Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity
by Dan Berger
Published by AK Press
450 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Richard Klin
The Weather Underground, long pilloried in mainstream media as nothing more than a cadre of agendaless mad bombers, are given a deservedly serious, in-depth examination in Outlaws of America. The group's antecedents lie in Students for a Democratic Society, as a dissenting contingent departed to follow the path of Malcolm X and Che Guevara, transforming themselves into Weathermen and -women: the white radicals who packed the hardest punch. Serving as the narrative's touchstone is former Weather activist David Gilbert, whose odyssey and evolution stand as a representative case history: idealistic civil rights activist, Weather radical, and eventual participant in the famous botched Brink's robbery in 1981.
Berger's book delves into the bewitching 1960s political zeitgeist that saw an unprecedented awakening of blacks, women, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans and gays; an international call of conscience that reverberated in Paris, Prague, Mexico City.
Weather -- the white radical left's vanguard -- took on "the most powerful government in world history" and was part and parcel of an overarching culture of liberation. It was a culture that encompassed a hefty six million regular readers of the underground press and the mind-boggling statistic that "from September 1969 to May 1970, there was at least one bombing or attempted bombing somewhere in the United States every day by the progressive and radical movements" as well as "500 acts of sabotage ... in 1969 alone."
Sixties activism, to put it mildly, did not die of its own accord. The full array of outright state repression was unleashed with the nefarious, FBI-directed COINTELPRO, using any and all devices to wreak havoc on the left. Black Panthers were murdered with impunity, offices were bombed, groups were infiltrated, harassment was the norm. "The playing field," Berger notes in a bit of an understatement, "was far from level..."
A critique is complicated. Weather's stated goal to spread "'chaos in the mother country'" is, ultimately, of questionable political value. The group never quite overcame the paradox of white skin's intrinsic privilege. (Weather Underground members were incarcerated -- no small thing; Panthers tended to get killed.) Weather floundered on the shoals of a macho, outlaw ethos that could be extremely sexist, as well as the expected internal, doctrinal differences. And there was the devastating 1970 disaster as a clandestine bomb-making operation literally blew up, demolishing a Greenwich Village townhouse and taking the lives of Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins and Ted Gold.
It is easy to view Weather's legacy through the prism of hindsight. It is vital to remember, though, that ever-present for the radical left was an ongoing, escalating campaign to pound southeast Asia into oblivion. The group's not-entirely-sound motto that "almost anything was acceptable, as long as it was action" was clearly underscored by a frantic urgency.
Berger's account is honest and tempered. David Gilbert has sat in maximum-security prisons for the past quarter century. No pardons are forthcoming. Today, as the United States exhibits increasing zero tolerance for dissent and America's awesome firepower is again on full display, Weather's legacy -- good and bad -- needs to be studied. | June 2006
Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publishers Weekly, Parabola and the Web zine LiP. He has recently completed a novel.