Watching the documentary The Weather Underground (2002) (see Independent Lens review, PBS) is a painful experience. Included with this award-winning documentary about Vietnam-era revolutionaries is the smaller and separate interview with David Gilbert, who remains imprisoned in New York for his part in the 1981 Brinks robbery in which some of those involved in the robbery killed two policemen and a security guard. He’s eligible for parole in the second half of the 21st century. The practical result of that parole date for a revolutionary already in his mid-70s is obvious. The US does imprison political prisoners.
It is not only David Gilbert’s predicament of being imprisoned to what amounts to a death sentence behind bars, but the fact that police murders of people of color (racism was a centerpiece of the Weather Underground’s pushback in revolutionary philosophy and the other was a critique of the war-making imperialist machine of the US government), go on in what is a system that cannot break away or acknowledge the war against and murder of black and brown people in the US today.
What went wrong with protest by some revolutionaries in the US during the Vietnam era has been critiqued in other writing about that era. The intentions of those Weathermen who died in the townhouse “bomb factory” on West 11th Street in New York City in 1970 are among the worst and most tragic actions by leftists of that era. The Weather Underground was a tiny fraction of the larger peace movement.
The buffoon in the White House continues to play the race card today as he did in 2016 and he has the ear of “some very fine people.” Is it an accident that the war against Reconstruction in the US led to an era of Jim Crow violence, often aided by local police forces, that has morphed into a system of mass incarceration and police acting violently and brutally with near-abandon on the streets?
Former Weather Underground member Naomi Jaffe makes sense with her observation in the documentary that given revolutionary times around the world with movements of liberation in the 1960s and early 1970s, she would do what she did again. It appears that this former revolutionary has not fallen victim to the hand-wringing careerism that drew in so many leftists from that era and ground them up into the fine pulp of middle class respectability.
I attempted to contact Naomi Jaffe for comment in this article through an organization she founded, but my call was not answered. I would have liked to have heard her observations on the current state of protest in the US.
One of my few remaining acquaintances from that era of protest in the 1960s and early 1970s is bothered by my protest and writing. She has castigated me indirectly with the observation that “We were young,” as if our youthful exuberance and work toward a new and better world was like a snakeskin to be shed with the season. She became, like so many millions of others, a careerist.
Another acquaintance beats the dead horse of unjustified criticism of some actors of May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, pointing a finger at some of those who acted with rage against the occupying forces of the state in the presence of the Ohio National Guard in response to student unrest over Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, a war that had secretly been conducted before the Kent State massacre. I see little difference between waving an anarchist flag at occupying troops or throwing small rocks at those same forces. It wasn’t student protesters who brought on the lethal wrath of the government at Kent State, but the government itself. The blame for the destruction of the ROTC building at Kent State has never been proven.
We ended as dinosaurs because there was almost no one to take our places. Student unrest became mired in student debt and the rat race of pursuing middle-class employment. There were no great theorists or other writers (Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon and others come to mind) who had fueled both the Old Left and the New Left in a critique of predatory capitalism, militarism, and repression at home that would eventually be seen in the attacks against those who protested during the Occupy Wall Street movement and the current movement against militarized police brutality and racism. New theory must spring from either taking part in acts of protest, or being present during revolutionary times. Effective left critiques cannot come entirely from the cold ashes of ancient battles.
Is it surprising that the US is the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic with the most cases and most deaths, even with a relatively small proportion of the world’s population? Is it even remarkable that the US top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has to hire security staff to protect himself and his family (“Anthony Fauci says he has received death threats over his coronavirus work,” Guardian, August 6, 2020)? Is it an accident that hundreds of US military bases and endless wars go on that benefit the few and the very wealthy? It’s no surprise at the indignant reaction to the buffoon in the White House with his racism and his lack of concern for the massive numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths. Hate has been all too prevalent in the US since colonial times. When a vaccine is finally developed, it will probably benefit the few and the wealthy. There are few revolutionaries and few like Jonas Salk waiting in the wings to rescue us, or at the very least inform us, about this insanity today!
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).