The Radicals of Old vs. Insurrectionists of New

There are interesting parallels between the violent 60's radicals and the January 6 insurrectionists. In particular, I’m interested in what it takes to turn from a passionate protestor to one willing to engage in violent acts, even murder.

The Radicals of Old vs. Insurrectionists of New
Weather Underground members on the march.

On August 25, 1992, 19-year-old Rosebud Denovo—wielding a machete—broke into the UC Berkeley chancellor’s home. I was working as a reporter at the Berkeley Voice newspaper at the time, and I had seen Rosebud the night before at a protest. She and a few dozen other activists were rallying against the installation of sports courts at People’s Park, a small green-space next to campus that housed cultural activities, community gardens, and to the consternation of college officials, a lot of homeless people. Activists considered the park sacred ground, since it and violent protests there in 1969 symbolized the beginning of the “free speech movement,” college campus protests of the Vietnam War.

My exchange with Rosebud was pretty simple:
“High Rosebud.”
“You doing OK?”

That was it. But she didn’t look OK. Dirty blonde strands of unwashed hair hung over her eyes. Her petite hands barely made it past the arms of her baggy leather jacket. Her eyes were staring directly into mine, but I was sure they were seeing something distant. I let her be.

Rosebud triggered an alarm the next night entering the chancellor’s home. Police warned the chancellor by phone of an intruder, and he barricaded his family behind a locked bedroom door. Ultimately, police stormed the house and an officer shot Rosebud four times after he said she lunged at him with her machete. Her tiny 100-pound, 5’1” frame fell dead into a bathtub. At the time, I often wondered what would turn this young woman from Kentucky into someone who likely intended to slash a college official to death. (She had been arrested before with bomb-making materials and journal notes declaring she intended to bomb the chancellor’s home.)

Fast forward 30 years. I’ve been listening to a podcast on the 60s and 70s leftist radicals, and it got me thinking about some interesting parallels between them and the January 6 insurrectionists. In particular, I’m interested in what it takes to turn from a passionate protestor to one willing to engage in violent acts, even murder. The podcast—Mother Country Radicals—tells the tale of Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and ultimately the Weather Underground, as well as a staunch ally of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. The Weather Underground was famous for a series of bombings, mainly of empty federal buildings across the country.

The obvious similarity between the insurrectionists and leftist radicals is that both espoused that violence was necessary to tear down injustice rooted in our government institutions. For the leftist radical, that injustice was a war in Vietnam that was killing thousands of young Americans and millions of Southeast Asians, and racism, oppression, incarceration, and assassinations directed at Black Americans. And members of the Weather Underground and their allies embraced revolutionary movements around the world that had a foundation of socialism and/or communism. Finally, the Weather Underground and its allies were at war with “the pigs,” considering police as the government arm carrying out systematic injustice.

For the insurrectionists, their cause is a “stolen election,” a left-wing plot to steal victory from their obvious winner—President Donald Trump—that fuels their belief in injustice. Factions like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers also embrace some of the ideology of autocrats and fascists. There’s also an obsession with the “replacement theory,” that liberals are intent on replacing white Americans with people of color more prone to vote Democratic and thus, in their view, literally destroy America. These far-right extremists often consider police their allies, or at least potential allies, with the Oath Keepers actively recruiting them to their cause.

The host/writer of Mother Country Radicals—Zayd Dohrn—does an outstanding job exploring one of the fundamental conflicts of the Weather Underground members—whether to extend violent bombings of buildings to targeting people. (Zayd is Bernadine Dohrn’s son, so he has intimate access to his mother’s revolutionary comrades.) The debate over whether to actually kill in their revolutionary struggle ultimately led to different factions, with one falling to a position that it was morally wrong to kill, while the other said it was necessary to uproot a system that was killing Black Americans.

The most telling scene in the podcast is when the Weather Underground decides to up its violence campaign by bombing a military dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where hundreds of young officers and their dates would be in attendance. The radicals get so entranced in their planning—how much explosives, where would they be planted, etc.—that they fail to address the obvious implication that they would be responsible for mass murder. Ultimately, their bomb maker makes a mistake and hundreds of pounds of dynamite explode in their New York City safehouse, killing three important members of the Weather Underground. For Dohrn and others, the horrific deaths of their friends spur them to the realization that they were planning the same destruction for dozens of others. Sure, they were targeting soldiers, and they considered their struggle a war against the U.S. government. But what about the young women who were innocent other than dancing with those soldiers?

White nationalists and far-right groups have a long tradition of murder with events like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. More recently, there was the attempted kidnapping and possible murder targeting Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. With the January 6 insurrectionists, we see elements of what could have ended up murder, with death threats directed against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.

I could spit out a lot more ink looking at similarities and differences between the two “movements” and whether labels like leftist radicals and insurrectionists fit. Mother Country Radicals does finally bring up the comparisons with January 6 in episode 7, in which Weather Underground members offer a reasonably good defense of their tactics and outline why they shouldn’t be called “terrorists.” Similarly, the insurrectionists vehemently object to the label “domestic terrorists” since they argue that they were protecting America.

But the critical difference for me here is that yes, the Weather Underground wanted an upheaval of the U.S. Government, a revolution. And yes, they espoused anti-capitalist values. But they weren’t necessarily calling for the demolition of the Constitution or the entirety of democratic government (at least not the group’s leadership). And they certainly weren’t tied to just one demagogue to bow to in their struggle. Perhaps it was luck, but they also didn’t kill anyone in their many bombings.

The insurrectionists, however, do have that demagogue, who was none other than the president of the United States! A president who—as we are learning more and more—plotted for subversion of democracy. While they claim to defend the Constitution in every breath, they don’t give a shit about it when that “defense” promotes their pursuit of keeping their autocrat in power. The insurrectionists also are blamed for several deaths in their assault on the Capitol building.

Give the podcast a listen to see what you think about the similarities and differences between the violence in the two movements.

My take? Yes, the Weather Underground was zealous, devout in their revolution, sometimes to the point of absurdity and teetering on horrific violence. But at least they were fighting back against a reality of thousands of Americans and millions of Southeast Asians dying in jungle warfare and the maniacal bombings of Southeast Asia. And yes, they also were watching Black Americans oppressed and murdered by police.

And the insurrectionists and other devout followers of Trump? What is their justification, other than delusion or complete apathy for the truth? Their use of violence has no logical foundation. Or at least it's a cracked foundation—that liberals are destroying America—without compelling evidence to back it up.

Read "I Was Part of the Weather Underground. Violence Is Not the Answer," by former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd.