Weather Underground and Anarchy
The Weather Underground Organization (first known as Weatherman or the Weathermen) was a militant anti-war group in the “United States” from 1969 to 1977 that carried out many acts of vandalism against government and corporate property. They expected to inspire large numbers of Americans to replicate their actions, but they never acquired popular support. Contrary to assertions of “terrorism,” the Weather Underground did not physically harm human beings, aside from three of their own members who died in an accidental bomb explosion.
The group adhered to a Maoist ideology and has been sharply critiqued by anti-authoritarians for its vanguardism. Still, to some degree the Weathermen’s diversity of tactics and strategy of “bringing the war home” influenced later generations of militants.
Weather Underground member Mark Rudd reflected in a 2009 memoir:
Much of what the Weather men did had the opposite effect of what we intended. We deorganized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI—our sword enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll. As if all this weren’t enough, three of my friends died in an accidental explosion while assembling bombs.
Structure and Ideology
The Weather Underground organized as semi-autonomous collectives, each with about twelve people living together. Coordinating the collectives, a centralized leadership called the Weather Bureau was comprised of all men, except for Bernardine Dohrn. When Weathermen were arrested in the 1969 “Days of Rage,” the organization immediately bailed out higher-ranking members and left others in jail for months. This differential treatment prompted Rudd to reflect, “Weatherman was nothing if not hierarchical.”
The Weathermen intended for the collectives to eventually organize Americans into a Marxist-Leninist political party.
Weatherman adopted the 1968 SDS slogan “Bring the War home” and aimed to disrupt the US empire from within. They saw US imperialism as the primary enemy and considered Third World and black struggles to be the revolutionary vanguard. The organization dismissed the revolutionary potential of the white working class, thinking white workers had a rational interest in maintaining their white privilege. Weatherman went to extreme lengths to isolate themselves from the American population, going so far as to adopt the slogan “Fight the people!” They had debates over whether it was okay to kill white babies, and Dohrn made a speech praising the serial killer Charles Manson.
Life in the collectives included extensive “self-criticism” sessions in which members would spend hours criticizing someone for not living up to their puritanical ideal. There was an expectation that members would eschew monogamous relationships in favor of extensive sexual experimentation with many partners.
The Weathermen started as a faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the leading anti-war coalition in the United States in the 1960s. By the time of its 1969 national conference, SDS was dominated by three Marxist-Leninist factions. Relatively marginal within SDS, Anarchists distributed a pamphlet by Murray Bookchin criticizing the dominant factions for clinging to an outdated ideology. It was titled “Listen, Marxist!”:
“All the old crap of the thirties is coming back again—the shit about the ‘class line,’ the ‘role of the working class,’ the ‘trained cadres,’ the ‘vanguard party,’ and the the ‘proletarian dictatorship.’ […] When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of the past?”
The 1969 conference became the site of a power struggle between Maoist factions including Progressive Labor (PL) and the Weathermen. The former rejected youth counterculture and black nationalism, while the latter supported both. Borrowing a line from a Bob Dylan song, the Weathermen circulated their manifesto “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” It called for a white youth vanguard to engage in underground actions in support of black and Third World revolution.
Days of Rage
In the summer of 1969, the Weathermen moved into collective houses and began heavily promoting the “Days of Rage” that would kick off in Chicago on 8 October 1969. They hoped that thousands of people would show up and brawl with police. Members publicized the initiative on college campuses and even commandeered high school classrooms in attempts to recruit people. A few days before the action, Weatherman blew up a statue at Haymarket Square commemorating the police officers allegedly killed by Anarchists in 1886.
When the day came, only about 150 to 250 people actually showed up. Confronting a massive police presence, they started breaking windows of banks and other businesses. Police fired shots, wounding three people.
The Black Panthers’ Fred Hampton denounced the Days of Rage as irresponsible:
We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, it’s chauvanistic, it’s Custeristic. And that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred. And they call it revolution, and it’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly. We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided. They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.
The Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman questioned the strategic value of Weather’s violence, calling it “Gandhian violence for the element of purging guilt through moral witness.”
Weatherman found themselves extremely isolated and alone after the Days of Rage. At this time, they decided to go underground and start calling themselves the Weather Underground Organization. They also decided to abandon the above-ground group SDS, since they wanted to focus on underground activities. Rudd later regretted the decision:
The destruction of SDS was probably the single greatest mistake I’ve made in my life (and I’ve made quite a few). It was a historical crime. The war was far from over—hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, and we had yet to invade Cambodia and Laos. It would continue for five more years. We should have tried to use SDS to build as broad and powerful a movement to end the war as possible. Yet my friends and I chose to scuttle America’s largest radi- cal organization—with chapters on hundreds of campuses, a powerful national identity, and enormous growth potential—for a fantasy of revolutionary urban-guerrilla warfare. None of us in the Weather leadership, to my knowledge, were police agents either. We did it all ourselves. For decades I’ve been contemplating the wonder of this fact.
Town House Bombing
In March 1970, a Weatherman collective in New York’s Greenwich Village was building a bomb that they planned to set off at a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. It would have killed military officers and their dates. Brian Flanagan explained the rationale, “Our slogan was ‘Bring the war home’, and we really wanted to give the United States and the rest of the world a sense that this country was going to be completely unlivable if the United States continued in Vietnam.” As the collective worked on the bomb, it exploded and killed three Weathermen. After this tragic accident, the Weathermen agreed that their future actions would target only property, not people.
Ward Churchill argues that it was a mistake for Weather to restrict their strategy to vandalism and symbolic actions:
Brian Flanagan and Mark Rudd, who are in this new film about the Weathermen, are saying ‘you know, we made a conscious decision to do only property actions,’ which was not the original impulse and not the original understanding. It was a sort of wounded response to having three people killed in the Greenwich townhouse explosion. Well, in human terms I understand that these were their friends and all that, but if you are actually serious about engaging in an armed struggle and plan on testing the capacity of the United States, you have to anticipate that you’re going to incur casualties. And three is hardly an insurmountable toll that’s been taken. So again, you had middle class kids who were posturing as something else, and legitimately wanted to be something else and tried to transcend their origins. But they couldn’t do it in and of themselves, and they didn’t really have an interactive relationship with other movements, organizations, or people coming from a different experiential background and temper. They were a sort of bourgeois response. So you’re saying you’re going to do one thing, but actually you’re unprepared to do it. I can understand that, but I don’t accept that as being a model.”
Ongoing bombings and Jailbreak of Timothy Leary
In June 1970, the Weather Underground bombed the New York Police Department headquarters, and later that year they bombed the Capitol, the California Department of Corrections, and the Pentagon. In September, they broke LSD-promoting countercultural guru Timothy Leary out of a minimum security prison.
Leary, 50 years old, climbed and dropped down a fourteen-foot wall and ran to a highway, where jailbreakers met him with black hair dye and a new identification card. Leary was brought to Algeria, where he held a press release with Eldridge Cleaver. Algeria kicked Leary out of the country, and he went to Afghanistan, where he was arrested by US agents in 1973.
In 1974, the Weather Underground released a new manifesto titled Prairie Fire. It put a new emphasis on mass organization and building a Communist party. It attempted to revive the Left at a time when the Left was in serious decline.
After the US ended the Vietnam War in 1975, the Weather Underground started disbanding, and its members went into hiding. The 2002 documentary ‘’The Weather Underground’’ recounts, “By the end of the 1970s almost all of the members of the Weather Underground had turned themselves in. Few ended up going to prison. Ironically, the government was forced to drop most of the charges against them when it became clear how much the FBI had broken the law in pursuing the group.”
Peter Gelderloos comments in How Nonviolence Protects the State:
Interestingly, even among militant white activists, racism encourages passivity. One of the problems of the Weather Underground is that they were claiming to fight alongside black and Vietnamese people, but this was just posturing — they conducted harmless, symbolic bombings and disdained actions likely to put their own lives at risk. Today, their veterans are not dead or imprisoned (excepting three victims of an early explosives making accident and those who left Weather to fight alongside members of the Black Liberation Army); they are living comfortably as academics and professionals. Militant white anarchists in North America today exhibit similar tendencies. Many of the most vocal disdain ongoing liberation struggles, denouncing them as “not anarchist,” rather than supporting their most anti-authoritarian elements. The result is that these hard-core (and, at the same time, armchair) anarchists can find no real (and dangerous) resistance worthy of their support, so they stick to militant postures and the violence of ideological hairsplitting.
- Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), viii.
- Rudd, Underground, 164, 179.
- “You Don’t Need a Weatherman To Know Which Way the Wind Blows” (1969); Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/YouDontNeedAWeathermanToKnowWhichWayTheWindBlows_925.
- Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 561. Kevin van Meter, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Oakland: AK Press, 2017), ch. 3.
- Rudd, Underground, 189.
- Rudd, Underground, 164-165.
- Murray Bookchin, “Listen, Marxist!” in Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), 195-196.
- The Weather Underground directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel (2002), 1:30, https://vimeo.com/33006390.
- Sale, SDS, 602.
- Irwin Unger, The Movement: A History of the American New Left 1959-1972 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 173.
- The Weather Underground, Quote starts at 25:51.
- Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (London: Verso, 1997), 36.
- Rudd, Underground, 190-191.
- The Weather Underground.
- Tom Keefer and Jerome Klassen, “Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State: An Interview with Ward Churchill,” Upping the Anti 1 (2006): http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-indigenism-anarchism-and-the-state/.
- Unger The Movement, 182-183.
- Rudd, Underground, 228.
- The Weather Underground.
- Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (2007), Anarchist Library, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-how-nonviolence-protects-the-state.