courtesy of Japanese Forms
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” –Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues)
There are people in this country, well-educated young people, who think there is something very wrong with the United States of America. They say we’re in a war we can’t win. They say we’re fighting a war we shouldn’t have been involved in at all. They say scores of soldiers are dying for no reason. They say that the United State government is a greedy empire, and that empire needs to fall. They say we need to end this war.
And they’re prepared to stop it at any cost.
Right now, they are planning something that will make people feel the way they do. Something that will bring the war and all its atrocities home to America, to Chicago. There will be a riot – a protest strong enough to make the people in power pay attention.
In the end, they will have their chaos and it will end with violence. It will end with people taking notice as the revolutionaries declare war on their homeland, on the government of the United States of America.
But this war is not your war. This is 1969. On October 8, nearly 300 men and women calling themselves the Weathermen decided that the only way to stop the war Vietnam was to bring the war to America. For four days, the Chicago “Days of Rage” rioted through the Gold Coast neighborhood. Six people were shot and 70 arrested. A year later the group declared war on the U.S. government. They adopted fake identities and moved underground; the Weather Underground was officially born.
While they were preparing for a hit against a U.S. military officer’s dance, a bomb accidentally exploded in the Weather Underground’s safe house in Greenwich Village. Three members, including Diana Oughton (the daughter of former Illinois State Senator James Oughton), were killed. The group continued to incite violence and cause property damage in response to what they viewed as civil injustices against the American people and especially the African-American population.
The Weather Underground disbanded in 1977. Many members still live in Chicago and were never prosecuted for their militant actions because of gross misconduct by the government during their investigation. Almost 30 years later, the radicals of the 1960s are approaching or in their 60s. Many believe to this day that they did the only thing they could in a desperate time.
The top five leaders were Chicagoans Bernadine Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones, and two still anonymous members.
Today many people compare the war in Vietnam to the war in Iraq. In 2005, Bernadine Dohrn published “Letter to Young Activists,” in which she wrote:
“I have not met with such intense curiosity from the young about our experience since I came over-ground at the end of the seventies, If we were to take an anti-imperialist show of the road, we would sell out.”
Bill Ayers, who was arrested some 20 times during his involvement in the Weather Underground, is now a distinguished professor of eduction at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Fugitive Days, a memoir of his life on the run.
During a phone interview while he was driving from Champaign to Chicago (a two hour drive), Ayers periodically stopped the interview to say, “Hey hold on. I’ve gotta put the phone down. I’m driving past a cop.”
Ayers joined the Student Democratic Society in 1964 while he was attending the University of Michigan, where he majored in American Studies. He was a militant with SDS until 1969, when the leading Weathermen faction, led by Ayers and Dohrn, took hold of the SDS. Both lived underground and had two children before resurfacing in 1977.
Ayers feels that what he and the Weathermen Underground did is very relevant today.
“I feel really, really, lucky because the politics of the Weather Underground are politics I still completely agree with,” he says. “We thought the United States was building a world empire and we were opposed to it, and I’m still opposed to it.”
Ayers says white supremacy is still “the biggest internal obstacle to progress socially and politically. It’s more than a prejudice,” he says,”It’s a structure of privilege and oppression based on color.” And he still believes in direct action. “Once you know something, you have to act.”
Ayers cautions today’s youth not to idealize the 1960s however. “I don’t think the ’60s were as great of as horrible as they’re cracked up to be,” he says. He also warns against getting depressed when protests don’t keep the government from going to war. “The biggest anti-war demonstration I’ve ever been to was in February 2003, the demonstration before the war in Iraq, and still the war happened,” he says. “It’s naive to think that one demonstration was going to stop it, but we created the anti-war sentiment. We’re undermining the government and hopefully will have some impact on how long the war continues.”
Jeff Jones now lives in Albany, N.Y., where he is an independent consultant in media and political strategies and New York state coordinator for Apollo Alliance, which works on issues of job creation, environmental protection and energy independence.
“I feel right now that I’m doing the same thing I was doing 40 years ago,” Jones says.
He joined the SDS in 1965, when he was a political science major at Antioch College in Ohio. He had planned to become a lawyer and later a politician before hi anti-war involvement. As he became more active in SDS, he became disenchanted with mainstream politics and shifted to radical and revolutionary politics. “I couldn’t run for [political] office with the kind of political history I’ve had,” he says. Jones never finished his degree, although he sometimes jokes that he graduated from UCLA: the Uptown Corner of Lexington Avenue.
“One of the things that we understood about Vietnam was that this was gross imperialism,” Jones says. “My point of view is that the United States is doing the same thing in Iraq.” The U.S. government was interested in oil, not the Iraqi people, he says. “They made the same mistake in Iraq as they did in Vietnam, and they’re going to lose the war there, too, and pay the consequences.”
Bernadine Dohrn is now a clinical associate professor of law Northwestern University and the director of the Children and Family Justice Center in Chicago. She was unavailable for interview but has written extensively about her involvement as a radical and is co-author of Sing a Battle Song. In her “Letter to Young Activists: Beware 1960s nostalgia.” published in the Marxist webzine Monthly Review, Dohrn writes:
“At the height of the 1968 upheaval, activists at Michigan State felt dismayed that they were not strong and powerful, like those in Ann Arbor. Militants in Ann Arbor measured themselves unfavorably against the struggle at Columbia in New York. And at Columbia or Cornell or Berkeley, organizers were unhappy that they were not meeting the high bar set by the May Day events in France, where workers and students brought the government to the brink. The challenge now, as then, is living as a radical organizer in your own time, your own place.”
This article first appeared in the Fall ’06 issue of Echo Magazine. It is reproduced here in light of recent political events in the United States and the upcoming election.