The Weather Underground wasn’t as crazy as it seemed, though at the time it seemed anything but sane. On March 6, 1970, three members of a Weatherman cell or collective accidentally blew themselves up in a multi-million dollar apartment building in Manhattan where they were manufacturing nasty bombs: bombs meant to take lives as well as destroy property. Teddy Gold died in the blast. So did Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, as mad a revolutionary as ever there was one. The displeasure of his company I shared on a couple of occasions in 1969 when I wrote pamphlets for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) the mass organization that the Weathermen deconstructed.
In the immediate afterward of the “townhouse explosion” as it has come to be called in the mythology of American radicalism, the survivors traveled across the country and met clandestinely in Mendocino, of all places, where they asked one another, “What is to be done?” to borrow the words of V.I. Lenin, the ballsiest of the Bolsheviks who made the 1917 Russian Revolution, that world historical event that the Weather aimed to emulate. Ten days to shake the world, comrades!
The Mendocino meeting came down to a clash between the two principal founders of Weatherman and the Weather Underground, John Jacobs and Bernardine Dohrn, who had been lovers and had drifted apart from one another and into rival ideological camps. Bearded John Jacobs, or J.J. as he was known, looked like a Bolshevik and talked and acted like one, too. He wanted the Weather Underground to live in suburbia, blend in with blue collar Americans and make bombs that would blast big holes in the foundations of blue collar and white collar America. The other wing wanted to blend in with the hippies and set off more benign bombs.
In Mendocino, J.J. had supporters and critics, too, including most of the women in the group whom he had screwed in more ways than one. Sexual politics wracked the organization before and after the townhouse.
At the summit meeting, Bernardine held back and didn’t take a clear stand until J.J. pressured her. “Take a position,” he ordered, whereupon she went into a kind of lotus pose that broke the tension in the room and sent the fugitives into peels of laughter. J.J. was soon banished from the organization, the Weather Underground backed away from making anti-personnel weapons and for the next decade quietly and not so quietly set off explosive devices in the Hall of Justice in Marin County, the offices of the California prison system in Sacramento, ITT’s New York Headquarters for Latin America, the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the New York City Police Headquarters, and elsewhere.
Each and every explosion was accompanied by a “communiqué” usually signed by Dohrn in which she talked as macho as J.J. had ever talked, and dared the “pigs” to find her and her comrades, if they dared. To Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell — who looked out his window one day, saw thousands of protestors in the streets and thought it was 1917 all over again — she wrote, “Don’t look for us, Dog; we’ll find you first.” In rural communes and urban collective wanna-be-revolutionaries loved Dohrn’s revolutionary rhetoric and posted the FBI’s wanted poster of her on bedrooms.
In 1980 she and Billy Ayers, her partner and the husband of her children, surrendered to the authorities in Chicago. They were never indicted or tried or jailed for anything they did underground. The only charges against them stemmed for demonstrations in the streets of Chicago that were called the “Days of Rage” when windows and cars were “trashed,” protesters beaten and throw in jail.
Reporter Bryan Burrough borrows the phrase “Days of Rage” — Abbie Hoffman coined it — for his big blockbuster of a book that traces the history of the Weather Underground and four other groups — the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the Black Panthers, and the New World Liberation Front (NWLF). They operated in the San Francisco Bay Area and all around the country.
Burrough subtitles his book “America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence,” though it’s certainly not forgotten by those who lived through it, who have survived the age of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and now Obama and who haven’t yet reached the stage of dementia.
When I pointed out the obvious to Burrough in a recent conversation — that he hadn’t used the words “terrorism” or “terrorist” in the title — he explained that he thought of the Weather Underground’s explosions as “protest bombs.” He might have borrowed from an older lexicon and called them “propaganda of the deed,” a phrase used by the nineteenth-century Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin who said, "we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”
The great value of Burrough’s bombshell of a book is that it’s based on lively interviews with dozens of propagandists of the deed, including the bomb makers and the shooters themselves, many of whom have never previously said a word about their underground, illegal and clandestine activities. It’s a tribute to Burrough’s personal charm — he has a certain Tom Sawyer-like manner about him — that he persuaded individuals, who might still be indicted for crimes committed long ago, to blab. Indeed, U.S. Attorney Generals might heat up cold cases and show they’re tough on terrorism. Is that paranoia? Only time will tell. Former fugitives are worried.
I didn’t have to think twice when Burrough came to interview me at Rosso’s in Santa Rosa several years ago. But I’ve talked to everyone — except FBI agents and law enforcement investigators. I have also written about the Weather Underground several times in both fiction and non-fiction books and in essays, too, including most recently “Looking Backward: Reflections on Language, Gesture and Mythology in the Weather Underground” from 2006.
Days of Rage is a big book — nearly 600 pages — but it is not the last word on the Weather Underground and the so-called “Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.” Big gaps exist. Burrough writes a great deal about the rage expressed against the police, not surprisingly given the current wave of police killings of unarmed black men and the popular protests against police violence that first appeared in Ferguson, Missouri.
He doesn’t write nearly enough about the War in Vietnam or the connections between the Weather Underground and the Yippies, or between the political revolutionaries and the cultural revolution of the 1970s.
Burrough quotes me a few times in Days of Rage. He doesn’t use what I regard as my best stories and my best sound bytes. “I joined Weather Underground,” I told him “for the sex, the drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll.” I was entirely candid, though I know I also had a smirk on my face. Sex was never better than it was underground; the trips were never more psychedelic and the music never sounded so lyrical.
In the 1970s, we were all ridiculous young and absurdly lusty, and while some of us engaged in propaganda of the deed, we were also smoking pot and dropping acid, going to rock concerts and adopting Sly Stone, Van Morrison and Nina Simone as our heartthrobs and musical idols.
Moreover, we were studying all the nineteenth-century classics of Marxism, plus Che, Mao, Debray, Fannon, Cabral and more. Indeed, to understand the Weather Underground it helps to understand what V.I. Lenin called “imperialism” — that global system that linked the centers of empire to the peripheries of empire. America, the Weather Underground ideologues insisted, was a decadent empire. It’s demise was “just a shot away” as Mick Jagger sang. The word “imperialism” doesn’t show up in the index to Days of Rage. Isms aren’t Burrough’s forte.
Forty-five years after the Townhouse Explosion and the birth of the Weather Underground, the American Empire seems as potent a force as ever before, though it also looks and sounds crazier than ever before, crazier even than during the days of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, those two malevolent twins and architects of American violence in South East Asia.
In 1970 when I asked the French writer and ex-con, Jean Genet, about the Weather Underground he said — I’m translating here from his French — “The U.S. government has very big bombs. The Weather Underground bombs are very small, indeed.” For Genet who knew crime and criminals, the real thugs and gangsters were in the White House.
Small as they were, still the Weather bombs sent ripples to Nixon in Washington, D.C. and to Reagan in California.
Somehow or other it is satisfying at least to me to know that some of the young men and young women who made bombs fessed up and that Burrough reported what they said. Days of Rage might not be history, as many reviewers have pointed out. Indeed, there’s a mishmash of fact and fiction, misinformation and disinformation. Readers would be advised not to believe all or even most of the stories that Burrough tells. He doesn’t get a lot of what went down and so Days of Rage adds to the considerable body of mythology about the Weather Underground.
But I wouldn’t want to dismiss it, either. My friend Peter Clapp, who belonged to the Weather Underground and who later became a corporate lawyer, wrote to me in a recent email, that Burrough’s book was “an honest effort to tell the story by an apolitical guy without an ax to grind. Of course it could be better - much better in some areas - but I'm not sorry it's out there.”
Many of Clapp’s former comrades are sorry that it exists. Some of them are refusing to read it. Others are turning to the index, looking up their own names, turning to the appropriate pages and reading the tales that Burrough has told about them.
I’m not sorry that I don’t appear more than I do in the book. But I am sorry that he didn’t tell the story about the time that the Weather Underground sent me to Algiers with Bernardine Dohrn’s sister Jennifer to warn exiled Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver that Timothy Leary was a big security risk. Weather fugitives had helped Leary escape from prison in California and to get him out of the country. Now, in Algiers he was naming names.
It was a strange time, indeed, when Eldridge and Tim and Bernardine and many others thought that the 1970s would culminate in revolution. I did, too, for a time. By 1974 I had lost the faith. I settled in California and became a hippie, a bit late perhaps, but just in the nick of time for my own personal needs. Reading Days of Rage felt to me like a kind of LSD trip — a flashback Leary would have called it — to a surreal time when I went crazy with my friends and lovers.
(Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. April 2015; $29.95; 585 pages.)