Film Director and Group Veteran Discuss The Weather Underground


Once upon a time -- in the summer of 1969, to be exact -- a group of veteran Left activists, mostly from middle-class backgrounds and all with long histories of student activism against the war in Viet Nam, decided that the time was right to start an armed struggle against the United States government. Their idea was based on a theory called "exemplary violence," the idea that once a small band of revolutionaries began planting explosives against carefully selected symbolic targets millions of Americans would be inspired by these actions and join the struggle themselves. The group they formed is the subject of a new documentary film by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, The Weather Underground, playing now through September 25 at the Ken Cinema, 4061 Adams Avenue in Kensington.

The impression most Americans who've heard of the Weather Underground at all have of them is a bunch of spoiled college kids turned terrorist loonies; but, as Green and Siegel explain through their film, this ignores the context of the 1960's. Co-director Green met with three volunteers from the San Diego Independent Media Center [SD-IMC] the night the film opened in San Diego -- Friday, September 19 -- and he was joined by Mark Rudd, a veteran of the Weather Underground and leader of a famous 1968 student occupation and strike at New York's Columbia University. The context was unusually apt because that morning arsonists claiming a connection with the Earth Liberation Front [ELF], a loose network of environmental saboteurs often considered a modern-day equivalent of the Weather Underground, burned down four luxury homes under construction in Carmel Valley and damaged two others. Green and Rudd began the interview by asking the local activists to brief them on ELF and at several points the discussion turned to whether the Weather Underground and ELF are really that similar and whether their actions are justified in a modern-day political context.

The Weather Underground was an outgrowth of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], the largest U.S. organization of radical students in the 1960's and the group that, more than any other, defined the term "New Left." Ironically, SDS's origins were as Old Left as could be imagined; they were initially the student arm of an old-line quasi-socialist organization called the League for Industrial Democracy [LID] which had started as early as 1915. SDS organized in 1960 and had an independent convention in Port Huron, Michigan in 1962 at which it adopted a platform, called the "Port Huron Statement," which addressed the problem of what role a group of white, relatively affluent college students could play in a world in which the major Left struggles were being waged by people of color -- in the U.S. for basic civil rights and elsewhere in the world against colonialism and imperialism.

Though SDS had other issues, including support for the African-American civil rights movement and community organizing projects in inner cities, the U.S. war against Viet Nam galvanized the organization like nothing else could have. By 1969, four years after the U.S. launched major combat against Viet Nam, SDS had over 300 local chapters and 100,000 people who claimed some sort of membership in its loosely structured nationwide federation. SDS had long since disassociated itself from LID and its old-Left origins by allowing members of Communist parties to join, and in 1969 a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party called Progressive Labor [PL] waged a struggle for control of the national office.

Many SDS'ers were also enthusiastic participants in the hippie movement and the youth counterculture of the 1960's, listening to rock music, leading multiple-partner sexual lifestyles and experimenting with drugs. PL, on the other hand, rejected the counterculture as counterrevolutionary and insisted its members remain clean, sober and monogamous. The factions also differed on political strategy; PL favored pursuing so-called "worker-student alliances" with members of the white blue-collar working class, while their adversaries within SDS, who initially called themselves the Revolutionary Youth Movement [RYM], felt that disaffected white youth were themselves a revolutionary class and could go it alone. If they needed coalition partners, RYM felt the logical place to look was to similarly radical groups in the communities of color, like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets, rather than to a white proletariat which by 1969 seemed increasingly conservative, anti-youth and pro-war.

The conflict came to a head at SDS's national convention in Chicago in 1969, where RYM members issued a manifesto called, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." The countercultural title -- taken from a line in Bob Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues" -- was aimed as a slap in the face to PL, but the manifesto's significance was much greater than just one salvo in a faction fight. RYM adherents left the Chicago convention determined to organize a direct-action group that would use violent tactics, and the word "Weatherman" eventually stuck as the group's name.

The Weathermen -- later changed to "Weatherpeople" and still later to "Weather Underground Organization" on the argument that the original name was sexist -- called their first action for the streets in Chicago in October 1969 against the federal trial of eight organizers of anti-war demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in 1968. Called the "Days of Rage," this was promoted as a direct-action street protest but was really a barely organized riot in which about 100 participants (one-tenth the number they'd been expecting) overturned police cars, smashed windows at random and embarrassed themselves in the minds of many Leftists. As Mark Rudd recounts below, the success of mainstream demonstrations against the Viet Nam war in Washington, D.C. in October and November 1969 -- along with a spontaneous property-damage action on November 15, 1969 that was what would now be called a "breakaway" from the main protest -- briefly led them to reconsider their tactics.

But the brutal murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (who, ironically, had publicly ridiculed the Weathermen just before he was killed) by police in December 1969 left the Weatherpeople more determined than ever that the U.S. government was already at war against its own people and they needed to fight back. In this interview, former Weather Underground activist Mark Rudd and The Weather Underground co-director Sam Green discuss what happened after that, their struggles in making the film and getting surviving ex-Weatherpeople to talk, and parallels between the Weather Underground and today's direct-action groups as well as between the overall political context for anti-war and anti-imperialist activism then and now. Rudd's wife, anti-nuclear activist Marla Painter, also participated in the interview. At the request of one of the SD-IMC volunteers, all the interview participants are identified by first names only except Zenger's Newsmagazine editor-publisher Mark Gabrish Conlan, who is identified by initials to avoid confusion between him and his namesake, Mark Rudd.

MGC: What motivated you to want to make this film?

Sam: My co-director, Bill Siegel, who lives in Chicago, and I both had similar experiences. I grew up in the 1980's and I read something about the Weather Underground when I was a teenager. The outlaw mystique and the idea of young kids trying to overthrow the government just captured my imagination. If I came across an article about the Weather Underground I would read it with great interest.

About five years ago I met somebody in San Francisco who'd been in the group. It really surprised me because I'd known him before I found out that he had been part of the Weather Underground, and this guy was just a normal guy, pretty articulate. I'd always thought that they'd be crazy terrorists, or something. . When I learned that he had been one of these people, I called him and said, "You were in the Weather Underground?" He said, "Oh, you found out about my secret life." I started to go over to his house and talk to him about the story, because I'd always been curious, and the more I learned about it the more it just really got under my skin. It resonated with me for a lot of reasons, maybe just the complexity and the moral ambiguity of it.

Something about that felt very relevant, because I know that I had always been frustrated growing up in the 1980's and 1990's that young people weren't that political. There was something about the story that I felt was inspiring in a complex way, which for me is important. That really started it, and then it snowballed from there.

MGC: One thing I was interested in was whether you had seen the earlier documentary on the Weather Underground made in the 1970's by Emile de Antonio, and had that been any influence on you?

Sam: I hadn't seen that before I started this, but after we started I pretty quickly realized, "Oh, wow, there's this other documentary on the Weather Underground." It's fascinating, and for me it was a great resource, but it wasn't influential in terms of its style or approach.

Mark: You know what our code name for it was? "Jaws."

Sam: Because people talked so much. It's definitely a product of its time, and I knew I wanted to do something different.

Jonathan: What was the first step you took on making the movie?

Sam: We started to get in touch with people who had been in the group. Some of them are more public than others, and were easier to connect with. I realized early on that there were good ways and bad ways to get in touch with people. I had one woman's name, and I did a Yahoo! people search and got her phone number in Florida. I just called her out of the blue and said, "Hey, I'm doing a documentary on the Weather Underground. Can I talk to you?" There was a long pause, and she said, "I don't know how you got my number, but never call me again." So I realized that was not a good way.

I connected with Mark through a mutual friend, whom I asked to tell him I was O.K., and ask him at least to read a letter if I wrote him one. So it was just a slow process of connecting with people.

Jonathan: When did you start?

Sam: About four or five years ago. It took a long time.

Jonathan: Did people discourage you from making this movie? Did you encounter any setbacks?

Sam: A lot of the Weatherpeople were pretty discouraging at first, because everything that had been written about the group up until recently was pretty negative. It played up the drugs and the sex, and played down the context. It's really easy to make the group seem very loony, like really loony kids, if you do that. So people were pretty reluctant to participate or reluctant to talk about their experiences.

Michael: What's the audience response been like?

Sam: It's been really good, surprisingly good. When we started in the late 1990's -- it's hard to even remember the late 1990's now, it was such a silly time -- the movie was just so strikingly different from the tone of the times. I thought it would be of interest to a certain small group of people. We always wanted young people to be into it. Obviously the context is so much different now, and I think it's much more resonant because these issues are in the air. But still, [we're] most interested in younger people seeing it, younger people who are thinking about this stuff to begin with.

Jonathan: Mark, what was the path that led to you being part of the Weather Underground?

Mark: I turned 18 in 1965, and that was exactly the moment when the United States invaded Viet Nam with main force. It would be equivalent to right now. It was when the occupation of Viet Nam really took off. I was an 18-year-old, subject to the draft, so I had to think about it really deeply.

But before that, I grew up during the civil rights movement. Although I lived in a segregated community in New Jersey, in that it was all white and I had no Black friends, still I saw it on television. You could see this intense struggle taking place. Also it was the time of the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War, and it was a time of the nuclear threat, daily nuclear threat. So people 18 in 1965, the true baby boomers born at the end of World War II or right after, lived with all of these political phenomena and they were very hard to ignore, especially when they told you to get under the school desks. So that's part of my history.

Another part of my history is growing up right after World War II and being Jewish. I was very aware of how Nazism, fascism, racism and militarism were all connected. I think I was sensitive to racism, and so when I saw it in this society I said, "Oh, well, I don't want to be a good German." But specifically, I joined the anti-war movement in 1965 when I was a freshman at Columbia University, and I wanted to end the war. That was my consciousness. That's what I thought about.

I was the chair of Columbia SDS in the spring of 1968. As the result of three years of anti-war agitation at Columbia, and also in New York City as a whole, the Columbia uprising erupted in the spring of 1968, as an anti-war issue on campus and also an anti-racism issue. So yes, I was quite involved in Columbia. First it was an occupation of five buildings and then it was a strike. Again, there's that word "occupation." SDS was the largest student anti-war organization, and it also became increasingly radical and revolutionary because we were developing an anti-imperialist analysis. So SDS was a key organization. Columbia SDS did lead the strike at Columbia in 1968.

Michael: When the Weathermen came out of SDS, did SDS just break up? Did they continue? I mean, did it turn from a 100,000-person movement into 100 people?

Mark: That's a very good question. In some ways you could say yes, but the actual answer is no. It's both. Some of the chapters ceased to exist because they were so involved in national politics, and there was an internal split. Many chapters, however, just continued doing anti-war work, and even were anti-imperialist in the sense that they understood what was giving rise to the war. So in many places SDS continued at the local level for years after.

But in general, the high point of the student anti-war movement was in May of 1970, after the murder of four people at Kent State. There were demonstrations at hundreds of campuses involving millions of people. To this day, I think, there's never been that large numbers protesting one issue all in one day. And so the student anti-war movement continued after the demise of the national office of SDS. But as a national organization, we killed SDS at the end of 1969 and the student anti-war movement tended to decline, actually, after that high point in May.

One point I actually wanted to make, and I haven't made it enough, is that returning vets, GI's from Viet Nam, took that place of being in the forefront of the militant anti-war activists out in the streets after 1970. That little part of history has a lot been lost, the role of vets.

Jonathan: What was it like for you as you started meeting people and collecting their stories?

Sam: It was really eye-opening, because I'd always known the war was bad and it was a traumatic time. But once you start to really glimpse it, or understand it, it's shocking. We've certainly experienced some stuff in our lifetime, but not like this. I really hadn't known how brutal and what a calamity the war was; how many innocent people were killed all the time; how many American soldiers were killed in a completely senseless war.

The more I understood what a big impact the killing of Fred Hampton had, the more it started to make sense why people would do this. I didn't 100 percent agree with it, necessarily, but it was provocative and it made sense. They weren't crazy terrorists. Mark might disagree, but it wasn't just loony kids that went off the deep end. This was real stuff that was happening, and the more that context was real for me the more I understood what was happening.

MGC: You mentioned Fred Hampton. Could you explain briefly who he was and why his murder was so significant?

Sam: Fred Hampton was the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and he was a really young guy. He was only 21 in 1969, incredibly charismatic, a really great speaker and able to mobilize tons of people. He was also one of the people in the Black Panther Party who was really pushing a sort of sober, responsible line, based on community organizing and being in touch with the broader movement.

In December of 1969 the police raided his house at 4 a.m. and killed him in his bed. They were so very, very arrogant about it and so sure of themselves that they left the apartment open the way it was. They didn't seal it up like a crime scene. They just left it. The Black Panther Party gave tours of it, and you can see in the footage that there are hundreds and hundreds of bullet holes coming into his house and his room, and his bed is covered with his blood. All you need to do is just look around the house and you can see what happened.

Mark: They left all of the forensic evidence.

Sam: Yeah, they were that sure that this would never be an issue. But it became one, and a lot of these people were in Chicago. A lot of them knew Fred Hampton, looked up to Fred Hampton, had had a rather complicated relationship with him but certainly were allies. So for the police to have him murdered so blatantly, I think was incredibly decisive. I think a lot of people felt like this was starting to be Germany in the 1930's, when people you knew would start to get gunned down. I think it felt like this was the time to do something, because if you waited too long it was going to be too late.

Michael: But one of the few clips of the Black Panthers in the movie is of Fred Hampton saying that you were all loonies.

Mark: He called us Custerites, and we said, "Well, from their point of view what we're doing looks like this, but from our point of view it's necessary." That's how we justified it at the time.

Sam: One of my regrets about the movie is that it doesn't really get into that very far. The Black Panther Party was splitting in two at that point, and there were two ideological poles. One was Fred Hampton and his faction, who were really into community organizing.

Mark: Kind of a mass Popular Front.

Sam: They thought the Weather Underground was Custeristic, whereas Eldridge Cleaver and the New York Panthers were already picking up the gun and wrote a letter at one point saying you were the vanguard of the revolution. So the more I learned about it, and the more I talked to people, the more I saw that the murder of Fred Hampton was a really decisive event. December of 1969 was a moment where the group really veered off into a certain kind of nihilism and a heavy armed-struggle approach.

Mark: It wasn't exactly nihilism. We had an ideology. We had a set of ideas that was a rationale for what we were doing.

Sam: But I think when you get to a point where you're willing to kill other people, I consider that sort of nihilistic.

Mark: In retrospect I would agree with you. However, there was a rationalization. It was the theory of revolutionary violence, which is that you do a small amount of violence to eliminate or avoid a larger amount of violence. Our rationale went something like this: "We tried legal protest, and we did it for years, and it didn't work. And more and more people were being killed, and the government was becoming more and more repressive at home. So we turned to violence as a necessity, because nothing else was working." Would you say that that comes across in the movie?

Sam: Yeah, although I had heard that there was this decision to underground after the Days of Rage, and then in the November 15 [1969] demonstration in D.C., where tons of kids were trashing the Justice Department, there was a time when people thought, "Wait, this is the Days of Rage that never happened. Maybe we shouldn't [go underground as armed revolutionaries]." Then Fred Hampton was killed, and that sort of sealed it.

Mark: I think all of that's true, but I want to add the element of ideology, the ideology of anti-imperialism and of revolutionary war. I myself had begun thinking about that since I began reading about the Cuban revolution, which would be around 1965. By 1967 I had been very influenced by the writings of Che Guevara and Regis Debray, specifically. The theory of revolutionary guerrilla warfare was something very much in my mind. It even had a name: "foco theory," "foquismo," which is that an armed group begins the struggle and then the masses join. It's that theory that Che Guevara died around in Bolivia [in 1967], and thousands of other people had that theory, right? I had that theory, and my comrades had that theory. As young intellectuals, theory was important to us -- probably too important.

Here's why: I now believe that the legal anti-war movement actually was working, and we didn't want to see how effective it was. The ideology led us not to see that the legal movement was working. In March of 1968 Johnson abdicated because of political opposition to the war. If we , as the national leaders of SDS, had believed in the truth of our anti-imperialist line [i.e., the argument that the war in Viet Nam was not a "mistake" but a logical result of a U.S. imperialist policy to dominate the world], we could have used our positions to push for that line in 300 chapters around the country, so there would be thousands -- there were something over 100,000 people who considered themselves to be members of SDS. They could have all become anti-imperialist. Instead, we destroyed SDS and essentially did the government's work for it.

Jonathan: When you go underground and choose to take up actual militant, armed resistance, how do you carry on the dialogue the people who are still legal; or do you abandon that?

Mark: That's exactly what happened to us. We became isolated and we couldn't continue the dialogue. In the movie Brian Flanagan says, "We put a bomb here, we put a bomb there, and it didn't amount to anything." I think that ultimately we realized that, and the organization became a publishing house.

Sam: That's one thing that's not in the movie. They put out a book and a magazine. After a certain point, they tried to create more of a dialogue. But it's really hard, if you're underground, to communicate with people.

Jonathan: When you came out from underground to above-ground again and started up with a normal job and a family and that sort of stuff, how did that feel?

Mark: It felt great. It felt wonderful. I felt relevant again. I immediately joined the anti-nuclear movement in Albuquerque. They proposed to put a nuclear waste repository in the southern part of the state, and we fought back in 1978. We finally lost that but we still instilled this consciousness about nuclear waste and the nuclear industry, and the military uses of nuclear. It felt much more relevant. And I also joined the Native American solidarity movements around the same time. And I certainly haven't regretted being above-ground at all! I regretted being below-ground.

MGC: A lot of people who came out of the Weather Underground and resumed above-ground existences -- even some of the ones who went to prison and then were released -- have remained involved in fights for social justice. In that regard, do you look back on it now and see your time in the Weather Underground as an interruption, a turning away from the path you should have lived all your life, which is maintaining an above-ground existence and fighting for social change?

Mark: Put that way, it doesn't sound very appealing. But I guess personally I regret it. I think the costs were great. The costs of the Weather Underground on the anti-war movement were too great, in that it didn't justify itself. As a personal experience, though, I learned a lot.

MGC: What would you say you learned?

Mark: Don't do it again!

MGC: Since you've mentioned a large part of the context for the Weather Underground being moving from simply an anti-war consciousness to an anti-imperialist consciousness, I'm fascinated that in the 1960's the government didn't use the I-word -- and now it does. Now you have people publishing articles in the New York Times and Foreign Affairs saying, "Yes, we are imperialist, and we should be. That's a good thing. We are going to run the world and that will be good for everybody.". So how would you say that shapes the context of doing anti-war work differently from what it was in the 1960's, now that the government is saying, "Yes! We're imperialists, and we're proud of it!"

Mark: It raises the question to a higher level. Do we, as a people, want to be an imperial people? What are the costs of imperialism? What's the arrogance of imperialism? What's the history of various other imperialisms? I think it's a much better time now to discuss the world, and I think it's a great time to do politics in that respect. I just wish that there was a political opposition that was raising those things. Like the Democratic Party.

Michael: Do you think there are any parallels between the Weather Underground and what's happening now with groups like the ALF [Animal Liberation Front] and ELF [Earth Liberation Front]?

Mark: People feel so strongly, so passionate, and want to take action, direct action. There's nothing like direct action. What a wonderful feeling. You convince yourself that you're actually accomplishing something.

I've had some amazing discussions off of this movie with young activists, especially activists in the movement for global justice. People say, "Mark, why would you attack violence against property when the property has been ill-gotten?" There's a lot of logic there, in the realm of pure logic. I don't think anybody's making an argument now for violence against people. That argument is not being made in the movement. So then it comes down to the question of violence against property, which is what I think ELF is doing: violence against property which is part of the destruction of the environment.

My answer to that is that having looked very closely at the question of violence, both against people and against property, I've just realized that all violence is misinterpreted. It's always going to be interpreted as either criminal or mentally ill, by the media; by people in general who don't know better. Even righteous violence against property that's been ill-gotten will be interpreted in this way. I don't think it benefits the struggle.

On the other hand you could say, "O.K., ELF has publicized the destruction of the environment." In 1999 in Seattle, trashing Niketown publicized the depredations of Nike in Southeast Asia, and we wouldn't have even known about the demonstrations without it. And that's true. But as far as ELF is concerned, I don't see that they're actually creating the kind of dialogue they say they want. In a way they are raising environmental issues, but in another way they're playing into the government's hands. So if you have to make a choice, I say no violence. No one kills anyone else. Destruction of property, even ill-gotten property: no. It's too risky for the struggle.

Sam: My opinion is a little different. I don't have a one-sentence answer, whether I support it or not. My most visceral feeling when I hear about people burning a lot of Hummers in L.A. is I think it's great. I honestly get happy and I think, more power to them. Also it raises issues in a very strong way. When people read about that, they start to realize that there's a lot of people who feel strongly about this; who feel strongly about taking action to save the planet. And I think that's good.

At the same time, though, I'm really worried because I think these are complicated actions, and that eventually somebody's going to get killed accidentally. It's not easy to do stuff like this. ELF is not even an organization. It's just people going ahead and doing it in the name of the organization, and eventually some teenage kid is going to firebomb something and kill somebody. It's inevitable that that's going to happen, and it's going to be really bad. I'm worried about that because, as much as this is sort of raising issues in a good way, I think that's going to raise issues in a very bad way. So that's my concern.

But I do think that the 1999 Seattle action never would have had the huge impact it had on the way we talk about and think about globalization without people trashing windows in conjunction with a nonviolent demonstration. If it had just been a nonviolent demonstration it wouldn't have been that big a deal. I think violence and nonviolence can work together in certain situations -- violence against property. So Mark and I kind of disagree.

Marla: And then there's martyrdom. Everybody remembers the Buddhist priests, and everybody's now going to remember the South Korean farmer. Everybody's going to remember that.

Mark: Actually, you raise a good point. Violence against yourself as a protest seems great. I think more of us, especially the old New Lefties, should burn ourselves up. I think the old-timers would burn ourselves up in protest. That would be good.

Sam: I disagree with that too. I think there's a lot of experience there that can be beneficial to young people. You guys have been through a lot, and you can pass along some knowledge and then burn yourselves up.

Jonathan: At the time, did you think your struggle was winnable?

Mark: Oh, absolutely! We had convinced ourselves that, despite the evidence, revolutionary exemplary violence would attract more people, and the revolutionary movement was growing.

Jonathan: So you thought your violence would be acceptable to the general populace?

Mark: Eventually, as they understood the good motives behind it. I might add that everybody who commits violence in a revolutionary way, such as the guys in Oklahoma City, believed the same thing.

Sam: But you can't say that without making the distinction between violence against property and against people. It's so different. You can't put those together. That's my own opinion.

MGC: When did you finally realize that there was nobody behind you; that this was not inspiring the great mass revolution? And did your isolation delay that realization?

Mark: To some extent it did. There were people who realized that even before the national action known as the Days of Rage, October 1969, and they started dropping out then because they realized how isolated we were. I think that my realization happened moderately early, in 1970, when I realized how isolated we were. Other people kept at it, like David Gilbert was still going at it in 1981. So it varied. In general, I think people who figured it out early were a bit more in touch with reality. In other words, the earlier you figured it out, the more in touch with reality you were.

Michael: Did you all really consider long-term prison sentences [as part of the risk] of what you were doing?

Mark: Oh, absolutely. Or death. We saw ourselves as soldiers in a revolutionary war.

MGC: That's the ultimate query a lot of people have about the Weatherpeople. A lot of people ask, "How did you get from being a group of people protesting a war in which the U.S. government blew up bombs and killed people, to blowing up bombs and at least at one point planning to kill people yourselves?"

Mark: Outrage and ideology. Identification with the ideology of anti-imperialist war and reading the works of Che Guevara. That's what it was for me. And the outrage.