Wednesday, April 20, 2016

People Taking Charge: The Weather Underground

“Any conception of socialism defined in national terms, within so extreme and predatory an oppressor nation as the US, is a view that leads in practice to a fight for a particular privileged interest and is a very dangerous ideology. Active combat against empire is the only foundation for socialist revolution in the oppressor nation.” - Weather Underground (Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-imperialism)

     The Weather Underground Organization, commonly referred to as just, the Weather Underground, was an American radical left-wing organization founded on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. Originally called Weatherman, the group became known colloquially as, the Weathermen. The Weather Underground organized in 1969, as a faction of the organization, Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. They were composed, for the most part, of the national leadership of SDS and its supporters. Their goal was to create a clandestine revolutionary party whose mission it would be to the overthrow U.S. government. With revolutionary positions characterized by black power, they worked together with organizations like the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, and opposition to the Vietnam War, the group conducted a campaign of bombings through the mid-1970s and took part in actions such as the jailbreak of Dr. Timothy Leary. The Days of Rage, their first public demonstration on October 8, 1969, was a riot in Chicago timed to coincide with the trial of the Chicago Seven. In 1970, the group issued a Declaration of a State of War against the United States government, where they made the name, Weather Underground Organization, known to the American public.

        The Weather Underground grew out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement faction of SDS. It took its name from Bob Dylan's lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," from the song, Subterranean Homesick Blues. You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, was also the title of a position paper that they distributed at an SDS convention in Chicago on June 18, 1969. This founding document called for a white fighting force to be allied with the Black Liberation Movement and other radical movements, in their common effort to achieve the destruction of U.S. imperialism and to establish a communist, classless world. They began to disintegrate after the United States reached a quasi peace accord with Vietnam in 1973, after which, the New Left, of which they were an outgrowth, declined in influence. By 1977, the organization had drastically reduced both its membership and its activities.

        The Weather Underground was founded upon the principles of Marxist–Leninism, which is a political philosophy based on the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin. It seeks to establish socialist states and to develop them into self sustaining, worker led societies. Marxist–Leninists espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of Marxism and Leninism, but generally they all support the idea of a vanguard party, a pro working class agenda, state control of the economy, internationalism, opposition to bourgeois democracy, and opposition to capitalism. It remains the official ideology of the governing parties of China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, and was the official ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It was also the official political philosophy of the other governing parties that made up the Eastern Bloc. Such a system tends to draw criticism from Western democracies, but that is to be expected, as they are bourgeois democracies.

        The Weather Underground's bombing campaigns targeted mostly government buildings, along with several banks. The group stated that the government had been exploiting other nations by waging war as a means of solidifying America's position as a imperialist superpower. The bombings were a response to this. Most were preceded by evacuation warnings, along with communiques identifying the particular matter that the attack was intended to protest. No people were killed in any of their acts of property destruction, although three members of the group were killed in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. For the bombing of the US Capitol building, on March 1, 1971, the group issued a communique stating that the bombing was in protest of the U.S. invasion of Laos. For the bombing of the Pentagon, on May 19, 1972, they issued a communique stating that they were retaliating against the U.S. bombing raid in Hanoi. For the January 29, 1975 bombing of the United States Department of State building, they issued a communique indicating that they were protesting the past escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

        Widely known members of the Weather Underground include Kathy Boudin, Linda Sue Evans, Brian Flanagan, David Gilbert, Ted Gold, Naomi Jaffe, Jeff Jones, Joe Kelly, Diana Oughton, Eleanor Raskin, Terry Robbins, Mark Rudd, Matthew Steen, Susan Stern, Laura Whitehorn, Cathy Wilkerson, and the still-married couple, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. Many former members of the organization have successfully re-integrated into mainstream society, most without necessarily repudiating their original intent. The Weather Underground was referred to in its own time, and afterwards, as a terrorist group by articles in the New York Times, United Press International, and Time Magazine. The group also fell under the auspices of the Joint FBI-New York City Police Anti Terrorist Task Force, a forerunner of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces. The FBI, in a 2004 news story entitled, A Byte Out of History, published on its website, refers to the organization as having been a domestic terrorist group that is no longer of any active concern. Others have disputed the terrorist categorization and justify the group's actions as an appropriate response to what they have described as the terrorist activities charged to the United States, a few of which, they are argued, are the conflict in Vietnam, domestic racism, and the assassinations of black leaders.

        In his 2001 book about his experiences in the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers made it quite clear that he took exception to the organization being referred to as terrorists. Ayers wrote, "Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate. No, we were not terrorists." Dan Berger, in his book about the organization, Outlaws in America, argued that the group "purposefully and successfully avoided injuring anyone. Its war against property by definition meant that the Weather Underground was not a terrorist organization." The late 1960s and early 1970s were tumultuous times, with the FBI attributing 1500 bombings in 1972, alone, to civil unrest enacted by radical groups. The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for a total of about two dozen bombings, over all. The observation that the Weather Underground never attacked or harmed people, and only targeted property, is criticized by some who point to the bombs which caused the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, which could have been used to harm people if they hadn't exploded prematurely. They also make note of the fact that three group members died in the premature detonation.

        The Weather Underground ultimately failed for a few reasons. First, they developed and quickly consolidated an ultra left political line that isolated them from the masses. They advocated immediate armed confrontation with the government and were initially unwilling to take up the hard organizing work needed to educate people on the merits of a socialist revolution. Further, they felt that mass organizations were unnecessary and advocated dissolving SDS. They then operateded as a small guerrilla band. In 1970, after a series of arrests and government indictments against certain members of the organization, they decided to go underground. Second, many of the Weather Underground leaders were sons and daughters of wealthy families that ran major corporations, law firms, and the like. It cannot be denied that they joined the 1960s movement with a genuine hatred for the evils of capitalism and that they made many sacrifices, but they went into it without changing their class outlook and failed to understand that making a successful revolution happen is a protracted process. In the mid-1970’s, they reassessed their mode of operation and began to advocate both above ground political organizing and underground revolution, but it was too late. Their chance to reach the masses had passed, and their changes did not fundamentally change how they were viewed by the masses or how they functioned, overall, as an organization.

      Finally, they too, like most all other such organizations, were under constant harassment by the government. They were first, just like the Black Panthers, subject to J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO. When that program was ended in 1973, the FBI organized the Special Target Information Development program, where agents were sent undercover to penetrate the Weather Underground. By the late 1970s, the Weather Underground had, further, split into two factions, the May 19th Communist Organization and the Prairie Fire Collective, with Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers in the latter. The Prairie Fire Collective favored coming out of hiding and establishing an above ground revolutionary mass movement. The May 19 Communist Organization continued to operate in hiding as a clandestine organization. By the end of the decade, however, a number of Weather Underground leaders had turned themselves in to the police in exchange for light or no jail sentences. Many were freed of any or all bomb related charges against them because the Church Committee, a committee investigating wrong doing by the FBI, found that the evidence against them had been obtained illegally. By the early 1980s, however, the end had come for the Weather Underground. The revolutionary wave that they had gotten caught up in was coming to an end, and they had begun to fade away. In retrospect, regardless of their failure to ignite the revolution that they so fervently desired to fight, and despite their somewhat naive behavior, their hopes to improve the condition of the working class were genuine. That, combined with their willingness to die for the cause, deserves respect. 

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