ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Weather Underground, a clandestine revolutionary organization that advocated violence, was seen by my father and other clergy members who were involved in Vietnam anti-war protests as one of the most self-destructive forces on the left. These members of the clergy, many of whom, including my father, were World War II veterans, had often became ministers because of their experiences in the war. They understood the poison of violence. One of the most prominent leaders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV), to which my father belonged, was the Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who as an Army second lieutenant fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
The young radicals of the Vietnam era, including Mark Rudd -- who in 1968 as a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led the occupation of five buildings at Columbia University and later helped form the Weather Underground -- did not turn to those on the religious left whose personal experiences with violence might have saved SDS, the Weather Underground and the student anti-war movement from self-immolation. Blinded by hubris and infected with moral purity, the members of the Weather Underground saw themselves as the only real revolutionaries. And they embarked, as have those in today's black bloc and antifa, on a campaign that was counterproductive to the social justice goals they said they advocated.
Rudd, 50 years later, plays the role once played by the priests Phil and Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. His book "Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen" is a brutally honest deconstruction of the dangerous myths that captivated him as a young man. I suspect that many of those in the black bloc and antifa will no more listen to his wisdom than did the young radicals five decades ago who dismissed the warnings from those on the religious left for whom violence was not an abstraction. Rudd sees his old self in the masked faces of the black bloc and antifa, groups that advocate violence and property destruction in the name of anti-fascism. These faces, he said, ignite his deep embers of "shame and guilt."
"It's word for word the same thing," Rudd said of antifa and the black bloc when we spoke for several hours recently in Albuquerque. "You look on a YouTube channel like Acting Out. It's identical. How can we as white people stand by while the nonwhite people of the world are suffering under imperialism? I think the shame of being white in this society is so great [that] people want to show that they're aware of how terrible the disparities are, and how privilege and oppression distort everything. The urge to talk about violence and commit violence in response is a way of cleansing yourself of that privilege, of the guilt of privilege. It taps into this strain that I've identified as self-expression rather than strategy. That, to me, is the biggest problem."
"The anarchist Andy Cornell makes a distinction between activism and organizing," he said. "Activism is about self-expression. It often is a substitute for strategy. Strategic organizing is about results. These acts of self-expression, which is what antifa does and what we did in the Weather Underground, are exactly what the cops want."
"The slogan 'diversity of tactics' used by the black bloc and antifa is ridiculous," he said. "Even the term 'tactic' is ridiculous. What we need is a strategy. And let's be clear, even when you adopt a nonviolent strategy it will be portrayed by the state as violent. This is what the Israelis are doing at the Gaza fence. I often tell the antifa kids here -- there are about four antifa kids in Albuquerque and they hate my guts -- this story. There was a spontaneous anti-war demonstration in 2003 by a thousand people in Albuquerque the night the [Iraq] war began. The cops, who support the military, were angry. They attacked the crowd with tear gas and clubs. There were a lot of arrests. The victims brought a civil suit against the police. It did not come to trial until 2011. The police and the city of Albuquerque were the defendants. They were charged with violating the rights of the protesters. It was a jury trial. The jury found for the cops. Why? It turned out the police attorneys brought in a photograph. There were about 200 or 300 people in the photograph. In the front were two people wearing bandannas [as masks]. Just wearing bandannas. They zoomed in on the people wearing the bandannas. They told the jury, 'See these people wearing these bandannas? They're wearing bandannas because they're terrorists. And we knew they were about to attack us. So, we had to attack them.' The jury went for it. We had not yet convinced our fellow citizens of the value of the right to protest. My conclusion: Don't wear bandannas! Every time I see a kid wearing a bandanna, I say, 'You're so beautiful, why cover your face?' They say, 'Well, I have to, I'm a Zapatista.' I say that's nice but this is what happened in 2003 and 2011. It would probably be better for you to not wear the bandanna so they won't think we're violent. And they say, 'You're a stupid piece of sh*t' or they walk away."
Rudd said that the occupation of Columbia University in April 1968, an occupation that caused him to be expelled from the university, was an example of the kind of strategy that the left has to adopt. This strategy had its roots in the organizing techniques of the labor and civil rights movement.
"The means of transmission were red diaper babies," he said, referring to the sons and daughters of members of the United States Communist Party. "The red diaper babies at Columbia SDS kept saying, 'Build the base. Build the base. Build the base.' It became a mantra for years. It was all we could think about. This meant education, confrontation and talking, talking, talking. It meant building relationships and alliances. It meant don't get too far out in front. In the spring of 1968 it all came to a head. It was the perfect storm. A few of us knew, now is the time to strike."
"Columbia was a success," he said. "The deed attracted attention. And because of the alliance with the black students, which has never gotten enough media attention in the story of Columbia, we closed down the university. We accomplished our strategic aim, which was to politicize more people and to build the movement. Our goal was not to end the university's involvement with military research. That was a symbolic goal. The real goal was to build the movement. I got into a lot of trouble for saying the issue is not the issue."
But Rudd and other radicals in the SDS soon became, he said, "enamored with the propaganda of the deed." Self-expression replaced strategy. The organizing, which had made the occupation of the university successful, was replaced by revolutionary posturing. The radicals believed that more radical tactics, including violence, would accelerate political and social change. It did the opposite.
"After Columbia, it was failure after failure after failure in SDS for the next year and a half," he said. "Then we doubled down on the failures."
The SDS radicals came under the spell of revolutionary theories propagated by those supporting armed liberation movements in the developing world. They wanted to transplant Frantz Fanon's call for revolutionary violence, Lin Biao's idea of "people's war" and Ernesto "Che" Guevara foco, or insurrectionary center, to the struggle in the United States. The radicals would go underground and carry out acts of violence that would ignite a national war of liberation. This call to arms was seductive and exhilarating, but it was based on a distorted and highly selective account of revolutionary struggle, especially in Cuba.
"Che put forward a phony analysis of how the Cuban revolution was won," Rudd said. "According to him it was won solely by Fidel and Che going into the Sierra Maestra [mountain range]. Armed struggle was the only thing that was important to the Cuban revolution. All other aspects of the revolution, including 20,000 people who were murdered by [dictator Fulgencio] Batista in the cities, the national strikes by the unions, the street protests by women, university students and the Cuban Communist Party were wiped out of history. There was only one thing to do, pick up the gun."
The cult of the gun was disastrous. It distorted reality. It elevated violence as the only real tool for revolution. Vijay Prashad in his book, "The Darker Nations" spells out the incalculable damage caused by this cult, including the doomed attempt in 1967 by Che Guevara to form a foco in Bolivia, an effort that would cost him his life. The cult of the gun saw most third-world liberation movements, such as the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, devolve into squalid military dictatorships when they took power.
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