From a speech given in Gainesville, Florida, August 5, 2006
Thank you all for coming out today. It’s a real treat to be back in Gainesville talking about the Weather Underground, because this is the place where my book on the group began. This is also the place where my understanding of and involvement in the U.S. radical legacy didn’t start but did take shape. So it is wonderful to be here today with people who were and are my friends and mentors, in and out of the classroom. In particular, I want to thank the Civic Media Center and all connected to it, for providing not just a space but a home for so many wonderful ideas, projects, and people. And I want to thank professor Louise Newman, whose support, encouragement, and brilliance are responsible for a lot of things for a lot of people, not least of which was the initial push for me to write this book.
The title of this talk is the Weather Underground and the American Radical Legacy, and it is a fitting title because the two ideas are clearly related, but they also present a distinct challenge to each other; they co-exist, at times complementing and at times pushing each other. To explain what I mean, we need to travel back to that period euphemistically called "The Sixties" but which predated and outlived the decade for which it was named. By "The Sixties," I don’t mean the mythical place that history books or movies have often made it out to be, one whose characters were larger than life figures guided purely by righteous intentions or riddled entirely with bravado. To be sure, "The Sixties" was a period of global upheaval and contestation, of rebellion and struggle in nearly every country on nearly every conceivable level. But like any moment in time, there were successes and failures on all sides, each worthy of serious investigation. Most of the time period was as messy and slow and isolating as any other period, even with the massive triumphs characterizing it as an era.
And such an investigation, an attempt to separate fact from fiction in focusing on "the Sixties," requires a global approach. It may seem strange, in a talk about the "American Radical Legacy," to say that the starting point must be outside the United States. But this is the first lesson, and it is an important one: the United States cannot be looked at in isolation. While such parochialism or narrow nationalism is indeed part of the American legacy, the American radical legacy begs us to look beyond our own (constructed) borders to the world at large.
The first traces of "the Sixties" began in the aftermath of WWII, when colonized countries throughout what would be called the Third World stepped up their efforts to be free of colonial oppression. Remember, fifty years ago much of the world was governed by formal colonialism, with the economy, politics, culture, and social relations of one country (in the Third World) controlled by another (in Europe and increasingly the United States) largely through the threat or reality of military power and presence. From the end of WWII until, at least, the mid-1970s and in some places as late as the 1990s, countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were engaged in fierce struggles for independence and self-determination. Vietnam was the centerpiece of this, in resisting first French and Japanese colonialism and ultimately fighting against U.S. colonialism. But dozens of other countries united in opposition to colonialism-and usually in affirmation of some form of socialism that, in most cases, presented at least initially a noticeable contrast from Soviet-style authoritarianism. And they won, despite facing brutal repression and slaughter. Some national liberation struggles won using nonviolent resistance, although the more protracted situations involved a range of tactics, including armed struggle. That these struggles were successful, at least in gaining formal independence, should not be underestimated in the global inspiration it provided for the choices radicals across the world would make. In 1960 alone, more than a dozen African countries achieved independence. There was at least a twenty-year period in which revolutions dotted the globe, mainly defined by struggles for national liberation.
The number of successful Third World revolutions was impressive in its own right, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That is, these struggles weren’t just kicking out their colonial masters but, at least most of them, were working with and supporting each other. As evidenced in associations like the 1955 Bandung gathering of Third World liberation leaders and the Organization of African Unity and Tricontinental association, it seemed like there existed a united Third World capable of ushering in socialist revolutions across the globe. Although revolutionary fighters and thinkers from Aime Cesair to Franz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral expressed such a message, it was perhaps best articulated by the Cuban Revolution, which routinely sent troops and doctors to help in African liberation struggles, and embodied through Che Guevara, an Argentinian-born firebrand who played a decisive role in the Cuban Revolution and attempted to spread and actualize the revolutionary gospel throughout the Third World. In his last public message before his murder in the Bolivian jungles in 1967, Guevara famously called for the creation of "two, three, many Vietnams, flowered across the globe" by which he meant that the Vietnamese struggle proved that a poor but unified and radical national movement could defeat even the strongest military might. He also included in his speech an urgent call for solidarity, saying it is not enough to wish the victims of imperialism success: true solidarity meant joining them "in victory or death."
These struggles were replicated in the colonized parts of the United States, particularly in Black communities where veterans and others began to challenge the hypocrisy of asking Black people to fight overseas for the basic human rights and democratic polities denied them at home. The call for self-determination was echoed in the ghettoes-and later, the barrios and reservations-where Black people and other people of color began to define themselves as colonies internal to the United States, with economic and political conditions mirroring those of colonies overseas, from the occupying army of police to the disproportionate concentration of nonwhite people among the working classes. Defining the oppression of nonwhite people as being national in character and not just about skin color-a move which predates "The Sixties" but achieved a good measure of popularity in this period-presented an analytical and organizational challenge to the American Radical Legacy and the well-established American Colonial Legacy, in bringing together race and class oppression with an internationalist focus and cultural thrust.
The history of racial oppression, particularly in the South, led to more tightly knit Black communities that engaged in overt and covert acts of resistance. Rebellion began to increase in coordination following the successful bus boycott in 1955 and the growth of the sit-in movement in 1960. As the Black liberation movement became more radical in the United States, it fostered connections overseas. Politically and tactically, the Black struggle was at the forefront of "the Sixties" in the United States. People like Robert Williams and Malcolm X and Ella Baker and Gloria Richardson, along with groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary Action Movement pushed the struggle to an international level. Williams was run out of first North Carolina and ultimately the United States for his anti-racist militancy; he broadcast a radio program from Cuba and traveled to China and meet with communist leaders in both countries. Malcolm X met with national liberation leaders in Africa and brought them to speak in the United States, building inspiring transnational links. The Black Panther Party codified these relationships with international chapters of the group, although they were but following a well established tradition. The thrust of such transnational solidarity rested on the realization that people of color may have been, at the time, a numerical minority in the United States but were a majority on the world stage facing similar oppression at the hands of white supremacist capitalism, and thus needed to band together against a common enemy.
As the Black liberation movement was at the forefront of internationalism, so too did it set the stage for politics within the United States: opposition to Jim Crow segregation expanded to identify the deep roots of white supremacy in the United States as a whole. The tenor and substance of the Black liberation movement deepened with the transition from civil rights to human rights and Black Power. Facing murder from both the state and white vigilantes, the Black struggle’s efforts at reform were systematically thwarted or undermined by the state. Such repression, combined with paternalism from even sympathetic whites, led the movement to call for Black Power. First raised in 1966 by the battle-tested community organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and most famously attached to the Black Panther Party, this notion built off the Black Nationalism that Malcolm X espoused (and the self-defense philosophies he, Williams, Richardson and others had long advocated). A slew of revolutionary nationalist groups sprouted up in response to the call for Black Power, each targeting the white supremacy of U.S. foreign and domestic policies that patrolled and policed nonwhite communities and countries through social, cultural, economic, political, and military violence.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Malcolm articulated a position and political vision of Black nationalism. In doing so, however, he argued that the dividing line in geopolitics was not around race but around oppression: the world could be divided into oppressed and oppressors. While this line bore much in common with W.E.B. DuBois’ earlier problem of the color line, the revolutionary nationalism articulated by people like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Max Sanford, and Ho Chi Minh, Madame Dinh, Nelson Mandela, Amilcar Cabral and others was not simply an argument over skin color but about class. This understanding often gets lost, at least in mainstream representations of "the Sixties," and subsequent debates about where and how race and class and gender intersect. But the cutting edge of Sixties-era revolutionary nationalism was an argument about race because it was an argument about class. That is, class was not seen as simply economics or income. Instead, a class-based society is one characterized by systemic inequality and exploitation; thus, class position was about where a group stood in such a system. The various communities of color, especially the Black colony, suffered the most extreme and concentrated forms of oppression, and thus had the deepest, sharpest critique of the system.
The revolutionary nationalism and anti-colonial quality of the Black Panther Party or the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola, for instance, argued that victims of colonialism were the most oppressed sectors of the working class-were, in fact, a global and super-exploited working class-and therefore the most able to create sweeping social change (even with the temporary cross-class alliance often called for by nationalism). The working class within colonizing countries, including the white working class in the United States, was a more privileged strata relative to colonized people. That is, white national unity and its concordant material benefits often trumped multiracial/multinational class solidarity. Colonialism was a class relationship played out in racial codes, and revolutionary nationalism was a movement for the abolition of class hierarchies prescribed by white supremacy as much as by capitalist economics.
As in the Third World, the domestic liberation movements faced extreme violence: hundreds killed, thousands arrested as various law enforcement agencies tried to prevent groups from functioning on even the most basic level. And yet they persevered. The enduring racial oppression following the end of segregation and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts-which essentially mandated the enforcement of constitutional amendments passed 100 years prior-crystallized the belief that white supremacy was deeply entrenched and would not go quietly into the night. As a result of that realization and the ubiquitous state and non-state repression that accompanied it, the movement grew more politically radical and more tactically militant. There were more than 300 rebellions in Black ghettoes between 1964 and 1968, and various groups began to embrace in theory if not also in practice self-defense and armed struggle. This turn to militancy, while presenting a break from the Christian pacifism of groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was not quite the anachronistic or desperate move it has, until recently, been largely presented as. Such a move built off the established tradition of gun ownership and militancy in Southern Black communities in particular; numerous civil rights activists recall their commitment to nonviolence in the late 1950s and early 1960s being more pragmatic than philosophical. As these movements grew and expanded, the agenda moved from civil rights to human rights, and the goals, strategies, and tactics shifted. And the state took note, not simply of the emphasis on self-defense but on the political radicalization and the support such positions commanded. In response, police at local and federal levels unleashed a vicious campaign against militant groups such as the Black Panthers, killing dozens, framing hundreds, and sewing disunity within the movement. Yet groups continued to organize, on both legal and clandestine levels.
The domestic situation thus paralleled the international one in a linkage of fear and inspiration, desperation and hope. This is the central lesson of "the Sixties." It was not a period of wide-eyed naiveté or quick victories against obvious injustice, nor was it one of unbridled bravado and foolishness. Instead, it was a dynamic period marked by the frustration of egregious human rights violations and systemic oppression combined with the palpable hope of participating in the creation of a new more just world.
WHITE LEFT RESPONSIBILITIES AND OPPORTUNITIES
This is, I realize, a necessarily broad and sweeping history of a dynamic moment in time, but it’s vital to have at least this backdrop to understand what made the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, in fact, "the Sixties." It is also the prerequisite for understanding the Weather Underground. Because without Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, without SNCC and Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, without Madame Binh and Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and elsewhere, there would be no Weather Underground (or a myriad of other groups that sprouted in the white Left at this time). Some scholars and popular analysts have focused only on the group’s tactics and, in so doing, divorced it almost entirely from the context and from any relationship to the American Radical Legacy outside of, perhaps, an unwanted bastard child, an organization that inherited a distinctly American obsession with sex and violence but separate from any radical tradition. But while the group borrowed from America’s two favorite pastimes, its existence offers more than an after-school special.
The Weather Underground emerged out of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest expression of radicalism among predominantly white youth. SDS formed in 1960, making an early and important break from the Cold War anti-communist liberal Left. In its early days, the group engaged in a slew of community organizing projects trying to build an interracial movement of the poor, to oppose nuclear proliferation, and to force a progressive realignment of the Democratic Party. But the SDS that is now famous emerged in 1965, when it sponsored the first protest against the Vietnam War. That demonstration, and the subsequent harassment from reactionary politicians and journalists (including Robert Novack, of Valerie Plame-leak fame, who accused the group of being overrun by communists-it would be, but years later), led to a massive rise in SDS members and chapters. Soon the group was spread across college campuses throughout the country and involved in an array of anti-war/anti-draft/anti-military programs, student-worker organizing initiatives, and anti-racist solidarity efforts.
But then it was 1968: Martin Luther King was assassinated, as were several Black Panthers in that year alone (with King’s murder leading to massive rebellions); the Tet offensive showed that the U.S. could not and, even more importantly, should not win in Vietnam; women’s liberation activism gained momentum; Mexico City experienced fierce repression against striking students; and the Soviet Union attempted to crush a democratic uprising in Czechoslovakia. Fear and hope, desperation and inspiration were playing out daily on the streets and nightly on the television. The times demanded more because, as more than one former SDSer-turned-Weatherman expressed to me, the crimes were too great and the possibilities for change were too great to continue with what had been the standard course to date. Within SDS as within the rest of the movement, there were constant debates over political direction and strategy, and differences were increasingly coming to the fore. With revolutions actually happening across the globe, the need to forge a proper path took on heightened urgency. Black Power and Third World revolutions offered a defined model of organizing for white people: work with other whites to stop the violence that your (our) government is subjecting the world. The specificities of such work were varied, but the mandate was clear.
For SDS, this crisis of direction reached an unbridgeable chasm at its 1969 annual convention, where the organization split technically in two but really in two thousand. That is, when the smoke cleared there were two main factions in what used to be an organization of 100,000 people, but the vast majority of members sided neither with the Progressive Labor party (PL) that had attempted to gain control of SDS nor with the larger Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) bloc, which included the nascent Weatherman, along with many others, and temporarily did maintain control of SDS. Instead, most continued to work against the war and racism, or in support of workers rights, or they left that wing of the movement to build the emerging women’s liberation, environmental, or queer liberation movements. Although not a majority of SDS members overall, the Revolutionary Youth Movement section commanded a sizeable presence and did seem to speak for most members on the core issues, even if most people did not join or stay with one of the post-SDS RYM groups.
The split of SDS was acrimonious and at times, ridiculous. Weatherman played a decisive and at times divisive role, but they were far from the only ones occupying such a position. To be sure, the American radical legacy is host to more than its share of bitter organizational or movement splits. But as absurd as this split was, it also clarified certain issues: the Progressive Labor party, already unpopular for its undemocratic functioning in SDS, was expelled from the organization for declaring all nationalism to be reactionary, thereby withdrawing support from the Vietnamese, the Black Panthers, and other struggles on the front lines against oppression. (PL also isolated itself, in a time of deep counterculture-political fusion, by rejecting pot smoking and other aspects of the hippie movement that many white radicals embraced.) Led by future-Weather leaders, the RYM faction expelled PL, declaring openly that it could not allow SDS’s rich history of solidarity with Third World movements within and outside this country to be betrayed from within. Not since Reconstruction had such a mass-based movement among whites made the struggle against racism to be such priority.
RYM soon splintered as well, with Weatherman being one of the dominant factions. The group emerged from a position paper entitled "You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows" (the title borrowed from a Bob Dylan song) and published in the convention issue of the SDS newspaper. The SDS paper was home to constant influx of position papers, but this one stood out. Perhaps because it was 10,000 words, had eleven signatories, and came complete with numerous drawings of guerrilla soldiers. In its density and at-times turgid language, the statement perhaps fits nicely in a legacy of obtuse leftist screeds. (Former SDS president Carl Ogelsby said a close reading of the Weatherman statement would make you go blind.) To be sure, the document contained its fair share of obfuscations or barbed attacks.
But there was also something exciting about it, a grassroots attempt to theorize, debate, challenge, and push radical struggle forward. These were all, to be sure, well established tenets of position papers in SDS, SNCC, and elsewhere. What was cutting edge, then, was not just its intellectual rigor–even if often couched in bravado and youth culture slang-but what it actually said. The "Weatherman" paper blended Malcolm’s division of the world into oppressed and oppressor with Che’s passionate embrace of active solidarity. Now, of course, you can get a degree from an institution as respectable as the University of Florida or elsewhere studying white privilege or the contradictory political positioning of the white working class, bound as it is to both the material benefits of whiteness and the lived exploitation of wage slavery. To suggest in 1969, however, that "the working class" was a more layered and complicated phenomenon than one could just somehow "organize" got you branded as being anti-working class. And to go that next step, as Weather did, and argue that in fact the white working class needed to be split in order to consciously choose an anti-racist position got it scorned from many in the U.S. Left. Although the group proved woefully unable, many would say unwilling, to develop a cogent program around which to organize white working people, it didn’t, at least initially, write them off completely. Instead, they grappled openly with the fact that even poor whites received advantages people of color never received-while at the same time recognizing that such whites, that everyone, ultimately stood to gain from anti-imperialist revolution. They saw their base as organizing among white youth, particularly among the working classes and countercultures, as those least invested in the system and most open to radicalism. It was an attempt to carve out a new base to organize within the radical legacy, following Black Power’s mandate to "organize your own community against racism."
Weather responded to its critics with more than its fair share of vitriol, high on self-righteousness (and surely other substances). There was certainly a rich American legacy of bombast and bravado encircling much of the U.S. Left in 1969, which Weatherman egregiously contributed to and excelled at, alienating many would-be and one-time supporters by their shrill rhetoric and contrived early actions. So egregious, in fact, that the first nine months of the group’s existence-when its members were wracked with the arrogance of recognizing their own good idea and foolishly obsessed with the amount it could accomplish separate from almost anyone else (an idea they formally rejected though never completely abandoned)-has stood in for the other six years of its history. In those months, it group held several militant demonstrations, ratcheted up numerous charges for many of its members, and made themselves a household name unwelcome in most households. It generally wore its absurdities on its sleeve in these months. It was apparent that the group would be unable to actualize their plans to build both aboveground and clandestine forms of resistance.
And yet they remained committed to the underground strategy precisely because their gloomy assessment of white supremacy proved correct: In October 1969 a judge had Black Panther leader Bobby Seale bound and gagged in court for attempting to act as his own attorney in the famous Chicago 8 conspiracy trial. In December, Chicago police murdered Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, shooting almost 100 bullets into the slumbering apartment in a pre-dawn raid. And the lack of significant white Left response to these or other anti-Black acts by the state, the need to create a necessary cost for the government to engage in such murderous repression, showed the Weatherman insurgents that there was a mandate for solidarity with the Black struggle precisely because it was not popular among masses of white people. The urgency of a radical white anti-racist response was not, it needs to be said, an issue of violence, even if that is how Weatherman would have seen it at the time; the only person to try and stop the courtroom assault on Seale was nonviolent revolutionary Dave Dellinger, who tried to put his body between the Panther and the police while the other, much more publicly militant defendants in the case sat idly by.
In the months before and after the Hampton assassination, Weather activists lost sight of their humanist groundings, believing that privilege had so corrupted white America that the bigger the bang against it the better. It planned to go underground anyway, but was forced to do so more quickly and with fewer people than could otherwise have been the case when a bomb members in a New York City townhouse were building to be used against human targets exploded, killing three of their own.
After catching its breath and vowing to never cause injury or death, the group embarked on what can be called a nonviolent bombing campaign. Over the next several years, they would claim responsibility for bombing two dozen empty government or corporate offices-including the Pentagon, the Capitol, NY and CA department of corrections, various police stations and courthouses, Gulf Oil, and Anaconda Copper-in response to the war in Vietnam, repression against the Black liberation struggle, or U.S. corporate support for the coup in Chile and other colonial endeavors overseas. It is important, however, to not lose sight of the context in which these actions occurred. The group argued for militancy, built an organization around it, and never quite figured out how to be involved at the underground level without making such actions of primary importance. But militancy was never the only thing it was about. Indeed, no organization or movement can be judged only by its tactics precisely because no one organization or movement has a monopoly on any tactic. Whether you’re talking about petitions, protests, or bombs, there are groups and governments on the Right, Left and beyond who use similar tactics. A tactic knows no political bounds.
There are other ways in which tactics are poor judge for analyzing the Weather Underground. For starters, bombs were never all that it did or thought of itself as doing. Fundamentally the group saw itself engaged in a multifaceted struggle against white supremacist capitalism-that is, against the system of imperialism, operating with similar venality inside and outside the United States. Communication and education figured heavily into the group’s program. It used bold actions to call attention to specific situations and institutions of abuse, but also regularly released communiqués, with actions but other times as well. These statements explained the rationale of an action, where applicable, but were also opportunities to foster engagement and discussion at many levels. They were regularly printed in the then-thriving underground press-reprinted by revolutionaries in Vietnam, South Africa, and elsewhere-and the group dialogued with the movement at many levels. Its interest in communication carried over into the Weather Underground writing, producing (via its own printing shop), and distributing a book and, later, a quarterly newsmagazine. Ultimately more than 40,000 copies of its 1974 book, Prairie Fire, were distributed-making it a best seller and spawning, with the support of the underground, a public organization of the same name. Communication was such a part of its program that bombings were said to be "armed propaganda," accompanying the more traditional "propaganda" methods they employed in trying to build an anti-imperialist movement.
Despite its commitment to communication, however, the group was not flawless in its execution. Most notably, it refused to respond to an incredibly constructive criticism raised of the group by members of the Panther 21 conspiracy trial in early 1971. (While calling Weather the best development of the white Left, the Panthers called the group to task for uncritically championing drugs as revolutionary and for its seeming retreat from armed solidarity with the Black struggle.) Subsequent dialogue with the women’s liberation movement, while an improvement from the outright rejection it manifest in earlier periods, was still too little, too late and too meek.
In an essay critically reflecting on his experience in the Weather Underground, political prisoner David Gilbert identified five goals comprising the organization’s program:
1. Draw off some of the repressive heat concentrated on Black, Native and Latino movements
2. Create a leading political example of white solidarity with national liberation struggles worldwide
3. Educate about key political issues
4. Identify the institutions most responsible for oppression (which were, of course, government or corporate entities)
5. Encourage others to intensify activism despite state repression.
The group may not have adequately or consistently lived up to this agenda, nor did such a program encompass all that needed to happen in the 1970s. But this was not an organization too bored, frustrated, or privileged to engage in "real" work. It was not, as more than a few have suggested, the last desperate gasp providing an inglorious finale to the otherwise righteous "Sixties." Instead, the Weather Underground appealed to some of the most die-hard SDS organizers who, in the midst of growing state repression and global revolutionary potential, began to look for other ways of engaging in radical politics. Its existence, then, should not be remembered simply for its bombs or bombast but for its passionate insistence on the need for audacity and creativity in responding to the pressing political issues of our time.
Besides acknowledging the range of activities the Weather Underground engaged in, it is necessary to include a contextual focus to shatter the illusion that the group’s militant turn was an anomaly. Far from it, in fact. While only a few hundred showed up for the planned street fight that pre-underground Weatherman organized in Chicago in October 1969, more than 10,000 people participated one month later in a break-away anti-war march that trashed the Justice Department and fought with police in the nation’s capitol. While Weather claimed responsibility for approximately 24 bombs in 6 years, there was one bombing or attempted bombing by radicals somewhere in the United States every day in the 1969-1970 school year. The radical Scanlan’s reported thousands of acts of political violence between 1965 and 1970, with more than 500 acts of sabotage by the Left in 1969 alone. There were more incendiary acts in one week in Madison, Wisconsin, in one summer than Weather was responsible for in its entire history. Granted, Weather was among the most organized expressions of such militancy, at least on the white Left, and carried out its actions against bigger targets than most (e.g., the Capitol, the Pentagon, various corporate headquarters and police stations and state department of corrections offices). But militancy was ubiquitous in much of this period, from public and clandestine activists alike.
Similarly it is important to recognize the range of underground groups, including not only armed militants such as the Black Liberation Army and the Puerto Rican Armed Forces for National Liberation (which took credit for more than 100 bombs in seven years), but also the pacifist Catholic Left (such as the Berrigan brothers), draft resisters, and clandestine abortion providers, among others. Even drug enthusiasts had their own underground, members of which approached Weather to participate in what would prove a tactically exciting but politically confusing action: assisting in the escape of LSD high priest Timothy Leary from minimum security prison at San Luis Obispo in 1970 and helping him flee to Algeria, where he took up temporary refuge with Eldrige Cleaver and the international chapter of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver took him out of respect for the Weatherman, though he and Leary soon separated due to irreconcilable differences.
Not since the Anti-Imperialist League that formed in the wake of the U.S. war in the Philippines in 1898 had such a broad critique of imperialism been posited from within. For Weather and other groups in that milieu, imperialism was understood to be more than overseas military conquest, although that was central to maintaining its rule. Instead, it connected global military adventures to domestic struggles; the group’s guiding motivations in its early years was solidarity with the Black liberation movement as the cutting edge of anti-imperialist movement. The group was firmly internationalist, noting in its founding statement how struggle in the U.S. was shaped by Vietnam, Uruguay, South Africa, the domestic Black struggle and beyond-they could not be separated in making political decisions. Thus, its focus was on the domestic front of empire and its relationship to the international level-a difficult balance it did not maintain but an impressive contribution to the American Radical Legacy where the dance between foreign and domestic struggles has been an enduring challenge. And not since the short-lived efforts by the U.S. Communist Party of the 1930s to grapple with the national oppression of Black people had a white-led social movement adopted opposition to white supremacy and support for Black self-determination as its guiding principle. The Weather Underground, of course, was not the only post-SDS group to have such a position, but it was an important pole in that sector of the Left.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about women’s liberation, not only because of all I’ve learned from Gainesville’s proud feminist tradition but also because it was a pivotal issue in this history-and, of course, today. Despite the strong and visible leadership by a number of women-more than most post-SDS groups-and despite the fact that many women in the organization were strong feminists, the Weather Underground replicated the machismo and sexism dominant in much of the Left and mainstream society. Several women expressed in interviews with me feeling that they had to choose between an anti-imperialism that didn’t fight against their oppression as women or a feminism that didn’t prioritize solidarity with Third World struggles. Those who stayed aboveground were able to find or build women’s communities that included opposition to male supremacy as part of their anti-imperialist program, but many who stayed underground reported a profound feeling of not being fully respected or heard. Their leadership was maligned, relationships to the women’s movement were nonexistent or fraught with tension, and the group’s culture was generally not one that valued women’s liberation. In championing individual revolutionary women, such as former Panther Assata Shakur, the group strongly identified with revolutionary Third World women and created space to think of women as fighters. But such an individual focus obscured a systemic one, and in practice the group pitted women’s liberation against anti-imperialism. The lack of a feminist culture and embrace of women’s liberation-politically and programmatically-proved a major factor in the group’s demise.
The American Radical Legacy is an impressive history of resistance, of changes won amidst difficult battles with the power structure. It is also a legacy in which opposition to white supremacy (and patriarchy) has often taken a back seat, either ignored from the beginning or adopted but quickly abandoned. Within a few years, the Communist Party of the 1930s moved from declaring Black people in the South to be a colonized nation deserving self-determination to trying to effect a progressive realignment of the Democratic Party. The Weather Underground never worked with the Democrats, but the group fell apart amidst bitter internal recriminations that the group had abrogated its responsibility to fight in solidarity with Third World movements, particularly the Black struggle. (Indeed, several former members said in interviews that they felt the group did exactly what previous white radical movements had done in abandoning its early momentum around support for self-determination within America’s internal colonies.) The war’s end brought a general strategic confusion for the U.S. Left, which soon realized that U.S. imperialism wasn’t quite as weak as most had predicted (or hoped). The war’s end also brought an economic downturn that lowered wages almost uniformly and coincided with dramatic setbacks for the militant Black liberation struggle. At the same time, the Puerto Rican independence movement was heating up, and the women’s liberation movement, particularly among women of color, was in the midst of several vital organizing endeavors and campaigns.
The Weather Underground responded with the Hard Times conference, a well-attended and impressively multiracial conference aimed at building a coalition, network, or organization capable of responding to the economic difficulties than plaguing the country. The conference was organized by aboveground activists but initiated by the underground. It was the culmination of the group moving away from armed actions, based on the leadership’s view that such tactics contained neither the shock value nor organizing imperative they once did. Many of the members disagreed, feeling like armed struggle and clandestine anti-imperialist militancy ought to remain a priority for the group, particularly given the need for solidarity with Black and Puerto Rican fighters, along with the burgeoning indigenous insurgency that they had a responsibility to support. Dissension was not limited to the underground; several attendees at the conference-particularly from Black nationalist, Native, and feminist groups-vehemently disagreed with the political platform put forward there. Of course, other Black and women’s groups agreed with the platform, but the swirl of criticism and growing dissension within the Weather Underground led to bitter squabbling from which the organization proved incapable of recovering. The group suffered a bitter split in 1976-1977. Most people surfaced between 1977 and 1980, although others slipped into different clandestine formations, only to surface or get arrested later in the 1980s or 1990s.
What does all of this mean in today’s postmodern playground of mass consumer marketing, Man-made natural disasters, and endless wars against abstract nouns? As a result of the courageous activism of the civil rights and Black Power movements in particular, racism is on the national agenda today. (Well, racism has always been on the national agenda, but official policy formally opposing it is relatively new.) And due to the work of groups like the Weather Underground, there is a recognition in many circles-even outside the Left-that white people have a specific role to play in that process. At the same time as racism has become a national issue, however, there is less momentum now compared to then around toppling white supremacy-the space where race and class (and gender, sexuality, ability, and environment) meet in structural oppression.
In discussing the Weather Underground and "Sixties" militancy, the question often arises as to why not now-why aren’t things blowing up the way they were 35 years ago? Implied but rarely stated in the question is why aren’t things blowing up from the Left, and this implication is crucial, as incendiary attacks from state and non-state forces continue to define world politics, although now almost exclusively from the Right. Still, such a question relegates the Weather Underground purely to a tactical realm, when in fact the central lesson is how to be politically relevant and audacious in responding to the concrete conditions of your time period. A former member of the group that I interviewed identified the thrust of Weather-style politics as demanding staunch solidarity with the Black liberation struggle and urgent militancy around the war, in both cases guided by a belief in the need to act immediately and strongly. All of these things remain true for white activists today, even with, or especially because of, the different manifestations today of acting strongly and immediately against the war and in solidarity with domestic liberation struggles. Acting strongly in 1970-a time with open and often armed confrontation between nonwhite people and the state, and with successful national liberation struggles and militancy among students-an organization engaging in bombing building was not anomalous. Today, however, the situation is different, and yet the need to and possibilities for acting strongly remain plentiful.
To be sure, there are no shortage of issues testifying to the pernicious persistence of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in U.S. domestic and foreign policy: Hurricane Katrina revealed the extent to which the Black and poor bear the full animosity of free market capitalism and a maliciously neglectful U.S. state; the FBI assassination of Puerto Rican independence leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios in September shows the full depths the U.S. government is willing to go in crushing dissent. Struggles by people of color against military might and political-economic repression show the ways in which race, class, and gender are not just connected but often inseparably the same thing-whether it is the progressive resistance of Lebanese, Palestinian, or Iraqi civilians (amidst the more prevalent and visible right-wing opposition in each of those places), the actions of groups such as Blacks Against the War, the inspiring developments throughout Latin America, or the campaign immigrant workers in the United States are waging for full human rights against the most reactionary of measures. With more than 2 million people in prison-more than half of them Black and with Black women representing the fastest growing population-the Weather Underground’s passionate insistence that prisons were a form of colonial warfare against poor communities of color rings more true today than when they said it in the 1970s, particularly now that U.S. incarceration has been globalized in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and beyond. And with corporate globalization fueling the ongoing oppression of formerly colonized countries, it affords privilege and thus responsibility for the people living inside the wealthiest country in world history to act for global justice.
All of these issues come together in the form of solidarity. Solidarity, particularly as it relates to cutting across divisions of race and class (and gender and sexuality) is at the heart of what the Weather Underground did right and did wrong. Most former members would agree with that statement, even if they don’t all agree on the specifics of what went wrong. Solidarity is also one of the oldest slogans of the Left. But the Weather Underground was part of a movement-to be sure, they were a part of a broader phenomenon-that expanded notions of solidarity beyond not crossing a picket line or joint back scratching. It attempted to actualize an active solidarity that recognized that the long-term interests of everyone in the United States and around the world rested with the success of anti-colonial struggles. In that, at least in its better moments, the Weather Underground and others in the anti-imperialist Left were not involved in "other people’s causes" but operated fundamentally from a perspective that fighting white supremacy was an urgent priority for white people because there was a recognition that such struggles offered the promise of a better life for all. To be sure, white people weren’t affected in the same way, and the group was clear on that. But there was a recognition that the race and class dynamics of white supremacy was an issue in which this group of predominantly middle class whites needed to provide anti-racist leadership among whites while responding to the overarching leadership provided by Third World movements, particularly domestically. To simultaneously lead as a radical anti-racist pole among whites and get out of the way of liberation movements.
We are undoubtedly in a different political moment now than one which gave rise to the Weather Underground more than thirty years ago. In following Malcolm X’s insistence that the world was divided between oppressed and oppressor, Weatherman was too simplistic an analysis in choosing friends and enemies based on where people stood in relation to U.S. imperialism. As much of the opposition in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Lebanon shows, people can oppose U.S. imperialism without being a humanistic and progressive force. Even though such a position made sense at the time, given that right-wing anti-imperialism was but a distant blip on the horizon, it is insufficient today. And yet the fundamental lessons about the need for audacious resistance to the ubiquitous crimes of structural injustice, the recognition that politics is both local and global, and that privilege not only exists and helps shape political consciousness and material relations but affords people who have it with a tremendous opportunity to be engaged in vibrant struggles-these are the contributions and challenges that the Weather Underground and others helped make to the American radical legacy. When joined with the many advances offered by other "Sixties" organizations and the women and queer liberation movements, they can, at least potentially, offer ways to translate the legacy into a more just world.
Dan Berger is a writer, activist, and grad student in Philadelphia. He is the author of "Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity," the co-editor of "Letters From Young Activists" and a member of the NYC anti-imperialist collective Resistance in Brooklyn. This essay is based on a talk given on August 5, 2006, at the Alachua County Library in Gainesville, Florida.