“If the Weather Underground ever had this many followers, maybe things would have turned out differently!” So floated the joke at Greenwich Village’s Judson Memorial Church, where nearly 500 people gathered last June to hear two former Weathermen reflect on radical history and the new American empire. The discussion was organized in connection with the New York City premiere of the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground. Far from a nostalgia-fest of graying rebels, the gathering, like other overflow events accompanying the film’s release, was composed largely of young people.
Sam Green, the documentary’s 37-year-old co-director, expresses surprise that his subject has struck such a chord. When he began his research in the late 1990s, “almost no one under 40 had even heard of the Weather Underground.” Those who had tended to regard the group as a distant piece of radical exotica, of little relevance in a time of rising stock prices and relative global stability.
The last several years changed all that. There are two new novels about “armed struggle” in the United States by post-1960s authors, a biography of ex-Weatherwoman Kathy Boudin, a Robert Redford-produced feature film about the underground in the works and countless “Where are they now?” stories that return to former members some of the celebrity of their fiery youth. In November of 2003, the New York Times recently attributed youthful fascination with Weatherman to the group’s enduring charisma and the existential appeal of the underground–maintained by intense loyalty–as a kind of substitute family.
Beyond these seductions of style and communitarian longings, a deeper political logic connecting “then” to “now” appears to draw young activists to Weatherman. The core ethic of the global justice movement is solidarity with the developing world. This stance, and the dogged faith that “Another World Is Possible,” recall the heady internationalism of the 1960s student left, which made opposition to US “imperialism” its chief cause. The United States’ unapologetic reassertion as an imperial power and the deepening quagmire in Iraq have summoned even stronger memories of the Vietnam War and the protest movement against it.
The resurgence of direct action tactics in the globalization, environmental and current antiwar movements has also fostered a new protest culture rewarding confrontation and risk, reminiscent of 1960s militancy. Moreover, the experience of jail, made increasingly familiar by the often arbitrary arrests that now accompany most major protests, has again radicalized the young. Finally, 9/11, the “war on terror” and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have sparked widespread fascination with terrorist culture.
Political and moral outrage may, however, be the strongest tie binding today’s activists to the radical past. Some have turned to electoral politics. But others, stung by the apparent ineffectiveness of sanctioned protest, feel drawn to at least Weatherman’s impulse to “bring America down,” as the slogan once went. “Weatherman seems real familiar,” confessed antiwar activist Maia Ramnath, age 30. She says of the demonstrations against war in Iraq roughly what the Weathermen said of those against the war in Vietnam: “We have this unprecedented mobilization, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. We have to stop following the same script. The authorities know the script better than we do.”