"Our nation was murdering people, and we didn't know what to do with it," says Mark Rudd at the beginning of The Weather Underground, a probing and surprisingly balanced documentary about the radical activist group of the late 1960s and early '70s.
"Opposing the war was something urgent and immediate," says Bill Ayers, one of the group's leaders.
"It fit into a period of revolution in the whole world," notes Naomi Jaffe, another former member of the group, as archival footage of similar unrest is shown around the world: Japan, Angola, China, France, Mexico. "And I didn't want to miss it."
As assassinations of figures of change such as the Kennedys, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. paralleled the rising body count of killed American and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, the progressive left-wing agenda became fractured. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), traditionally a pacifist organization, was overrun by a more radical faction that promoted a violent overthrow of the U.S. government: the Weathermen.
Filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel provide a fascinating account of the group and its times with their documentary, which won the Best Documentary Award at the Seattle Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Washington, D.C., Film Festival. Dawn Logsdon, a native New Orleanian who edited the film, helped bring it here for a special screening this Wednesday at Zeitgeist, followed by a weeklong engagement (Oct. 17-23). Joining Sam Green at a reception before Wednesday's screening, Logsdon also will introduce the film and host a question-and-answer session.
What is most remarkable about The Weather Underground is not just the way Green and Siegel deftly offer the building blocks of frustration that led a radical anti-war group to turn to violence to promote its agenda; it's how they place the rationale of the group's decisions and actions in a fitting context. Jaded observers and historical revisionists will find a surprisingly objective take on the Weathermen, many of whom in their interviews acknowledge how wrong-headed their actions were. "When you feel you have right on your side," concedes another former member, Brian Flanagan, "you can do some horrific things."
The filmmakers also interview critics, including former SDS leader Todd Gitlin and former undercover FBI agent Bill Strickland -- both of whom saw the Weathermen for the danger they were. Gitlin, who watched the Weathermen co-opt the SDS in a stormy 1969 convention, characterized the takeover as "a children's crusade gone mad" and says the rival faction's attitude was "'Join us, or f--k you!' We watched as they ran away with the student left."
They certainly ran away with the media attention; their bold pronouncements of government overthrow and a capitalist society made great copy. If only their actions made sense. First came the completely ill-conceived "Days of Rage," in which they tried to rally thousands in Chicago to essentially riot in the streets, smashing windows and wreaking general havoc. Only a few hundred showed up, and many got the crap beaten out of them when they confronted Mayer Richard Dailey's police force.
They had hoped that, by showing solidarity with the Black Panther movement, they would add to their numbers. But the Panthers wisely stayed on the sidelines and watched with bemusement. In an archival interview with a newsman, a Panther snorts in an Uzi-like delivery, "It's anarchistic, opportunistic ... it's 'Custer-istic,' and that's the bad part about it. It's Custer-istic in that its leaders take the people into situations ... where the people can be massacred. And they call it a revolution, and that's nothing but child's play -- it's folly."
The Weathermen decided to focus their rage with targeted bombings -- in their first effort, a bomb-in-preparation exploded in a Weathermen townhouse, killing three members. Future bombings were more successful, occurring throughout the country (including at the Pentagon), sometimes in retaliation and sometimes in support of various causes (prisoners' rights, the anti-war movement, etc.). Perhaps the group's most famous act was actually springing activist poet and devoted LSD consumer Timothy Leary from prison.
But as the 1970s wore on, the targets of the Weathermen's wrath slowly ebbed: President Richard Nixon resigned, the Vietnam War ended, and the American people grew weary of so many progressive causes. By the '80s, most of the Weathermen surrendered to the authorities; some went to prison, and others faded into the background. That many alumni have focused their passion at the grassroots level is a testament to their commitment to a more pragmatic version of "the cause," and some express deep regret for their actions even while still frustrated with the direction of their country.
"These are things I'm not proud of," says Rudd, now a community college teacher. "It was too big. We didn't know what to do. ... I don't know what needs to be done now, and it's still eating away at me, just as it did 30 years ago."