How Weatherman confused violence with militancy and triggered the downfall of SDS

(WNV) – To those of us deeply immersed in the New Left in the summer of 1969, apocalypse felt imminent. Despite growing opposition, the war in Vietnam was still escalating, with no end in sight. There had been strikes and building seizures at scores of campuses. Demonstrations were increasingly confrontational and bloody. The civil rights movement was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the year before, and the massive riots that followed, and from the emergence of separatist groups that rejected the goal of integration. Some of those were armed, including the Black Panthers, whose offices were routinely and lethally attacked by police.

Within Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the New Left’s principal organization, there was desperation to articulate a strategy in response — and to create the conditions for revolution, which many of us had convinced ourselves was necessary. Factions formed and competed bitterly. At the SDS convention in June 1969, the organization burst apart. Control was seized by a group called Weatherman, which eventually went underground and carried out a campaign of bombings. But in the months before doing so, we trashed SDS, abandoned the mass movement it represented, and dedicated ourselves to ultra-militance and fighting in the streets.

To many people today, apocalypse feels imminent once again. And activism feels mandatory. How to build organization, devise strategy and be effective are pressing questions. So is the distinction between militancy and violence. What follows is an excerpt from “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary,” the story of my path through SDS and the Weather Underground. For activists grappling with those questions, it should be a cautionary tale.

Through the summer and into the fall of 1969, we forged ourselves into an infantry of swaggering kamikazes dedicated to the ideas in the Weatherman position paper. Every effort was aimed toward a series of demonstrations we called for Chicago in October. They became known after the fact as the Days of Rage, although in building for it we just called them “the National Action.” Our goal was to get tens of thousands of angry young people fighting the cops in the streets. In the event, only about 400 people actually participated, maybe fewer. There was an opening night salvo when our troops ran through a fancy neighborhood trashing things and attacking the cops, who responded with shotguns, wounding 11, and arrested more than 60. A couple of actions planned for the following days didn’t go forward at all — one was defused by the police as people were gathering, and we canceled another out of fear because the National Guard had been called out. The final day’s march was another melee, with numerous injuries and mass arrests. Altogether, considering our inflated vision of it, the Days of Rage was a spectacular failure. So, smarting from our abandonment by the movement we had alienated and from the failure of our fantasized masses of followers to materialize, we in turn abandoned the movement and the masses in a huff. Obviously, nobody else was as committed as we were! That’s when we began preparing to go underground.

This spoiled-brat, feelings-hurt motivation for such a consequential step was obscured behind our overblown rhetoric about the need for armed action. We pointed for justification — and reflected glory — to revolutions, such as the Cubans’, that started with small, clandestine military ventures. We also rationalized the intention to go underground as a refusal to surrender. Many of our members accrued felony charges for things like mob action and assaulting an officer, and didn’t want to face trials and jail. But our unwillingness to admit that our strategy had been a farce — that is, our shame at having talked so big and delivered so little — would also be a powerful impetus.

Over that summer leading up to the Days of Rage, we built a network of collectives in half a dozen cities; membership was somewhat fluid during those months, as some people bailed out and others were recruited, but I don’t believe there were ever more than 200 or maybe 250 members. They were disciplined to a leadership group that we cutely called the Weather Bureau. Not insignificantly, while there had been two women among the 11 signers of the position paper, Karin Ashley and Bernardine Dohrn, Karin was very quickly kicked off the Weather Bureau and Bernardine remained the only female member. (In the fall another woman was brought on, for cosmetic reasons I should think. She also didn’t last long, most likely because she was a nascent lesbian feminist.)

The local groups that became Weather collectives had originally been meant as short-term organizing projects. Many who joined them were students expecting to return to college in the fall. But by fall our sense of reality was so skewed that for many, the idea of resuming life as a student would have been as inconceivable as volunteering to become a police informer. This first incarnation of Weatherman, as a public and visible organization, was nicknamed by someone — me, I think — the Weather Machine. This image gave us something to keep in mind as we subordinated our individual wills and learned to function like cogs and gears. We didn’t consider its other implication, the repetitive, controlled, mechanistic way we were thinking.

At the SDS national office, where I was, there was a staff that fluctuated in number between perhaps half a dozen and a dozen people. From there, the transformation of the summer projects into the Machine only reached us in anecdotes and rumors of bizarre and thrilling and scary goings-on. We began to hear of marathon meetings, “criticism/self-criticism” sessions that lasted until dawn. This was a technique appropriated from the Cultural Revolution then going on in China, aimed at beating the bourgeois individualism and wimpiness out of each other. For example, out on the street you were supposed to “lay down” the correct “raps,” as if upon hearing the perfect formulation, strangers would magically abandon their own lives and join up. If your rhetoric hadn’t been perfectly congruent with what the leadership was promulgating at the moment, that could be the focus of a criticism. Whatever you’d said would be picked apart — along with your self-esteem — and you were expected to recant, repent and parrot back the right phraseology. Worse, perhaps, would be to have appeared weak. “A lot of those criticism sessions grew out of how you performed that morning leafleting, or in some confrontation with the cops. Everyone doubted themselves. I was really scared on the street,” one friend remembers. Of course, it would have been rational to fear physical combat with the police. But thinking rationally wasn’t possible, once you’d committed to meekly following orders and forcing yourself to be something you were not.

We heard that collective members were learning karate. There were also tales of erupting promiscuity. And we would sometimes receive surprising news that a person who had been a trusted cadre had been “offed” — ghetto slang for “killed” — and was now a non-person with whom nobody should interact. Occasionally, following one of those torturous criticism sessions, the non-person was liable just as surprisingly to be rehabilitated. Then there was the campaign of “smashing monogamy.” Smashing monogamy was justified as a way to free girlfriends from the domination of their boyfriends, but it also had the effect of freeing previously attached women to be sexually available to the leaders, or any other guy who felt empowered to coerce them.

What made us so willing to trash people no worse than ourselves, and take orders from people no smarter? The organization we created was a vehicle for our politics. But its peculiar nature was enabled not so much by the ideology as by the psychic crisis created within each of us by that ideology.

Weatherman held that in making a revolution, not only would black people be the vanguard but that “the blacks could do it alone.” This was more than a challenge to the arrogance of white leftists, it was a profound invalidation: We were not only not primary, we were not even necessary. The acknowledgment of white privilege, an enormously important understanding that was new to most of us at the time, also permeated Weather thinking. But it became a club with which to beat ourselves up: we were coddled, and whiteness would always give us an easy out; we were racists objectively and inevitably simply by dint of being white in a racist society. There’s truth to that, and value in realizing it. It makes possible an understanding of the nuances, and insidiousness, of racism both within us as individuals and in the structure of society. We, though, did not examine nuances. We leapt from this insight to judging ourselves to be worthless, along with every other white person in the country. Hence the despair and bitterness with which we took such crazy risks with our lives, and with the lives of others. But here was a group of people who were so confident — or unreflective, or power hungry — that they could promulgate these ideas without themselves being similarly debilitated. Following their leadership would be our path to rehabilitation.

No one involved, however — except the undercover cops — set out on a path of political activism with any less idealism and heart than I had at 13 when in my first political act I joined a picket line to integrate a segregated apartment complex. And at the core of the original Weatherman position paper were humane and passionate convictions. Its authors understood that the war in Vietnam — and unnecessary American military meddling in other countries, in general — was a tragic blunder. And they knew that for this country racism is central to the history, and the biggest challenge. Both observations remain demonstrably true today. The leaders I criticize were right to insist on these ideas. Their failure was not in their motivations to activism, or in their instinctive radicalism and boldness, or in their analysis — well, not in those two elements of their analysis. But they lacked humility. They liked being right way too much. They were not saints, as most leaders of most movements, even righteous ones, turn out not to be. They aren’t saints, and this isn’t heaven.

So in the Weather Machine we created a structure that perpetuated, endlessly and with no possible resolution, repeated mood swings between cockiness and self-loathing. We could strut around like bullies all day, and cower and pule before our hierophants in the evening. The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn’t identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults generally don’t.

Reinforcing the separate reality of life in the Machine was the escalating state of confrontation with the cops, not all of which was directly provoked by us. People were routinely followed by plainclothes officers who made no attempt to be surreptitious, pulled over for the slightest real or concocted infraction of traffic rules, illegally searched and arrested. “I remember at least three or four times that summer when we were raided by the police,” my friend recalls. “We’d be sitting around in the collective house and they’d just come in, without any warrants, and terrorize us for an hour or so. Once they hung somebody out the window of a third-floor apartment by his heels.”

In Chicago, as the days counted down to Oct. 8 and our National Action, we still had close ties with a local group of leftist lawyers, and with Rising Up Angry, a Chicago organizing project among working-class white kids started by some people from SDS. The radical Student Health Organization had agreed — reluctantly — to provide first aid during the demonstrations. But we had succeeded in alienating virtually everybody else. No matter; we knew that the masses of kids were with us. I was cited in the newspaper Chicago Today, as late as September 23, asserting that between 5,000 and 10,000 of them would be joining us in the streets.

But the reality was that we had isolated ourselves almost completely. This is what happens when you insist you are totally right, belittle everybody else as wrongheaded and “objectively” counter-revolutionary, and deride them all as wimps. We acted as if we didn’t care that our ties to the larger movement were being severed. We pretended it proved our superiority. Driven by spite, it seemed easy to cut ourselves off from the rest of the New Left.

The last issue of the SDS newspaper we published before the National Action had an unambiguous theme of armed revolution, with articles on four Latin American insurgencies. New Left Notes had often printed a roundup of short items of movement news. This time, under the headline “Insurrection!” we ticked off several militant street battles of the Weatherman type, and seven recent bombings of National Guard armories and federal buildings in various locations around the country. Weatherman hadn’t yet blown anything up, but that idea was in the air. Some people were beating us to it.

It was right in the middle of those feverish Days of Rage that the Weather Bureau made the decision to transform the visible Weather Machine into an invisible underground. Perspective and composure were apparently not deemed essential for the taking of such a momentous decision. But we had gone far out on a limb and discovered that everybody else was ready to leave us dangling there, so I think we all felt that we might as well jump; it certainly wouldn’t do to wimp out on our commitment to ceaseless escalation. There is also the reading of this decision as an adolescent tantrum: If we were to die in the act of committing revolutionary suicide, it would serve everybody else right. And there is the psychological reading, in which it isn’t a surprise that the leadership made the decision to go underground when they did. What a spectacular way to repair their punctured collective self-esteem, given the colossal defeat they had ushered us to.