Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity by Dan Berger [Review]

A few words of introduction for those who missed out on the 1960’s and 70’s. In the early 1960’s there was widespread civil rights and anti-Viet-Nam war activity in the USA. Among Black activists the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating committee was engaged in basic rights work – voter registration, de-segregation and community organising. Amongst white students the Students for a Democratic Society takes the lead in organising and educating around civil rights and anti-war activity. As the 1960’s progressed so the struggle intensified and the repression against community and student activists increased and the clamour against American involvement in Viet-Nam also increased. This escalated with the murder of leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the shooting of student, black and anti-war activists at universities and elsewhere, meanwhile city after city was seeing rioting and widespread unrest. In 1966 the Black Panther Party for armed self-defensive and community action had been formed and the following year the FBI instigated its infamous COINTELPRO program to neutralise the emerging black power movement. In 1968 the American Indian movement is formed, there is a “police riot” at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Paris and much of France erupts and there’s Russian tanks in Prague.

Then in 1969, also in Chicago, the SDS splits with a New Left coalition calling itself the “Revolutionary Youth Movement” expelling the old left Progressive Labor faction. Very soon afterwards the RYM itself splits with one faction calling itself RYM II and the other “Weatherman” after a line in a Bob Dylan song. In the second half of 1969 Weatherman gets itself involved in militant street actions and the group starts its campaign of bombing symbolic targets immediately prior to a public “Days of Rage” protest in Chicago with violent street action. Weatherman had announced itself on the public stage as a white militant anti-war /anti-capitalist group in support of the NLF in Viet-Nam and the most militant sections of the Black Power movement in the USA, and at the end of the year it held its last public conference and went prepared to go underground.

Very soon into its underground existence the group suffered a grievous blow when a collective in New York accidentally blew up the house they were living in and three of them died. This traumatic event, which occurred when they were planning an attack which would have resulted in the deaths of many other people, lead to a re-appraisal of the groups tactics. Thereafter any explosive actions would be done in a way that ensured there were no fatalities, in short they adopted the principle of “armed propaganda” rather than armed resistance. The group, which numbered in the low hundreds in terms of activists, but with many more above ground sympathisers, was organised in collectives based in the then flourishing youth counter-culture where they managed to blend in without too much difficulty (helped in many cases by being relatively better off than most Americans) enabling them to undertake a range of actions for several years, often accompanying them with communiques and press releases.

During the six or so years the group was underground it not only carried out sporadic actions but also put out it’s own newspaper and a book “Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism”, whilst also engaging in intense internal political discussions and the occasional party or to. The period saw the demise of the Youth Culture that had been the background for many of the original activists, the final withdrawal of US forces from Viet-Nam and the suppression of the most militant black and minority forces in the USA itself. The Weather Underground Organisation, as it had become, also went through changes – directed by the Central Committee in time-honoured Marxist-Leninst fashion – which saw the group move to a position of attempting to take on the mantle as the leadership of the US working class in a new Communist Party, a line which saw the downplaying of their original positions of supporting other people’s struggles and instead wanting to lead the US working class (predominantly white) in a struggle against capitalism.

The group attempted to go overground on that basis but was blown apart, not by the FBI, but by it’s own internal political contradictions, being accused of both racism and sexism at their final conference. Thereafter many members surfaced, faced the music (but very few actually did any time directly on Weather related charges) whilst a minority continued the struggle in more “armed struggle” modes, usually ending up in prison for extremely long periods (several are still locked up and some may never be released). The above ground people went their separate ways, but all have remained true to the spirit of the 60s struggles in their own ways, although many are now critical of some of their tactics, overall strategy and organisational methods.

Dan Berger’s book is not only a history of the group, drawing on previously published work, access to archives of group material and, most interestingly, his own interviews with former members of the Weather Underground, but also a look at the relevance of their political perspectives to today’s anti-capitalist struggles. That capitalism, racism, sexism (Weatherman were never very strong on feminism – dismissing it as bourgois, whilst being in principle anti-sexism and having many women activists and females in leadership positions) and imperialism are still with us goes without saying, as is the struggle against them. However their support for national liberation struggles looks less important as most colonised countries have now managed some form of formal “independence” (although the ties that bind, in the form of neo-colonialism and global capitalism, are as strong, even if the state form is in the hands of a locally recruited boss class). Equally their adherence to a dogmatic form of Marxism-Leninism (itself pretty noxious in the 60s and 70s) would render them a laughing stock these days amongst revolutionaries. Many former Weather people agree that the lack of democratic control within the organisation itself was one of their main mistakes and the notion that a bunch of white ex-students could attempt to proclaim themselves the leaders of the working class in the USA suggests that going underground does little for ones sanity.

In a way I suspect that Dan Berger may have got too close to his subject matter as he really pulls his punches in his summary of the “relevance” of the group. His accounts of the interviews, especially with David Gilbert, who is banged up for life for driving a vehicle that was used by members of an armed group which botched a bank heist, resulting in several fatalities, even though he was himself unarmed and had not taken any part in the raid itself, are based on a personal sympathy (no bad thing in itself) but this does tend to make any objective criticism difficult.

That the Weather Underground was able to survive underground in 1970’s USA says a lot for their security measures and for the care they took in their actions. It also says a lot about the milieu they were able to merge into. It is a truism that revolutionaries cannot survive for long unless they have a supportive environment, both internally (in the group) and externally (in a wider (sub-) culture.) One wonders whether such a struggle could be successfully waged in today’s climate, with no recognisable oppositional culture. The fact that many (but not all) members of the Weather Undergound came from fairly affluent and supportive backgrounds meant that they were less pressured to undertake actions to raise money illegally either through bank robberies, embezzlement or drug dealing, which helped enormously with their security. The lack of the many surveillance technologies now available to the State would also have made things easier than today.

Returning to the text, AK Press have done another excellent production job on this one. The book is fully furnished with notes, a comprehensive bibliography, index, short biographies of main protagonists and a timeline (together accounting for 25% of the pages). The book is timely both politically and biographically – i.e. the main players are still around and as a reminder of a part of recent history that tends to be overlooked. One of the problems interested readers may have is in accessing the wide range of written materials that the author draws upon – especially for those on the “other” side of the Atlantic. Unless you were around at the time you’re unlikely to come across a copy of “Prairie Fire” (although copies were imported into the UK) let alone their newspaper “Osawatomie” or many of the obscurer items.

Overall, though, it is a valuable work that reminds people of a forgotten chapter in the USA history in the 1960s and 1970s, fascinating and thought-provoking, even if the politics leaves you less than impressed!

8/10

Richard Alexander

NB a glance at the Wikipedia entry for “Weatherman” reveals that two essential texts are available online in their entirety:

# Full text of book The Way The Wind Blew, by Ron Jacobs (1997) about the Weather Underground Organization. http://www.prairiefire.org/index.shtml

# Full text of book Weatherman, ed. by Harold Jacobs, a collection of documents by and about SDS/Weatherman. This book was published in 1970 and deals only with WUO’s early period. Out of print. http://www.sunrisedancer.com/radicalreader/library/weatherman.pdf)

whilst the publishing “arm” of the Weather Underground still survives as the Prairie Fire Organising Committee: http://www.prairiefire.org/index.shtml

Berger, Dan. “Outlaws of America. The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity”. AK Press, Oakland, CA and Edinburgh, Scotland. 2006. Pbk, xv, 432pp. Illus, biographies, timeline, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 190485941-0; ISBN13-9781904859413. $20.00 (US) / £15.00 (UK)