You Don't Need a Weatherman

By David Swanson

Do you support the right of the people of Iraq to fight back against a hostile foreign occupation? If so, why are you at peace, fat and happy and not risking your precious little life? Why are you not joining in the fight against the empire by striking violent blows in the homeland?

Or do you support the use of nonviolence as a superior tactic for achieving lasting peace? Then why are you not actively trying to persuade the Iraqis to make more use of nonviolent resistance and abandon the use of violence? And why are you not sitting in your congress member’s office, or lying across the doorway of a recruiting station, or traveling to Iraq to join a peaceful resistance movement?

The peace movement in the United States today, as seen through the corporate media, is largely a Democratic-Party-based fraud, but even the real peace movement that is legitimately placing peace above party gives little thought to the above questions. Of course we’re all opposed to violence as a tactic here at home, and of course we recognize the Iraqis’ right to self-defense, but we also focus a lot of our attention on the ways in which U.S. soldiers are victimized by recruiters and commanders-in-chief. Not wanting to support the killing of U.S. soldiers, we refrain from supporting the violent Iraqi resistance, and often from thinking about it as well.

And yet, far and away the strongest force slowing down the U.S. neocons’ hostile takeover of every oil-rich nation on earth is the violent Iraqi resistance. Probably it could be even stronger through the coordinated use of nonviolence, but how much effort are we putting into making that happen? Many of us fear, I think, that it is not our place as Americans to ask Iraqis to put their lives at risk through nonviolence. And yet, if we believe that their violence is ultimately wrong and that success would come more swiftly through Satyagraha, nothing should stop us from saying so. And nothing should stop us from making the strongest use we can of nonviolence here at home, as in these events planned for the five-year point in the occupation this month:

I don’t know how many people, if any, came down on the fully nonviolent side of the argument with regard to the Vietnamese when that occupation was producing so many corpses. But I do know that some thought the matter through and came down in favor of using violence against the decision makers in the United States. And I know that at least some of those who did so now regret it. I don’t know whether they agree with me that one must condemn Iraqi violence or aid it, and that the right choice is to condemn it.

Cathy Wilkerson’s book “Flying Close to the Sun” is marketed as an account of the violent activist group in the late 1960s and early 1970s called the Weatherman and later the Weather Underground. The dust jacket tells a story of bombs and fleeing from the law. Those turned off by this will miss an excellent book. Those turned on by this (perhaps the “ecoterrorists” who burned mcmansions in Seattle this week) will have to wait until the book’s final pages and then find them rather anti-climactic.

“Flying Close to the Sun” is mostly a history of 1960s peace and civil rights activism as told by a young female participant who was based much of the time in Washington, D.C. The stories recounted here of conflicting movements, strategies, agendas, and personalities ring true and are quite useful as a guide for those working in the same field today. The peace movement today is going through a period of heightened frustration and bickering, and it is useful to be able to take a stoic approach to it all and understand how inevitable some of this is. It’s also very useful to draw on some of Wilkerson’s lessons, her analysis of what worked and what did not. Her book is a very timely warning against turning in exactly the direction that she and her colleagues took.

And yet, because of the marketing of the book, which I have just contributed to, one can’t help reading it with some reader-imposed foreshadowing. One knows that a turn toward violence is coming, and watches for signs of it from the account of Wilkerson’s childhood onward. The whole book for me had a bit of the feeling of reading about Abraham Lincoln getting ready to attend the theater.

Wilkerson became an activist in college and risked arrest for nonviolent civil disobedience. She says she viewed this as placing her on the wrong side of the law and of society. She did not apparently find the friends and mentors necessary to view nonviolent resistance as wholly righteous or as potentially effective. But Wilkerson became a dedicated activist and quickly became involved with Students for a Democratic Society (an organization that has recently been re-established). As she tells this tale, violence creeps into it, in the form of sexual violence against women, and also in the form of police brutality. By 1964 and page 113 it also starts to creep in through theory. Wilkerson was beginning to doubt that social movements could work without “revolution.” She read marxist papers that she admits she did not understand, but which led her to the conclusion that force was necessary. She writes that this is when she “began to lose [her] bearings.”

Throughout the account of strategies used to try to end the war, Wilkerson frequently expresses her concern for whether a particular tactic would appeal to or scare away members of the public who might be turned into allies. And yet, she moves quickly away from basing her larger outlook on such a concern. Instead, she reads Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth,” and begins to see violence as liberating for individuals and especially for women.

Wilkerson worked briefly in electoral politics but found she was better suited to activism. She recounts the Labor Day 1967 meeting in Chicago of the National Conference on New Politics, an attempt to form a progressive party, at which James Forman demanded that black participants be allowed to control 50 percent of the votes and that the new party denounce Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians. Wilkerson writes:

“These were two enormous issues injected into a gathering of people with no preparation and with few of the skills necessary to take them on in this diverse setting. Needless to say, the ensuing acrimonious debate led quickly to chaos and a collapse of the effort to form a new political party. While few people today remember or have heard of this event, it affected all further efforts to form a progressive electoral party for decades.”

A little bit after this, Wilkerson says that she was coming to believe the U.S. government could tolerate nonviolent activism without changing course (something one would think the civil rights movement had already disproved). But Wilkerson adds another reason for her growing attraction to violence:

“I couldn’t see how civil disobedience could allow me to express my anger, and if I didn’t find a way to let it out, I felt like I would explode.”

Wilkerson began to draw a bad analogy between Vietnamese self-defense against the U.S. military and U.S. activists’ self-defense against police brutality. By 1968, Wilkerson favored “militant” marches over lobbying Congress. She “no longer thought that an appeal to reason or morality would convince anyone in the administration to replace the whole system with a more humane and egalitarian one.” Of course, one does not have to think that in order to favor nonviolence.

The police in the United States were, in this period, beginning to use more violence and harassment against activists whose minds were gravitating toward the idea that violence was the appropriate tactic for them to use in response. Along the way these activists arrived at the idea of aggressively taking over college campuses. But this devolved from an effort to involve more students’ minds into an effort to trap students in actions they did not understand or support.

By 1969, SDS was falling apart, and something called the Weatherman was forming. This was a top-down antidemocratic cult-like organization that quickly focused on the tactic of exploding bombs in symbolic locations in the United States. In 1970 Wilkerson went into hiding, and the organization became the Weather Underground after bombs accidentally exploded in her stepfather’s house in Manhattan killing three members of Weatherman and making big headlines. Wilkerson believes that this clumsy accident actually communicated the anger of those involved better than a successful explosion at a military base would have done, because the reaction to that would have been dominated by anger at those responsible.

Yet Wilkerson would clearly unexplode those bombs and bring her friends back to life in an instant if she were able.

I’ll be interviewing Wilkerson live on the radio this Wednesday evening, and you can call in with your questions. Go to and call in toll-free from anywhere in the world at 877-489-6350 or in the United States and Canada at 888-228-4494.

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