In retrospect, the decision to name themselves after the lyrics of a song written by America’s most lauded suburban white bard is telling, as the Weathermen’s actions often played out like a performance art project. deconstructing middle-class whiteness: a mix of childish zest, black vernacular appropriateness, and sometimes grumpy fantasies about revolution.
As Bryan Burrough recounts in angry days, they held essentialist ideas that workers would be “tougher” and less bourgeois, and sought to recruit them into their movement. They took over the classrooms of a Detroit community college during exams and “lectured thirty-something confused students about the evils of racism and imperialism,” he wrote. In Pittsburgh, 26 weatherwomen “stormed the halls of South Hills High School, waving a North Vietnamese flag, throwing fliers and…lifting their skirts and exposing their breasts.”
They began training for what was later known as the “Days of Rage” demonstrating against the arrest of protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, including the leader of the New Left (and later Jane Fonda’s husband) Tom Hayden. “We hardly had any role models,” Ayers says in the podcast. “So we started doing things like learning to do karate and learning to shoot guns and learning to make smoke bombs and learning to make dynamite bombs.”
They expected thousands of students to show up at Chicago’s Lincoln Park, but only about 200 made it. Together, the group smashed windows and attacked an induction center. At that time, 21-year-old Fred Hampton called the group “Custeristic.” “We think these people may be sincere, but they are wrong,” he said. “They’re assholes and they’re giddy.”
They tried to leave cultural norms behind: “So much sexual experimentation, sex with women, sex with men, sex in orgies,” Boudin says in the podcast. Jonathan Lerner said the sexual experiences were mostly for men: “For me, it was kind of liberating, because I got the chance to have sex with some of the men I was looking for,” a- he told Burrough. “I remember several women who came out as lesbians having had their first sex with women, and it was weird because everyone was sitting there watching. … It was basically scary.
At a “wargasm” dance in a black Detroit neighborhood, Dohrn joked about the Manson murders, with words that have haunted her ever since: “Dig it. First they killed these pigs, then they dined in the same room as them, they even stuck a fork in the stomach of a victim! Savage!”
During the Obama-era controversy, she explained her Manson comments as a tongue-in-cheek joke, intended to underscore the amount of media coverage the true crime spectacle was receiving. But in the podcast, she says she regrets the moment. “It was glorifying violence,” she admits. Tom Hayden was sitting in the front row and “walked up to me,” she recalled, asking “How could you say that?”
In retrospect, this embrace of violence seems to be a consequence of their hardening, especially as white women, to leave behind aspects of femininity and bourgeois propriety that they felt served capitalist inequality. After all, Dohrn had become radicalized by seeing the reactions of white women to the civil rights movement. “Men I expected to be hateful,” she says in the podcast, “but seeing women being hateful shocked me.”
And there was a lot to unlearn. The members subjected each other to all-day “self-criticism” sessions, where they accused each other of not being revolutionary enough, of defending bad values. “The more you’re whipped, the more you feel like you’ve been purified,” Boudin explains in the podcast.
“The models they were looking for were mainly these Communist, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban models, and these models had a very structural Marxist analysis,” Dohrn told me. “They resisted personal things – criticism and self-criticism was the reverse of that. Their whole interest was to eradicate personal preference, personal history in the service of a collective.
Still, there was a lot of dissension within the group. “We had fought a stalemate with several different factions internally,” Dohrn told me, explaining why she wasn’t present for the group’s most infamous — and tragic — moment, which came to New York in 1970.
Boudin, Wilkerson, and Diana Oughton were all at Wilkerson’s father’s New Jersey townhouse preparing explosives for a bombing at the Fort Dix military base that would “bring the war home.”
Dohrn was not in contact with Boudin at this time. “I regret giving up the argument with a few collectives, including one she was part of…the last few weeks before the townhouse explosion,” she told me.