[sixties-l] Critical review of Weather Underground memoir (fwd)

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Date: Fri Feb 08 2002 - 02:57:45 EST

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    Date: Thu, 07 Feb 2002 16:15:15 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Critical review of Weather Underground memoir

        Date: Wed, 6 Feb 2002
        From: portsideMod <portsidemod@yahoo.com>
    Subject: Critical review of Weather Underground memoir

    [This extraordinary review of Bill Ayers's FUGITIVE
    DAYS (Beacon) by Cathy Wilkerson appeared in the
    December 2001 issue of Z. They haven't put it on their
    website yet. I felt it was important to share it
    widely, in response to recent attempts to recast the
    Weather Underground experience as a myth of movement
    glory. I think most survivors of the period would agree
    that these reinterpretations come from bad historical
    memory, bad political sense, and/or a fetish for
    violence. To the extent that these features recur in
    present-day left movements, any sugarcoating of the
    Weather fiasco could have painful consequences. - Ethan

    As a past member of the Weather Underground
    Organization I found Bill Ayers' book Fugitive Days
    to be quite upsetting. When September 11 happened,
    however, I felt even more urgently the responsibility
    to weigh in. it was Ayers's inaccurate and unforgivable
    trivialization of our experience with political
    violence that I was trying to write about. For me,
    political violence includes the Gulf War, the U.S.
    attack on the Sudan, ethnic cleansing, world wars,
    civil wars, and national liberation - all of it. The
    decision to commit acts which intentionally or
    peripherally by chance injure or kill human beings,
    their cultures, and their environment never happens
    without lasting repercussions to those who do it, to
    the victims, and to the world that cradles these
    individuals. Unfortunately, political violence also has
    a partner, economic violence, which inevitably or by
    chance results in the death and injury of human beings,
    their cultures and environments.

    I was an organizer for the Students for a Democratic
    Society, and then a member of the Weather Underground
    Organization, which carried out a series of small,
    symbolic bombings of government and corporate buildings
    in the 1970s to protest U.S. policy of attacks on black
    activists in this country and aggression in Vietnam. As
    such I have grappled with these questions very
    personally. I have struggled ever since to sort out
    what parts of it I think contributed positively to
    progress and what parts were damaging to others and to
    the struggle for justice and peace. While those of us
    in Weatherpeople never killed anyone but ourselves, we
    made the choice - in the face of mounting violence
    against the black movement and the Vietnamese - to use
    lethal weaponry, which could have killed others, had we
    been unlucky. Many of us - certainly everyone in
    leadership - argued very convincingly for far more
    drastic steps than symbolic attacks at one point or

    As I mourn those who died recently in the World Trade
    Center attack, I mourn daily the three brave and
    honorable friends who died a few feet away from me in
    an accidental explosion of dynamite, and many others
    who died during that struggle, in Vietnam and here, I
    take none of it lightly. In that spirit I offer this

    Fugitive Days is a cynical, superficial romp through
    struggles waged in the 1960s and 1970s to change our
    country's unjust and inequitable institutions. Not that
    Ayers doesn't contribute genuine passion: he
    convincingly portrays outrage against the war in
    Vietnam, at the killing of millions of Vietnamese and
    tens of thousands of U.S. GIs. But he writes most
    effectively about his explorations of sex, drugs, and
    his participation in alienated, boyish pranks. While
    this approach captures a certain irreverent playfulness
    of the era, he maintains it even through his discussion
    of the armed actions of the Weather Underground.
    Nowhere in the book does he seek to name, let alone
    discuss, any deep questions of goals, strategy, or
    morality that faced organizers of that era, many of
    which still face young people who are working for peace
    and justice in the world today. Instead, he relates
    only pieces of potentially interesting stories about
    people who cared about peace and about justice, making
    these struggles seem like a glorious carnival. At the
    beginning of the book Ayers notes that when he moved to
    Cleveland to join ERAP (a community organizing project)
    for the summer, "the poverty of the neighborhood hit
    (him) at first like a cruel blow" because he "knew
    nothing of the smell of hardship, the taste of want,
    the enveloping feel of need." Sounds poetic and if it
    had been followed by some real exploration of poverty
    and his own questions about how this experience
    challenged his view of his own future, I would be
    interested. Instead, it is followed by the "falling in
    love" experience of those few months, one of dozens
    relayed with rapid-fire regularity throughout the book.
    The ERAP projects were honest attempts by many people,
    both students (many of whom came from working class or
    old left families) and community members, to work
    together in multiracial coalitions to affect change.
    The projects did change most people in both groups by
    providing each with a deeper understanding of the
    other, and by showing how much could be accomplished
    with the mix of experience and skills. While Ayers
    tells some interesting stories about participants, he
    concludes only that he "mostly loved everything (he)
    was seeing, and especially all that I was learning."
    He wasn't going to linger long enough to carry any pain
    or outrage with him. All of this would only reflect on
    Ayers as a privileged movement gadfly if he didn't so
    often claim to speak, despite a disclaimer at the start
    of the book, for all of us who were also present, as if
    everyone around him experienced these events with the
    same cavalier enjoyment. While most people in the
    movement shared a feeling of intense love and hope, and
    most of us sighed in relief for the increased freedoms
    we carved bit by bit from the rock of 1950s conformity,
    most of us spent time, resources, and emotion on
    surviving the bumps and punches of the daily struggle
    to survive, sometimes in extreme poverty; we were
    insulted and attacked in response to our political
    work, sometimes painfully by our own families; and we
    contended frequently with those who went under, often
    with drugs or alcohol, from the strain, from despair or
    from poverty and tried to figure out how to bring them
    back. Reflections about these kinds of experiences are
    completely missing.

    The movements of the 1960s had so many agendas -
    support for civil rights, black liberation, Puerto
    Rican independence, Chicano and Native American self
    determination, women's liberation, new economic
    arrangements, cultural freedom, peace in Vietnam,
    Vietnamese self-determination - to name just a few,
    that they interwove in complex ways. During the mid and
    late 1960s women came both to the arts scene and the
    movement, and later the hippie culture, to take
    advantage of new intellectual opportunities, to explore
    and validate our own sexuality and to stumble, fall,
    and argue our way into new roles in relationships,
    families, and work. But these steps were unevenly
    taken, and in many instances, the acceptance of freedom
    and experimentation became yet another license for
    exploitation and oppression. Thirty years later, many
    people have tried to sort these experiences out.

    Yet Ayers relates his relentless sexual encounters
    without the slightest trace of awareness that some of
    these encounters might not have been so positive for
    the woman. Ayers was a white man with access to
    tremendous resources who aspired to leadership. He
    indicates no awareness that he might have used his
    privileges to provoke women to give him access to a
    vulnerability that he was unable to honor. Certainly,
    when he asserted his leadership quite forcefully, and
    when access to leadership was in part defined by
    "coolness" - coolness being defined by a small
    clique, with increasingly tight control over
    information - the pressure for women to consent was
    enormous. My complaint here is not primarily with his
    behavior at the time, when we were all experimenting
    with values and at the same time coping with the
    escalating violence of the government, with the result
    that our choices were not always well reasoned out, but
    with Ayers's absolute lack of reflection since then,
    especially in the face of numerous attempts by women to
    explain - in conferences, writing and conversations -
    what it was like is mystifying.

    Most importantly, I think it is dangerous that a young
    person today could read this book and never realize
    that Ayers was one of the architects of much of the
    insanity he blames on others. His account mysteriously
    leaps from the Chicago Democratic Convention in August
    1968 to June 1969. During that period Ayers was the
    leader of the Michigan region, and then of the Detroit
    collective, which was one of the earliest formations of
    what became the "Weatherman faction." He later joined
    the leadership collective of the Weather Underground.
    During that time his infatuation with street fighting
    grew and he developed a language of confrontational
    militancy that became more and more extreme over the
    year. Yet he never mentions these speeches. I believe
    that he never took this language seriously himself, but
    rather saw it as a way to act tough - the way to
    recruit "working class youth." But he never takes
    responsibility for the fact that many people, most of
    us, did not realize that he only meant it as talk. In
    those days of murderous assaults on young black leaders
    and Vietnamese civilians, we were indeed desperate. A
    call to throw care to the wind, for white people to
    sacrifice, to bring the war home resounded with
    hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Many of us did
    not understand what this strategy meant in practice,
    especially the incoherent "Days of Rage." But the
    national leadership seemed to be saying that they did,
    and I, for one, admired the courage of those who were
    willing to step forward to leadership at a time when
    the task of responding to the apparent collapse of
    democracy seemed terrifying and absolute.

    Ayers recounts believably that, after the explosion in
    the Greenwich Village townhouse, differences existed
    among those in leadership between those who wanted to
    build a fighting force to do material damage and those
    who wanted to carry out occasional, symbolic, armed
    propaganda. To most Weather activists, however, in the
    year-long buildup to those days of their leadership
    meeting, none of those cracks were evident. By the
    summer of 1969, the romanticized violence was in full
    force. It was very easy for all of us to confuse a
    romanticizing of violence with increased militancy.
    Most people were uneasy with the escalating
    glorification of street fighting, which mostly seemed
    terrifying, not fun. Most were puzzled by the strategy
    of exhibiting random toughness as a way to recruit
    young people. But, since no one knew how else to up the
    ante to challenge a government that seemed bent on the
    total destruction of Vietnam and of black leadership
    and their supporters in this country, many of us
    committed ourselves to trying to "Bring the War
    Home." Then we endured long criticism sessions where
    our courage, intelligence, and commitment were
    challenged, often with the unfamiliar but powerful
    language of psychotherapy, dampened further our
    critical thinking.

    Within Weatherman, most of us wanted to escalate at
    that point. Many national liberation movements were
    struggling around the world. Some, like Cuba and China,
    had already been victorious. Armed struggle seemed to a
    great many like a reasonable possibility to consider.
    Thousands of young people were willing to consider
    tremendous personal sacrifices, regardless of our
    fears. Many Weather supporters, however, managed to
    listen to their own inner feelings and finally reject
    the spiral of self-destructive behavior that seemed to
    be accompanying this direction. Others could not summon
    up the necessary macho and were mustered out or took
    themselves out, feeling like complete failures. Still
    others stayed involved, despite warning signs that the
    means we were using to achieve freedom were far from
    fair or equal. The outrage at what was happening around
    us numbed us to the warning signs. The process by which
    the Weather leaders changed from the language of the
    famous Manson speech glorifying violence in January
    1970 to the moderation described in Ayers's book in
    early March was invisible to almost all Weather
    members. Certainly, the assumption of most was that a
    plan to build a clandestine, fighting force was full
    steam ahead. If, as Ayers says, things were different
    in the West, most participants and supporters in the
    East and the Midwest did not know this. Other positions
    were argued, but they were crushed under the weight of
    our urgency to be heard, some how, some way.

    At 17, Terry Robbins went to Cleveland ERAP the summer
    after his freshman year at Kenyon College because he
    was drawn to the community organizing model. Ayers, two
    years older than Robbins, moved in as one of his
    roommates for that summer. Robbins came to idolize him.
    During the next few years - especially during the year
    that is missing from Ayers's book - Robbins and Ayers
    continued to get closer, appearing inseparable at most
    SDS conventions and meetings. Robbins and Ayers worked
    together as leadership in the Michigan-Ohio region of
    SDS. Robbins was a high school honor student, a year
    ahead of himself in the Long Island public school
    system. He had grown up using his quick intelligence to
    win respect. As he and Ayers got closer they competed
    about everything, including the ability to come up with
    quick one-liners, quirky names, sexual conquests,
    street fighting ability, and eventually the ability to
    talk tough. In most areas, Ayers won hands down, but in
    intensity, Robbins had the definite edge. But while
    Ayers, according to what he writes, knew that his
    language, which increasingly glorified violence, was
    just show, Robbins was one of those who really believed
    all of it. He tried to act it out, being abusive to his
    girlfriend and trying to psych himself up to love
    violence. Robbins was far from alone in this behavior,
    but was certainly one of the most intense.

    Robbins worked hard to organize campuses throughout the
    Ohio region where he had remained after leaving the
    Cleveland project, and continued to be fundamentally
    motivated by the love for humanity that directed him
    initially toward the movement. For Ayers to claim that
    all of the craziness of late 1969 and early 1970 just
    sort of happened, that his "CW" character (who was
    not me despite the uncanny similarity of initials) and
    Robbins were primarily responsible for the disastrous
    bombing at the Greenwich Village townhouse, takes
    himself completely out of the process.

    For those of us who were there, the question of
    individual accountability matters. The most interesting
    and important question about this period to the broader
    audience, however, is how world and national events,
    the FBI's Cointelpro program, and committed activists
    interacted in pressure cooker conditions. What
    responsibility and accountability fall to political
    leadership - and "followership"? What are the
    strengths and weaknesses of a political strategy, which
    employs violence of any sort? What is the nature and
    value of democracy within political organizations, and
    to what extent does it reflect the future of any social
    institutions led by such organizations? Could we have
    been more effective in defending young black activists
    under attack? These are only a few of a host of
    fascinating and important questions raised by our
    experiences. Why write about this period and not engage
    any of them? It cannot bring honor to those who died,
    nor can it realistically help those who languish in
    prison under conditions that often approach torture,
    despite upwards of 25 years and more that most have
    already served. All of us who were active in the 19960s
    cared deeply about the injustices promulgated by our
    government. Like Ayers, almost all of us have continued
    to work for social change in one way or another. At
    times, Ayers writes eloquently about his past and
    present efforts to speak up against the greed and
    brutality of the political and economic system we live
    under. He was an effective and forceful leader and many
    people joined, left, or participated in activities of
    the time in part because of his leadership. If we think
    Robert McNamara and others should be accountable, then
    we, too, need to hold ourselves accountable and be able
    to discuss the mistakes we made along with the
    strengths of our past. Ayers did not, as the book
    suggests, float through the days in a haze of pot,
    semen, and good conversation. He was a powerful,
    articulate white male with a zany appreciation of
    life's twists and turns. He also fought for leadership,
    had opinions at least strong enough to argue them to
    others, and to act on them himself. Artists can say
    they are accountable only to their art. But people who
    presume to lead, to represent others, are accountable
    for the effects of those actions. How we sort all that
    out is what's interesting and what might help another
    generation of activists. A razzle-dazzle account of how
    cool someone thinks they have been is not.
    Cathy Wilkerson was an organizer for Students for a
    Democratic Society during the 1960s and a member of the
    Weather Underground Organization during the 1970s. She
    survived an accidental explosion of dynamite in her
    father's Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 in which
    three WUO members died. She has recently been a teacher
    and writer.

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