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COLUMN SIXTY-NINE, MARCH 1, 2002
(Copyright 2002 Al Aronowitz)

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EX POST FACTO DISSENT AMONG WEATHER UNDERGROUNDERS

Subject: Critical review of Weather Underground memoir
Date: Wed, 6 Feb 2002 17:27:39 -0800 (PST)
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[This extraordinary review of Bill Ayers's FUGITIVE DAYS (Beacon) by Cathy Wilkerson appeared in the December 2001 issue of Z. They haven't put it on their website yet. I felt it was important to share it widely, in response to recent attempts to recast the Weather Underground experience as a myth of movement glory. I think most survivors of the period would agree that these reinterpretations come from bad historical memory, bad political sense, and/or a fetish for violence. To the extent that these features recur in present-day left movements, any sugarcoating of the Weather fiasco could have painful consequences. " Ethan Young]

As a past member of the Weather Underground Organization I found Bill Ayers' book Fugitive Days to be quite upsetting. When September 11 happened, however, I felt even more urgently the responsibility to weigh in. it was Ayers's inaccurate and unforgivable trivialization of our experience with political violence that I was trying to write about. For me, political violence includes the Gulf War, the U.S. attack on the Sudan, ethnic cleansing, world wars, civil wars, and national liberation - all of it. The decision to commit acts which intentionally or peripherally by chance injure or kill human beings, their cultures, and their environment never happens without lasting repercussions to those who do it, to the victims, and to the world that cradles these individuals. Unfortunately, political violence also has a partner, economic violence, which inevitably or by chance results in the death and injury of human beings, their cultures and environments.

I was an organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society, and then a member of the Weather Underground Organization, which carried out a series of small, symbolic bombings of government and corporate buildings in the 1970s to protest U.S. policy of attacks on black activists in this country and aggression in Vietnam. As such I have grappled with these questions very personally. I have struggled ever since to sort out what parts of it I think contributed positively to progress and what parts were damaging to others and to the struggle for justice and peace. While those of us in Weatherpeople never killed anyone but ourselves, we made the choice - in the face of mounting violence against the black movement and the Vietnamese - to use lethal weaponry, which could have killed others, had we been unlucky. Many of us - certainly everyone in leadership - argued very convincingly for far more drastic steps than symbolic attacks at one point or another.

As I mourn those who died recently in the World Trade Center attack, I mourn daily the three brave and honorable friends who died a few feet away from me in an accidental explosion of dynamite, and many others who died during that struggle, in Vietnam and here, I take none of it lightly. In that spirit I offer this review.

Fugitive Days is a cynical, superficial romp through struggles waged in the 1960s and 1970s to change our country's unjust and inequitable institutions. Not that Ayers doesn't contribute genuine passion: he convincingly portrays outrage against the war in Vietnam, at the killing of millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of U.S. GIs. But he writes most effectively about his explorations of sex, drugs, and his participation in alienated, boyish pranks. While this approach captures a certain irreverent playfulness of the era, he maintains it even through his discussion of the armed actions of the Weather Underground.

Nowhere in the book does he seek to name, let alone discuss, any deep questions of goals, strategy, or morality that faced organizers of that era, many of which still face young people who are working for peace and justice in the world today. Instead, he relates only pieces of potentially interesting stories about people who cared about peace and about justice, making these struggles seem like a glorious carnival. At the beginning of the book Ayers notes that when he moved to Cleveland to join ERAP (a community organizing project) for the summer, "the poverty of the neighborhood hit (him) at first like a cruel blow" because he "knew nothing of the smell of hardship, the taste of want, the enveloping feel of need."

Sounds poetic and if it had been followed by some real exploration of poverty and his own questions about how this experience challenged his view of his own future, I would be interested. Instead, it is followed by the "falling in love" experience of those few months, one of dozens relayed with rapid-fire regularity throughout the book. The ERAP projects were honest attempts by many people, both students (many of whom came from working class or old left families) and community members, to work together in multiracial coalitions to affect change.

The projects did change most people in both groups by providing each with a deeper understanding of the other, and by showing how much could be accomplished with the mix of experience and skills. While Ayers tells some interesting stories about participants, he concludes only that he "mostly loved everything (he) was seeing, and especially all that I was learning." He wasn't going to linger long enough to carry any pain or outrage with him.

All of this would only reflect on Ayers as a privileged movement gadfly if he didn't so often claim to speak, despite a disclaimer at the start of the book, for all of us who were also present, as if everyone around him experienced these events with the same cavalier enjoyment. While most people in the movement shared a feeling of intense love and hope, and most of us sighed in relief for the increased freedoms we carved bit by bit from the rock of 1950s conformity, most of us spent time, resources, and emotion on surviving the bumps and punches of the daily struggle to survive, sometimes in extreme poverty; we were insulted and attacked in response to our political work, sometimes painfully by our own families; and we contended frequently with those who went under, often with drugs or alcohol, from the strain, from despair or from poverty and tried to figure out how to bring them back. Reflections about these kinds of experiences are completely missing.

The movements of the 1960s had so many agendas - support for civil rights, black liberation, Puerto Rican independence, Chicano and Native American self determination, women's liberation, new economic arrangements, cultural freedom, peace in Vietnam, Vietnamese self-determination - to name just a few, that they interwove in complex ways.

During the mid and late 1960s women came both to the arts scene and the movement, and later the hippie culture, to take advantage of new intellectual opportunities, to explore and validate our own sexuality and to stumble, fall, and argue our way into new roles in relationships, families, and work. But these steps were unevenly taken, and in many instances, the acceptance of freedom and experimentation became yet another license for exploitation and oppression.

Thirty years later, many people have tried to sort these experiences out.

Yet Ayers relates his relentless sexual encounters without the slightest trace of awareness that some of these encounters might not have been so positive for the woman. Ayers was a white man with access to tremendous resources who aspired to leadership. He indicates no awareness that he might have used his privileges to provoke women to give him access to a vulnerability that he was unable to honor. Certainly, when he asserted his leadership quite forcefully, and when access to leadership was in part defined by "coolness" - coolness being defined by a small clique, with increasingly tight control over information - the pressure for women to consent was enormous. My complaint here is not primarily with his behavior at the time, when we were all experimenting with values and at the same time coping with the escalating violence of the government, with the result that our choices were not always well reasoned out, but with Ayers's absolute lack of reflection since then, especially in the face of numerous attempts by women to explain - in conferences, writing and conversations - what it was like is mystifying.

Most importantly, I think it is dangerous that a young person today could read this book and never realize that Ayers was one of the architects of much of the insanity he blames on others. His account mysteriously leaps from the Chicago Democratic Convention in August 1968 to June 1969. During that period Ayers was the leader of the Michigan region, and then of the Detroit collective, which was one of the earliest formations of what became the "Weatherman faction." He later joined the leadership collective of the Weather Underground.

During that time his infatuation with street fighting grew and he developed a language of confrontational militancy that became more and more extreme over the year. Yet he never mentions these speeches. I believe that he never took this language seriously himself, but rather saw it as a way to act tough - the way to recruit "working class youth." But he never takes responsibility for the fact that many people, most of us, did not realize that he only meant it as talk. In those days of murderous assaults on young black leaders and Vietnamese civilians, we were indeed desperate.

A call to throw care to the wind, for white people to sacrifice, to bring the war home resounded with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Many of us did not understand what this strategy meant in practice, especially the incoherent "Days of Rage." But the national leadership seemed to be saying that they did, and I, for one, admired the courage of those who were willing to step forward to leadership at a time when the task of responding to the apparent collapse of democracy seemed terrifying and absolute.

Ayers recounts believably that, after the explosion in the Greenwich Village townhouse, differences existed among those in leadership between those who wanted to build a fighting force to do material damage and those who wanted to carry out occasional, symbolic, armed propaganda. To most Weather activists, however, in the year-long buildup to those days of their leadership meeting, none of those cracks were evident. By the summer of 1969, the romanticized violence was in full force. It was very easy for all of us to confuse a romanticizing of violence with increased militancy.

Most people were uneasy with the escalating glorification of street fighting, which mostly seemed terrifying, not fun. Most were puzzled by the strategy of exhibiting random toughness as a way to recruit young people. But, since no one knew how else to up the ante to challenge a government that seemed bent on the total destruction of Vietnam and of black leadership and their supporters in this country, many of us committed ourselves to trying to "Bring the War Home." Then we endured long criticism sessions where our courage, intelligence, and commitment were challenged, often with the unfamiliar but powerful language of psychotherapy, dampened further our critical thinking.

Within Weatherman, most of us wanted to escalate at that point. Many national liberation movements were struggling around the world. Some, like Cuba and China, had already been victorious. Armed struggle seemed to a great many like a reasonable possibility to consider. Thousands of young people were willing to consider tremendous personal sacrifices, regardless of our fears. Many Weather supporters, however, managed to listen to their own inner feelings and finally reject the spiral of self-destructive behavior that seemed to be accompanying this direction.

Others could not summon up the necessary macho and were mustered out or took themselves out, feeling like complete failures. Still others stayed involved, despite warning signs that the means we were using to achieve freedom were far from fair or equal. The outrage at what was happening around us numbed us to the warning signs. The process by which the Weather leaders changed from the language of the famous Manson speech glorifying violence in January 1970 to the moderation described in Ayers's book in early March was invisible to almost all Weather members.

Certainly, the assumption of most was that a plan to build a clandestine, fighting force was full steam ahead. If, as Ayers says, things were different in the West, most participants and supporters in the East and the Midwest did not know this. Other positions were argued, but they were crushed under the weight of our urgency to be heard, some how, some way.

At 17, Terry Robbins went to Cleveland ERAP the summer after his freshman year at Kenyon College because he was drawn to the community organizing model. Ayers, two years older than Robbins, moved in as one of his roommates for that summer. Robbins came to idolize him.

During the next few years - especially during the year that is missing from Ayers's book - Robbins and Ayers continued to get closer, appearing inseparable at most SDS conventions and meetings. Robbins and Ayers worked together as leadership in the Michigan-Ohio region of SDS. Robbins was a high school honor student, a year ahead of himself in the Long Island public school system. He had grown up using his quick intelligence to win respect. As he and Ayers got closer they competed about everything, including the ability to come up with quick one-liners, quirky names, sexual conquests, street fighting ability, and eventually the ability to talk tough.

In most areas, Ayers won hands down, but in intensity, Robbins had the definite edge. But while Ayers, according to what he writes, knew that his language, which increasingly glorified violence, was just show, Robbins was one of those who really believed all of it. He tried to act it out, being abusive to his girlfriend and trying to psych himself up to love violence. Robbins was far from alone in this behavior, but was certainly one of the most intense.

Robbins worked hard to organize campuses throughout the Ohio region where he had remained after leaving the Cleveland project, and continued to be fundamentally motivated by the love for humanity that directed him initially toward the movement. For Ayers to claim that all of the craziness of late 1969 and early 1970 just sort of happened, that his "CW" character (who was not me despite the uncanny similarity of initials) and Robbins were primarily responsible for the disastrous bombing at the Greenwich Village townhouse, takes himself completely out of the process.

For those of us who were there, the question of individual accountability matters. The most interesting and important question about this period to the broader audience, however, is how world and national events, the FBI's Cointelpro program, and committed activists interacted in pressure cooker conditions. What responsibility and accountability fall to political leadership - and "followership"?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of a political strategy, which employs violence of any sort? What is the nature and value of democracy within political organizations, and to what extent does it reflect the future of any social institutions led by such organizations? Could we have been more effective in defending young black activists under attack? These are only a few of a host of fascinating and important questions raised by our experiences. Why write about this period and not engage any of them?

It cannot bring honor to those who died, nor can it realistically help those who languish in prison under conditions that often approach torture, despite upwards of 25 years and more that most have already served. All of us who were active in the 19960s cared deeply about the injustices promulgated by our government. Like Ayers, almost all of us have continued to work for social change in one way or another. At times, Ayers writes eloquently about his past and present efforts to speak up against the greed and brutality of the political and economic system we live under. He was an effective and forceful leader and many people joined, left, or participated in activities of the time in part because of his leadership.

If we think Robert McNamara and others should be accountable, then we, too, need to hold ourselves accountable and be able to discuss the mistakes we made along with the strengths of our past. Ayers did not, as the book suggests, float through the days in a haze of pot, semen, and good conversation. He was a powerful, articulate white male with a zany appreciation of life's twists and turns. He also fought for leadership, had opinions at least strong enough to argue them to others, and to act on them himself. Artists can say they are accountable only to their art. But people who presume to lead, to represent others, are accountable for the effects of those actions.

How we sort all that out is what's interesting and what might help another generation of activists. A razzle-dazzle account of how cool someone thinks they have been is not.

Cathy Wilkerson was an organizer for Students for a Democratic Society during the 1960s and a member of the Weather Underground Organization during the 1970s. She survived an accidental explosion of dynamite in her father's Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 in which three WUO members died. She has recently been a teacher and writer.  ##

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