A screening of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Weather Underground” opened a national student conference Oct. 6-9 sponsored by the Peace and Justice Studies Association in collaboration with the Plowshares Group.
“In Solidarity: Engaging Empire” drew several hundred student and peace educators from around the United States and Canada to the campus of Goshen College, a small liberal arts school in the heart of Amish and Mennonite country. After the movie, attendees were able to pose questions and comments to two founding members of Weatherman, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, as well as to young activist and writer Dan Berger, whose history of the Weather Underground will be published by AK Press next spring.
Dohrn is a clinical associate professor of law and founder of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, and Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago. It was clear from the outset that they were not nostalgic for the ’60s. “I don’t want to defend what we did, which is ultimately not defensible because we have given you – the younger generation – a world to inherit that is far worse than the one we inherited,” she said. Although she acknowledged their failure to “transform the world,” she felt that they could provide insights into one of the many threads of resistance in American culture from that era.
“I don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body,” Ayers added in his opening remarks. “In fact, I think those of you who are young should run from any old person who is pining for a ship that has already left the shore.” What has changed and what makes sense to do today is more compelling, he said. “We don’t need to go back nostalgically. We learn a lesson and move on. Let’s do concrete analysis of what’s happening now.”
Berger commented on the appropriateness of the conference theme in relation to the Weather Underground. “Engaging empire is really what Weatherman was all about,” he said. Observing that bombed-out buildings and street demonstrations were flashy and made for good news stories, he found the organization’s analysis of the political landscape more compelling than their tactics. “What’s central to Weather Underground is the politics and what we learn from them while talking about what it means for today,” he said. “As activists, the first question to ask is, “What’s going on in the world?” and then, “What are we going to do about it?”
When asked what had inspired him in the past five years, Ayers cited the massive worldwide protests against the Iraq invasion on Feb. 15, 2003. “Before anybody pulled a trigger there was an antiwar mobilization larger than anything we ever participated in before in our lives,” he said. “Now, we have to remind ourselves and especially young people that OK, we didn’t stop the war by one demonstration – that’s sad but it’s reality – so now we have to go back out, knock on doors and organize.”
Ayers described how activists committed to ending the war in Vietnam perceived themselves. “In the best tradition of organizers and teachers, we went out with the best pedagogical gesture – meaning we would speak with the possibility of being heard but also we would listen with the possibility of being changed.” Such actions were the most difficult but the most fruitful, he added. “By far the hardest things I did in those days were not the arrests or the jail time or being beaten up by police, all of which happened routinely,” he said. “The hardest thing was going into working class neighborhoods in Detroit for an entire summer and knocking on every door with antiwar literature and being spit on and humiliated and told to go back to Russia.”
He urged the students to go out into the world and talk with people who don’t agree with them. “Talk to them in the spirit that I saw when I was at Camp Casey in Texas, in the spirit that eventually they will join us. Eventually everybody will be under the antiwar tent because it is the only place to be. It’s the only sensible, logical, humane place to land. And since everybody will be there, get out there now and spend some of each day, each week, each month talking with the people who don’t agree with you, not just among yourselves.”
“Don’t buy the myth that social struggle was somehow easy at one time and really hard now,” he continued. “It’s always hard. It’s always confusing. I look at the last five years and I see amazing folks, amazing organization and the presentation of some real dilemmas. ”
Ayers outlined his views of the opportunity presented by widespread discontent with the government and the war and the growth of a decentralized, anti-hierarchical, anti-patriarchal opposition movement. “The question is, how do you maintain the strengths of the decentralized movement and also figure out how to organize, how to get things done, how to communicate, how to make concerted action? How do you build unity? These are huge abiding questions and I think these are questions you should pick up.”
Berger responded to a questioner by stressing the importance for young white activists to confront how they feel about being products of privilege. “How can we as white radicals – many of us coming from the middle class – do something different and actually make combating racism a primary focus?” Acknowledging the difficulty in doing that is essential, he said. “The first thing to recognize is that it is really hard, and also that guilt gets us nowhere.”
In researching the Weather Underground he found white youth in solidarity with the black power movement, with black liberation movements, and with the Vietnamese and national liberation movements in general. “The central thing about solidarity is human relationships, human connections,” he said. Berger opined that the most valuable lesson Weatherman has for the contemporary global justice movement is the power of making connections. “There’s a connection between the war in Iraq and the ongoing colonialism in Puerto Rico. Global justice is not just about the World Bank and the IMF making structural adjustments in the Third World – it is that – but it’s also the structural adjustment programs that are happening at the source,” he said. “I think what’s been going on in New Orleans for the past month really lays that bare and exposes how racism and free market capitalism in the United States dovetail and how it’s so connected to what’s going on all over the world.”
Berger also found inspiration in the group’s creativity. “The Weather Underground is not defined by one tactic alone,” he said. “It was a period in which lots of people were looking for ways of expanding how protests happen and I think we have that today, with a lot of emphasis on street theater and puppets and new forms of organizing.” He posed the important challenge for today’s activists as, “How can we be creative, and how can we be audacious?”
Dohrn picked up on the point of audacity as a strategy. “I think that the notion of direct action and civil disobedience has to go along with that notion of knocking on doors and learning to listen. That’s a contradiction,” she noted.
Besides being a symbolic act, direct action is a catalyst for consciousness. “It means that everyone around you has to take sides,” she said. “Everyone around you has to debate the issue. It’s not just an abstract debate you’re having on a stage.”
When asked what drives her activism, she replied, “I can’t imagine wanting to live without being somehow in the struggle for social justice. So I get perplexed when people seem to think that you would want to live a different way. In that sense sometimes I feel like I’m a bizarre creature because millions of Americans are going about everyday life seemingly oblivious to what I see as a world in massive turmoil, a world in flames. I don’t know what that is about me except a combination of a moment in time and great good fortune.”
She acknowledged being troubled by world events, including terrorist attacks on civilian populations – whether committed by white supremacists, religious sects or one’s own government. “It’s troubling to figure out how to be in the world today,” she said. “The complexity of the world today is something that increases with age and being troubled with tactics and responsibilities like how much I am taking care of my Alzheimer’s mom for the last five years, how much should I try to be creating a new organization, and being jailed, and how much should I not be at home? These are complicated. The complexity of what to do now and how to do it is more interesting than it was when I was young and was so certain about things.”
While musing on this theme, Dohrn brought up the importance of feminism. “The kind of radical militancy of the second wave and the third wave of women’s issues is in many ways a bridge among and between the inside/outside issue of the struggle for social justice and for transformation. I think that I didn’t take full advantage of that moment in time where I could have built more bridges – it was at a time when things were coming apart and it seemed like you had to choose among issues and among multiple identities. But I think that we should resist those choices and insist that we all have multiple identities. We are young people in love, we are students, we are teachers, we are parents, we are siblings, and we are a race and a religion. We’re all multiple things and that kind of integration of ourselves is something to insist on in a dramatic way. I think that allows us to be willing to change.”
Berger has spent the past four years researching his Weatherman book and interviewing former members of the group, including David Gilbert, who is serving a life-sentence in Attica for his role in an armed robbery in which two Brink’s guards died. “David is celebrating his 61st birthday today – his 24th year inside,” Berger said, adding, “He was arrested five weeks before I was born.”
He said his relationship with Gilbert changed the course of his life as well as his political outlook. “Fundamentally what it means to be an activist is to work for change based on the hope, on the belief, that what we do does make a difference.”
Berger recounted conversations with classmates and peers and people who aren’t particularly political. “They had no problem believing that the U.S. government was responsible for all the terrible things that were going on,” he said. “They had a problem believing they could do something about it.”
“One of the most interesting and unexpected things I learned in the course of writing this history book was this lesson about hope. I remember visiting David Gilbert in the summer of 2003 in Attica – a place of unspeakable horrors and brutality – and telling him this lesson. Without missing a beat, he said, “You’ve got to have hope. Hope is essential if you want to make change.”
Berger found this to be a powerful message, coming from a person serving a life sentence. “It’s important to keep in mind that we have the power and that what we do makes a big difference,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, so let’s get to it!”
THOMAS P. HEALY is a journalist in Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org