I see a bad moon rising
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightning
I see bad times today
— John Fogerty
The “bad moon” Creedence Clearwater Revival songwriter and frontman John Fogerty saw on the rise in the fall of 1969 would become an eerie, unsettling Blood Moon as the tumultuous ’60s became the pervasively violent and deeply weird 1970s.
We think we’re living in fraught and polarized times now, but the times were far stranger and more dangerous in the early ’70s.
Author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin urges us to:
“Think about one fact, one fact alone: 1,000 political bombings a year in ’72, ’73, ’74. Almost inconceivable. That was what the world was like. Skyjackings were epidemic. You had an actual revolutionary movement in this country that, while never likely to succeed, was disrupting the country, especially Northern California, in a way that’s… it’s just hard to believe.”*
The era of social violence inaugurated in the ferment surrounding the Vietnam War lasted for a quarter of a century, spawning small but dedicated cadres of serious revolutionaries like the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).
The story of the radical underground of the 1970s seems surreal from more than 40 years’ remove. Yet the tale has more resonance today than we might be comfortable acknowledging. Political extremes again loom large on the landscape, in the blatant evocation of fascist ideology among the “alt-right” and an “Antifa” movement that echoes the rhetoric (and the infatuation with Che Guevara) of the 1970s leftist underground.
The nation and its culture remains deeply divided along the same fault lines revealed by the Vietnam War era — so far, lacking the kind mobilizing factor the war created. Yet the tinder is still there, and as volatile as ever.
1968 was a tidal wave. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive — though a battlefield disaster for the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong — gave the lie to assurances by the U.S. government that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
In France and Germany, student revolt threatened to pull society apart at the seams. Leftist American youth, too, flexed their considerable muscle. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago turned into a riot. And Students For A Democratic Society (SDS) occupied campus administration buildings at Columbia University in protest against the Vietnam War.
My friend Jack McGowan, who was living in New York at the time and was involved in some of the massive antiwar protests of the era, recalls:
“Everything started happening at once. It was all of these eruptions that were localized, but had real national impact.”
Young leftists — and their parents, too — thought America, and maybe the whole world, was just a step or two from revolution. But that’s not what happened. Richard Nixon was elected president; the war went on. And on. American society was more divided, polarized and enraged than it had been at any time since the Civil War. Campus protests turned violent, culminating in the shooting of young protesters at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970. For many, it looked like America was already in a state of low-intensity civil war and tipping toward revolution.
As the ’60s skidded sideways into the ’70s, a tiny cadre of the anti-war left decided that protest was not enough; they would have to turn to violent direct action — armed struggle — to provide that revolutionary spark. Their model was Cuba; their idol, Che Guevara; their sacred text, Guevara’s treatise Guerrilla Warfare.
“I didn’t sympathize. But it was a logical extension of the polarization. It was the next step.”
These handfuls of revolutionaries — most famously Weatherman, which would soon become Weatherman Underground and then the Weather Underground — truly believed that, through bombings, they would bring about the overthrow of the U.S. government. It was a delusion created fed by their worship of Che Guevara, whose rural-based theories of guerrilla warfare were being adapted by others to form the cult of the urban guerrilla.
As Bryan Burrough explains in Days of Rage — America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence:
“As outlandish as this idea might sound today, it emerged as a popular argument among apocalyptic radicals of 1968 and would endure as the rationalization behind almost every underground group of the 1970s. Known as the foco theory, it had been advanced in a 1967 book, ‘Revolution in the Revolution?’, by a French philosophy professor named Régis Debray. A friend of Guevara’s who taught in Havana, Debray argued that small, fast-moving guerilla groups such as Che commanded, could inspire a grassroots rebellion, even in the United States. Debray’s theory, in turn, drew on what leftists call vanguardism, the notion that the most politically advanced members of any ‘proletariat’ could draw the working class into revolution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these ideas were catnip to budding revolutionaries…”
Those budding revolutionaries nearly nipped themselves in the bud when three Weathermen — inexperienced with explosives — blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village Townhouse on March 6, 1970. The dynamite bomb they were building — wrapped in fencing staples — was to be placed at a noncommissioned officers’ dance at Fort Dix. Their purpose was to create mass casualties.
Historian Arthur M. Eckstein argues persuasively that, had the Fort Dix bomb gone off as planned, it would have had devastating effect, justifying a massive Nixonian crackdown on the antiwar movement, and perhaps the imposition of martial law.
In later years, Weatherman leaders like Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn sought to pass off the Townhouse bomb as a “rogue operation.” Their subsequent bombings targeted symbols of the American imperium — with warnings.
“We were very careful from the moment of the Townhouse on to be sure that we weren’t going to going to hurt anybody. And we never did hurt anybody.”
True enough. But other Weatherman veterans have called bullshit. The organization did back away from mass-casualty attacks, but at the outset they were ready to kill police and make the streets run with blood.
Weatherman Brian Flanagan says:
“We wanted to light it up.” The mission, as Weatherman saw it, was to “bring the war home.”
Larry Grathwohl, who was an FBI informant inside Weatherman, has long alleged that Weatherman, under Bill Ayers’ direction, attempted to bomb a Detroit Police Officers Association building and a precinct house with anti-personnel devices.
In a 2008 interview, he stated that:
“The instructions I received from Billy Ayers was that the bombs to be used in Detroit must have shrapnel (fence staples, specifically) and fire potential (propane bottles). The intention was to kill police officers.…”
The planned March 6 bombing (coordinated to coincide with the planned Fort Dix bombing?) failed; the Detroit Police found the devices, possibly due to a tip from Grathwohl.
Grathwohl has also stated that Ayers told him that Bernardine Dohrn placed a pipe bomb at the San Francisco Golden Gate Park Precinct in February 1970, which killed a police officer, Sgt. Brian McDonnell. That case remains unsolved, and Dohrn and Ayers have scoffed at accusations of her involvement. Ayers has said that Grathwohl’s claims have been “blown into dishonest narratives about hurting people, killing people, planning to kill people. That’s just not true. We destroyed government property.”
It is interesting to note that Ayers’ statement was that Weatherman was careful not to hurt anyone from the moment of the Townhouse on. The failed Detroit bombing and the fatal San Francisco bombing occurred before the Townhouse debacle.
In October 1981, six members of the Black Liberation Army, along with four former members of the Weather Underground — David Gilbert, Judith Alice Clark, Kathy Boudin, and Marilyn Buck, who were then affiliated with the May 19th Communist Organization, knocked over a Brink’s Armored Car in New York. A guard and two police officers were killed in the robbery and a subsequent gunfight.
It seems amply clear that Weatherman was willing to take lives. Dohrn may have the blood of Sgt. McDonnell and his wounded compatriots on her hands, and the former Weathermen busted for felony murder most certainly have three killings on their rap sheets. (Buck has died of cancer. Kathy Boudin was paroled in 2003; David Gilbert and Judith Alice Clark remain in prison).
Mark Rudd, who struggles today with guilt and shame over his actions with Weatherman said:
“At that point in our thinking, there were no innocent Americans — at least among the white ones… all guilty. All Americans were legitimate targets for attack… I was overwhelmed by hate. I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority.”
“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”
― Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
While the Weather Underground was blowing up bathrooms at the Pentagon and the Capitol, another underground “army” was conducting a much bloodier campaign. The Black Liberation Army, which spun out of the splintering of the Black Panthers, robbed banks and hunted cops, mostly on the streets of New York City. Their brutal, execution-style murders of patrol officers — revenge for police killings of young, black men, some unarmed, created a virtual wartime culture within the NYPD and in other cities.
Some in the press thought the police were hyperventilating. But, as Burrough notes:
“While hardly an army, the BLA was real, and it was a multistate conspiracy, if a desperate and sloppy one.”
BLA’s campaign suffered a serious blow to morale when Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur**, considered by some to be the “heart and soul” of BLA, was captured during a traffic stop and shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. The NYPD took the gloves off and rolled up many other BLA “soldiers.”
The last hurrah of the BLA was the Brink’s robbery in New York in 1981, which left a guard and two cops dead and six BLA soldiers in prison.
As 1974 dawned, the radical underground was running out of gas — and whatever relevancy it might pretend to. The anti-Vietnam War movement that had spawned it was winding down as the draft ended and America turned its back on the grinding, bloody, divisive conflict. Then a band of theatrical misfits from the San Francisco Bay Area thrust the underground back into the public consciousness in one of the most outlandish media circuses in American history.
“Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience… The desire to escape or camouflage their unsatisfactory selves develops in the frustrated a facility for pretending — for making a show — and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.”
― Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
On February 4, 1974, kidnappers pushed their way into the Berkeley apartment of Patricia Campbell Hearst, the heiress to the newspaper empire founded by her grandfather, William Randolph Hearst, beat up Hearst’s boyfriend and bundled her into the trunk of a car. They hauled her off to Daly City, just south of San Francisco, and held her in a closet for 57 days. When she emerged, she announced to the world that she had joined her captors in a revolutionary struggle, taking the nom de guerre of “Tania” in honor of Che Guevara’s East German comrade in the Bolivian adventure, and purported lover.
Hearst’s kidnappers called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). At its strongest, the “army” numbered no more than 12 men and women. Their leader, an escaped prisoner named Donald DeFreeze, called himself Cinque Mtume, and styled himself “General-Field Marshal.”
The SLA was one of the loonier outfits among the leftist radical underground. Many of them had a background in college theatre programs, which made them even more preposterously grandiose than the run-of-the-mill leftist of that florid age. The SLA signed off its “Communiques” with the motto “Death to the fascist insect that feeds upon the life of the people.”
The grandiosity would have been comical — except that the SLA was dealing in real bullets. They had earlier announced their presence on the scene with the murder of Oakland’s first black superintendent of schools, Marcus Foster — a bizarre and inexplicable act that perplexed and disgusted virtually everyone else on the radical left, including the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers.
The Hearst kidnapping propelled the SLA into the national limelight, especially after the 19-year-old heiress joined the cause and was deliberately and vividly caught on camera robbing a bank. Whether Hearst was “brainwashed” and joined her captors in a case of what is known as Stockholm Syndrome (where kidnap victims come to identify with their captors), or she threw in with her revolutionary cohorts of her own free will remains controversial.
The SLA originally took Hearst with the notion of trading her for two comrades who were in prison for the Foster killing, though they weren’t the ones who pulled the trigger. Even the SLA could readily figure out that California Governor Ronald Reagan wasn’t going to trade two incarcerated terrorists for an heiress, not even a Hearst. So they shifted their focus to a demand that Randolph Hearst organize a massive food giveaway for the underclass of Oakland.
Hearst did it. The food program initially went well — and went far to restore the SLA in the good graces of their underground comrades. But, perhaps inevitably, the program degenerated into hustles, threats and mini-riots and the authorities called a halt for the sake of public safety.
When Patty Hearst appeared as “Tania” on security cameras, helping to rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco with a submachinegun, the SLA were the most famous outlaws in America.
They dug it — but the heat in San Francisco was way too high now, so they “broke the encirclement” (seriously) and headed to L.A. Which was a tactical error of fatal proportions.
When they commandeered a house in South-Central L.A., the “brothers and sisters” did not respond with the anticipated revolutionary fervor. They might not like the cops, but they didn’t like armed assholes from Frisco marching into the neighborhood, either.
A “little old lady” approached police and asked them if they were looking for “all those white people with guns.” She knew where they were.
The LAPD soon found the SLA safehouse and surrounded it in the first SWAT operation in American history. It was May 17, 1974.
Patty Hearst was not in the house, though nobody knew it at the time. She, along with Bill and Emily Harris, had botched a shoplifting operation in which Patty shot up Mel’s Sporting Goods in Inglewood, and had bailed out to a motel near Disneyland.
They watched the ensuing events on TV, along with everyone else in L.A., including the author, who was nine years old and quite excited to see a shootout on live TV.
The LAPD surrounded the SLA house and called them out. They meant it. The SLA wasn’t having it. Multiple calls for surrender drew a classic radical response: A shriek of “Hey Pig! Smoke this!” from one of the SLA women, followed by a barrage of gunfire.
In the space of a couple of hours, thousands of rounds were fired. The police threw in copious amounts of tear gas. The house went up in flames. SLA members cut through the floor and into a crawl space. Two of the women, who were more fierce than the men, tried to escape into an alley and shoot their way out and went down under police gunfire. The four others burned to death.
By some miracle, no citizens or police were injured.
The three remaining comrades went on the run, eventually recruiting a handful of new members — despite (or perhaps because of) the debacle in L.A.. Patty Hearst committed numerous crimes in 19 months on the run, including bank robbery (in one of which a woman was killed) and blowing up a police car. She had numerous opportunities to walk away or to make her presence known to law enforcement. She never did.
Hearst was finally caught in September 1975. She was initially defiant, describing her occupation as “urban guerrilla,” but soon renounced the SLA, portraying herself as a victim of rape and brutalization. A jury didn’t buy it. She was convicted of bank robbery and took a seven-year jolt in prison. She served two years before President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. President Bill Clinton, in his last day in office, granted her a full pardon.
The radical underground accomplished nothing. In fact, it was counter-productive, fueling Nixonian authoritarianism and a conservative reaction that put the Cuban-style Communist revolution the comrades dreamed of even further out of reach.
And it blighted lives — those of its victims, but those of its participants, too (although Ayers and Dohrn have done pretty well parlaying their radical credentials into cushy academic gigs).
The whole sordid story is a cautionary tale, a warning of what can happen when youthful idealism, romanticism and a lust for action combines with moral certitude and righteous wrath — hate cherished as a badge of moral superiority — in a toxic cocktail that renders ordinary lives irrelevant to the furtherance of “the revolution.”
That cocktail can be shaken and stirred to the right or to the left — political ideology is, after all, secondary at best in the needs hierarchy of the true believer.
When the radical underground of the left burned itself out by the early 1980s, domestic terrorism became the province of the underground radical right, which was itself nurtured in the fertile soil of the 1970s. The neo-Nazi action group The Order created itself very much in the image of the Weather Underground and other leftist radical groups — with all the pompous grandiosity of the SLA. With history’s poetic sense of symmetry, they met a similar fate.
And a right-wing bomber, Timothy McVeigh, would set off a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995 that was more horrifically lethal by far than anything the bombers of the radical left ever conceived of.
We’ll take up that terrible tale in Part II.
* American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst,” by Jeffrey Toobin.
**Partly out of conscious feminist ideology, the radical leftist underground was led and/or influenced by some charismatic, fierce and dangerous women. They were often more capable and focused than the men involved. The movement also weaponized sexuality. Smashing monogamy was considered a revolutionary imperative.
Notes in the margin:
• Two of the central tenets of the radical left of the underground era were that the American Empire is on its last legs and that consumerism is a social disease. Radicals of the right also tend to share that outlook. And those tenets also animate RIR. Rullman and I are fundamentally anti-ideological. This is a conundrum worth pondering.
• The leftist radical underground was an international phenomenon. The Red Brigades in Italy and the Red Army Faction in Germany — better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang — both inspired and were inspired by their counterparts in the USA. One of the best depictions of the era may be found in the movie The Baader-Meinhof Complex. The dynamics of that murderous group are very similar to those of the American underground groups.
Sex and drugs and revolution.
It is an undeniable and curious fact that leftist radicalism is glamorized in a way we never see with right wing radicalism. The “why” of that might be a worthy topic of exploration.