The 2008 U. S. presidential election brought the issue of domestic terrorism to national attention when it was reported that then-candidate Barack Obama was professionally linked to William “Bill” Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground was a militant faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national organization representing the New Left on college campuses. The American public was forced to confront the actions of the Weathermen, as they were known, and decide whether or not these former terrorists could be accepted as members of society.Although 60 percent of voters said that it was not a valid campaign issue in an ABC poll, another 37 percent felt that it was.
The Weathermen are unarguably an interesting lot, and a subculture worth exploring. At the time of their founding in the early 1960s, the SDS was a group that advocated nonviolence and followed the ethos of the civil disobedience. By 1969, the SDS had over 100,000 members, and was a leading anti-war group. At its peak, infighting severely fragmented the group during their 1969 convention.In the midst of the infighting, a sect that called themselves the Weathermen took control. They got their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need to know a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. ” They were a group of college students that were keeping up to date with the revolutions in 3rd world countries, and believed that a world revolution was imminent.
Bernardine Dohrn, a former leader and cofounder of the Weathermen, said that “White youth must choose sides now. We must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be the oppressor. She believed that the Weathermen should join forces with the Black Panthers, but a prominent member said that he viewed the Weather Underground as a “kindergarten revolution,” and didn’t take them seriously.In the same year, several hundred Weathermen moved into houses, which they called “collectives,” in lower income areas because they saw working class youths as more valuable than students. Meanwhile, the privileged students already in the organization began learning to use weapons. Laura Whitehorn, one member who lived in a collective, said that they would “eat noodles with garlic butter every day for months. This was an attempt to harden them and “force us to give up our bourgeois luxuries.
” In these collectives, monogamy was considered repulsive and Weathermen believed they were breaking repression with group intimacy. The mission was quickly underway in the collectives, with a campaign to “Bring the War Home. ” The Weathermen attempted to make violence visible in U. S. cities by breaking windows while distributing their leaflets. One of the first major demonstrations the Weathermen planned was called “Days of Rage,” an uprising in Chicago where they planned to confront police using violence.Inflated reports from the various collectives led leadership to expect varying numbers from the 1000s to the 100,000s to attend the demonstration.
In a “hard collision with reality,” only about 150 to 250 showed up. Leaders began to realize that they could be held personally accountable for the riot, but the event had become out of their control. The mob trashed windows while moving through the city of Chicago. After this, the FBI began to seriously assess the Weathermen. Don Strickland, an FBI agent in the 47th “Weathermen” squad, started conducting constant searches of the collectives.December of 1969 proved to be a difficult month in the United States. At a Rolling Stones concert, the Hells Angels gang started a riot.
Charles Manson’s family had become news. Violent films from Vietnam were all over. Fred Hampton, a Black Panther in Illinois, was killed while in bed during a police raid of his residence. The last event in particular affected Bill Ayers, as he realized that the U. S. government would kill people in it’s own cities when their power was threatened. The group began to divide again, this time because of fear.
One faction felt that the bigger the splash, the better, while the other feared for their safety.The more radical element began to seriously arm themselves, with the slogan “Piece Now. ” One member reflected on this buildup, saying that “When you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things. ” Arguably the first major black mark in the Weather Underground’s history occurred in a Greenwich Village townhouse, where members were building bombs and planning to detonate them at a noncommissioned officers’ dance. A short circuit in the wiring caused the bomb to explode, killing members Theodore Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins.This is when the FBI began to devote a large amount of resources to bring the organization to justice. In response, the leaders truly went underground and severed all ties to their families.
They met at a collective in Northern California in order to reevaluate their mission. It was here that the Weathermen realized that it was wrong to commit random violence against ordinary people in order to penalize society for the war in Vietnam. Bill Ayers in particular began to ensure that no one would get hurt in future bombings and only chose relevant targets.Starting with a police station in New York City, the Weather Underground began bombing various police, military and other government buildings. Every time they’d call in to insist that everyone evacuate the building. It was here that the members of the Weather Underground became idealized, as most didn’t expect them to get away with it for more than a few months. Living as outlaws, they were often compared to Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy.
The leaders, at the time called the “Weather Bureau,” began making trips to the various safe houses, sharing information with members on a strict “need to know” principle.This secrecy helped them elude the FBI’s standard law enforcement techniques, but the FBI was quick to adapt. They infiltrated the Weather Underground using undercover agents. These agents were accused of spreading “divisive stories,” and even physically attacking members. A group called the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, PA, and stole documents describing COINTELPRO, which covered a wide range of covert law enforcement tactics designed to divide both the anti-war movement and the black power movement.They leaked the information to the press. These techniques were effective, and the New Left began to lose its steam.
As black power and anti-war sentiment faded, the left broke up into various causes, including the Women’s Liberation Front and gay rights. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Weather Underground had entirely lost its sense of purpose. First, Mark Rudd turned himself in to the District Attorney in NY. Bernardine Dohrn soon followed. Eventually, the entire leadership turned themselves in, but very few were prosecuted because of the FBI’s proven misconduct.Works Cited Berger, Dan. Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity.
Oakland, CA: AK, 2006. Print. Rudd, Mark. Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen. New York: William Morrow, 2009. Print. Varon, Jeremy.
Bringing the War Home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California, 2004. Print. The Weather Underground. Dir. Sam Green and Bill Siegel. Perf.
Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd. The Free History Project, 2002. DVD.
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