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Carol Brightman on the 1960s
Posted on Jan 3, 2008
She called out for “Adam,” her comrade Terry Robbins’ nom de guerre, but he was one of the three bomb-makers working below (Ted Gold and Diana Oughten were the others), and they were dead. Kathy Boudin heard her and cried out. She was in the shower, but now there was no shower. Wilkerson reached her and they stumbled to a house across the street, were given clothes and then disappeared down a nearby subway entrance.
How had Wilkerson and the others come to this point? By her own account, it’s the “purity” of her commitment to political change that stands out, starting with civil rights organizing in Chester, Md., while at Swarthmore, and moving on to anti-war work. She quotes SDS President Paul Potter’s famous 1965 Washington speech: “The incredible war in Vietnam has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy.” And his call for a social movement “for people who are willing to change their lives, who are willing to challenge the system,” not just “write petitions or letters of protest,” reaches her too. In 1966, when the old guard gave up the leadership to newer members, mostly from the Midwest, including Carl Oglesby, she moved to SDS headquarters in Chicago and started to work on the national newspaper, New Left Notes. She, like so many others, was ready to “make history.”
The middle chapters of “Flying Close to the Sun” are dense, loaded with information and names from the past: her work with Peter Henig on the Selective Service System, discussions with Oglesby about whether (as he said) the “revolutionary motive is not to construct a paradise but to destroy an inferno,” her involvement with the women’s movement in Washington, D.C., and her fascination with Regis Debray’s theory of foco groups and how they resembled small group actions called “guerrilla propaganda.” She moved from one political project to another, embracing “Gentle Thursdays,” when the Austin SDS urged members to talk to jocks and engineering students. She dropped acid with SDS leaders and felt her role as “an apprentice was changing into that of full participant and even, a little bit, into that of a leader.”
Wilkerson’s book is an intriguing mix of inside movement history and a character study of a woman beset with contradictions. The daughter of a senior vice president in charge of the international division of advertising giant Young & Rubicam, she survived an upper-middle-class adolescence in New Canaan, Conn., “by elevating suffering to a quasi-spiritual level.” Years later, listening to Weatherman Bill Ayres extol guns before the Days of Rage in Chicago in 1969, she first thought it absurd, then succumbed to a “desire to sacrifice [herself] wholly for the cause. The purity of total dedication scraped away many of the complexities of life and promised ultimate gratification.” Besides, she wanted to be on the best team, “the most sacrificing, the most uncompromising. ...” But when she landed in Cook County Jail, the “leadership women” were bailed out immediately, while she, not being among them, languished for weeks, and wondered. Being accepted into Weatherman’s inner circle would elude her, despite her willingness to, as she writes, “manipulate [others] into adopting the organization’s current perspective ... in order to protect my own standing.”
Looking for the saving grace in the townhouse bombing, Wilkerson insists that “even though our actions had been a failure, the intensity of our anger had at last been heard throughout the country. ... We were in way over our heads. ... But on this one thing, being a voice of outrage, we would be united until the war ended.” She thought of her conversation with Terry, about “growing into the role of being warriors. If we had just taken a little more time, I thought, if we had just slowed down.” “I had read Lenin,” she recalls, “who convinced me that we had to use whatever advantages we could in the fight for a better world. I knew that this reasoning had led to, or at least had not prevented, the hideous abuses of power carried out by Stalin. But, we knew better now, I thought. We would never do that.” But Terry, who was her lover, didn’t know if it took one stick of dynamite or 10 to blow down a door.
Shortly after the explosion, the remaining Weather leaders met on the West Coast. Everyone repudiated the debacle of the townhouse but one, who left. Repudiation, of course, meant eliminating just the nails, which turned the bombs into antipersonnel weapons (to be left at an officers’ dance at Fort Dix, the target). The bombings, sans nails, resumed almost immediately. On May 21, 1970, Weather leader Bernardine Dohrn issued “A Declaration of a State of War.” Not long afterward, New York’s police headquarters was struck, setting the tone for all the group’s subsequent bombings. In the bombings, a “device” was left in a hiding place, with a timer set for the middle of the night, and a warning call made to clear the building. Luckily, no one was ever seriously hurt. A statement tying the “symbolic” bombing to a political event, usually a black prison uprising, was issued but rarely published.
“Like most people,” she concludes, “I was corruptible; able to be seduced by power and everything that went with it”—including an intimate relationship with one of Weatherman’s more powerful men, Terry Robbins, something she hoped “to sort ... out later.” By 1975, when the war ended, Weatherman began to scatter. Wilkerson lived underground, had a baby girl, moved to a black neighborhood and began to put herself together again. Like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayres, who had two baby boys, she decided to surface. But while she got a year at Bedford Hills Correctional Association for possession of illegal explosives, the conspiracy charges against Dohrn and Ayres were dropped (in 1981) because of extreme government misconduct. Better lawyers, perhaps. Or the luck of the leaders.
“In the end,” Wilkerson concludes, “we would lose sight of the potentially resilient qualities of people and of our own movement, qualities like flexibility, compromise, forgiveness, creativity, intellectual rigor, and the valuing of each life as much as possible. ... In many respects, our efforts were doomed to crash and burn.”
Wilkerson would eventually find a job teaching math in the New York City public schools—a job she would hold for the next 20 years.
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