to the throbbing new beat of disco” and forget everything about the 1960s. Such a narrative is not only trite; it is substantially wrong.
The student and youth movements, notwithstanding the demise of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, reached their apex with the mass campus strike in the spring of 1970 following the killings at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Serious antiwar organizing, increasingly driven by military veterans, continued through the “Vietnamization” of the war. Black Power, no matter the split in the Black Panthers, enjoyed twin peaks in the new decade. In 1970, Philadelphia’s “Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention” laid out a comprehensive vision of anticolonial liberation within the United States. Drawn from Black Power’s militant and mainstream wings, the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 set the stage for the black political machines that dominated urban politics in the 1980s and ’90s.
Even the back-to-the-landers — easy targets for accusations of the retreat into narcissism — made noise. Stalwarts of the storied Montague Farm commune in Massachusetts became leaders of the anti-nuke movement, organizing the famous No Nukes concert at Madison Square Garden in 1979. Meanwhile, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other subaltern groups built on a 1960s-style anticolonial analysis to stress what the Civil Rights struggles had occluded: that issues of race in America were hardly reducible to black and white. Radicalized prisoners, finally, gave the country the most significant prison reform movement in its history, whose defeat has been the grim legacy of racialized mass incarceration. If greatly winnowed from its late-’60s peak, the so-called “underground press” kept tabs on the armed struggle and provided space to debate its merits.
Ignoring or minimizing all this, Burrough casts the underground of the 1970s and 1980s as a quixotic fellowship of desperados, fatally out of joint with their times. To be sure, the underground was captive to its founding illusion of imminent revolution. Some fetishized clandestine struggle as the true measure of revolutionary ardor. But they also grappled, if with limited results, with how to relate to the motion of new political forces and build for the long haul of radical change.
If now rearguard actions to shame the American state, the Weather Underground’s bombings in the early and mid-1970s addressed such diverse issues as US support for the coup in Chile, oil profits sucked from colonial Africa, and the raw deal given women on public assistance. The late 1970s and early 1980s were also a time of continued global armed struggle. Left-wing guerrillas triumphed in Nicaragua. Similar campaigns showed promise elsewhere in Latin America, as well as in southern Africa. At the very least, such efforts provided additional frame of reference for the ambitions of ’70s- and ’80s-era revolutionaries.
Throughout Days of Rage, Burrough views the underground with quizzical detachment and occasional contempt. But oddly, he shares with the underground its worst tendency: to get so caught up in its existence that the wider world disappears. Crawling into the shadows to plumb its intrigue, Burrough misses the opportunity to tell a richer story of the times and situate the underground within it.
Burrough concludes that the underground was a saga of “misplaced idealism.” Measured against its goal of revolution (or even Puerto Rican independence), it clearly failed, as its former members universally concede. How the underground imploded is now clearer for Burrough’s efforts. Why it existed in the first place — and what its existence says about the United States — remains the enduring question and greater mystery.
Jeremy Varon is a professor of History at the New School in New York City. He is author of Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies.