News & Politics

Out From the Weather Underground

Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson shares her experiences and struggles in her new book, <i>Flying Close to the Sun</i>.
The following is an excerpt from Cathy Wilkerson's book Flying Close to the Sun (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

We drove into the vast grid of Chicago streets, filled with children finding ways to pass the hot, steamy summer days, and I was anxious to find a place to land, to begin to work. We started at the SDS national office, where the massive Heidelberg press was running leaflets for the Black Panther Party up the street. The few staff people around seemed intent on their tasks, none of which seemed to involve casual talk. The familiar, dusty rooms no longer felt like a place for travelers to hang out and exchange stories. Instead, we arranged to meet with friends Jeff Jones and Phoebe Hirsch later that day at their apartment uptown.

Jeff and Phoebe had moved from New York to California the previous winter and had immediately immersed themselves in the active political life of the Bay Area. They leafleted to support the chemical and oil workers' strike, along with a mixed conglomerate of other movement activists. They got involved in the student-faculty strike at San Francisco State, which had continued for most of the year, even as they were immersed in the celebration of counterculture in Berkeley and the struggles to sustain it.

In June, however, Jeff had been enlisted by his friends, the coauthors of the Weatherman paper, to run for SDS national officer. When he reluctantly agreed, Phoebe resigned herself to going too. Phoebe became a member of the local Chicago Weatherman collective, while Jeff worked out of the national office as part of the national leadership collective, now dubbed the Weather Bureau. I imagined the Chicago collective to be like our Washington collective, although perhaps more disciplined and with less spontaneous side activities. Both Bill Willett and Jonny Lerner from the Washington staff were around, but I didn't know where exactly, or what they were doing. Both, it turned out, were working on specific tasks for members of the Weather Bureau as sort of aides de camp, and neither was formally in any collective.

When we got uptown, Jeff, Phoebe, Mike, and I sat around their tiny kitchen table. As always, I was glad to see them and wanted to catch up on the happenings since the convention. Immediately, Jeff got down to business, launching into his summation of Weatherman's current activities and thinking. In the five weeks since the national council, Weatherman had set up collectives in almost a dozen cities. The primary work of these groups of between ten and twenty young people was to establish themselves as the most militant, aggressive, outspoken voice in the area, on the theory that this would attract untold numbers of alienated young people. Many out-of-school youths didn't take movement people seriously, they believed, because local activists were all talk and no action. So people in the collectives would prove incontestably that they were the "baddest dudes in town."

Weathermen were also addressing another problem. The police had been harassing and threatening black activists with a relentlessness and brutality rarely used against white activists. If Weathermen constantly challenged the police, they argued, they could divert some police energy onto themselves, distracting them a little from the black activists. This strategy also enabled the organization to prove its resoluteness and to be taken seriously as allies of the black movement. In any event, to sit by quietly while the black movement was undergoing such a pummeling seemed yet another instance of hiding behind the cloak of privilege.

As I listened to Jeff and Phoebe make this argument, I wondered if this was what we had been doing in Washington. For the first time, I began to look at the aggressiveness displayed by many of the current Weather leaders in a new light. The strategic objective of their provocations, both to other activists and to the authorities, was to challenge whites in the most immediate way to step up and not be silent. I still wasn't convinced that physically aggressive, provocative confrontations would organize many more people, although events sometimes seemed to prove me wrong. But I had never before considered that our failure to "go berserk" meant that the police assaults on blacks went unchallenged. This was both a moral argument -- to not be "good Germans" -- and a tactical conjecture, that we could draw away some of the intensity of the heat. This direct challenge to complicity would compel others to actively confront police racism.

This strategy seemed to be working, at least in part. Already by late July, the national office staff was being followed, stopped, and charged with petty offenses by Chicago cops on a regular basis, just as the Chicago Panthers had been for months. Suffering from the same extralegal police sanctions as the Panthers did seemed to me then like a first step in equalizing the stakes. It also fit in with my long-held belief that until you walked in someone else's shoes, you could not really understand their feelings and thinking. Besides, while racism dehumanized black people, being complicit with it, either because one agreed with racism or because one chose to ignore it, dehumanized whites as well. The only way not to be entangled with it was to be loud and clear in support of the black movement. Since Weatherman believed that black efforts to gain equality were part of a worldwide phenomenon, this confrontational strategy to disassociate ourselves from the prevailing racism could only serve to strengthen this international upheaval as well.

Weatherman's leadership seemed to have developed a close working relationship with the Panthers. Since the advent of black power, I hadn't found a way to act on my commitment to racial equality the way I had during the civil rights movement. These people seemed to have found a way to do that, and I wanted to learn more. I found the thought that I had not been doing enough unsettling, especially if, as a result, I might have actually contributed to the suffering of black people.

Where this strategy was leading was still a mystery to me, but, having heard nothing else that summer that seemed better, I was willing to listen and was predisposed to make sense of it. Not only was I impressed by the boldness of it, but also by its purity. It was hard work to try to meet people halfway in their thinking, to present new information that engaged existing misconceptions so that people rethought their views on the war or poverty. This confrontational strategy seemed like it might move such aims much faster.

Jeff went on to explain that the various "Weather collectives" were made up of people who committed themselves to being cadre, full-time revolutionaries. No one was working with students since it was summer. Instead, collective members were preparing to reach out to young people who were out of school, either already working or on the street. Each collective was planning a series of confrontational actions to initiate their program locally. In the fall, the collectives would bring all of the people they had organized to Chicago for a confrontational national demonstration. Membership in the collectives was by invitation only, and, once approved, you had to agree to be disciplined to the collective decisions and to the leadership of the organization. Jeff proposed that Mike and I apply to join the Chicago collective with Phoebe.

I found the talk of collectives and cadre exciting because I was always interested in organizational efficiency. I accepted the necessity of hierarchy in this context because it allowed a more sophisticated division of labor and therefore greater productivity. This organizational structure would also enable Weatherman to protect itself from the increasing government infiltration.

I knew that the authors of the Weatherman paper saw these collectives as the first step to forming a Marxist-Leninist party, but I imagined that things were still quite informal. They were trying to create new revolutionary personalities, to remake themselves to be their very best to serve the revolution. Phoebe was proud of her progress in the martial arts training they were doing every day. It was very intense working with a collective, she added. She was unhappy that members of the Weather Bureau were arguing that she should stop living with Jeff because her relationship with Jeff, and the resulting potential access to the leadership collective, gave her special status and privileges over others in the Chicago collective. Phoebe could understand the argument, but she really cared about Jeff and thought there should be another way to deal with the bureau's concerns. She didn't agree with the antimonogamy philosophy, and she didn't, she said laughing, want to move out.

This was the first I heard of Weatherman actually acting on their new "antimonogamy" philosophy. At this stage, they argued, existing monogamous relationships between men and women held both people back from new challenges, and from an open-minded approach to remaking themselves as "socialist men and women" unburdened by the individualism and selfishness that characterized the society we came from. Some of the early writing by the women's movement had argued that monogamous marriage was initially formalized to ensure male parentage so a man could bequest his wealth to his own offspring. (I had not yet read or thought about the fact that the social taboos arising from monogamy had served women in many ways as well, offering them, in theory, some protection from sexual assault as well as support for their children.) Monogamy, according to Weatherman, was implicitly sexist, and relationships between men and women needed to be rethought. In our conversations, no one made note of the fact that, in this instance, it was the men of the Weather Bureau dictating "women's liberation" to a woman against her wishes.

From the conversation with Phoebe I gleaned that you could be part of the collectives and maintain a somewhat critical stance; it wasn't all or nothing. The challenges outweighed the weirdness. If I was serious about revolution, even if I had no idea what it might look like or entail, I needed to join with other serious people to figure out how to create it. The only group around that seemed to focus on the issues of both race and poverty was Weatherman. If it seemed too heavy, well, my two of most light-hearted friends, Bill and Jonny, were in it. Now Phoebe, a lover of theater and music like me, was also giving it a try. Besides, if this was the cutting edge, I didn't want to be left behind. I decided to join, and, Mike, too, wanted to sign on.

The new ban on monogamy didn't really bother us as it was clear that while we had enjoyed our relationship, it wasn't headed anywhere deep. In fact, the antimonogamy provision seemed to provide a graceful way to separate without the hard work of sorting it through. We never even talked about it. I wasn't convinced that monogamy was bad, but since it worked in my favor at the moment, it didn't seem like a big deal.

Having nowhere to live and little cash, we were to stay with one of the members of the Chicago collective on the North Side. That evening, we would formally meet with the group to be evaluated, one at a time. In the meantime, after adding our sleeping bags and few belongings to a pile of others in a corner of the apartment's living room, we went to join the members of the collective at martial arts instruction at the small storefront. I was eager to see what martial arts was all about.

At the storefront, about twenty people were standing in rows, practicing kicks and yells in response to a teacher in the front. Most of the faces were new to me. As I looked at them, absorbed in their physical tasks, I couldn't help wondering who we were going to be using this against. Certainly not the police armed with billy clubs, handguns, and mace. Perhaps these exercises were a symbolic way to toughen the spirit, to teach self-discipline. I was more than willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

I was told to do twenty push-ups, fifty jumping jacks, and some stretches to warm up. Twenty push-ups? I couldn't do one! Despite my active tomboy past, I had never been able to develop any upper body strength. I started with the jumping jacks, but being a heavy smoker, and never having exercised before, I was winded after twenty. All the other women, some of whom I knew to be smokers as well, seemed to be engaged. So much for my self-image as a member of the fighting forces. I felt pathetic. I pushed myself to do my best, and faked it as much as possible.


That evening, the collective assembled for a meeting, and I was summoned. Most members had known each other and worked together at the University of Chicago. The leader of the collective, Drew, was also a member of the Weather Bureau. I had never met him before, but knew he had a reputation for having read widely and being a theoretical heavy. That summer of 1969, Drew had dropped out of the University of Chicago graduate school, where he and a few other graduate students and faculty had tried to replicate the model of Columbia, with some limited success. In the process he had collected around him a large number of undergraduates, several of whom comprised the majority of the Chicago collective with him. The collective, about ten before Mike and I joined, included seven women.

That evening, I was queried about the main ideas in the Weatherman paper and asked to explain my politics, as we phrased it. Since I had written many articles for New Left Notes over the past two years, I thought most people there should know what I thought in general. Nonetheless, since I didn't know these people, I plunged ahead, explaining that I agreed with most of what had been in the Weatherman paper except what I had discussed in my recent New Left Notes article, which I summarized.

When I finished my short summary, Drew began to challenge my understanding of the Weatherman analysis. My thinking was incomplete and sloppy, he said. Occasionally one of the other collective members, especially a couple of the women, gave further examples of the points Drew was making or restated the critique in a different way.

They thought I had not given sufficient importance to the black struggle and to the Panthers in particular. Why had I not organized more support for the black movement in Washington? Why had I not mentioned the Panthers in my article and talked more about my own white-skin privilege and my unwillingness to let go of it? It was true that in my article I had concentrated on the issue of women and had not given priority to the fight for black economic and political equality. I had, however, stated that the overarching conflict between the US and the third world framed everything. I had focused on women, I said, because that issue had essentially been left out of the Weatherman paper. I was suggesting that working with women of all ages around issues of abuse at home and on the job should be a priority, at least for some of us.

When I tried to explain my thinking, however, I was told that in a "criticism session" I had to respond to what others said, and that by arguing with them, I was being defensive and evasive, fearful of looking at the truth, perhaps protecting myself in some way. This was not the way I had thought about criticism/self-criticism when I had studied Mao's "little red book" in Washington. I had imagined the whole process to be much more informal. In Chicago, the conversation seemed to be framed by Drew's analysis, the Weatherman analysis, which was the only way to look at the world. Any deviation from that indicated a personal weakness. The structure felt like that of judge and supplicant, rather than one of equal exchange.

I was taken aback by this close, somewhat hostile cross-examination. In my earlier conversation with Jeff and Phoebe, I had felt open to challenges to my thinking and my work, always concerned that I could be doing more. Under Drew's scrutiny, however, these concerns were turned back at me as an accusation burdened with judgment. It was true, I had not focused on black organizations in the work we had done in Washington, and I thought that was interesting. Why was it that I never had a relationship with any of the leadership of any well-known black organizations, and certainly not with the Panthers? Perhaps, I began to think, if I had had a better analysis, I would have been more effective in understanding how to support SNCC and the Panthers in Washington. Instead, their separatist and sometimes anti-white stance had seemed reasonable and had also intimidated me, so I stayed away. I was afraid to state this explicitly, however, because it would leave me open to the charge of racism, which I didn't think was fair.

The session, Weatherman's version of a criticism session, became increasingly confrontational. It had already been a long day when we started, and as we continued late into the night, I grew tired. My questioners moved on to the role of women's issues in the broader struggle. By arguing for women's militia or women's organizations of any kind, they said, I was encouraging women to pursue their own selfish interests. My passion rose up inside me, strengthened by my previous arguments with Marilyn Webb and other feminists in Washington. While I had rejected the middle-class preoccupations of much of their conversations, I justified it with a commitment to organizing women around issues that really mattered to all women, like protection from abuse and poverty. Women needed to organize around their own needs, just as the black community did, and to have opportunities for self-reliance and leadership.

Even this, I was told by the women in the collective, was "selling out the most oppressed." Women's liberation meant that women should be active in the fight to end racism and colonial exploitation, and it was that process that would integrate women into leadership and would gain respect and equality for women. I had thought that this was another important aspect of a strategy for women's liberation and had always supported SDS's resolutions for women to join the movement. But over the past year I had become convinced that there were times when it was important for women to organize together to work for themselves, if for no other reason than that sometimes, men wouldn't help.

By then it was way past midnight. Maybe I did need to rethink some of my beliefs about women, I thought tiredly. Only by putting support for the third world first, perhaps, could women have any chance. Certainly it seemed that the few political black women I knew of identified first with the black struggle and only secondarily as women. The Vietnamese women certainly saw their liberation in the context of a free, decolonized Vietnam. Maybe it was true, as Drew and the others said, that despite my beliefs and work of the past several years, I had been influenced by selfishness.

It appeared that my ability to join the collective hinged on my agreement with all the criticisms of my past political thinking and work, and not just a willingness to consider them. I was now more curious than ever about this group, in which everyone took themselves and each other so seriously. Suddenly it seemed urgent that I get myself accepted, if I really wanted to make a contribution to revolution. The criticism indicated that I was inferior to the other members of the collective, and I wanted the opportunity to prove that I had a substantial history of work and ideas, and that I should be considered an equal. So I agreed with the criticisms in general, and said I would rethink things in light of the criticism. I thought to myself, I could always change my mind.

The fact that I had to fake it in both of my first encounters with Weatherman, in the martial arts training and now in the criticism, should have served as a warning that all was not right. Any life experience that might have caused me to heed this warning, however, was drowned out by my growing desperation to be part of the most effective effort to stop the killing in Vietnam and the unfair treatment of people at home.


The Weatherman criticism/self-criticism sessions of that summer became famous throughout the movement. The youthful Red Guards had been using this technique in their attempts to sweep out the old, stuffy, bureaucratic procedures, and to democratize the communist movement in China, we thought. I, like many in SDS, had identified with the Red Guards, seeing them as the hope that would keep China from decaying into a corrupt, Soviet-style bureaucracy. Mao did warn that it was the ideas that should be criticized, not the person. The metaphors of disease that Mao often used with "bad ideas," however, definitely made the thought of having such an idea distasteful. The safest path was to remake yourself in the image of those in leadership, in order to win respect and power and avoid criticism.

Like many dedicated activists, I was vulnerable to any argument that claimed I was not doing enough. Furthermore, like many Weathermen, I was still trying to disentangle myself from the cultural and political assumptions of my past. The Chicago collective seemed to be willing to engage in the kind of intense scrutiny of beliefs and goals that I wanted. As Phoebe had said earlier, we were "remaking ourselves" into "new men and women," following the lead of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevarra. In our case, we were trying to redefine what it meant to be members of the "mother-country," who did not root our behavior or identity in being "better," entitled to privileges. My first encounter with this effort had been completely disorienting, but I felt that I needed to quiet my reservations for the time being, to take a leap of faith so I could become part of this community and see what the process had to offer.

While I had been attracted by Weatherman's commitment to efficiency, I didn't think about the implications of Weatherman's view of organization and leadership. Rather than the diverse and chaotic reality that had always been SDS, they were developing an image of an efficient, hierarchical leadership of committed cadres. Even if a majority of people in this country didn't support change, we were obligated to side with the greater majority of people in the world. Much of the script for change had already been written by leaders like Lenin, Mao, Ho, Fidel, and Che. Embedded in this view was an assumption that it was now left to the experts to interpret the script and apply it, with a slight nod to local conditions. I needed to suspend my own judgments, it seemed, and trust the more knowledgeable leadership. Besides, as a person of European descent, I didn't even have the right to enter into much of the discussion about how many aspects of the future would be determined, and why those determinations were made.

The collapse of my own sense of judgment that quickly followed my embrace of this philosophy exacerbated my already existing sense of inadequacy, the feeling that I wasn't doing enough. The source of power for my own voice began to dry up, leaving a languid, anxious passivity in its wake. There wasn't time for me to figure things out, I rationalized. Besides, I wanted too badly to hear that somebody had a foolproof plan to bring equality and justice to the world.

While these components set up much that followed, Weatherman's clumsy misuse of religious-psychotherapeutic technique helped the process along, leading smart, well-intentioned people in leadership to inadvertently make the most insidious assaults on other participants' ability to construct their own meaning of the ideas and realities we confronted. Those of us who participated in this process quickly became part of it. The idea of belonging to a vanguard was seductive, whether it was religious, corporate, or ideological. It felt good to be part of the elite, reassuring in an unsettled world. The process of rigorous self-discipline appealed strongly to that part of me that wanted to be a good soldier.

The highest form of sacrifice, of commitment, I believed, was to dedicate oneself to the cause without asking for recognition, to be without ambition, other than to serve. As a woman, I had been raised to serve, of course, although expected to serve husband, children, and society by doing good works. In high school, I had been moved to tears by Nun Story, a film in which Audrey Hepburn is torn between service in an imperfect organization and her own passions and hunger for challenges of the world. Here, I thought, I had the opportunity to serve in a far better organization and I could still live my passions.

In joining Weatherman, I was, finally and ironically, succumbing to the desire to be one of the chosen, to have power indirectly through my association with powerful men. Bernardine's unique place at the top only made it more palpable. I could not yet imagine power in any other way. Conversations among women were only just beginning to reveal the ways in which society was still defined by ancient agreements and social arrangements. Surrounded by the trappings of modernity, we had the ability to imagine something different, but I thought we had already arrived there. It would take years of conversation to realize that we were only beginning to imagine, let alone bring to pass, a different way of thinking about power. Women can replace men in the existing paradigm, as many have, and that is a tentative first step, although in reality, such a stance by itself can easily reinforce the way things are, even as it leads to something new.
Cathy Wilkerson was an active member of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen. Currently, she works as a mathematics educator in New York City schools.