Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity
I saw Bernardine Dohrn, one of the organizing forces of the Weather Underground speak at the 2005 National Conference on Organized Resistance. She was good. She talked about global resistance and generally impressed a strangely star-struck crowd of militant animal rights activists and anarchist travelers.
Dohrn, like many of the Weather Underground avoided serious jail time because of FBI abuses during their pursuit. She has been engaged in serious political organizing since her college years. As a radical lawyer, community organizer, and outspoken advocate for social justice Dohrn is an encyclopedia of tactics. But of course it is her stint of time as an underground bomber which seems to capture people’s attention. Well, I am overjoyed that the Weather Underground are receiving more attention, but it isn’t because they planted bombs.
I like the Weather Underground because they were militant. That’s right, I long for a return to earnest militancy – it’s the kind of righteous zest that I long for in politics. I want to smell the stench of white children of the elite turning quite seriously against their society. I want socialites becoming socialists and I like it when the well-trained dog bites the master’s hand. In Outlaws of America, Dan Berger’s history of the Weather Underground, we get a full-color portrait of the reasons why astute young people might want to be revolutionaries. Berger does a good job sketching the causes and justifications of a complex movement, but more than that, this book provides a cultural history of a vanguard of revolutionaries.
The neat thing about Berger’s narrative is that he highlights the heartbreaking pain of young white people coming to grips with their privilege. What should privileged folks do during the Vietnam War? How should youth react to wars of national liberation? How can folks really fight against systematic racism and poverty in the United States? The Weather Underground asked these questions and their answers came in the form of action. Berger starts the narrative with David Gilbert and other organizers of the Columbia University building take over which took place to fight the construction of a multi-million dollar athletic facility in the heart of impoverished neighborhood of New York City. The WU detonated their first successful bombing campaigns after the Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, local panther organizers. The Weather Underground placed bombs in solidarity with dozens of international liberation movements and jailed revolutionaries.
Berger describes the actions of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and other organizing groups as they struggled to make a meaningful mass movement of radical youth. In addition, he runs us through the transformation of the SDS into the Weather Underground, and the Days of Rage when hundreds of committed youth trashed the Gold Coast of Chicago running wild in the streets and screaming “Ho Ho Ho Chi Mihn”. Well documented police and federal repression were quick to follow. Despite the repression that the Weather Underground faced, Outlaws of America does a good job juxtaposing the police brutality against black, Indigenous and Latino organizers with the surveillance and infiltration of white activists. The black radical collective known as MOVE in Philadelphia was completely destroyed with MOVE members receiving lifetime prison sentences. Black panthers were hunted down and shot by police while white activists were trailed and photographed.
The period of underground gets shorter attention in Berger’s book. We get a chance to consider the needs that made the Weather Underground go underground and start building bombs, but not much reflection on the tactic and practice. There are more in depth books about the politics of living underground, such as WU members Bill Ayer’s Fugitive Days and David Gilbert’s A Lifetime of Struggle. Canadian militant Anne Hansen has penned one of the most heartfelt reflections on living underground in her book Direct Action. And the pamphlets offered by kerspelebdeb cover a wider range of underground militants such as the George Jackson Brigade and the UK’s Angry Brigade.
Perhaps the finest part of the book is Berger’s commitment to tell the story of the WU as they broke apart. While some members came aboveground to face charges, others moved laterally in radical circles committed to more underground work. Chief among them are the people like David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin who worked with the Black Liberation Army. Berger gives real attention to this part of the story including the trial of Kuwasi Balagoon and David Gilbert. The activists of the Weather Underground continued to strike from the Underground well into the 1980s. Their activism and militancy continue to impact our political scene. It is important that we have good research to help study militant movements. Berger’s book is a great contribution.
Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America is a fantastic book. The writing is heartfelt and the research is top-notch. Berger interviewed many of the original revolutionaries for the book and their participation is a huge part of the success of this text. For example anarchist panther and BLA political prisoner Ashanti Alston provides his astute analysis in Berger’s book. The book is careful and respectful to the subject of militancy and for that reason alone I think it is a recommended read.
Outlaws of America is published through AK Press.
Maxwell Schnurer is a revolutionary, a professor, and an aspiring B-Boy.