Quieter Lives for 60's Militants, but Intensity of Beliefs Hasn't
hen explosives accidentally demolished a Greenwich Village town house 33 years ago, three young militants inside were killed, leaving two of their comrades to stagger out and into clandestine life. All were members of the Weathermen, a violent offshoot of 1960's radicalism.
One of the survivors, Kathy Boudin, was granted parole last week for her role in a 1981 armored car robbery that left a Brink's guard and two police officers dead.
The Boudin case was a compelling reminder of a turbulent era. But the other woman who escaped serves as another reminder, of how a once revolutionary band has dispersed into the rhythms of quieter lives and more peaceful, but not always more remorseful, idealism.
The woman, Cathy Wilkerson, lives in Brooklyn. The mother of a grown daughter, she has spent the past two decades teaching mathematics in high schools and adult education programs.
Many former Weathermen have taken up careers that they see as an extension of their political commitment: teaching, social work and advocating causes like environmental protection, care for AIDS patients and prisoners' rights. Today they proclaim the same ideals they held four decades ago, and sharply condemn American policies at home and abroad.
"They sustain certain kinds of ideological and ethical commitments into their lives beyond the armed struggle," said Jeremy Varon, an assistant professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
Members of the Weathermen began resurfacing in the late 1970's after the group dissolved in 1976. Ms. Wilkerson emerged from hiding and surrendered to the authorities in 1980. She spent 11 months in jail on explosives charges in the explosion of the town house, on West 11th Street, which was owned by her father.
Now, she said, she is working on her memoirs, part of a new round of
exploration of the Weather Underground, as it was later called by its
leaders who found the original name sexist. Professor Varon is writing his
own book about the group, which was the subject of
In a telephone interview on Friday, Ms. Wilkerson said it was the first time she had spoken to a reporter in about 20 years.
"I'm re-entering the conversation," she said. "There are enormous problems that we predicted in the 60's, around the environment, about the wartime economy and permanent states of war, and there's a real crisis of leadership about those issues. Talking about patriotism is a way of distracting people as the world lumbers toward catastrophe."
Speaking in guarded tones, Ms. Wilkerson would not discuss the explosion, saying she wanted to save it for her book. But she did say that the Weather Underground's legacy of violence must be seen in the context of the times.
"We were way not the first," she said. "It was a mass phenomenon. In 1969, national liberation was sweeping the world and looked like it was going to be the main vehicle for ushering in popular governments. Now the wave of violence sweeping the world is reactionary."
Like other former members, she said the movement made "mistakes," adding, "We were all young, under 25 for the most part."
Conservative critics, including Prof. Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University in Atlanta, have little patience for that view. "It would behoove people like that who did illegal, morally reprehensible things to have some sense of remorse," he said.
Professor Klehr also took a dim view of the often stated account that after the town house explosion, the Weathermen resolved to take no lives, and that in the string of bombings that followed, no one was seriously injured. He points out that members have said the explosives at the town house were intended for an officers' dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey and for Butler Library at Columbia University.
"The only reason they were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence," he said. "I don't know what sort of defense that is."
The Weathermen who took their name from the Bob Dylan lyric "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" originated as a faction of Students for a Democratic Society.
The leaders came from reasonably well-off families, though several interviewed said a common portrait of them as privileged children of the rich was a caricature. Charismatic and articulate, they employed revolutionary jargon, advocated armed struggle and black liberation and began bombing buildings, taking responsibility for at least 20 attacks. Estimates of their number ranged at times from several dozen to several hundred.
Their revolutionary language pursues them to this day, including the phrase attributed to Bill Ayers, a Weathermen founder, to "kill all the rich people." Then there were the words of Bernardine Dohrn, another founder, who seemed to delight in the Manson family murders before a Students for a Democratic Society crowd in 1969. (She has since said it was a joke.)
Mr. Ayers is distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ms. Dohrn, his wife, teaches law at Northwestern University and is director of its Children and Family Justice Center. Together they raised Ms. Boudin's only child, her son, Chesa Boudin, who graduated from Yale in June and is a Rhodes scholar.
Mr. Ayers returned to the public eye two years ago with the publication of a book, "Fugitive Days," about his life as a Weatherman. And while they have been among the most outspoken members of the group, the couple would not be interviewed because, they said, they did not want to jeopardize Ms. Boudin's pending release. For the same reason, other former members also said they did not want to talk publicly, or limited their comments.
Four defendants in the Brink's case, two of them the former Weather Underground members Judith Clark and David J. Gilbert, are serving life prison terms with parole not scheduled for another half-century.
Another significant figure in the Weathermen was Jeff Jones, one of a group of Ms. Boudin's friends and supporters who lobbied for her parole. A former reporter for an alternative newspaper, he is now communications director for an environmental lobbying group in Albany. He said he felt "absolute horror at the idiocy" of the Bush administration. In Iraq, he said, the president "has gone down the path of Vietnam."
"We are now in a guerrilla war on foreign soil," Mr. Jones said.
Linda S. Evans, who was granted clemency by President Bill Clinton for convictions related to bombings and released from prison in 2001 after serving nearly 16 years, lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. She received a Soros criminal justice fellowship from the Open Society Institute and works to restore civil rights to felons. "I'm trying to make things better in our society," she said in a telephone interview. "I just feel really strongly that the policies of our government are just anti-human at every level."
Mark Rudd, the Students for a Democratic Society leader from Columbia, teaches mathematics at the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute, a community college. He, too, has called the group's violence a "terrible mistake."
An early organizer, Jonathan Lerner, wrote an article for The
For most Weathermen, he wrote in the article, "the legal consequences were negligible."
"We came to in a daze," he wrote. "We crawled off to lick our wounds, learn to be responsible grown-ups hard work, for the inexperienced and come to terms with what we had done."
Brian Flanagan, who was acquitted of assault and attempted murder charges stemming from the 1969 "Days of Rage" violence that surrounded the Chicago Eight trial, owns a bar, the Night Cafe on the Upper West Side, which was the setting for several interviews filmed for the recent documentary "The Weather Underground," which was directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel.
The film revived contacts among former members, Mr. Flanagan said, and prompted him and others to open up about the past in interviews and public forums. He said he recently met up with Ms. Wilkerson in the bar, which has become what he called "definitely a lefty bar."
"There were a lot of things I had trouble coming to terms with over the years, and this has resurrected them," Mr. Flanagan said of the documentary which, he said, portrayed him as more rueful than he felt.
"I was regretful over about 5 percent of what we did," he said. "I think 95 percent of what we did was great, and we'd do it again."
And what was the 5 percent? The town house, Mr. Flanagan said. When pressed, he said he regretted both the deaths of the three Weathermen Ted Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins and the plan to bomb the dance at Fort Dix and the library at Columbia, which could have taken lives.
And life outside politics? "I run my business," he said. "I shoot pool, I drink wine. I'm old and fat." He also mentioned winning $23,000 as a contestant on "Jeopardy!"
"God bless America," Mr. Flanagan said.