Outlaws of America: Weather Underground History

He also vividly describes what it’s like to visit U.S. political prisoner David Gilbert–who has been locked up for the past 24 years at prisons like Auburn, Comstock, Attica and Dannemora in Upstate New York. He does so because, in Berger’s view:

David Gilbert’s story (in terms of his politicization and radicalization) is a quintessential one of the white Left in the Sixties. Thus, this book uses Gilbert as a narrative thread through which to explore how white activists became increasingly radical.

Besides sharing what he’s discovered by interviewing Movement activists from the ’60s and ’70s (or examining their unpublished manuscripts and internal organizational documents) with his readers, Berger also seeks to answer in his book the following question about Gilbert: "How could an academic, an intellectual, a seasoned organizer end up in prison with a life sentence?"

To answer this question, Berger first excavates some of the hidden people’s history of the Sixties that was described in greater detail in Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1974 book SDS (Vintage), yet was generally omitted from other histories which contain Sixties narratives, like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Part I of Outlaws of America, "Students for a Democratic Society and Global Revolution", updates Sale’s book by including some of the memories of the activists who were too deeply underground during the early ’70s for Sales to interview. Berger cites Columbia University Oral History Research Office interviews which were conducted during the ’80s with former Columbia SDS activists David Gilbert and Mark Rudd, as well as an unpublished manuscript by Rudd and two post-2004 personal interviews with another former Columbia SDS activist, Robert Roth. These enable Berger to be able to update Sale’s explanation for the demise of SDS by the early ’70s.

Part II of Outlaws of America, "The Weather Underground Organization and White Anti-Racism", forms the main body of the book. Former Weather Underground Organization [WUO] members such as Gilbert (who also wrote, while imprisoned during the ’90s, some articles for Toward Freedom) were more willing in the 21st century to talk about their past participation in Weather Underground activity than they had been earlier. So Berger’s book reads more like an insider’s history than the 1997 book about the organization by CounterPunch writer Ron Jacobs, The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (New York: Verso,1997). Scott Braley (a former WUO member who helped run the group’s underground print shop that printed their book Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism), for instance, spoke to Berger in a June 7, 2004 interview and recalls:

Nothing was particularly traceable…Anybody who touched anything that was ever going to go out the door wore gloves…We ran the printing press with gloves, we did all the binding with gloves.

Part II of the book includes a chapter, "From Underground To Under Lock and Key: The Brink’s Affair and Being a Political Prisoner" in which Berger reviews the history of the May19th Communist Organization. This chapter explores the role that former Weather activists like Gilbert played in the October 20, 1981 attempted expropriation of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, New York, by a Black Liberation Army [BLA] unit. And it chronicles the subsequent civil liberties violations and imprisonment experienced by members and supporters of the May 19th Communist Organization, the Republic of New Afrika and BLA political tendencies, or by their past political associates, between 1981 and 2006. The U.S. mainstream media have generally ignored these civil liberties violations and marginalized supporters of U.S. political prisoners. So by including this chapter, Berger is striking a blow against U.S. mainstream media censorship and in support of the campaign to free all U.S. political prisoners in the 21st century.

Part III of the book consists of a chapter in which Berger summarizes what he considers to be the main "lessons and legacies of the Weather Underground" and an epilogue that summarizes how Gilbert has expressed his "lifelong commitment to fight against injustice" while incarcerated for the last 24 years. One reason Berger spent the last four years working on his Weather history book project is that he felt that some of the same historical and moral issues which the WUO confronted in the ’60s and ’70s–like white supremacy and imperialist war–are still around today.

Berger lets the activists he interviewed explain their own views of their activities and he presents their story in a mostly positive way. Yet he is also willing to discuss and analyze some of the political mistakes and negative moral or political tendencies that may have developed within the WUO prior to its 1977 break-up. Berger asserts for instance that:

Hostility to feminism characterized the organization from the beginning, even though many of the members–including many of those most committed to the politics–were women and feminists. Indeed, one Weather member estimated that as of March 1970, almost three-quarters of the people in the group were women, which testifies to the solid anti-imperialism many women activists felt and the commitment many women had to the organization despite misgivings over some of the politics. But the strains from sexism and the leading male minority found expression early on….

Because Weather did not have a feminist internal culture, the leadership often viewed outspoken women in the organization as separatist or divisive threats. For many women, joining the group was a choice between patriarchal anti-imperialism or racist feminism…

Berger’s book is generally accurate about the WUO’s history but it does contain a few typos or factual errors that readers who disagree with the book’s political slant might try to use to discredit the history. For instance, the book incorrectly states in a number of places that the date of the first bust during the Columbia Student Revolt of 1968 was April 28th, when it actually took place on April 30th. It also inaccurately describes the relationship between the Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analyses [IDA] weapons research think-tank and the twelve universities (including Columbia) that institutionally sponsored it.

A large number of both prominent and less well known political activists are quoted or described in Outlaws of America. Besides hearing from Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd and David Gilbert, for instance, we also hear from less prominent activists like Vicente Alba, Ashanti Alston, Scott Braley, Lyndon Comstock, Naomi Jaffe, Michael Novick, Suzanne Ross, Robert Roth, Judy Siff, and Donna Wilmott. And Berger examines the main political events, debates, controversies, faction-fights and Movement failures and successes of this period from an anti-racist and anti-imperialist white left perspective in a politically, morally and intellectually sophisticated way.

Yet, as in any history book, there do seem to be some omissions and relegation to footnotes of important topics: How did influential publications on the left like the National Guardian/Guardian and Monthly Review respond to the emergence of the WUO? How exactly did prominent former National SDS leaders like Michael Klonsky and Carl Davidson respond to the Weatherman faction’s political drift, following the June, 1969 split from the Progressive Labor Party [PLP]-Worker-Student Alliance faction of SDS? How did the Black Panther Party’s [BPP] "United Front Against Fascism" conference, held in Oakland in mid-July, 1969 (and the funding role played by the Communist Party [CP] in that conference) contribute to the difference in political strategy and emphasis that began to develop between BPP and Weather leaders during that summer? Aside from its reference to the PLP’s impact on SDS history, Outlaws of America pretty much ignores the degree to which members of Old Left groups like the CP, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Workers World Party still influenced somewhat the political direction of the U.S. left during this historical period.

Readers of Outlaws of America also would probably have been interested in learning more details about the now-deceased former Columbia SDS activist John "JJ" Jacobs’ historical role in Weatherman because, as Berger observes, "Jacobs was the principle author of the original `Weatherman’ statement"; and "even after the townhouse blast, JJ argued for `armed squads’ that would pursue a similar strategy, only with better technical training." The book does contain, however, a full-page photograph of JJ at the October, 1969 "Days of Rage" demo in Chicago.

Outlaws of America does indicate why "any former member of the Weather Underground Organization, among other militant anti-racist whites, could have been there with (or instead of) David Gilbert" on October 20, 1981 when Gilbert was arrested while participating in a politically motivated action in support of the BLA. With regard to the 1981 Brink’s action, Berger asserts that Gilbert threw "all of his support behind one particular group that didn’t have a clear mass base of support in Black communities."

Berger also notes that in a November 25, 2004 public statement, "No Surrender and the Losses of 10/20/81", Gilbert "apologized for his role in `the grievous mistakes’ made in Nyack twenty-three years earlier." In this November, 2004 public statement, according to Berger, "Affirming his history and commitment to `solidarity with the Black Liberation Movement,’ Gilbert wrote that `my actions on 10/20/81 were wrong, and I deeply apologize for their role in the tragic loss of lives.’"

Outlaws of America doesn’t extensively discuss the biographical or political backgrounds or current situations of some of the still-imprisoned BLA political prisoners, such as Sekou Odinga, with whom Gilbert worked politically. But prisoner solidarity activists who think there should be an amnesty for all U.S. political prisoners in 2006 will find a historical, legal and political justification for their "amnesty for all U.S. political prisoners" demand in the final chapter of Berger’s book.

Hopefully, the publication of Outlaws of America will encourage more anti-war activists to get involved in U.S. political prisoner release campaigns, because imprisoned former Black Panther Party activists have continued to be mistreated by U.S. prison authorities in recent years. On September 7, 2004, for instance, Attorney Roger Wareham, wrote an "Urgent Alert" to the National Conference of Black Lawyers, regarding U.S. political prisoner Sekou Odinga’s then-current status:

I have just returned this weekend from visiting one of our political prisoners, Sekou Odinga, at USP Marion. He has been in the hole, along with three other Muslim inmates, for the past three weeks. There is no charge yet….

Sekou and the two others…were put in the hole the afternoon of the day that I had had a legal call with Sekou. Of course, as a political prisoner, Sekou has some particular issues as well….

Besides being politically relevant for 21st-century activists, Outlaws of America is a great book that breaks new ground academically in the study of both underground ’60s and ’70s movement history and post-1981 U.S. political repression and political prisoners. The book is also emotionally moving in many places. Anti-war activists, prisoner solidarity activists, or fans of the WUO who are looking for good books about the WUO to add to their ’60s, ’70s and ’80s Movement history book shelves would be wise to include Berger’s Outlaws of America there–along with the Ron Jacobs book, David Gilbert’s No Surrender: Writings From An Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner (Montreal: Abraham Guillen Press and Arm the Spirit, 2004), Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon, 2001) and Thai Jones’ A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience (New York: Free Press 2004). Although all these books will contribute greatly to an understanding of our history, Outlaws of America has the widest sweep and most detailed research on the period. We need more books like this. As former political prisoner Dhoruba Bin Wahad said in a 1996 speech, "Don’t let CNN re-write our history!"

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist.

Click here to order a copy of Outlaws of America, published by AK Press.