The Weather Underground (2002, dir. Sam Green and Bill Siegel)
What is the line you would refuse to cross when it came to your beliefs about justice? Is it taking to the streets in protest? Is it standing up to the thug tactics of a corrupt cop? Is it killing in the name of your beliefs? No matter left or right on the political spectrum we can see multiple instances where once peaceful and calm movements were derailed by individuals desiring to commit acts of violence. There was Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, The Unabomber, and various other extremists who either cling to an ideology or religion as their justification. This film is about one such group that used methods of terrorism against the US government in the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.
Through archival footage and interviews with the players in this story we are told of the rise and fall of a homegrown terrorist organization. It’s common knowledge that the 1960s were a period of cultural upheaval across the globe. In the United States, it was was student protests against the war in Vietnam that fueled the fire, and the government seemed bent on use brutal force to push them back. In 1969 the non-violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held a convention in Chicago. The war in Vietnam was escalating and the current leadership of the SDS was trying to hold things together, while brasher elements in the group wanted to become violently pro-active. Out of this convention was born The Weathermen, a sub-group who clandestinely planned violent riots in the street and bombings of government buildings. At one point they were even hired to, and successfully did, break Timothy Leary out of a California prison. Their efforts had little effect on the government’s efforts in Vietnam, the ending of which was more influenced by the media’s release of graphic violence wrought on Vietnamese civilians. At the 1970s wound down, the members of the The Weathermen went into hiding, eventually turning themselves in at the onset of the 1980s.
The documentary was surprisingly balanced in how it presented this group. I personally would agree with many of the stances the Weathermen took on domestic and foreign policy up to the point where they brought violence into the mix. And while this is a left wing group, the mistakes made and regret felt year later transcend politics. At the time, this young men and women, including the much spoken about Bill Ayers, felt completely right and certain of their actions. One of the most fascinating interviews is with Brian Flanagan, a man who left the group shortly before Vietnam ended. He is able to sum up how things went from hopeful to cultish very quickly. He emphasizes that the leadership got so caught up in breaking the system completely, they failed to realize that lasting change comes in increments.
Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the group, presents excerpts from his memoirs which detail a young man unsure of what he was getting into and heartbroken at the chaos he wrought, but not wavering in his political stance. I think this is a key point. While all the Weathermen regret the bombings and the riots, known as “The Days of Rage”, they have never stopped believing that many of the military conflicts the US has are not done with the best intentions. In our current political climate, we have a right wing movement with some members hinting at violence by brandishing weapons. The testimony of these men and women who have been there should be examined closely to understand the cost of violent actions and how they linger in the souls of those who commit them.