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Book and Film Review: The Weather Underground

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When you think of The Weather Underground, what foremost comes to mind? 1960s? Bombings? Revolution? Or a film by Sam Green and Bill Siegel?

These are good guesses, but they’re only half-true. The Weather Underground was indeed an organization that grew out of the 1960s, bombings were their primary tactic, and they had revolutionary aspirations. In 2002, a documentary feature on the group brought them to the attention of a new generation, and even garnered an Academy Award nomination.

Likesandthroughthehourglass,thesearetheDaysofRageBut Weather was not just bombs and revolution. A new book by Dan Berger, Outlaws of America (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006), goes beyond the sexy, but ultimately flaccid, flair of the usual Weather Underground story to illustrate the group’s nearly unprecedented anti-imperialism and their instructive example of white people struggling against racism. The book achieves a lot, and puts Green and Siegel’s feature into proper perspective.

If anything, The Weather Underground documentary keeps your attention. The film is cobbled together with gripping footage of the 1960s, along with face-to-face interviews with former members of Weather. Drones of ambient music fill the soundtrack, and it is endlessly engrossing; you feel the power of a historical moment as Weather’s story is told.

The approach is also endlessly defeating; you feel stuck in history, and as the film ends it’s as if a chapter is closing. Before the credits roll, the filmmaker’s resort to the “Where are they now?” sequence. While it is ubiquitous in nostalgic 1960s documentaries — Berkeley in the Sixties and Rebels With A Cause come to mind — this cinematic convention is best left to the likes of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, or American Graffiti, not a serious political documentary.

BoomshakalakaDan Berger’s book, on the other hand, refuses to close this chapter in history; he is relentless in pursuing what the Weather Underground’s legacy is for struggles against racism and oppression today. Whereas the film comes to a close around the years of Weather’s decline in the mid-1970s, Berger’s book takes off from there. As the mass movements of the 1960s declined — due both to their success and due to State repression — Weather Underground struggled to keep building the movement, moving further aboveground in the process. They released a book, Prairie Fire, and even organized a conference that drew more than 2,000 participants – both are ignored in the film.

Berger documents what the film ignores in its unfortunate and nostalgic “The Sixties are Over” narrative. This narrative puts “the Sixties” (which actually extended well into the 1970s) behind us, and effectively neutralizes the legacies we live with today. I can only imagine if there ever was a Sixties version of the sitcom That 70s Show. I’m sure it would star Ashton Kucher as the Hippie, and an entire cast of scrawny white kids as College Radicals. If the show was going to be truly accurate, though, every episode would have a plot developed, largely off-screen, by the struggles of people of color. After all, the anti-war movement would have never developed if the Vietnamese hadn’t held out so long. And the Berkeley Free Speech Movement would never have happened with out the civil rights Freedom Summer, from which so many Berkley radicals picked up their organizing skills.

Even in a film that purports to document a movement of anti-racist white people, white people still remain the focus at the expense of the larger history. This reflects the larger bias of the media: the 1960s is popularly — and mistakenly — portrayed as the era of white rebellion. The Weather Underground garnered an Academy Award nomination, but who could even imagine a widely-released documentary – let alone one with an Oscar nod! – being made about the Black Liberation Army, the George Jackson Brigade, or Fuerzas Armadas Liberacion Nacional Puertoriquena? And if those names cause you to draw a blank, well, I’ve made my point. Of course, it is members of these groups who still sit in prison today, while the white folks of Weather mostly made off with dismissed charges and paltry sentences. (There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, David Gilbert in particular).

That popular history puts the spotlight on white people shouldn’t be a surprise. Even during the Sixties, it took a long time for white radicals to recognize who they were indebted to, and even then they chose to pay off their IOUs to people of color in very strange ways. This is the essential history Dan Berger provides.

To simplify, we might say the experience is represented by two organizations of the era: the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1966, SNCC made an explicit demand of white allies: organize in your own communities against racism. To underscore the point, they expelled all white members.

By 1969, SDS fell apart trying to answer the call. One faction, Progressive Labor, denied the question of racism altogether: their answer was that it was all a class issue, and off they went to sell papers outside factory gates. The other large faction, represented by Weatherman, mostly said “To hell with all white people” and took to setting bombs, presumably in league with the national liberation struggles of people of color. What either faction forgot was the demand SNCC had made in the first place: organize white people against racism. By the time Weather members realized their mistakes in the mid-1970s, they had already cut themselves off from the larger movements.

The good thing is, because Weather comprised some of the most committed young white anti-racists of their day, now that they’re older – and no less committed – they have invaluable lessons to share. Berger collects together scores of secondary research and original oral histories to pass on these lessons; Green and Siegel’s documentary requires less patience than a book, and it tells an essential story, but it fails to communicate the value behind Weather’s story. Berger shows that the Weather Underground took enormous risks, as white people, in their struggle against imperialism and racism; it is unfortunate that Green and Siegel were not up to taking risks with the conventional narrative of Sixties history.

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  • Great review – it really makes me want to read the book, and MAYBE see the documentary first.