Days of Violence

Book Review

days of rage

Days of Rage:  America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015)

Secret cells of bombers in the U.S. didn’t start with Islamic terrorists in the 1990s. We had a host of them throughout the 1970s and into the mid-’80s, a fact that is now little remembered. Bombing buildings, killing police, staging prison breaks, robbing banks—but rather than aiming to terrorize the population, these crimes were aimed at sparking a revolution.

Maybe you’ve heard of Weatherman, later known as the Weather Underground. You may even remember the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped and brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst. But what about the Black Liberation Army? The New World Liberation Front? FALN? The Sam Melville Jonathan Jackson Unit? The Family?

Bryan Burrough tells the fascinating story of these interlinked groups in his book, “Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence,” a title almost as wordy as the communiqués these groups released. He’s produced a thorough, even-handed, and nicely written history, featuring new information about what the home-grown revolutionaries did while they were “underground” (that is, acting secretly and living under false identities), gleaned from interviews with key players.

Those who didn’t travel in countercultural circles in the late ’60s and early ’70s may find it hard to understand how people could actually believe the U.S. was on the brink of a revolution. Those who did might understand, but still have trouble believing people could hang onto such beliefs well into the 1980s. Count me among the latter. I had no idea there were still holdouts at the end of the first Reagan administration. It blew my mind, man.

The story starts in the summer of 1969. Protests and demonstrations seemed to be losing effectiveness, and the government was cracking down on activists—the police sometimes literally cracking down with truncheons on heads, as during the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Some activists felt that a more dramatic resistance was called for.

There had been bombings earlier in the decade, but now a guy named Sam Melville took it to a new level. Rather than heaving Molotov cocktails at campus ROTC buildings, Melville stole some dynamite sticks and began setting off time-bombs in buildings around New York, hitting, among other targets, Chase Manhattan, General Motors, and the Federal and Criminal Courts Buildings.

Next up was Weatherman, led largely by former students from Columbia University. Here Burrough sets out to dispel a number of myths. The revolutionary underground was not composed of hippies protesting the Vietnam War; it was made up of “hard-core leftists” seeking to liberate U.S. minorities from capitalist oppression. What most inspired these young radicals was the cohort of black activists who rejected non-violence as a tactic—particularly Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. The Weatherman opposition to the war was not because it was a pointless waste of lives and money, but because it was an imperialistic reaction to Third World revolutionary forces.

(What Burrough does not explicitly note is that both the New Left underground and the hippies grew out of the same youth movement of the earlier ’60s and had a mutual influence on each other. This cultural ferment produced some great classic rock songs: the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”)

Weatherman was at first a faction of the Students for a Democratic Society that gained leadership of the organization in 1969 and escalated violent protests, culminating in the “Day of Rage” in Chicago that gave the title to this book. Rather than being chastened by the fact that no one showed up for their revolution, the group abolished the SDS and went underground as an armed revolutionary vanguard.

Another myth, still perpetuated by former leader Bill Ayers, is that Weatherman only targeted property in their attacks, not people. According to other insiders they explicitly targeted the police, and in one of their first bombings hit the parking lot of a police station in Berkeley during a shift change. No one was killed, but one patrolman was severely injured.

What did chasten Weatherman was when one of their cells blew itself up while constructing a bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse. It was only after this that they began taking lives more seriously and tried to avoid deaths while bombing property. The incident also led to the perfection of a safer bomb design, one that was to be used and reused by the subsequent—and more murderous—radical groups.

As Weatherman arose from the SDS in 1969, the Black Liberation Army arose from the New York branch of the Black Panther Party two years later. This group and most of the others in the book were led by blacks (or, in the case of the FALN, Puerto Ricans) rather than white radicals, although they drew on the latter for support.

The stories of these groups are all riveting, although they start to become repetitive by the time we reach the 1980s. The most memorable episode is when the tragi-comic Symbionese Liberation Army meets it end after knocking on the door of a late-night house party and politely asking to hide out from the police for a few hours. The next morning an angry grandmother stormed the house and, looking at the black stranger and his armed white companions, yells at them to “get out of this place right now!” They didn’t, so she grabbed her grandchildren and went to the police.

The primary value of Burrough’s book is in its new information based on insiders’ accounts, not only from the radicals but from police and the FBI. The human propensity for self-deception is on full display on both sides as they break laws in pursuit of their missions, one side ramping up the other. One of the ironies of the whole story is how people like Bernadine Dohrn, long on the FBI’s most-wanted list as one of the key leaders of the underground, got off with probation and a $1,500 fine in the end, while W. Mark Felt, a senior administrator in the FBI (and the “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame), got a heftier fine of $5,000 for approving illegal acts.

I was also struck by little notes connecting these events with later U.S. history. The Family was one of the last of the groups active. One of its leaders was Mutulu Shakur, the step-father of the famous rapper Tupac Shakur, whose themes reflect some of the ideals of the Black Panther Party that he learned from the people he grew up with.

And one of the elder Shakur’s victims was a Brink’s armored car security guard, Joe Trombino. Trombino survived his injuries only to die twenty years later while making a pickup in the basement of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The cycle of violence and over-reaction has not ended, it has only changed its forms.

–Alan F. Zundel

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