[News] Politics of the Weather Underground (Ron Jacobs review of Outlaws of America)

Anti-Imperialist News News at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 23 12:38:04 EST 2006


February 23, 2006

The Politics of the Weather Underground

Volunteers of America


In 1997 Verso published my history of the Weather Underground, 
Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. Weather 
Underground member Bill Ayers' memoir 
Days, published by Beacon Press in 2001, followed. Two years later, 
the film The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill 
Siegel, was released. The film probably received the greatest amount 
of coverage in the mainstream media, although the unfortunate timing 
of Weather Underground member Bill Ayers' memoir (September 11, 2001) 
certainly provided his book with its own share, most of it negative.

There have also been novels written where the WUO figured prominently 
(most notably 
Company You Keep by Neil Gordon Viking 2003), a pamphlet written by 
political prisoner David Gilbert (SDS/WUO, Students For A Democratic 
Society And The Weather Underground Organization, Arm the Spirit 
2002) and the comparative study of the Weather Underground and the 
German leftist armed organization, the Red Army Fraction, by Jeremy 
the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and 
Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies; UC Press 2004).

AK Press of Oakland, California is adding another book to this 
growing library of Weather Underground literature. The book, titled 
of America and written by up-and-coming radical author Dan Berger, is 
an important complement to the earlier works. The first history of 
the Weather Underground Organization(WUO) to be written by someone 
whose age parallels the ages of the children of WUO members and many 
other "sixties" activists (Berger is 24), this well-researched and 
detailed work provides a perspective on the most well-known group in 
the militant wing of the anti-racist and antiwar movement. The book 
is essential to understanding the history of the 1960s, as well as 
the present movements against racism and imperialist war.

Two things make this book different than the one I got published 8 
years ago. The first, and probably the greatest, is that Berger had 
access to the research and work that went into Green's film and my 
book. In addition, he also had much greater access to many of the 
personalities involved in the Weather organization. Green had a 
similar access. Things were a bit different when I was writing my 
book (1990-1997). Queries I sent to those members in prison were 
returned to me by prison officials, never having reached their 
intended recipient. Only a few individuals who had been in 
Weatherman/WUO were willing to talk with me and only two were willing 
to go on record. Others were willing to tell me if my story was 
accurate or not, but refused to discuss any specifics. One reason for 
this was the timing of my queries. After all, many Weather members 
were still unsure of their legal status and, politically, the US Left 
was still reeling from the effects of the incredibly reactionary 
Reagan era--a period that saw many members of the militant US left 
imprisoned and its infrastructure destroyed. In addition, hardly 
anyone that I approached knew my politics--which were a cross between 
the countercultural anarchism of the Yippies and the new communist 
movement of the 1970s. Berger and others have mentioned that my book 
helped to make it okay for WUO to be discussed as a force in US 
radical history. I was sent dozens of emails and letters from people 
telling me their stories as members of WUO or other militant groups 
after my book was published verifying this impression.

The other major difference between my work and Outlaws of America is 
that Berger writes from the perspective of today's generation of 
radical activists. (Indeed, Berger is co-editor of the recently 
released collection 
 >From Young Activists.) His perspective is that of an 
anti-imperialist who came of age in the 1990s, not the 1960s and 
1970s. This obviously provides a different perspective simply because 
the face of US imperialism has changed, with the end of the Soviet 
Union and its allies, and the rise of two worldwide movements against 
Western capitalism--the anti-global capitalism surge and the Islamic 
movement against the west. Both of these movements have varied 
strains and are only semi-consciously aware of the connections they 
share. Besides providing a different perspective on the WUO because 
of the difference in the historical situation, Berger's viewpoint is 
one that is not laden with the personality conflicts and ego battles 
that are part and parcel of every "Sixties" activist's recollection 
of the WUO. On top of that, Berger's historical distance means that 
he sometimes places his emphasis on words and actions that have more 
importance now than they did when they occurred. This tends to 
provide a more congruous history. At times, his words may seem too 
uncritical, but as another historian who was accused of the same 
thing, it is my belief that most of those who make this criticism are 
either fundamentally opposed to WUO's politics and analysis or are 
still stuck in a past that most Weather members have apologized for 
over and over.

Outlaws of America begins with a gripping description of Berger's 
first visit to Attica State Prison to interview/converse with former 
weather Underground member David Gilbert, who has been in the New 
York prison system since a conviction for his involvement in the 
tragic failure popularly known as the Nyack Brink's robbery. Berger 
obviously has a tremendous amount of respect for Gilbert's commitment 
while simultaneously understanding the tragedy of his position. In 
fact, each chapter begins with a quote from Gilbert--a technique that 
provides the reader with a glimpse of Berger's general perspective 
while never merely repeating Gilbert's take on things.

Much of the book's beginning is a general history of Students for a 
Democratic Society (SDS) and the dissipation of that organization 
into Weatherman, Revolutionary Youth Movement 2, and SDS/Progressive 
Labor. Using an academically-trained critical eye, Berger analyzes 
key documents published in the SDS newspaper New Left Notes and 
explicates the role these writings had in the political development 
of Weather. His generational removal from the times allows for an 
analysis that accepts the fervent anti-racism and struggle against 
white privilege that would become Weather's theoretical backbone at 
face value. This is important to Berger's history. Once he 
establishes these elements as the basis for Weather's politics, 
Berger is able to provide the reader with a history of the 
Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization that would make its 
former members critically proud.

Given this, one might argue that while Outlaws of America might make 
former WUO members proud, it certainly couldn't be a good history if 
it accepts their political premise. After all, how could such a 
history be at all critical? To Berger's credit, it is the very fact 
that he uses the yardstick of Weather's essential political stance as 
the measure by which they should be judged that this history works as 
well as it does. It is apparent from his writing that his interviews 
with former members caused them to look at their actions and 
political words in relation to how well they measured up to their 
emotional and intellectual commitment to fighting racism, 
imperialism, and the white privilege these isms provide to white 
folks in the US.

As an activist who sees things differently than Weather did in terms 
of emphasis on fighting white privilege, I am more than willing to 
admit that it was their focus on this element of US society that made 
me aware of the phenomenon of white privilege and reminded me to 
fight it in myself and the larger world. On the other hand, my 
relationships with workers who also happened to be white led me to 
draw different conclusions about the way the phenomena of racism, 
white privilege, and economic exploitation interact in modern 
capitalist society. Of course, I was (and am) but one of hundreds of 
thousands pondering these questions. And they are important 
questions, to be sure.

Outlaws of America explores the final years of Weather in greater 
detail than its predecessors. In addition, Berger provides 
considerably more detail about the law enforcement activities arrayed 
against the WUO and its allies. This is one important part of the 
text where the element of time works in the author's favor. Not only 
is there more information regarding the law enforcement activities 
against the 1960s and 1970s popular leftist and anti-racist 
organizations, it is also much more accessible. This fact combined 
with Weather members willingness to discuss their years underground 
helps Berger flesh out the facts of State repression against the New 
Left, Black, Latino and Native American organizations, and especially 
the WUO. As regards the final years of Weather, the fact that many 
more former members feel safe in discussing the activities and 
politics of the group provided Berger with an opportunity to uncover 
the material. Of course, unless he asked the right questions, he 
would not have discovered what he did. Fortunately, Berger not only 
asked the right questions, he found enough former members willing to 
discuss their answers with him. Consequently, the reader is provided 
with the most complete explanation to date of how and why the Weather 
Underground Organization fell apart. Like every other aspect of its 
existence, the fundamental reasons were political. The stories and 
discussions in this section are instructive for today's movements as 
they struggle with questions of class, race, and gender.

Berger's best writing occurs when he weaves the modern-day 
reflections of former WUO members into his narrative text. He does 
this so skillfully that those reminiscences never come off sounding 
awkward or irrelevant. Sometimes these reflections merely add a bit 
of physical detail, while more often they provide a contextual 
insight into what these women and men were thinking while they lived 
and took political action underground. This is what makes this book 
different and useful to the historian, the "sixties" buff, and the 
political activist of today. These people lived the life of 
clandestine revolutionaries and this book proves that they made the 
choices they made because of their politics. It wasn't because of 
some guilt due to class privilege, nor was their choice related to 
some psychological occurrence of their childhood. Even more than the 
previous works about Weatherman/WUO, Outlaws of America brings it 
home, especially to the US reader, that people do make choices 
(life-changing choices) based on their politics. This in itself is 
revelatory in a culture that thinks politics begins with the 
Republicans and ends with the Democrats.

There's some criticism in these pages, too. To be sure, it's 
criticism from a left perspective, and that's a good thing. Those to 
the right of the US Left--and there are many--will read this book 
only under duress and rarely with an open mind. The reviews of the 
aforementioned works on the subject attest to that. Although I hope 
that Outlaws of America is read by people of all political 
persuasions, it's clear that it is intended for the growing 
left/anarchist movements of today and the New Left with its roots in 
yesterday. If those of us in that readership are to learn from 
history, it's very important that we critique that history. It's even 
better when that criticism comes from a variety of viewpoints. I hope 
this book, besides being an excellent read, sparks a new element in 
that conversation.

(Reviewer's note: March 7 marks the 36th anniversary of the deaths of 
Weathermembers Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold in the 
Greenwich Village townhouse explosion.)

Ron Jacobs is author of 
Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is 
just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is 
featured in CounterPunch's new collection on music, art and sex, 
in the Garden. He can be reached at: 
<mailto:rjacobs3625 at charter.net>rjacobs3625 at charter.net

The Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110
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