In October 1969, a band of self-styled "mother country revolutionaries" gathered in Chicago's Lincoln Park around a bonfire of ripped-up benches, announcing themselves as "Weathermen" before going on a window-breaking spree in the Loop. The year before at the Democratic convention, Windy City cops had savagely beaten anyone in sight: protesters, bystanders, reporters, photographers, TV cameramen. And now the heaviest revolutionaries of them all, the ones most determined to fight back, went up against them with sticks and stones. "[C]hains, clubs and mace," inventories Bill Ayers in his memoir Fugitive Days. "No one had a gun," although some, he remembers, had "rolls of pennies to add weight to a punch." Other Weathermen, in keeping with the David-and-Goliath theme, carried slingshots. A whole year to get some ordnance together and this was the best they could do.
The first half of Fugitive Days is a conventional boomer bildungsroman, chronicling a life like a million suburban others in post-WWII America. Dad's a fast-rising exec, Mom a homemaker. The refrigerator and garage are both full. There are Velveeta and Wonderbread sandwiches; war movies and Westerns underscoring the righteousness of American use of arms; and let's not neglect Bill's first sexual stirrings and run-ins with charismatic JDs. Accepted to U Mich, he fails to make the football team, but discovers compensating introductions to film (not "movies"), weed, avant-garde art, and radical politics. Soon Bill drops out. Following desultory participation in the civil rights movement and a see-the-world stint in the Merchant Marine, Bill returns to Ann Arbor, drops back in and joins Students for a Democratic Society, which transitions uneasily from buttoned-down petition-wavers to mass-based radicals. Soon there are confrontations with Marine Corps recruiters, sit-ins at draft boards, and Bill's first arrest. His activism ratchets up: He drops out for good, teaches poor kids at an alternative school, and organizes in Cleveland's ghetto - just in time to catch his first riot.
The first wave of activists - bright-eyed student body presidents and bushy-tailed school newspaper editors who swallowed their civics lessons whole - don't stop the war with their well-behaved marches and polite petitions, even after asking, quite respectfully, at least three times. In fact the war against Vietnam escalates, accompanied by increased repression at home as law enforcement treats white college students as it had black citizens unfortunate enough to get caught in its shadow. The police riot at the Democratic convention confirms what many already learned at the end of a nightstick. Shoot to kill, Mayor Daley instructed his troops, shoot to maim: What could be plainer? After Chicago, many radicals pledge never to get caught short again. It's time, they say, to build a Red Army, to move from engaged to enraged, sincerity to authenticity. Enter Weatherman.
Weatherman plunges crazily into communal life, toughening its troops for the coming revolution. "Actions" usually go like this: Weatherman arrives noisily on the scene - rock concert, high school, working-class park - to fly the Viet Cong flag, hand out some leaflets, make speeches; there might be a scuffle with cops or locals. Then it's back to the base for a second-by-second analysis of sometimes crippling "criticism/self-criticism." A little food, forty winks, start again.
And bombs begin going off. If Uncle Sam wouldn't stop the war, then bring the war home, as the slogan had it, even if a bomb-for-bomb match was out of the question. A statue of a policeman (the Haymarket memorial, fittingly) is demolished in Chicago; a detonation in a Pentagon ladies room shorts out a computer with water leakage from a busted pipe; there's a blast in the Capitol building.
Of course the only people ever killed by Weatherman's bombs were three of its own, blown apart when wires got crossed in a Manhattan townhouse. In the wake of that explosion, Weatherman becomes Weather Underground. No more impromptu rallies or street-corner punchouts: members vanish, assume new identities, strike from the shadows. Ayers, now hooked up with Bernardine Dohrn - the original riot grrrl - begins to move through a simulacrum of normality where fine points of revolutionary solidarity with the Third World yield to the exigencies of fugitive life: finding reliable fake ID and low-profile work; avoiding blabbermouth associates or panicking when somebody looks at you twice. Ayers captures well how to hide in plain sight, to lead a clandestine life in the big city; his depiction of the constant coin-flip between prudence and paranoia is worthy of Jim Thompson.
By the late '70s the members of the Weather Underground surfaced one by one into a world that no longer much cared what they'd done. Law-breaking by law enforcement led to many charges being dropped. Ayers and Dohrn, without reneging on their politics, have established themselves as, egad, professionals, in education and law respectively.
The brief but literally explosive history of Weatherman has occasioned a lot of liberal head-shaking over the years. Violence never accomplishes anything, they say (although it seems to keep a lot of liberals in line), and invite us to view the opposing sides - Vietnam and America, radicals and cops - as equally worthy of condemnation. Ayers stubbornly provides a much needed corrective to such overly judicious and finally bogus moral hairsplitting: he keeps blurting out who invaded who. Assassins and surgeons both use knives; and Weatherman's bombs seemed a whole hell of a lot more pinpoint than most of those who make that claim.
Others, less skeptical of Weather's political line, nevertheless raise tactical objections. What, they will ask, did Weatherman accomplish, besides getting its ass kicked? This question ignores that, in Weatherlogic, getting one's soft, white, privileged, middle-class-and-up ass kicked was an accomplishment, a necessary toughening. Indeed, a victory: dare to struggle, ran one slogan, dare to lose. Tempting, then, to see Weatherman as political psychodrama, a sort of armed EST. Well, there's a lot of that going around: If Ayers had sublimated his machismo into a military career, had napalmed from the air or machine-gunned villagers at night, some liberals could always be rounded up to praise him for not forcing a son of Appalachia or Harlem to do the same.
Fugitive Days, while relentlessly subjective, never fails to supply context. Some might find it odd that anyone could envision the Red Army seizing Santa Cruz, but that scenario was alive and well in the Nixon White House and Hoover's FBI too. And Ayers supplies buttressing for every excited assertion: the recitation of the bomb tonnage dumped on Vietnam alone is mind-boggling. Mistakes are acknowledged, ego and youthful bravado (and residual sexism) put through the old "criticism/self-criticism" mill. A somewhat misty-eyed travelogue of a 1995 trip to valiant Vietnam is balanced with a gory rendering of the massacre at My Lai and the subsequent lenient treatment of Lt. William Calley (the war's real forgotten man). By contrast, Weatherman's brief, merely rhetorical footsie with Charles Manson (unmentioned by Ayers) appears as not-funny-enough black humor.
Fugitive Days is fated to be intentionally misread by those investing in a post-September 11 psychology of acquiesence to authority. Even assuming people are incapable of distinguishing between explosions in the Pentagon that damage plumbing and those that kill 189 persons, America is safe from another outburst of bad Weather. These days park benches are often made of concrete, if you can find them at all; many times they've been removed to inconvenience the homeless. And Nike makes sneakers in Vietnam now.
Culture Spy - April 20, 9:52 AM
Culture Spy - April 13, 12:18 PM