Sam Green’s 2005 Academy Award nominated documentary The Weather Underground brought the armed struggle organization of the same name to film festivals and theatres across North America. With Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, Dan Berger provides us with the first outsider history of the group since Ron Jacobs’ The Way the Wind Blew. Outlaws of America delves deeper than Fugitive Days – a disappointing personal account by Weather member Bill Ayers – and the short history released recently by David Gilbert. The Weather Underground is often romanticized by some in the radical left, but Berger does not fall into this trap. Instead, he has written an informative, critical look at the organization’s history and politics that provides the inheritors of their legacy with both inspiration and important lessons.
Berger has drawn upon over 20 interviews with leaders and rank-and-file members of the Weather Underground, as well as their contemporaries in the black radical left and other liberation organizations, to paint a picture of both the organization itself and the context in which it existed. Meticulously researched, the book is divided into three sections: “The Students for a Democratic Society and Global Revolution,” “The Weather Underground Organization and White Anti-Racism” and a final section entitled “Lessons and Legacies.”
Berger relies on political prisoner and former Weather Underground member David Gilbert to provide a narrative thread throughout the book. Gilbert and Berger have been corresponding since Berger was in high school, and in the introduction Berger recounts meeting Gilbert for the first time in Attica Correctional Facility. Berger’s prose manages to project a tone of human warmth and humility that is sadly not often present in writings about or for the radical left. Quotations from Gilbert open each chapter and highlight Berger’s engaging account of the Weather Underground’s development.
Outlaws begins with an introduction to the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was formed in 1960 as an almost exclusively white, middle class student organization that supported civil rights struggles, agitated for an end to nuclear proliferation, and sought to practice and promote participatory democracy. Members had a great optimism about their ability to “shake the moral conscience of America,” and the group grew exponentially after organizing a national demonstration against the war in Vietnam in 1965. By the end of 1968, SDS boasted between 80,000 and 100,000 members in over 350 chapters across the US. Along with the numerical growth, the analysis of SDS deepened to a point where they identified the struggle for social justice as one against imperialism – the system of US military and non-military involvement in other nations. Race was a central part of their understanding of nation, an analysis adopted from the Black Power movement in the US.
It is, in fact, impossible to comprehend the creation of the Weather Underground out of the Students for a Democratic Society without understanding the social movements from which the organization was born. Anti-colonial revolutions in Africa and Latin America were on the upsurge, and a few countries had managed to successfully drive out their colonial oppressors. The National Liberation Front in Vietnam, which was fighting for socialism and self-determination against the world’s foremost superpower, had not only managed to survive for years, but was in fact winning the war. In the United States, black communities were in revolt – in the first six months of 1968 alone there were 131 riots and urban rebellions. Dozens of black people had been killed during the previous few years’ rebellions and thousands had been arrested. The Black Panther Party, which organized around a socialist revolutionary nationalism, was facing intense repression from the FBI and local police agencies, including hundreds of arrests and even assassinations of its members.
Berger recounts all of these details, underscoring the material conditions and theoretical positions advanced by national liberation movements that led many activists in SDS to one conclusion: revolution was around the corner, and black people and third world people were leading it. It was up to white people in North America to support their struggle. A position paper published before the June 1969 SDS National Convention entitled “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” called for white youth to build a fighting movement allied with the leading revolutionary forces of the third world and the black liberation movement. Youth, especially working class youth, had less of a stake in the system, it was believed, and were better able to reject the privileges that came from being white in the belly of empire than their older counterparts. The “Weatherman manifesto” became the founding statement of the Weatherman faction of the SDS, which went on to become the Weather Underground Organization.
The Weatherman faction began to put its politics into action, engaging in confrontations with police and authority figures, as well as organizing mass street fights with the Chicago police during the so-called “Days of Rage.” Berger outlines how their hope of creating an anti-imperialist fighting force of white working class youth was hampered in part by the class make-up of the group. Like most of SDS, the Weatherman faction were largely kids from the middle class with little connection to working class communities. In 1970, the ultra-militant stance of the Weather faction of SDS culminated in tragedy when a bomb intended for use at a non-commissioned officers’ ball accidentally detonated, killing three Weather members.
The townhouse explosion drove the Weatherman faction underground. It also resulted in a serious self-criticism of the direction that the group had been heading. After much internal debate, the group decided to restrict its actions to “armed propaganda” and to avoid as much as possible actions that risked the loss of life. It is interesting to note that most armed struggle organizations of the period shared a similar commitment, and used arms only in self-defence. Most of these groups were founded on the belief that victory was not only possible, but within reach.
The armed propaganda of the Weather Underground involved over 20 bombings or fire bombings of carefully chosen targets, usually government sites or police stations. Berger describes how the actions were planned to highlight the imperialist actions of the state or the repression against liberation movements, as well as the vulnerability of the government. The bombings were always accompanied by a communiqué highlighting the reasons for the action, and the organization went on to establish an underground printing press which they used to publish thousands of copies of their Prairie Fire book in 1974.
Berger’s focus, however, is not on the specific bombings or clandestine actions, but rather on the developing politics of the organization, including its shift to a gender-neutral moniker. The Weather Underground shifted from a machista “go-it-alone” attitude in its earlier days to attempting to help build a wider movement against imperialism, including above-ground organizing with the Prairie Fire Organizing committee. Berger notes in detail how the changing context, including the cease-fire in Vietnam, affected the direction and politics of the organization, eventually leading to an acrimonious split in 1976/77. Outlaws of America goes further than both The Way the Wind Blew and Fugitive Days by describing the actions of former Weather activists years after the tumultuous demise of the Weather Underground.
The final section of the book takes a critical look at the politics and practice of the Weather Underground – an examination that truly sets this book above others about the Weather. Berger first highlights three ways the Weather Underground fought white supremacy: by exposing how racism is a defining feature of the US, both domestically and as part of its foreign policy; by calling for whites to support progressive demands of people of colour worldwide; and by challenging themselves and other whites to reject white privilege and fight racism. This, Berger argues, is the most important legacy of the Weather Underground, even though in several instances they fell short in their efforts to be an accountable anti-racist organization. I would argue that the hard work of organizing other white people against imperialism and white supremacy was hindered by virtue of their underground existence, which meant that the bulk of their work was limited to attempting to inspire whites to act. While that is certainly a laudable goal, I would be cautious not to over-emphasize such tactics today in the absence of a wider anti-racist and anti-imperialist above-ground movement. Until such a movement is built, this much more difficult task requires all the energy we can offer.
Along with the examination of the organization’s anti-racist politics, Berger addresses the class analysis of the Weather Underground. Outlaws describes their class analysis as being rooted in a recognition of the central role of race and colonialism. Much of the Weather Underground’s revolutionary praxis sprang from the idea of the “leading agent of social change,” which they saw to be people of colour world-wide, rather than a homogeneous “working class.” Colonialism was a class relationship, and they were highly critical of a class analysis that did not have internationalism at its heart. Correctly, they were critical of the white working class’s history of siding with white supremacy, and their commitment to “split the working class” along anti-racist lines remains vitally important today. Given how central colonialism was to Weather’s analysis, it is disappointing to note that the Weather Underground did not have an analysis dealing specifically with indigenous sovereignty in North America – something Berger barely addresses.
Even though women accounted for almost seventy-five percent of the Weather Underground, the organization had a very weak analysis of gender and patriarchy. Berger addresses the rampant sexism and machismo of the early days of the Weathermen, including the exhortation to non-monogamy, which created a coercive dynamic that often served only to make women sexually available to men. However, while he focuses on the sexist internal dynamics and culture of the Weather Underground, Berger devotes little attention to former Weather member’s critiques of the political ideas of the Weather from a feminist, anti-imperialist perspective. Given how one of the Weather Underground’s strengths was their belief in the centrality of race to imperialism and global oppression, it is disappointing that they did not recognize that patriarchy is just as central. Women are, to use Weather’s own language, a leading agent of social change, especially women of colour and indigenous women. Activists today would benefit greatly from an enriched perspective on radical anti-racist solidarity and feminist anti-imperialism, and it is a weakness of Outlaws that it does not contribute much to this discussion.
Outlaws of America is an engaging read that paints a full picture of the Weather Underground and the context in which it existed. Even with the odd minor misstep, Berger has given us something insightful and important that adds fresh perspective to discussions of the radical underground organization. We live in a time when global revolution may not be just around the corner, though resistance is definitely all around us. There is no clear “leading agent of change” pushing global liberation forward, but the radical commitment to anti-racism and solidarity of the Weather Underground can still inspire us. As the book emphasizes in its closing, the broader movement of which the Weather Underground was a part of is our movement; its fallen soldiers held in prisons across the US are ours to support; and we need to learn from their mistakes and their victories in order to strengthen the struggle against injustice.