Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

A Not-So-Distant Mirror

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, by Bryan Burrough (Penguin, 608 pp., $29.95)

See here: a war against the United States waged by apocalyptic ideologues who condemn the nation as incorrigibly immoral, the cause of the world’s woes. See there: a cross-country war against the police, ruthlessly attacked — a number of them murdered in cold blood — because they happen to be wearing uniforms that identify them, in the eyes of race-obsessed assailants, as the muscle end of oppressive government. See all around: a coterie of radical lawyers fighting passionately for sociopaths, blurring the lines between zealous representation and complicity and skewering the government for lawless surveillance and the shredding of due process.

Is that a synopsis of post-9/11 America, perhaps with special focus on the recent, violent fallout of racially charged incidents involving young black men and police officers? We could be forgiven for assuming so. Memories are short, after all, and our own times deeply troubled. In truth, though, the synopsis just as aptly captures the 1970s, the most sustained period of anti-American terrorism and anti-police violence in modern American history. That is amply demonstrated by Bryan Burrough’s engaging new history of the era.

In 1972 alone, there were 1,900 bombings in the United States, virtually all of them carried out by domestic groups and individual American citizens. Yet the staggering number of explosives detonated, along with other incidents of politically motivated violence that began in the late Sixties and bled into the Reagan years, is largely forgotten today. The most obvious explanation for this amnesia, if not the best one, is the dearth of death that resulted from these hundreds of bombs (to say nothing of the duds). The aging radicals now risibly spin that fortuity as the result of their humanitarianism — “responsible terrorism,” they smarm. Burrough confirms, though, that it had more to do with their incompetence.

There was no Weather Underground 9/11. Despite scores of explosions at targets including the Empire State Building, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol, the era’s iconic image is not of some smoldering skyscraper’s collapse, but of gun-toting newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst robbing a bank.

Still, the sparse death count explains only so much. In countless ways, today’s terrorists echo the grievances of the Seventies. In addition, the controversies that engulf today’s terrorism investigations trace to protocols imposed after renegade law-enforcement tactics undermined terrorism prosecutions in the Seventies. So why has the history — who the terrorists were, what they did, and why — seemed to vanish?

Joe Connor believes he knows the answer, having had 40 years to think about it. It was on his ninth birthday, in 1975, that Puerto Rican FALN terrorists murdered his father when they bombed Fraunces Tavern, a popular Wall Street haunt. “The media,” he tells Burrough, were “more than happy to let all this go.” While not claiming that the media support savage methods, he maintains that today’s journalists share “a lot of the same values” as the terrorists, and thus prefer that we not remember them as terrorists.

It is a damning indictment, but not a frivolous one. It is faithfully reported by Burrough, but not resolved. That is consistent with the author’s stated mission to provide “a straightforward narrative history of the period and its people,” with judgments about politics kept “to a minimum.”

The book is indeed a comprehensive tour of the era’s radical groups, concentrating on those that went “underground.” Burrough is at pains to define this term as, essentially, living under pseudonyms; he cannot say it inevitably means living on the run, because he has turned up too much evidence of notorious terrorists’ hiding in plain sight, some in comfortable abodes for years at a stretch.

The exploits of several radical cadres are traced. Three groups stand out, however, as the decade’s main players: the black avatars of anti-establishment violence; their adoring white, Ivy League–educated allies, who turned to “the armed struggle” largely out of a craving for “black authenticity”; and the Nixon-era FBI, whose disregard for the law was so thoroughgoing that it became a threat more ominous than the terrorists it pursued — at least as the history has been written by the victors, the terrorists who literally got away with murder, many going on to become influential, politically connected academics.

Predominantly, Days of Rage is a history driven by race. We often wonder why today, over half a century after the Civil Rights Act, race consciousness continues to pervade the public discourse of a nation that has twice elected a black president, now has its second black attorney general, and features African-American men and women in positions of high office at every level of government, in addition to prominence in elite journalism and popular culture. It is, in fact, the shameful legacy of racial prejudice that ignited the Sixties radicalism. That, in turn, devolved into the revolutionary violence of the Seventies. It was in that cauldron that contemporary political and cultural trendsetters came of age — and they’ve never “moved on.”

Beginning in 1959, what Burrough alternatively describes as the “torch of ‘self-defense’” and the legacy of Black Power passed through five iconic black men. The first, and least remembered, was Robert F. Williams, a North Carolina NAACP leader who rose to minor international fame spearheading the defense of young black boys arrested and beaten for joining a white girl in a schoolyard “kissing game.” Williams blazed what became a well-trod path. Upon drawing plaudits from such progressive eminences as Eleanor Roosevelt, he grew bold, calling for blacks to use deadly force in self-defense — indeed, in maintaining that American law protected blacks only after they armed themselves. Then, after crossing the law (he was dubiously charged with kidnapping white supporters he was probably protecting from an angry black crowd), he fled to Castro’s Cuba, which happily provided a stage for his now-virulent anti-Americanism and calls for armed insurrection by black U.S. servicemen.

Williams led seamlessly to the searing rhetoric of Malcolm X, the most charismatic and influential of Black Power’s voices. His summons to bloody revolution tapped into black discontent with institutional racism and impatience with the peaceful-resistance approach of Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a useful measure of American social progress: In our time, outrage was the common reaction to pastor Jeremiah Wright’s glee that the 9/11 attacks were a case of “America’s chickens coming home to roost.” Even Wright’s most famous acolyte, Barack Obama, distanced himself. Yet, virtually word for word, Malcolm X said the same thing about John F. Kennedy’s assassination; at the time, it was taken as a rally cry typical of the firebrand’s rhetoric (he also mocked Martin Luther King as “a chump, not a champ”), and it has not diminished him in the Left’s reverential eyes.

The rhetorical shift from protest to resistance to incitement proceeded when Malcolm X’s “mantle of black militancy” was passed to Stokely Carmichael. His “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” was an Orwellian designation: The SNCC evolved into the Black Panthers, the Oakland-based militants led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The Panthers infamously carried weapons openly and faced down police, the agents of state power who would remain the target of Black Power wrath. Still, Burrough contends, Newton and Seale essentially used talk of “armed self-defense” as a recruiting tool to staff the Panthers’ social-welfare programs.

It was Eldridge Cleaver, “Black Power’s fourth great voice,” who took the rhetoric seriously, seeking a genuine revolution forged by guerrilla warfare. The story of the violent radical underground is that of the world wrought by Cleaver. He became the guiding force behind the murderous Black Liberation Army (BLA), which splintered from the Panthers. He also inspired the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the small but rabid confederation of black convicts and ne’er-do-well white radicals that abducted Patty Hearst and turned her into a willing accomplice in their heists. Across the spectrum of Seventies underground groups, robberies, especially of banks, were rationalized as Robin Hood exercises necessary to sustain the revolution.

Cleaver boldly proclaimed that black prison inmates, whose incarceration was relentlessly limned as an indictment of the American system, not of their own criminality, would form the leading edge of the revolution. No surprise then that, when he fled to Algeria (whose leftist government recognized the “international” BLA diplomatically and even gave Cleaver his own embassy for a time), the baton of black militancy was passed to George Jackson, a legendarily fierce inmate who spent his short adult life in California prisons.

Under Jackson’s tutelage, the decision was made to retaliate for state abuses against black inmates (including racially motivated killings) by the retaliatory killing of white prison guards. When Jackson was implicated in the murder of a guard at Soledad Prison, his hard-left lawyer Fay Stender — with the help of such “radical-chic supporters” as Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, the Grateful Dead, and UCLA professor Angela Davis — inflated Jackson’s letter-writing prowess into international celebrity. The New York Times proclaimed Soledad Brother, a heavily edited collection of the sociopath’s missives — with, naturally, an introduction by Jean Genet — “one of the most significant and important documents since the first black was pushed off the ship at Jamestown colony.”

The raves were short-lived. Jackson’s adoring brother Jonathan, who was known to have received guns from Angela Davis, was killed in a shootout after murdering a state judge he had taken hostage during a botched attempt to extort Jackson’s release. Jackson himself was later killed by police snipers after leading a riot at San Quentin State Prison during which five hostages — most of them guards — were found murdered in his cell. He became a martyr of victimology for convicts, terrorists, and other leftists who claim that endemic American racism justifies crime and is the real cause of high black incarceration levels.

Weatherman was an apocalyptic, overwhelmingly white, and innately elitist radical group, spawned by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And of course they had a theory — what Ivy League Marxist would be without one? — derived from French philosopher Régis Debray, a confidant of their hero, Che Guevara. The “foco theory” held that if a revolutionary movement’s politically advanced vanguard formed into small guerrilla cells, it could spark a grassroots rebellion that would draw in the entire working class.

Nevertheless, there was a baleful irony for Weatherman. The perception of “Amerika” as incorrigibly racist is what drove them to evolve into the “Weather Underground” and take up “the armed struggle” — after a few futile episodes of rioting and vandalism that became known as the “Days of Rage” operation. But the racial insularity of Carmichael’s Black Power movement, coupled with the rise of the Panthers and the BLA, effectively relegated white supporters to subordinate status and, at times, outright ostracism. This was excruciating for arrogant twenty-somethings who saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of an ideology that lionized the very blacks who regarded them as insufficiently authentic.

The seeming escape from this conundrum was opposition to the Vietnam war. As former Weatherman Howard Machtinger told Burrough, “We related to the war in a purely opportunistic way.” They used it to recruit and as a rationale for levying war against an imperialist regime. But the struggle was never about the war; it was about race. And emphasizing the war had the unintended effect of marginalizing Weatherman: Its Marxist tropes about galvanizing the working class paled beside the obsessions with racial injustice and women’s rights that catalyzed black revolutionaries and feminists. Plus, it reduced Weatherman to a spent force once the war wound down in the early Seventies.

Though the story of the Weather Underground has been told repeatedly, Burrough offers several news-making contributions. Former terrorists reveal new details about their largely unexplored life underground. We learn that the leaders, particularly Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, lived very comfortably — and often quite openly — while their subordinates scraped by. They also staged a duplicitous plot to reclaim leadership of the radical Left when they emerged from underground, only to be humiliated and shunned by black revolutionaries and the rump of the movement.

Burrough also spotlights the previously little-noticed Ron Fliegelman, who became the Weather Underground’s bomb technician after the catastrophic 1970 accidental bombing of a Greenwich Village townhouse (the home of Weatherman Cathy Wilkerson’s wealthy parents). We learn that Fliegelman’s sound bomb-construction method became a model for other Seventies terrorist groups, and that the Weather Underground also provided training for the FALN, the era’s most disciplined, effective, and long-lasting revolutionaries.

Days of Rage is most valuable, however, in destroying the myth, tirelessly spun by Ayers in his afterlife as an academic and unrepentant “small-c communist,” that the Weathermen were “responsible terrorists” who really just engaged in “armed propaganda” — targeting buildings of symbolic value but sparing people. Prior to the townhouse catastrophe, in which the clueless bomb-makers Terry Robbins, Teddy Gold, and Diana Oughton (Ayers’s girlfriend) were killed, Weatherman blithely planned to murder police. In fact, the powerful explosives accidentally set off at the townhouse were nail bombs intended for a military dance at Fort Dix; they would have killed hundreds of people. It was only after the townhouse that the Ivy Leaguers realized they lacked the stomach and were deficient in the skill needed for mass murder. The leaders, moreover, realized they liked living in comfort and relative stability — a luxury not afforded to murderers, especially cop killers, as shown by the frenetic lives of BLA and FALN fugitives. So the Weather Underground changed course and avoided killing people with their bombs — a strategy that made their “armed struggle” even more pointless. Before the townhouse, though, they were all in.

Ultimately, the radicals won in the sense that few of them — besides the operatives convicted of homicides and mass-murder plots — did significant jail time. Many, like Ayers, were not even prosecuted. Principally, this was because of FBI malfeasance. In its panicked reaction to the social upheaval, the anti-war rioting, and the brazen targeting of police, federal law enforcement went rogue — and it stayed rogue even after the Supreme Court, in 1972, dramatically curtailed the government’s authority to conduct warrantless surveillance of domestic subversives. Ultimately, the lawmen’s lawlessness made cases unprosecutable. Ayers, to borrow his own words, was left “guilty as sin, [but] free as a bird.”

In a final irony, it was not the terrorists but three senior FBI officials who were pursued: Director L. Patrick Gray, against whom charges were eventually dropped, and top supervisors Edward S. Miller and W. Mark Felt (the late Felt is more famous now as “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate source). The latter two were pardoned by President Reagan after a skeptical judge imposed small fines and no jail time. Meanwhile, Democratic presidents Carter and Clinton pardoned several of the handful of Weatherman terrorists who drew serious federal sentences.

Notwithstanding all the tumult, the revolutionary age seemed to fade away in a mix of exhaustion and politically tinged ambivalence about what it all meant. That ambivalence endures. In Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, however, we now have the benefit of a lively factual account of a largely forgotten era, one that can teach us a great deal about our own contemporary strife.

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