The Weather Underground

After watching The Weather Underground for the fifth time, I realized that it is more sophisticated and balanced than I had remembered from the first four times. Those who oppose the actions of the Weather Underground Organization (WUO) probably consider the film to be apologist, while those supportive likely think it to be too critical. But, I think it actually frames perfectly the group’s opposition to state and corporate violence, while also showing the moral ambiguity of their bombing actions. For younger generations of viewers, the Weather Underground was a radical spin-off of the broadly-based Students for a Democratic Society, which was the key student organization of the 1960s. The Weathermen (as they were called, patriarchally, before they went underground) played an infamous (and less than laudable) part of SDS’s disintegration.

One of the strange, but entertaining aspects of the documentary is how it portrays interviewees in ways that clash with expectations. For example, perhaps the most level-headed and rational person in the film is David Gilbert, the film’s only interviewee residing [still] in prison for his role in a botched armed robbery after the WUO disbanded. On the other hand, someone who would otherwise be considered the most legitimate and prestigious—Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin—literally froths at the mouth as he describes, scornfully, how the WUO engaged in “organizational piracy” and “ran-off with the student Left”. Then, there is maybe the most widely recognized person during this post-Obama-election era: the infamous Bill Ayers, who the right-wing laughably tried to associate with Obama, due to their mutual presence in the same circles in Chicago for years. Finally, a former FBI agent who helped to track the WUO appears, too, and even speaks admirably of how the group was “serious” and able to intelligently avoid capture (after the film was released, this ex-agent shared a stage with a former WUO member, to discuss this time period).

The WUO—and American Left radicals, generally—proposed an important question, that has tended to make many people very uncomfortable. Whose violence is worse: state violence or citizen violence against the state? Or, more specifically (as framed by Naomi Jaffe), is it better to accept the violence of the US as it murders millions in Vietnam, while doing nothing to resist it (which she frames as itself violence), or to fight back in order to stop the US’s violence (as the WUO argued)? The problem is, as Mark Rudd puts it, that Americans are encouraged to view all non-state violence (especially that done by groups like the WUO) as criminal and mentally-ill. (One can discard the fact that the bombing attacks harmed no one except property, so their “violence” is debatable.) But, it’s worth responding to this hegemonic argument, by asking what should movements do when their efforts to change society (progressively, for the better) are stymied at every turn? When movements invariably become more radical due to state resistance and do not seem to succeed at pulling more people toward revolution, then what? What do people really expect? JFK seemed to know, when he said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable”.

Mixed in with these serious questions about ethical action, there is ample comedy, goofiness, and absurdity. And, things that contemporaries audiences will just shake their heads at it in confusion and disbelief. A pro-drug organization/cult hires the WUO to break the incarcerated LSD-guru Timothy Leary out of prison—which they do. He is brought to Algeria where he makes wide-eyed statements about supporting revolution. Before going underground, the Weatherman branch-out across the US and move into working class neighborhoods. Their goal is to convince working class youth (who they suspect, often incorrectly, will be more radical than they are) that they are serious revolutionaries who those youth should join up with to fight the system. The Weatherman try to do this, incredulously, by picking street fights. And, something sure to raise the eyebrows of audiences is the Weathermen’s “smash monogamy” ideology. In the interests of creating stronger emotional bonds between comrades, people were discourages from “pairing up”, but to instead engage in wide, promiscuous sexual activity with each other, with either sex, including group sex. A diary is read (by the female narrator Lili Taylor, although the words of a male author) which describes a van driving on a highway while a dozen people lay on the floor of the van, naked, engaged in group sex. Of course, we don’t hear this male author critique the usual interpretation of the “sexual revolution” and how it offered far more to men (namely, easier access to sex with women) than it did to women (who were expected to “put out”, without the same mutual commitments as before).

A couple of notable oversights exist, for those familiar with Weather-history. The history of SDS is a bit brief and incomplete. While the Weather-faction—often called the Revolutionary Youth Movement—was sizable, so was Progressive Labor (more “old left” than New Left). And another faction, rarely discussed in most SDS histories was the Radical Decentralization Project (initiated by the radical ecologist Murray Bookchin) which was anarchist in orientation. Also missing in this incomplete picture is all the other things that radical Leftists were doing during this time period: founding cooperatives, initiating the anti-nuke movement, and the Movement for a New Society, to list a few. Even though the very end of the film hints at internal disagreements and power-sharing issues (including gendered inequalities), the dictatorial politics of the Maoism and Third World Marxism to which the WUO subscribed, is left unaddressed. Gitlin makes an early, flip comment that is actually fairly accurate: Weather had a vanguardist attitude, that thought that their isolated actions of property destruction could embolden resistance (as opposed to helping to bring the wrath of the state down upon the movement and to alienate marginally sympathetic individuals). As he puts it, the Weathermen told the rest of the student left: “Join us or fuck you”. This machismo seems a bit strange, considering how reflective (and often apologetic) many interviewed ex-Weathermen are in the documentary. Many came from middle-class or more privileged backgrounds (which most do not discuss), which helped provide access to money that allowed them to stay underground for so long.

The soundtrack is spooky and often atonal. Some of the original music is composed by band members of Garland of Hours and Fugazi, which is a treat for indie rock fans. The combination of present-day interviews, alongside old footage of the much younger activists spouting revolutionary rhetoric is quite compelling. The film provides an abbreviated list of WUO targeted property destruction, with the reasons for each bombing. These targets include the NYPD headquarters, California Department of Corrections, US Capitol building, the Harvard Center for International Affairs, the ITT headquarters, the Presidio Army Base, and others. An early incident that causes the WUO to engage in only property destruction and avoid taking human life, is an accidental explosion that kills three WUO members in New York (where we see a young Dustin Hoffman gawking at the smoldering townhouse). The bomb was intended for an officer’s ball and the explosion would likely have killed hundreds of people, including the wives of the officers (clearly “non-combatants” by any definition). Realizing how a desperate logic and a maddening war had driven them to that decision, the remaining WUO members re-direct their efforts to symbolic destruction that avoids harming human life (for which they succeed).

There are many lessons to draw from The Weather Underground, but just as many open questions for radical social movements. The shocking reality is that little has changed with the society that the WUO critiqued and fought against. The names of the countries attacked by the US have changed (and the death tolls are slightly lower), but the same dynamics remain. Police brutality and racial discrimination run rampant still. Corporations continue to call most of the shots and American culture is even more dominated by their propaganda. The documentary does not suggest that a new armed struggle, clandestine group is needed today, but it does demand that the left take a serious look at its past to try to figure out some way forward and through the modern day madness.

Topics: social movements, revolution, militarism, racism, morality, terrorism

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