Review of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity

By Dan Berger

Review by Chris Dixon, May 2006

Demonized or romanticized, the political formation known as the Weather Underground evokes strong feelings on the U.S. Left. Born from the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969 amidst growing movement militancy, Weather was an organization of overwhelmingly white and predominantly middle-class radicals who took Che Guevara’s slogan “two, three, many Vietnams” seriously, seeking to fight U.S. imperialism from the inside. They pursued this strategy through exemplary action – mainly bombings of government and corporate buildings – meant to destroy property while communicating a revolutionary message. Although the group collapsed in 1976-1977, Weather remains a fixture in the movement history of the period, one shrouded in myth and controversy.

The last several years have seen resurgent interest in Weather. And indeed there are many reasons why it’s worth reconsidering the organization in the current moment. Among them, imperialism – and the pressing question of anti-imperialism – is squarely on the table as the U.S. government wages wars at home and abroad. In these circumstances, Dan Berger’s new book Outlaws of America is deeply valuable. His history of Weather is neither simplistic nor detached, but invested, critical, and forward-looking. “The goal,” writes Berger, “is to understand the politics and practices of the past without looking for mechanistic formulas or losing sight of today’s realities.” In this, his book succeeds quite admirably. Outlaws of America is a serious study, drawing on an unprecedented scope and depth of interviews and archives while engaging crucial questions.

Berger aims to understand and critically evaluate Weather’s attempts to develop a politics allied with the progressive struggles of the world’s majority – a politics of solidarity. In this regard, he suggests that there is much we can learn from Weather’s successes and failures. As Berger puts it, “The group, at its best, represented an important pole of the Left – one insisting that stanch and unyielding opposition to white supremacy was the necessary prerequisite for any social justice movement. In that, there is victory to be claimed for anti-racist solidarity.” He seeks, in this, to confront the view that simply dismisses the actions of Weather as the “crazy” or “guilt-driven” efforts of privileged activists. Berger proposes a more complex picture.

Part I of Outlaws of America evocatively describes the historical context out of which Weather emerged. Berger challenges us to think beyond a “good sixties” and “bad sixties” dichotomy whereby we understand the early sixties as a time of optimism and idealism on the Left and the later sixties and early seventies as a time of irrationality, violence, and self-destruction. This “Tale of Two Sixties,” as Berger calls it, “obscures why people embraced radicalism and militancy” – a question central to his book. In addressing it, Berger particularly emphasizes the role of Black liberation and national liberation movements in radicalizing white student activists and in developing a political vocabulary for “naming the system” as imperialism – colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy interconnected. “These movements,” Berger argues, “suggested a role and responsibility for white radicals that had never before been articulated in so strong and widespread a way.” He also foregrounds the role of intense state repression, aimed especially at radicals of color, in motivating both white and nonwhite activists to think seriously about going underground and engaging in militant activities. Along the way, Berger carefully traces the history of Students for a Democractic Society, the primary national organization among white student radicals for most of the 1960s. His analysis of the splintering of SDS, which concludes this section, is especially rich as he discusses the at times absurd internal factional fights in the context of thorny organizational and strategic problems – a useful reminder that sectarianism generally blossoms in already troubled circumstances.

Part II of Outlaws of America follows the birth, development, demise, and immediate aftermath of Weather. Starting after the split in SDS, Berger first traces the group’s early series of actions in the period from the summer of 1969 until March of 1970. These include, perhaps most famously, the “Days of Rage” in October 1969, during which a few hundred young radicals ran through Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast neighborhood, trashing cars and businesses and clashing with police. This was also a period during which Weather members were self-righteously isolating themselves from many other sectors of the Left, building collectives, developing elaborate (and troubling) forms of cadre discipline, and engaging in further militant actions. It culminated tragically on March 6, 1970, with an accidental explosion in a New York townhouse killing Weather members Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robins. The townhouse explosion, Berger explains, was a turning point for Weather as many members hastily headed underground while also entering into a serious reassessment of their work. The outcome was a more defined orientation toward armed propaganda, targeting property and carefully avoiding injury to people, and a shift in the internal culture of Weather collectives away from, in Berger’s words, “their bleak tone and ascetic rigidity.” Weather was attempting to put its anti-imperialist politics into practice, taking some of the heat off of national liberation struggles at home and abroad through underground action. Berger underlines its significance: “here was the first anti-racist movement to voluntarily build a clandestine component since the Underground Railroad.”

From 1970-1974, Weather carried out a series of bombings, primarily against institutions affiliated with the prison system and the military, including the Washington D.C. National Guard headquarters, the New York City Police headquarters, the Marin County courthouse, the Harvard War Research Center for International Affairs, the U.S. Capitol, the California Department of Corrections, the New York Department of Corrections, and the Pentagon, among others. Each bombing was in direct response to government actions, consistently described in follow-up communiqués. The California Department of Corrections bombings on August 30, 1971, for instance, followed the murder of African American prison intellectual George Jackson, and the Pentagon action on May 19, 1972 followed Nixon’s massive bombing of North and South Vietnam. Weather also increasingly pursued other means of communicating its politics, releasing communiqués not directly tied to actions and, in July 1974, circulating thousands of copies of its book Prairie Fire which was written, printed, and distributed clandestinely. Later, from 1975-1976, Weather published Osawatomie, a newsmagazine.

By the mid-1970s, Weather was facing big shifts. Perhaps most significantly, the Vietnam War was winding down and mass movements in the U.S. were ebbing. Revolution was clearly not imminent. Trying to stay relevant to anti-imperialist struggles, Weather began to focus more on corporate targets such as ITT, Gulf Oil, and Anaconda Copper, all supporters of dictatorial regimes in Africa and Latin America. At the same time, Weather was wrestling with difficult political and organizational questions and turning more and more to Marxist-Leninism for answers. Rather than seeing itself as supporting national liberation movements, Weather began to orient toward party-building and organizing the “multinational working class” with itself at the helm. This was a major change in the politics of the organization. As Weather moved away from developing a strategy appropriate to the complex interconnection between capitalism and white supremacy, Berger contends, it set aside its formative commitment to “militant struggle against privilege” and laid the groundwork for its own collapse. This eventually occurred over the course of 1976-1977 through a series of failed attempts to chart a collective direction and a widening gap between leadership and rank-and-file members. By spring of 1977, Weather had unraveled, though, as Berger details, former Weather members continued to work in concert with other underground groups well into the early 1980s.

In recounting this history, Berger doesn’t shy from voicing criticisms, documenting internal tensions and debates, and including self-critical perspectives from former Weather members. Drawing on many of these reflections, Berger also offers his own concluding assessment of the organization. He raises key points in this discussion, particularly concerning accountability in anti-racist struggle, simplistic thinking about class in relation to race, the problems of tactical militancy for its own sake, the difficulties of discipline and democracy, and the persistence of sexism and machismo. In addition, he looks to the present, arguing that those contemporary movements “that most directly inherit the legacy” of Weather are the movement against the prison industrial complex and the anti-war and global justice movements.

My main criticism of Outlaws of America regards this promising final chapter. I wish Berger had gone into greater depth, especially in considering the legacies of Weather in the present. One legacy, in particular, on which we could use such sustained reflection and discussion is the ongoing attraction, on the Left, to a specific kind of vanguardism and militancy: that compelling cocktail of determined hardness, fetishized violence, embattled camaraderie, disdain for outsiders, and self-assured grip on the Truth. This was certainly manifest at times in Weather. Indeed, it brings to mind David Gilbert reflecting on the first period of Weather activity: “We mystified violence. We psyched ourselves up. We had great contempt for people who weren’t willing to do the same things that we were willing to do.” How do we account for the recurrent attraction to this ideal? And how might we understand it in thinking critically – but not dismissively – about Weather and the present prospects for anti-imperialist struggle?

Throughout Outlaws of America, Berger contests the myths and misconceptions surrounding Weather, and he largely succeeds. He insists on understanding the group in its context, which was one of escalating repression and rising militancy across the Left. Berger also gives us a glimpse of something we rarely see in discussions of Weather: the spirit of revolutionary possibility that animated so many of those who chose to go underground. And he steadfastly holds on to what he sees as the lasting contribution of Weather: its example as an organization of white people fighting white supremacy. The picture that ultimately emerges is one of young radicals who were deeply courageous, committed, and creative, but also deeply human: at times self-righteous, often uncertain, and always fallible. There are lessons to glean there, especially for today’s young radicals. Among them is the importance of hope, humility, and solidarity as we fight imperialism in our own difficult circumstances.