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When rage fueled a radical new vision

'The Weather Underground' revisits the players in the militant '60s group.

August 27, 2003|Ellen Baskin | Special to The Times

The new documentary "The Weather Underground" flies in the face of that well-worn adage "if you remember the '60s, you weren't really there." Former members of the radical group who appear in the film offer vivid testimony to the fact that they were, indeed, very much present during those turbulent times.

"The '60s are presented to kids today as a commodity," says Bernadine Dohrn, one of the era's most celebrated (or reviled, depending on your political slant) figures. "The music is used to sell products. Everything is wrapped in a nostalgic haze. It's all about things, not ideas." But still, she adds wryly, "many young people today have a sense that they really missed something."

Some of what they missed is on view in "The Weather Underground." The film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, paints an evocative picture of a chapter in America's social history that, for all its notoriety at the time, has since been relegated to the status of a curious footnote except when it occasionally surfaces, as it did recently with the parole of former Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin.

Back in the day -- or Days of Rage, as one of their protests was labeled -- Dohrn was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List and considered by J. Edgar Hoover the "most dangerous woman in America." Today, Dohrn, married to fellow ex-fugitive Bill Ayers, is an associate professor and director of a juvenile justice program at Northwestern University School of Law.

"It strikes my students as very funny sometimes," she says. "Here I am, teaching at a law school, and then one of them will say, 'If I Google you, I find this whole other person!' I recognize it as ironic, but I think the issues that impel me now are not that different than the ones I stood up for."

The Weathermen came to life as a militant offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS galvanized young people during the late '60s, and demonstrations shut down college campuses from coast to coast as ever-growing numbers of students loudly protested the escalating war in Vietnam. Following a 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village townhouse that killed three of its members -- who were, admittedly, in the midst of building bombs -- the Weathermen decided to go underground to continue their combative struggle.

They also made the clearly stated decision to plant their bombs in public buildings -- and only when people were not present. In more than two-dozen such strikes, including attacks on the Pentagon and the corporate headquarters of ITT and Gulf Oil, they set out to destroy property, not lives, in marked contrast to policy they believed was being practiced by the Nixon administration in Southeast Asia. By the end of the 1970s, the war had ended, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and there was a Democrat in the White House (albeit not for long).

Most of the Weather Underground surfaced, surrendered to authorities and faced a string of criminal charges. Ironically, most of those charges were ultimately dropped when it was revealed that the FBI had itself broken numerous laws in relentless pursuit of the young radicals, so whatever evidence it had gathered was inadmissible.

Still politically active

By and large, the former members of the Weather Underground, now in their mid-to-late 50s, remain active in political and social causes. Ayers is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago and has written extensively on issues of education and social justice. Brian Flanagan owns a bar near Columbia University -- the site of a legendary student rebellion in 1968 -- that is a favorite hangout for campus activists. Naomi Jaffe is executive director of Holding Our Own Women's Foundation in Albany, N.Y., a group that promotes feminist social change.

Others interviewed in the film include Mark Rudd, Laura Whitehorn and David Gilbert, who spoke from the Attica Correctional Facility, where he is serving a life sentence for his role in a 1981 armored car robbery that left three people dead, a crime that did not involve the Weather Underground. (Just last week, Boudin, who served 22 years in prison for her involvement in the robbery, was granted parole. At the time of her arrest, Boudin had a 14-month-old son, who was raised by Dohrn and Ayers.)

To be sure, the times they have a-changed since the 1960s, but the world is also a very different place now than just a few years ago, when filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel conducted their interviews for the documentary. Since Sept. 11, the war in Iraq and the continued military presence in the area, the story has taken on a new layer of relevance.

Indeed, those who spoke with The Times in a series of telephone interviews consider the machinations of the Bush administration at least as menacing as Nixon and his "dirty tricks" campaign. They also remain hopeful that, as they witnessed nearly 40 years ago, a growing number of vocal protesters will, again, turn the tide of the nation's political sensibilities.

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