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.