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a warm, fuzzy look at the weather underground

Violent activism is not something new. Back in the 60's, a radical group known as the Weathermen - an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society - decided to protest the violence in Vietnam by being equally violent.

The first national action of the Weather Underground occurred on October 8, 1969 in Chicago, in a four day protest against the Vietnam War known as the "Days of Rage." Hundreds of members used clubs and chains to vandalize shops and cars in Chicagoís business district.

March, 1970:

In the basement of a memberís Greenwich Village townhouse in New York City, members had created a bomb factory.

Three Weather Undeground members died while preparing a bomb.

Bomb manufacturing heightened, and in May of 1970, the Weather Underground issued a 'declaration of war:" "Within the next fourteen days we will attack a symbol or institution of American justice. This is the way we celebrate the example of Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown, and all black revolutionaries who first inspired us by their fight behind enemy lines for the liberation of their people." The groupís declaration proved to be true, as they soon bombed the headquarters of the New York Police Department and the barber shop at the U.S. Capitol Building. Twenty more bombings occurred between 1970 and 1975.

In Friday's Washington Post, staff writer Desson Howe reviewed a documentary, The Weather Undeground. It wasn't so much a review; it was more like eight paragraphs of an apologetic look at the radical group and one paragraph about the film.

THEY HAVE weathered, almost Mount Rushmore-like faces: Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd. Without even listening to their words, you can read auspicious histories in their middle-aged faces. What they did in their youth -- the terrible follies and short-lived glories -- is the intriguing subject of "The Weather Underground," a documentary about a social protest group that literally declared war on the United States government.

"Follies" would be the understatement of the century. Bomb making and inciting riots hardly qualify as youthful follies. Nor do they qualify as glories. To compare the faces of these extremists to the faces on Mount Rushmore is evidence of either a seriously overwrought writing technique or very telling of which side of the law the author would have cheered for in 1969.

Make no mistake about the goals of the Weathermen. In this Reason article from June 2003, Mark Rudd, a former member of the band of merry bombmakers, says:

When Vietnam comes up, my students will ask me: 'What did you do in the 60s?" Rudd says. "Well ... I helped found an organization dedicated to the violent overthrow of the United States government." [emphasis mine]

In the Post piece, Howe states:

But under the leadership of mostly upper-class white kids, the breakaway movement was mainly a tragic, disaster-prone endeavor as the Weathermen conducted guerilla-style bombings around the country, targeting government and other establishment buildings (including the U.S. Capitol). Although they took great pains to ensure those buildings were empty of people, they soon became pariahs to more people than they bargained for.

They took great pains to ensure those buildings were empty of people....

I suppose this is meant to invoke some sort of sympathy for the bombers. The qualifying word there is although, making it appear as if the author would want us to believe that they were humane bombers.

But for their uncompromising idealism, they paid the price of Rip Van Winkle. Emerging after years of hiding (when they surrendered, individual by individual, to federal authorities in the late 1980s and 1990s), they returned to an America that had long since passed them by.

Ah, uncompromising idealism. The hallmark of extremists everywhere. As long as you are fighting for your ideals, not compromising with say, the law, is justified.

I certainly would like to know more about the film itself and the makers of the documentary piece. I know nothing about it except that it will make you appreciate the bittersweet vision of hindsight.

Yes, something along the lines of "Gee, maybe blowing up federal buildings wasn't such a great idea after all."

Perhaps some day in the future there will be a similar documentary about ELF, ALF, PETA and all the violent protesters of the WTO and their window-smashing activism. And from certain media outlets we can expect a sympathetic look at the plight of the misguided youth who were only setting fire to buildings because of their uncompromising idealism.

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Comments

While not condoning the violence of the Weathermen, several groups pushing for American independance also committed acts of similar violence and destruction. They incided riots, destroyed public facilities.

Now, I am not by any means claiming that we should regard the Weathermen - or other groups trying to overthrow society by violent means - as morally equivalent to those that opposed English colonialism in the 1770's.

But - and this is a serious question - how do we distinguish between the actions of the weathermen, and the current anti-wto / globalism protestors - and the people we revere today as the founders of our nation? What makes some struggles - even the violent overthrow of a government - legitimate?

Ken, i'd say that is a good question, but one that has no simple answer. The best i could come up with is that it's something that is not only a case-by-case basis for determination, but something that must be viewed in perspective and your look at it depends entirely on your point of view.

ELF, for example, when you take into perspective what they do and why, they're retarded. That coming from my point of view. now, coming from the point of view of say...a jackass liberal hippie...ELF might seem like an alright bunch of guys doing their part to save the world.

Good takedown.

The ultimate meter of the acceptibility of a cause is the amount of popular support it receives.

The weathermen became pariahs because the majority of people viewed them as extremists.

George Washington and others became heroes because, ultimately, the majority agreed with them.

datarat, that sounds a lot like "the ends justify the means" which generally is good, but sometimes it isn't. my your take on it, if PETA was popular then you'd be saying that all their childish antics were a good thing since everyone agrees with it. not everything that's popular is moral or right.

other way to view this i guess is that the strongest write the history books. or something like that

Shameless self-promotion - I offered a more balance take on the movie for Reason magazine. Esta.

Actually, no real 'public' facilities were destroyed (in the sense that the WU was trying to do) by those American Revolutionaries. The closest you could come to that was one British revenue ship. Sorta like burning a Coast guard vessel. What they did do was pretty much ignore the royal government, and then set up their own when by opposition and non-compliance, they basically brought the British provincial administration to a standstill. Its kinda hard to get your laws enforced when there is no real enforcement capability. The British response was to use their Army, (which was what was done in Britian--the phrase 'reading the riot act' has its origins in this practice), but, since the local militias (mandated by that same royal government, heh.) had already decided that they weren't going to obey the royal government, you get the situation where the colonists end up shooting at the regulars.

Legitimacy ends up being largely codifed by success, whether its George Washington or Mao. That doesn't exactly explain away 'might makes right', but that's usually the way to bet.

What does mark the WU out as a bunch of whack jobs is that they did have an alternative of running for office and all that 'establishment' crap that they were so dismissive of. But then real participatory democracy wasn't what they were into, was it?

Eric,

I seem to recall a number of riots in Boston by the revolutionaries - I believe the Colonial Governor's house was burned. I could have been mistaken, maybe those riots were associated with dissatisfaction over Stamp Acts.

There is a line somewhere between having widespread public acceptance legitimising otherwise acts of vandalism, rioting, rampaging; and "the end justifies the means" or "might is right". I guess the masses in Russia were glad when 1917 revolution overthrew the Czars....

I guess you have to look to history to see whether a revolution (or attempted revolution) was "good". But then, the winners generally get to write history.

Certainly, an interesting (and generally underexplored) line of discussion.

I guess the masses in Russia were glad when 1917 revolution overthrew the Czars....

Probably, because what replaced them was at least an attempt at a representative democracy. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks overthrew that government and established the evil mess known as the Soviet Union.

I think there is one way to distinguish between the participants in The Boston Massacre and groups like the Weathermen: the former were trying either to keep or to establish a working society, eedjuts like the Weathermen just wanted to destroy the working parts of society with no concern for what might follow. Well, except for those of them who wanted to invite the USSR or China in to show us how government should work.

Attending college in the sixties, I was grateful to be at a boonies state uni where the nuts (and I include The Young Republicans as well as SNCC) were held down by the majority.