Notes from the underground: ‘How could you do this to me?’ asks Mark Rudd’s Momby Robert Wiener
In a moment of classic confrontation, the Jewish mother of one of America’s most prominent 1960s political radicals challenged her son before a packed auditorium, asking him to explain why he took part in violent protests, lived underground to avoid arrest, and didn’t call home for seven years.
Rising from her second-row seat in the Maurice Levin Theater at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, in West Orange, Bertha Rudd asked her son, Mark, once a leader of the Weather Underground, “How could you do this to me?”
Amid hearty applause and laughter, the 56-year-old Rudd coaxed his mother to a microphone below the stage.
“Bertha has been waiting 37 years to ask that question,” he said to the audience, gathered for a screening of The Weather Underground, an Oscar-nominated 92-minute documentary on the group’s bizarre and violent history. She paused for a moment, smiled, and said, “I’m so mad at you,” to the delight of the audience.
“As you can see, there’s a lot of unresolved issues,” her son responded.
“I saw Bernadine Dohrn a few years back,” Mark Rudd added, referring to a fellow member of the Weather Underground, which was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government. “She said to me, ‘It was monstrous what we did to our parents.’ That’s a pretty good adjective. I felt compelled to do something about the war in Vietnam, and I was willing to give my life for it; and for a very brief moment — very, very brief — I probably would have been willing to kill for it.”
“This boy was such an ordinary kid,” she told the audience. “He wasn’t a wild kid at all.”
But the word “wild” barely begins to describe the odyssey of this son of Maplewood who said he didn’t remember “anything specifically in my Jewish upbringing at Temple Beth El in South Orange that was particularly socially conscious.”
Political commitment came later after Rudd moved from Columbia High School in Maplewood to Columbia University in 1968, and the media helped anoint him campus leader of Students for a Democratic Society.
SDS joined Columbia’s Afro-American Student Society in seizing five campus buildings, halting classes, and occupying them for six days.
Rudd, then lean and clean-shaven in contrast to many of his long-haired and bearded contemporaries, became highly visible as a media spokesperson for the rebels until club-swinging police ended the siege in a bloody predawn raid.
When SDS splintered a year later, Rudd was drawn to a faction called the Weather Underground, whose middle-class members tried in vain to lure white working class youths into revolutionary violence.
Rudd, who now teaches math at a community college in Albuquerque, NM, says in the film that “when students ask what I did during the war in Vietnam, I tell them I helped found an organization whose goal was the violent overthrow of the government of the United States.”
The reason — he suggested — was the raging war in Southeast Asia and the sense that he — like many of its opponents — was powerless to end it.
“Every second of my life, from 1965 to 1975, I was always aware that our country was attacking Vietnam. I could be in the mountains, I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam. I could be on an acid trip, I’d be thinking about the war in Vietnam.”
He likened that obsession to his boyhood preoccupation with thoughts of the genocide and violence of World War II and the Holocaust.
After Weather Underground members had rejected nonviolence as a viable tactic, Rudd and his “comrades” moved off the campus into working-class neighborhoods, “trying to steel ourselves for what we felt was the coming upheaval. We wanted to be more disciplined for revolution and give up our bourgeois luxuries.”
One way was to “smash monogamy” through what he called “extreme sexual experiences. Group sex, homosexuality, and casual sex hookups were all tried as we attempted to break out from the past into the revolutionary future.”
With that came planting bombs and damaging property in Congress, the Pentagon, and New York office buildings which housed IBM and Mobil Oil.
But Rudd said he began withdrawing from the group’s fascination with violence even before it began planning a terrorist attack at a dance at the noncommissioned-officers club at Fort Dix.
Instead, the bomb was detonated by mistake in its basement factory at an upscale townhouse in Greenwich Village, killing three of Rudd’s friends.
To Todd Gitlin, a founding member of SDS before it factionalized in 1969, the Weather Underground members “brought themselves to the point at which they were ready to be mass murderers.”
As part of the film’s epilogue, a paunchy, middle-aged Rudd walks alone on a beach and speaks wistfully about his problems in discussing his past political actions.
“My mixed feelings, my feelings of guilt and shame, these are things that I am not proud of, and I find it hard to speak about them and to tease out what was right from what was wrong.”
Moments later, as the documentary ended and the house lights were turned on, Rudd told a questioner, “I would have tried to stop the whole strategy of armed struggle, of violence.
“I advise young people today that we have to work for social change and for justice, but the only way to do it is completely nonviolently.”
Disdain for violence has not dampened Rudd’s passion that “there must be some better way to organize things” than through a capitalist society.
He said much of the misery in the world “is the result of American policy. For 50 years we kept the arms race going, and now we keep arms flowing through the world.”
He spoke of the “cheap oil we receive, or the cheap flowers at the supermarket, or the clothes we wear. These are very uneven relationships. We live very good lives because of the system of exploitation and we have supported so many dictatorships throughout the last 50 years throughout the world. America has a lot to answer for.”
Declaring that the terrorism of Al Qaida “is wrong,” Rudd said he nonetheless holds the United States largely responsible for much of the world’s violence and “the militarization of the Middle East.”
Wading into dicey territory before the Jewish community center audience, Rudd declared, “I’m against violence and I’m against terrorism, and if you look at the statistics in Palestine and Israel and the West Bank — there is a very unequal number in death tolls,” suggesting that Palestinian body counts are four times that of the Israeli count in the three-year-old Intifada.
“Not nearly enough,” shouted one man in the audience.
“I ask you,” Rudd retorted. “Is this policy of militarism by the Israeli government that is being strongly supported by the United States government — is it working and has it increased Israel’s security?”
“What’s the alternative?” asked another man.
“One alternative that used to exist was land for peace,” he answered. “Now the idea is Bantustans for peace” he said, comparing the fenced divisions of Palestinian villages on the West Bank to the separated black communities that existed in the once racist nation of South Africa.
“It is to impose a permanent system of apartheid on the Palestinians in little, tiny, disconnected enclaves. That’s not going to create peace. It’s just not going to.”
Rudd told the audience he overcame a period of depression after surrendering to the FBI in 1977. He faced only misdemeanor charges, and his penalties were a $2,000 fine and two years probation.
Today he is married, the father of two grown children, and a member of a Jewish Renewal congregation in Albuquerque. He credits his career as a college math teacher for “saving my life.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Rudd becomes uncomfortable with accommodations to a society so different from one with a broader political spectrum.
“Sadly, I do vote,” he confessed. “I’m a registered Democrat, but I usually vote for the Greens. This year I’ll vote for the Democrats.”
When he was asked to compare himself as a 1968 college radical with the young people he teaches now, the aging activist paused, then smiled.
“It’s funny, I think the youngest ones are really troubled by what our country is doing. This war is really bothering a lot of people. They can’t figure it out. They don’t have the tools, but I think a lot of young people really are troubled.
“There will be another SDS, but I don’t know how or what it will look like, and I certainly won’t be organizing it, but young people will. I think they’ll discover the need for it and they’ll get it together.”
The documentary was presented as a prelude to the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival, which runs officially from April 22 to May 2.
Robert Wiener can be reached at rwiener @ njjewishnews.com.
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