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Best of Boston 2009

Home grown terror

Cathy Wilkerson's memoir of the Weather Underground recalls a time when revolution seemed possible
By CLIF GARBODEN  |  October 25, 2007

A POLITICAL ODYSSEY: Cathy Wilkerson, as an active member of national SDS, rallying students to the organization and the movement.

Underground cinema
Two documentary films cover the activities of the Weather Underground in first-person interviews with some of the group’s high-profile members. Director Emile de Antonio’s 1976 Underground, made while many of the principals were still in hiding, includes segments featuring Kathy Boudin, Cathy Wilkerson, Bill Ayers, and Bernadine Dohrn. Copies of the film are difficult to find. A flashier and more disturbing 2002 documentary, The Weather Underground, by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, adds Todd Gitlin and Mark Rudd to that list, but Wilkerson does not appear.

Crisis housing
The "townhouse explosion" destroyed an historic building at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. The house was once owned by Charles Merrill, of Merrill-Lynch fame, and later by lyricist Howard Dietz ("That's Entertainment"). At the time of the blast, Dustin Hoffman lived next door. The current structure at that address, designed by architect Hugh Hardy, stands out — literally — from the block's row of flat 1840s Federalist facades. Hardy's plan pays a sort of tribute to the 1970 explosion by having the new building's front rooms set at an angle, causing them to protrude toward the sidewalk as if the structure had been turned on its foundation by some mighty upheaval.

By actions which compel general attention, the new idea seeps into people’s minds and wins converts. One such act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets. Above all, it awakens the spirit of revolt . . .
— Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin,
The Spirit of Revolt, 1880

Cathy Wilkerson, 62-year-old math teacher and mother of one, was, to quote “Desolation Row,” famous long ago, as a member of the radical political collective Weatherman, whose name references another Dylan song. To understate it in the extreme, Weatherman and Wilkerson were controversial players in the late-1960s–early-’70s anti-war movement. Thirty-seven years after a bombing-plot-gone-wrong put her name in the headlines and her face on FBI most-wanted posters, Wilkerson has chronicled the trajectory of her personal involvement in radical politics in an autobiography, Flying Close to the Sun (Seven Stories Press; 393 pages; $26.95).

Unlike the majority of ’60s anti-war activists, Weatherman advocated armed conflict with the war-makers and all who sailed with them, particularly cops, banks, military contractors, and imperialist corporations. While millions across America were demonstrating against the war inside confrontational limits set by the nonviolent tactical legacy of the civil-rights movement, Weatherman, in the spirit of 19th-century Communist anarchists, was provoking the police into street tussles and planting home-made bombs in politically ugly nexus.

We, by which I mean the anti-violence crowd within which I was personally active, considered Weatherman insane (if understandably so), and feared their extremism and criminal activities would give us all a bad reputation. Worse, violent crimes done in the name of the peace movement gave J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and pretty much anybody in a uniform the excuse they sought to justify, for example, murdering white students Jeffrey Glen Miller, Allison Krause, Sandra Lee Scheuer, and William Knox Schroeder at Kent State University in Ohio in May of 1970. (Gunning down black activists was, by then, essentially established law-enforcement practice.)

Weatherman was not the only armed revolutionary group; for a time in 1969 and ’70, some domestic political target was bombed nearly every day. If blowing up buildings was bad public relations, Wilkerson, by circumstance and fatal accident, became the movement’s negative poster child. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The short version
For those of you who tuned in late . . . the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) evolved from student socialist groups in the early 1960s. In pure form, it advocated the democratic principles of human equality, participatory democracy, and direct (i.e., outside electoral channels) action to address injustice — principally via community organizing or public demonstration. SDS played a key role in energizing Northern youth to assist the Southern civil-rights struggle.

By the mid ’60s, there were SDS chapters on campuses throughout America. The “national” leadership was so dedicatedly anti-authoritarian, and the information-based open-forum campus meetings so diversified, that the group lacked any unified goals or strategies. By around 1967, SDS was ripe for takeover by an organized doctrinaire faction, which it attracted in the form of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP, or just PL). PL overtly and covertly infiltrated SDS chapters, often dominated discussion, and did its best to bend the group’s agenda away from leftist democratic debate toward Leninist rhetoric. Where this happened, it weakened SDS’s influence on anti-war activism and encouraged the formation of a slew of alternative direct-action coalitions. PL couldn’t have done a better job at wrecking SDS if the FBI had paid them.

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Related: The kult of Al Kaprielian, War zones, Sideshow Bob, More more >
  Topics: News Features , African-American Issues, Anti-War Protests and Activism, Bill Ayers,  More more >
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