Volunteers of America
In 1997 Verso published my history of the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground. Weather Underground member Bill Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days, published by Beacon Press in 2001, followed. Two years later, the film The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, was released. The film probably received the greatest amount of coverage in the mainstream media, although the unfortunate timing of Weather Underground member Bill Ayers’ memoir (September 11, 2001) certainly provided his book with its own share, most of it negative.
There have also been novels written where the WUO figured prominently (most notably The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon Viking 2003), a pamphlet written by political prisoner David Gilbert (SDS/WUO, Students For A Democratic Society And The Weather Underground Organization, Arm the Spirit 2002) and the comparative study of the Weather Underground and the German leftist armed organization, the Red Army Fraction, by Jeremy Varon (Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies; UC Press 2004).
AK Press of Oakland, California is adding another book to this growing library of Weather Underground literature. The book, titled Outlaws of America and written by up-and-coming radical author Dan Berger, is an important complement to the earlier works. The first history of the Weather Underground Organization(WUO) to be written by someone whose age parallels the ages of the children of WUO members and many other "sixties" activists (Berger is 24), this well-researched and detailed work provides a perspective on the most well-known group in the militant wing of the anti-racist and antiwar movement. The book is essential to understanding the history of the 1960s, as well as the present movements against racism and imperialist war.
Two things make this book different than the one I got published 8 years ago. The first, and probably the greatest, is that Berger had access to the research and work that went into Green’s film and my book. In addition, he also had much greater access to many of the personalities involved in the Weather organization. Green had a similar access. Things were a bit different when I was writing my book (1990-1997). Queries I sent to those members in prison were returned to me by prison officials, never having reached their intended recipient. Only a few individuals who had been in Weatherman/WUO were willing to talk with me and only two were willing to go on record. Others were willing to tell me if my story was accurate or not, but refused to discuss any specifics. One reason for this was the timing of my queries. After all, many Weather members were still unsure of their legal status and, politically, the US Left was still reeling from the effects of the incredibly reactionary Reagan era–a period that saw many members of the militant US left imprisoned and its infrastructure destroyed. In addition, hardly anyone that I approached knew my politics–which were a cross between the countercultural anarchism of the Yippies and the new communist movement of the 1970s. Berger and others have mentioned that my book helped to make it okay for WUO to be discussed as a force in US radical history. I was sent dozens of emails and letters from people telling me their stories as members of WUO or other militant groups after my book was published verifying this impression.
The other major difference between my work and Outlaws of America is that Berger writes from the perspective of today’s generation of radical activists. (Indeed, Berger is co-editor of the recently released collection Letters From Young Activists.) His perspective is that of an anti-imperialist who came of age in the 1990s, not the 1960s and 1970s. This obviously provides a different perspective simply because the face of US imperialism has changed, with the end of the Soviet Union and its allies, and the rise of two worldwide movements against Western capitalism–the anti-global capitalism surge and the Islamic movement against the west. Both of these movements have varied strains and are only semi-consciously aware of the connections they share. Besides providing a different perspective on the WUO because of the difference in the historical situation, Berger’s viewpoint is one that is not laden with the personality conflicts and ego battles that are part and parcel of every "Sixties" activist’s recollection of the WUO. On top of that, Berger’s historical distance means that he sometimes places his emphasis on words and actions that have more importance now than they did when they occurred. This tends to provide a more congruous history. At times, his words may seem too uncritical, but as another historian who was accused of the same thing, it is my belief that most of those who make this criticism are either fundamentally opposed to WUO’s politics and analysis or are still stuck in a past that most Weather members have apologized for over and over.
Outlaws of America begins with a gripping description of Berger’s first visit to Attica State Prison to interview/converse with former weather Underground member David Gilbert, who has been in the New York prison system since a conviction for his involvement in the tragic failure popularly known as the Nyack Brink’s robbery. Berger obviously has a tremendous amount of respect for Gilbert’s commitment while simultaneously understanding the tragedy of his position. In fact, each chapter begins with a quote from Gilbert–a technique that provides the reader with a glimpse of Berger’s general perspective while never merely repeating Gilbert’s take on things.
Much of the book’s beginning is a general history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the dissipation of that organization into Weatherman, Revolutionary Youth Movement 2, and SDS/Progressive Labor. Using an academically-trained critical eye, Berger analyzes key documents published in the SDS newspaper New Left Notes and explicates the role these writings had in the political development of Weather. His generational removal from the times allows for an analysis that accepts the fervent anti-racism and struggle against white privilege that would become Weather’s theoretical backbone at face value. This is important to Berger’s history. Once he establishes these elements as the basis for Weather’s politics, Berger is able to provide the reader with a history of the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization that would make its former members critically proud.
Given this, one might argue that while Outlaws of America might make former WUO members proud, it certainly couldn’t be a good history if it accepts their political premise. After all, how could such a history be at all critical? To Berger’s credit, it is the very fact that he uses the yardstick of Weather’s essential political stance as the measure by which they should be judged that this history works as well as it does. It is apparent from his writing that his interviews with former members caused them to look at their actions and political words in relation to how well they measured up to their emotional and intellectual commitment to fighting racism, imperialism, and the white privilege these isms provide to white folks in the US.
As an activist who sees things differently than Weather did in terms of emphasis on fighting white privilege, I am more than willing to admit that it was their focus on this element of US society that made me aware of the phenomenon of white privilege and reminded me to fight it in myself and the larger world. On the other hand, my relationships with workers who also happened to be white led me to draw different conclusions about the way the phenomena of racism, white privilege, and economic exploitation interact in modern capitalist society. Of course, I was (and am) but one of hundreds of thousands pondering these questions. And they are important questions, to be sure.
Outlaws of America explores the final years of Weather in greater detail than its predecessors. In addition, Berger provides considerably more detail about the law enforcement activities arrayed against the WUO and its allies. This is one important part of the text where the element of time works in the author’s favor. Not only is there more information regarding the law enforcement activities against the 1960s and 1970s popular leftist and anti-racist organizations, it is also much more accessible. This fact combined with Weather members willingness to discuss their years underground helps Berger flesh out the facts of State repression against the New Left, Black, Latino and Native American organizations, and especially the WUO. As regards the final years of Weather, the fact that many more former members feel safe in discussing the activities and politics of the group provided Berger with an opportunity to uncover the material. Of course, unless he asked the right questions, he would not have discovered what he did. Fortunately, Berger not only asked the right questions, he found enough former members willing to discuss their answers with him. Consequently, the reader is provided with the most complete explanation to date of how and why the Weather Underground Organization fell apart. Like every other aspect of its existence, the fundamental reasons were political. The stories and discussions in this section are instructive for today’s movements as they struggle with questions of class, race, and gender.
Berger’s best writing occurs when he weaves the modern-day reflections of former WUO members into his narrative text. He does this so skillfully that those reminiscences never come off sounding awkward or irrelevant. Sometimes these reflections merely add a bit of physical detail, while more often they provide a contextual insight into what these women and men were thinking while they lived and took political action underground. This is what makes this book different and useful to the historian, the "sixties" buff, and the political activist of today. These people lived the life of clandestine revolutionaries and this book proves that they made the choices they made because of their politics. It wasn’t because of some guilt due to class privilege, nor was their choice related to some psychological occurrence of their childhood. Even more than the previous works about Weatherman/WUO, Outlaws of America brings it home, especially to the US reader, that people do make choices (life-changing choices) based on their politics. This in itself is revelatory in a culture that thinks politics begins with the Republicans and ends with the Democrats.
There’s some criticism in these pages, too. To be sure, it’s criticism from a left perspective, and that’s a good thing. Those to the right of the US Left–and there are many–will read this book only under duress and rarely with an open mind. The reviews of the aforementioned works on the subject attest to that. Although I hope that Outlaws of America is read by people of all political persuasions, it’s clear that it is intended for the growing left/anarchist movements of today and the New Left with its roots in yesterday. If those of us in that readership are to learn from history, it’s very important that we critique that history. It’s even better when that criticism comes from a variety of viewpoints. I hope this book, besides being an excellent read, sparks a new element in that conversation.
(Reviewer’s note: March 6 marks the 36th anniversary of the deaths of Weathermembers Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion.)
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org