Ignorant Good Will

Ignorant Good Will

How an excesses of idealism and the embrace of violence destroyed the American left in the 1970s.


The terrorists attacked their target in New York on a sunny Tuesday in autumn—but not the sunny Tuesday we now commemorate. The year was 1981—a year in which, as Bryan ­Burrough observes in Days of Rage, his sprawling history of America’s post-’60s radical underground, the country had suffered the greatest number of fatalities from terrorism in that era of radical violence. That figure would not be surpassed again until the year the World Trade Center was bombed.

The 1981 attack is one of dozens of acts of cinematic violence narrated in Days of Rage, and it encapsulates some of the book’s key themes. A leader in the group that staged the attack was a man named Sekou Odinga. Born Nathaniel Burns, he had returned from Algeria, where he’d worked as a deputy for Eldridge Cleaver, who had established the Black Panther Party’s “international section” there (and was accorded official diplomatic recognition from Algiers). “We have a solidarity group in China,” Cleaver told a writer visiting his lair, which had a giant electrified map with colored lights that could be flicked on and off to represent revolutionary battlefronts all over the world. “Its chairman is Chairman Mao.” Cleaver also informally directed a new group from Algeria: the Black Liberation Army, a collection of terrorist cells that crisscrossed the United States, ambushing cops in cold blood. Upon its dissolution, Odinga helped start an even more shadowy and brutal organization, so informal that it went nameless, although its members referred to it as “the Family.”

The Family had an advantage over the Black Liberation Army, what its leaders called a “white edge”: a band of worshipful white fellow travelers who provided cover by renting cars and forging IDs. What the disciples didn’t know was that in the New York action, Mutulu Shakur and his comrades were going to carry out a “revolutionary expropriation” in order to buy cocaine. While two white accomplices, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, waited in a U-Haul truck, Shakur and two other men leaped out of a nearby van, shot a Brink’s guard to death, loaded $1.6 million in cash into the van, and sped off. Police officers intercepted the U-Haul vehicle and were about to release its white occupants—eyewitnesses had said the criminals were black—when Shakur’s crew sprang out of the rented truck and raked Rockland County’s finest with machine-gun fire, killing two. Boudin and Gilbert ended up holding the bag, which had been the plan all along.

If the attack proved anything, it was the extraordinary resilience of “revolutionary” violence in the United States long after it had any conceivable chance of bringing about social change (assuming that such a chance existed in the first place). It also drew attention to the cultish behavior of the Family, their systematic exploitation of revolution-­besotted acolytes, the incompetence of law-enforcement agencies in tracking them down, the underground network that assisted them, and the blood—barrels of it.

No less noteworthy is that even in our ­terror-obsessed era, the scale of this decadelong florescence of revolutionary domestic terrorism has been all but forgotten. “People always ask why I did what I did, and I tell them I was a soldier in a war,” Sekou Odinga told Burrough. “And they always say, ‘What war?’”

* * *

Burrough begins Days of Rage with the story of the New Left’s first convert to armed struggle, an oddball named Sam Melville, who started bombing random Manhattan banks shortly after enjoying the music at Woodstock and later died in the uprising at Attica. But the best history is always about the backstories—­the flashback reconstructions explaining how a mentality that may strike us as alien today made perfect sense in the minds of those who shared it at the time.

Consider Mutulu Shakur. Born Jeral Williams in 1950, he became an early proponent of the Republic of New Afrika movement. His career as a militant began in a hospital. In 1970, members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican version of the Black Panthers that started as a street gang, occupied the auditorium of a tumbledown hospital in the South Bronx to protest its inadequacies. They demanded a heroin clinic. Harried hospital administrators were amenable; they needed a heroin clinic. So they let the Young Lords start one. Nourished with nearly $1 million in state and city funds, Lincoln Detox soon grew into the South Bronx’s largest drug-treatment facility.

Its program prescribed a theory popularized by Malcolm X: “that the plague of drugs was a scheme concocted by a white government to oppress blacks,” as Burrough puts it. Shakur started volunteering; his specialty was acupuncture. Another part of the treatment was studying a pamphlet subtitled “Heroin and Imperialism,” which advised that a commitment to armed struggle was a more effective analgesic than methadone. Lincoln Detox soon became what Burrough describes as “a kind of clubhouse for New York’s radical elite”; for instance, medical supplies purchased with government funds—“by the truckload”—were turned over to the Black Liberation Army to assist it in its campaign of murdering cops. Crazy stuff, to be sure. But in the South Bronx of the 1970s—where cops were heavily involved in the heroin trade, and building owners found it more profitable to torch their property for the insurance than to rent it out—it’s easy to understand why taking the fight to the police seemed a more realistic route to social change than voting for Hubert Humphrey had been in 1968.

Burrough draws an equally rich portrait of the prison solidarity movement of the 1970s. He traces it to innocent roots: the work in the 1950s of Caryl Chessman, a serial rapist who brilliantly focused the attention of the nation on the brutality of California’s prison system in a series of lawsuits and bestselling books that earned clemency appeals from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. Chessman was executed in 1960, but not before his activism had jump-started the legislative process that led California to outlaw capital punishment. It would be the prison solidarity movement’s high point. “By 1967, after a bloody riot at San Quentin,” Burrough recounts, “California prison facilities had embarked on a cycle of violent and retaliatory crackdowns that would endure for years. It brought racial polarization, along with an avalanche of legal challenges and, among black inmates at least, racial unity and a taste for open confrontation with guards and wardens.”

Prisoners with time on their hands read books. Two volumes popular among black inmates were Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, by the Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella, and Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution? Both spun fanciful notions of how a Cuban-style overthrow of government could be effected, even in industrial powers like the United States. In 1972, one incarcerated adherent of the theory wrote a book of his own, Blood in My Eye, in which he averred: “We must accept the eventuality of bringing the U.S.A. to its knees; accept the closing off of critical sections of the city with barbed wire, armored pig carriers crisscrossing the streets, soldiers everywhere, tommy guns pointed at stomach level, smoke curling black against the daylight sky, the smell of cordite, house-to-house searches, doors being kicked in, the commonness of death.”

A certain type of white radical accepted this conclusion, too. “All through 1965 and 1966,” Burrough observes, the members of Students for a Democratic Society “peopled myriad civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, hundreds of them, but a kind of malaise soon set in. Every month brought more and larger protests. Yet there seemed to be little improvement in black civil rights, and more American soldiers poured into Southeast Asia every day.” A spiral of militancy resulted. Some came to see America’s prisons not as marginal to the Land of the Free but as its naked essence. It was an idea pioneered by Eldridge Cleaver, Burrough writes, who argued “that the most genuine ‘revolutionaries’ were those who were most oppressed: black prison inmates and gangbangers—an idea that appealed strongly to white radicals yearning for a taste of black authenticity.” After all, if you were a Marx-minded revolutionary serially disappointed with the stubborn refusal of one designated oppressed class after another—­blue-collar workers, white students, Third World peasants—to rise up against the machine in precisely the way your theory predicted, where better to turn for salvation than the most wretched places in America?

Their favorite hero was the author of Blood in My Eye. George Jackson was 12 when he carried out his first mugging. At 15, he was locked up in juvenile detention, escaped, was arrested again after knifing a man, escaped again, was recaptured, received parole, and then, after one final arrest in 1961 for a gas-station stickup just before his 19th birthday, spent the rest of his life behind bars. There he thrived, because he was more ruthless, cruel, and violent than anyone his fellow inmates had ever seen. “And you want to know why he was what dumbass people call a prison leader?” one of them later reflected to Burrough. “’Cause everyone else was shit-scared of him.”

Liberals ended up lionizing Jackson. In January 1970, during a brawl between white and black prisoners at Soledad peniten­tiary, a white guard intervened on the side of the whites via four well-placed rifle shots—“justifiable homicide,” the grand jury ruled. Jackson led the gang that avenged the three deaths by throwing a rookie guard off a third-floor railing. The lawyer defending Jackson from the gas chamber, Fay Stender, fell in love with him, as she had with an earlier client, Huey Newton. As part of her public-relations efforts, she arranged for a collection of Jackson’s prison letters to be published as Soledad Brother (excising some, however, like the missive in which he speculated about the possibility of poisoning Chicago’s water supply). Jean Genet was enlisted to write the preface. In between the book’s conception and its publication, Jackson’s brother Jonathan led an armed raid on a Marin County courthouse, taking hostages in a bid to negotiate George’s freedom and, in a shoot-out with police, blowing a judge’s face off with a shotgun allegedly provided by the recently fired UCLA professor Angela Davis. A sensation was born.

The New York Times Book Review assigned Soledad Brother to the Black Power radical Julius Lester. Lester—who, in a column syndicated the previous year in underground newspapers, had applauded a sniper who’d cut down “known enemies of the black community” from a rooftop in East St. Louis as the moral equivalent of the Vietcong—praised Jackson’s book because it would make whites nostalgic “for the good old days when all they had to think about was Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.” (The newspaper of record appreciatively subtitled the essay “Black rage to live.”) Christopher ­Lehmann-Haupt’s review in the daily Times was hardly less appreciative. The Book Review subsequently ran an interview with Jackson by Jessica Mitford, and later named Soledad Brother one of their notable books of the year. The New York Times Magazine profiled Jackson; the columnist Anthony Lewis praised him. After Jackson was cut down while attempting to take over a cell block (“The dragon has come!” he roared), 2,000 people attended his funeral. “During the services,” Burrough notes, “the Weather Underground detonated bombs in protest,” and San Quentin officials steeled themselves for what they feared would be an armed invasion.

The fawning coverage of Jackson in the Times continued, and Soledad Brother began appearing in anthologies. Autre temps, autre moeurs.

* * *

Ever since reading Days of Rage, I’ve been engaged in a lively online discussion with ’60s veterans over whether the events and beliefs described by Burrough should matter to anyone on the left today. American radicals aren’t robbing banks or planting bombs, and even when they were—in 1977, say, when the San Francisco Chronicle published a “box score” of bombings since 1971, including 23 at Pacific Gas and Electric (once with a demand for a 10 percent reduction in utility rates) and nine at area Safeway stores, and when more than 100,000 office workers were evacuated from their buildings in a single day because of bomb threats—the number of actual participants only reached the dozens. Even the veterans that Burrough interviews are hard-pressed to prove their activities accomplished anything. (There was, however, a knockoff effect. Have you ever wondered why restrooms are always locked in office buildings? Because in the 1970s, terrorists loved toilets: They frequently locked from within, and the stalls afforded privacy for setting a bomb.)

Myself, I do think these issues matter—­not so much for understanding the bombings and shootings themselves, but for grasping the significance of the support network that the perpetrators enjoyed, sustained by the ignorant good will of folks who’d never dream of picking up a gun.

Some of that support came from rank intimidation. The members of Lincoln Detox were able to liberate $1 million from New York’s dwindling coffers, largely to pay the salaries of people who did no work, with stunts like invading the offices of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation, barricading themselves inside, and smashing windows and furniture. But a lot of their power derived from the same sort of romantic infatuation with antiestablishment carnage that made Bonnie and Clyde a hit among radical college kids in the late 1960s.

Consider the reaction of Soledad Brother’s editor, Gregory Armstrong, upon meeting George Jackson: “Everything about him is flashing and shining and glistening and his body seems to ripple like a cat’s. As he moves forward to take my hand, I literally feel myself being pulled into the vortex of his energy. There is no way I can look away. He gives me a radiant smile of sheer sensual delight, the kind of smile you save for someone you really love.” Stender’s largely female public-­relations cadres, according to an observer quoted by Burrough, “each picked their favorite Soledad brother and were kind of ooh-ing and ah-ing over them,” as if with John, Paul, George, and Ringo five years earlier. “This was the revolution, baby,” recalled one lawyer to the underground, Elizabeth Fink—who was honorably self-critical in interviews with Burrough—“and they were the fighters.”

Sex was crucial currency within these circles. At meetings of the SDS, shortly before a radical faction of it became the Weathermen, ­Bernardine Dohrn “liked to wear a button with the slogan cunnilingus is cool, ­fellatio is fun,” Burrough writes. A member named Steve Tappis remembered “her blouse open to the navel.” Tappis had had enough. “Finally, I said ‘Bernardine! Would you please button your blouse?’ She just pulled out one of her breasts and, in that cold way of hers, said, ‘You like this tit? Take it.’” (“Weather crud”: n. genital infection incubated among Weather Underground cadres building revolutionary solidarity via compulsory orgies.)

A voyeuristic media exploited the underground’s glamour. One night in May 1973, a group of BLA soldiers traveling the New Jersey Turnpike were pulled over by troopers. One of the cops discovered an ammunition clip from an automatic pistol. A militant named Joanne Chesimard pulled a gun from beneath her right leg, shooting the cop at point-blank range (he survived). The gun battle that followed (in which another trooper was fatally shot in the head) was the subject of a breathless six-page spread in the next day’s Daily News, which labeled her “the high priestess of the cop-hating Black Liberation Army” and the “black Joan of Arc.” The power of that frisson has not faded. Currently, a group of Berkeley students is demanding that a campus building housing the Department of African-American Studies be renamed after Chesimard’s nom de guerre, Assata Shakur. “We want the renaming [for] someone, Assata Shakur, who we feel…represents us black students,” a spokesman for the Berkeley black student union said.

They’re kids. Excuse them their ignorance. It’s harder to excuse the aged Bay Area radicals who, Burrough points out, “hang George Jackson’s picture to this day.”

* * *

By January 1970, as Burrough tells the story, Weathermen cells were engaged in a manic competition to see which could execute the most lunatic action first—a race that ended when explosives intended for a massacre of soldiers and their dates at a Fort Dix dance prematurely detonated, and backhoes started scooping body parts from the ruins of a Greenwich Village townhouse that a Weatherman had commandeered from her out-of-town parents to serve as a bomb factory.

On February 12, 1970, according to new interviews and evidence gathered by Burrough, a Weatherman bomb went off in the parking lot of Berkeley police headquarters. A second bomb exploded 30 seconds later. Miraculously, no one died, even though it happened during a shift change—“frankly, to maximize deaths,” said a Weatherman involved that night. Then, four days later, a bomb packed with industrial fence staples went off just before a shift change at a station house in San Francisco, killing one officer. That crime was never solved. “Needless to say,” Burrough writes, “the Weathermen who were in San Francisco at the time all deny involvement.” (Burrough’s book is a useful primer on legal jeopardy, with otherwise forthcoming interviewees suddenly going silent when active, unsolved cases come up.)

James Weinstein, the late socialist historian and publisher of In These Times, had a cousin in the Weathermen named John Jacobs, known as “JJ,” whom Burrough describes as the most violence-besotted member of the group. JJ evaded arrest, dying in obscurity in 1997. I once asked Weinstein, who was a friend of mine, what he would have done had his cousin appeared on his doorstep in the interim. Answered this man who since the 1950s had devoted his life to radical politics: “I would have turned him over to the FBI for destroying the left!”

That’s a little much, perhaps. But it’s still remarkable how passions that could have been put to more productive ends were wasted abetting narcissistic violence—even in the boardrooms of liberal bureaucracies. The most remorselessly violent sector of the left underground were the fighters of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña—the FALN, which announced itself to the world by exploding five bombs in quick succession in Manhattan on a single day in 1974. The action was coordinated with the aboveground arm of the independence movement, which had staged a triumphant rally before a full house at Madison Square Garden, starring luminaries like Jane Fonda, the following evening. The bombings and the rally were planned by the FALN’s front group, the National Commission on Hispanic Affairs. The NCHA operated out of donated space in the national headquarters building of the Episcopal Church. Their executive director was basically “the quartermaster of the FALN,” Fink explained to Burrough.

Neither the revelers at Madison Square Garden nor the officers of the Episcopal Church had any reason to know that terrorists were exploiting their hospitality. But FBI agents investigating the FALN’s most horrifying act—the bombing of the historic Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, which killed four diners during the lunch hour—discovered evidence in the church’s basement that the FALN’s communiqués had been produced on an NCHA typewriter, and that the plane tickets for spiriting the bombers out of town had been purchased by the NCHA’s executive director. The Episcopal bishop of New York responded by calling the subpoenas for the records of the terrorist organization an attempt to “prevent the church from funding progressive Hispanic groups.” Progressive ministers across the country created a new group, Joint Strategy for Social Action, devoted to organizing against this “illegal campaign against the churches.”

* * *

I wanted to learn more about Joint Strategy for Social Action, but Days of Rage offered little guidance. There are only 85 endnotes for 548 pages of text. Burrough is an astonishingly resourceful reporter. The book teems with sentences like, “‘Marvin Doyle’ is a pseudonym…. [He] works for a Washington-area think tank, where no one knows his history as a 1970s-era radical.” But he owes us more documentation, perhaps on a website: He makes serious charges concerning serious crimes, and, too often, his sourcing is unclear.

Still, the amount of new information is astounding. Burrough paints a rich portrait of one key figure about whom, incredibly, there hasn’t been a single sentence written in all the reams published about the underground. His name is Ron ­Fliegelman, and he taught himself to become the Weathermen’s master bomb manufacturer. (“A grandfather with a patchy white beard, he can be seen most mornings walking a tiny white poodle through the streets of his neighborhood, which is called Park Slope.”) Here’s Burrough talking to Fliegelman’s former partner, Cathy Wilkerson, while she is walking their grandson:

“I’ve been told what your role was.”

Her eyelids flutter. She reaches down and begins to rock the stroller. “You think you know?” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “You were the West Coast bomb maker.”

There is a long pause. She glances down at her grandson. He begins to spit up. She reaches down, wipes off his chin, and takes him into her arms, gently sliding a bottle between his lips.

“Look,” she finally says. “I felt I had a responsibility to make the design safe after the Townhouse.” The bomb design, she means. “I didn’t want any more people to die.”

There’s material for a dozen screenplays in this book, and set pieces aplenty. At one point, an “expro” is foiled when one of the patients Mutulu Shakur, the acupuncture specialist at Lincoln Detox, recruited for the job suffers a back spasm; that scene writes itself. The movie I most want to see adapted from Days of Rage is of Burrough getting the story, tracking down all these long-forgotten graybeards and grandmas, his eyes growing wide as he learns the tricks of the trade, thereupon depicted in flashbacks. One sequence could be “Weatherman wanders a graveyard.” (That was how you established an ironclad fake identity: finding the name of someone born around the same time as you, and using the identity to get a replacement birth certificate.) Another could be “A Black Liberation Army cadre rolls down all the car windows.” (That was what you did when you were getting pulled over: “if you have to shoot, you don’t want glass exploding all over you.”)

But movies are made mostly to entertain. Burrough does more, offering lessons to absorb. One involves the inner logic that leads sensitive souls of various ideological predilections to embrace violence for political ends. The number of American leftists studying bomb-making over the last couple of decades may be vanishingly small, but the number of Americans is not: Timothy McVeigh and his drums of fertilizer; the Tsarnaev brothers and their pressure cookers; abortion-clinic bombers; young Minnesotans scouring the Internet for ways to travel to Syria to join ISIS—all of them are seekers of a certain kind of Dostoyevskian fantasy of communion. They are radical narcissists detached from reality, certain that their spark would ignite the great silent masses who share the same sense of futility and frustration. They see society as a powder keg almost ready to blow. The book provides rich raw material to draw these connections, even if Burrough’s own analysis, and his engagement with scholarship about what makes violent extremists tick, is thin. (“What the underground movement was truly about—what it was always about—was the plight of black Americans”: This is his reductive conclusion, when his own evidence points to much more.)

Another lesson is about the counterproductive patterns of thought and action recognizable on the left today, such as the notion that there is no problem with radicalism that can’t be solved by a purer version of radicalism, or that the participant in any argument who can establish him- or herself as the most oppressed is thereby naturally owed intellectual deference, even abasement, or that purity of intention is the best marker of political nobility. These notions come from somewhere; they have an intellectual history. The sort of people whose personal dialectic culminated in the building of bombs helped gestate these persistent mistakes.

Some of them are still making them today. “For the hundreds if not thousands of whites who engaged in some form of armed resistance,” former Weathermen member Cathy Wilkerson wrote to Burrough in a pathetic apologia, “it mattered that we chose to step out of the encasing, protective cover of privilege—­class and/or race—and take equal risk with those who had no choice but to fight for a better future.” She seems to think her biggest mistake was not abasing herself enough: “That our strategic choices were corrupted by the inherited arrogance of privilege is of secondary importance.” Above all, she boasts, it felt good: “To be complicit made us feel desperately unclean, rotting from within. While in retrospect our strategic choices were rooted in arrogance and ignorance, there are no regrets about the choice to do our best to acknowledge that rot and to rid ourselves of it.”

Bill Ayers, another former Weatherman, thinks this way too. In a creepily evasive 2008 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, in two memoirs, even in speeches to high schools, Ayers presents himself as an earnest antiwar activist who never committed an act of terrorism, never intended to hurt anyone. He wraps the US massacres in Vietnam around himself as if they gave him a snow-white blanket of moral innocence. He insists that “through most of my life…I’ve been engaged in direct, nonviolent action, to oppose injustice, to fight for peace.” But Ayers was not an antiwar activist. He was a war activist. The Weathermen literally did declare war on the United States. At a bizarre little conclave in Flint, Michigan, at the end of 1969 that they called the National War Council and nicknamed the “Wargasm,” they game-planned their silly little war out. (This was the event where Ayers’s present wife, Bernardine Dohrn, celebrated the Manson murderers: “Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach! Wild!”) Their original plan was to kill policemen, former Weatherman Howie Machtinger told Burrough—hence the bombings in Berkeley and San Francisco, which I doubt would count as activism intended to end a war.

“Part of the dishonest narrative that’s gone on,” Ayers unrepentantly insisted to Fresh Air host Terry Gross, “has been the idea, pro­moted by some people on Fox News and others, that we were involved in lots of killings, which is absolutely not true.” That’s law­yerly: not a lot of killings, necessarily. “Did you guys kill cops in the ’60s?” he describes himself being asked by a policeman friend, before answering: “Absolutely not.” And this is technically true: The Berkeley police-station bombing—where, Burrough argues, they only tried to kill some cops—was in 1970. As for Ayers’s own role, Burrough says it was managerial, “shuttling between collectives in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.” In Detroit, for instance, according to FBI informant Larry Grathwohl, Ayers led a discussion at which he brought up the trial of several Detroit cops for killing three black men during the 1967 riot:

“Where did [those] pigs get the money to hire decent lawyers?” Ayers asked. “The Police Officers Association put up the money.” When someone mentioned that the association had a headquarters downtown, Ayers pounced. “We blast that fucking building to hell…. We wait for them to have a meeting, or a social event. Then we strike.”

Ayers then pulled out a hand-drawn map, Grathwohl said, and assigned tasks, while pooh-poohing Grathwohl himself for pointing out that a nearby restaurant filled with black customers might be collateral damage: “We can’t protect all the innocent people in the world.”

If nothing like this ever happened, Ayers should answer the evidence. He is reluctant to do so. The editor of Days of Rage, Scott Moyers, told me that Ayers and Dohrn refused all interview requests from Burrough over a period of years. The plan described by Grathwohl sounds a lot like the one that was hatched in New York to bomb a social event at Fort Dix, which led to the Greenwich Village townhouse tragedy, and which Ayers adamantly claims to have known nothing about in advance. Perhaps he didn’t—although Burrough writes that Ayers “almost certainly knew.”

And Burrough is thorough in laying out the anguished process in which, post-townhouse, the Weather Underground decided to turn instead to late-night bombings of property. “Weatherman, Weatherman, what do you do? Blow up a toilet every year or two,” ran the doggerel composed by the hapless and corrupt FBI squad charged with hunting them down. These bombings continued through 1975, two years after the Vietnam War ended, which makes it hard to see them as antiwar.

Speaking with Terry Gross, Ayers equivocated about being a “leader” of the Weather Underground: “We were a collective group.” Maybe so, but the leadership cadre of this “collective group” managed to live very well on the lam, while the foot soldiers existed in squalor. Among the latter was Ayers’s own brother, who at one point was so poor he had to sleep in a tent in a Los Angeles city park. And the leaders? To quote Rick Ayers on the crowd around Bill, “they always ate good food and they always slept between clean sheets.”

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