Some years ago there was a flurry of publishing and general product-making regarding the Weather Underground. I was at the purchasing end of this consumer explosion and it occurred to me as I read Gordon Carr’s book about The Angry Brigade the other afternoon that I had read a good many books about the failed armed struggle in the sixties and that I was still, fifteen years later, thinking about why it didn’t result in anything very much. Even more I wondered why my own interest in the Weather Underground was a happily pursued bourgeois obsession, no different from matchstick boat-building or having all the Decca singles by The Rolling Stones, with absolutely no real world relevance.
Probably it started with Ron Jacobs’ little book, The Way the Wind Blew. It’s a good read, concise and sympathetic, and it maps out with a soft touch some of the more pointless ideological distinctions between the competing radicals (who were, of course, anti-competitive). It’s got all the big figures and the core quotes from the core texts but at least half of its charm is brevity. That brevity greatly assists the sepia-tinted, sub-cadence of romantic revolutionary heroes struggling against oppression and never shirking great adversity. Romances have always appealed to me, as much for the bitter turning away that inevitably followed the red cheeked lush of adoration. Jacob’s book was a western and revolution was the big sky and I loved it. And then I was down the rabbit hole, deep into the Weather.
Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary The Weather Underground is a pretty good primer, an excellent cheat for all those who sensibly decide not to read all the Weather-memoirs. You get all the righteous justification, Panther and yoof fetishes, a heap of the internecine squabbling, some excellent talking heads (especially Brian Flanagan, Naomi Jaffe, and Laura Whitehorn, all of whom come across as being both admirable and likeable), and the long spiral into, and then out of, the shadows. Sad declines are very cinematic and this one is very fine set against some lovely footage of Vietnam and Shaft-like urban streetscapes.
Like most of the Weather-memoirs its balance between the early morality play (“we simply had to do something”) and the desperate unravelling of a complex revolutionary ideology is roughly 45-45 leaving only a short patch to cover actual attempts at revolution, a patch usually occupied by the West 11th St explosion and all the angst associated with the self inflicted deaths of Robbins, Gold and Oughton. I suppose this is fair enough, if the revolution doesn’t happen what do you show on the screen? The inner story is the big one and The Weather Underground suggests it by means of many long anxious gazes away from the camera, as if they were still unwilling to compromise the project and that somehow the phone call would come and they’d be right back where they were, in the shadows.
Berger’s Outlaws of America is roughly the same set of voices, telling roughly the same stories but I suppose that they all do that. It’s got much more meat than The Way the Wind Blew but for such an out-there, wacky bunch of wannabe Che Guevaras Outlaws of America still reads a little straight to me. A little too scholarly and not quite interested enough in the people who made such extraordinary choices and rationalisations. Jeremy Varon does a comparative thing in Bringing the War Home and brings in the Red Army Faction to try to make better sense of how revolutionary violence became, for a moment, all the rage and then suddenly, definitely verboten, not even worthy of irony. He doesn’t really have a clear finding but he’s a thoughtful writer and he tries very hard to make it deep.
There are some big ‘whole of left’ books which have some Weather-material. Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties is very bitter about the Weather Underground. He can barely contain his loathing of the people that split up SDS, when (he rightly but hardly helpfully) points out that if SDS had been in good shape when the campuses when beserk about Kent State then maybe something could really have been done through mass participation. It’s a good book and he can write well enough to tell a story of scale and scope. Terry Anderson’s The Movement is altogether a superior book and well worth the time it takes to get through its bulk. It’s conspicuous in both these books how separate the Weathermen were, how they were really apart from the rest.
Indeed one of the striking things about all this Weatherlit is that at no point do you get the sense that they were in it together, in it with anyone at all. In Green and Siegel’s doco only Ayers and Dohrn are seen in company and they’re married (notably, I think, Ayers still occupies precisely the same location nowadays as when underground, about one metre behind the right shoulder of Dohrn). Throughout all the pages and pages of underground meanderings only rarely do the Weatherpeople get together, they are solitary figures, lone riders on a plain, these are not a united anything. You can’t help but wonder if they ever were.
Cathy Wilkerson’s book, Flying Too Close to the Sun, is thorough. She’s got a story to tell, she tells it and she tells it straight. Unfortunately it is also boring and she is not warm. It clear that Wilkerson is not seeking anything from her readers, she writes as if it is all sorted and nothing to discover: it just is what it is. She is pretty honest about stuff: the Fort Dix job; the denial and loneliness; the self loathing; and most of all about the awful pomposity. She tells the gender story forthrightly and doesn’t stint on long withheld criticism/self-criticism regarding the big swinging dicks of the revolutionary youth movement. Perhaps because she has such harsh and uncomplicated things to say she does it very seriously, without side, and you can tell she’s not going to fail any gut check these days. She does not flinch but you might have felt more for her if she did.
Susan Stern’s With the Weathermen is an awesome book: rich, lonesome, and deeply sad. Telling two roughly parallel stories of Stern’s radicalization and the failure of that radicalization to make her feel better, there is much that is simply heartbreaking. Partly due to the fact that Stern never presents herself in a good light With the Weathermen is hugely funny and never fails to put the boot into the “my rad cred is bigger than your rad cred” style of Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, and the rest of the Weather Bureau inner circle. What makes With the Weathermen so good is that Susan Stern is a person, a whole person who is terribly insecure and fraught with inner quivers which are openly exhibited throughout the book. Stern served three years for contempt of court during the Seattle Seven trial in 1970, as she remarks in the book the time served almost killed her. In 1976 she died of heart failure.
Bill Ayers’ book (Fugitive Days) is a tricky read, as its title suggests it is elusive and so is Ayers. There’s a story, almost a love story, but Ayers himself is too spectre like. He won’t sit still, he won’t look you straight in the eye: he’s still keeping secrets and keeping promises. The narrative rattles along but as with so many Weather-memoirs Ayers spends a lot of time framing the conclusions he made in 1968 and making sure we don’t think he was flighty or wishy-washy. The armed struggle was a serious business, even with the drugs and polyamory, and Ayers wants to certain we don’t judge him on such recreational ground. The revolution was his business and he took it seriously, as seriously as Wall St treats money. Fugitive Days is about memory and how to deal with memory of failure. It doesn’t quite come up with an answer. It’s not a bad book but it has some ethical fuzziness that doesn’t quite sit right. I suspect that some of this is due to Ayers being still married to Bernadine Dohrn and having a filial relationship with the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. When you’re protecting a child, en loco parentis, no one is going to say shit that may come back to hurt that child.
Mark Rudd’s Underground is a curious book, it isn’t bad. Sometimes, during the process of reading it, one begins to weary of the twin Marks, the insecure goofy kid who thinks all the time of how to get out of this whole thing and the strident “I could get laid here” revolutionary who so many of his contemporaries chose to bag pretty harshly. The two of them co-exist in an endless game of will the real Mark Rudd stand up please (NO! I AM MARK RUDD, NO! I AM…), and it gets tiresome as one Mark is free to argue complete bollocks and the other is constantly making asides to the effect that everything you just heard was complete bollocks. For all that Underground is one of the more readable WUO memoirs, I sense a hardworking editor and fifteen to twenty years of prepublication work. It has continuity and chronology working side by side and he writes well enough, in fact in tone it’s not dissimilar to the retired politician memoir, apologetic yet defensive. Rudd may never be the man he pretended to be, he may never forgive himself for pretending but he does try and be funny about it.
The great gap in all this is Bernadine Dohrn. In Green and Siegel’s documentary she speaks sometimes and then stops and half smiles. It’s an act of discipline that not speaking and I guess she’s due some admiration for it. She’s very radiant and listening to those Weather Communiqués you’ve got to love someone who offers that much, someone who’ll just put everything on the line, lose, and then not say much about the loss. I guess, though, she had her say: if you’re keen you can read her introduction to Sing a Battle Song, which is a mature reflection upon her life’s oeuvre but snuck in there are a few tropes from the Weather Bureau that reveal a never ending, heart rending dedication to the cause: “[t]he forecast is hopeful. Once we think about our circumstances, then we wonder about how it could be otherwise. New unities, bridges, and networks are afoot, if we seek and listen.”
I suppose behind all this for me is the fact that David Gilbert is still in prison for the 1981 Brinks armoured car robbery, sentenced to 75 years for felony murder. Part of my Weather collection is small green pamphlet written by Gilbert and published by a small Canadian socialist group. It’s a modest work but loving. He’s kind to himself and to his comrades. He’s thoughtful about how things went wrong. He’s still committed to the struggle and doesn’t blame anyone else for being where he is. He’s still doing good and being an organizer. He’s still calm, centred and beautiful. He’s still in prison. His little green pamphlet never once wonders how his life might be different only how the world might be different. And since no one else seems to be saying it I’ll say it: FREE DAVID GILBERT.