In the year 1972, there were more than 1900 domestic bombings in the United States. Think about that—that’s more than five bombings a day. In an era when the occasional terrorist act by a “lone wolf” nutcase gets round the clock coverage on cable news channels, it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, most of these bombings and other mayhem, committed by “revolutionary” groups such as Weatherman, the Black Liberation Army, FALN, and The Family, often made only local newspapers on page B37, below the fold.
The civil rights struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war had turned out large crowds and radicalised the campuses, but in the opinion of many activists, yielded few concrete results. Indeed, in the 1968 presidential election, pro-war Democrat Humphrey had been defeated by pro-war Republican Nixon, with anti-war Democrats McCarthy marginalised and Robert Kennedy assassinated.
In this bleak environment, a group of leaders of one of the most radical campus organisations, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), gathered in Chicago to draft what became a sixteen thousand word manifesto bristling with Marxist jargon that linked the student movement in the U.S. to Third World guerrilla insurgencies around the globe. They advocated a Che Guevara-like guerrilla movement in America led, naturally, by themselves. They named the manifesto after the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Other SDS members who thought the idea of armed rebellion in the U.S. absurd and insane quipped, “You don’t need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are.”
The Weatherman faction managed to blow up (figuratively) the SDS convention in June 1969, splitting the organisation but effectively taking control of it. They called a massive protest in Chicago for October. Dubbed the “National Action”, it would soon become known as the “Days of Rage”.
Almost immediately the Weatherman plans began to go awry. Their plans to rally the working class (who the Ivy League Weatherman élite mocked as “greasers”) got no traction, with some of their outrageous “actions” accomplishing little other than landing the perpetrators in the slammer. Come October, the Days of Rage ended up in farce. Thousands had been expected, ready to take the fight to the cops and “oppressors”, but come the day, no more than two hundred showed up, most SDS stalwarts who already knew one another. They charged the police and were quickly routed with six shot (none seriously), many beaten, and more than 120 arrested. Bail bonds alone added up to US$ 2.3 million. It was a humiliating defeat. The leadership decided it was time to change course.
So what did this intellectual vanguard of the masses decide to do? Well, obviously, destroy the SDS (their source of funding and pipeline of recruitment), go underground, and start blowing stuff up. This posed a problem, because these middle-class college kids had no idea where to obtain explosives (they didn’t know that at the time you could buy as much dynamite as you could afford over the counter in many rural areas with, at most, showing a driver’s license), what to do with it, and how to build an underground identity. This led to, not Keystone Kops, but Klueless Kriminal misadventures, culminating in March 1970 when they managed to blow up an entire New York townhouse where a bomb they were preparing to attack a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey detonated prematurely, leaving three of the Weather collective dead in the rubble. In the aftermath, many Weather hangers-on melted away.
This did not deter the hard core, who resolved to learn more about their craft. They issued a communiqué declaring their solidarity with the oppressed black masses (not one of whom, oppressed or otherwise, was a member of Weatherman), and vowed to attack symbols of “Amerikan injustice”. Privately, they decided to avoid killing people, confining their attacks to property. And one of their members hit the books to become a journeyman bombmaker.
The bungling Bolsheviks of Weatherman may have had Marxist theory down pat, but they were lacking in authenticity, and acutely aware of it. It was hard for those whose addresses before going underground were élite universities to present themselves as oppressed. The best they could do was to identify themselves with the cause of those they considered victims of “the system” but who, to date, seemed little inclined to do anything about it themselves. Those who cheered on Weatherman, then, considered it significant when, in the spring of 1971, a new group calling itself the “Black Liberation Army” (BLA) burst onto the scene with two assassination-style murders of New York City policemen on routine duty. Messages delivered after each attack to Harlem radio station WLIB claimed responsibility. One declared,
Every policeman, lackey or running dog of the ruling class must make his or her choice now. Either side with the people: poor and oppressed, or die for the oppressor. Trying to stop what is going down is like trying to stop history, for as long as there are those who will dare to live for freedom there are men and women who dare to unhorse the emperor.
All power to the people.
Politicians, press, and police weren’t sure what to make of this. The politicians, worried about the opinion of their black constituents, shied away from anything which sounded like accusing black militants of targeting police. The press, although they’d never write such a thing or speak it in polite company, didn’t think it plausible that street blacks could organise a sustained revolutionary campaign: certainly that required college-educated intellectuals. The police, while threatened by these random attacks, weren’t sure there was actually any organised group behind the BLA attacks: they were inclined to believe it was a matter of random cop killers attributing their attacks to the BLA after the fact. Further, the BLA had no visible spokesperson and issued no manifestos other than the brief statements after some attacks. This contributed to the mystery, which largely persists to this day because so many participants were killed and the survivors have never spoken out.
In fact, the BLA was almost entirely composed of former members of the New York chapter of the Black Panthers, which had collapsed in the split between factions following Huey Newton and those (including New York) loyal to Eldridge Cleaver, who had fled to exile in Algeria and advocated violent confrontation with the power structure in the U.S. The BLA would perpetrate more than seventy violent attacks between 1970 and 1976 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen police officers. In 1982, they hijacked a domestic airline flight and pocketed a ransom of US$ 1 million.
Weatherman (later renamed the “Weather Underground” because the original name was deemed sexist) and the BLA represented the two poles of the violent radicals: the first, intellectual, college-educated, and mostly white, concentrated mostly on symbolic bombings against property, usually with warnings in advance to avoid human casualties. As pressure from the FBI increased upon them, they became increasingly inactive; a member of the New York police squad assigned to them quipped, “Weatherman, Weatherman, what do you do? Blow up a toilet every year or two.” They managed the escape of Timothy Leary from a minimum-security prison in California. Leary basically just walked away, with a group of Weatherman members paid by Leary supporters picking him up and arranging for he and his wife Rosemary to obtain passports under assumed names and flee the U.S. for exile in Algeria with former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.
The Black Liberation Army, being composed largely of ex-prisoners with records of violent crime, was not known for either the intelligence or impulse control of its members. On several occasions, what should have been merely tense encounters with the law turned into deadly firefights because a BLA militant opened fire for no apparent reason. Had they not been so deadly to those they attacked and innocent bystanders, the exploits of the BLA would have made a fine slapstick farce.
As the dour decade of the 1970s progressed, other violent underground groups would appear, tending to follow the model of either Weatherman or the BLA. One of the most visible, it not successful, was the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA), founded by escaped convict and grandiose self-styled revolutionary Daniel DeFreeze. Calling himself “General Field Marshal Cinque”, which he pronounced “sin-kay”, and ending his fevered communications with “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE”, this band of murderous bozos struck their first blow for black liberation by assassinating Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of the Oakland, California school system for his “crimes against the people” of suggesting that police be called into deal with violence in the city’s schools and that identification cards be issued to students. Sought by the police for the murder, they struck again by kidnapping heiress, college student, and D-list celebrity Patty Hearst, whose abduction became front page news nationwide. If that wasn’t sufficiently bizarre, the abductee eventually issued a statement saying she had chosen to “stay and fight”, adopting the name “Tania”, after the nom de guerre of a Cuban revolutionary and companion of Che Guevara. She was later photographed by a surveillance camera carrying a rifle during a San Francisco bank robbery perpetrated by the SLA. Hearst then went underground and evaded capture until September 1975 after which, when being booked into jail, she gave her occupation as “Urban Guerrilla”. Hearst later claimed she had agreed to join the SLA and participate in its crimes only to protect her own life. She was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, later reduced to 7 years. The sentence was later commuted to 22 months by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and she was released in 1979, and was the recipient of one of Bill Clinton’s last day in office pardons in January, 2001. Six members of the SLA, including DeFreeze, died in a house fire during a shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department in May, 1974.
Violence committed in the name of independence for Puerto Rico was nothing new. In 1950, two radicals tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, and in 1954, four revolutionaries shot up the U.S. House of Representatives from the visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen on the floor, none fatally. The Puerto Rican terrorists had the same problem as their Weatherman, BLA, or SLA bomber brethren: they lacked the support of the people. Most of the residents of Puerto Rico were perfectly happy being U.S. citizens, especially as this allowed them to migrate to the mainland to escape the endemic corruption and the poverty it engendered in the island. As the 1960s progressed, the Puerto Rico radicals increasingly identified with Castro’s Cuba (which supported them ideologically, if not financially), and promised to make a revolutionary Puerto Rico a beacon of prosperity and liberty like Cuba had become.
Starting in 1974, a new Puerto Rican terrorist group, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) launched a series of attacks in the U.S., most in the New York and Chicago areas. One bombing, that of the Fraunces Tavern in New York in January 1975, killed four people and injured more than fifty. Between 1974 and 1983, a total of more than 130 bomb attacks were attributed to the FALN, most against corporate targets. In 1975 alone, twenty-five bombs went off, around one every two weeks.
Other groups, such as the “New World Liberation Front” (NWLF) in northern California and “The Family” in the East continued the chaos. The NWLF, formed originally from remains of the SLA, detonated twice as many bombs as the Weather Underground. The Family carried out a series of robberies, including the deadly Brink’s holdup of October 1981, and jailbreaks of imprisoned radicals.
In the first half of the 1980s, the radical violence sputtered out. Most of the principals were in prison, dead, or living underground and keeping a low profile. A growing prosperity had replaced the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s and there were abundant jobs for those seeking them. The Vietnam War and draft were receding into history, leaving the campuses with little to protest, and the remaining radicals had mostly turned from violent confrontation to burrowing their way into the culture, media, administrative state, and academia as part of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions”.
All of these groups were plagued with the “step two problem”. The agenda of Weatherman was essentially:
- Blow stuff up, kill cops, and rob banks.
- Proletarian revolution.
Other groups may have had different step threes: “Black liberation” for the BLA, “¡Puerto Rico libre!” for FALN, but none of them seemed to make much progress puzzling out step two. Deep thinker Bill Harris of the SLA’s best attempt was, when he advocated killing policemen at random, arguing that “If they killed enough, … the police would crack down on the oppressed minorities of the Bay Area, who would then rise up and begin the revolution.”—sure thing.
In sum, all of this violence and the suffering that resulted from it accomplished precisely none of the goals of those who perpetrated it (which is a good thing: they mostly advocated for one flavour or another of communist enslavement of the United States). All it managed to do is contribute the constriction of personal liberty in the name of “security”, with metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, X-ray machines, rent-a-cops, surveillance cameras, and the first round of airport security theatre springing up like mushrooms everywhere. The amount of societal disruption which can be caused by what amounted to around one hundred homicidal nutcases is something to behold. There were huge economic losses not just due to bombings, but by evacuations due to bomb threats, many doubtless perpetrated by copycats motivated by nothing more political than the desire for a day off from work. Violations of civil liberties by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies who carried out unauthorised wiretaps, burglaries, and other invasions of privacy and property rights not only discredited them, but resulted in many of the perpetrators of the mayhem walking away scot-free. Weatherman founders Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn would, in 1995, launch the political career of Barack Obama at a meeting in their home in Chicago, where Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayres, who bombed the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972, remarked in the 1980s that he was “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”
This book is an excellent account of a largely-forgotten era in recent history. In a time when slaver radicals (a few of them the same people who set the bombs in their youth) declaim from the cultural heights of legacy media, academia, and their new strongholds in the technology firms which increasingly mediate our communications and access to information, advocate “active resistance”, “taking to the streets”, or “occupying” this or that, it’s a useful reminder of where such action leads, and that it’s wise to work out step two before embarking on step one.
Burrough, Bryan. Days of Rage. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-14-310797-2.