[News] Criminalizing the History of US Radical Underground Movements

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 24 10:59:51 EDT 2015


  Criminalizing the History of US Radical Underground Movements

Dan Berger - August 22, 2015

As Black Lives Matter continues to disrupt business as usual, a number 
of observers are judging the movement against the history of Black 
radicalism. As often happens in an era of renewed activism, we look to 
books about previous movements to tell us something about the uprisings 
of our own day.

That is what makes Bryan Burrough's /Days of Rage/ not just 
disappointing but dangerous. /Days of Rage: America's Radical 
Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence/ 
is a history as "true crime." Burrough chronicles six revolutionary 
underground organizations from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s: The 
Weather Underground, which emerged out of Students for a Democratic 
Society; the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther 
Party; the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose best known act was 
kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst; the New World Liberation Front, a 
curious sequel of sorts to the SLA; the Puerto Rican independence group 
Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional; and a New England group of 
working-class white radicals that ultimately called itself the United 
Freedom Front. Despite a growing legion of memoirs from partisans of the 
underground - especially the Weather Underground, which receives the 
most attention in Burrough's book - as well as scholarly histories of 
these organizations, Burrough is the first to bring all of these groups 
together in the detail that he has done.

But these groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough's 
"America's Most Wanted" lens, are not activists seeking to rebuild a 
racist, bellicose country from the ground up. They are naïve bad guys 
and narcissistic thugs. In his eyes, their goal was not revolution so 
much as it was "killing cops." Burrough provides hackneyed depictions of 
one-dimensional human beings with the kind of deluded stereotypes that 
everyday lead police to stop and frisk, lock up or kill Black people 
across the United States. To render them as history provides a dangerous 
justification to such violence.

A special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of several 
previous books on both finance and the FBI, Burrough aims to tell the 
story of these organizations and that of the FBI agents and police 
officers who chased them down. His lack of any stated ideological axe to 
grind, together with the support of a major publisher, might explain the 
book's generally favorable mention in mainstream media, including some 
liberal outlets, by credulous journalists who, like everybody else, 
enjoy a good story. Burrough has been interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air" 
and received mostly positive reviews in publications like The Washington 
Post, The New Yorker and even The Nation.

      The book consistently relies on a series of outmoded, cartoonish
      and just plain inaccurate approaches to history.

These reviewers seem either unaware or unconcerned that the book 
contains serious errors of both fact and interpretation. The book 
consistently relies on a series of outmoded, cartoonish and just plain 
inaccurate approaches to history. Burrough, for instance, claims that 
underground movements did not care about the war in Vietnam or the 
counterculture, despite ample evidence, presented in the book itself, to 
the contrary. Indeed, these groups operated at the intersection of Black 
radicalism, antiwar sentiment and countercultural communities. He says 
that the Black Panther Party was declining by 1968, when by all accounts 
(see, for instance, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin's /Black Against 
Empire/ <http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520271852>) the 
organization was at its height, with new chapters forming worldwide. He 
reduces the 1970s to a caricature of a time when people cared about 
disco, not politics. Such mischaracterizations, which appear throughout 
the book, fly in the face of two decades of historical scholarship on 
the period.

More to the point, it means that a book striving for a comprehensive 
portrait of underground movements fails at a most basic level to capture 
why such organizations did what they did - meaning both going 
underground and engaging in armed struggle - when they did it and to 
what effect. The book is woefully undersourced and surprisingly naïve 
about its historical context. While this absence of serious analysis 
seems more naïve than malicious, it forecloses any possibility that this 
book might help us better understand the history of the underground or 
the larger time period. Burrough rests his expertise on the interviews 
he conducted with participants, but there are serious flaws here. 
Already, former Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson has disputed 
Burrough's depiction of her as the group's "West coast bombmaker." 
Numerous other such errors, some big and others small, comprise the book 
throughout and remove any pretense that /Days of Rage/ might expand our 
historical thinking.

Like so many true-crime books, /Days of Rage/ is overflowing with stock 
characters. Most troubling are the banal ways in which the book 
justifies police harassment and killings through disturbing portraits of 
Black criminality and women's emotional imbalance. Behind its 
self-presentation as objective history lies a book rife with errors and 
naiveté, led by white saviors, destroyed by Black villains and saved by 
diligent cops. In an era of renewed nativism and explicit white 
supremacy, /Days of Rage/ hardly rates. Yet its distortions of history 
may prove more damning precisely because it will be taken more seriously 
than the far-right extremists whose logic it shares.

Throughout this massive tome, Burrough describes white leftists as 
smarter, more humane and just plain more interesting than their Black or 
Puerto Rican counterpoints. He opens the book with a chapter on Sam 
Melville and Jane Alpert, a pair of bumbling bombers in the late 1960s 
who Burrough claims started it all (despite the fact that bombings had 
been happening for years at that point), and follows that through with a 
rigid focus on the Weather Underground. Indeed, the Weather Underground 
becomes the litmus test against which he measures all other groups: Did 
they bomb more or fewer targets than the Weather Underground? Were they 
structured similarly or differently than the Weather Underground? Did 
they think similarly or differently than the Weather Underground?

Meanwhile - and contrary to the stunning scholarship by Sherie Randolph 
<http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=3686>, Barbara 
Ransby <http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-391.html> and Jeanne Theoharis 
among many others <http://radicalblackwomen.com> - Burrough describes 
Black Power as the province of a small group of charismatic men, each 
one neatly passing the torch to the next after being felled by death, 
incarceration or, since he doesn't know why they were so important, 
irrelevance. Black Power becomes a series of charismatic men enjoying 15 
minutes of fame, and spreading a politics of unbridled "anger." Even 
more maddening, he casts the relevance of Black organizing only to the 
extent it interested, conned or was itself conjured by white leftists.

      For a history that involved so many women participants, it is
      rather remarkable that Burrough so routinely describes them as props.

Take his discussion of the 1970s prison movement. Burrough calls prison 
activist and bestselling author George Jackson "a thug with a fountain 
pen." It is not only an offensive claim but one whose factual inaccuracy 
testifies to Burrough's limited historical understanding: Like all 
California prisoners at the time, Jackson was given only a short golf 
pencil with which to write. The "thug" invective is transparently 
offensive, but the "fountain pen" reference is equally revealing of the 
ways Burrough imagines Black radicals to be luxurious con artists.

His listing of the book's cast of characters includes only one Black 
woman, Assata Shakur. Meanwhile, it lists Twymon Meyers as "probably 
[the] most violent revolutionary of the underground era" and Sekou 
Odinga as the "most important black militant of the underground era," 
whatever that means. The white radicals listed are exempted from such 
hierarchical rankings.

That is not to say that the book is only about men. But white men are 
the only semi-rational actors in /Days of Rage/. For a history that 
involved so many women participants, it is rather remarkable that 
Burrough so routinely describes them as props. Former Weather 
Underground member Cathy Wilkerson "is a sixty-eight-year-old 
grandmother now, freckled and still very attractive." He describes Fay 
Stender, by all accounts a dedicated attorney and tireless advocate on 
behalf of incarcerated people who committed suicide in 1980 after being 
shot six times, as a "plain woman with a smoldering sexuality." Stender 
was shot by an erstwhile militant, but Burrough sacrifices a genuine 
opportunity to inveigh against left-wing violence for a cheap catcall.

His puerile objectification of former Weather Underground leader 
Bernardine Dohrn, who went on to a distinguished legal career at 
Northwestern University, constitutes a narrative thread in itself. He 
goes out of his way to describe her sexual appeal and (imagined) 
activities, at one point suggesting that she was "too beautiful to take 
seriously." He quotes FBI agents bragging about having stolen a pair of 
underwear from Dohrn's sister Jennifer during an illegal break-in of her 
apartment but does not discuss that the Bureau also considered 
kidnapping Dohrn's infant son 
too. Meanwhile, the women in the United Freedom Front spend most of the 
book fretting and worrying; they have no politics, no ideas of their 
own. In the /dramatis personae/ list at the front of the book, they are 
described only as wives and mothers, whereas their husbands are 
"charismatic leader," "radical" or "recruit." A secretary on "Mad Men" 
has more depth of character.

Burrough had fantastic, even startling, access to former members of the 
underground. He interviewed several participants, seemingly at length, 
including a number of people who had not shared their stories publicly 
before. Yet it is the police, especially the FBI, who provide the book's 
interpretive frame. It is not only that he relies on FBI agents to fill 
in the blanks or settle any disputes in the historical record. Burrough 
is interested in their morale. As with any garden-variety cop show, 
/Days of Rage/ sees police efforts to capture radicals quelled by 
government bureaucracy and political correctness, what Burrough absurdly 
calls "newfound sensitivities about race."

The "sensitivities" in question are the revelation of the FBI's 
counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO 
<https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro>), a paramilitary underground set up 
by J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 to destroy the American left, focusing 
especially on Black as well as Puerto Rican and indigenous communities. 
COINTELPRO included mass surveillance, identity theft, illegal 
break-ins, physical attacks, specious arrests, and direct and indirect 
assassinations. For a book so interested in the previously undisclosed 
details of who did which illegal action, /Days of Rage/ fails to give us 
some much-needed inside scoops: Which agents wrote the letters 
encouraging Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide? Which agent 
determined and procured the drug combination used to subdue 21-year-old 
Black Panther Fred Hampton so that Chicago police could kill him 
in his sleep? Who drew the cartoons mocking rival Black organizations in 
order to provoke such rancor that ultimately led to two members of the 
Black Panther Party being shot and killed on the UCLA campus in January 
1969? And how do such dirty tricks show up in contemporary campaigns 
against anarchists, radical environmentalists, Muslims and others? There 
is so much about /this/ underground - which has had a far more decisive 
role in shaping the contemporary United States than the six underground 
organizations spotlighted here - that Burrough fails to uncover or much 

It is easy to criticize from the safety of historical distance. Yet this 
history is an active part of our present. Burrough notes that, for all 
the bombings, the revolutionary underground killed few people. The same 
cannot be said for the protagonists of /Days of Rage/: the police. The 
Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 
<http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=82> that police have killed at 
least 38,000 and perhaps as many as 52,000 Americans since 1973. "The 
a new database maintained by the Guardian newspaper, reports that police 
have killed 572 people in the fist six months of 2015 alone. Put another 
way, US police kill more people in a week than six underground groups 
did in more than 20 years. /Days of Rage/ profoundly misses both the 
source and substance of violence.

Burrough says the underground was motivated by the "plight of black 
Americans," yet it is a plight he fails to engage with or understand. 
The few Black Americans he discusses are described as "bloodthirsty cop 
killers," "thugs" and irrationally "angry." This is the same double-talk 
used by commentators who today bloviate about "Black-on-Black crime" and 
"inner-city thugs" when confronted with examples of police violence. 
Collectively, they refuse to see the many ways in which police violence 
structures and eliminates life in the United States. But it does. They 
refuse to see the many ways people stage creative, life-affirming forms 
of resistance to state murder. But they do.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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