Blowing up an Empty Bathroom does not Cause a Revolution

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Title: Days of Rage

Rating: 5 Stars

This has been interesting because I was actually alive during this time and I vaguely remember some of the news of it. However, just like with Public Enemies, Burrough does a masterful job of interweaving a series of stories and somehow creating a narrative out of it.

One of the things that I didn’t understand was the naivete of the white radicals. For instance the Weather Underground literally thought that they were somehow going to start a revolution where the blue collar and the black community would join with these Ivy League wannabe revolutionaries and overthrow the government. This was pretty clearly almost a game to them. There was essentially one person in their entire organization who had anything approaching mechanical aptitude and so he ended up making nearly all of their bombs. They made a point of putting the bombs in places where there was very minimal chance of anyone getting hurt and would phone ahead a warning. So, the worse thing that would happen is that a bathroom would blow up or an office would be destroyed or the outside of a building was scotched. This does not seem to be how the overthrowing of the most powerful nation in the history of the world would get started.

Probably their most powerful explosion was blowing themselves up. One of the founders of the Weather Underground was a poet with no engineering experience or aptitude. This was the person chosen to make a bomb. Another of the founder’s parents happened to be going out of town, so they moved into their townhouse (did I mention most of these were children of privilege?). There, the poet Terry Robbins tries to build a bomb. Shockingly enough, it explodes, killing three of the members and bringing down the building. Bodies of two of them were so destroyed that it took the police a while to identify them.

The Weather Underground, for all of their bombs and their press releases, really accomplished nothing. The fact that they were young attractive white people coming from nice families apparently is ultimately what brought most of their notoriety.

One thing that I did find amusing was that one of their key tracts for the radical underground was a book called the Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerilla. This was a book that was mimeographed and passed around hand by hand. Excerpts of it were printed in radical underground newspapers. I just checked. I can get it in two days from Amazon. The times we live in…

The five black leaders of activism:

  1. Robert Williams is a little known figure but was an early advocate for black self defense.  He led the case when two very young black boys (under 10) where beaten and arrested for molestation when a very young white girl gave one of them a kiss on the cheek. He ended up having to flee to Cuba where he wrote the seminal work, Negroes with Guns.
  2. Malcolm X is of course very well known. He was the most famous black person advocating a bloody revolution. Ultimately, he became such a polarizing force that a rival black faction ended up assassinating him.
  3. Stokely Carmichael was a leader in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Watching blacks get beaten during a voter registration drive moved him towards violence. He coined the phrase Black Power.
  4. H Rap Brown succeeded Carmichael in the SNCC. He gained notoriety by explicitly advocating and threatening violence against whites.
  5. George Jackson was a lifelong man of violence. His first mugging was at 12. At the age of 19, he stole $70 from a gas station and was sentenced to 1 years to life (?!). He never left prison. He was most famous for his prison letters named Soledad Brother. Ultimately, he led a prison riot in which several guards were killed. He himself was killed during the riot.

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. It was a self defense organization. They organized free meals for the poor. They got weapons and when they noticed that a police pulled over a black driver (an obviously common occurrence), they would come over and surround the police with their guns drawn. When the police protested, they would just claim to be exercising their 2nd amendment rights. When I think of the typical person nowadays that makes similar claims, it kind of makes me smile a little sadly. Can you imagine what would happen today if a group of young black men were walking around the neighborhood exercising their 2nd amendment rights? How many people would lose their shit?

The Black Liberation Army, unlike the Weather Underground, actually did want to cause death and damage. They specifically tried (and sometimes succeeded in killing cops).

For the BLA, as with most underground organizations, money was always a problem. They solved it sometimes by robbing drug dealers (which since drugs even then were a scourge in the black community, this was understandable) and by robbing black nightclubs, which seems a really odd way to finance a black revolution.

The BLA, although much more intent and much more violent, ultimately failed because there was just no sense of order or cohesion. Once the police / FBI actually started focusing on them, they were pretty quickly capture and/or killed.

Of course, the book couldn’t be complete without the SLA and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Again, you have some white radicals desperately looking for a black leader to show them the way.  In steps Donald Defreeze, who’s actually a pretty minor on the fringe kind of character. Naively, some small number of white people start to follow them, and if it wasn’t for the violence, it would be somewhat humorous. Nonsensical communiques are issued. Various arguments over sex and various partners are swapped.

It’s not clear even now how much of a willing participant Patty Hearst really was. Was she a victim of Stockholm syndrome? Did she just passively live day to day, expecting to die?  She certainly had ample opportunities to escape. There were times when she actively collaborated with the other members of the SLA. Having said that, she was kept in the closet for weeks at a time and was forced into sexual relationships.

I’d never heard of FALN, a Puerto Rican nationalist group.  They had one major bombing whose intent was to injure and it actually did kill people. Immediately, they disavowed violence. From then on, just like everyone else, their bombs were designed to be small (the size of a ping pong), or was set to go off late at night when no one was around. I still find it amazing that revolutionaries thought that revolutions could occur without bloodshed.

Willie Morales is interesting. He was their bomb maker. He was making a bomb and apparently set the time to go off in minutes instead of hours.  It blew up in his apartment, apparently while he was holding it. It blew off nine of his fingers and pieces of it flew into his face, breaking his jaw in multiple places and destroying an eye. Somehow he regained consciousness long enough to destroy as much FALN paperwork as he could and he turned on the gas stove in the hopes of killing as many policeman as he could as he died. This was discovered, so the gas did not go off, and Willie did not die. Later, during his trial, he somehow, missing nine fingers, managed to saw through bars of the prison hospital, throw down a ten foot bandage to use as a rope, and climb down the bandage until he slipped and fell. He was able to get up to a getaway car. He lived in the US for many years underground. He ended up in Mexico where he was captured. His extradition to the US was denied and he went to Cuba, where apparently he still lives.

There was the Family, a primarily black revolutionary group in New York that essentially used white women as patsies to provide cover for them. They started off as a revolutionary organization, but due to the drug addiction of Mutulu Shakur (Tupac’s stepfather), they essentially devolved into your basic criminal bank robbers. Their most famous robbery was the Brink’s robbery where two guards were killed and was most famous for catching the Weatherman underground member Kathy Boudin.

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