“We Will Burn and Loot and Destroy”: The Weather Underground and Its Legacy

In 1972, James Merrill wrote a poem called “18 West 11th Street.” That is an address in Greenwich Village, New York City. At the beginning of his poem, Merrill refers to “the Aquarians in the basement.” Later, he speaks of the house at large as “dear premises,” which have been “vainly exploded” and are “vainly dwelt upon.” Let’s dwell upon them.

Merrill was born in that house—a townhouse—in 1926. His father, Charles, was the founder of Merrill Lynch, the investment bank. The family moved from the house when the future poet was five. The house passed through several hands, including those of James P. Wilkerson, an advertising executive.

In the early months of 1970, Wilkerson was on vacation in the Caribbean. His daughter Cathy, age 25 and a political radical, asked whether she could use the house in his absence. She needed a place to convalesce from the flu, she said. Her father agreed. The house at 18 West 11th Street became a base for the Weather Underground Organization.

Cathy Wilkerson moved in with several of her comrades. They were planning to commit a mass murder at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. They were also planning to blow up the administration building at Columbia University. At Fort Dix, there was to be an NCO dance—a big party, where non-commissioned officers would dance with their dates. The “Aquarians in the basement” were preparing a nail bomb.

Clumsy, they blew up themselves and the house. This was shortly before noon on March 6; the dance was scheduled for that night.

Two of the bombmakers, Terry Robbins and Diana Oughton, died in the basement. A third, Ted Gold, died when the façade collapsed on him. He had run an errand and was returning to the house. Two others—Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin—were on upper floors. They managed to escape the house, although, of course, they were badly shaken. One was naked, one partially so. Evidently, the blast had blown their clothes off.

A neighbor helped the young women. She was Susan Wager, an ex-wife of Henry Fonda. She offered the women a shower and gave them fresh clothes to wear. Then the women went to a different home: the home of Kathy Boudin’s parents, where they spent the night. Kathy’s father, Leonard Boudin, was a prominent left-wing lawyer.

The next day, the women—disappeared. They would be on the lam for ten years, and on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

Bringing the War Home

The Weathermen got started in 1969, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS was too tame for the taste of these terrorists-to-be. The Weathermen took their name from a Bob Dylan song of 1965: “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” One line goes, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

In a manifesto, the Weathermen declared a goal: “the destruction of U.S. imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism.” The Weathermen claimed kinship with the civil-rights movement and the anti-war movement. They were more interested in communism than in civil rights, of course. And it is not quite true that they were anti-war. They supported a side in Vietnam: that of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong—in other words, their fellow communists.

“Bring the war home,” went a Weatherman slogan. It was coined by John Jacobs, who also said, “We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America. We will burn and loot and destroy.” Jacobs was a leading Weatherman, but the most prominent figures were Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. (They still are.) Said Dohrn, “Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don’t do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way.”

The Weathermen favored “direct action,” in a common phrase of the time. Indeed, a French terror group would emerge at the end of the 1970s: Action directe, or AD. The Weathermen admired the Red Guards in China. They also admired the Castro dictatorship in Cuba. In July 1969, many of them went to Cuba to meet and consult with North Vietnamese officials.

They were in love with violence, the Weathermen. That’s one reason they loved the Charles Manson “family.” On August 9, 1969, the “family” murdered five people at the home of Sharon Tate, an actress. Among the victims was the actress herself, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. According to lore, the murderers plunged a fork into Sharon Tate’s stomach. Bernardine Dohrn and her friends would greet one another with a four-fingered salute, to symbolize a fork.

The Weathermen were ideological, to be sure: They were part of a worldwide communist movement that fancied itself opposing Western imperialism on behalf of oppressed peoples. But as much as anything, they loved violence and sex. “Smash monogamy,” went another of their slogans.

In October 1969, the Weathermen carried out their “Days of Rage” in Chicago. They broke a lot of glass—the windows of cars and stores. The next February, Weathermen exploded gasoline bombs at the home of John M. Murtagh in New York City. Murtagh was a justice of the New York Supreme Court, presiding over a trial of the Black Panthers. The Weathermen shattered his front window, and did other damage, but Murtagh and his family were unharmed.

Two weeks later came the explosion at 18 West 11th Street. The death toll could have been worse—all of those young people at Fort Dix, yes, and the people in the administration building at Columbia. But also, neighbors—other residents of West 11th. Some of them narrowly avoided being killed or maimed. Next door lived the family of Dustin Hoffman, the actor. Years later, he observed that political violence “remains an abstraction until it happens to you.”

The townhouse explosion was bad for the Weathermen’s reputation. The leadership decided that Weathermen would no longer try to kill people. Instead, they would set off bombs and inflict as much property damage as they could. They did so, in the ensuing months and years: at the headquarters of the New York City police; at the U.S. Capitol; at the Pentagon; at the State Department; at a military induction center in Oakland, California; etc. No one was killed in these bombings—a point that Weathermen, or former Weathermen, have always stressed. It is also true that the bombers got a little lucky. Bombs are not the most obedient or discriminating of instruments (as the men and women of 18 West 11th Street found out).

In 1980, ten years and four months after the townhouse explosion, Cathy Wilkerson resurfaced, giving herself up. She pled guilty to the possession of illegal explosives. Sentenced to three years in prison, she served eleven months.

Throughout the ’70s, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn were underground, and on the lam, too. During this time, they married each other, and had children. (“Smash monogamy”?) Five months after Cathy Wilkerson, they gave themselves up. They got off on technicalities, essentially. Dohrn got three years’ probation and a $1,500 fine; Ayers got nothing. They were beneficiaries of a system that they had dedicated themselves to overthrowing, violently.

Ayers put it well, saying, “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”

A Murderous Family

What about Kathy Boudin? She was still underground, and on the lam: a member of the May 19th Communist Organization. The Weather Underground had petered out, and many Weathermen simply migrated to the May 19th group. The significance of the date? The birthday of Ho Chi Minh. And of Malcolm X. And—serendipity—of Kathy Boudin.

The Weathermen were thoughtful about their bombing of the Pentagon in 1972: They chose May 19 to do it on.

The May 19th Communist Organization was part of “The Family,” something different from, though related to, the Manson Family. The Family was a collective of radical groups, whose other members included the Black Liberation Army and the Red Guerrilla Resistance. The Family committed its most notorious crime on October 20, 1981.

This was “the Brink’s robbery,” as it is commonly known. A gang of Family members held up a Brink’s truck in Nanuet, New York. Their haul: $1.6 million. In the course of the robbery, they killed a Brink’s guard, Peter Paige, and almost killed another, Joseph Trombino. Trombino’s arm was nearly severed from his body. He almost bled to death. In the course of fleeing, the gang killed two police officers: Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown. The latter was a civil-rights pioneer: the first black officer on the local force.

Four of the Family members were arrested on the spot. One of them was Kathy Boudin. At least eight others escaped.

The Family carried on the tradition of bombings. In 1983, for example, they bombed the U.S. Capitol. They did not kill anyone, but they caused a lot of damage and spooked the nation. The Family sent a statement to a radio station, which read, “We purposely aimed our attack at the institutions of imperialist rule rather than at individual members of the ruling class. We did not choose to kill any of them this time. But their lives are not sacred.”

One of the participants in the Capitol bombing was Susan Rosenberg, who had also been part of the gang in the Brink’s robbery. The law finally caught up with her in 1984. The site was a storage facility in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Rosenberg was loading more than 700 pounds of explosives into a rented bin. As she was led away, she yelled, “We’re caught, but we’re not defeated! Long live the armed struggle!”

At her trial, she wore a kaffiyeh and lectured the court about the Middle East, Central America, and other subjects. When she was convicted, she asked the court for the maximum sentence—the better for revolutionary ferment. She got it: 58 years.

Behind bars, she rejected the label “prisoner of conscience.” She explained, “It is our political beliefs that have led us to take action that put us into antagonistic conflict with the government.” Yet, as the years went on, there was a campaign to win Rosenberg’s release. She was a “model prisoner,” people said. In December 2000, 60 Minutes offered a sympathetic profile of her.

Personally, I was floored by this profile. In a piece I wrote in March 2001, I said, “It left the impression that Rosenberg was basically a political leafleteer, perhaps caught up with the wrong crowd. To read a transcript of the segment, in light of the totality of the information on Rosenberg, is jaw-dropping.”

In the hours before he left office, on January 20, 2001, President Clinton issued a blizzard of pardons and commutations. On this day, Clinton granted clemency to Susan Rosenberg—also to Linda Sue Evans, another alumna of the Weather Underground and the May 19th Communist Organization.

Clinton had done this kind of thing before. In August 1999, he had offered clemency to 16 members of the FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group. Between 1974 and its dissolution in 1983, the group carried out more than 130 bomb attacks in the United States. One of the group’s targets was Fraunces Tavern, the historic restaurant in New York City. The terrorists killed four people there, injuring more than 50 others.

In the summer of 2020, we had mass protests against police brutality: genuine protests, with genuine protesters. Mixed into the protests were Antifa and their like: political bully-boys and bomb-throwers. Mixed in, also, were plain old thugs and hoods, without a political thought in their heads. When such types see an opening—an opportunity—they take it.

President Clinton did not offer clemency to anyone convicted of murder or maiming. His 16 were convicted of lesser (if related) offenses. And his offer was conditional: They had to renounce violence. Fourteen of the FALN members accepted, and two did not.

An Absence of Remorse

Over the years, some of us have asked, “Why do so many people have a soft spot for practitioners of political violence—especially left-wing practitioners? Why do left-wing militants receive sympathetic treatment from 60 Minutes, the New York Times, and other major media outlets?” Is it because the soft Left, in a way, feels inferior to the hard Left? Do the soft ones regard the hard ones as “liberals in a hurry”? Misguided souls, or rough types, whose hearts are in the right place? Do the soft types “hold their manhoods cheap” for not being harder? For not being pur et dur? For choosing not to take “direct action”?

People insist on investing militants—some of them—with romance. Assata Shakur (formerly Joanne Chesimard) has been celebrated in poetry, song, and film. She has been a guest of the Castro dictatorship since the mid-1980s. In 1997, Essence magazine ran an interview with her under the headline “Prisoner in Paradise.” People know her name—at least her adopted one. Does anyone know the name of the cop she killed? He was Werner Foerster, a New Jersey state trooper.

Everyone loves a penitent, or should. “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” As a rule, the Weather types have not been repentant. They say, for example, “It was an extreme time.” That’s what Susan Rosenberg said after President Clinton sprang her. Bill Ayers has reflected, “I think what we did was to respond to a situation that was unconscionable.” In 2001, he published a memoir, Fugitive Days. Paying tribute to it, Studs Terkel, the famous writer and broadcaster, called the book “a deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world.” That is the attitude of a great many, reeking of rationalization.

One of the most repentant is Judy Clark—another alumna of the Weather Underground and the May 19th Communist Organization; another participant in the Brink’s robbery. She was in prison from 1981 to 2019. In 2002, she wrote,

However unsure I am of the adequacy of my words, I must take this moment to say publicly to the families and survivors how deeply sorry I am for my actions on Oct. 20, 1981, which contributed to so much death and destruction.

No amount of regret or apology can undo their loss.

She was moved to apologize by the death of Joe Trombino—the Brink’s guard who survived the robbery in Nanuet. He did not survive the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Judy Clark pondered her own “kindredness,” as she put it, with the 9/11 terrorists.

In addition to an apology, she provided some analysis, of herself and her gang in general:

Our actions were self-centered and self-serving.

My anger at injustice and desire for change may have motivated my involvement in radical movements, but my attraction to groups that identified violence as the source of power was driven by my own needs.

At the group level, our use of violence had nothing to do with empowering those in whose name we “fought,” but with ourselves.

When I try to reckon with how I came to be an instrument of violence, I look back at a group process in which we melted down complicated issues into pure ideology, our particular form of fundamentalism.

The comfort of absolute surety came at a terrible cost.

Many of the erstwhile Weathermen entered academia. Ayers, for instance, became a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bernardine Dohrn became a law professor at Northwestern. Kathy Boudin, who was released from prison in 2003, became a scholar-in-residence at New York University—blocks from 18 West 11th Street. She also became a professor at Columbia—one of the targets of the bombmakers in the townhouse. Indeed, she co-founded an outfit at Columbia called “the Center for Justice.” According to its literature, the center “is committed to ending mass incarceration and criminalization, and advancing alternative approaches to justice and safety through education, research, and policy change.”

Agents of Chaos

Extremist politics, on one hand, and violence, on the other, go together. In fact, they belong on the same hand. There will always be people impatient of democratic processes—who want what they want and want it now, and will make the blood flow to get it, if they must. For some, it is not even a question of “must”: The violence is enjoyable for its own sake.

In America recently, we have seen Antifa, whose name derives from “anti-fascism.” For people who are anti-fascist, they are excellent mimickers of fascist methods and attitudes, as well as communist ones. (Are those two “sides” really divorceable? Has there ever been anything more natural than the Hitler-Stalin Pact? It was rude of Hitler to break it.) In Antifa’s arsenal is not just violence but also the threat of violence. Antifa forced the cancellation of an annual parade in Portland, Oregon, just by threatening to show up and wreak havoc.

Note, too, that Antifa people wear masks. They wore them before the pandemic. Bullies, brutes, and marauders down the ages have worn masks. The Zapatistas, in Chiapas, Mexico, led by Subcomandante Marcos, wore them. Various celebrities trooped to Chiapas to see the Zapatistas and sit at the feet of the subcomandante. Oliver Stone, the moviemaker, was one; Danielle Mitterrand, the First Lady of France, was another.

Antifa’s violence is too much for some on the left—even for Noam Chomsky, who has never been overly squeamish about violence. “It’s a major gift to the Right,” he said in 2017.

In the summer of 2020, we had mass protests against police brutality: genuine protests, with genuine protesters. Mixed into the protests were Antifa and their like: political bully-boys and bomb-throwers. Mixed in, also, were plain old thugs and hoods, without a political thought in their heads. When such types see an opening—an opportunity—they take it.

I think of an old Irish joke (although our subject is not a joking matter). A fellow walks into a pub and sees two men brawling. “Is this a private fight,” he asks, “or can anyone join in?”

We might speak of a fourth category of people on the streets of America last summer: casual looters. These are not people who would ordinarily commit crimes. They join in because it’s the thing to do, at the moment, and it’s so easy. Television networks showed clips of looters in Chicago. You have never seen such happy, giddy people. They were happier than college students on spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

Many of us thought of a famous chapter title, from Edward C. Banfield’s classic book The Unheavenly City: “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.”

Not fun at all were the lamentations of storeowners, especially black ones. “They say that ‘black lives matter,’” some of them pointed out. “What about our lives? Are we not black, and do our lives not matter?”

The United States has always been pocked by political violence (never mind the Civil War). In the past several years, there have been many instances: a shooting at a D.C. pizzeria; the shooting at a congressional baseball game; the shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California; the shooting at another one in Pittsburgh, resulting in mass murder; more mass murder at a Walmart in El Paso; a plot to kidnap a governor.

Who is responsible, Left or Right? As David French points out in his recent book Divided We Fall, people tend to know about violence inflicted on their allies. They tend not to know about violence inflicted on their opponents. Each side is well versed in its own grievances. “So the narrative builds,” writes French. They are dangerous, and we are innocent.

In October 2020, Chad Wolf, the (acting) secretary of homeland security, said, “As secretary, I am concerned about any form of violent extremism. However, I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”

Our post-election atmosphere last year was filled with violence, or the threat of it. Armed protesters gathered outside the homes of election officials, screaming imprecations and threats. Beholding all this, one official in Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, said in great distress, “Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone is going to get killed.”

On Thanksgiving Day, President Trump said of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, “He’s an enemy of the people.” Raffensperger and his wife received terrible threats, of murder and rape. In an interview, Raffensperger said, “There’s always those types of people out there. We, as Republicans, always like to talk about BLM and Antifa. And then we have basically the same cast of characters, different names, different places . . .”

A month and a half later, on January 6, a right-wing insurrectionist mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, leaving carnage in its wake.

Constant Vigilance

Many years ago, I asked my friend Mona Charen, the columnist and book-author, why she became a conservative, at a young age. She said that she was aware of the fragility of civilization. How it could all break down, in an instant. It took constant vigilance to keep civilization together. She had the experience of Europe, in the 1930s and ’40s, hovering over her consciousness.

Every summer for about 20 years, I have gone to Salzburg, Austria, to do some work at the music festival there. You never saw a more peaceful, orderly town than Salzburg. That lovely burg simply breathes tranquility. Yet, in living memory, it was the scene of horrific violence.

I have a friend, Peggy Weber McDowell, whose family owned a candle factory in Salzburg. One day, their foreman showed up with his hands and arms all cut up. “Matthias,” they cried, “what happened?” “Those Jews have had it coming for a long time,” he said, grinning with relish. “We smashed up all their shops.” Like other parts of the Reich, Salzburg had had a Kristallnacht.

Yes, it can all break down, quickly. Constant vigilance is wearying, perhaps. But there is no better alternative.