Why Not Say What Happened?

The later pages of Days of Rage, though perhaps more relevant to the study of cults or mental illness than American radicalism, make for fun reading. The suicidal ineptitude of the second generation underground is complemented at times by their occasional picaresque escapes. The reader is supposed to be struck by how incompetent the radicals are, but it’s impressive that they managed to do anything at all. The lawyer for the SLA’s semiofficial spokesman remembers spending his trial getting high in the courthouse stairwell at his client’s insistence—“the finest marijuana I ever had . . . I remember it so clearly—literally floating into court.” He won the case.

On Days of Rage

Bryan Burrough. Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Penguin Press: New York, 2015.

Why revisit the underground political violence that flared in 1970s America, blowing up bathroom stalls in the Pentagon but otherwise leaving things quite as they were? Anyone who cares to read about the Weather Underground has options already, and all of them—conservative opprobrium, liberal handwringing, or radical apologia—risk turning a footnote into an outsize controversy. During the same era, extraparliamentary left-wing violence influenced the main currents of politics from Uruguay to Italy, but here it remained a curiosity. As a result, interpreters have had little to offer but morality plays, meant to illustrate either callous dilettantism or tragic resistance.

Against these odds, Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, a narrative history of America’s “forgotten age of revolutionary violence” released last April, is worth reading. For one thing, it draws on a large number of interviews with veteran radicals and the law enforcement agents who tracked them, most of whom have never spoken on record before. New information is a good reason to write a book, especially when the topic is criminal activity recent enough that it remains shrouded in alibis.

Another virtue of the book is that, unlike most historians of the left, Burrough has no personal investment in his subject. His earlier books have chronicled Texas oil dynasties and Dillinger-era gangsters, and in his hands 1970s radicalism—full of shootouts and orgies—is less a political phenomenon than a piece of tawdry Americana. His lack of background knowledge shows when he claims that his protagonists were historically unprecedented. He dismisses Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association—which at its peak in the 1920s counted thousands of chapters in forty countries—as a “shadowy fringe movement.” The Weathermen, in turn, are held up as “the country’s first Ivy League revolutionaries,” although Harvard had already turned out Samuel Adams, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Reed, and Alger Hiss. Assata Shakur’s 1973 arrest is “the first time the press was obliged to introduce and attempt to explain a black revolutionary,” despite Burrough’s own references to the media careers of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson.

But this political indifference makes the book readable where more partisan books would obfuscate or heap judgment. It is clear Burrough does not support armed resistance to the state, but he takes his protagonists on their own terms and never insinuates their guilt for more crimes than his evidence can bear. His rare departures from the journalistic mode to venture historical arguments are judicious. For example, he explains the origins of the underground as most participants and many scholars would: “Every single underground group of the 1970s [except Puerto Rican nationalists] was concerned first and foremost with the struggle of blacks against police brutality, racism, government repression.” Burrough’s history is basically one damn thing after another, but on such a fraught topic that it may mark an advance in the historiography.

The most famous organization in Days of Rage is the Weather Underground, whose story Burrough tells through interviews with members who had never spoken with a journalist before—or, in some cases, even been identified as members. (Predictably, the New York Post led its coverage of Days of Rage with the fact that Ron Fliegelman, who revealed to Burrough that he built most of the group’s bombs, is a retired public school teacher living in Park Slope.) But the broad outlines have already been recounted in monographs and at least half a dozen memoirs: Weather, emerging from the 1968 Columbia student revolt and the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society, experimented with different ways to “bring the war home”; after three cadres were blown up while making explosives in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970, the leadership settled on a campaign of nonfatal bombings of symbolic targets that lasted into the middle of the decade.

Even some of Burrough’s bombshells are less explosive than he claims. For example, probably his biggest scoop is the admission by Weatherman Howie Machtinger that, “The myth, and this is always [Weatherman leader] Bill Ayers’s line, is that Weather never set out to kill people, and it’s not true—we did. You know, policemen were fair game.” Machtinger offers this statement as an implicit declaration of responsibility for an unsolved February 1970 attack on a Berkeley police station (which was meant to, but did not, kill officers). This is news, but it hardly rewrites history. Every account of the Weather Underground, including Bill Ayers’s, concedes that the bomb that set off the fatal March 1970 townhouse explosion was intended for human targets. So the revelation that the Weathermen set out to kill in February 1970 is fully consistent with the received narrative: after March 1970, which is to say for about seven of its nine years in existence, the organization didn’t kill anyone. Indeed, Burrough’s own reporting undercuts his more sensational claims—he calls the bombs “exploding press releases” and reports that FBI agents mocked the Weathermen as “the terrible toilet bombers.”

But Days of Rage follows the arc of underground violence through multiple organizations. The more familiar material segues into the book’s most significant chapters: those treating the Black Liberation Army, a paramilitary group that emerged from the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party. The BLA maintained links to the Weather Underground, but instead of staging protest bombings, they assassinated police officers, a tactic that provoked a predictably severe response from law enforcement. Most members, besides those who turned state’s witness, ended up dead or imprisoned—one reason why firsthand accounts of the BLA’s activities are scarce (especially relative to the flood of Weather memoirs).

Despite this historical obscurity, the BLA produced the only figure in Days of Rage who continues to inspire large numbers of young people today: Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper during a traffic stop in 1973 and, after escaping from prison, received political asylum in Cuba. Shakur’s words are now chanted at anti–police violence marches across the country, sometimes by protesters wearing sweatshirts that say “Assata Taught Me.”  Her autobiography has an Amazon sales rank that places it in the company of books like Dreams From My Father. Burrough notes, correctly, that Shakur’s memoir has few details about her time in the BLA. Anyone who reads around in the extensive online discussion of Shakur will find this silence is general. Her admirers express skepticism about the official charges against Shakur, but few display much interest in the question of what the BLA actually did. The only people who bother with such details are Shakur’s critics, who assume that the charges against her are true.

This pattern repeats itself even in reviews of Burrough’s book. Writing in the Nation, left-liberal historian Rick Perlstein repeats the official story, calling Shakur by what she considers her slave name: “A militant named Joanne Chesimard pulled a gun from beneath her right leg, shooting the cop at point-blank range (he survived).” In the farther-left Counterpunch, Weather Underground fellow traveler Ron Jacobs complains that “Burrough ignores everything but what the authorities have said” about the shootout, an account he judges “questionable at the least, and more likely just not true.”

Days of Rage is historically significant because it should move the discussion beyond this impasse. Burrough offers the most complete narrative of BLA activity yet published, and by basing his account on interviews with BLA veterans, he largely sidesteps the issue of whether to believe the cops. Burrough’s sources—Dhoruba bin-Wahad, Sekou Odinga, and Thomas McCreary—did not speak to him as repentant radicals-turned-conservatives. But they don’t hesitate to state that the purpose of the BLA was “killing the cops in uniform” or to take credit for specific operations. Burrough uses their stories to reconstruct the workings of the group in almost day-by-day detail, from the first police shooting (May 19, 1971, a date bin-Wahad tells him was chosen to commemorate Malcolm X’s birthday) to the final destruction of the BLA as a fighting force in November 1973.

If BLA members themselves, including two who spent decades in prison (Odinga and bin-Wahad), are comfortable discussing the BLA so openly, why does euphemism continue to reign in the broader discussion? Take a recent description of Assata Shakur by former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver on a popular website: “She was a Black Panther living underground, who was in a car with other Black Panthers driving through New Jersey. They were stopped by the police. She ended up wounded, another member got away, and one died. This is what happened to Panthers in the ’70s.” Certainly police harassment is one thing that happened to Panthers in the ’70s. But how can you understand what happened to the BLA if you don’t even mention their name, or mention the by-now-incontrovertible fact that their purpose was a guerrilla war against the police? The problem is far from unique to this situation. We remember the Haymarket Martyrs, framed by the state in 1886, but forget that they openly advocated the kind of bombing for which they were railroaded.1 Everyone knows that strikers have been killed by police, but the memory of strikers taking up arms against cops or scabs remains more obscure.

To point this out does not require an opposition to radical violence—I remember talking to an anarchist who spoke favorably about a conservative historian’s book on Haymarket because it took anarchist politics seriously, even if only to damn them. If you can’t acknowledge radical violence, radicals are reduced to mere victims of repression, rather than political actors who made definite tactical choices under given political circumstances. You might find their choices understandable or lamentable.2 But you will learn nothing from the past unless you are willing to consider the unvarnished details, like those presented by Burrough’s interview subjects.

Once he has left the Weather Underground and the BLA, Burrough turns to what he calls the “second generation” of underground bombers, a group of organizations loosely connected to the halcyon days of the New Left but even more politically marginal and personally bizarre. Most readers will recognize the Symbionese Liberation Army as the outfit that kidnapped Patty Hearst, but the details of the SLA’s lunacy and its strange persistence still hold the power to surprise. In search of new recruits unknown to the FBI, founder Donald DeFreeze (alias Cinque) went door to door in his apartment building identifying himself and asking random neighbors to join him. This incompetence would lead to his death, but several discrete groups took up DeFreeze’s banner, even signing their communiqués with his catchphrase: “Death to the Fascist Insect That Preys on the Life of the People.”

These pages of Days of Rage, though perhaps more relevant to the study of cults or mental illness than American radicalism, make for fun reading. The suicidal ineptitude of the second generation underground is complemented at times by their occasional picaresque escapes. The reader is supposed to be struck by how incompetent the radicals are, but it’s impressive that they managed to do anything at all. The lawyer for the SLA’s semiofficial spokesman remembers spending his trial getting high in the courthouse stairwell at his client’s insistence—“the finest marijuana I ever had . . . I remember it so clearly—literally floating into court.” He won the case.

Despite these moments of whimsy, the increasing desperation of underground life at the turn of the 1980s makes for a grim ending. Burrough follows a handful of BLA and Weather Underground stragglers through the disastrous end of the era, when, grouped together as “the Family,” they killed three people in a botched attack on a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York. Marking the distance now separating the underground from politics, the robbery was motivated by the cocaine addictions of Family leaders. One of their accomplices admits to Burrough: “I didn’t know nothing about drugs . . . I just thought they were just on like a high metabolism.”

As Burrough is quick to acknowledge, the six groups he covers were responsible for just a fraction of the decade’s political bombings. During one eighteen-month period in the early 1970s, the FBI counted over twenty-five-hundred domestic bombings, or five a day. A New York Times editorial worried that the wave “threatened to make periodic evacuation of buildings a new life style for the New York office worker.” The era’s deadliest attack—a bombing by Croatian nationalists at LaGuardia that killed eleven—appears only in a footnote. This means there are literally thousands of individual stories still untold, even more if you include phenomena just outside Burrough’s scope, such as the hijacking of more than 159 commercial US flights between 1962 and 1971. As remarkable as the scale of this violence is its uncontested failure. Even Sekou Odinga, who still believes “there’s not going to be any America in fifty years” tells Burrough that the BLA “was all a mistake.”

Anyone who starts talking to you about bombing something today is probably an FBI provocateur. If there is something to be nostalgic about, it is not the bombings but the landscape they illuminated by accident: an America where the security state was a work in progress and the prospect of terrorism did not deform everyday life. “We didn’t have anything close to modern surveillance procedures,” an FBI veteran tells Burrough “with a sigh.” In 1972, you could walk into the Pentagon day after day and spend hours walking the halls, all without ever showing ID. If you needed to steal an identity, or dozens of them, you could search a cemetery for the names of dead infants, request copies of their birth certificates, and get photoless drivers’ licenses in their names. When Burrough describes a few agents trying out the “novel idea” of using computers to track down fugitives, you see this ephemeral state of affairs already starting to crumble.

It is difficult to imagine a return to a time before metal detectors. But Days of Rage offers one example of resistance that remains within reach. On May Day 1970, the audience at a Bronx theater indignantly refused to evacuate after a bomb exploded—they wanted to see the rest of the movie. The heroic equanimity of these minor characters reminds us that, then as now, we have better things to worry about.

  1. Not everyone forgot. According to Bill Ayers, Weatherman Terry Robbins was thrilled to discover an editorial in the newspaper edited by Haymarket convict Albert Parsons that advocated placing dynamite in the “immediate neighborhood of a lot of rich loafers who live by the sweat of other people’s brows, and light[ing] the fuse. A most cheerful and gratifying result will follow.” Robbins copied the quote out longhand and taped it as inspiration above his workbench in the ill-fated Greenwich Village townhouse. 

  2. In her 1993 memoir, Assata Shakur’s lawyer Evelyn Williams maintains her client’s innocence but also suggests what frank support for the BLA might entail: “In 1973 I thought about the one thousand African Americans who had been killed by police on the streets of America in the previous two years and the twenty policemen who lost their lives, allegedly from the guns of the Black Liberation Army. And I thought, the equation did not balance. . . . The equation will never be balanced even after all the murders stop. . . . And, I thought, either accepted or rejected, whether approved or disapproved, as long as all the conditions that prevent inclusion continue, the possibility exists that another and another and another Black Liberation Army will emerge, prepared to kill and prepared to die.” 

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