Above Photo: Weather Underground Organization founding members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn speak in San Francisco, California, February 20, 2009. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)
Those of us living within the borders of the United States currently find ourselves living inside the churning engine of a hyper-militarized corporate-fascist farce of a democracy that is spiraling into darkness. The blades of this death-machine are grinding what is left of our precious planet into dust.
Now, think back nearly five decades ago to the late 1960s. The Vietnam War was escalating dramatically and imperialism was lurching forward rapidly enough to cause ongoing demonstrations and political activism to spread like wildfire across the seething country. Some were fueled by a hunger for justice great enough they engaged in armed struggle against the US government.
It was they who comprised The Weather Underground Organization (WUO), a faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that took up arms in solidarity with the Black Panthers and other militant groups with the aim to “Bring the War Home.” Going underground to escape the relentless pursuit of the FBI and other law enforcement, the group managed to carry out several high-profile bombings — including one of the Pentagon — over a span of several years. Each action was tied to an act of imperial aggression abroad or within the US.
The Weather Underground’s bombings targeted symbolic infrastructure: The group went to great lengths to make sure that no human was ever harmed in the bombings, and none ever was.
Our current political moment brings to mind resisters like the members of the Weather Underground. How might they view the current crisis of imperialism the US has brought upon itself and the planet? How would they connect today’s struggles for justice with those of the past? What advice would they give to those working for social justice today?
Truthout caught up with several former leaders of the Weather Underground to find out.
Revolution “Was in the Air”
When it comes to mainstream perceptions of the 1960s, former Weather Underground member David Gilbert says, the struggle against imperialism is often given short shrift.
“We have to remember that the source of imperialism’s strength, the global scope of intense exploitation, is also its greatest weakness.”
“People looking at the 1960s through today’s lens see only the horrors that had to be stopped — the napalming of children and the massacres of villagers in Vietnam, the jailings and assassinations of civil rights activists at home,” Gilbert, who was a founding member of the Columbia University SDS chapter, told Truthout in a letter from prison. “Yes, that was horrible; yes we were furiously fighting to stop that, as well as the many other military and economic atrocities imperialism rains down. But that’s only half the story.”
Gilbert, was arrested in 1981for his role in a Brink’s armored car robbery. Gilbert and other white activists were part of a group they named the Revolutionary Armed Task Force. They were acting in solidarity with the Black Liberation Army, with whom they worked to rob the vehicle with the aim of acquiring funds for the movement. During the attempted robbery, two police officers and a Brink’s security guard were killed, and Gilbert was sent to prison for felony murder, alongside several other activists, including his wife, Kathy Boudin. He is currently doing time in the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York, and is not eligible for parole until 2056.
Like other “Weathermen” Truthout interviewed, Gilbert was motivated to join the radically oriented group because “revolution was on the march around the world.”
National liberation movements were gaining steam throughout the Third World, and were actually able to seize power in about a dozen countries.
“The most oppressed, the ‘wretched of the Earth,’ were reshaping the world in a more equitable and humane way,” Gilbert wrote. “Those of us who later formed the Weather Underground pored over these various revolutions, studying both how they won against imperialism’s monstrous military machines and the changes they brought about in terms of education, health care, land reform, and women’s rights.”
“Perhaps even more than our revulsion for the atrocities, we were propelled by the sense of possibility, that revolution was in the air.”
Meanwhile, the US was quaking with internal upheavals. Inspired by the emergence of Black Power, mounting militant movements for self-determination grew among Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Asian Americans. The Weather Underground was made up of white organizers who were responding to the call of Black-led groups to put their lives on the line in solidarity with oppressed people around the world. WUO member Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of the group, said, “It was largely an era of revolutionary nationalism and racial separation. The Black Panthers called us — not just the WUO but the anti-imperialist, anti-racist movement — ‘white mother-country radicals.'”
Waves of other radical movements also swelled, including antiwar, student, women’s rights, lesbian/gay liberation, environmental and workers movements.
“Perhaps even more than our revulsion for the atrocities, we were propelled by the sense of possibility, that revolution was in the air … and advancing on many fronts on the ground,” Gilbert continued. “If I had to put the differen[ce] between the 1960s and today into one word it would be HOPE … hope that the world could be changed, was being changed, fundamentally, by and for the vast majority on Earth.”
In our interviews, the Weather Underground’s leaders emphasized the interconnectedness of the many struggles afoot. Dohrn, who was a principal signatory of the group’s declaration of a state of war on the US government, stressed the connections between the war in Vietnam and racial injustices playing out in the US. She explained that the Weather Underground Organization was not singularly aimed at stopping the war in Vietnam, but also targeted the ongoing FBI assassinations of and attacks on members of the Black Freedom Movement, as well as being part of the broader international struggle for justice.
“We (the broad ‘we’) had convinced the population that these wars were wrong and unpopular, but the US continued its efforts to destroy the crops, the terrain and the lives of Vietnam,” Dohrn, who was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list for three years, said.
Dohrn explained that the Weather Underground’s bombings against the obvious pillars of war, like the Pentagon and the US Capitol, “showed that what looked invincible and overpowering was also very weak and vulnerable. These actions did not need a communiqué to explain who was responsible and why. By then, the sequence of WUO actions spoke for themselves, and had established a clear pattern of damaging property, but not human lives.”
Over the past two decades, Dohrn has done groundbreaking work within the fields of juvenile justice and human rights.
Another founding member of the WUO was Naomi Jaffe, who joined the group to be in solidarity with the efforts towards Black self-determination, and because of its Marxist ideals.
“We hoped to weaken the US from within, to give the liberation forces around the world a better chance to defeat it from without, to be part of Che’s strategy of ‘Two, three, many Vietnams,'” Jaffe explained to Truthout, citing Che Guevara’s model of guerrilla warfare and destabilization.
Like the other three former WUO members, Jaffe acknowledged that none of them were speaking for other veteran activists of their generation, and noted that they were all white.
“There are so many veteran activists from other sectors of our ’60s and ’70s movements, particularly people of color, who are still deeply engaged,” Jaffe explained. “I believe some of them are at Standing Rock right now [at the time of this interview]. Some are in prison.”
Like Gilbert, Jaffe was inspired by international revolutionary movements. She saw that the Vietnamese people, against all conceivable odds, were winning, and did eventually win the war. US General Curtis Lemay had threatened to bomb Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.” Yet the Vietnamese — despite rampant poverty — came together and, through ingenuity, unity and sacrifice, went on to defeat the world’s mightiest military power.
“This astonishing feat accounts for the gradual coming to consciousness of the famed US anti-Vietnam War movement,” Jaffe said. “It took being defeated by a small poor country to awaken large numbers of US Americans to the injustice of invading them in the first place.”
Jaffe pointed to the militant resistance of the Vietnamese people as a powerful sign that things could change in the US — and that the violence wrought by the US government was not inevitable.
“The resistance of a small underdeveloped country against a mighty military power became a model that created the possibility that the world might defeat US imperialism, which I believed then, as I do now, was the scourge of the earth,” she added. “I joined the Weathermen, not out of despair, but out of inspiration and the hope that we too could be part of the liberation forces that were sweeping the world.”
Dohrn’s husband Bill Ayers was also a leader and cofounder of the Weather Underground. Looking back on his years with the group, Ayers frankly acknowledged the persistence today of the systems against which the Weather Underground struggled.
“If you take perhaps our most straightforward and easily understood goals, you would have to say that we failed,” he explained. “We wanted to end a particular war, and even after much sacrifice and struggle and success at persuading people to oppose it, the war ground on for 10 excruciating years, and 3 to 6 million people were thrown into the furnaces of death; and then we wanted to end empire and usher in a world of equality and mutual recognition, a world without war, and look where we are.”
According to Ayers, they had set out to lay siege to white supremacy and create a society built on a foundation of racial justice and yet, decades later, massive disparities (life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration, school success, employment, premature death) are still etched sharply along the color line, still reflecting the pervasive entrenchment of white supremacy.
“We wanted to eradicate poverty and upend economic exploitation, and yet the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots intensifies,” Ayers, whose current work focuses on education justice among other areas, said.
Then and Now
Many people now feel a sense of urgency for deep change. But Jaffe wonders why folks haven’t felt that same urgency for decades “particularly in relation to the destruction of the Earth and US aggression and slaughter around the world.”
While she is finding hope and solace in the increasing political awareness the Trump administration has generated, along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has challenged “the culture of normalization of contempt for Black lives,” she remains horrified by what has become “normalized” in the US.
“2.3 million people, mostly of color, in prison; a dozen countries destroyed and their populations exposed to monumental suffering; the extinction of species,” she said. “How do we challenge this normalization now and prevent it from overcoming the anti-Trump outrage?”
Jaffe said the biggest difference between what we are facing today and what the world faced in the ’60s and ’70s is not in the magnitude of white supremacy and brutality. “Remember that the Black Panthers and other liberation forces arose in response to police killings similar to those being exposed today,” she said. Instead, the difference is the level of global resistance.
“Our generation saw resistance and liberation movements around the world that had a vision of global justice, a common enemy in US imperialism and racism, and a chance of success,” she said. “Those movements were largely crushed by US and European military and economic power; even the liberation movements that won militarily and politically, like Vietnam and South Africa, were more often than not overwhelmed afterward by the force of Western economic dominance.”
Jaffe sees the convergence of three massive events in this moment as a trenchant history lesson for us: the election of Trump; the death of Fidel Castro, at 90 years old — about 60 years after the Cuban revolution; and one of the largest and most defiant Native American resistance movements in this country’s history, which occurred at Standing Rock.
“Win or lose, every resistance redefines the moment, carries the torch forward for the next generation, and keeps alive the possibility of a better world,” Jaffe said.
Ayers sees many parallels between the 1960s and today.
“In 1965 I felt that the terms of the struggle were stark: a humane future versus annihilation, love versus hate, humanity versus the machine, balance and peace versus chaos and war,” he explained. “I was driven by the ‘fierce urgency of now’ and the palpable choice between barbarity and community. That sense only intensified by 1968 and 1969.”
Today, he sees the stakes as being both higher and more transparent, with “the furnaces of war more intense and the chaos rising, the waters rising, the world on fire.”
“Look at the country today: a trillion dollars a year on war, invasion and occupation, a tiny group of over-privileged — under 5 percent of the world’s people — on the wrong side of any hope for a world in balance and gobbling up the common and collective resources in a drunken frenzy of consumerism, acting as if large swaths of humanity and the earth itself are entirely disposable … and more.”
Despite that bleak analysis of our current predicament, Ayers still finds hope, and feels the “fierce urgency” even more strongly than he did five decades ago.
“I have enormous hope and confidence that the current generation, all of us, can and will find new ways to resist the madness and to build toward a world at peace and in balance, powered by love, joy, and justice,” Ayers said.
Dorhn, too, pointed to the political currents that have persisted across the decades, and noted that the election of Donald Trump reminds us of the kind of country we live in: a place rife with “naked white supremacy, armed neo-fascist forces becoming united with each other at the border, in statehouses, in rural areas from Oregon to Oklahoma to North Dakota.”
She believes the Trump election serves as a wake-up call for everyone to realize that the progress we’ve made is not nearly enough, and yet is at risk of being dramatically reversed. Those reversals have already become apparent: the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the restriction of voting rights, the proliferation of lying media sources driven solely by profit, the unraveling of the US/Iranian/European agreement on reducing nuclear weapons, and intensifying US hostility toward Cuba, to name a few examples.
Dohrn emphasizes that today is a time for telling the truth and being reliable as individuals, acting on those truths, and organizing among those who disagree. Her prescription for moving forward? “Resistance, counter-offensives, poetry, art, music, dance and more organizing.”
“We Have a Chance to Win”
Despite the dramatic march of US imperialism since the height of their actions in the late ’60s and early ’70s, all four former Weather Underground members retain a remarkable sense of hope.
Gilbert expressed solidarity and appreciation for the many activists who are fighting imperialism worldwide.
“The times and conditions are so different today that the WUO isn’t exactly replicable or a direct model,” he explained. “The aspects of our history that do apply are our sense of urgency, our passion, our commitment to fundamental change; and most crucially, the basis for that: a deep identification with all oppressed peoples worldwide.”
Gilbert believes now people must continue to find creative ways to resist. He says it’s vital to make the human costs of climate disruption and other major issues more vivid and immediate to large numbers of people.
“To recapture that crucial sense of hope and possibility,” he added. “We want to identify with and fight alongside the vast majority of the world.”
Gilbert noted that never before in world history has there been a ruling class as powerful and destructive as today’s, nor have the challenges the world faces ever been as formidable or daunting as they are currently.
“But we have to remember that the source of imperialism’s strength, the global scope of intense exploitation, is also its greatest weakness, with literally billions of people having a fundamental interest in revolutionary change,” Gilbert said. “The very scope … of the system also makes it unstable and volatile in ways that will undermine its viability, which may open up dramatic new possibilities. There’s literally everything in the world at stake. When we fight, with love in our hearts, we have a chance to win.”
Dohrn noted that it is important to work to connect today’s various struggles, uniting whenever ethically possible. She mentioned a few of the dots that we must connect: “War and global warming. Indigenous rights and clean water. De-militarizing borders and immigrant rights. Exposing police violence against people of color. Demanding universal health care and housing. Free, universal public education that rejects testing, privatization and drilling for ‘correct’ answers. Expanding the arts, the humanities and thinking. Acting with love and solidarity.”
Jaffe, like the others, stressed that it is of the utmost importance to get politically involved, in whatever way one feels pulled to do so. The evils embedded within the system go way beyond Trump, she emphasized, and circumstances necessitate something revolutionary in response.
“That ‘something’ has to be with other people, face to face, and in some way build survival, community, resistance and solidarity,” she said. “In the wake of the Trump victory, a lot of that is happening all over the country — rallies, vigils, sanctuary cities, anti-Islamophobia and pro-LGBTQ rights marches, political strategy meetings … all valuable.”
Ayers also saw multiple points of entry for activists.
“The challenge is to dive in where you are, whatever your issue, location, or talent, and then to reframe every issue, and connect the issues to one another,” he said. “War and warming, work and Black lives, human rights and environment. When the upheaval is upon us we must be prepared to find one another, link up, and storm the heavens.”