Flying Close to the Sun (2011)

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman : Cathy Wilkerson

[UK: Seven Stories Press January 2011]

The block of West 11th St between Fifth and Sixth avenues in New York’s Greenwich Village is lined by elegant nineteenth-century houses. Only number eighteen stands out, a modern construction with an oddly-angled frontage that doesn’t quite blend in with its neighbors. This is the site of one of the defining events of the radical underground of the nineteen-seventies, the so-called townhouse explosion, in which three young militants were killed. News footage of the time shows Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, looking bemused as he surveys the collapsed wreckage, which had opened up a gap like a missing tooth in the terrace of houses. The three dead were members of the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society, a campus organisation which had become one of the largest and most successful groups in the American New Left. They had been building a crude pipe-bomb in the basement, with which they intended to attack an officer’s club at Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.

Two young women escaped the carnage. One was Kathy Boudin, who later served nineteen years in prison for her part in a politically-motivated armed robbery. The other was the daughter of the house’s owner, a wealthy advertising executive. Apart from some short comments online, Cathy Wilkerson has never publicly spoken about what happened on March 6th 1970. She subsequently spent ten years underground, served a prison sentence, and now works in mathematics education. Flying Close to the Sun is is her attempt to put the explosion into context, and to explain something about what led a girl from a conservative Quaker background to participate in armed struggle.

The townhouse explosion is often cited as the moment when the utopian revolutionaries of the sixties American counterculture were (depending on your perspective) either exposed as fraudulent and naive, betrayed by nihilists on a death-trip or forced to confront the reality of the militant rhetoric which had been casually bandied around for several years. For the countercultural Left, the loss of life was probably less significant than the intended target of the bomb. Attacking Fort Dix appeared to indicate a willingness to commit murder, rather than just damage property, as with previous bombings of ROTC offices and courthouses. This was genuinely shocking to those leftists who still held on to the illusion that their revolution would or could be peaceful. Even the Weather Underground, which was to carry on a form of armed struggle against the US state until it petered out in the late seventies, repudiated the cell in the townhouse. Wilkerson’s account presents her companions, not as aberrant ‘death-trippers’ within Weatherman, but as dutiful cadres, following the confused leadership of an organization which had more or less completely lost its political and ethical bearings.

The early chapters of Wilkerson’s memoir show her evolution from socially-concerned college student, through civil rights marching and community organizing in poor black neighborhoods, to a more confrontational form of direct action with SDS. For British readers, trying to guess the future of the student movement which has emerged to combat the government’s austerity programme, her account of the problems and pitfalls of campus organizing seems particularly relevant. In the British press there have been frequent comparisons of the student protestors with the ‘generation of sixty-eight’. Though the recent wave of sit-ins and occupations does deserve comparison with the British student militancy of the time, Flying Close to the Sun shows how much more grave the situation became in the United States. It also reminds us that the controversies around the education protests are nothing new. Today’s debates about kettling, the use of Forward Intelligence Teams, violent tactics - and just plain thoughtless violence - all had their equivalents in the militant scene of the sixties. Contemporary organizers would do well to consult Wilkerson (and other veterans) if they wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Her account of the criminal COINTELPRO operations mounted against the American New Left, which went as far as the political assassination of Black Panthers and prison activists, should give pause to those who believe that the policing of protest (in contemporary Britain, as much as sixties America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agent-provocateurs and the provision of ‘bait’ for angry crowds (such as the notorious ‘abandoned’ police van on the 24th November demonstration) are not new. Nor should they be shocking to anyone who has studied the events in which Wilkerson participated.

Wilkerson’s account of her political helter-skelter is considered and self-critical. The Weather Underground, desperate for revolution but unwilling to wait, had to deal with a major drawback in the classical Marxist analysis, which stated that the urban working class would form the revolutionary vanguard. Blue collar America was pro-Nixon, broadly supportive of Vietnam, and had little time for the New Left’s concern with sexism and racism. The WU’s answer was to put race at the centre of their politics. Black America, undeniably oppressed and undeniably militant, was to be the vanguard of the domestic class war. The anti-colonial struggles of third world, not just Vietnam but Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere were the international stage. The job of the white radical was to assist these groups in achieving their aims. Wilkerson describes the difficulties black and white militants found in working together, and the self-laceration of white radicals determined never to take advantage of their ‘white skin privilege’, which bought them lighter sentences, and less repressive treatment by the police.

Though she appears to have held fast to her politics, Wilkerson is under no illusions about the Weather Underground, which was anything but a democratic organization. As she portrays it, life in the austere Weather communes took on an increasingly cult-like atmosphere, in which dissent was silenced and those in power often acted like a high-school clique, picking favorites and excluding others. As someone who was never part of the top leadership, her perspective differs from previous memoirs by ex-members of the top-level ‘Weather Bureau’ such as Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd. After Ayers’s Fugitive Days was published in 2001, Wilkerson wrote a fiercely-critical review, castigating him for (as she saw it) treating the project of revolution as a kind of macho trip, and failing to take responsibility for the political decisions which led to the deaths in the townhouse, one of whom was his girlfriend Diana Oughton. From an early point in her career, Wilkerson was concerned with women’s rights, and her descriptions of the misogyny of male activists in SDS and Weather make for grim reading. Though the WU attempted to take on a feminist perspective, their attempts to enforce ‘anti-monogamy (seen as an oppressive by-product of capitalism) by breaking up couples and engaging in various forms of communal sexual experimentation, evidently led to sexual bullying and coercion, and Wilkerson’s picture of her life in the year leading up to the townhouse explosion is anything but romantic. Flying Close to the Sun is, of course, a cautionary tale, but it’s also the narrative of a woman who was prepared to sacrifice a great deal for her vision of a fairer world. It deserves to be widely read.

(This review was published in the New Statesman. The printed version omitted my claim about the planting of the 'abandoned' police van at the student protest of 24th November 2010)