Every now and then, a film appears that has special resonance with the issues of the moment. The recent documentary, “The Weather Underground,” is such a film.
At first glance it might seem unlikely that a film about a cult-like ‘60s New Left sect that fell apart by 1976 would have much light to shed upon the present. Yet, it is hard to walk away from seeing this film without reflecting on the curious parallels (and differences) between then and now.
On one level the film provides a riveting look at the rather tragic trajectory of the Weathermen — a faction of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that went from public protest against the Vietnam War to “armed struggle” (i.e., bombings) and underground life (as the Weather Underground Organization or WUO) for ten years, before resurfacing piecemeal at the tail-end of the Carter years.
The film succeeds brilliantly in conjuring up the political frustrations and madness — the sheer emotional intensity — of the Vietnam era, through a peppering of TV news footage and film clips, many of which are still shocking and appalling after all these years. These alternate with then-and-now portraits of the most famous Weather leaders — Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Mark Rudd — and another three or four lesser-known Weather members. All of them, to varying degrees, offer assessments of their motivations at the time and their reflections on their successes and failures.
But on a deeper level, the documentary’s story — not unlike the Matrix movies — serves as a metaphor for tensions present in today’s society. It is hard to watch this tale of revolutionary bombers living underground “in the belly of the beast,” and not feel a chill of recognition, as if their exploits served as a practice run for both today’s terrorists and today’s national security apparatus.
Of course the parallels only go so far. In the course of twenty-some bombings of corporate and government targets over five years’ time, the Weather Underground were careful to target property and not people — something that sets them distinctly apart from al-Qaeda. And their dozens of members were, with a couple of exceptions, able to elude capture during the whole period they lived underground in the ’70s, despite a massive extended manhunt by the FBI — a feat the film in part attributes to their ability to blend in with both the counter-cultural milieu and the culture at large.
Perhaps most indicative of the era in which they operated, the film’s evidence suggests a certain “hide and seek” game-like quality to the Weathermen’s exploits. Mostly coming from privileged backgrounds — Ayers’ father was chairman of the board of Commonwealth Edison — revolution was a moral choice not a physical necessity. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their moral outrage at the Vietnam War and Imperialism, but I also suspect that, deep down, most of them figured that their parents would raise bail if they were caught. As things turned out, when the Weatherpeople failed to spark a revolution and fell prey to sectarian in-fighting, they were largely able to “resurface” and avoid much more than a wrist-slap, due to the illegal acts of their FBI pursuers.
Today, thanks to the Patriot Act, most of the break-ins and wiretaps that the Feds used in their manhunt against the WUO would be perfectly legal, and were she to have resurfaced now, instead of in 1980, Bernardine Dohrn might be in an isolation cell on Guantanamo, with a bag over her head, rather than directing a law center for children and family rights at Northwestern University.
One other thing that reflecting on this film makes clear. If the purpose of terrorism is terror (and this, by the way, was never the intent of the WUO), then to succumb to terror is to grant the terrorists’ wish. In light of that, both the media and our government have been sterling accomplices to the suicide bombers of al Qaeda.
It is instructive to note the astounding statistic that there were some 5000 domestic bombings against corporate and government targets in the U.S. between early 1969 and mid-1970.1 Less than one tenth of one percent of these were committed by the Weather Underground. Clearly, a lot of people were mightily ticked off by the War.
Yet, the Nixon administration — who were hardly pussycats — chose to respond by playing down the bombings and letting the FBI do its thing circumspectly. Any widespread terror was minimized through their choice of strategic response. The same goes for the Clinton response to the OKC bombing.
Compare this, if you will, to the post-9/11 incessant invocation of fear and paranoia by the present administration. As horrific and traumatic as 9/11 inherently was, the trauma and fear have been extended indefinitely as a conscious strategy by those in power. Under the cover of terror, a massive consolidation of power in the hands of a few in the Executive branch has been allowed to take place.
The Weatherpeople, for all their many faults — which were numerous — at least differentiated between the powers that be (who they saw as the oppressors) and the general populace (who they saw as the oppressed). As such, their intent was not to terrorize the populace at large, but to make pin-point strikes against buildings symbolizing concentrations of power.
Today’s all-inclusive definitions of terrorism aside, the Weather Underground weren’t terrorists. Spoiled brats, perhaps; obtuse Leninists, probably; Quixotic revolutionaries, almost certainly. They may have hoped that they were throwing fear into Richard Nixon and his minions, but they didn’t see themselves as visiting terror upon random “civilians” as punishment for their sins.
The intent of Al-Qaeda is much less clear, as is that of our president and his handlers. There was never any crowing communiqué from Osama bin Laden taking credit for 9/11, at the time. Al-Qaeda surely have no dream of enacting an Islamist revolution in the U.S. Their apparent goal is to evict Western powers from Muslim lands and stand athwart the path of History yelling “Stop!” as William F. Buckley once described conservatism. Meanwhile, the supposed conservatives in the White House and Pentagon seem seized with their own revolutionary fever-dream: to remake the Third World in our image, by force if necessary.
In the tradition of the best radical films, “the Weather Underground” lets you see the world through its subjects’ eyes, as painful as that may be at times. Unfortunately, in doing so, it sacrifices the opportunity to ask some hard questions that might have shed additional light on whether the Weather participants have really learned anything after all this time.
Mark Rudd, now a heavy-set, white-bearded community college math teacher in New Mexico, comes closest to admitting befuddlement, shame, and ambivalence over the Weather Underground’s exploits, but is either unwilling or unable to offer deeper insights or evidence of much critical assessment.
Bernardine Dohrn admits that “mistakes” were made, though these were seemingly, in her view, strategic and tactical, and her Weather world view appears to be otherwise intact.
Todd Gitlin, former SDS president and Weatherman opponent — now media critic and college prof — offers the most scathing criticism of Weatherman’s “hijacking” of SDS and its cultish approach to revolution, but there is more than a whiff of score-settling in his judgments, as if he is still pissed off, some 35 years later, that his more moderate stance in SDS failed to carry the day.
Admittedly, only so much can be covered in a 90-minute film — and “The Weather Underground” does cover a lot of ground. But much goes unsaid, perhaps because the filmmakers spent so long (two years according to co-director Sam Green) chatting up and winning over the film’s subjects to the project, that they effectively internalized the blind-spots and cautions of their stars.
Some examples of issues not raised are instructive.
• By 1968, SDS as a whole — including those who went on to form the Weathermen/WUO — had bought into a hyper-Marxist revolutionary analysis and were determined to not merely “stop the war” but overthrow U.S. capitalism and imperialism as well. Given that American society seemed to be suffering a nervous breakdown in 1968 and militant outbreaks were occurring around the world, it was possible to talk one’s self into believing that revolution was just around the corner. In retrospect, this was a delusion, but the film does a good job of portraying how a combination of youthful fury and optimism might have made it seem real. Yet, Marx or Marxism are never mentioned in the film and the pitfalls of this ideological turn are never confronted.
• One rationale that the Weatherpeople who are interviewed in the film give for taking up arms is the high tide of National Liberation struggles at the time, which created a sense of Imperialism on its last legs. Much inspiration was taken from the success of the Viet Cong and Cuba in making the U.S. back off. However, no one in the film reflects on the ultimate results of those struggles, nor on the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and certainly not on whether their rosy view of Communism was ultimately a mirage veiling despotic police states. This gives a curiously timeless quality to the film’s subjects, as if they’re just waiting for a new wave of liberation movements to pick up where the last wave left off.
• The film recapitulates the standard Left hagiography of the Black Panther Party — with considerable attention to the murder of Fred Hampton and death of George Jackson — blaming Cointelpro and the police for the Panthers’ eclipse. But no mention is made of the Panthers’ thuggish side, the Panther murder of their own (white) bookkeeper, Huey Newton’s descent into gangsterism, or the severe gap between Panther rhetoric and reality. A present-day Kathleen Cleaver notes that, due to the fierce police and FBI opposition, the BPP lost all the characteristics that had attracted people to it in the first place, but intra-Panther murders — much less her husband’s (and her) bizarre turn to born-again Christianity — are missing from the historical narrative.
Ironically, one of the choicest moments in the documentary is a clip of Panther Fred Hampton’s vociferous denunciation of the Weathermen and their “Days of Rage” as adventuristic, “Custeristic,” and every other “ist” and “ism” in the glossary of Leftist putdowns. Given Weather’s adulation of the Panthers at the time, that must have stung.
Yet, whatever else one might say about the Weatherpeople, they weren’t stupid. Middle class upbringings and and elite education helped guide them to leadership roles in SDS, and even if they ended up advocating and acting upon extreme positions, they were able to devise intelligent rationales for those positions, obtuse though they may have been.
This was hardly the case with later “armed struggle” groups like the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), NWLF (New World Liberation Front), and BLA (Black Liberation Army)who often came off as third-generation Xeroxes of the Weather Underground. The radicalized felons and their camp followers who composed these later outfits may have had enough political chops to write a passable post-bombing communique, but one suspects that bank and armored car robberies began to proliferate among the post-Weatherman “political warriors” because crime was what they knew best.
The film makes scant acknowledgment of this degeneration of armed struggle into armed robbery — a trap that the WUO itself never fell into, but one that some ex-Weatherpeople like David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin ended up incarcerated for supporting.
In fact, the film ties things up a little too neatly. The standard line, which it perpetuates, is that the Weather Underground performed two dozen bombings of symbolic targets and that they carefully avoided killing anyone. This excises the Feb. 16, 1970 bombing of the San Francisco police station on the edge of Golden Gate Park in which at least one officer, Brian McDonnell, was killed and others were seriously injured. The bombing, at the time, was credited to the Weathermen.
This was, of course, a month prior to the townhouse explosion in NYC in which three Weatherpeople were killed through the accidental detonation of a bomb upon which they were working. Until the townhouse obliteration, there was no Weather Underground — the group was still the Weathermen — although their bombings had already begun. (Seven bombs were set off on Feb. 19th alone.)
As Bill Ayers notes in the film, the townhouse tragedy brought the group up short and instigated a step back from the precipice of bomb attacks in which people might be killed. Given that the bomb under construction in the townhouse was intended for a GI dance at Fort Dix, multiple deaths were on the agenda. The subsequent change in tactics was salutory, but one can’t help but wonder whether the WUO’s “clean” record of no deaths is due to careful parsing of just what actions were allowed into the “official” WUO canon. Were the more reckless pre-townhouse bombings — not all of which were claimed or solved — consigned to a memory-hole about which the less said the better?
Other messy details left out of the film are the trajectories of individual Weatherpeople following the WUO’s putative “breakup” in 1976. Already by 1974, the WUO’s sense of isolation had led them to encourage an aboveground support group, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), and to even publish their own magazine, Osawatome. However, by then, the Left had largely declined into a shrinking and balkanized array of Leninist sects and single-issue movements.
The WUO’s breakup occurred, in part, as its leadership came under heavy criticism from some members and PFOC supporters for a litany of political sins. It is instructive to re-read, for instance, Bernardine Dohrn’s groveling 1976 self-criticism (published at the time by PFOC) wherein she admits to insufficient support for feminist and black revolutionary causes, among other things. No wonder that shortly thereafter, one by one, the Weather members began to “resurface” and turn themselves in to the authorities. Even a spate in prison (which few of them had to endure for long, as things turned out) must have seemed like a relief, after several years in the increasing claustrophobia of the bickering underground Left.
None of this makes it into the film, but its absence is only a gaping hole to those who were already aware of such details. For the film-makers, and most viewers, “The Weather Underground” is no doubt a more satisfying work for having skipped the acrimonious ideological implosion and cut to the middle-aged reflections of its subjects, twenty-five years later.
Perhaps the most significant issue not raised in the film is one that likely never occurred to either the film-makers or their subjects. That is the failure of a model for political change that never addresses the spiritual dimension of people’s lives. According to the WUO’s worldview (and that of the Marxist Left in general) the externally-perceived material universe constitutes the sum total of life. Righting the wrongs and injustices of life falls entirely on human shoulders — and particularly on the shoulders of those who see what’s wrong and want to change it.
The WUO and the greater left had an idealistic vision of a future non-Capitalist world, but to bring it about entailed the Sisyphean task of rolling an enormous boulder uphill: somehow pushing and prodding the “masses” to make a revolution. By all indications, the Weatherpeople grew impatient with this model and opted for striking small but satisfying “blows against the Empire,” as Jefferson Starship put it. This amounted to opting for the life of a gnat buzzing around the head of a Rhinoceros. No wonder Mark Rudd seems so depressed: he started out as Jack the Giant-killer and ended up as an ex-gnat.
A spiritual perspective acknowledging the intricate interwoven nature of life and the presence of a greater intelligence encompassing life’s totality would, at least, lighten the boulder and shrink the hill. Revolutions that fail to take the limits of the merely human into account usually end up stillborn or preludes to tyranny.
Al Qaeda, for all its religious trappings, is no less spiritually impoverished. With tactics that violate the precepts of Islam and the Qur’an at every turn, they give lip service to Allah, but show every indication of trying to jam the grandly round universe into the black box of the Kaaba.
One can always find a scriptural justification for any act one wants, but true attention to spiritual values puts the lie to most such justifications. One can credit both the WUO and al Qaeda with seeing injustice looming before them, its pain blotting out everything else in their field of vision. But battling suffering with yet more suffering indicates a blindness to the bigger picture — that the enemy is one’s self wearing a different cap. The challenge still before us is to evolve a political strategy for positive change that short circuits the violent reflexes of both sides and refuses to let those in power, or those contesting for it, use our own fears against us. Anything short of that will consign us to a nightmare of lessons still unlearned.
1 Statistic cited by Bill Ayers in his memoirs, Fugitive Days (New York, NY: Penguin, 2001), p. 228. As best I can determine, this appears to come from the July 1970 Survey of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division of the U.S. Treasury, part 24; see footnote 216 in Robert Pardun’s Prairie Radical: A Journey Through the Sixties (Los Gatos, CA: Shire Press, 2001), p. 357.
This review originally appeared in 2003 at the website of Lapis Journal, no longer available.
Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.