Monday, May 30, 2011

The Weather Underground: A Review

Today I watched the fascinating documentary "The Weather Underground" on Netflix streaming. The film discusses the work and impact of the Weathermen, a group of young radicals who turned to violence in 1969-73 from frustration at the failures of non-violence to end the war in Vietnam.

Most of the footage records recent interviews with six or seven members of the movement, who express a mixture of pride and regret at their actions during those turbulent years.  Those proud and regrettable actions included facilitating Timothy O'Leary's prison escape and bombing many public buildings, supposedly to protest various atrocities committed by the government.  Several people in the film emphasize that these actions did not injure or kill anyone outside the movement; indeed, the only human casualties of their bombs were three of its leaders, killed in an accidental explosion while working on an explosive device.  But despite this practiced non-violence towards other human beings, several group members remembered seeing all Americans as guilty, as worthy targets for violence because of their silent complicity in the Vietnam War.  In their comments from 2003, all participants cautioned against that kind of belief in one's own moral superiority.  Most stated that the violence was wrong even though their motives (ending the war, advancing racial equality, bringing the socialist revolution) were good--and most have continued working towards those goals throughout their lives.

The interview subjects (including an FBI agent and a rival leftist organizer from the mostly-peaceful Students for a Democratic Society, in addition to the several Weathermen) were an unusually coherent and articulate bunch--so articulate that one of the silent questions of the film is "How did a such a smart and good-hearted group of people do such stupid and wrong-headed things?"  The film alludes to a couple of possibilities, and I can think of a couple more.  They all mentioned anger that mass movements--marches of hundreds of thousands of people--had not brought an end to the Vietnam war and associated genocides.  They wanted to "bring the war home," and remind Americans of the massive suffering in Vietnam. Their actions were also in line with the revolutionary actions happening in many other countries at the same time, including those in South America (we'll come back to those later).  Additionally, although these young people were obviously passionate and thinking individuals, perhaps they did not consider the real costs of property destruction.

I thought the film had many messages for the present day United States and for potential revolutionaries.  A primary and important message:  Violence is an ineffective and morally wrong strategy for inducing positive change.  For one thing, violence creates fear, and fearful people are more willing to surrender their rights, less willing to try to understand strangers and build open communities.  Argentina's bloody 1970s produced a particularly awful example of violence backfiring badly.  A left-wing group bombed the train system there in the early 70s; the fear created by this action helped the military generate enough popular support to take over the democratically elected government and embark on a mission of murdering all leftist and labor leaders (the vast majority were non-violent).  The military government killed 30,000 people (los desaparecidos) in another horrific act of domestic terrorism, using the specter of violent crazies to justify kidnappings, torture, and murder.

For another thing:  violence of this sort did not adequately highlight the item protested. I also want people to remember that U.S.-supported goons brought about the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende, in his office, in 1973.  I also want people to remember the Haymarket Riots, but bombing tangentially related buildings seems to focus people's attention on the explosions and not the historical events.  Using the destruction of property to send messages backfires in another, less symbolic way as well.  Most of the time, the destroyed site will be rebuilt at public expense, directing taxpayer dollars to unnecessary ends.
Most of the members of the Weathermen acknowledge these problems now.  It is important, however, to remember that their actions were the result not just of youthful irresponsibility, but also the outgrowth of frustration at democratic processes.  When people feel like all peaceful possibilities for change have been exhausted, violence will almost certainly follow.  I fear for our nation at present times, when the state largely ignores the public needs and opinions; the violence of national rhetoric has ramped up, and unfortunately if people don't start to feel that change can be achieved through democracy, violent groups from all over the political spectrum will increase their antisocial activities.

One final thought on the documentary: much of the footage from the 60s and 70s was very inspiring.  Young people stated well-informed opinions, and major media sources payed attention and gave them the dignity of airtime.  Anti-war protesters achieved some kind of celebrity and respect on the national stage that is nearly unthinkable today, when pacifists are dismissed and anti-war voices marginalized by both parties.  The documentary left me wondering how and why memories, both positive and negative, of the Weathermen and the more pacifist Students for a Democratic Society were scrubbed from our national discourse.  In all my conversations interviewing family members about their experiences in the 60s and 70s, neither group ever came up.  I was mostly unaware that these incidents even occurred, yet surely they affected my parents' fear of the Left.  It is up to us to revive this knowledge, to let neither the SDS nor the Haymarket Riots be revised out of existence in imperialist rewritings of history.

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