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

Cathy Wilkerson’s memoirs of life among the Weathermen militants in 1970s New York offer healthy les

Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman
Cathy Wilkerson
Seven Stories Press, 432pp, £12.99

The block of West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Greenwich Village, New York, is lined by elegant, 19th-century houses. Only No 18 stands out, a modern construction with an oddly angled frontage that doesn't quite blend in with its neighbours. This is the site of one of the defining events of the left-wing underground of the 1970s, the so-called town-house 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 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 (SDS), a campus organisation that had become one of the largest and most successful groups of the American new left. They had been building a crude pipe bomb in the basement, with which they intended to attack an officers' club at Fort Dix military base in New Jersey.

Two young women escaped the carnage. One was Kathy Boudin, who later served 22 years in prison for her part in an armed robbery. The other was the daughter of the house owner, a wealthy advertising executive. Apart from brief comments online, Cathy Wilkerson has never spoken publicly about what happened on 6 March 1970. She subsequently spent ten years underground but turned herself in and served a short prison sentence; she now teaches mathematics. Flying Close to the Sun is her attempt to put the explosion into context and to try to explain what led a girl from a conservative Quaker background to participate in armed struggle.

The town-house explosion is often cited as the moment when the utopian revolutionaries of the 1960s American counterculture were either exposed as fraudulent and naive, betrayed by nihilists on a death trip, or forced to confront the reality of the militant rhetoric that 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. This was 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 federal state until the group petered out in the late 1970s, repudiated the cell in the town house. Wilkerson's account presents her companions not as aberrant "death-trippers" within Weatherman, but as dutiful cadres, following the confused leadership of an organisation that had more or less lost its political and ethical bearings.

The early chapters of the memoir show Wilkerson's evolution from socially concerned college student, through civil rights marching and community organising in poor black neighbourhoods, to a more confrontational form of direct action with SDS. For British readers, trying to guess the future of the student movement that has emerged to combat the government's austerity programme, her account of the problems and pitfalls of campus organising will seem particularly relevant.

In the British press, commentators frequently compare the student protesters of today with the "generation of '68". Although 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.

The present 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 1960s. Contemporary organisers 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 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 1960s America) is always scrupulously apolitical. The use of agents provocateurs and the provision of "bait" for angry crowds are not new. Nor should they seem 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 huge drawback in classical Marxist analysis, which stated that the urban working class would form the revolutionary vanguard. Blue-collar America was pro-Nixon and broadly supportive of Vietnam, and had little time for the new left's concern with sexism and racism.

The Weathermen's answer was to put race at the centre of their politics. Black America, undeniably oppressed and undeniably militant, would be the vanguard of the domestic class war. The anti-colonial struggles of third world countries - not just Vietnam, but Cuba, Brazil and elsewhere - were the international stage. The job of white radicals was to assist them in achieving their aims. Wilkerson describes the difficulties black and white militants found in working together, and the self-laceration of activists determined never to exploit their "white skin privilege", which brought them lighter sentences and less harsh treatment by the police.

Though she appears to have held fast to her political ideas, Wilkerson has no illusions about the Weather Underground, which was anything but a democratic organisation. As she portrays it, life in the austere Weather communes took on an increasingly cult-like tone, in which dissent was silenced and those in power often acted like a high-school clique, picking favour­ites and excluding others. As someone who was never part of the leadership, she has a different perspective from ex-members of the top-level Weather Bureau, such as Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd, who have previously produced memoirs. After Ayers's Fugitive Days was published in 2001, Wilkerson wrote a fiercely critical review, castigating him for treating the project of revolution as a kind of macho trip and failing to take responsibility for the political decisions that led to the deaths of the town-house trio, 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 the men in SDS and Weather make for grim reading. Though they tried to take on a feminist perspective, their attempts to enforce "anti-monogamy" by breaking up couples and engaging in various forms of communal sexual experimentation evidently led to bullying and coercion, and Wilkerson's picture of her life in the year leading up to the town-house explosion is anything but romantic. Flying Close to the Sun is, naturally, a cautionary tale, but it is 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.

Hari Kunzru's next novel, "Gods Without Men", will be published by Hamish Hamilton this summer

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency