The Weathermen (1969)
I prefer the philanthropy of Captain John Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me….I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail!… We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharpe’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharpe’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them…. The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it.
– Henry David Thoreau 1859
There were twelve people in our two-man cell at the Chicago Police Headquarters last Saturday after the SDS Weatherman march through the Loop. Our charges ran from disorderly conduct (my own) through possession of explosives to attempted murder. The styles and situations of the dozen were as widely disparate as the charges: A black student (explosives) in boutique bell-bottoms stretched out coolly on one of the two wooden benches, surveying the rest of us with amusement as well as attachment. A long-haired New York weatherman, who said he had written and produced a musical version of the Columbia University insurrection, skillfully sang both the instrumental and vocal parts of the Cream’s I Feel Free. A very young, very rich kid (mob action) spouted heroic slogans intermittently during a compulsive, anxious monologue about himself. An uncommonly tender gang type from a Michigan Weatherman collective washed a cell-mate’s wounds with wet toilet paper and went to sleep on the crowded cement floor. Brian Flanagan, a bright and sensitive upper-middle moderate who found his way inside a Columbia building last year, and had now come to be charged with attempted murder (of Chicago’s toughest judicial figure), rested Jin another corner, dealing quietly with his own fear and a large still-bleeding gash in his head.
The events of the afternoon were common to us all, whether we had been busted in the La Salle Street melee, or a mile away (as I and two friends were). Solidarity and spirit grew easily from the experience of fear and force; it was expressed through the long first night in jail with songs and chants and good talking. But beyond the fellow-feeling and gallows humor, much more drastic changes were running down within us, and they could not be expressed at all, at least not then and there. That protean rebellion which was born ten years ago in the South: that found forms to fit the Mississippi Delta, the Cleveland slums, the Berkeley campus, the hundred colleges and parks and Army posts: that appeared bloody last summer in Grant Park and stoned this summer at Woodstock: It ran that day in the Loop. Almost everyone else now thinks that that spirit of the Sixties has found its end. But at night in the cell-block, we believed that it had found a new beginning.
Weather Underground Documentary – Part I
Weatherman demands the willing suspension of disbelief. As an ideology of communism and a strategy of revolution, it shatters the reliable categories of thought and modes of action which white radicals have developed in the last ten years. It challenges the validity of an intellectual Left, which functions as a comfortable culture of opposition; instead, it asks that radicals become revolutionaries, completely collectivize their lives, and struggle to death if necessary. Nothing could be more threatening to the investments of thought and action which Movement people have made. Weatherman asks them to leap-in life-expectations as well as political ideas-over a distance fully as wide as that which they crossed from liberalism (or whatever) into the Movement.
Since the civil rights movement moved North in 1964, white radicals have been working within a politics that was defined in the SDS ERAP community organizing projects in Newark, Cleveland, Uptown Chicago, and a half-dozen other urban centers. Although the organizers used some revolutionary rhetoric, they were never able to find a strategy for mobilizing masses of people to restructure the institutions which control their lives. Marches, sit-ins, tenant strikes and election campaigns inconvenienced but did not seriously threaten the welfare departments, housing agencies and city administrations against which they were directed. At length, the project workers-mostly white college kids-realized that those institutions could not be overhauled without wholesale shifts in power inside the system itself.
Since ERAP began to dissolve in 1966 and 1967, radical organizers have used basically the same strategy in other areas: campus strikes, draft resistance, Army base movements. The common principle was the organization of people in one locale (or in various branches of the same essential locale) to change the immediate institution which most oppressed them. For example, students were organized to change the university; young men were organized to stop the draft; basic trainees were organized to fuck the Army. It was hoped that such action might lead, in an always undefined way, to a chain reaction of structural changes throughout the whole system. But of course nothing like that ever happened.
Taken together, at least, that effort can hardly be counted a political failure, even if it did not accomplish its rhetorical objectives. What did happen was the creation of a race of radical organizers who are extraordinarily competent to do the work which their strategy defines. But there are obvious limits to the strategy, and after years of operational failures, a feeling of frustration and even desperation has set in. Many of the early organizers went off to the peripheries of politics: journalism, the academy, legal aid, teaching or even liberal government welfare jobs. And others went completely into personal life-style retreats in one or another wooded groves in New England, California or the Southwest.
As the repository of the political forms in the Movement, SDS _has been struggling to break out of the frustration of repeated failure or at least dispiriting un-success. The factionalism which has now become rampant is a direct result of that situation; politics without promise rapidly loses its coherence. The various factions within and around SDS accurately represent the political alternatives that now seem available. Progressive Labor, the Maoist party that was expelled from SDS last June but still holds on in an ambiguous role, expresses the conviction that revolutionary conditions already exist in the US, and it requires only the organization of the industrial proletariat to set the revolution in motion. Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II) agrees in part with Progressive Labor, that workers organized at the point of production can become a revolutionary force in America, but it goes on to emphasize the paramountcy of subordinating white efforts to the vanguard of blacks and Latin movements. Despite their expansive theoretical flights, both PL and RYM II work inside the framework of the community-organizing strategy. They try to get factory workers to demand power within their factories, or hospital workers-and users-within the hospitals, or soldiers within their bases.
Weatherman is something else. It is, in theory and practice, a revolutionary army, and it flaunts that notion: Come to Chicago. Join the Red Army, the leaflets called out. At this point-only a few months after it was born-Weatherman presents this schema: The fight against the American empire, at home in the black colony and abroad in the Third World, is the center-ring of world politics today, within which the American system will eventually come to grief. The colonized peoples-black Americans and Third World guerrillas-can do it alone; but white Americans can both deepen and extend the fight if they disregard the position of privilege their white skins automatically provide, and learn to live and die like un-privileged guerrillas. In Weatherman’s book, it is racist to accept white privilege in any way.
From that ideology flow a set of shattering implications. First of all, Weatherman action has to be directed at material aid (not just rhetorical support) to the anti-imperialist fights. It isn’t enough to march or leaflet in support of the Vietnamese or the Black Panthers; there has to be an active effort to pull the machinery of empire off their backs.
Next, weathermen have to understand the necessity of risking death, in terms of the historical necessity of revolution. It is the custom of intellectual Lefts around the world to sit sipping coffee (or its current moral equivalent, smoking dope), grooving on other people’s revolutions, staring at posters of other revolutionaries, and waiting for one’s own revolution to start tomorrow. Weatherman says that tomorrow is forever, and the time is always now. To the widespread charge of adventurism on that account, Weatherman insists that nothing that hinders the empire from carrying out its business as usual against the colonies can be a worthless adventure although of course some actions are of more strategic value than others, and that there is a time for up-front fighting and a time for background organizing.
The life-arrangements which have been built to deal with both the personal and political consequences of Weatherman are collectives-numbering now about a dozen in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Washington State, and Colorado. The intensity with which they work is almost indescribable; they are crucibles of theory and practice, action and self-criticism, loving and working. They are widely experimental: some now are considering rules against men and women living as couples-a form of privatism which inhibits total collectivization. In a few, women talk of intensifying their personal relationships with other women as a way of getting over the problem of women-hating women, which derives from female self-hate-akin to the self-hatred people in oppressed groups, such as Negroes and Jews, seem to contain. Often, members of collectives are revving at such high speed and intensity that they sleep only every other night; the rest of the time they are working-reading, criticizing, writing, traveling, pushing out the problems of the collective and out talking to other people.
The Weatherman perspective treats collectives as pre-party organizations, building eventually to a fighting communist party. A structure of leadership is developing with the Weather Bureau at the top, regional staffs under that, and the collectives providing local cadre. The principle of authority is a form of democratic centralism, with as much self-criticism thrown in as anyone can bear-probably more than anyone can bear.
But despite that formal plan, Weatherman is still primarily an organizing strategy, not a fighting force. Heavy actions in the streets and schools are undertaken more for their exemplary effect on potential weatherpeople than for their material aid to the Viet Congo Weatherman wants to get at high school and community-college dropouts-not middle-class university kids-and it believes that the way to do it is to convince them that they can fight the authorities who daily oppress them: cops, principals, bosses.
Weatherman as a strategy was born last April at Kent State University in Ohio, when a small group of SDS activists broke first through a line of jocks and then a phalanx of police to occupy a building where a hearing was being conducted on disciplinary and student-power issues. The attack so galvanized the campus that 5,000 students came out the next day in support of the SDS fighters.
There’s no denying the antagonism to Weatherman within the radical Left-not to mention the sheer horror with which liberals and conservatives view it. In some places-Detroit, for instance-unweatherized radicals have tried to form coalitions specifically aimed at destroying Weatherman. Some of the best New Left radicals believe that Weatherman is destroying (or has destroyed) the Movement. Movement spokesmen, such as the Guardian and Liberation News Service, are almost viciously anti-Weatherman; the underground press, for the most part, thinks Weatherman is positively insane. Such hostility is more than mere factionalism. It represents total rejection of Weatherman’s revolutionary form.
Weatherman itself doesn’t help matters. Perhaps because of the intensity of their own lives, the members cannot accept the relative lethargy of other radicals. More than that, weathermen have built such elaborate political and emotional defenses against their fears of death and imprisonment that any challenge to the meaning of their work directly threatens their identities. It is obvious that Weatherman is quasi-religious and fanatic in a way; they see those who stand apart as the early Christians must have seen the pagans. It is difficult to die for a cause that their peers reject.
The Movement’s antagonism is particularly wounding because Weatherman has so far failed to attract the large numbers of people it hoped would follow up-front fighting. All summer and in the early fall, Weatherman tried to organize its dropout constituency by running through schoolrooms yelling, Jail break!, fighting with hostile kids, and carrying NLF flags down beaches literally looking for trouble. When trouble came, the weathermen fought, and in many instances won; but the actions did not mobilize the hordes of kids the organizers had expected. There were famous Weatherman horror shows: in Pittsburgh, where members ran through a school and were arrested with no organizing effect; and in Detroit, where a group of weatherwomen (now called the Motor City 9) entered an examination room in a community college, locked the doors, subdued the teacher, and then took two hostile male students out of action with karate blows.
It’s hard, too, for many outsiders to grasp the dramatic-often comic-aspects of Weatherman’s political style. I first saw Weatherman as the Action Faction of SDS at the National Convention in Chicago last June (see Hard Times, No. 38). It surfaced the first afternoon; during a particularly dreary maneuver by PL, the Action Faction people leaped up on their chairs waving Red Books and chanting, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh…. They succeeded in breaking up PL’s silly obstructions by an essentially dramatic move, which had elements of both parody and instruction.
That element has carried through into all aspects of weathering, so that at times it is difficult to tell whether the entire phenomenon may not be a gigantic psychodrama. Most weathermen, in their own self-criticism sessions, are aware of the dangers of the emotional trip that revolutionism entails. At a meeting one night during the Chicago weekend, speaker after speaker warned against the death trip’ or the machismo trip or the violence trip. We act not out of our private emotions, but in accordance with our political understanding, one weatherman said.
Because Weatherman is still so young, it would be fatuous to condemn it as worthless or elevate it to heroic proportions. Its contradictions are apparent, even to most weathermen, who are defensive outside their collectives but truly self-exploring within. What seems most troublesome right now is Weatherman’s simplemindedness about the varieties of political experience in America; as revolutionaries usually discover, violent struggle and less intense organizing are not mutually exclusive. RYM II and independent radicals are still producing organizers who can serve a variety of functions; to put all radical eggs in a weatherbasket would be unutterably foolish.
Nor is there much evidence that violence can mobilize thousands of kids, even in Weatherman’s chosen dropout pool. Real revolutionaries have a contempt for violence, not an adoration of it; it is used only as a last resort, as a response to specific oppression.
As yet, most people do not comprehend the relationship of the police in America to the B-52s in Vietnam. A revolutionary party finds its moral authority in leading an oppressed people in retaliation against their intolerable oppressors: That’s how the Viet Cong did it in Vietnam and how People’s Democracy is doing it in Northern Ireland. To most people outside, Weatherman is a vanguard floating free of a mass base.
But there’s more to it than that. What appeal Weatherman has comes in part from its integration of the two basic streams of the movements of the Sixties-political mobilization and personal liberation. Since the break-up of the ERAP projects, few radical organizations have been able to contain and combine both streams. Those in the liberation stream have gone off on private trips; those in the political stream have been reduced to Old Left sloganeering and dreary demonstrations. Weatherman does break through, with its liberating collective sensibility and its active mobilization. However disastrous or brilliant its strategy may turn out to be, its spirit, purposefulness and integrity ought to command respect.
Source: Hard Times, Oct. 1969
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