Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Days of Rage": The Weather Underground, Violence and the Revolt of the Hardhats

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the violent path of the Weather Underground in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the predictable Middle American response.

As African American civil rights groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers embraced self-defense and more confrontational tactics, a new anti-war group, The Weather Underground, arose. Named after a line in the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" that included the lyrics, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blows”, so-called Weathermen engaged in domestic terrorism. They called for “anti-imperialist action in which a mass of white youths tear up and smash wide-ranging imperialist targets such as . . . high schools, draft boards and [military] induction centers, pig [police] institutes, and pigs themselves.”

The revolutionary group held “jail breaks” in which they “liberated” classrooms -- taking over school facilities to lecture students about revolution. The Weathermen dubbed themselves the “Americong” in tribute to the communist Vietcong guerillas battling the American military in South Vietnam. The Weathermen vowed to “bring the war home.” Announcing the start of “Days of Rage” on October 8-11, 1969, the Weather Underground attacked Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood, vandalizing cars and police vehicles, shattering store windows, and attacking random individuals. Both police and members of the Underground suffered injuries. Six Weathermen suffered gunshot wounds and police arrested 250 rioters.

The Weathermen descended into mindless nihilism, with one of the co-founders, Bernardine Dohrn, applauding the murders committed in Los Angeles August 8-9 by the Charles Manson cult in California, whose victims included the actress Sharon Tate in her eighth month of pregnancy. The Weathermen believed, according to historian Allen J. Matusow, that “no white baby born in the mother country of the empire [politically dominant Europe and America] deserved to live.” After the Manson murders, one of the cultists stuck a fork in the stomach of murdered Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca. “Dig it!” Dohrn said in a speech to Weathermen. “First they killed these pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”

The Weathermen conducted a series of successful and attempted bombings, including the detonation of a pipe bomb at the San Francisco police department headquarters in February 1970. On March 6, 1970, Weathermen gathered in a Greenwich Village townhouse prepared a bomb they intended to set off at a military officers’ dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. An incorrectly connected wire caused the bomb to explode, killing three members of the terrorist cell. In 1971-1973, members of the Underground set off several explosions at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the ITT headquarters in New York City and the United States Sate Department.

Classified as a domestic terrorist organization by the FBI and under intense pressure from other law enforcement agencies, the top Weathermen like Mark Rudd and Dohrn went into hiding during the bombing campaigns, using a series of fake identities. Gradually members of the Underground resurfaced and charges against most members were dropped because of illegal investigative tactics used by the police.

The chief impact of the Weather Underground was to damage the image of the anti-war movement, which overwhelmingly opposed violence. The “Days of Rage,” the bombings, and images of Black Panthers carrying weapons frightened many middle class and working class white Americans. As one worker said, “What I don’t like about the students, the loudmouthed ones, is that they think they know so much they can speak for everyone, because they think they’re right and the rest of us aren’t clever enough and can’t talk like they can.”


The Watergate scandal that unfolded between 1972 and1974, and destroyed the presidency of Richard Nixon, confirmed for many on the left that criminals ran the country. The ultra-bloody action film "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), which made a pair of 1930s bank robbers its heroes, and two Academy Award-winning movies, "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1975), reflected this cynicism.

In the "Godfather" movies, the Mafia dons insist that blackmail, beatings, and murder are just “business,” and it was clear that the director/writer Francis Ford Coppola did not see a vast difference between their ethics and that of big American corporations or President Nixon’s administration. In fact, the Mafiosa in the Godfather films behave with greater loyalty and ethics than the corrupt police officers and politicians who get in their way. “Now all the criminals in their suits and their ties/are free to drink martinis and watch the sunrise,” as Bob Dylan sang of the Nixon administration in his 1975 protest record, “Hurricane.” The real crooks, these artists seem to say, weren’t in the streets but safely ensconced on Wall Street and in the White House.

If the left believed the establishment had created a criminal society, many conservative members cried for law-and-order and a crackdown on student radicals, the Black Nationalists and the Weather Underground types. Many in the older generation saw these groups as bent on destroying the country. Such conservatives packed movie theaters in 1968 to watch the pro-Vietnam War film "The Green Berets," produced by and starring the hero of many movie Westerns, John Wayne. Berets portrayed the press as a liberal force that deliberately ignored the good done by the military in Southeast Asia, and the film portrayed the North Vietnamese Army and their Vietcong allies as evil.

Even when the media had a liberal message, angry whites found validating messages for their beliefs. A television comedy produced by left-leaning activist Norman Lear, "All in the Family,' first aired on CBS in 1971, starting a wildly successful eight-year run. The situation comedy centered on the malaprops and bigotry of blue collar worker Archie Bunker, who lived in a middle American home in Queens, New York, with his wife, daughter, and liberal, educated, hippie-like son-in-law.

In the series, Archie, played by the veteran actor Carroll O’Connor, mocked anti-war protestors and derided African Americans as “niggers” and “coons,” and called Polish people “Polacks” and Italians “Dagos.” Bunker was a fan of the politician he incorrectly called “Richard E. Nixon.” Lear intended the audience to relate to the much smarter and more tolerant son-in-law, Michael Stivic, and to laugh at Archie’s ignorance, but to many whites resentful over what they saw as black radicalism and lawlessness, Archie was a role model. T-shirts that said “Archie Bunker for President” sold well in the early 1970s.

Another strange conservative icon appeared in the movie "Joe." Peter Boyle plays the title character, a tool-and-die maker who meets at a bar a wealthy businessman who has just killed his daughter’s hippie boyfriend. Joe confesses to the businessman he’d like to kill a hippie, too. The pair later go on a shooting spree, killing counterculture types including, accidentally, the businessman’s daughter.

Boyle later said that the audience didn’t understand that Joe wasn’t a hero. He said that after the movie was released he went to a neighborhood butcher shop in Manhattan where an elderly woman recognized him and said, “I agree with everything you said, young man. Somebody should have said it long ago.” Author Rick Perlstein observes the uncomfortable parallel between the satirical film "Joe" and real life, noting the comment made by a Chicago ad salesman in a story in the May 18, 1970 edition of Time magazine. “I’m getting to feel like I’d actually enjoy going out and shooting some of those people,” the man told the Time reporter. “I’m just so goddamned mad. They’re trying to destroy everything I’ve worked for – for myself, my wife, and my children.” Such whites would form the army of voters who would begin to support conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and would join the ranks of right-wing activists opposing feminism, abortion and gay rights.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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