Days of Rage: What happened to the Weather Underground?

For around a decade, a small band of student revolutionaries calling themselves the Weather Underground managed to evade the authorities while carrying out a campaign of terror inside the United States. When the leadership handed themselves in, most escaped serious punishment, with some even securing lucrative positions in the new establishment. The official reason given for this was misconduct by the Federal Bureau of Investigation while searching for the group. Some of the few details that were publicly released related to wire-tapping and illegal searches, actions which are relatively minor in scope compared to the repression of other organisations, such as the Black Panthers, who were not extended the same amnesty by the justice system.

The group which later became known as the Weather Underground first coalesced in the late 1960s at New York’s Columbia University. At the time, the institution was awash with money from the Central Intelligence Agency, distributed by philanthropic organisations, most importantly the Ford Foundation. The CIA also operated through the National Student Association, a relationship which had recently exposed to the nation by a reporter for Ramparts magazine, Sol Stern, who later split with the left to take up a job with the neoconservative Manhattan Institute.

During the 1960s, Stern’s expose had shone a light on a wider conflict taking place across the country, in which the conservative vision of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover clashed with the efforts of his liberal rivals in the CIA. Underlying this shadow war were the structural changes taking place across the United States, which saw established systems of power such as New York’s Tammany Hall be worn down by the efforts of reformists linked to the Agency. In contrast, Hoover was determined to maintain the status quo, having already worked behind the scenes during the early years of the Cold War to engineer the Second Red Scare, in which the CIA was attacked for its attempts to influence American society in a more liberal direction.

Outmaneuvered by Hoover and his populist allies in local politics, the more elitist figures at the CIA were forced to establish a network of front organisations, with which they would continue to promote their reformist agenda. Although their support for influential New Left groups such as the National Student Association or the Congress for Cultural Freedom would be exposed in 1967, it did little to blunt the movement’s trajectory, which continued to build up to a critical mass, and would prove crucial in the setting the groundwork for overall shift in American society during the changes of the following decades.

Already, President Lyndon Johnson had allowed the CIA to officially take part in domestic counter-espionage, creating what would later be called Operation Chaos. Unlike the FBI’s COINTELPRO, Chaos embraced change, seeing a fundamental reshaping of American society as the way forward. What this meant in practice was the creation of a vast public spectacle that put forward the illusion of political conflict, yet which ultimately operated towards a common end. At the forefront of this would be organisations such as the Weathermen, which would soon coalesce out of America’s student movement.

In 1968, the mass demonstrations broke out at Columbia, with student activists such as Mark Rudd working with the emergent Black Power movement to protest against the construction of a new gymnasium by the university in the neighbourhood of Harlem. As a result, the two parties chose to segregate, part of a wider trend in the New Left which had been supported by reformist entities such as the Ford Foundation.

Prior to the demonstrations, Rudd had been an obscure member of the Students for a Democratic Society, a left-wing group originally set up as the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy before it went independent in 1965. Having become America’s foremost organisation for campus activism, SDS would come under the influence of Rudd’s “Action Faction” alignment, which battled various other groupings for control.

Rudd’s rivals included the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist outfit which had left the established Communist Party in the early 1960s. Since then, they had entered the student movement, which had begun to turn increasingly militant. Rejecting the arguments of humanistic New Left ideologues such as Herbert Marcuse, a former State Department analyst who emphasised the role of intellectuals as a cultural vanguard, the PLP retained a more traditional Marxist view of the proletariat as the agent of change in capitalist society. Establishing the Worker Student Alliance, they called on America’s students to support the country’s working-class on their way to revolution, a message which resonated with a considerable number of SDS members.

Against the rise of the WSA, Rudd’s Action Faction partnered with other sympathetic elements of SDS, including fellow Columbia protestor Bernardine Dohrn, forming the Revolutionary Youth Movement in late 1968. Other members included Bill Ayers, an activist from Chicago, and Mike Klonksky, national secretary of SDS, who helped RYM take control of the organisation. Although Klonsky would soon split with them over their embrace of terrorism, this alliance managed to hold onto SDS at a crucial time, granting them a nationwide platform to further their agenda.

Along with the Worker Students Alliance, the Revolutionary Youth also had to contend with the supporters of Lyn Marcus, who was later revealed to be a failed management consultant named Lyndon LaRouche. Decades later, with the mysterious LaRouche indicted for millions of dollars worth of fraud, he claimed to have infiltrated the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As it happened, this was the same entity that had spearheaded the LaRouche raids, and when the central figure was found guilty, he ended up serving just five years in a minimum security facility.

By that point, LaRouche had tacked sharply to the right, a far cry from his New Left days. Back in 1968, he had been a Marxist, of the Luxembourgist variety, claiming that a general strike by the proletariat was the means to socialism. His following had been particularly affiliated with the relatively unglamorous “Labor Committees” of the Students for a Democratic Society, which were tasked with forming connections to the working-class. This ideological tension soon blew up into open conflict between the Marcusites and the national leadership of SDS, with the catalyst being industrial action by the United Federation of Teachers against a decentralised school board that had been set up with the support of city hall and the CIA-linked Ford Foundation.

The UFT had been suspicious of this move, seeing it as a plot to weaken their bargaining power by splitting up the educational system. After the board removed several teachers for allegedly sabotaging the project, the union declared a citywide strike. In the SDS, the walkouts were backed by the Marcusite Labor Committees, yet were opposed by the Revolutionary Youth Movement, as well as the PLP, which accused the UFT and their supporters of racism against the minority communities in which decentralisation had been implemented.

Although the Marcusites briefly provided a shared enemy for the competing WSA-RYM factions, the controversy had caused further disruption in the wider organisation, which had effectively ceased to function by mid-1969. At a convention held in Chicago, a document was circulated by the national office. Taken from a Bob Dylan song, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows” openly called for SDS members to embrace terrorism, with the Ayers-Dohrn-Rudd faction of the RYM soon implementing their ideology with explosive results

Later that year, a few hundred members of the fledgling Weatherman movement flocked to Chicago to take part in the “Days of Rage” action, smashing shop windows and fighting with police before being arrested. With key leaders like Rudd and Dohrn granted bail, they officially dissolved the SDS and promptly disappeared, going underground to carry out a campaign of bombings across the United States.

Although the group cited the murder of Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton as a significant influence on their decision, while alive, the deceased had strongly opposed their decision to stage their Days of Rage in Chicago. Shortly before his assassination, Hampton had openly denounced the Weathermen in an interview, describing their random violence as a serious detriment to the Panther cause.

Even before Hampton’s death, the BPP had been pressed on both sides by the conservative FBI and the more liberal ideological apparatus of the reformist CIA, making them a uniquely persecuted entity during the time. Having initially emerged out of the Black Power movement, the Panthers had been attracted to a more Orthodox Marxist viewpoint, rejecting the humanistic embrace of identity which marked the New Left.

In 1971, a split took place in the Black Panther Party, after leading member Eldridge Cleaver was expelled for advocating armed struggle in concert with the Weathermen. Instead, Cleaver formed the Black Liberation Army from his exile in Algeria, having previously been expelled from Cuba due to allegations that the Panthers had been infiltrated by the CIA. Prior to joining the Panthers, Cleaver had already been a celebrity, having established his reputation while imprisoned for rape with his memoir, Soul on Ice (1968). Released from prison, he wrote for a time at the countercultural magazine Ramparts, before joining the Panthers as their Minister for Information. Soon however, Cleaver fled the United States for his overseas exile after a shootout with Oakland Police Department.

Co-founder of the BLA was Joanne Chesimard, who changed her named to Assata Shakur in preparation for her life as a revolutionary. Although she was far more of an obscure figure in the Panthers, her aunt, Evelyn A. Williams, had an extensive career in circles closely linked with reformist circles. In the late 1960s, while her niece was still an unknown, Williams had served as a supervisor for the federal Volunteers in Service to America programme at New York University’s Law School. Set up in 1965, its first boss was Glenn W. Ferguson, a former intelligence officer for the Air Force who went on to serve as ambassador to Kenya. As part of the War on Poverty, VISTA was a key plank of the Johnson administration’s attempts to recruit a new generation of ruling elites for the areas of the United States where city machines like Tammany Hall were being worn down by the efforts of groups such as the Black Liberation Army and the Weathermen.

The earliest known bombing which is claimed by the Weathermen took place shortly before the Days of Rage. These would be followed by a spate of blasts which drew national attention, including an explosion at a Greenwhich Village townhouse in mid-1970 which killed three members of the supposedly underground group. The deceased, Ted Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins, were said to have wanted to move beyond the existing tactics of avoiding death, with their intended targets including an crowded non-commissioned officers dance.

Afterwards, the Weathermen would continue to time their attacks to minimise the loss of life, instead targeting symbolic buildings such as a Bank of America branch in July 1970. Having established a pattern of regular attacks up until that point, the group took a break for a few months, before apparently pulling off the prison escape of psychologist and countercultural figure Timothy Leary, who had been sent to prison for marijuana possession. Havin served in psychological operations during World War Two, Leary had taken part in the sprawling network of assets which made up the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control programme as a researcher, studying the effect of psychedelics such as LSD on the human mind. After conservative outcry led to the drug being banned, Leary soon left academia to promote its use, claiming that it was vital to breaking down reactionary tendencies among the masses.

Leary’s argument had been implemented by the Weathermen, with the leadership using collective LSD use, as well as enforced polygamy, to maintain their control over the group. After they spirited him out of the country, Leary would briefly stay with Cleaver before the two publicly fell out. Both men would later return to the United States, with Leary passing information to the authorities as he did so, while Cleaver embraced the resurgent conservative movement in the late 1970s. By that point, the federal charges had been dropped after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, with COINTELPRO cited as jeopardising the case.

In 1977, Mark Rudd surrendered to the authorities. Having been working in Manhattan, Rudd moved to Albequerque New Mexico to lecture in Mathematics at a local college, and continues to maintain a profile as a minor leftist celebrity through his website. A few years later, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn also resurfaced, having started a relationship sometime after the death of Ayers’ former partner, Diana Oughton, in the Greenwhich Village townhouse explosion.

As with Rudd, the two would escape serious punishment, with Dohrn sentenced to three years probation while Ayers avoided trial altogether. Over in California, another Weather couple, Jeff Jones and Eleanor Raskin, received the same treatment after being caught up in a sweep for the suspects of the 1981 Brinks Robbery, which was carried out by a younger generation of the PFOC that had chosen to continue the path of armed struggle. Along with members of the Black Liberation Army, they formed the May 19th Communist Organisation, which operated a few years beyond the Brinks affair before all its members, bar one, were rounded up by the mid-1980s.

By that point, American politics had fundamentally changed. With the growth of an economic consensus which would later be called “neoliberalism” by its critics, the country’s elected representatives had instead turned to culture as the means by which they would define themselves against each other. At the congressional level, the complicated array of elected representatives, who often formed cross-party alliances, was replaced by an increasing ideological partisanship between the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans that masked this new reality.

Unlike the world from which the Weathermen emerged, there was no clash of systems that there had been between the ambitions of the reformists and the pragmatism of local bosses such as Chicago’s Daley. Instead, the spectacle of conflict that had first emerged in the 1960s would become the basis for the culture war of the 1990s, which continues to enforce limits on the ability for economic change three decades later. Naturally, the supposed revolutionaries of yesterday quickly absorb back into the ruling class, helped by their existing links to the victorious reformers. In the last year of the century, Bill Ayers was appointed as a director of the Chicago-based Woods Fund, established in the 1940s by a local businessman. When Ayers found his way into its boardroom, he entered a world of wealth and power, working alongside figures such as future President Barack Obama.

During the 2008 campaign, his rise to Senator in this world would come under fire from the Republican campaign, which had mobilised its increasingly conservative base by making hardliner Sarah Palin their running mate. At the time, American capitalism was in crisis, following trillion-dollar losses in its financial sector. Already, Obama had upset the presumed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to become its nominee, with his progressive credentials boosted by his opposition to the Iraq War. Although his administration would fail to deliver on key promises such as universal healthcare, as a candidate, he had significantly deviated from the acceptable limits of change, part of the temporary weaknesses of the country’s political establishment during the recession.

During a Presidential debate between Obama and Republican candidate John McCain, the issue of Ayers came up, and was swiftly deflected by the Democratic candidate, who pointed to the establishment roots of the Woods Fund, which had also included a Reagan appointee in his board during the time that he had served with the former revolutionary. Later that year, the election saw a historic win for the Democrats, who succeeded in winning back vast swathes of the voters it had lost to the Republicans during the culture wars.

As attention soon swung away from Ayers, the whole affair had failed to ask one critical question, how had a man who once embraced terrorism been able to easily slid back into elite circles such as the Woods Fund. With conservative media only interested in the story as an attack on the insurgent Obama campaign, and liberal media determined to downplay the matter altogether, the controversy would simply be absorbed into the growing grievances of the Republican base.

Soon after Obama was sworn into office, the Tea Party movement began, with its origins supposedly in the spontaneous call for demonstrations by CNBC editor Rick Santelli. In reality, attempts at organising around the catalysing incident for the start of the American Revolution had long been attempted by the libertarian fringes of the Republican Party with little success. After 2008 however, it would explode in popularity, soon becoming a national network of generously-financed activist groups that worked to entrench their side of the culture divide.

In the media, a key figurehead was Glenn Beck, who had worked a long career as an obscure, and apolitical, media figure before he blew up as a star of the conservative Fox News network. In lengthy rants to camera, Beck, who had embraced Mormonism following an early life as an alcoholic, cobbled together lengthy narratives about the impending communist tyranny that the Obama administration was apparently working towards. Making heavy use of the Ayers controversy, Beck embraced the role of Tea Party spokesperson, leading to conflicts with Fox management over his aspirations beyond simply being a media commentator.

By 2011, Beck was gone, attempting to form his own empire (“The Blaze “) before claiming to be suffering from a pseudoscientific neurological disorder. Like the upper echelons of the now-stagnating Tea Party, he quickly fell into line behind moderate Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who failed to vanquish an again-successful Barack Obama. For the next few years, the Republican voters would continue to radicalise, before quickly flocking to the candidacy of Donald Trump, who embraced the role of culture warrior on his way to the White House.

In early 2016, with Trump already beginning to pull ahead in the Republican primary, a debate was held between Ayers and conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza over the issue of education reform. Although little came of it, the event showcased the continuing ease with which Ayers operated within the world of mainstream politics, being organised by a key vehicle of the reformist movement within the Republican Party, the Young Americans for Freedom. Closely linked to CIA asset Marvin Liebman, who angered traditionalists by being Jewish, and as it later turned out, gay, YAF had been an early supporter of Reagan’s turn to politics.

Decades later, the group would invite the former boogeyman Ayers for a lengthy, respectable and largely dull debate which failed to register much interest in the shadow of the Trump campaign. At the same however, the stunt pointed to the ongoing relevance of figures such as Ayers to the American political spectacle, which had been rocked by the rising star of fringe left-wing Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. Like Ayers, the unlikely hero of the moment had also been an activist in Chicago during the 1960s. Unlike Ayers, Sanders had been the son of a lowly paint salesman, who worked for a time in a variety of entry-level roles in the world of liberal politics, including as a union organiser, before relocating to Vermont in 1968 after the mainstreaming of the Black Power movement.

Having worked his way up to Senator, Sanders helped set up the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1991, working to exert a minor left-wing influence in the party. As was tradition, members of the CPC would stand in Democratic Primaries, not because they believed they could win, but in order to seek out a bigger platform. By February 2016 however, there was a genuine path to victory for Sanders, who appealed to the same voters that Obama had successfully won back from the Republicans. In the end, the Democratic establishment and its auxiliaries quickly mobilised behind Hillary Clinton, who went on to lose to Trump.

Having played the culture war to the White House, Trump spent his four years in office governing largely the same way any of his mainstream Republican critics would. Instead, his administration’s tenure was marked by frequent clashes with liberal aspects of the American state, either by him directly or through proxies such as Attorney-General William Barr. In 2019, when the son of Kathy Boudin, Chesa, who had been raised by Ayers and Dohrn, became District Attorney of San Francisco, Barr hit out at the victory, eager to keep alive the aging specter of the Weathermen. For the Democrats, the race had quickly become a proxy for the wider conflict taking between the party establishment and the Sanders faction, which had spent an increasing amount of resources attempting to deflect accusations of prejudice by its many critics.

By the time that the 2020 primary rolled round, the renewed candidacy of Sanders failed to gain support from the same working-class voters, instead finding much of its support in areas which were already Democratic strongholds, such as San Francisco. Across the country, the wider movement inspired by Sanders also faltered. As with Obama and the Occupy movement, the momentary weakness of the American spectacle was quickly patched over by falling back on the battles of the past, in which the Weathermen had been an integral part. Naturally, Chesa Boudin is continuing this legacy, with the American system of power continuously adding to the expanding canon of its spectacle in order to maintain itself.

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Plain Sight Productions

Plain Sight Productions

Independent documentaries about the politics of the modern era

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