May 26 2009

Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen by Mark Rudd

Nicole Lanctot

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Although recent novels have presented sophisticated tales of the 1960s and ’70s political underground—including Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, and Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions—latter-day radicalism continues to be fetishized, from the recurrent use in fashion and art of a beret-clad, gun-wielding Patty Hearst to Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous Che Guevara–inspired poster of Barack Obama. But any romantic notion of this revolutionary period is dismantled in Mark Rudd’s memoir, Underground, a sober account of his time as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and its faction the Weathermen and of his seven years as a fugitive from the federal government.

In 1968, Rudd, chairman of Columbia University’s SDS chapter, led a six-day campus rebellion, in which students occupied five university buildings and took a dean hostage. The protestors called for the university to sever its ties with the Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analyses and to cease construction on a gymnasium that would make the neighborhood’s primarily black citizens use a separate entrance. Rudd provides an almost hour-by-hour account of the tumultuous event, all the while noting that he and his fellow SDSers had only “the vaguest idea of what we were doing”—an oft-repeated sentiment in this memoir.

At the SDS’s national convention in Chicago the next year, Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers called for the group’s increased militancy and announced a break from the main organization. Naming themselves Weatherman, taken from the Bob Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows,” the faction adopted a more rigid doctrine, looking specifically to William Hinton’s 1966 Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village and Régis Debray’s 1967 Revolution in the Revolution? With restrained incredulity, Rudd details members (including himself)—mostly white, educated, and from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds—going to great lengths to prove themselves as hardened “revolutionary cadres,” from provoking bystanders at malls and beaches to self-criticism and “gut-checking,” the act of scrutinizing one another’s residual bourgeois attitudes.

Rudd the bellicose revolutionary didn’t seem to question these practices, but the elder Rudd’s recollections are steeped in dismay: “I did not realize at the time that we had unwittingly reproduced conditions that all hermetically sealed cults use: isolation, sleep deprivation, demanding arbitrary acts of loyalty to the group, even sexual initiation as bonding.” The group’s rampant sexual experimentation, that progressive fantasy of free love, was “a disaster for medical reasons,” as venereal diseases were frequently contracted, along with an unidentified epidemic simply referred to as “Weather crud.”

After the 1969 action “Days of Rage” in Chicago and the accidental death of three members a few months later from a homemade bomb, the group’s illegal activities came under intense scrutiny by the US government, and the Weathermen moved their operation underground, with “amazingly little debate on this momentous decision.” They rechristened themselves the gender-neutral Weather Underground and, over the next several years, orchestrated more than twenty bloodless bombings of government spaces as symbolic gestures of protest against US invasions and bombing raids in such places as Laos and Hanoi.

From 1970 to 1977, Rudd lived a peripatetic existence, under various assumed names, with his partner at the time, Sue LeGrand. The fear of being identified was a constant burden, he writes, but life underground was mostly “insanely boring.” At one point, Rudd describes his elation after reading about a national strike by four million students just days after the Kent State shootings. The anecdote is poignant: Campuses were revolting en masse while he sat on a park bench in Philadelphia, unable to participate in the movement that he and his fellow organizers had dearly hoped for.

In The Weather Underground, a 2003 documentary directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, Rudd states his reluctance to talk about his radical past, referring, without elaboration, to his “guilt and shame.” In his memoir, however, he concludes that much of the Weathermen’s activities had the opposite effect of what was intended. What’s more, its members had chosen “to scuttle America’s largest radical organization—with chapters on hundreds of campuses, a powerful national identity, and enormous growth potential—for a fantasy of revolutionary urban-guerrilla warfare.”

In 1977, Rudd turned himself in; all federal charges against him and the other Weathermen were dropped due to the illegal tactics used by the FBI, the CIA, and other organizations over the years. Rudd points out that the anger and desperation felt by many during the late ’60s, particularly by those being drafted for an unpopular war, were very real, and though his memoir is frequently apologetic, his narrative attests, as do many other accounts of this era, that those insane times could make even the most apolitical person an insurrectionist.

Nicole Lanctot is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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