The Weather Underground, born Phoenix-like from the ashes of a terrible explosion that killed three of our leaders in Greenwich Village, New York on March 6, 1970, stormed fleetingly across the landscape at the tail end of that mythical and iconic age now simply called the Sixties. Originally a militant formation inside Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the catalytic radical student group of its day, the Weather Underground rose, hot and angry, to—in our own terms—smite the war-mongers and strike against the race-haters. We went over the top. By the mid-1970’s the American war in Viet Nam had ended and the organization had effectively flamed out. Individuals made their twisty ways, singly and in small groups, upward and onward as best they could.
A palimsest—a ghostly smudge—remained, however, as a reminder that the phenomenon had once come to life, that it had indeed existed—vital, wild and animated—that there was something more to find and to see beneath the authorized story. The lessons and the legacy of that fugitive, ephemeral moment are, of course, contested—the ever-changing present, as always, unsettles and makes novel demands upon the past. We discover unforseen lenses with which to examine the ashes, we create fresh perspectives with which to rethink the details and make meaning of the larger contexts, the historical flow, the cultural and social surround. Revisiting the Weather Underground requires another look at what was said, and what we did.
* * *
In 1965, just as the American catastrophe in Viet Nam was reaching full ignition, I was arrested along with 38 others for disrupting the normal operations of the Ann Arbor draft board, part of the bureaucratic machinery for sorting soldiers from civilians, the living from the dead—issuing, we concluded, toxic warrants to kill and to die. Earlier in the year, at the first Teach-In, I’d heard Paul Potter, then president of SDS, end a talk on the necessity of protest against the U.S. war in Viet Nam by saying, “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.” I signed up on the spot. I wore a small peace button, and one that said “Let the people decide.”
We borrowed energy and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement, of course, and we intended, as well, to awaken our fellow citizens to the magnitude of the moral crisis we found ourselves in. This was a huge civil disobedience, part of the First International Days of Protest Against the Viet Nam War, but it was not exactly “popular.” Only about 15 percent of Americans opposed the war then, and even in progressive Ann Arbor we were pretty much on our own that day, surrounded by thousands of students who supported the war and wanted to see us expelled from school, or worse. So much for the myth of the good old days of popular resistance when everyone knew the right road to follow.
But by early 1968 a majority of citizens had come to oppose the war, and a sitting US president had, in effect, relinquished his office because of it. Several developments in those three short years had dramatically shifted the balance and altered the scene.
For one thing, US political leaders—blind and arrogant as they took over the failed French colonial mission—were certain that they would triumph easily over a poor, peasant nation, and would be welcomed as liberators by the natives—that tired, delusional conceit of every would-be conqueror. But the Vietnamese refused their assigned role in Washington’s script, and the National Liberation Front wouldn’t quit; they retreated when necessary, holed up underground as required, and reemerged suddenly to beat back the invaders. The Vietnamese refused to lose.
Further, those of us who opposed the war set out early to organize and to educate our fellow citizens. We marched and picketed and resisted—it’s true—but we also drew up factsheets, created teach-ins, circulated petitions. The most difficult and exhilarating project for me was Viet Nam Summer, a concerted effort to knock on every door in working class neighborhoods—I was assigned to Detroit—and meet people face to face, listen to their concerns, and engage them in dialogue about war and peace. The more we tried to teach others, the more we ourselves learned—about Viet Nam, about America, about politics and possibility, about ourselves. We became better teachers, deeper, more thoughtful and more effective organizers. We also became radicalized as we made the connections between foreign war and domestic racism, between economic hierarchies and the hollowing out of democracy, and eventually we thought of ourselves as revolutionaries, committed to overturning the whole damned system.
Many in the Civil Rights Movement came out early and unequivocally against the war. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, issued a statement saying that “No Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for a so-called freedom he doesn’t enjoy in Mississippi,” and Muhammed Ali said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger… I won’t fight in the white man’s army.” Martin Luther King, Jr., with his great prestige and base of liberal support on the line, denounced the war as illegal and immoral, and with some palpable anguish, condemned his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
All of this shook the country to its core, and perhaps the last straw was the large numbers of vets returning from Viet Nam that came out and told the plain, recognizable truth. With the anti-war movement at its height and hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets, they joined the peace movement in droves, bringing a renewed urgency and purpose, even creating their own anti-war organizations which inspired new levels of militancy in our ranks. The movement, which had been organizing GI’s from the start, embraced the vets as a strategic priority, and many vets found a natural ally in the movement, and discovered that they had more in common with their young activist peers than with the old bastards in power. When they lined up, tore their medals and war decorations from their throats, and threw them down on the Capitol steps, they initiated a new dimensions to the crisis.
So when the president relented, those of us who had worked to end the war felt vindicated and triumphant. In Ann Arbor we swirled out of our apartments and snaked through the streets in a spontaneous victory dance, rallying finally on the steps of the home of the president of the University of Michigan. He greeted us with words of encouragement: “Congratulations,” he said. “You’ve won an important victory. Now the war will end.” I think he believed what he said that night; I know that I did.
Five days later Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and cities around the country erupted—fire in the streets, martial law, tanks and troops patrolling downtown. Three months later it was Robert Kennedy. Whether conspiracies or isolated events, the serial assassinations had an impact on our sense of possibility. Henry Kissinger emerged with a “secret plan to end the war,” Richard Nixon was elected president, and by the winter it was clear that the war would not end—it would escalate and expand in spite of the wishes of almost everyone.
The war became deadlier and deadlier—each day that it dragged on, 2,000 innocent people were murdered by the United States government. Not every week or every month—every day. Two thousand people. Slaughtered. And there was no end in sight. What to do?
Living through that time, the aggression, the assassinations, the terrorist war raging on and on in our names, it seemed as if we were experiencing terminally cataclysmic events and permanent war. Looking back, of course, we can see that even if it felt that way, it wasn’t so—that while it was monstrous and bloody, the war lasted only a decade, and then it was done. Three million people were needlessly killed. But in those days, with the outcome far from certain, we had to choose our actions within a shifting, complex, and speculative world. Should I oppose the war? On what basis? How far should I go in order to prevent more senseless slaughter and dismemberment? Could I be part of mobilizing a more wide-spread resistance? Could we perhaps go beyond ending this war, and end the system that led so inevitably to war after war? Could we have an impact?
Some of us burned out. Others fled to Europe or Canada or Africa. Some ran for office, while others ran for the communes of California or Vermont. Some dug in. Others dropped out. Some created what they thought would become “vanguard” revolutionary political parties and went into the factories to organize the industrial working class, while others joined the Democratic Party with the hope of building a powerful peace wing within it. Some made a religion out of making love, others made a mess of making revolution. No choice was the obvious best choice, none in retrospect was up to the challenge. We in the Weather Underground blasted away at the rulers, and tried at the same time to build up a capacity to undermine and survive what we were certain was an incipient and impending American fascism. With the townhouse explosion, with the deaths of our friends and lovers, we disappeared.
* * *
We issued our first communiqué—a word we borrowed from Latin American guerrillas—called a “Declaration of War” and signed by “Bernardine Dohrn”, in May 1970. It was filled with defiance and hyperbole. We threatened to bomb “a major symbol of American injustice,” and when, a little more than two weeks later the promised explosion rocked the New York City Police Headquarters on Centre Street, the Weathermyth was fully launched. The communiqué was reprinted widely and, oddly enough, through it we instructed the FBI—and through them police forces everywhere—on our reliability and our quirky authenticating signs. We were in communication.
There was a practice then of public storytelling, and the subtext was our own hopeful message: you can’t catch us.
We opened to a world of words and they tumbled from us in a crazy flash flood of awakening zeal. We wrote open letters to the militant Catholic left—and they wrote back urging us to temper our actions with compassion—and to the Black Liberation Army, who urged us to blast away at colonializing racist power everywhere, no holds barred. We argued with both, and we agreed with both.
We scribbled to old friends—roommates from an earlier world, favorite teachers, brothers and sisters. I wrote to John Holt, an inspiring teacher and education writer, a deeply conservative man in some ways but a loving friend as well, and we linked up and corresponded for years. I communicated with my Aunt Sarah, a closeted leftie, and most of us (but not me) wrote to our parents—careful missives meant to reassure, delivered discreetly and then quickly destroyed. We were ill-equipped gunslingers, and we became word-slingers instead.
* * *
We were, of course, like everybody else, a bunch of signifying monkeys, more monkeyish than some, but of a type, hanging tentatively suspended in our interpretive jungle, sending shared meanings spinning along the dense thicket of language. We invented words; we constructed culture. And we were, like others, forever explaining, defining, correcting, implying, editing, translating in sometimes delighted, often desperate efforts to be understood.
The Weatherpeople were all talkers—we already loved words and we read widely; groups of us were regular Scrabble players and Sunday crossword puzzle workers. The garble of Weatherese was mostly an intellectual game—clever and distracting—but learning how to evade arrest had a serious purpose, a purpose that rode along on words, on our talk tactics, mostly. When my car broke down on a highway, the cop who pulled over found me not only respectful and engaging but open and grateful for his presence. I was practicing verbal jujitsu. Soon he offered to give me a push to the nearest service station, and I asked for his name so that I might send a letter of gratitude to his commanding officer. (He refused—the helpful push was outside regulations.) Again and again we learned what you say and how you say it had more to do with survival than anything else.
The preface “Weather” had become as prominent among us as “Mc” is in the wider world, and just as colonizing. We talked of Weathermen and Weatherwomen, Weatherkids and Weatherstories, Weather documents and Weathersymps. The leadership was, of course, the Weather Bureau, a leaflet was a Weather Balloon, and the anti-imperialist struggle was the Weather Going Tide. Recruits went through what amounted to an informal Weatherman Berlitz in order to become functionally bilingual.
When we began doing secret and illegal work we needed a word that cloaked our intentions, and so we spoke of the North Star, and then of the Dash—I’m spending this morning on the Dash, someone might say, implying both a censor’s beep, a word unspoken, as well as the mad dash we anticipated to the underground railroad, following the North Star toward freedom. When we were actually on the run we inoculated ourselves from fear and called our fugitiveness “the Joke”—Have you told your new boyfriend the Joke? Or: I don’t think anyone here knows the Joke. Our organization, publicly the Weather Underground, became the Eggplant, from an obscure rock lyric about “the eggplant that ate Chicago.”
We expropriated an entire lexicon of Weather words from the music—“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” of course, from Bob Dylan, “Bad Moon,” our code word for the Haymarket statue, from Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Rescue” from Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me” was the name for a two-year effort, finally successful, to break a Black Liberation Army comrade from jail. We drew on “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5 for names and codes, “Purple Haze” in tribute to Jimi Hendrix, and “Volunteers” from the Jefferson Airplane. The Pentagon was called “Maggie’s Farm,” again from Dylan, because, we said simply, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
Homegrown, as American as cherry pie, the underground was in other ways a foreign country—we spoke patois and did things differently there.
* * *
Our survival had to have meaning beyond the narrow and the particular. For me, and for most of us, we searched for meaning by participating fully in all aspects of life, and we would try to understand everything in order to make ourselves subjects in history and not passive objects to be used and discarded. We would make history, act within it in order to enlarge people and contribute to humanity. We would fight unearned suffering and undeserved pain, all the ways people oppress and exploit and dehumanize one another. We would affirm every gesture toward social justice and liberty, everything that honored each human being as irreplaceably worthwhile and the whole of humanity sacred. And—with some luck—we would participate in an upheaval that would destroy the death machine and allow human beings to reach the full measure of their humanity. Revolution!
We hoped that our actions would speak for themselves. Our efforts would be stained by mistakes, of course, because we could never see fully or far enough, we could never know all things in all ways. We were limited as is everyone, our theories flawed. Still, I believed the greater crime would be to do nothing, or not enough. Inaction was impossible. Stepping into history, we would make errors; staying aloof from history would be its own choice and error. And so, believing in the immense power of people to challenge fate and accomplish the unthinkable, holding on to a profound sense of personal responsibility, I plunged ahead. We would fight, but in new ways. We would bring the war home as we had planned, but with measured force, with precision. We would draw an angry sword against white supremacy, retaliate for racist attacks, and fight alongside our Black revolutionary comrades, but from a new and liberated space. And with care.
Within months we had established a pattern of action—retaliation for what we believed were attacks on the Black struggle, and offensives against the war machine. Our signature was a warning call to some sleepy guard inside the building or to the police nearby or to a journalist with calm and detailed instructions to clear a specific area, and then letters of explanation—sometimes exhorting, sometimes threatening, sometimes still barely decipherable beyond the knowing—claiming credit and publicly defending our actions as politics by other means, signed and delivered simultaneously to several major newspapers in different cities across the country seconds after the blast. The FBI and the big city police knew our signature, and separated what they came to know as the authentic Weather nuts from the variously weird.
Each letter had a logo hand-drawn across the page—our trademark thick and colorful rainbow with a slash of angry lightning cutting through it. New morning, it signified, changing weather. Oddly, as intense as it all looks and sounds, it was in our minds then cautious and responsible, a huge de-escalation from the apocalyptic plans of just months earlier. In any case, I loved that symbol of peace and reconciliation balanced by the hot bolt of justice.
* * *
This was a time when I, along with most of my closest friends, were referred to again and again as “home-grown American terrorists.” That’s what Time magazine called us in 1970, and the New York Times, too, and that was the word hurled in my direction from the halls of Congress. Terrorist. I’d been a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society, and then a founder of the Weather Underground, and I was indicted with many comrades by the Justice Department in 1970 on two single-count conspiracies—one for crossing state lines in order to create a civil disturbance, the other for crossing state lines to destroy government property. I had no intention of answering in federal court—I’d seen by then too many activists entangled in lengthy trials and, no matter what the verdict, neutralized and effectively kept off the streets—and so I took off and lived on the run for the next decade. I thought of myself immodestly as a freedom fighter, but I knew that “terrorist” was tattooed over every inch of me—it was an electrifying label, even then. I imagined a pale figure dressed in an oily overcoat, feverish, eyes blazing, beard and hair wild and unkempt, sitting in the back of a theater with a black bomb in his pocket. Nothing at all like me. No, I said to myself at the time, I’m no terrorist.
When I turned myself in over a decade later, federal charges against me and the rest of us had all been dropped because of “extreme government misconduct,” and I was, so to speak, free. I picked up where I’d left off, took up open political work, returned to graduate school and to teaching, and the label—terrorist—faded into the gauzy haze of memory. But not, it turns out, forever. I’ve partly myself to blame. Moved to remember and to rethink it all, I wrote a memoir called Fugitive Days about the wretched years of the American war in Viet Nam, the dark decade of serial assassinations of Black leaders, the exhilarating upheaval and the sparkling fight for freedom and peace and justice and revolution as I’d experienced it.
It was an odd thing—and sometimes frightening, too—to write about events and people and experiences buried now in the deep, deep past. Those days became suddenly alive—closer than they’d been in decades—and I couldn’t help but feel partly responsible for prying open the crypt and inviting those newly vitalized ghosts to dance at the reunion. As I wrote, the past began to surface all around me. What lessons might it bring? What promises and what warnings?
I knew, of course, that some of the ghosts would not be happy: the Righteous Right led by David Horowitz, born-again prophet of apostasy and self-proclaimed expert on radicalism, could be counted on to read my words as Jeremiad from the worst of the Looney-Tune Left and to fulminate and to fume, and the scholars of “sixties history”—mostly liberal academics and commentators now, members of what seems sometimes like a suffocating corporate structure, the Sixties/New Left, Inc., with Todd Gitlin, former president of SDS and now a professor at Columbia University, as Chairman of the Board—would protect their patents and their own self-authorized books by firing away at mine, performing some sort of self-dramatized conversion, trimming their sails.
I knew, of course, that there were several deeply disturbing aspects to our history, foremost the question of violence, for in 1970 the Weather Underground was literally born from the flames of that Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, a bombing in which my lover and two close friends blew themselves to kingdom come. We who survived went on to carry out a few highly visible anti-government bombings—acts that raise questions each generation will ask and answer differently. While the U.S. was killing two thousand people a day, planting a bomb in a pipe in the Pentagon was our high-pitched wail against the war’s sickness—part scream, part lamentation, part warning. The act was designed as a symbol, and as intended, neither killed nor even hurt a single person. Still, what if someone had been killed? We crossed crucial lines, and troubling questions echoed around us and pushed into our space.
Yet the Weather Underground’s symbolic acts were meant as the strongest possible protest against the Empire’s lethal acts of sustained and premeditated mass slaughter. Consider the U.S. atrocity committed at My Lai. In a matter of hours, U.S. soldiers raped, looted, maimed, and tortured the residents of a village; they burned homes, slaughtered animals; and killed 347 villagers. The My Lai massacre embodied the unvarnished horror of the Pentagon’s murderous frenzy in Southeast Asia. Likewise, Weather’s actions embodied the intensity of the resistance—during the early 1970’s over 20,000 government targets inside the U.S. were bombed, and the Weather Underground took responsibility for about a dozen.
1. What is terrorism?
2. Is the concept—terrorism—consistent and universal, does it apply to all parties engaged in certain actions, or does it change over time?
3. Which terrorist had a 100,000 British pound reward on his head in the 1930’s?
4. When did he become a “freedom fighter”, his image rehabilitated?
5. How many Israeli Prime Ministers were designated “terrorist” by the British government at some point in their political careers?
6. Which group of foreign visitors to the White House in 1985 were hailed by Ronald Reagan as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers, “freedom fighters” against the “Evil Empire”?
7. What did George W. Bush call these same men?
8. Who offered the following definitions? “Terrorism is a modern barbarism that we call terrorism;”; “Terrorism is a threat to Western civilization;” “Terrorism is a menace to Western moral values;”“[W]e have no trouble telling [terrorists from freedom fighters]”; “Terrorism is a form of political violence.”
9. Which US president said, “I am a contra”, referring to the Nicaraguan group designated “terrorist” by international human rights observers?
10. Has there ever been a US president who refused to employ “political violence”?
11. Which form of terrorism—religious, criminal, political, or official and state sanctioned—has caused the most death and destruction in the past five hundred years? One hundred years? Ten years? Which has caused the least?
* * *
When Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in 1969 in a West Side apartment in Chicago, some of us thought we were witnessing the Gestapo-tactics of a burgeoning police state up-close and in vivid color—the certain and clear face of terror. Fred was the charismatic young leader of the Black Panther Party, and since our offices were just blocks apart on Madison Avenue, we saw each other every day, and he was our friend.
We’d been subject to escalating police harassment ourselves—our apartments regularly ransacked, our cars vandalized, and in a growing number of raids we were systematically beaten. It was all bad and we felt besieged, but we knew that the worst was reserved for our Black brothers and sisters—twenty seven Panthers had been shot down by police forces from L.A. to New York in the past year alone, and we saw nothing ahead to slow the pace. And now Fred was dead.
I’d already encountered the political/criminal terror of the cross-burners and the mobilized mobs of hateful white supremists, but when Fred was killed—I saw all the machinery of not just State-sanctioned violence but of State-sanctioned justification kick into high gear. Sober assessments by the police and the State’s Attorney ran in the papers—the Panthers are a violent gang, they said, authors of random acts of lawlessness that terrorize ordinary citizens; the Panthers brought this tragedy upon themselves by initiating a shoot-out; the police were merely defending themselves. The truth: the police assault was sustained and overwhelming and unanswered; Fred had been slipped a drug by a police infiltrator and was unconscious in his bed when he was killed. Fred was called a violent terrorist, but he was in fact the victim—the forces that killed him were a small part of a vast and wealthy system, armed to the teeth, of official terror.
All these years later I tremble at Fred’s murder, as I trembled then. I trembled with rage, it’s true, and fear. I trembled with uncertainty: What could we do to survive? How could we help the remaining Panthers? How would the movement move forward?
Do you believe in violence?
“Believe” is an odd word here. I see violence everywhere and I detest it, but I don’t think we should discuss this as a religion. Violence isn’t a faith but a fact…
What do you mean, a fact?
I mean that violence is a terrible reality, that the remnants of displaced violence are everywhere apparent and unavoidable if we would just open our eyes.
You saw the video of the recent protests?
The burning cars, the young people throwing rocks and bottles, the shock troops of empire…
“Shock troops of empire”?
So they looked to me—the high-tech helmets, the shields, the uniform anonymity…
And what about the rioters, weren’t they dressed alike, and also as shock troops?
There’s a difference…
The difference, of course, is that they can’t achieve their goals legally and so they turn to violence, destroying anything in their path, provoke the police and the army to respond, isn’t that the difference?
I suppose it depends on where you start the tape…
Start the tape?
Exactly. It depends entirely on where you choose to begin. The countries you’re inclined to defend turn to violence systematically, routinely. They are typically born in violence, and surely sustained by violence. Some would say the cycle of violence begins there.
So you side with the rioters?
At least we should understand them…
And here, as elsewhere, you justify violence?
No, not at all. But I can understand it without justifying it. Violence terrifies me. I admire the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., his words always in sharp, gentle, fearless, tough. What King did so brilliantly was to expose the hidden violence that had always been there—the violence of racism, of rights denied. He led a movement that disregarded the official disregard of people’s rights—he negated a negation—and what surfaced all around him was violence—the barbarity of the police, the threats of the mobs, the ongoing brutality of the racist terrorists. He exposed a system of violence, and he was left exposed himself, and he was murdered. The White House, fearing that other Black leaders would “exploit the anger in the ghetto” said, “Nothing is achieved by violence,” and the National Guard was summoned.
And isn’t that true? What is achieved by violence?
Institutionalized violence, the violence of slavery, lynching, segregation, prisons, for example, in our own or any other country—this is the normalized violence that the powerful employ to achieve their privileges. Whole generations might grow up, get old and die, and never lift a hand against one another, and yet the relationship, adequately examined and understood—yes, observed from the start—was violent at its very core. When slaves did rise up against masters—Harriet Tubman, say, or Nat Turner—they were met with incomprehension and rage, called violent terrorists and slaughtered. Colonialism is another such relationship.
During U.S.-lead wars like Viet Nam and Iraq every American is implicated in acts of violence—we know what was being done in our names, we see and read about instances of the terror in gory detail, and we have the opportunity to remain morally silent or to resist. Many remain silent, and others resist. Some take extreme measures.
So you do believe in violence?
* * *
Sooner or later everything in America becomes commodified or disappears. Just so “THE SIXTIES,” something I didn’t even know existed as I lived through it. No one experiences the flow of life in neatly defined chunks, certainly not in decades—oh my gosh, it’s January 1, 1970, I’d better change my clothes—everyone is an intergenerational person, but the imagined Sixties are a bounded myth, constantly being retold, constantly being repackaged and resold as a containable cultural unit. The pitch-men are a shock: Janis Joplin’s image employed to sell Mercedes-Benz, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on choppers hyping Diners Club for when you’re on the road, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. Imagine.
The war was a national disaster, it’s true, and the current received wisdom is like a stuttering script of repeating slogans—often contradictory but always untroubled. These are some of the sacred articles we are all supposed to know by now: Viet Nam was a quagmire sucking the US down, the well-intentioned and innocent first steps transformed in the Asian jungles into something unspeakable, but not our fault, never our fault; the war was bad or wrong or a mistake, the media heroically and consistently truth-telling throughout, and right-thinking people opposed the war, responsible protesters now part of our proud democratic tradition; the vets suffered most, both in the field and a second time when, on returning home, they were shunned or even spit upon. Like most clichés and myths, these fail to heal, fail even to inform. Each has a thread of truth to hang itself on, while each dissolves complexity and destroys the contextual content. Their tenaciousness is more a function of their seemingly endless repetitions—the Big Lie-style refrain chanted at every turn—on how they allow us to cling to our child-like view of the world. They mostly wilt and die under scrutiny.
Take this last cliché—the vets were reviled at home. When Richard Nixon began his run for the presidency, he based his campaign on a falsehood: the vaunted “secret plan” to end the war. A corollary to this grand disingenuous gesture was another—to stick up for the GI’s, not against the war-makers, the brass, or the rotten politicians who perpetuated the deepening agony for their own puny careers, but, amazingly, against the peace movement itself. And so we discover that returning vets were spit upon by long-hairs, and that cynical image was blown into an icon beyond truth—beyond truth because it is not true.
The Black freedom struggle too, has been in part rendered toothless in the retelling. What many of us experienced as part of a continuum—what Russel Banks in Cloudsplitter called “beads on a string… bubbles of blood on a barbed steel strand that stretches from the day the first enslaved African was brought ashore in Virginia to today, and we have not reached the end of it yet”—is recast to accommodate an uncomplicated conclusion. Martin Luther King, Jr. is recast as a saint with a dream rather than an angry pilgrim and radical activist, and Malcolm X as a memoirist with a bit of a chip on his shoulder rather than an evolving, growing revolutionary. The received truth of history, then, becomes the common sense of the culture—and as everyone knows, there is simply nothing more insistent nor dogmatic than common sense.
People now in their fifties or sixties risk settling for a gutted version of the past—we all opposed the war, we now say, we all fought for civil rights. Actually, the corporate media were sycophantic from the beginning, then, like now, stenographers to power, often irrelevant, mocking and diversionary with occasional luminous points of brilliance. Walter Conkrite called the corrupt and brutal General Ky “the George Washington of Viet Nam” in a smarmy and deferential interview at the start of the war, and the New York Times was still seeing the famous “light at the end of the tunnel” just before the Tet Offensive of 1968. Everyone rehabilitated eventually, and then erased the tapes in favor of a more convenient record.
The US government, though, learned some serious lessons from those times, lessons they’ve implemented ferociously ever since. It abolished the citizen army, for example, almost immediately—a citizen army has the great disadvantage of being filled with citizens, people who are likely at any time to think for themselves and then to speak up spontaneously, people who don’t easily become obedient and willing killers. It also banned the media from any further first-hand encounter with military action—reporters on the ground, too, are unruly and, even in the service of a group of servile media mandarins, likely to report too much the felt experience of war, deviating from the high-sounding mythology and abstratction, and they might say anything then, even the truth. No more free-thinking Gloria Emersons or Michael Herrs. No more Tim O’Briens. No more witnesses. At least they hoped.
* * *
The problems today are huge, as always, and our ability to respond puny by comparison. But respond we will, respond we must. We may claim to be apolitical, to be unaware, but the world keeps turning, keeps charging forward. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.
Rousseau argues in regard to justice, equality “must not be understood to mean that degrees of power and wealth should be exactly the same,” but only that with respect to power, equality renders it “incapable of all violence” and only exerted in the interest of a freely developed and participatory law, and that with respect to wealth, “no citizen should be so opulent that he can buy another, and none so poor that he is constrained to sell himself.” The quest for social justice over many centuries can be thought of as working within the open spaces of that ideal.
For every human being’s life is, in part, an experience of pain and loss—there is always a tragic dimension to our brief time within the light. But our living experience also embraces other inescapable facts: we are all in this together, all passengers and crew on the same global spaceship, and too much (but not all) of what we suffer in life is the evil we visit upon one another; that is, it is unjustified suffering, unnatural loss, unnecessary pain—the kinds of things that ought to be avoidable, that we might even imagine eliminating altogether.
If society cannot be changed under any circumstances, if there is nothing that can be done, not even small and humble gestures toward something better, well, that about ends the conversation. Our sense of agency shrinks, our choices diminish, and our obligation to our fellow human beings ends. What more would there be to say? It would be sufficient then to simply wander weeping in the streets or to retreat into hedonism, concluding that human life is nothing more than a brutish, vicious, swamp-war, that our predatory and destructive sides must triumph, and that if I am to be spared, many, many others will have to be sacrificed, and I will agree to look on with indifference, or with at most a nod toward compassion.
QUESTIONNAIRE FOR AN ANGUISHED CONVERSATION
1. Name the countries bordering Afghanistan? Iraq?
2. Which country shares the shortest border?
3. Which the longest?
4. Where, when, and under what circumstances did Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ associate, sustain his shoulder wound?
5. How many Afghans were involved in the September 11 attacks? How many Iraqis?
6. What percentage of the world’s people live in the United States? In Asia?
7. What percentage of the world’s finished products are consumed by people in the U.S.?
8. What percentage of the world’s energy resources are consumed in the US?
9. How large are the undeveloped oil reserves in Afghanistan? In Central Asia? In Iraq?
10. Of the world’s six billion people, how many lack the basics to survive? How many own a computer? How many have a bank account?
11. If the world were a village of 100 people, how many would be:
b) Muslims, Christians, Jews?
* * *
It’s impossible to reach the age of sixty—if your eyes are open even a crack—and not feel some regret for something. I regret much—once again I resonate with the generative genius of Bob Dylan singing of “so many things we never will undo; I know you’re sorry, well I’m sorry too.” But, he goes on, “stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow, things are going to get interesting right about now.” Still I’m disinclined to apologize because I hear the demand for a general apology as a howling mob with an impossibly broad demand, and on top of that I’m not sure what exactly I’d apologize for. The ’68 Convention? The Days of Rage? Bombing the Pentagon? Every one of these can be unpacked and found to be a complicated mix of good and bad choices, noble and low motives.
In some part, apologizing is rejecting, letting go or giving up—conversion. There’s something deeply human at stake, something in both the heart and the head, an intellectual severance, an emotional break. And a broad, general apology may be just too much—I am not now nor have I ever been… Even when true, the words are mortifying. They are the end not only of a dream, but of a life. The apology in general is uttered, and suddenly you die.
On top of that, the apology is never enough—to be effective it must be enacted every day, its sincerity proved by ongoing symbolic purges, no one of which is ever adequate. David Horowitz, the poster-boy of 60’s recantation, said that if Bernardine and I were to say we’re sorry for everything and then don sackcloth and ashes it wouldn’t be adequate. There’s always more to do.
Naming names during the McCarthy years was the prescribed form of apology for a radical youth. People were coerced into providing information when no information was needed—the rift was long past, the names already known—and to disassociate with a ghost already gone. The ritual was one of expiation, isolation, and realignment. Loyalty and subservience was the rite of passage, the price of growing up.
In my case, my actions are all well-known, I’ve resolved the legal charges, and I’ve faced the consequences. Yet a central moral question remains—the question of individual responsibility and of the nature of judgment. But I still refuse to grow up if the price is to falsely confess a sin I don’t take to be a sin. What is left to do? Those who refused and suffered the lash of McCarthyism, those who “stood on principle,” had a terrible time trying to articulate what the principle was: Support for the U.S. Communist Party? Not exactly. For Stalinism? No, definitely not. Opposition to anything the U.S. government does? The importance of never telling on friends? Free speech? I feel the same bind. What am I defending?
Perhaps it’s simply the importance of defying the ritual abasement and the rewriting of history. I embrace that defiance. Where in all the noise is there any authentic call for a process of truth-telling, a means to reconciliation? Where might we construct an honest chain of culpability?
America is in desperate need to some kind of truth and reconciliation process—not because I want to see Henry Kissinger, for example, wheeled out in front of a magistrate and forced to confront his victims. Well…it’s tempting, but not the heart of the matter. We need a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility for a more just future. We need a history lesson as a guide to teaching. It’s really that simple.
I feel most regret for the intense sectarianism and then splitism that I participated in. The dogmatism, the prison of a strict set of rigid ideas, the isolation—I regret it all. I don’t regret escalating the fight against racism, white supremacy, and U.S. imperialism—still the biggest threat to a world at peace and in balance. I’m sorry we weren’t as effective as we might have been, and sorry we didn’t do more to stop the murder.
The victims of violations must have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering; the victimizers must be asked why and how they created that suffering; society must have the opportunity of witnessing all of this in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us. So we need the stories that constitute the truth-telling, and we need the possibility of amnesty in order to move on.
In this truth-telling you can make no convincing moral distinction among victims—suffering is suffering after all. But distinctions are possible, even necessary, among perpetrators: anti-colonial fighters, for example, are struggling for justice against forces of oppression.
Similarly collective guilt and collective punishment are terrible, reactionary ideas whether in the hands of European Nazis or French colonialists or Israeli settlers. On the other hand, collective responsibility is an essential and powerful and useful concept. Americans are, as a group, responsible for the suffering caused by our wars. We must, as individuals and as a group, do something about it.
So I want to keep it complicated, to defend complexity against the distorting labels that come to us in neat packages and summary forms—apologizing in general is asking too much. As one McCarthy-era resister said: I’d rather be a red to the rats, than a rat to the reds.
* * *
If we are convinced that all history is past, that we are not living inside history and that all the “historic moments” happened before we got here—and, incidentally, had any of us been around for one of them—abolition, say, women’s suffrage, or the fight for the eight-hour day—we’re equally convinced that not only would we have been on the side of the angels, but that we’d have been gutsy and agitating heroes—we not only have a distorted view of history, but, more important, we are blind to the present. We are made to think that this moment is somehow a point of arrival, the only possible outcome, and we are rendered powerless then to imagine another world, or to act on behalf of what could be, but is not yet. Here’s an example:
From 1882-1968 white terrorist mobs lynched close to 5,000 African-American men in the United States. Anti-lynching legislation was introduced into Congress hundreds of times during these years, and on those occasions when a bill passed the House, it was always killed in the Senate. Most white people—even those who opposed the lawlessness—tacitly accepted this situation in part because they bought the general demonization of African-Americans and in part because they had developed a “fixed notion,” abstracted from context and complexity, assuming that the Black people who got lynched were likely guilty.
It’s true that some whites campaigned against it, and that’s a hopeful part of the story, but it’s also true that white opponents were a teeny group—almost no white people took any overt action against lynching whatsoever.
Fast forward to June 13, 2005 when the U.S. Senate passed by voice vote a non-binding resolution expressing “the deepest sympathies and solemn regrets…to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.” On that day “the Senate remembers the history of lynching to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated.” And the action comes in the context of a string of convictions—Byron de la Beckwith, Bobby Frank Cherry, Edgar Ray Killen—for previously unresolved terrorist murders from the civil rights era.
Who can object? On the other hand, what does any of it mean? Is it legitimate atonement for white supremist violence? Or is it superficial and cosmetic and self-congratulatory?
This is tricky. It’s a good thing to note the wrongs of the past certainly, a better thing to identify them correctly and to right those wrongs, to work to repair those wounds. But failing to examine the deeper issues—in this case white supremacy, mechanisms of social control of an entire population, and racial disparity and brutality—and then using that exercise to illuminate today’s injustices, makes the whole thing an empty gesture. Of course the era of lynchings per se should never be repeated, but are there any historical continuities in which we can locate racist oppression and violence today, as in, for example, what’s called the “prison-industrial-complex”? What are we doing about that?
We say of the Holocaust in Europe, “Never Again!” But if “Never Again!” means never allow a German man with a swastika and a moustache named Hitler to rise to power, it’s a silly and a hollow slogan. “Never Again!” must mean more: wide-awakeness, for example, to mass murder, crimes against humanity, and genocide—in Guatemala or Sudan, Cambodia or Rwanda, Palestine or Bosnia or Darfur—and a willingness to act to stop them; or recognition of the toxic combination of social factors—the glorification of military might, for example, disdain for human rights, the drumbeat of nationalism, a compliant media, the demonization of an enemy, fraudulent elections, the manipulation of religion to serve the state, the interlocking of corporate and government interests—that can lead to a catastrophic and murderous outcome.
Today in the United States. 2.1 million of our fellow citizens are in prison. This is 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population, and it costs us $50 billion a year. And while African-American men make up about 6 percent of the citizenry, they constitute about half of the nation’s prison inmates. And here’s a parallel: if you made a map of lynchings perpetrated in the first quarter of the twentieth century, county by county, and overlaid that with a map of executions carried out in the last quarter of the twentieth century, you’d have an almost identical match. And here’s another: 1/8 of African-American males are disenfranchised for life because of their encounters with the criminal justice system.
Since we are living in the whirlwind of history, since we are all works-in-progress, and since no one knows with certainty what lies ahead, should we raise our voices in protest? Should we cry out? Should we agitate and organize? If not, why not? If so, how?
* * *
The New Yorker ran a block of cartoons after 9/11 under the heading “Americans See the World Anew”—in one a person says, “I just don’t see how they can spell Al Qaeda without a U,” and in another someone gaily tells a friend, “I just love the sound of it—Jalalabad, Jalalabad.” Seeing the world “anew” never transcends this child-like view of ourselves and others. The suffocating sameness of the official talking heads can feel crushing, the unwillingness to use this moment to question basic assumptions crazy.
The civil-rhetorical patriotism evident everywhere—the flags and signs proliferating, the elaborate story and the stock slogans, the giving of blood and the trips to “Ground Zero”—allows, perhaps, a shared grief and a shared incredulity at the start. Given the narrow American palette reaching for the flag might have meant sympathy and unity at the start. But from the start powerful forces were busy using the moment to promote a narrow, repressive patriotism—dissent is unpatriotic, un-American—in the service of horrifying goals and purposes.
Readers Digest featured a cover story a few months later called “Ten Breakthroughs That Can Stop Terrorism”—none had to do with the U.S. posture in the world or even how we might rethink U.S. policy. None looked to the political or the philosophical or the ethical. Rather each was narrow and technical: “Passive Millimeter Wave Camera,” “DNA Chips,” “Truck Transponder,” “Sandia Decon Foam,” and on and on. If that makes you feel safer, what are you smoking?
Time magazine’s 2001 end-of-year issue—with New York Mayor Rudy Giulliani as “Person of the Year”—featured a glowing account of US military might that begins: “One does not normally expect a Republican American President to confirm the wisdom of a Chinese communist, but if ever proof were needed of Mao Zedong’s maxim that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,’ the war if Afghanistan waged by George W. Bush’s Administration has just supplied it.” A back page essay crows that the world has come around since September 11—that while other countries may not love the US post-Afghanistan, who cares? They have gained, instead, a “deep fear and newfound respect,” and that’s all that’s really needed. When the A-list of world leaders from 106 countries—the business elite, establishment academics, politicians and presidents and princes who attend the World Economic Forum—gathered in New York and, while singing capitalism’s praises, nonetheless slammed US arrogance and self-centeredness, harshly criticized unilateralism and reliance on violence, questioned the pervasive ignorance of environmental degradation and more, American commentators yawned. Who cares?
A National Geographic survey recently found that young Americans—18-25 years-old—could not identify from a blank world map Israel/Palestine (80%), Iraq (80%), Great Britain (50%), or even the US (12%). We are only 4.9% of the global population, but we know neither who we are nor where we are in the world. We are in some profound sense adrift.
What is to be done? The answers change every day, and yet they remain in some principled way the same. We name the obstacles to our own freedom, to our humanity. We unite with others. We fight against the obstacles. U.S. war and expansion in Iraq, for example, or Israel’s insistence on its right to slowly annihilate the Palestinian people, or the caging and disenfranchisement of Black men. Or U.S. use of indefinite detention, “rendition,” torture, and extrajudicial killings since 9/11. In a world of so much injustice, it’s not hard to find a place to begin, something important to do.
Where do we find hope? We find it in the unparalleled growth of opposition to war and neoliberalism worldwide, in the stirrings from below for participatory democracy and justice. I’m hopeful because the future is unknown and unknowable. We are alive—lucky us—in the swirl of history. We are—each of us—works-in-progress; what we do or fail to do makes a difference; nothing is inevitable. We can do something—lots of things—and it all adds up.
What is my advice to activists? Be smarter. Seek the truth. Be stronger. Find your courage. Have real sharp political debate, but hold on to the treasure of unity. Resist dogma, sloganeering, posing, posturing, boasting, and pride. Don’t elevate tactics above principle. Keep your own counsel. Trust yourselves. Seek balance. Love each other. Breathe in, breathe out. Write it up, write it down. Avoid hierarchy. Be generous. Learn from ordinary people. Align with the most oppressed. Learn from experience. Talk to everyone you meet, and listen to what they have to say for themselves. Read, read, read. Think of your ideas as hypotheses, contingent things to work out in practice. Avoid all received wisdom. Resist ideology—any tight framework of settled ideas. Don’t talk in clichés. Be with the despised. Unite with the outcast. Act and then doubt. And then act. And so on.
* * *
Toward the end of the summer of 2005, outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, I joined the encampment known as Camp Casey. Crawford is a town divided: the brightly decorated Peace House faces banners reading, “All the way Mr. President” and “Smoke ‘Em Out, 43”; one side of the road has lawn signs with the iconic image of Marines planting the flag on Iwo Jima and the slogan “Support Our Troops,”—somewhat desperate, I thought, to have to reach so far back for a picture of putative pride in war—the other side answers “Bring Them Home.”
Started by a lone mother, Cindy Sheehan, who vowed to stay for the six weeks of Bush’s vacation in order to ask him a simple question, “Why did my son Casey die in Iraq?”, Camp Casey had become two large encampments by the time I arrived: Camp Casey I, a collection of pup tents lining a ditch outside the ranch, bracketed by crosses bearing the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq, and Camp Casey II, an acre of land nearby donated by a Bush neighbor with a vast tent that looked like something from Cirque de Soleil. The tent was festooned with posters and banners: ANYTHING WAR CAN DO PEACE CAN DO BETTER; WHAT WOULD JESUS BOMB?; JOIN US! It was organized like a tight ship—these were military families after all in the lead—a table of sun screen and caps, a computer and cell phone center, water stations, a sign-up space to volunteer to work. Lunch was served at noon exactly. But it was also abuzz with a thousand projects: visitors were given orientation briefings and assigned a work detail, artists were making murals and wood cuts, the kitchen crew was preparing the next meal for hundreds of protestors. A large circle of young people perched on folding chairs and engaged in intense and animated conversation. These were veterans of the U.S. war against Iraq, women and men, Black and white and Latino and Asian and Native, able-bodied and in wheelchairs. How do we tell the world about this war? they asked. How do we get the truth out? How can we prevent more innocent Iraqis from being killed? How can we prevent more people being sent to suffer and die? How can we build a truly democratic society and create the conditions to stop future wars now? I checked to see if I still had my SDS membership card in my wallet, and there it was, faded but with the old adage printed on the back as true for me today as ever: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort… looking uneasily at the world we inherit.”
Cindy Sheehan herself was gritty and authentic—engaged in the task at hand, entirely without entourage or acolytes, “body guards” or “mouth pieces.” When a vet posed for a picture with her and said, “My mom’s not gonna believe this—me and Cindy Sheehan!” she smiled and replied, “Before I was a minor celebrity, I was simply Cindy, you know. And I still am.”
Casey Sheehan was born May 29, 1979 and was killed in an ambush during his first week in Iraq, on April 4, 2004. His Mom wants the president to answer truthfully about why he died. The eloquence of the protest is its straight-forward simplicity. And simplicity ruled Camp Casey. A large sign read: “We will act in a way that reflects the world we want to create… We will act with respect toward the local community, encouraging all to join us.” Under the tent there are no outsiders and we are all equal—every human being fully present, fully recognized. Under the tent we can laugh more, dance more, love one another more, and fight the power more. Under the tent is the sensible and the ethical and the soulful place to be. Eventually, I believe, almost everyone will join us under the tent. Sooner, I hope, than later