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Outlaws in the Eyes of Amerika

In recent decades, several books have been written about radical left organizations that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these books are about mass organizations determined to build a large and popular radical Left in the United States. Their primary foci were US racism and the US war on Vietnam. Perhaps the best known and most radical of the organizations were the student group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers. Although not necessarily the two groups with the most support, their name recognition probably topped any other leftist groups at the time. SDS most likely popularity peaked in 1968 and 1969 before its fateful July convention in the latter year. It was during that convention that the organization fractured never to regain its former strength. The Black Panthers lasted perhaps another two-three years before they too were irreparably split. In the wake of these two groups’ disintegration a more desperate form of revolutionary organizing took hold. While most radicals involved in this new organizing formed Marxist-Leninist groups and shifted to organizing working people in the factories they worked at, others took up the gun and the bomb, deciding it was time to wage guerrilla war.

As time would prove, neither approach would bring a revolution to the world’s most powerful nation. The latter approach would, however, wreak a fair amount of havoc in certain quarters of the ruling establishment and drive a few law enforcement agencies to commit numerous crimes of their own. As for those books I mentioned, they would include memoirs, histories from the Left, the Right and the middle, and even a few films. The most recent of these books is the newly-published work by journalist and author Bryan Burrough. Titled Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, this book provides a fairly detailed history of six underground armed revolutionary groups that existed in the US between 1969 and the early 1980s. Sourced from newspaper and magazine articles, previously written books, FBI files, interviews with former members of these groups and former FBI agents, among other sources, Days of Rage is written in what I would term a mainstream approach to crime reportage.9781594204296_medium_Days_of_Rage-211x320

The author’s perception is from a middle-class viewpoint with all that such a perspective implies. He tends to assume the moral correctness of the system and its police forces, accepts their version of the events he describes, despite a historical record that proves not only that the government had its own questionably moral agenda, but that it was more than willing to violate the laws it was supposedly upholding to destroy these groups and terminate not only their activities but their politics. The political analysis in the text is as shallow as Time magazine. Although not rabidly right wing like FoxNews, the politics of this book reside in the template that informs virtually all US mainstream journalism. In other words, it protects the wealthy, assumes the sanctity of private property, believes the political system is fair and democratic, and that law enforcement mostly enforces a just social order. Furthermore, this mindset is unwilling to acknowledge that the US imperial culture lacks a humane foundation.

The chapters on the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization are sensationalist in nature. Burrough states he drew much of the background and understanding of Weather from two sources. One of those sources was a Rolling Stone article written by two New Leftist s who became right wing fanatics–David Horowitz and Peter Collier. As a Weather historian, I can state without reservation that this article was not only sensationalist; it reads like a piece of tabloid journalism and is of questionable veracity. Burrough’s other main source is a book by the police informant Larry Grathwohl. Grathwohl’s book remains a piece of self-aggrandizing reportage and its truth should be taken with several grains of salt.

In the case of Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur, Burrough ignores everything but what the authorities have said. Differing accounts of the events around her arrest prove much of the police story is questionable at the least, and more likely just not true. The acceptance of law enforcement’s story also prevails during his narration of the case of the Soledad Brothers and George Jackson. He writes as truth what is in reality unproven and challenged by many legal observers. This is also the case when he writes about the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). In his telling of that group’s creation and crime spree, Burrough completely ignores SLA leader Donald DeFreeze’s informant work in California. Indeed, Burrough does not even mention the questions brought up in investigative articles published in The Realist, The Black Panther and other papers that challenged law enforcement’s version of how the SLA came about and the police links to some of its members. For example, Defreeze was not only able to easily escape from prison, he remained at large in the Bay Area for more than ten months with law enforcement’s knowledge. In addition, his contacts with known LAPD and California Highway Patrol confidential informant Louis Tackwood are never mentioned, nor are Defreeze’s multiyear relationships with these agencies. Although these investigations were not conclusive, they were well-conducted and raised serious questions about the SLA’s origins and actual motivations. The fact that Burrough ignores them is, at the least, somewhat lazy journalism.

Despite its pretense, Days of Rage is not an objective history any more than those written by myself and other leftists. It is a book that legitimizes the powers that be in the United States and the law enforcement agencies that serve those powers. Burrough seems alternately repelled and fascinated by the people and actions he describes. Not once in his litany of criminality by radical groups and individuals does Burrough acknowledge the criminality of the system and authorities they opposed. Without this element of political understanding to make sense of those actions and people, the histories of these groups and these actions are nothing but true crime stories. In other words, they come off as fascinating but ultimately senseless. It is true that some of the actions described were plainly self-serving and criminal. However by including these actions and equating them with those that were definitively political, Burrough obfuscates the political nature of the actions which were solely political.

Nonetheless, Days of Rage is a useful account of individual and personal details regarding this period of US history. Burrough’s book reminds radicals that, unless revolutionaries have popular support for the changes their actions hope to help bring about, they will be portrayed as the very criminals their enemies see them as. This is especially the case in a nation as counterrevolutionary as the United States. As a result, not only will the radicals be discredited, so will their politics.

Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series.  All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.    He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.