Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What kind of music did you listen to when you were young?
A. Beginning in the early sixties, when I was a young teenager, the folk music revival crossed over into pop music, which is how I learned about it. The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary opened the door back to Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Huddy Ledbetter; the whole world of labor songs, southern Black work songs and blues, anthems of the Spanish Civil War came flooding out. Bob Dylan and many other musicians emerged from this milieu. The folksong revival was my earliest introduction to radical politics. "Which Side Are You On?," sang the labor troubadors. Then, later, it was rock and roll and soul music, the pop music of the times. Back then music wasn't as fragmented by subculture as it is now. Everyone my age knows the songs of the Doors and Janis Joplin and the Four Tops.
Q. What made you think that violence would work to change this country?
A. The Sixties was the time of decolonization around the world. Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, other countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America were attaining their freedom using force of arms. Black Power groups, inspired by Malcolm X, had grown up inside this country proclaiming "Freedom by any means necessary." My friends and I respected all these revolutionaries and wanted to help them. We thought it would be racist for white people like ourselves to cheer them on from the sidelines without taking the risks they did.
We thought that because the anti-Vietnam War movement had grown steadily since 1965, when the U.S. first attacked Vietnam with main force troops, that it was in the process of evolving into a full scale revolutionary movement to overthrow imperialism.
We also thought that we had a strategy. It was called "the foco theory" and came out of Cuba, from Che Guevara. The idea was that a small group of revolutionaries begins armed struggle by attacking the government's forces, and that masses of people will join. Che himself died trying to implement this strategy in Bolivia in 1967. He was our hero and had written, "The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution." Which means, don't talk about it, do it!
Q. Why did you go underground?
A. We thought we'd have to carry out armed struggle, for example, bombings, which are quite illegal. If you're underground, the FBI can't infiltrate your organization since you can't be found. It was a terrible mistake: it only isolated us from people. It undermined the larger anti-war movement because the government was able to label us as terrorists and dangerous criminals.
Q. Were you terrorists?
A. By the common definition of attacking civilians, only for a very short time, around the spring of 1970, when one Weather Underground group planned a bombing that would have hurt innocent people (see the townhouse bombing in my book). After that the organization decided to always take precautions to not hurt anyone and to bomb targets in order to make propaganda points, such as retaliation for police shootings of prisoners, for example. The Weather Unground was lucky and no one besides the three of our own people who died in the townhouse bombing was ever hurt.
However, this question raises a larger question of what is terrorism? My current definition involves the use of force or violence or threats to use force and violence. War is terrorism. Bombing people from 10,000 feet in the air is terrorism. And so is placing a bomb in a government or corporate office.
Trying to understand my motivation at the time, I think I wanted to hold a mirror up to this country, I wanted to tell people, "Here's a little taste of what you dish out everyday." Of course that's stupid, it never works. Underlying that was the despair of seeing what our country was doing in the world.
Q. Were you communists?
A. We called ourselves that. We believed that underlying war and poverty is the capitalist system, that the wealth of a few (such as this country) is based on the poverty of many (the rest of the world). We also thought that the future involved "national liberation," third world countries fighting for their freedom from colonial or neo-colonial control (e.g., Cuba overthrowing the US-imposed dictator Batista).
We believed that people should have the right to make choices about how they live, not have those choices imposed on them. In that respect we were democrats as well. My organization was called "Students for a Democratic Society."
Socialism was the name of the system we wanted. What it was exactly we couldn't say, other than that people would not go hungry, be without work, would be treated with human dignity. We figured that the new system would be worked out in the future. Some of our calling ourselves communists and socialists was that we had been raised in an atmosphere of extreme anti-communism, so it was a way of giving the finger to this society that gave us war and racism.
Q. What about outrageous stuff like saying "kill your parents," or praising the Charles Manson gang that committed all sorts of terrible murders.
A. I call that "the politics of transgression." It was our way of saying, in effect, "You think that this society is so moral and just, well you're murdering people in Vietnam and black people are kept in poverty, so fuck you!"
Q. What did "Bring the War Home!" mean?
A. Same thing. We were saying, "Want to taste a little bit of what you dish out everyday in Vietnam? Well here's a street riot for you." We thought, absurdly, that this would attract young people to join us.
Q. Why fight cops? They weren't responsible for Vietnam?
A. In anti-war and anti-racism demonstrations, police would often attack us, as they did at Columbia in the spring of 1968 and thousands of other times. We developed an "us and them" mentality. Also, we saw the cops as agents of the state which we were fighting--the system that gave us war, poverty, and racism.
Q. How did you live for seven-and-a-half years "underground," as a federal fugitive?
A. I never left this country, living and working in rural and urban working-class communities with my wife. With false identities we were practically anonymous. You'll have to read the book to get the details and feel of it.
Q. What happened when you turned yourself in?
A. Most of the federal charges had been dropped back in 1973 due to government illegalities such as kidnapping people to get evidence. Civil liberties would never observed today. I had small state charges remaining, which were easily resolved with plea bargains. You'll need to read my book to get the whole story of this fascinating issue.
Q. What did your parents think about your life in SDS and the Weather Underground?
A. They were terrified for me the whole time. I didn't see them for seven years.
Q. What drove you to do that to your parents?
A. I thought it was a necessary sacrifice in order to make a better world. I would have died for the cause. Several of my friends did die, and others went to prison. Some are still imprisoned.
Q. What motivated you?
A. I was grief stricken at what I saw my country doing in the world. I didn't want to sit by and watch the American military murder millions of people in Vietnam. I didn't want to ignore the fact that racism infects the life of this country. In short, I didn't want to be a "Good German," pretending that everything was all right while horrible things were being done by my government, therefore in my name.
Q. What did the Weather Underground accomplish?
A. Very little positive. We showed that the FBI is not all powerful. That's okay. We demonstrated that there were a certain number of young people who were willing to risk everything for our beliefs. I guess that's okay, too, but when I think harder about it I realize that courage is pretty well spread out across the political spectrum. Look at the poor shnooks sent to Iraq to kill and invade people's homes. That takes courage too. They might get blown up by people angry at the foreign invasion.
On the negative side, we destroyed SDS, the largest radical student group, at the height of the war (1969). We split the larger anti-war movement over the bogus issue of "armed struggle." We killed three of our own people in an accident at the W. 11th St. Townhouse. Horrible stuff.
Q. You sound ashamed. Wasn't there anything good from that time that you can be proud of?
A. Before we formed Weatherman, I was a member of the much larger anti-war movement. The goal was to end the Vietnam War, and we did. I'm proud of that. It's a major event in the history of this country, democracy at its greatest. One of the ways in which the anti-war movement helped end the war was the fact that it existed in the military itself, thereby making the military unusable in Vietnam. See the wonderful 2006 documentary movie, "Sir, No Sir!"
Also, for a good study of the effect of the anti-war movement on the government's decision-making, see a book by Tom Wells, "The War Within."
Q. Why aren't young people more active now?
A. Recently they have become active, with Obama's election campaign. The problem until 2008, I think, was that there was a universal belief that nothing people did could make a difference. I never heard anyone say that back in the Sixties, because we had the example of the Civil Rights Movement. It was obvious that individuals did make a difference, when they joined with others.
Also, the consumption of stuff and entertainment have grown to dominate most people's lives in this culture. Entertainment in particular is the point of life--watching sports, TV, DVD's, eating out. Forty years ago few thought that. There just wasn't as much money around or as much stuff to consume. Also, we grew up in the wake of World War II, so there was a certain seriousness, at least an attention to the events of the world, that was common. Until the shocks of 2005 (Katrina), 2006 (awareness that the war in Iraq could not be "won"), and 2008 (the financial and housing crises, the presidential election), young people just did not have to pay attention.
I think they're awake now, thank God.
Q. Why did you decide to write the book now?
A. Actually, I began writing at the end of 2003, in response to both the war in Iraq and the success of The Weather Underground documentary film. It dawned on me that I could make a contribution to the anti-war movement by telling my story, but it took four years of writing to tell it right. I had to learn how to tell the story simply and accurately, without polemics and too much judgement. During that time I was in constant dialogue with young organizers and was able to test out the contemporary relevance of the story. Their contribution was enormous.
Q. Do you have any advice for young activists and organizers?
A. Figure out how to build a mass movement. That's always the goal. No small group, no matter how motivated, could have stopped the Vietnam War, ended legal segregation, built a labor movement, transformed not only the laws but the culture for gay people and women. Studying these and other historical social movements might be a good place to start. I've concluded that the trick has something to do with "organizing," by which I mean the art of involving people through direct engagement. That's what got Obama elected. But now we need a sustained left to push his administration and Congress toward the real social changes needed to make our country and world just and peaceful and sustainable. I try to remember the words of Joe Hill, the great IWW anarchist troubadour of 100 years ago, which he's alleged to have uttered right before the state of Utah hung him: "Don't mourn, organize!"
Q. What's next for you?
A. I'm working in my neighborhood on environmental health and justice issues; I'm organizing in Albuquerque among Jews who are critical of Israel's brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the US support for that occupation. I'm also trying to help young organizers in their efforts to uncover traditional New Mexican land and community practices as models for a sustainable future. I'm going to spend the next year, too, traveling to get my story out. I'm always building and gardening, and on top of all that, I'm taking stories that I needed to cut out of "Underground," and turning them into a second book, telling what happened after 1977, when my real life began.