Thursday, August 27, 2009

SDS and The Weatherman Underground by Mark Rudd

Two days before the National Action ('Days of Rage', Oct., 1969) was to begin I found myself in New York City. The next day I would use my forged half-fare youth card (I had turned twenty-two, past the cut-off age) to fly back to Chicago. That night I was to meet Gerry Long, my Weather Bureau comrade, about five years older than I and a hard-core anti-imperialist, in Greenwich Village for supper. Both of us were as nervous as soldiers waiting for the next day's battles. Gerry must have seen something in my face. He said, "yeah, I'm scared too."

True to form, Gerry and I decided to splurge on our Last Supper. I had about fifty dollars of the organization's money in my pocket, so we set off to a fancy Italian restaurant in the Village. We talked of the organization and the action coming up. Gerry was a realist, and that night he expressed his doubts. "Is this worth dying for? Is this a real battle of the revolution?" All I could give him were the truism we were locked into, so I didn't. I was in a deflated mood that night, bordering on depression. We decided to get drunk on red wine; what else can you do when there are no answers?

Gerry told me a story:

"On the trip to Cuba this summer, two of us were able to slip away with one of our Cuban guides. We were told that some comrades from the Foreign Ministry wanted to talk with us away from the rest of the group, which probably contained FBI informers. We thought they wanted to talk about the Weathermen.

"We were taken to a small, middle-class hotel in the same Havana barrio as our hotel. It turned out to be Fidel's home. We had all been dying to meet Fidel. You know, he really is big; I guess that's one reason thet call him 'El Caballo' [the horse]. He asked about the conference, and then he talked for a while about the American military in Vietnam- how they would invariably lose. It was strange. He wasn't really paying us much attention. His mind definately seemed elsewhere.

"Finally he just stopped, and we were quiet for a short time. Then he blurted out, "You know, something very troubling has just happened. A friend in the Bolivian government sent us a package; it arrived yesterday. Che's hands, his very hands, preserved. Before they destroyed his body, they chopped off his hands to prove they had him. They were definately his hands, I recognized them. I don't know what to do with them.'

"Fidel was just at the point of tears. He shook himself out of it, stood up, thanked us for coming. The interview was over."

Gerry and I were quiet for some time. Finally, after all the public heroics and underneath the glory of revolutionary war, is human, individual death. The meeting with Fidel was not at all what Gerry had anticipated.

The next day we were in Chicago.... after just an hour, the demonstration- and the carnage- was over. The result: six weathermen shot, many dozens more injured, sixty-eight arrested; twenty-six policemen were injured, though none seriously. Our people struggled back to the "Movement centers;', churches loaned to us by sympathetic clergy. They were scared and proud at the same time, and still not defeated....


  1. On a bitter-cold day in late January 1971, I was waiting outside Bookbinder's, a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia, my safe city from the year before, hoping to God that my parents weren't tailed. Please let them follow my instructions to ditch their car and take a taxis. At last a middle-aged couple, all bundled up, walked toward me down the sidewalk carrying a paper shopping bag...they recognized me finally, beneath my new long hair and beard and we embraced. It'd been May the year before since we'd seen each other. Jake was stoooped over more than I remembered him; he seemed older and smaller.

    We went inside the huge restaurant for a late lunch and allowed ourselves to be led to a white-clothed table. We took off our coats and hats and stared at each other, my mother on the verge of tears and Jake just glum

    "It'll just make things worse to cry", I said, "especially since there are so many people here."

    "I cry every night," she said "and in the morning too."

    "For the last two years things have been getting worse and worse," my father said. "It was bad enough when you were kicked out of Columbia, but then the Weathermen was even worse. Now, being a fugitive..." He trailed off, unable to finish.

    I was at a loss as to what to say that I hadn't said before.

    My mother took up her old thread. "We have the radio on all the time, just hoping we won't hear that you've been shot by the police. I don't know, maybe it would be a good thing if you were arrested. Or turned yourself in."

    "I'd die in prison", I said, "so get that out of your heads. Besides I'm not going to give the government a victory." I wanted to change the subject and said, "I have some good news. I'm leaving the organization, getting away from my old friends. I'll be on my own, but at least I won't be making any bombs."

    "What will you do?" my father aked.

    "Out west I can lose myself all sorts of places. I havn't figured it out yet, but my plan is to get a vehicle and travel around until I find a place where I'll be safe. I'll work and be quiet for a while, try to think things out."

    "We brought you three thousand dollars." my father said.

    "You didn't withdraw the money from your account did you? I asked.

    "No, I accumulated it in cash over the last year, from friends in South Jersey."

    I knew what he was referring to. Years ago, when my father had worked for the Army Exchange Service, he helped a friend get the base PX jukebox concession. Ever since, he had recieved a small cash kickback every few months. It was the only illegal or unethical activity I'd ever heard Jake involved in. In our family a small rake-off wasn't even considered a crime, just a normal mode of doing business, the single atavism from and earlier, poorer time. It came in handy now, though, to have a hidden and untraceable source of cash.

    My mother, as always, said what was on her mind. "I don't know if we should be giving you this money. I just don't want you to have to take more risks, like robbing a bank or dealing drugs. If this keeps you from getting caught or killed, I'm happy."...

    "When this is all over," my mother said," we'll pack a basket and go off to the seashore." It was her favrite expression, from the movie "Never on Sunday'. Melina Mercouri's fairy tales always ended happily, the characters going off to the seashore rather than dying their normal grisly fairy-tale fate."

    [Mark and his pals robbed a restaurant not a bank, but that was after he lost his leadership position and was just a cadre. He was involved with bombs both as a leader and as a cadre. He also helped bust Timothy Leary out of prison and occasionaly supported himself by selling hashish- he was never prosecuted for any of these crimes, neither were his parents!]

  2. Under the "felony murder" law, there is no distinction between those who pulled the triggers and those who were unarmed accomplices. At their murder trial, David Gilbert, Judy Clark and Kuwasi Balagon claimed political-prisoner status under international law and refused to participate in their trial. All recieved sentances of seventy-five years to life, with no possibility of parole. Kathy Boudin chose to plead guilty to one count of felony murder and robbery in return for the possibility of parole after twenty-five years. Word had it that she was a last-minute, ambivalent recruit to the hold-up plan. At her sentancing Kathy expressed her deepest regrets at the loss of the lives of Brink's guard Peter Paige, and the two police officers, Waverly Brown and Sergeant Edward O'Grady, Jr.. Between them they left nine children without fathers.

    After his trial and conviction, in the spring of 1981, David Gilbert called me collect from prison in upstate New York. He was friendly, curious about my family and work, as sweet and caring as he had always been. But I couldn't contain myself. After only a few seconds, I began screaming at him, across years and prison walls. "What did you think you were doing? I heard myself say. "Did you think there's a revolution happening in this country? Black people arn't revolutionmary anymore, nobody is. Can't you see reality?"

    "You don't deny that the U.S. is still imperialist, do you?"


    "You don't deny that this is still a racist country, do you?"


    "Well, someone had to keep the revolutionary underground going. We couldn't just surrender, " he concluded the argument.

    I was lost. "But it's not real" I screamed. "What revolution?" You're totally isolated, out of touch. You were underground so long that you have no idea what real people think."

    "Oh yeah? When you're in prison, you get to see who benefits from this society and who's hurting. Look, I didn't call you to argue," David said, quite reasonably.

    I was shaking. "I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't intend to pick a fight." Begging off because I was late for work, I promised to write him. It took me thirty-four years to figure out what to say. My emotions were too raw...

    In prison David has been remarkably productive over the years. He founded an AIDS peer-counseling program that has ben credited with saving huindreds of lives, and for years he also tutored prisoners who wished to earn their GEDs. He continues to insist on the original revolutionary jusification for the robbery, though lately he has been publically expressing his personal regret for the loss of lives..Photos of him in prison show him still looking uncannily young and hopeful.

  3. The lasting accomplishment of the student strike at Columbia University in April and May of 1968 ( during which Mark Rudd rose to prominence) was the restoration and preservation of the Morningside Park next to the campus. Originally designed by the great 19th century liberal Fredrick Law Omstead, the Park had been slated as the site for a ten story university center and gymnasium and had become a partially excavated no-man's land while the University moved against blacks refusing to vacate a nearby tenement.

    The Wars go on, most likely government funding for weapons, tactical and strategic research at Columbia as well. Many of the "dirty tricks" used against the SDS, precluding serious prosecutions in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal, were enshrined as "necessary , appropriate and given statutory protection in the Patriot Act.

    "My Life with The SDS and The Weathermen Underground by Mark Rudd; William Morrow, N.Y. , 2009