Enter the Weatherman
Tim Black talks to Mark Rudd about the 1960s, radicalism and his time in the Weather Undergound.
‘Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life. And what is wrong with their life? What on Earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?’
From American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
‘”What’s so wrong with his country? Look how it’s provided for us. My father was a peddler, and Jake’s father was a tailor. This is a wonderful country”, my mother argued.
“And we’re murdering people in Vietnam, and there’s Harlem right across the park”, I replied, gesturing toward the trees a block away.
“Eat up, you’ll need your energy”, said my mother. “I wonder if I’ll ever be able to laugh again, my heart is so broken.”’
From Underground, by Mark Rudd
Having found ourselves visible to one another but voiceless, we have abandoned Skype, and are now on the phone, no longer visible, and only just audible. Mark Rudd, a 71-year-old retired teacher whose hearing, by his own admission, ‘ain’t great’, is looking for a pair of headphones. ‘There they are’, he announces. Prematurely as it happens. ‘Oh well, let’s see how we get on without them’, he says, before adding with a laugh, ‘undone by modern technology!’.
This is Mark Rudd today. An engaging, thoughtful, self-deprecating presence, as happy laughing at his failings as he is speculating about the impact of queer culture on left-wing thought, or the significance of gender fluidity. All done, I should add, as one curious rather than doctrinaire. Nothing remarkable about any of this, one might think, except for that one thing: the stubborn memory of the Mark Rudd of yesterday. The Mark Rudd, that is, who erupted into public consciousness in April 1968 as the media-nominated face and leader of the strike, protests and occupations at Columbia University – ‘Why was I focused on?’, he is laughing again. ‘Because I’ve got a big mouth!’
This was the Mark Rudd whose protesting star had waxed so high in the late 1960s firmament that he was on the front cover of Newsweek, interviewed on The David Susskind Show and immortalised by ‘Doonesbury’ cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who turned a 20-year-old Rudd into a character known as ‘Megaphone Mark’; this was the Mark Rudd whom David Truman, then Columbia vice-president, told the New York Times was ‘an extremely capable, ruthless, cold-blooded guy’; and, of course, this was that Mark Rudd. The Mark Rudd who, in 1969, helped form the Weatherman, initially a leading faction within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), before, following the Days of Rage riots in Chicago in October 1969, it became known as the Weather Underground, and became an increasingly clandestine grouplet dedicated to, as a Rudd-authored communique put it in 1969, ‘bringing the war home’. This amounted to a countrywide bombing campaign during the 1970s, although its most famous action – the plot to bomb a dance for de-commissioned soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey – exploded into tragic, farcical life as early as March 1970 when a Weather cell blew up its own Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three of its own.
This, then, is the Mark Rudd whose life and, impressively, reflection upon that life, tells us something about that moment late into the long Sixties, when the hopes of the New Left seemed to turn into violent dreams of ‘Pig Amerika’s’ destruction and the deep purging of every trace of ‘white skin privilege’ from the minds of its gravediggers.
‘The myths weren’t deep in me’
‘I was a suburban, Jewish kid, living a suburban life’, says Rudd – a bookish, ‘buildsy’ boy, a bit of a misfit, as he puts it in his memoir Underground. But it was a comfortable life, an archetypally affluent life, headed up by his father, a Polish Jewish emigre, who had served in the US army and was now a businessman, and his loving, doting mother, always ready with veal parmigiana.
Yet, like many others of Rudd’s generation, coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the American pastoral embraced by his parents seemed to have lost whatever moral lustre it once had. The young Rudd’s consciousness was permeated by the light-touch critique of the folk-song movement, the Beatniks’ rejection of the spiritual vacuity of Main Street, and no doubt Holden Caulfield’s declamations against the phonies and the fakes. For a teenager in the early 1960s, the cultural air was heady with this sense of estrangement, this dawning awareness that a real, morally meaningful life must be found elsewhere.
The political air was disturbed, too, something Rudd was aware of from a young age. ‘I always read the newspaper, and whatever magazines my parents had lying about: Life and Time, Newsweek. I was always fascinated by what was happening’, he says. ‘For example, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, I knew nothing about the Cuban Revolution or about the US militaristic thrust, but I could see that it was crazy to bring the world to the edge of extinction. In other words, my attention was always on events, and by extension, politics.’
But Rudd’s and others’ moral estrangement went deeper, informed, as it was, by that universal reference point for human depravity; namely, the Holocaust. ‘Growing up in the shadow in the Second World War – I was born in 1947 – and particularly being Jewish, I was concerned by questions of fascism and racism, because, at that point, I identified the Holocaust as a racist phenomenon.’ He adds, ‘I was always concerned about the world’.
There was a chasm opening up, then, between members of Rudd’s generational cohort, a sense American society was somehow out of joint. Materially, it was comfortable, certainly for someone of Rudd’s middle-class background. But morally, it was looking increasingly bereft. It was not offering the young Rudd a way of life he could or wanted to identify with.
‘Many Jews worked at [becoming American] very hard’, Rudd says of his parents’ generation. ‘But I always felt like an outsider. And I think that always encouraged my critical consciousness. There were a lot of influential kids who were also outsiders, and were not automatically members of society, so were much more open to critique, especially the critique of imperialism, and the critique of the founding myths of the US… The myths weren’t deep in me.’
Rudd was far from alone in his growing identity crisis – itself a term that gained currency in the late 1950s – or better still, his estrangement from life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The myths were no longer resonating deeply with many young people. They were experienced precisely as myths, as untruths, and revealed as such on a daily basis by the civil-rights movement at home, and increasingly, the escalating war in Vietnam abroad.
‘The civil-rights movement woke up my moral sensibility’, Rudd says, ‘and I began questioning. It awoke, especially, the question of who we are in this country – of who white people are, of who liberals are.’
This questioning began in his hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey – ‘100 per cent segregated’, he says – but deepened and expanded upon entering the Columbia University, whose Morningside Heights campus peers down on Harlem. ‘The Columbia of 1965, the year I started, had a handful of non-white students. And almost no Latinos’, he says. ‘It was basically an all-white institution, and it looked out over the centre of black America. There’s an often-told story of a young white guy getting off the bus a stop too early. And he asks this black guy “where’s Columbia?”, and the black guy says, “look up”. And sure enough, if you’re in Harlem, and you look up, there’s Columbia looming right over you.’
Face to face with such palpable social injustice, Rudd was becoming increasingly politicised and morally innervated at university, mixing with and learning from, as he puts it, ‘red diaper babies’; joining the Independent Committee on Vietnam (which was to affiliate with the SDS in 1966); and participating in an educational outreach programme in Harlem. He also meets and bonds with David Gilbert and John ‘JJ’ Jacobs, two future Weathermen, the former who is still in prison and unbowed, and the latter who died in 1997, on the run and unrepentant.
And then, in April 1968, comes Rudd’s moment of mediated glory: the Columbia University protests. Looking back, the concatenation of events made for a perfect storm. The Vietnam War had moved into a new and more brutal phase following the Tet Offensive; and Martin Luther King had been assassinated. At about this moment, it was revealed that Columbia was both working for the Institute for Defense Analysis, a federal government-funded weapons-research body, and was to open a gymnasium in Harlem that would only allow local, and therefore black, residents ‘restricted access through a rear door’. Columbia was both supporting the Vietnam War, and consolidating social segregation. Petitions were signed by students, and then ignored by the university authorities, and tensions continued to rise. And then, Rudd, himself fresh from a trip to Cuba, and a few others decided to take matters into their own hands, and started occupying university buildings. And in doing so, they won a lot of support.
‘By then, we were radicals, meaning we wanted to get to the root’, Rudd explains. ‘We saw that there was no contradiction between local racism and military aggression in South East Asia. It’s one system. And we identified the university as part of that system, which made it a convenient and appropriate target.’
The protests and occupations lasted days, featuring a hostage taking, an impromptu Grateful Dead performance (‘we had no idea who they were’) and a lot of political discussion. The NYPD’s violent intervention put an end to it all on 30 April. By that stage Rudd’s fate, as a firebrand, a student insurgent, to be feted by some and flogged by others, was sealed.
Why did the media single him out for attention?, I ask. He hesitates. ‘It’s not like I haven’t thought about this question, but I’m not sure I’ve ever answered it. It could have just been crazy, stupid luck. Not necessarily good luck, either. Because that focus changed my life. I was the only person kicked out of the university. I was immediately drafted. And I will admit that the media attention went to my head’, he says, before foreshadowing the Weather to come. ‘I spent the next year or two posing as a great revolutionary.
‘But the question of “why me?”‘, he continues, ‘is not one I’ve ever answered adequately. My father was a big shot kind of a guy. He wasn’t scared to be upfront. He was a businessman and also an army officer, but he took risks. He wasn’t scared to be upfront. And I guess I was the same – I wasn’t scared to be upfront.’
Against ‘the good Germans’
You can still sense today Rudd’s pride at what he and his fellow student radicals achieved. And little wonder. Columbia wound down the defence contract, and pulled out of building the gymnasium. The students, arm in arm with Harlem, had won. It was a triumph of ‘good organising’, Rudd says, ‘of base-building, strategy’. And in a sense it was. It also captured the admirable idealism of the 1960s, that there were some things worth potentially sacrificing one’s future for.
Yet in this victory, the seeds of the turn away from ‘good organising’ were already being sown. First, the victory convinced Rudd and friends that action, not talking, let alone winning the support of others through argument, was the way forward. And second, the moral antipathy – and it was above all moral – toward ‘honky America’ was deepening.
From listening to Rudd, and reading his and others’ recollections, it becomes clear that the demoralisation of American postwar society, the sense that the life it promised, the values it enshrined, the freedoms it mandated, were inauthentic, spiritually bereft, incapable of entering deeply into people, started to turn into something more; that is, it turned into the absolute moral condemnation of American postwar society as near enough equivalent to Nazi Germany. Both were capitalist, ran the logic. Both were racist, one against Jews and the other against blacks. And both were engaged in imperialist wars.
As a result of this, there was a creeping conviction that one could not be American in any meaningful sense (just as one should not have been German in any meaningful sense), and at the same time be moral, virtuous, good. To be unquestioningly American, indeed, to be an American unwittingly benefitting from ‘white skin privilege’, was to be complicit in a morally corrupt, society-wide enterprise, much as many Germans were therefore complicit in the Nazis’ murderous enterprise: ‘I titled the first chapter of my book, “The Good German”’, says Rudd, ‘because many of us, growing up in the shadow of the Second World War, Jewish or non-Jewish, were aware of the complicity of the German people in Nazism. The metaphor “a good German” was very common in everyday language back then, although today it’s much less so.’
And again in Underground:
‘The Holocaust brought me to the knowledge that evil exists and it is associated with racism: that’s what Nazi anti-Semitism was. Growing up watching the civil-rights movement in this country and then learning about Vietnam, I saw evil again. Only this time, it wasn’t the sick, repressed Germans with their little brush-mustached dictator. It was us, the Americans, the most democratic, the most productive, the most egalitarian people ever to have graced the Earth. We were responsible for these horrible atrocities.’
Throughout 1968 and 1969 – in between court cases – this moral loathing of honky America – coupled with a self-effacing, semi-obsequious deference towards, and support of, the Black Panthers at home, and Cuban, Vietnamese and Chinese Communists abroad – hardened into violent resolution. Rudd, JJ and pals, now allied with smart law graduate Bernardine Dohrn, and the poetically inclined itchy radical Bill Ayers, became convinced that the New Left, embodied in the US by the SDS, which at that time commanded the support of thousands, was not sufficiently willing to do anything. There was a war on, and as far Rudd et al were concerned, the SDS was too passive, too talky, too, well, impotent. So, in the run-up to the SDS National Convention in June 1969, Rudd’s ‘action faction’ got together in Michigan and produced a 17,000 word paper outlining its position. Unable to think of a title, Terry Robbins blurted out a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ instead: ‘You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows’ – an opaque allusion to the superfluity of both endless theorising and the SDS’s prevaricating white leadership before the coming storm.
And come the storm did. First at the SDS’s convention itself, when the Weatherman faction, as it was known, managed, largely through semi-gerrymandered fiat, to gain control of the SDS (the national committee was renamed the Weather Bureau), and then, that October in Chicago, in what was dubbed the Days of Rage. This was meant to be a days-long national action, in which the Weathermen rallied students and working-class youths against the ‘pigs’. As it turned out, few, working class or student, rallied to the cause of the Weathermen, about 300 of whom initially turned up decked out in heavy leather jackets and football helmets, and armed with chains, bats and metal pipes. Not that the paltry turnout stopped them. At this point, action, the visceral thrill of being in the bloodied thick of it, was all that mattered. So, for four days, the Weathermen and their supporters, perhaps numbering 600 in total, trashed property and fought the Chicago police force. After four days and much violence, a total of 287 had been arrested, mainly on charges of ‘disorderly conduct and mob action’, and total bail costs were put at over $2million. More than 800 cars and 600 residential and shop windows had been smashed, many of which belonged to the very working-class people to whom the Weathermen had claimed to be appealing.
I say ‘claimed’. At this stage one can see clearly that the Weathermen had turned against white American society in toto. In the run-up to the Days of Rage, Bill Ayers had already promised that the Weather would ‘fight the people’ if it would further the international revolution. Which made sense in Weatherworld. After all, if white Americans, working-class or otherwise, could not step outside the immoral social system, then they were serving it. They were little more than ‘good Germans’. Rudd makes no attempt to justify this turn. ‘We were Third Worldists’, he says. ‘We rejected our own whiteness. But we were middle class, and upper middle class. By and large, we felt that since the vanguard of the revolution was going to be non-white, and white people could only play the supporting roles, then a lot of white people would be the enemy.’ He adds emphatically: ‘It was a dumb theory!’
In Underground, Rudd writes that he knew deep down Chicago had been a terrible mistake. Perhaps he was even then aware, no matter how dimly, that the violent rejection of mainstream American society was also ‘dumb’. But, at the time in late 1969, he and other leading Weathermen turned their doubts into signs of weakness, smudges of mainstream conscience to be ruthlessly expunged through self-criticism sessions in their quest for revolutionary purity. Rudd recalls these days as ‘the most notorious Weatherman period – more group sex, LSD acid tests, orgiastic rock music, violent street actions, and constant criticism, self-criticism sessions. This is the time’, he writes, ‘many people chillingly recall with tales of cat-killing to prove our ruthlessness (I never saw it myself, but it could have happened) and of group orgies to prove our revolutionary love for each other.’
Such was the depth of their estrangement from and animus towards ‘white’ America, that nothing was out of bounds:
‘There were crazy discussions over whether killing white babies was inherently revolutionary, since all white people are the enemy’, he writes. ‘Out of this bizarre thinking came Bernadine’s infamous speech praising Charles Manson and his gang’s murder of actress Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and the LaBiancas. “Dig it!”, she exclaimed. “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach! Wild!” We instantly adopted as Weather’s salute four fingers held in the air, invoking the fork left in Sharon Tate’s belly. The message was that we shit on your conventional values, you murderers of black revolutionaries and Vietnamese babies. There were no limits now to our politics of transgression.’
There were indeed no limits. ‘White people are pigs’, Rudd’s brothers in arms, Terry Robbins and JJ were telling meetings. ‘This whole society has to be brought down. We have got to defeat white-skin privilege; we can’t let the Panthers and the Vietnamese bear all the costs.’ Robbins’ plan? ‘We’re going to kill the pigs at a dance at Fort Dix.’
No pigs were killed at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Instead, three Weathermen were killed in Greenwich Village, New York. ‘Fortunately, the bombs went off prematurely and killed three of our own people’, says Rudd. ‘Had we attacked that dance it would have been a terrible blow to the anti-war movement, at the height of the Vietnam War.’
The deaths of Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins and Ted Gold prompted the Weathermen to shift focus from bombing people to bombing buildings. They were now fully fledged fugitives, star turns on the FBI’s Most Wanted no less, fighting Pig Amerika from the underground for near enough a decade, while the world moved on and paid less and less attention. ‘We did not consider ourselves terrorists’, Rudd tells me, ‘but we talked ourselves into that position’.
The politics of self-expression
In Underground, Rudd characterises the Weatherman moment as a form of madness, its membership akin to being trapped, airless and windowless, in a ‘bell jar’ – his then lover Sue Legrand’s term for it.
But what is perplexing about the Weatherman moment is why these smart, super-educated kids would pursue a course of action, well on the way towards terrorism proper, that was so obviously counter to their avowed aims of revolution. They were not going to beat the ‘pigs’ in Chicago. And they certainly were never going to mobilise, or better still ‘awaken’, America from its white-privileged slumber by blowing people and buildings up. It does not seem to make sense. Or at least it does not if you think of the Weatherman moment in terms of political strategies and objectives. But if you view the Weatherman moment as an extreme expression of the New Left’s broader moral rejection and denunciation of American society, as corrupt and corrupting, as somehow unreal and inauthentic, then it does start to make sense.
For this was, as Rudd himself tells me, a way-out-there form of the politics of ‘self-expression’. Being, or rather becoming, a revolutionary was not so much directed outwards, towards social revolution, so much as directed inwards, towards self-revelation. It was a performance of what was seen as one’s best self, a dramatisation of one’s true self. It was a way of becoming real, authentic, pure, amid the consumerist ways of mainstream capitalist, imperialist America – a society from which so many young people had long felt estranged. To be a Weatherman was experienced, then, almost like a call of conscience in the Nazi-lite US, a self-focused response to a moral imperative not to be a good German. Success or failure did not matter. What mattered was that one was, that one became what society was not – moral. ‘Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values’, Paul Potter had told a young Bill Ayers in 1965. And that’s what the Weathermen did – they turned their lives into a demonstration, if not of values exactly, then of some sort of moral truth. They were freaks, revolutionaries, because they were being true to themselves.
So it is no surprise that the Weathermen’s so-called self-criticism sessions were akin to some form of grotesque therapy, in which the layers of social corruption and repression were peeled away, and the skein of white-skin privilege was burnt off, to reveal the real self, ready for revolutionary action. Being a revolutionary in the Weatherman sense, then, was ultimately to express one’s utter freedom from white, mainstream society. It was to have cast off its values, its conventions and its comforts as just so much artificiality and corruption. It was a process of absolution, and absolute condemnation of those, like America’s white working class, still living within the mold, still comfortable with being American.
Actions themselves, whether bombing or rioting, were experienced as moments of self-revelation, of fusing with some deeper reality, of proving one’s true self. In Underground, Rudd recalls a so-called jail break (because society was a prison) in the run-up to the Chicago action, where some Weatherwomen broke into a Pittsburgh school and exhorted the working-class kids to join the revolution. The riot police were called, and 26 were arrested. Whether or not any kids did join the revolution – and unsurprisingly they did not – was irrelevant. ‘For the unacknowledged purpose of the action was internal’, writes Rudd. ‘The women had now proven to themselves and to the men in the organisation that they were committed revolutionaries.’ Others, outside the Weathermen, such as the left-wing Berkeley Tribe’s Steve Haines, confessed to admiring their demonstration of their revolutionary selves: ‘[The Weather Underground] confronted the gut issue of personal courage in a way few of us who consider ourselves revolutionary ever have’, he wrote. ‘They confronted it and they won.’
The Weatherman moment, then, appears almost as a bathetic last act in the existential drama of the New Left, in which the quest for authenticity had reached fever pitch. Militancy – being authentically militant – had become an end in itself, a way of living the substance of the negation of white America. And tragically, it was at points to erupt as the actual negation of real, living white Americans.
Rudd’s analysis is sobering. ‘We moved from strategic organising [in 1965-8] to self-expression [in 1969]. Which doesn’t work. Self-expression can’t substitute for strategic organising.’ And what of the talk of guerilla warfare, of imitating Guevarist foco theory? ‘The foco theory merely justifies the self-expression’, Rudd says. ‘If you begin armed struggle, then the masses will supposedly join you. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, we were too stupid to realise that Che Guevara had died in 1967, because the Bolivians didn’t support him, two years before we officially moved over to Guerilla warfare. Because the theory doesn’t work. It never worked anywhere!’
Fifty years on
Rudd seems content today. Not with the world as it is – he is ‘still reading, writing, speaking, plotting, strategising’, and, crucially, ‘working on the problem of organising, of bringing people together’. So, he’s still fighting. But he seems content with himself.
He is a grandfather, now living in Albuquerque in New Mexico, a place he first fell in love with when on the run from 1970 until 1977. He was never imprisoned, largely because of the illegal means by which the FBI obtained evidence against him, and the post-Watergate climate of the mid-to-late 1970s. Still, it took a long time for him to come to terms with what happened all those years ago, when he and his comrades waged war on the pigs.
‘I think at that time we had a lot of confusion, and there still is confusion.’ He pauses. ‘Hillary Clinton talks about the basket of deplorables. And I also think terrorism is a perfect crystallisation of the idea that everyone is guilty.’
Rudd has learned lessons, then. Harsh, painful ones. He lost friends. Others lost themselves. And the SDS never recovered from the damage the Weatherman faction did. However, it seems that too many refuse to learn those lessons. In their loathing of ‘the guilty’, in their assaults on ‘the deplorables’, indeed in their splenetic posturing against so-called white privilege, too many continue to wage war on the Levovs. Not a military one. A cultural one. But a war none the less.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review.
Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, by Mark Rudd, is published by William Morrow & Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Getty Images