According to news reports, George Wright is entertaining book and movie deals. He’s a star, practically — yet another glam criminal out of reach of the law. Safe abroad, smirking at justice, holding forth on the iniquities of America. Wright and his comrades often spelled this word with a “k.” Sometimes three of them.
He has an exciting story to tell, it’s true. It has been all too exciting for those on the wrong end of his guns. In 1962, the day after Thanksgiving, he and some buddies went on a crime spree. This was at home in New Jersey. One of the people they robbed was Walter Patterson, a gas-station owner. With panty hose shoved over their faces, they shot him dead. Off they went with $70.
Patterson, 42 years old, was a member of what someone would call the Greatest Generation. He came home from the war with a Bronze Star, earned when he drove his truck into a hail of German bullets, in order to save some men. Patterson survived the Nazis, but not the two-bit thugs who came to his gas station.
George Wright, apprehended, was sentenced to 15 to 30 years. He served seven of them. In 1970, he escaped from his minimum-security prison, which was nothing but a dairy farm, really. He and a buddy hot-wired the warden’s car. They got to Detroit, where they joined the “Black Liberation Army.”
In 1972, they and three others hijacked a plane. Wright, dressed as a priest, pulled a gun from a hollowed-out Bible and held it to a stewardess’s throat. The hijackers demanded a million-dollar ransom. Wright said, “If that money’s not here by 2 o’clock, I’m going to start throwing a dead body out the door every minute.” The U.S. government paid.
The gang forced the plane to Algeria, which was a haven for self-styled revolutionaries (in reality, robbers, rapists, and murderers who had learned a little black-power talk). When they landed, something funny happened: The Algerians confiscated the money. The gang was ticked. In a statement, they said, “We are shocked and bewildered to be branded as criminals for our revolutionary activities.”
After a sojourn in their new “homeland,” as they called it, they moved to another homeland: France. Eventually, they were arrested by French authorities — all but Wright, who escaped down into Portugal. From there, he went to Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. It was run by people much like Wright, and they were happy to give him a new identity: José Luís Jorge dos Santos. After acquiring a wife and two children, he went back to Portugal, to live a pleasant life by the sea.
U.S. law did not quite forget him. They tracked him down last September — 49 years after the murder of Patterson, 41 years after Wright’s prison escape, and 39 years after the hijacking. Wright commented, “Knowing the Americans, I always feared that they had their antennas up.” He need not have feared too much: The Portuguese refused to extradite him. The case is now regarded as closed. Wright, who is 69, said, “I want to relax now, and spend time with my family and friends.” Yes, don’t we all?
Walter Patterson, too, had a family: a wife and two daughters. His wife died a year and three months after his murder, of a heart condition. When Wright was finally tracked down, Patterson’s daughter Ann said, “He needs to come back here and pay his debt to society.” She was 14 when her father was murdered. Wright “has had a good life for the past 40 years,” she said, “but he took away about half of my father’s life.”
Wright and his fellow hijackers have been celebrated in at least two documentary films. These films portray them as strugglers against oppression, racism, and imperialism. They were virtually civil-rights heroes, you see — maybe a little overzealous. Maybe too impatient. Wright recently said that he hijacked the plane “to support the hopes of black people.” One of the films borrows a title from James Baldwin: “Nobody Knows My Name.”
The Black Liberation Army was part of a “family” of groups — that’s what the criminal radicals called themselves, “The Family.” (Rather bourgeois, when you think about it.) The groups included the Weather Underground, the Red Guerrilla Resistance, the Republic of New Afrika, and the May 19th Communist Organization. Why May 19th? The birthday of Malcolm X and, as a bonus, Ho Chi Minh. Now and then, Family members indulged in what they called “non-political murder” — the offing of a prostitute, for example. But mainly they liked to kill policemen (“pigs”), which, for them, was “political murder,” or “revolution.”
Several of the cops they killed were black, including two men named Waverly: Waverly Jones and Waverly Brown. The first belonged to the NYPD, the second to the force in Nyack, N.Y. Brown was an actual civil-rights pioneer: the first black man to join that force.
Like George Wright, many of the killers fled abroad, and mainly they fled to Cuba — Castro was happy to receive them and show them off. Something like 70 American fugitives are in Cuba. One of them is Charlie Hill, who, after killing a cop in New Mexico, hijacked a plane. But probably the most famous of them is Joanne Chesimard, a.k.a. Assata Shakur. She killed her cop in 1973. (His name was Werner Foerster; Hill’s was Robert Rosenbloom.) In 1979, she escaped from prison, whereupon she found her way to Castro.
Oh, the press she enjoys! In 1997, Essence magazine published an interview with her: “Prisoner in Paradise.” (“Paradise” would be totalitarian Cuba.) She said things like “I represent someone who has dedicated her life to the liberation of my people.” Two years later, the New York Times published an article by a Princeton theologian, defending her. He called her an “activist” — which is one way of putting it. He also said she was “vibrant” and “articulate,” which no doubt she is. More vibrant and articulate than a dead cop.
She has been the subject of many songs, poems, and other tributes. One of them is by a rapper called Common: “A Song for Assata.” One line goes, “All this sh** so we could be free, so dig it, y’all.” A year ago, Common was invited to perform in an “Evening of Poetry” at the White House. Law-enforcement associations and other squares objected, but they were easily brushed off. In the White House, President Obama made sure to give Common a big hug.
Undeniably, the radical fugitives make good copy. It’s hard for journalists to resist. How it works is this: You go to Tanzania, let’s say, and interview Pete O’Neal. You paint a picture of him in the old days: “He blazed with purpose: End racism and class inequality, fast.” You describe his flight and wanderings: “Sweden . . . Algeria . . . Tanzania, whose socialist government welcomed left-wing militants.” You note that he’s gray and paunchy now, and gentler. But then you quote him defiant: “They will never convince me in my life that what I was doing wasn’t right.”
Undeniable, too, is that we Americans have always romanticized criminals. We sing of Bonnie & Clyde, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. Speaking of “Kids”: André Previn composed a song cycle about Billy the Kid, in 1994. The George Wrights and Assata Shakurs are particularly ripe for romanticization, given our fraught relationship with race. But, as William Rosenau writes, “Historical amnesia about groups like the BLA [Black Liberation Army] is unfortunate.” Rosenau is a scholar, and writes with fine scholarly understatement.
Few Americans knew or cared about President Clinton’s granting of clemency to Susan Rosenberg and Linda Sue Evans, in the very last hours of his presidency. But his actions shocked and sickened people in law enforcement, and people who remember the Weather Underground, accurately: the bombings, the murders — the plan to wipe out NCOs as they danced with their dates at Fort Dix.
Why is it that so many liberals are so tender toward Rosenberg, Evans, et al.? Why do these terrorists, who are generally unrepentant, receive such sympathetic treatment from the Times, The New Yorker, 60 Minutes, etc.? Is it because liberals, some of them, “hold their manhoods cheap” for not being part of the “struggle” themselves? Do they feel guilt over “preserving their viability within the system” (to paraphrase Clinton)? Do they regard The Family as “liberals in a hurry”? Rosa Parkses with itchy fingers?
Discussion of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn was essentially out of bounds during the 2008 presidential campaign. Question Obama’s friendship with them, and you were slammed as uncouth, at best. Ayers and Dohrn are considered almost quaint figures now — living mementos of a colorful past, of “crazy times.” Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Cuban-American politician, has said he doesn’t know how Castro can seem cute after decades of torturing people. To many, Ayers and Dohrn seem cute, too.
Ayers once summed up his situation to David Horowitz in a memorable way: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird — America is a great country.”
It is, yes. But not because of the Weather Underground or the Black Liberation Army. More because of people such as their victims. Who are those victims, by the way, those dead? Talk about Nobody Knows My Name! Plenty of people know the names of their murderers. Often, those murderers get two names: George Wright and José Luís Jorge dos Santos; Joanne Chesimard and Assata Shakur; Wesley Cook and Mumia Abu-Jamal; H. Rap Brown and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin; Donald Weems and Kuwasi Balagoon. Their victims aren’t celebrated in films and songs. Their names aren’t known at all, except to those who loved them.
Here is a partial list of those names: Waverly Brown, Patrick Curran, Daniel Faulkner, Werner Foerster, Gregory Foster, Robert Fromhold, James Green, Waverly Jones, Joseph V. Kelly, Ricky Kinchen, Rocco Laurie, Edward O’Grady, Peter Paige, Walter Patterson, Joseph Piagentini, Robert Rosenbloom, Sidney Thompson, Frank Von Colln, John Victor Young . . .