I recently read Cathy Wilkerson’s new memoir, Flying to Close to the Sun about her days in SDS and Weatherman. She was in Chicago recently giving a reading from her book. I attended and here is my report.
Riding the Red Line up to Women and Children First Bookstore had my stomach tied in knots. Cathy Wilkerson was going to give a reading from her new book Flying Close to the Sun.
Thinking about Cathy brought back painful memories of the breakup of SDS, the murder of Fred Hampton, the bloody civil war that tore apart the Black Panther Party, the townhouse explosion that killed three SDS leaders, the splitup of the Mother Bloor Collective…. all of which happened around the last time I had laid eyes on Cathy Wilkerson.
I almost got off the train and went back home, but resorted to my usual mental game of cussing myself out and demanding that I show "some fucking backbone".
It worked and as I walked toward the bookstore from the Berwyn El stop I tried to put all the negativity out of my head and think good thoughts. After all, I was going to renew a friendship that had meant a helluva lot to me during my formative years as political activist.
The War at Home
In 1969, a young woman named Cathy Wilkerson enlisted as a member of Weatherman, an armed revolutionary organization. Joining such organizations was not unusual during that time. Young people across the USA were signing up with the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Patriots, the Brown Berets, the Republic of New Africa and other lesser known groups.
Joining armed organizations is a very American thing to do.
North America’s Indian nations had been fighting for their freedom since the earliest days of colonization. Slaves and indentured servants had risen up in armed revolt against exploitation. The Minutemen had assembled at Lexington and Concord. Abolitionists had fought arms-in-hand in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry. Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address to honor those who had given their lives for the cause of the Union. Militias sprung up in Reconstruction Dixie to fight for racial and economic justice against the Ku Klux Klan. Hard-pressed striking industrial workers and miners had used guns and explosives to defend themselves against soldiers, cops and company thugs. During the Civil Rights era, Robert Williams had armed his North Carolina NAACP chapter against racist terrorism as had the North Carolina Lumbee Indians. The Deacons for Defense provided armed support for civil rights meetings. SNCC workers in the Deep South knew that many of the Black farmers attracted to the Movement had shotguns in their homes and no compunctions about using them if pushed to the wall.
Cathy had grown up a very American girl, but in the tradition of the rebel girl, not the Barbie doll stereotype. As a kid she had wandered about the woods of her native Connecticut and eagerly read the Landmark book series about American history. She played Robin Hood. She was deeply influenced by the Quaker ideals of peace and justice. She became a skilled woodswoman and camp counselor and as a college student volunteered for the Civil Rights Movement.
Her upbringing paralleled mine in several ways. I spent many childhood hours exploring the woods of the Washington D.C. area. I read as many Landmark Books as I could find. Robin Hood was a childhood hero. Years of Unitarian Sunday School gave me at least a rudimentary understanding of social justice issues. I loved my years as a camper and counselor at YMCA Camp Letts. I had not been a Civil Rights activist, but had believed in its ideals and had been one of the few students in my school to vocally defend it.
So I guess it’s not surprising that our paths crossed in 1967 when Cathy came to Washington DC as a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) regional organizer. She had just left her job as the editor of the SDS paper New Left Notes. At the time SDS was well on its way to being the largest student radical organization in US history.
D.C had a weak SDS presence at the University of Maryland and at George Washington University. I had first attended UM SDS events in 1965 and joined the group in 1966 after hearing a marvelous speech by Dick Ochs at Dupont Circle about the inter-relationship of racism and global imperialism.
UM SDS had originally tried to charter itself as a Congress of Racial Equality chapter in 1964, but had been turned down by UM’s Jim Crow administration. The UM administration had never heard of SDS, so that was allowed, a decision UM president Wilson Elkins came to bitterly regret.
With Cathy at the helm, the Washington DC regional SDS set up shop in an old office building at 3 Thomas Circle. Ironically, President Lyndon Johnson sometimes attended religious services at an Episcopal church across the Circle. Sharing the building with SDS was the Washington Free Press, the Resistance, Liberation News Service and doubtless some other groups that I don’t remember.
Cathy was a serious organizer with a vision that she communicated with passion and intellect. Serious does not imply humorless. She could crack a smile and a joke as well as anyone, but you knew she’d get back to business soon enough.
In her personal conversations, she sketched out a strategy of longterm organizing in America’s campuses, workplaces and communities. She had taken a job at Woodward and Lathrop (called "Woodies" by DC natives), a now defunct department store and spoke of the lives of the working class women she met there.
She urged us to broaden the struggle beyond the college campus, which helped motivate me to try and politicize the young people I hung out with in the Rockville-Glenmont area. I invited them to come to UM SDS meetings and talk to Cathy about how high school and non-college youth could join in the struggle.
Cathy was the first person I knew to speak openly of women’s liberation. She invited my SDS girlfriend of the time to a meeting of SDS women to discuss how the organization could overcome its self-defeating tradition of male domination. I didn’t know anything about women’s liberation but the word "liberation" struck a sympathetic chord and it sounded like a great idea to me.
UM SDS, like many SDS chapters, was a fractious group of rebel students ranging from touchy-feelie hippies to hardline communists. It was not easy to agree on unified action, but the war raging in SE Asia and in America’s inner cities helped keep us somewhat focused on a precarious unity. We were also a small minority on what was then a very conservative campus, so we had to band together for our political survival.
Cathy was out in College Park for most of our SDS gatherings, trying to bring some sense of common purpose to our efforts. She was friendly before, during, and after meetings. My fondest memories of her were the small SDS get-togethers we had at the Italian Gardens on Route One, drinking beer and trying to imagine an America that actually lived up to its stated ideals.
In 1968, she prevailed upon UM SDS to organize a mass meeting to be addressed by SDS Inter-Organizational Secretary Bernadine Dohrn. Dohrn was on a national speaking tour at the time. Cathy spoke of Bernadine in a tone of respectful admiration and I looked forward to meeting her.
Dohrn was late but finally arrived to address the crowd of about 400-500 students. Because of her tight schedule, I didn’t get a chance to exchange more than a few words with her. I was disappointed. If Cathy Wilkerson was impressed with someone, they had to be worth knowing.
1968 was a bad year with assassinations, riots and the endless slaughter in SE Asia dominating the headlines and the nightly news. There was talk of America coming apart at the seams like it did in the 1860’s. SDS was changing also. There was more talk of revolution, of fighting back against the cops. The macho rhetoric was increasing as was the communist vocabulary.
SDS had always been a loose alliance in danger of coming apart. Finally at a raucous 1969 conference SDS did break up into three distinct factions. Cathy followed the faction that came to be called Weatherman. Weatherman would soon declare war against US imperialism and advocate the use of guns and bombs. Cathy, the dedicated organizer with vision, had lost that clarity of vision in the chaos of the late 1960’s.
I remember being totally puzzled by the path she had taken. What did planting bombs have to do with the longterm organizing that I associated with her? Still, I have to admit that every time a Weatherman bomb went off in a government or corporate office, there was a part of me that cheered and then proceeded to argue with my better judgement.
The election of Nixon in 1968 had seemed like a giant step toward fascism. Were we living in the Germany of 1933? If we didn’t resist the drift toward more war and fascism, would we be judged as the "Good Germans" who allowed Hitler to lay waste to millions of human lives? This may sound like like crazed exaggerated alarmism in hindsight. It didn’t look that way to many of us as we stood among the ruins of SDS and wondered what to do next.
The last thing any of us wanted was a new "Diary of Ann Frank" to emerge from somewhere in the Third World or from within one of our own American cities.
Cathy followed the path of Weatherman. I chose to follow the path of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and joined up with the nascent rainbow coalition of revolutionary youth.
SDS had always taught us that words were meaningless unless you were willing to put your body on the line. This was life during wartime and it looked like the war had come home.
At Women and Children First
When I arrived at Women and Children First, I walked in the door and saw Cathy in deep conversation with Bill Ayres and some people I did not recognize. Bernadine Dohrn was not there which surprised me. I had only met Bill Ayres once in the old days and our paths rarely crossed in Chicago. Cathy glanced at me without recognition and I noticed that Ayres had on a battered leather jacket with Weatherman written in big letters across the back. Jesus…would that guy ever grow up? I decided to wander around the bookstore until I could re-introduce myself to Cathy in a less public way.
On March 6, 1970, enormous explosions destroyed a townhouse located in New York’s Greenwich Village. Two dazed young women emerged from the wreckage and were taken in by neighbors who assumed that there had been a gas leak.
Shortly thereafter the two women disappeared. One was Kathy Boudin and the other was Cathy Wilkerson, both members of the Weatherman faction of the splintered Students for a Democratic Society. The two women barely knew each other.
The explosions had not resulted from a gas leak, but from a Weatherman bomb factory located in the basement. The device being constructed was intended for an army officers social event at nearby Fort Dix. The bomb was equipped with nails to act as shrapnel.
It was essentially an anti-personnel weapon. Terry Robbins, who knew little about either electrical circuits or explosives, made a deadly miscalculation and accidently set off the bomb. Cathy and Terry were lovers at the time. He was killed along with Diana Oughton and Ted Gold.
Athough Weatherman (later dubbed the Weather Underground) conducted a bombing campaign against various targets in the US throughout the 1970’s, its only human casualties were the three young people who died in the townhouse explosion.
The Weatherpeople considered themselves warriors against US imperialism. The US was conducting a massive war of destruction against communist-led nationalist movements in Southeast Asia and trying to ensure corporate domination over the entire Third World through assassinations, terrorism and military aid to rightwing dictators.
In addition, US and local governments were engaged in a deadly armed conflict wth America’s Black communities, especially militants associated with groups like the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army and the Republic of New Africa. Puerto Rican, Chicano, and American Indian groups were also targeted.
There were riots and armed rebellions in many American cities. There were strikes and violent confrontations on US campuses.
Many young people had came to the conclusion that only a revolution against the US imperialist system could bring an end to the madness that had gripped the USA. Others came to believe that they should at the very least, prepare themselves for armed self-defense against a government lurching toward outright fascism.
Weatherman had emerged out of this wartime crisis mentality. Weatherman was not the only group to wage revolutionary violence against war and racism, but they became one of the best known because of their knack for propaganda and their roots in the Students for a Democratic Society.
Cathy Wilkerson after 40 years
After several pleasant minutes of book browsing, I noticed that Cathy was up on the small raised platform that Women and Children First uses for its readings. The customary rows of hard metal folding chairs were already filling with people. I put my backpack down on one and walked up to Cathy who was preparing for her talk. She looked up, obviously puzzled as to who I was.
I stuck out my hand,"Hello Cathy, it’s been a long time. Bob Simpson, University of Maryland SDS." Instantly that big wide Wilkerson grin filled her face and instead of a handshake I got a hug. We embraced for a few seconds and then just looked at each other. It was a joyful moment.
Did she actually remember me? I don’t know and didn’t think it was important enough to ask about. She had dealt with a lot of folks as SDS regional organizer, but we had exchanged e-mails in 2005 when she was finishing up her book and at least knew my name from that.
She had been very concerned about the section of the book dealing with her days in DC and had confessed to me that a lot of the details were hazy in her memory. Her work as DC Regional Organizer obviously meant a lot to her…especially from her perspective as an ex-Weatherperson.
Personally, I thought those few short years in DC accomplished more than all of the years she spent living a hand-to-mouth existence in the Weather Underground— dodging cops and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the path that she had chosen. Of course when your face is on every post office wall in the USA as being wanted for multiple felonies, it’s hard to reverse course.
Cathy had been a damned good organizer, one of the best I knew. She and Dick Ochs had been the people I had been most impressed with when I was in SDS.
When Cathy decided that "…you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows…", it was a great loss for the DC area and for America’s young people.
This Is Not a Pipe and a Pipe Bomb is Not a Revolution
From 1928-1929, Belgian artist Rene Magritte worked on a painting called ‘The Treachery of Images’. It was simply a representation of a pipe with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe" in script below it.
I used to take my AP European history students to the Art Institute and have them stand in front of that painting. I would then ask them, "What do you mean this is not a pipe?"
These were bright ambitious streetwise working class teenagers and usually very quick with their opinions. Still, it always took several long puzzled minutes before one of them would hesitantly say something like,"No, it’s a picture of a pipe."
Bingo! We would then sit down and have an extended discussion of what can happen when you mistake image for reality.
I wish Weatherman had studied art history before they launched their declaration of war against US imperialism.
One of the things that puzzled Cathy Wilkerson when she first entered the world of Weatherman was how much was puffed up hype and how much was actually a serious declaration of war. According to Cathy, she didn’t even know what the plan was at the Days of Rage protest in 1969 when Weatherman ran through the streets of an affluent Chicago neighborhood and trashed everything in sight. She along with a lot of other people ended up in jail and several people were badly injured. She languished in jail for days while the more prominent and well-connected Weathermen were sprung.
Other Weatherman events like the 1969 Flint War Council with its bellicosity and seeming admiration for the Charlie Manson gang confused her also. She was under the illusion that the Weather Bureau (the Weatherman leadership) was actually well organized and prepared for a protracted underground struggle. In fact, the Weather Bureau was undergoing personnel changes and there was actually very little real organization at all, although they did succeed in creating an underground organization later.
She theorized to herself that perhaps all of the macho violent language and militaristic imagery was just a form of leftwing cheerleading to pump up the troops. Still, the macho rhetoric and the largely male leadership bothered her and led her to question both.
After the disaster at the townhouse, Cathy Wilkerson was in a state of psychological shock as she sat in a Weatherman safe house. It took her many months to recover from the horror of the blast and she realized that Weatherman had been woefully unprepared to declare war on anyone.
The Weather leadership kept her in hiding for months with orders not to engage in any actions, but finally she prevailed upon them to allow her to go on a mission, the bombing of a California courthouse to protest the killing of Black Panther prison leader George Jackson. The bomb went off and no one was hurt.
The Weather Underground (they had changed their gender-specific name), did conduct a series of bombings against corporate and government targets including the Pentagon and the US Capitol in the 1970’s. But to what end? A loud bang, the mess gets cleaned up, security is tightened and life goes on.
Instead of becoming the respected underground leadership of a revolutionary youth movement, the Weather Underground faded into a kind of footnoted obscurity as the mass movements of the 1960’s ebbed.
By the mid 1970’s Cathy Wilkerson began to wonder why they should even continue their campaign when bombs provoked yawns instead of mass action.
Which way was the wind blowing anyway?
One thing did seem clear to me after the breakup of SDS in 1969, the wind sure wasn’t blowing where Weatherman was going.
I was still convinced that longterm organizing was the way to go and joined up with the Black Panther inspired rainbow coalition movement. Like Cathy, I wasn’t all that clear about where image ended and reality began. The violent imagery of the Black Panther newspaper contrasted sharply with the reality of the D.C Panthers I worked with.
They were prepared to defend themselves, but the violent rhetoric was largely confined to the newspaper and public speeches. They normally went about their work in the community in a relatively low-keyed manner. I never even saw a Panther with gun, although I spent many hours in the basement of their 18th Street office helping Dick Ochs print reams of their literature. Sure I went out into the country and practiced target shooting with handguns, rifles and shotguns, but I certainly had no burning desire to shoot anyone, even in self defense.
Still, the macho posturing and the militaristic imagery in the Black Panther newspaper did bother me. Much like Cathy, I assumed it was at least partly wartime propaganda to fire up the troops. I was also bothered by the disquieting tales of internal Panther disputes that led up to the murder of people like Alex Rackley, who was falsely accused of being an police informant.
I rationalized that stuff as being part of wartime reality. Ugly shit was going to happen. Some of the people on our side were not angels and bad shameful things could be expected. Even though I was right on both counts, it didn’t make me feel any better.
I left the Panther coalition around the time the Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver factions began shooting it out. One of the dead in that civil war was Sam Napier, one of the most hardworking and competent Panthers I knew. I had worked with Sam on newspaper distribution and came to appreciate his dedication and calm demeanor even when things were going badly. It was a terrible loss.
I soon joined a Marxist collective and later helped put out an underground newspaper and hooked up with several affinity groups. After the debacle of the 1969 Days of Rage, I thought Weatherman was a joke. Their strategy of organizing white working class youth by engaging in theatrical ineffective violence was ludicrous. Their experiments with group sex and smashing monogamy seemed like ill-conceived political porn. One of the women in our little Marxist collective loved to make fun of Bernadine Dohrn’s black leather catsuit. People snickered that your parents had to belong to the right country club to get into the leadership, because some of the prominent Weatherpeople did come from affluent backgrounds. It was almost like Woody Allen was writing their script
The mean-spirited jokes soon went stale but Weatherman continued to be disconnected from the realities of people I was working with. Sure we engaged in a fair amount of street violence and inflated rhetoric, but we were also working within the labor movement and actually organizing among working class people. Our underground paper did carry news of the latest Weather bombing, but it was never featured prominently. What was the point?
What happens when your moral compass goes awry?
Cathy began her Women and Children First presentation by reading from the 1967 section of her book when anti-war activists were focused on Stop the Draft Week and the Pentagon March. She’s a good writer and she made those confusing days of hit and run street actions, civil disobedience, mass arrests and political violence come alive.
As she moved into the Q and A she talked about her early admiration of women like Cambridge, Maryland SNCC leader Gloria Richardson. Cathy tried to model herself after the civil rights movement women who braved bombings and repression to keep an often struggling movement together in the face of uncertain odds.
She discussed the the dilemma that so many of us felt around 1969, when it seemed like nothing we did was going to stop the war against the Third World and people of color here at home. The choices seemed to be either either desperation or despair.
Lost in the fog of wartime America and with our moral compasses spinning in no obvious direction, is it any wonder that some of us turned to revolutionary violence?
It is a wartime cliche that de-humanizing the enemy sure helps people commit violent acts. That certainly explained the widespread use of the term "pig" for the police. It wasn’t just us. In France they were "les flics" (the flies). In Mexico the cops were "los perros" (the dogs).
Cathy talked at some length about how the Viet Namese always saw their struggle for independence as a political struggle. They would resist by whatever means necessary until the USA underwent a political transformation and withdrew from their country. The Viet Namese never urged their anti-imperialist US allies to commit acts of terrorism and violence. That was our idea.
She was calm and thoughtful as people asked difficult and challenging questions. Even when some weird guy stood up and denounced her as a "murderer" and an "FBI agent", she kept her cool as the Women and Children First staffwomen deftly escorted him out to the street.
She talked about her decision to leave the Weather Underground. After coming in from the cold and serve a prison term for her Weather activity, Cathy studied electronic technology and soon figured out that she had a knack for explaining things to people in terms they could understand. She began to teach math part-time and eventually moved into a new career as a math educator.
She talked about her present job in New York and how she was working with teachers to improve education in the inner cities.
This was the Cathy I remembered, the careful detailed-oriented organizer. No wonder she ended up in the mathematics field.
Coming home from the war
Cathy Wilkerson had signed up with Weatherman much like some people sign up for the Armed Forces, to serve their country no matter what the cost to themselves. Naive perhaps, but very American.
But coming home from a war can be a bumpy road and some never really make it. I sure knew people who returned from Viet Nam so shattered in body, mind or both that they never really recovered.
Ancient societies often had purification rites for returning warriors, understanding that people needed something powerful and supportive to return them to civilian life.
I think of an old friend of mine, a former marine sergeant in Viet Nam who took the road of the Buddha and now teaches meditation and non-violence.
My dad went through a terrible experience in the Depression only to find himself in some of the most worst battles of WWII Europe. Way up into his 80’s, there was a still a part of him who never left the beaches of Anzio. His division, the 45th infantry, liberated Dachau, but he had been sent home with malaria shortly before that—— so he was spared that horror.
He did tell me that after Dachau, the 45th took no more SS prisoners. They were simply shot on sight. He never could bring himself to share his youthful experiences in any detail though—-and now he has slipped into Alzheimer’s and a strange kind of mental peace.
What Cathy Wilkerson has done in her book is to share the wisdom of a warrior who was able to come home and tell us how she arrived.
That took a lot of reflection and courage. We’re glad you’re back, Cathy.