On 6 March 1970, an immense explosion tore through the basement of 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Two young activists were killed by the dynamite bomb they were constructing. Twenty-two-year-old Terry Robbins, one of the most vocal advocates of revolutionary violence in the Weather Underground, was practically vapourised. A second victim, Diana Oughton, was twenty-eight years old and apparently had misgivings about the direction of the group. (For a tragic reconstruction of her final months, see ‘The Story of Diana’). She was mutilated beyond recognition. She was eventually identified by a fingertip, found later. A third victim, twenty-two-year-old Theodore (Ted) Gold, was killed by a collapsing wall. At least two members escaped and disappeared underground: Kathy Boudin and Cathlyn (Cathy) Wilkerson.
The New York collective of the Weather Underground had planned to bomb an officers’ ball at Fort Dix. If successful, the body count might have included dozens of innocent victims, leaving aside the military personnel. By any measure, this would have been an event of historic importance, though likely a disastrous one for the left and the Weather Underground themselves.
Who were these radicals, so committed that they risked their own lives and the lives of others?
The Weather Underground (first known as the Weathermen, named after a line in Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’) emerged from the largest radical youth group of the 1960s in the US. They were attractive and hip, drawn to the kind of violent confrontation with the state that was shared by the Red Brigades in Italy, Baader Meinhoff in Germany and other US groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army. They were the Bonnie and Clydes of Sixties Radicalism. They were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, racing to their doom. And they continue to exercise a particular fascination over the contemporary imaginary. Recent films (The Company You Keep) and novels (such as Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions) seek to reconstruct their dilemmas and trajectories. Their mesmeric appeal is partly explained by the sheer courage that these activists showed, and secondly by the drama of their overwrought and overheated activities, filled with the kinds of thrills and peril absent from the peaceful mass rallies that another section of the movement advocated.
Their extremism occurred during the height of the Vietnam War, something all too easy to forget. The US state was involved in a near-genocidal conflict against the Vietnamese people. It was also conducting a low-intensity war against the radicals within the US itself, which included the murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and other acts of systematic and violent oppression. Indeed, peaceful activism didn’t seem to be stopping the war. Rather, US intervention in Vietnam appeared to be escalating. Nor did the situation at home look to have altered in favour of the radical left. Richard Nixon had been elected in 1968 – a shift to the right. Many in the movement became increasingly frustrated. Were the bulk of the US population hopelessly compromised and entangled in middle class bourgeois life? Within the anti-war movement, there was an apocalyptic mood. To many, including the Weather Underground, the task was thus to ‘bring the war home.’ Despair and rage set in.
Instead of striking against the military at Fort Dix, the Weather Underground accidentally killed three of their own members. The tragedy at the townhouse was probably fortuitous. After this, the group changed their direction. They decided never to harm anyone in their activities, which included a series of bombings during the 1970s, including a successful bombing of the Pentagon. They never again killed anyone and indeed made every effort to ensure that there was no chance of any injury.
War/Peace is a new Finnish-Australian film (though unsurprisingly the money came from Finland rather than Australia) that examines the Weather Underground and the contemporary political moment beside one other. The film is thus more an essay than a history. It opens with Noam Chomsky explaining that, ‘We’re already just about at the limits of survival and going beyond is catastrophe.’ Its organising question though is spoken later: ‘If violent revolution isn’t effective and peaceful activism is easily ignored, what is the best way for common people to have their voices heard?’ An important section of the film is thus a meditation on the contemporary crisis of democracy across the western world, the state of perpetual war that we find ourselves in, and the activists opposing it through movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and so on. In particular, it explores the townhouse explosion with the current perspectives of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, two of the central leaders of the group, on this particular moment.
War/Peace’s director, Inderjit Kaur Kalsa, explains that:
I wanted to talk about what’s going on now, but in relation with time. Time is a cycle. We just keep repeating the same mistakes and not learning from them. When I found the story of the Weather Underground, I thought ‘Oh my god, these things were going on in the sixties and seventies and new we’re back in the same cycle.’ Is it true that we keep not learning and forgetting our past?
I found the story [of the townhouse] in Life magazine in this old bookstore. The magazine came out one month after I was born. I saw this picture of this collapsed townhouse and on the opposite page were pictures of two very pretty white girls and my first thought was that there was a gas explosion and I felt very sorry for them. I had lived in Manhattan very close to that building. Then I read the story and I thought, ‘Oh my god they were making bombs in the basement.’ And these girls survived but three of their comrades died. I felt very strongly for that story.
Indeed, there continues to be considerable mystery about the townhouse explosion. Kalsa explains that we don’t know what really happened in the house: who was there, what occurred. We don’t know the whole truth. Secrets remain. Perhaps they will remain until the deaths of Dohrn, or Ayers, or Wilkerson, who also speaks during the film.
Unlike many former sixties radicals, Dohrn and Ayers have none of the supercilious, sneering or dismissive attitudes to their radical past. There’s something deeply admirable about their steadfastness. ‘We chose sides and we think the side we chose was right, historically right,’ says Dohrn at one point. Their only regrets, she explains, is towards their former comrades.
However, in the end, neither they (in the film), nor the film itself, answer its central question: when peaceful action seems fruitless and violent action ineffective, what is to be done?
‘My next film is about that,’ says Kalsa. ‘I can’t give any answers. I was trying to reach out to people who might have answers to this. My next film is about activism nowadays in the trump era and about what people are trying to do, trying to make a change. In particular in the Chicago region.’
With any luck it will be as important as War/Peace.
Free screenings of War/Peace are happening on:
6 March 2018, Sydney
University of Sydney, 5.30pm
10 March 2018, Melbourne
Loop Project Space & Bar, 6pm
The film is one hour long and each screening will be followed by Q&A sessions between the audience and filmmakers.
Two of the key subjects of the film, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, will also be present for discussions and to answer questions. With their background, and the current political environment in the United States, these conversations promise to be very interesting.
Image: Members of the Weather Underground