|The Weather Underground
Anna Lappé, Guerrilla News Network, June 4, 2003
"Hello, I'm going to read a declaration of a state of war...within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice." - Bernardine Dohrn, member of the Weather Underground
The documentary "The Weather Underground" begins this way: David Gilbert, a middle-aged white man, who still looks like an awkward teenager if you squint your eyes just right, sits in a sparse room asking: "Did I pay the price? Yes. Was it a just cause? Yes." You soon learn where he is and what he means. The room: A visitor's hall in the maximum security Attica Correctional Facility. The "price": A life sentence. The "cause": Ostensibly the Vietnam War and the U.S. complicity in atrocities here and abroad. But later we'll learn what he's really in jail for: a post-Vietnam War militant group's holdup gone awry. This contradiction is a critical part of The Weather Underground. There are no easy heroes here, and no easy answers.
I saw the film in an air-conditioned, pitch-black press screening room at Sundance earlier this year and when the first frames started rolling, I realized I only vaguely knew who the Weather Underground were-a hazy memory from high school history class, a faint recollection of a Bob Dylan song. As I watched, I kept asking myself how had I not known about this splinter student group that emerged in the late 60s, went underground in 1970, and by the time it disbanded in 1976 had taken credit for bombing two dozen public buildings, including a bathroom in the State Department? They even busted Timothy Leary out of jail! (I feel only a little better when the 29 year-old film's editor tells me that before she joined the project she had never heard of them either).
For those of us who learned about the Vietnam War-era from films (think Platoon, Full Metal Jacket) and bad History Channel documentaries, "The Weather Underground" is a unique treasure. Blending archival protest footage with present-day interviews of key activists and revealing unclassified FBI surveillance documents and their infiltration of the student, civil rights, and anti-war movements, the film tells the story of an important chapter in our country's history-one many of us are still struggling to understand.
"The Weather Underground" begins with the context. By the mid-1960s, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was growing, a student movement was also brewing across the country. At its peak, the Students for a Democratic Society had three hundred campus chapters and thirty thousand-and by some estimates one hundred thousand-members.
But as the war continued, and racism and violence inside and outside the U.S. mounted, a faction frustrated by what it felt was SDS's slow progress, pushed for more radical, violent reform. They called themselves the Weatherman, inspired by Bob Dylan's line: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." And the wind, they argued, was bringing the war home.
Many of the Weathermen interview pointed to December 4, 1969 as their turning point. At 4:30 that morning, Chicago police officers broke into the home of Black Panther Fred Hampton, killing him and fellow Panther Mark Clark. To the Weathermen, this was government-sanctioned murder; a declaration of war. (The filmmakers move into and then out of this story and the relationship between the Weathermen, almost entirely white and middle class, and the Black Panthers. Like other stories that go untold because of the limitations of time, it would have been interesting to have explored this tension further).
A few months later, everything would change again. Convinced that violence was the only way to create the "revolution," the Weathermen started plotting bombings. On a March evening in 1970, in the basement of a West Village townhouse, three Weathermen were preparing a bomb planned to be detonated at a nearby Army base. Made from roofing nails and dynamite, when it accidentally exploded the three died instantly. A fourth, who was taking a shower upstairs, survived.
These deaths gave birth to the Weather Underground as the group's members went into hiding. For the next several years they operated secretly, organizing bombings that damaged a number of federal and corporate buildings. The film moves between members reflecting on these fugitive days, interviews with COINTELPRO FBI agents assigned to monitor their activity, and archival footage. In this push and pull of time, you find yourself listening as the members talk about life underground and their decisions to turn themselves in; you find yourself asking a thousand questions.
When I ask the directors, Bill Siegel and Sam Green, what questions they wanted to raise, they say, in part: "What is my responsibility to expose violence around the world and here at home? What is violence? What is terrorism? How does our society create these definitions? Most people think those ideas are fixed in stone, but maybe they're not."
In the film, the Weathermen's promotion of violence ultimately tears the student movement apart. SDS co-founder Todd Gitlin calls the Weathermen organizational "pirates" with "kindergarten ideas" who brought themselves to the same place as history's most ruthless murderers, convincing themselves that they were part of a "grand project." In the face of that dangerous logic, Gitlin explained, life becomes dispensable.
This animosity between the Weathermen and SDS ran deep. In the film, Gitlin wears it in his eyes. In a recent New Yorker article about a former Weather Underground member, an SDSer put it this way: "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are." When I ask a friend in his fifties who was a radical in Madison in the 60s about the Weather Underground, he rolls his eyes. "Idiots," he said. "They set us back decades."
In the New Yorker article, the Weather Underground is depicted as a group that found murder "cool" and violence "hip." The article quotes a movement leader, Bernardine Dohrn, saying: "Dig it First, they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them Wild!"
But in the film, members of the Weather Underground speak for themselves, not only from snippets of their political rhetoric at the time, but also today, looking back. We meet the present-day Dohrn (now a professor of law at Northwestern and founder of the Children and Family Justice Center there), her husband and fellow Weatherman Bill Ayers, and more than a half a dozen others. We hear each of them trying to make sense of that time and its contradictions. At one point, Mark Rudd, who was in the Underground's leadership, explains it this way: We cherished hate as a badge of moral superiority and you can't build a movement on hate.
Tonight, as I finish this article, I pick up an old copy of The Sun magazine and stumble on this paragraph from activist and author Starhawk about the anti-globalization movement:
"My fear," she writes, "is that this blessed, wild, unlooked-for movement, this rising tide of rage and passion for justice, will founder in the same way I've seen other movements founder; that small splinter groups will take us too quickly into forms of actions so extreme that our base of support will dissipate."
Maybe this is one of the important roles of "The Weather Underground" - or any powerful historical documentary-to offer us lessons from our past; to bear witness to our successes and mistakes so that we can learn to walk together to create, with each step, the world we want.
GNN contributor Anna Lappé is the co-author of Hope's Edge (2002, Tarcher), recently released in paperback. She is also the co-founder of the Small Planet Fund.
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