“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.”
Former Weatherwoman Laura Whitehorn, who served fourteen years in prison, affirmed that President Bush’s brush-off of last winter’s massive antiwar marches as “politics by focus group” was familiar from the 1960s and encourages people to step beyond the bounds of traditional protest. (In November 1969 President Nixon defiantly claimed to be watching a football game in the White House as more than 500,000 antiwar protesters marched outside. The Weathermen promptly declared peaceful marches a losing tactic and soon went underground.) True to this script, Ramnath and the activists in her circle feel less and less willing to be “moderate or conciliatory.”
Green suggests that some people find the group’s bombings “very gratifying” as gestures of “defiance.” (None, he stresses, caused injury.) Kate Crane, a 29-year-old activist with the direct action group Reclaim the Streets and an organizer of panels exploring Weatherman’s history, explained, “I want to know what other people have done when things are awful.” Crane faults Weatherman with “terrible mistakes” and, like others raised in the Seattle-era activist culture valuing collective decision-making, judges Weatherman’s rigid hierarchy and dogmatism anathema. But she feels that the Weathermen “did some incredible things. They had lofty goals. The government was afraid of them. They were determined and they made a big impact.”
In December young activists again crowded Judson Church. At issue was the value, in a law-and-order-friendly climate driven by antiterrorist hysteria, of the kind of street militancy that once gave globalization protests such drama and impact. At the meeting, freshly returned veterans of the Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstrations in Miami balanced reports of their exuberant protest with stories of the appalling conduct of the police, who met the demonstrators with batons, rubber bullets, chemicals and crude rage. Tom Hayden, at the center of the “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, described in an AlterNet piece his near-arrest in Miami in a way that seemed to bind past and present .
In the post-mortem on the protest, pleas abounded for clearer goals, better tactical coordination and greater outreach to the local community. The whole scene, some lamented, had the feel of a trap. To protest from the polite distance set by police barricades was to risk being ignored; to transgress, even slightly, was to invite serious injury and criminal charges. Some questioned the political gain of such self-sacrifice, or of trying to take down a heavily guarded fence in a gesture of dubious symbolism. The sense quickly built in the room that a different and better plan was needed–some new form of force without violence, which could not be so easily assaulted, hemmed in, vilified or tempted into self-destructive escalation. But what? And how might it be harnessed in time for the Republican convention in New York City, on which activist eyes have long turned?
Years ago, the Weathermen and other activists faced similar impasses. It is well worth repeated looks–through a movie and a few good books–at the choices they made before making the next leap.