The kids are all right (2005)by Mark Rudd
This is the final draft of an article written for Harpers’ Magazine in the summer of 2005, accepted but never published. It is for a general audience.
Math Classroom, Fall, 2004
Somewhere very far away there’s an American war raging, but you wouldn’t know it in my classroom. Isolated even from the demands of their complicated lives—jobs, kids, financial worries—my students dedicate themselves to learning or not learning how to solve linear equations. Similarly, with all the diligence of the veteran community college teacher I’ve become in the last twenty-five years, I try to help them by explaining and analyzing this arcane world of disembodied symbols and procedures. Even so-called “applications” are fossilized chestnuts: two trains leave two cities 315 miles apart. Ours is a timeless and abstract task.
I wonder what they’re thinking. I know my own gut is churning and I’m depressed from the morning’s news of the Marine attack on Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold. (Can I be suffering from PTSD induced by the Vietnam War if the closest I ever got to it was a cop’s club at an anti-war demonstration in Chicago?) But what does the Iraq war mean to my students?
It’s considered unprofessional for a math teacher to talk about politics or current events in class. I’ve been trying to keep it down. During the presidential campaign, just ended, editorials and letters in the student newspaper complained about “radical” or “leftist” faculty who bring their political views into the classroom. The clincher for me was when a young female student, a working secretary at the local airbase, sweetly told me that my crack about Bush’s never having read a book only increased her desire to vote for him. After that I professionally shut up during class.
From what I can make out, my students are all over the place. Some have tuned it out. Some are worried. Some support the war; others are Michael Moore fans, strongly anti-war. Quite a few have relatives or friends serving in the military in Iraq. Several are on active duty or in the reserves, waiting to be called up; occasionally a veteran just returned from Iraq appears. In general, there’s little knowledge of world or U.S. or mid-east history to balance the general feeling among the service-connected students that you have to do your duty to the country. I think a majority of my students who vote may have gone for Kerry as a protest, but I’m not certain of that; support for the war—and Bush—ran high, too. Many students don’t vote, that they’ve also told me.
What gets me is the quiet. Weeks pass and no one talks about the war or about politics, even during the election. Is it politeness, that you’re not supposed to talk about politics in public? Is it apathy? Is it avoidance?
Outside of class I’m not so restrained. While the Bush administration was preparing to attack Iraq I went into gear, almost as a reflex. I was out in the streets in the spring of 2003 protesting along with millions of others. That summer I helped organize a teach-in on the nature of the war at my school; only a handful of students attended. I joined with other teachers, a few high school students and parents in an effort to defend local public school teachers who were fired or disciplined for allowing their students to express anti-war sentiments. In 2004, like millions of other “progressives,” I worked hard for Kerry under the Anybody But Bush banner. Here and there at anti-war activities I’d seen a few of my students, but there’s been no big protest noise happening at Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute, a community college, and only a little more at the nearby University of New Mexico.
It’s May, 1968. I’m standing on the roof of Ferris Booth Hall, the student center at Columbia University in New York City, looking out over the impressive institutional expanse between Butler Library and Low Library. Below, thousands of striking students are dancing with abandon to the Grateful Dead, a west-coast acid-rock band I had dimly heard of, who showed up to support the cause. There are no classes today since we’ve closed down Columbia in response to its administration calling in New York City cops to beat us up and bust us. A week ago the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) along with the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS) led more than one thousand people in the six-day occupation of five campus buildings to protest the university’s participation in war-related research and also its racist policies toward the neighboring Harlem community. A twenty year-old junior, chairman of Columbia SDS, I missed most of the concert because I was in the Strike Coordinating Committee offices giving an interview to a reporter from Newsweek. Looking down at the celebrating crowd at this moment, I think I see our revolutionary future.
When I arrived at Columbia as a freshman in the fall of 1965, a small number of anti-war students were already hard at work opposing the war: the U.S. had attacked Vietnam that spring with Marine ground troops. I was immediately attracted to these smart and passionate kids who understood the war in a way I had never heard—that the U.S. was occupying Vietnam in order to defeat a popular revolution and to protect its strategic interests in the region and in the Cold War. They called themselves radicals, because they believed that the system of capitalism and imperialism was at the root of the problem. By building opposition to the war, we could help the people of Vietnam in their struggle for liberation and strike a blow against imperialism. Heady stuff, to be a world-changer.
For me, though, at the start was a simple moral question: would I stand by, enjoying my privileges as an American—an Ivy-leaguer to boot—as my country laid to waste a poor Third World country? Given my background as an aware Jewish kid born right after the end of World War II, the answer was easy: I could not be a good German. So I joined SDS.
As the war escalated in the next three years, so did the intensity of our organizing at Columbia. SDS exposed the fact, hidden and denied by Columbia’s administration, that the university was doing research for the Defense Department. We picketed against Marine and Dow recruiters. We held teach-ins on campus and marched in city-wide anti-war demonstrations. The numbers of anti-war and radical students grew. That spring of 1968 events built to an historical crescendo: the Vietnamese Tet Offensive of February and March gave the lie to the government’s claims that they were winning in Vietnam and flipped public opinion about the war; President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election and would seek talks with the North Vietnamese which was a clear victory for anti-war forces; Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4 showed the persistence of virulent racism in this country despite twenty years of a civil rights campaign. The uprising at Columbia two weeks later was a direct result of this momentous, rampaging season.
Columbia would become a model for subsequent student strikes and occupations around the country. National SDS adopted the slogan, “Create two, three, many Columbias!,” a direct take-off of Che Guevara’s strategy to defeat U.S. imperialism, “Create two, three, many Vietnams.” Students and eventually workers went on strike in France the next month. Students in Prague, Berlin, Mexico City, Tokyo were out in the streets. We knew we were part of a world-wide tidal wave against the repressive status-quo. REVOLUTION! we proclaimed, with raised fists.
I didn’t mind a bit when Columbia kicked me out later that month, May, 1968 since I had a new occupation, revolutionary. I spent the next year as a regional and national traveler for SDS, speaking at dozens of college campuses and helping chapters organize. In the course of these travels I met other SDS’ers who felt that we should be supporting the people of the Third World—including non-white people in this country—in their revolt for freedom against U.S. imperialism, and so we formed a faction in SDS which eventually became known as the Weathermen, after a Bob Dylan line we used to name a position paper, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” (The hidden meaning in that line had to do with the fact that we were involved in a to-the-death faction fight over “correct revolutionary ideology” with Maoist dogmatists who had infiltrated SDS. These fundamentalists used 19th century Marxist texts to prove that the revolt of the Third World was subordinate to the revolt of the workers. You had to have been there).
By June of 1969, the Weathermen took over the national office of SDS, the largest radical student organization in the U.S., with around 400 chapters in high schools, college campuses, and even among post-college professionals. I was elected National Secretary. We proclaimed ourselves “revolutionary communists,” just to stick it to the Man. My comrades and I were certain that young people in this country were poised to become radical en masse and made plans to form them into a revolutionary fighting force to defeat U.S. imperialism. With our innate hatred of authority and our love for the downtrodden, we would build a free and just society.
I often quoted Jose Marti, the great nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary, “This is the time of the furnaces and only light should be seen.” My passion burned to that white-hot intensity. Like any soldier in a war, I was willing to do whatever needed to be done.
The problem of commitment
Shortly after the Iraq war began, in June, 2003, a documentary movie in which I appear was released. “The Weather Underground” tells the story of the next incarnation of the SDS Weathermen, after we decided to go underground to begin guerilla warfare to overthrow the government of the United States (!!??!!). With about a dozen of my former comrades I’m one of the talking heads, but the filmmakers chose to feature me throughout along with excerpts from an unpublished manuscript I wrote.
It’s a good movie—it was nominated for an Academy Award—and a compelling story with many contemporary resonances. Most significant of all is that it establishes the context in which we acted through images of the massive violence perpetrated by the U.S. in Vietnam. In the last almost three years I’ve been involved in dozens of question and answer and discussion sessions around the country with movie audiences of all types—young and old (very different), political and naïve. Invariably people want to ask questions, make speeches, discuss in public what the movie implies for today.
When I first started appearing with the movie, I believed I needed to interpret it to audiences as a cautionary tale about not getting too tripped-out over revolutionary hallucinations. I was wrong: young audiences already knew very well that the Weather Underground was a failure. They perceive something else entirely: the strange story of young white kids, most from comfortable privileged backgrounds, so outraged by the war that they were willing to risk their lives in an obviously doomed undertaking. Sam Green and his co-director, Bill Siegel, both in their 30’s at the time, probably understood this; nothing else explains why they dedicated more than five years of their lives to tell the story. Older filmmakers would have gotten bogged down in all the ins-and-outs of ideological arguments in relation to Weatherman or in a critical assessment of the results, both worthy topics but of no interest whatsoever to young audiences and with only minimal relevance to today. Sam and Bill went straight to the heart of the matter: political commitment up to the level of self-sacrifice.
Actually, there are thousands of young people today who dedicate themselves to working for political change and to improving society and the world, but constitute only a small fringe of the youth population. The culture’s standard motive is personal ambition and the norm is very heavy doses of entertainment and material comfort through the many forms available—sports, alcohol and drugs, music, shopping, travel, gambling, cars, electronic gear, apartments, and clothes, just to begin a very long list. All this stuff was available in the sixties, too, but cheap goods due to foreign labor and easy credit have created a societal orgy of self-gratification through consumption. Young people currently have very few models of commitment to social goals; sacrifice for a cause is as alien as an ancient Druid rite.
Our commitment to the anti-war and then the revolutionary causes was predicated in an underlying assumption that our efforts would bear results, that what we did and did not do made a difference. The dominant feeling young people express to me today is that nothing will ever change. Why bother trying? Some people experience the issue as hopelessness; for others, cynicism lets them off the moral hook so they can go about their lives as comfortable young Americans.
Unfortunately, young people have never themselves witnessed change through concerted social action. Most of us in the sixties had the advantage of growing up during the black civil rights movement in the South. As a kid I marveled at the sit-ins, beatings, arrests, marches, acts of individual and group courage I read about or witnessed on television. This was the air we breathed. I can’t imagine anyone during that era thinking that nothing would ever change; it was just as natural and normal back then to believe that an individual’s actions mattered as it is today to believe the opposite. For an individual to act on his beliefs was a moral imperative: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem,” read a famous bumper sticker.
It’s sad that most young people know little about successful social movements in U.S. history. Did the anti-war movement actually stop the war? What was the union movement? Abolition? Women’s suffrage? I regularly ask audiences how it is that no nuclear power plants have been built in this country since 1975? No one knows or remembers that from 1975 to 1985 a powerful non-violent mass movement, involving millions, demanded that nuclear stop. Goddamn: that was just twenty years ago! Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States should be required reading in all high schools.
That the Weathermen were willing to run the risk of sacrificing ourselves is equally startling to young audiences. They’re probably not aware that at the time there were so many others similarly willing to take action and bear the consequences. Non-violent activists were arrested and beaten for civil rights and an end to the war; draft resisters and military deserters were imprisoned for their resistance; the Black Panthers, the Cubans, especially the Vietnamese, all showed extraordinary courage in the face of what seemed at first glance to be a tidal wave of overwhelming U.S. economic and military power. I loved and admired these people as heroes and wanted to emulate them. Che Guevara’s and Malcolm X’s pictures went up on my apartment walls, fallen heroes whose martyrdom would not be in vain. My comrades and I in Weatherman felt it would be racist, as white people, to cheer on Third World people in revolt while taking none of the risks and bearing none of the costs.
My own thoughts on revolutionary sacrifice have evolved over the years as I’ve tried to understand my history and that of my comrades, some dead and others still in prison. Almost four decades later I’m not so hot on people killing or willing to be killed for noble causes of any sort. Even Che Guevara’s holy martyrdom now seems to me to need re-examination. His extraordinary willingness to face death repeatedly and to kill for the revolution appears to me heartbreakingly similar to the death cult taught in the U.S. Marines.
There isn’t that much sacrifice around lately, except for extreme situations such as the police and fire fighters at the World Trade Center or the young troops—poor, propagandized, ignorant of history—sent to Iraq and Afghanistan by people quite unwilling to sacrifice their own children. At the same time, of course, Americans are told incessantly that the self-sacrifice of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers and the hundreds of Muslim suicide-bombers in the Middle East is nothing but fanatical, criminal, and dumb.
On a park bench
One bright spring morning in early May, 1970, I’m sitting on a park bench in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, reading the front page of the New York Times. It’s filled with stories of the murder of four young students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard and of the aftermath, simultaneous strikes at hundreds of college campuses around the country involving millions of students protesting both the killings at Kent and President Nixon’s widening of the war by invading Cambodia. I’m deeply depressed and furious at myself that the only way I can participate in these historic events is to read about them in the newspaper: I’m a federal fugitive, wanted on felony charges of bombing, conspiracy, crossing state lines to incite to riot, and other related offenses.
Having taken over the SDS National Office in the summer of 1969, less than a year before, we set about moving the organization toward revolution. The Weatherman leadership, of which I was a part —naturally known as the Weather Bureau—called a national action to take place in Chicago on October 8-11, the second anniversary of the death of Che Guevara. Che, the world heavyweight revolutionary hero, had been murdered in 1967 by the U.S.-backed Bolivian Army while attempting to spark continental revolution from the Bolivian jungle. What later became known as “The Days of Rage” was also timed to coincide with the beginning of the federal conspiracy trial of the Chicago 8 for the demonstrations at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August, 1968.
Kamikazes operating under the slogan “Bring the War Home!” we proclaimed to the world our intention to fight the cops in the streets of Chicago. In the event, only about five hundred of our revolutionary troops showed up despite a whole summer and fall of relentless “organizing” in working class neighborhoods of various cities and on campuses. Of course we got creamed—hundreds of us were arrested and beaten. The police took a few injuries, too, as did the cars and hotels on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Every revolution, we consoled ourselves, starts with just a few people, and because we actually did what we said we would—fight cops—we declared the action a victory.
That fall, as resistance to the war continued to grow in intensity and numbers, so did the government repression of the anti-war movement and of the black movement. Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, and a comrade, Mark Clark, were gunned down by Chicago police and FBI as they slept in an apartment down the street from the SDS National Office. It looked and felt like war at home, and we in the Weather Bureau made the disastrous decision to scuttle SDS, a completely legal organization, in order to build the revolutionary underground capable of engaging in guerilla warfare against the government. Local campus chapters, the lifeblood of the organization, were set adrift, either keeping together or not depending on the energy and inventiveness of their leaderships.
We dispersed some of the few hundred remaining Weathermen into clandestine and semi-clandestine collectives to begin the preparations for “going under.” Some began amassing weapons and explosives and learning to use them; others rented “safe houses” and acquired phony ID and cars. On the morning of March 6, 1970, three of my comrades were building pipe bombs packed with dynamite and nails, destined for a dance of non-commissioned officers and their dates at Fort Dix, N.J., that night. Still trying to “bring the war home,” their bombs were crude mirrors of the anti-personnel weapons the U.S. was raining down on Indochina. Inexperienced and freaked-out, somebody must have crossed two wires leading to the detonator. The townhouse on W. 11th St. in Manhattan exploded from within, collapsing in fire. Parts of the bodies of my friends, Ted Gold, 23, Diana Oughton, 28, and Terry Robbins, 21, were found in the rubble. This was my own initiation into the world of sacrifice, and of unending mourning.
It was at that moment that I became a fugitive, changing my appearance and taking on false identity papers. I worked night and day to find the survivors of the blast, deal with our emotional loss, and pick up the pieces of the organization in New York City. In April, after federal charges were brought against twelve of us for earlier activities in Cleveland and Detroit, I escaped an FBI entrapment on 23rd St. in Manhattan by running down into the subway and up again onto the street and hopping onto a bus. (I had thought ahead enough to have a pocketful of change). That was what brought me to Philadelphia, to hide out because New York was too hot.
Reading the paper that day in May, I experienced the sudden sickening realization that we had chosen the wrong strategy; that revolutionary guerilla warfare was not going to work; that we had abandoned the locus of the real struggle—the above-ground movement that people could join. SDS was no longer in existence to coordinate and give radical direction to the unprecedented mass student opposition to the war, to the millions on strike. In effect, by destroying SDS and isolating ourselves in the underground, we had done the work of the FBI for them. It was too late for me, a wanted fugitive.
Hanging with the anarchists
April, 2004. I’m on the last stop of what I’m facetiously calling my Northwest Anarchist Tour in Eugene, Oregon. Thirty three years before, I had hidden out for a few weeks in Eugene while I was figuring out what to do after I withdrew from the Weather Underground Organization. This was a home-coming of sorts, especially since I had been invited by a group of old radicals, some of whom I had known in the underground days or before, in SDS.
Last night was a big public showing of the Weather Underground film followed by a panel discussion on the underground involving myself and a couple of old comrades. Today is a smaller all-day “strategy” session involving roughly an equal number of “grey hairs”—us, the old rads—and young activists, most of whom are anarchists. The subject for discussion is, of course, What is to be done?
Most young activists have learned one important lesson, at least, from the New Left, not to get tripped up by ideology. It’s been a relief to have found very little revolutionary Marxism, for example, in my travels: for the most part, young people are blessedly more pragmatic and aware of the ego-traps that go with fixed ideologies. However, one well-articulated ideology, anarchism, does persist among young people as an echo of the New Left’s old utopianism. The attraction is undeniable: No governments. No states. No bureaucracies. No leaders. Nobody telling anybody else what to do. Pure freedom. Sign me up!
San Francisco north to Vancouver is anarchist territory and Eugene is an acknowledged capital, if anarchists had such a thing. Young activists here have taken the lead in defending the forests from destruction, fighting corporate domination and depredation locally, and organizing the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization (WTO), a signal event which put the issue of globalization, now known as “global justice,” on this country’s agenda. Their organizational structures claim to be internally democratic, a vast improvement over the male-led SDS and the militaristic top-down hierarchy of the Weather Underground.
In Arcata, California, another anarchist environmental and political stronghold I visited a month before, I had heard stories of actual warfare in the forests. An Earth First activist was murdered when a logger dropped a tree on him; Earth First organizers Judi Bari and her partner, Darrel Cherney, were bombed in their car; non-violent demonstrators who occupied a logging company office were tortured with pepper gas liquid applied directly to their eyes by county sheriff’s deputies. Several Eugene activists are serving time in prison for actions against SUV’s and other environmental targets; in fact, there are several standing grand juries in the Northwest investigating “eco-terrorism,” which the FBI loves to trumpet as “the principle domestic terrorism threat.”
So here I am in Eugene, doing my rap about what a disaster the Weather Underground was, how we managed to kill three of our own people, how we destroyed SDS at the height of the war, how we split and therefore weakened the anti-war movement over the bogus issue of our right to revolutionary violence. The other gray-hairs are backing me up. We talk about non-violence as the only possible winning strategy.
One kid has had enough. He stands up and says, “If we hadn’t broken a window at a Nike store in Seattle, nobody would have known about the WTO. We have a right and a duty to defend by any means necessary this planet against corporate and state violence! We don’t attack people, just corporate property. What’s so sacred about property, anyway?”
I answer, “I don’t dispute what you say. Seattle was the global justice movement’s Boston Tea Party. And logically, you’re right, there’s nothing sacred about ill-gotten wealth, especially if it’s taken from sweat-shop labor.
“But our goal is a majority movement to end war and global injustice. I believe such a thing is possible in this country. From my own experience I know that the American people see no distinction between violence against property and violence against human beings. Political violence is a category which does not exist: it is just violence, defined as either criminal or insane or both. That’s a very bad position to put yourself into. It’s guaranteed failure. After the Townhouse, when the Weather Underground turned to bombing symbolic targets like empty corporate offices, it made us no less isolated. As self-expression violence can make perfect sense; as political activity to build a movement, none at all.
“Besides, the U.S. government will always win a test of who can do the most violence,” I say, taking the pragmatic position.
My old rad friends and I have been talking all day about the necessity to build a broad movement against the war in Iraq and also to unite as many people as possible to help elect Kerry in order to get rid of the violent and dangerous clique in power around Bush. One young kid, around 16 years old, can’t take it anymore and jumps up.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this drivel from somebody I used to respect,” he yells, at me. “Both the Republican and Democratic parties are the same! They both exist to defend corporations! And you’re telling me to be part of it? I don’t want any government. And I don’t want any movement, even an anti-war movement! The anti-war movement didn’t do anything to end the Vietnam war! The war ended because the Vietnamese beat the Americans on the battlefield. You can walk in circles carrying signs all you want, and nothing will change. We have to build autonomous communities of struggle!”
Talk about being trapped by ideology, I think to myself. What’s an “autonomous community of struggle?”
I decide to ignore that question and speak to the more general point. “You’re wrong about the effect of the anti-war movement on the Vietnam War,” I say. “If American public opinion had not swung against the war, the U.S. could have fielded an army forever, or wiped Vietnam off the map. The Vietnamese thanked the anti-war movement for our efforts after the war was over.
“As for working for Kerry, anything we can do to lessen violence in the world we have to do. It’s not a theoretical issue.”
As long as I’m being an old codger, I can’t resist the opportunity to poke at him. “You know, you’re a wimp. You’re being light on me. If I had heard someone running down the liberal shit I’ve been saying all day, back in 1969, I’d have been a lot harder on him.”
But the kid gets the last word, “Don’t patronize me!”
August, 1977. I’m driving a forklift in an ancient fortress-like red brick factory at Kensington and Allegheny, an old white working class neighborhood in Philadelphia (later made famous by the Rocky movies). With my little family I’m back in Philadelphia hiding out one last time until I can turn myself in at the end of the summer. I’ve been a fugitive for more than seven years and the Vietnam war has been over for a little more than two years. A Democrat, Jimmy Carter, is in office and the country shows signs of wanting to forget the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
Although I wasn’t in the courtroom, the big federal charges of bombing and conspiracy against twelve of the Weatherman leaders were dropped back in 1973 in the midst of the disclosures of the Watergate scandal. The government refused to disclose how they had obtained their evidence against us. Our lawyers had a stack of depositions to prove that the FBI had illegally wire-tapped, opened the mail, and broken into the apartments and offices of our families, lawyers, and supporters.
All those years I hated being underground because it was such a waste, but I didn’t want to give the government any sort of victory—such as my turning myself in—while the Vietnam war was still going on. After April, 1975, I started thinking and scheming about how to come up. It took more than two years to arrange because I wanted to protect everyone who had known and helped me.
In a month I’m planning to turn myself in on the remaining state charges in New York and Illinois. Out of sheer worry I’m down to my lowest weight since before my bar mitzvah, when I was 13. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me—jail, prison, additional charges are all possibilities.
Part of my anxiety is that I have a partner—Sue LeGrand, whom I had hooked up with back in 1970—and a three year-old son, Paul. We’re worried about the possibility of being separated. But we agree there’s no future in staying underground since, with a kid, it will become more difficult over time. Besides, we weren’t accomplishing anything politically other than not getting caught and now this seems like very little; we long to participate in the growing mass movements of the time, such as the opposition to nuclear power.
I had left the Weather Underground Organization at the end of 1970. Even before the townhouse, the self-confidence I needed to play the role of a leader of the whole project began to fail me. I knew I couldn’t keep posing as the revolutionary hero I had pretended to be for the last two years. I was still just a middle-class Jewish kid from Maplewood, N.J. I doubted too much, especially my own strength and courage. So, depressed but with grim determination, I demoted myself down into the ranks of the organization, first as a “regional leader,” then as a foot-soldier or “cadre,” and, by the end of 1970, out of the organization entirely. Because of my loyalty to my friends and our ideas it took me years to consciously question the strategy. It was much easier to blame myself while ignoring the little voice in my head which had been telling me all the while, “Stop! This is nuts, it’s not going to work!”
I was still a fugitive, though, and Sue, who was not, had to assume a phony identity to be with me since the FBI knew of her because we had gone together at Columbia. During that seven years underground, we moved every year or two, always jettisoning our old identities, apartment, job, car, and building everything up from the ground. Had I not had her as my partner, I would have given up out of loneliness and despair. But together we not only survived, but thrived, finding out-of-the-way apartments, unskilled jobs, and producing the first of our two children. We couldn’t afford the luxury of depression.
We came to Philadelphia to put a break between our last life and the publicity inevitable on my coming up. Friends, above-ground supporters and fellow fugitives might be recognized or somehow connected. So we built one last set of phony ID and found one more apartment in a mixed, white and black working class neighborhood. What was especially hard, during those recession times, was finding a job, but after weeks of searching I landed one working for minimum wage in a factory making women’s polyester shirts. Fortunately, nobody bothered to ask questions or make calls about a 29 year-old guy with fictitious work history and references.
I loved working at Devon Apparel. As a warehouseman I was able to roam the factory making pickups and deliveries, all the while talking with the black and Latina sewing machine operators, the white cutters and designers, the Jewish management, my fellow peons at the bottom, most of whom were black. An amateur sociologist, I was in pig heaven. I asked everyone about their lives, what they thought, what they hoped for the future. My time underground was far from wasted.
But in the end I knew my future was to surface, to see my mother and father for the first time in seven years, to introduce them to my partner and son, and to pick up another path (though I had little idea what it was going to be). I wanted to be productive in society, and in political and social action. On Sept. 14, 1977, at the age of thirty, after seven and a half years underground—exactly a quarter of my life—I turned myself in to New York City and then the Chicago authorities on outstanding charges going all the way back to Columbia and the Days of Rage. Miraculously, nothing happened, and I was able to plea bargain the charges down to light misdemeanors in return for which I got two years probation. That night I had chicken soup in my parents’ kitchen in Maplewood. Thus was the (white, middle-class) prodigal son welcomed home.
A garden party
On a sunny Sunday in October, 2004, as the November election approaches, my wife, Marla Painter, and I are hosting a campaign party at our house for the local Democratic congressional candidate, a DLC-type with few discernible principles other than that he’s not a Republican. For our part, the party is a gesture of support for the anti-Bush campaign, though we have as little real enthusiasm for Kerry as we have for the congressional candidate. Still, we maintain some hope that the American people will reject the disastrous, war-mongering Bush.
Several progressive candidates for local offices, including State Assembly and the Public Regulation Commission, have shown up to meet and great the crowd. I can barely suppress my laughter when, from time to time, the thought crosses my mind that there are four candidates for State District Court Judge positions in the backyard of a former terrorist.
About one hundred people are jammed into the patio, various neighbors and friends including teachers and fellow union members from my school and environmental activists from the local neighborhood association. Standing out in the crowd because of their orange T-shirts are about fifteen young people in their late teens and early twenties, members of the local chapter of the League of Pissed-Off Voters. I had invited them to introduce themselves to the guests and to possibly raise some money for their organizing efforts.
I first learned of The League, a national organization based in New York City (www.indyvoter.org), through their remarkable book, an anthology of writing by young activists around the country, “How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office,” which came out in the summer of 2004. Half of the articles are about local issue campaigns carried out by young people—environment, police brutality, etc.—and the other half about successful electoral campaigns in which either young people were elected or in which they participated. The twelve authors took the book out on tour to dozens of cities, which in turn kick-started the formation of League chapters around the country. Their short-term goal was to mobilize progressive young voters in the 11 swing states to elect Kerry. In order to show that they had no illusions about their candidate, they proclaimed, “We’ll elect him, then we’ll fight him once he’s in office.” I appreciate both their intelligence and their pragmatism.
I introduce two of the League kids with the line, “We’ve waited for you for thirty years.” The crowd cheers. An organizer from the national office in New York stands up and tells us that they are organizing voter-blocks of young people in order to become a political force and to hold politicians accountable. “They’re our bitches!” she cries, which produces puzzled looks from the old rads, schooled in correct feminist rhetoric; then people start laughing: ah, it’s the generation gap! The next speaker, a local organizer, gets a loud standing ovation when she proclaims that the League’s goal is “to build a progressive majority in our lifetime.” I remind our guests afterward that the kids are talking about their lifetime, not ours.
Unfortunately, the League and the hundreds of thousands of other youth organizers didn’t carry the country for Kerry: they had little discernable impact on the course of the November election. Inevitably, they believed their own propaganda about what they would accomplish and consequently weren’t prepared for failure. After the November election ,many of the local members got demoralized and stopped their political activity. They didn’t understand that handing a person in a bar a flyer entitled, “Young People’s Voter Guide,” wasn’t creating the engagement necessary for actual organizing, nor was knocking on a stranger’s door in a strange town in a strange state. Right now, I’m happy to report, the League is emerging from a period of re-evaluation and ”strategic planning” both locally and nationally, hoping to organize around local elections coming up this fall. They’re catching on to the fundamentals of organizing, to create a long-term relationship with people. The trick is to keep going, to learn from mistakes, and to not succumb to failure and drop out.
To be continued…
Nothing is finished. Forty years have passed and the far right is in power. Looking back we should have expected this. Probably the Left’s biggest mistake was to think that since so much was revealed by Vietnam and Watergate, Americans would not ever again allow themselves to get bamboozled by phony patriotism and imperial war-fever. For about fifteen years after the defeat in 1975, the American people did remember the horrors and injustices of fighting a colonial war: the dreaded Vietnam Syndrome actually did hamper the U.S. government in its ability to send American troops to put down a popular revolt in Central America (although the U.S. won that war by fielding surrogate troops, despite illegalities such as Iran/Contra and a large anti-interventionist opposition in this country).
I believed that gains in consciousness were permanent, and so was blind-sided by the re-emergence of automatic uncritical popular support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. People who should have known better since they had experienced Vietnam forgot what they had learned: that the government can’t be trusted when it tells us that we have to murder people for freedom. Military planners and politicians were thrilled to trumpet the death of the Vietnam Syndrome. The result was eight years of small wars and interventions under Clinton, followed by Bush’s full-scale invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq rationalized by the Global War on Terror (thank you, Osama). One way or another the empire marches on.
As I write this, the American death toll in Iraq, the only one that counts, is almost 2,400. The lies and futile sacrifice engendered by an anti-insurrectionary war are beginning to make it look a lot like Vietnam. Though the right-wing rages at Cindy Sheehan, calling her every nasty name they can think of, she is being hailed as the Rosa Parks of a revived and growing anti-war movement. The American people’s knee-jerk support for war is eroding as more Gold Star mothers go public with their doubts about the value of the terrible sacrifices they have made. Cracks in the dam open up.
The timing of the The Weather Underground’s release in 2003 just a few months after the war began was either pure luck or a case study in the dependability of the U.S. to produce serial colonial wars. The movie never mentions Iraq, but audiences unfailingly make their own parallels. Most of the young people I’ve talked with had never seen the stock footage of the war and the protests so distantly familiar to those of us over a certain age. After all, Vietnam is as far from them today as World War I was to us growing up in the fifties and sixties. When young people see the actual images which we saw nightly—destruction of jungle villages, the protests and riots in the streets at home, the police murder of Black Panthers—the past becomes not only intelligible but moving as well. The years strip away and a revelation dawns: “Áha, so that’s why you did what you did,” kids say, as they imagine themselves in the same place at the same time behaving the same way we did.
Many young people ask me what can be done to stop the current war, since the protests in the spring of 2003 which involved millions seemed to have no effect. It’s hard for them to understand that the anti-war movement grew slowly, that it took time—and many deaths and much sacrifice—before the American people woke up to the true nature of the colonial war we were fighting in Southeast Asia. After the November, 2004, election, as many friends and comrades experienced depression and hopelessness, I was strangely energized by the idea that we’ve been given four more years to organize an effective anti-war and progressive political movement. Who knows? Maybe a Kerry victory might have derailed us from what needs to be done.
It’s very unclear to most young activists how the Vietnam anti-war movement functioned to stop the war, especially since we never elected an anti-war President. How did the demonstrations of 1965 to 1970 have any effect on the conduct of the war and the eventual withdrawal of 1973? The answer lies in our impact on public opinion, which is the unacknowledged critical element to fighting a war, even one without a draft. I’ve heard the relationship of the Vietnam anti-war movement to public opinion described as that of a little motor starting a bigger motor.
The American people are extremely slow to accept the monstrous notion that they’ve been lied to about something so hideous as war. While public opinion, as measured in polls, has already turned against the Iraq war, we still don’t have a mass anti-war coalition to demand immediate withdrawal of the troops. The young activists I’ve encountered are just now beginning to focus on the war as the critical organizing issue of this time. They’re catching onto the Bush administration’s moral vulnerability because of the lies and atrocities they’ve perpetrated.
What I try to convey is that it happened once, I saw it with my own eyes when I was a kid: the public actually turned against a war of occupation in a Third World country.
It’s also possible that a revived progressive movement could come from another direction entirely. Right now, thoughtful nineteen year-olds on college campuses are probably looking at the catastrophic events in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and recognizing, quite rightly, that the people in power cannot possibly be trusted to solve the environmental and social problems we are facing, just as we gave up on this country’s leadership forty years ago. These future activists and organizers might be able to learn from our mistakes and figure out how to build strong environmental and social justice movements that can actually transform society and wield power.
I see some small bell-weather changes even at Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute, the working-class urban community college where I work. T-shirts appear with the famous profile of Che Guevara or with slogans like, “How Many People Would Jesus Bomb?” Almost every one of my classes (I take polls on such matters) lately has a handful of vegetarians, with an occasional vegan sprinkled in now and then. Magically, a “Student Socialist Alliance” has even popped up, though true to form they seem more interested in reading Gramsci and Mao and arguing among themselves than in organizing returning vets to go into the high schools. Young women sport tattoos with peace signs.
When a youth movement does manage to gain critical mass, it will be a complete surprise to the mass media, just as the last one was. No one knows what is going to happen in the future. I do know this: hope depends to a large part on what we do, both young and old. The story is far from over.