I could wallow in nostalgia about my days with the Weather Underground in the early 1970s: at Coney Island with Bernardine Dohrn, eating Bill Ayers’ soufflés and Jeff Jones’ homemade breads and the thrill of having my left earlobe pieced by my wife, Eleanor, who was having the time of her life as a fugitive. But nostalgia would serve no purpose other than self-indulgence.
Better to focus on the publication of Prairie Fire, 45 years ago, arguably as significant a manifesto as “The Port Huron Statement” (1962) that helped to launch Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the mass organization Weatherman destroyed—with help from Progressive Labor (PL), the faction that urged members to go to factories and organize workers. The Port Huron Statement emphasized moral values, love, and honesty and expressed the desire for democratic social change. Prairie Fire (1974), the political statement of the Weather Underground, reverberated with ideology, endorsed revolutionary violence, and embodied a muffled desperation that underlay the bravado about Third World liberation. The paperback edition with a bright red cover, the words “Prairie Fire,” and an image of flames was too big to fit comfortably in a back pocket, but it was portable enough to carry around as a badge of courage or defiance or an invitation to a brawl. The two documents published 14 years apart serve as bookends of the New Left, which offered hope in the midst of the Cold War, and that descended into factionalism and a cult that worshipped violence even as the fissures in American society became increasingly transparent during the war in Vietnam.
I joined SDS in 1967, took part in the Columbia strike in ’68, was arrested along with 700 or so other protesters, and was active on campus for the next two years while I taught literature and wrote for Liberation News Service. I was not the only teacher arrested in ’68 but I was one of a handful.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Days of Rage, when a few dozen Weathermen and women, who had given up on the antiwar movement, trashed cars and battled the Chicago police. Eleven years later, in 1980, Weather leaders Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers came up from underground, surrendered to authorities, and put an end to a decade-long FBI manhunt that bordered on the pathological—as Freedom of Information documents testify. Today, the ex-Weathermen and former members of the Weather Underground belong largely to the pages of myth. Writing about them feels like excavating the archeological site of a lost culture.
Not surprisingly, Prairie Fire doesn’t look back at SDS with nearly enough attention to the historical record, although one sentence acknowledges that, “In the course of preparing for armed struggle in late 1969 we began mistaking friend for enemies.” Another reads, “We did not learn from meaningful criticism from comrades.” Critics of Weatherman and the Weather Underground—who are still bitter about the implosion of SDS—argue that Prairie Fire also mistakes friends for enemies. Indeed, the authors denounce organizing workers as “corrupt politics.” The further away from home, the more the Weather folk saw what they wanted to see: the end of the American empire and the rise of a global force for revolution.
You have to look long and hard, and ignore the seductive quotations from Native Americans, to find evidence in Prairie Fire that the authors opened their hearts and minds to new ideas and feelings. Granted, there’s a brief mention of food, hunger, and malnutrition, and a sentence or two about alienated labor and substandard housing, which they learned about from their underground experience. There is material about feminism but not real clarity about the enduring power of patriarchy. Only in the essays that accompany the 2006 republication of Prairie Fire—in a volume titled Sing a Battle Song, that also includes the Weather Underground’s communiqués—did they change their tune, slightly.
Bill Ayers mentions the Holocaust in passing, and echoes the cry Never Again, but with qualifications that make it clear he doesn’t really care about the genocide of 6 million Jews. Jeff Jones allows that the organization “teetered on the terrible brink” of terrorism and completely missed the relevance of Earth Day and the environmental movement of the 1970s, but otherwise defends the underground days. In Prairie Fire, the self-criticism is thin as paper; the pride in the organization’s 17 bombings—“to retaliate for … savage criminal attacks against Black and Third World People”—is thick as blood. No one was ever indicted for any bombings and no one in leadership served any significant time for clandestine activity. There wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone and government misconduct precluded indictments.
Thanks to adulatory documentaries like Emile D. Antonio’s Underground (1976) and Sam Green’s The Weather Underground (2002), feature films like Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep (2012), plus Marge Piercy’s Vida (1980), and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), the real life, self-proclaimed agents of “armed struggle” have morphed into larger-than-life figures whose fans remember them as idealists who put their bodies on the line, defied Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford and drove a stake into the heart of an empire that was dying in the Mekong Delta, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in Saigon.
The truth of the matter lies somewhere between the notion, on the one hand, that Weatherman and the Weather Underground are merely footnotes in the pages of American history, and on the other hand that they deserve a hefty chapter to themselves, alongside the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Wobblies, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization of young, militant disciples of the Civil Rights Movement who pointed out that they were neither students nor nonviolent, and not well coordinated.
At their peak, the fugitive Weather folk were as legendary as the Wobblies and SNCC. Barely out of college, they took “noms de guerre,” gathered in collectives that made up “The Weather Machine,” and sometimes veered in directions, like prostitution, unapproved by the “Weather Bureau,” the ruling body that changed its ideological tune, sometimes monthly, and managed to stay in power for half a decade.
While they boasted their prowess as “urban guerrillas,” they were violent only in modest ways when compared to their heroes, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, who assassinated “enemies,” and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States, who carried guns, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and robbed banks. The Weather folk complained about “white skin privilege”—the benefits that accrued to Americans with light skins in a racist society—but they rarely escaped the privileges to which they were born and raised, not even when they were wanted by the FBI.
The privilege is evident from a close reading of Prairie Fire, and from an appreciation of how the document came to be written and then printed by the Red Dragon Collective. The project demanded time, money, labor, a clandestine network, and a secure, secret location—with gloves every step of the way to prevent identification of potential suspects—behind an innocent-looking front office with a desk and a file cabinet.
It took college-educated, crafty radicals with prosperous, generous friends and family members “above ground” to distribute the manifesto nationally and create small “front groups” dedicated to the study of the text and adoration of the organization that created it. The Weather folk also granted permission for a copyrighted reproduction of Prairie Fire by a separate, legal entity, the Communications Company, with fixed addresses in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Thanks in large part to the mystique of the underground, Prairie Fire was among the most widely read and discussed books in left-wing circles in the mid-1970s. I was there. I looked on with a mix of shock, wonder, and sadness similar to the feeling I had when I visited the Weather fugitives for the last time in New York and found myself staring at a poster of Mao.
To create the book without a hitch it took years of practice in the art of secrecy. In 1971, members of the Weather Underground had placed a bomb in a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol and issued a statement in which they said, “armed underground attacks, propaganda, demonstrations in cities and campuses, actions by local collectives, all forms of organizing and political warfare can wreck the Amerikan war machine.” (Like other radical groups, the Weather folk adopted the German spelling to reflect the notion that the U.S. was a fascist country.) Prairie Fire demanded more coordination than the bombing of the Capitol, which prompted Sen. George McGovern to predict that violent explosions would continue as long as the United States was at war in Vietnam. He was right about that.
Like the Wobblies, whom they revered, the Weather folk were rough-and-tumble globalists who boasted in Prairie Fire that they wanted to organize the oppressed and create a new world in the shell of the old, though they didn’t care for the kind of white working-class men who once formed the backbone of the IWW. Like the members of SNCC, they didn’t care for membership lists, and like the SNCC activists, they caught fire wherever racism reared its head, though unlike SNCC they never ventured into Mississippi and Alabama. That was a bridge too far.
Weather aimed to fuse the theory and practice of revolution, but the organization bought into the myths it created about itself and were swept up in romanticism not often seen in left-wing quarters since Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara unseated the Batista dictatorship in 1959. In some circles today, criticism of the Weather folk is tantamount to a betrayal of the legacy of the American left. Say a negative word and Dan Berger, the author of Outlaws of America (2006), defends the Weathermen and the women who advocated, in his view, the “politics of solidarity” and whose actions can help us understand “the mess we now find ourselves in.”
To do that, it would be more productive to examine what Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were doing in the White House in the 1970s to reassert the hegemony of the Republican Party in the wake of Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and the failure of counterinsurgency in Southeast Asia.
In “Honk Amerika,” a communiqué issued on July 25, 1970, Bernardine Dohrn and the central committee taunted Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell: “Don’t look for us, Dog; we’ll find you first.” That was pure bravado. Two members of the underground, Howie Machtinger and Judith Clark, were soon arrested and jailed. The whole organization was nearly captured in March 1971, when $650 was wired, by a lawyer and a friend of Dohrn’s, from a Western Union office in Chicago to an office in San Francisco. Jeff Jones—in disguise, and with fake ID—picked up the money, met Dohrn around the corner, and eluded FBI agents who were watching the office and who had staked out the neighborhood. The entire West Coast network had to be abandoned, IDs changed, and safe houses scuttled, a story that doesn’t make the pages of Prairie Fire. Mao might have called the fugitives “paper tigers.”
That near catastrophe for the organization took place when I was living in Manhattan, teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and in contact with my wife, who was part of the Brooklyn underground collective that included Robert Roth, who was 20, Ron Fliegelman, who would later admit to making bombs, and Mike Spiegel who became a lawyer.
There were lots of Jews in Weatherman—the above-mentioned individuals—as well as John Jacobs, Judy Clark, Dave Gilbert, Kathy Boudin, Mark Rudd, and Naomi Jaffe. None of them publicly identified as Jews or observed Jewish holidays, but they were aware of the extermination of 6 millions Jews. Ted Gold, who had been a member of Columbia SDS before he joined Weatherman, famously exclaimed that if it would take extreme repression before a revolution in the United States, “We’ll have to have fascism.” No one seemed to be troubled by H. Rap Brown’s comment, “Want to play Nazis? Black folks ain’t going to play Jews.” The history of Jewish socialists, communists, and anarchists was forgotten in the rush to honor Cubans, Vietnamese, African Americans, and Palestinians—almost every ethnic group except Jews.
Wikipedia lists 41 members of the Weather organization, alphabetically, from William Charles Anderson to Jane Ann White. My name appears after White’s, as though the person who compiled the list added “Jonah Raskin” as an afterthought. For a long time I didn’t know if I was in it or out of it, for it or against it. I was in love with the romance of the underground but hated the bombings. Also, I was trying to save a marriage that had no chance of survival. A walking talking contradiction, I would tell my wife and her comrades that the Weather Underground was going nowhere, and that they should surrender to the police and return to the antiwar movement that was mobilizing hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets of New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
I supported my wife financially when she was underground, met with her immediately after the townhouse explosion, and on and off for the next six months until she realized I wasn’t going to turn her over to the FBI. On at least one occasion I implored her to return to me. That didn’t go anywhere. I had some tender moments with her but she wasn’t willing to give up her fugitive life.
My main discussions with the fugitives revolved around three topics: mass protest; “armed action”; and the efficacy and nature of the underground itself. While they never totally ruled out mass action and I never totally ruled out “armed action,” we came down on opposite sides of the divide between the two. I helped organize the May Day anti-war protests in Washington, D.C. In 1971, they placed the bomb in a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol. My initial impulse in 1970 soon after they went underground, was to publish a collection of essays by members of the organization. I secured a publisher and persuaded Doris Lessing to write an introduction. Then some of the contributors squabbled with one another and the book died a sudden death. I believed in the power of the written word. They believed in the power of armed struggle. Perhaps Prairie Fire suggests that they came to appreciate my perspective. They stopped bombing long enough to write and distribute their book.
To friends in the antiwar movement, many of whom loathed the Weather Underground, I insisted that they were part of the spectrum of resistance and ought not to be demonized. My main ally was my mother-in-law, Annie Stein, a longtime member of the Communist Party, who spoke Yiddish as well as English, and who became a crucial player in the Weather Underground. A self-proclaimed Maoist with Bolshevik sympathies, she insisted that a small group of dedicated revolutionaries could spark a popular uprising with a daring action or two.
In December 1970, I helped write the communiqué “New Morning” which contained a key passage that said: “It is time for the movement to go out into the air, to organize, to risk calling rallies and demonstrations, to convince that mass actions against the war and in support of rebellions do make a difference.”
I thought the underground would abandon clandestine activity and bombings. I was wrong. After “New Morning” was published, the fugitives went back to bombing and defending “revolutionary violence.” Four years later, in Prairie Fire, they rebuked themselves for giving “uncritical support to youth culture” and for failing to engage in dialogue with the New York Black Panthers who urged them to continue “armed struggle.”
No one had to tell me that the bomb maker I saw was creating an explosive device. I had seen enough movies and TV shows with guys who make bombs to know that the wires and the clock that fit into a small cigar box, or something like it, had to be a bomb, though it looked nothing like those round balls with fuses that were in illustrations of crazy-looking men who were supposed to be anarchists. This was the real deal and the bomb maker was real, too, and not a cliché of an anarchist. He was very cool, calm, and collected. I watched for a while in awe and apprehension and then because no one had told me what was going to happen and because I didn’t want the memory to live in my brain I did my best to go into denial. Soon after that I went into denial again when I watched one of the fugitives burn the wrappers from a couple of sticks of dynamite.
Why did he do that in front of me? Probably for the same reason that members of the underground told me secrets. They had to share the memory of terrible things with someone, and as an insider/outsider and also as a writer—they all knew I wrote and they all read my stuff—I became a father confessor. I didn’t make or transport any bombs but I think I played a useful role. But I also had nightmares, like one in which the cops find my fingerprint in a Weather house and arrest me.
As Prairie Fire makes clear, the Weather leadership shuttled back and forth from self-criticism to self-righteousness. Given the head-spinning and the collective brainwashing, I drifted away from the organization, gave up trying to salvage my marriage, went to Mexico, wrote about B. Traven, the anarchist-pacifist author, then resettled in California, where I briefly joined a Prairie Fire discussion group and was invited, by Kathy Boudin—who had survived the March 1970 explosion that had killed Gold, Robbins, and Oughton—to join the Weather Underground. My heart wasn’t in it. I began to see Weatherman and the Weather Underground with more detachment than ever before, and edited, collected, and published with an introduction The Weather Eye, a volume that contained the Weather communiqués, in which I gently scolded the underground for relying “too heavily on the tactic of bombing.” (Kurt Vonnegut helped wean me from my romance with the underground. “You don’t go underground until all other political options have failed,” he told me. It took years before I could appreciate his insight.)
In 2006, City Lights published Sing a Battle Song, an anthology of all the writings by the Weather Underground, edited by Dohrn, Ayers, and Jones, along with The Weather Eye and a new essay I had written that was redacted by Jones, my criticisms toned down. An unedited version of my essay appeared in Socialism and Democracy under the title “Looking Backward: Reflections on Language, Gesture and Mythology in the Weather Underground.” I’m still looking backward, still trying to understand my own “revolutionary romanticism,” as my friend and mentor Doris Lessing called it, hoping to liberate me, as she had once liberated herself, from the revolutionary romanticism that led her to join the Communist Party. My Weather experience felt like her Communist experience, which she described as the most “neurotic” in her life.
One way for me to identify my neurosis and strip aside illusions about “Weather,” or “The Eggplant,” as insiders called it, is to reread and deconstruct Prairie Fire, which had an élan even before anyone opened its pages and began to read chapters in which the words imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, sexism, and racism are repeated over and over again as though repetition might exorcise their power. In the 156-page manifesto, the authors define themselves as “revolutionary anti-imperialists,” unwilling to be perceived merely as revolutionaries or merely as anti-imperialists. Predictably, they rebuked liberals for trying to “reform” imperialism and make it less noxious and more palatable.
In the pages of Prairie Fire, the authors insist again and again with slightly different emphasis each time that given the worldwide crisis precipitated by the military defeat of the United States in Vietnam, the world was ripe for the kind of revolutions that had rocked Russia at the end of WWI, China in the 1930s and 1940, and Cuba in the 1950s. If nothing else, the homegrown anti-imperialist revolutionaries were grandiose and messianic.
In their first major political document, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”—the title was borrowed from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and published in the SDS newspaper New Left Notes in June 1969—the 11 authors (Karen Ashley, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, John Jacobs, Jeff Jones, Gerry Long, Howie Machtinger, Jim Mellen, Terry Robbins, Mark Rudd, and Steve Tappis) argued that to make a revolution in the United States, a “vanguard” of whites, led by a supervanguard of African Americans, would need to confront the police and close down schools and colleges. The next step was to create a “clandestine organization of revolutionaries, having a unified ‘general staff,’ combined with discipline under one centralized leadership.” Lenin must have been looking over their shoulders.
From Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the self-proclaimed vanguard moved to Mao Zedong’s The Little Red Book that was passed from hand to hand in communes, collectives and on campuses. In 1930, four years before the start of the Long March and 19 years before the seizure of state power, Mao rebuked his foes in the Chinese Communist Party who insisted that revolutionaries had to wait for “objective” conditions before they could take up arms against their oppressors.
On the contrary, Mao explained, “A single spark could start a prairie fire.” Mao added that the “high tide of revolution” was “like a child about to be born moving restlessly in its mother’s womb.” John Jacobs, better know as “J.J.”—the most ideological of the Weathermen, one of the strongest advocates for the use of violence and the most blatantly sexist—wasn’t as poetic, earthy, or motherly as Mao. Still, in 1969 he expressed the sentiments of the group when he proclaimed, “We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare.” He added, “We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America. We will ‘burn and loot and destroy.’” Five years later, when Prairie Fire was published—with a dedication to Harriet Tubman and John Brown—J.J. had been expelled from the organization. In fact, he wanted the members of the underground to hide in middle-class America and launch guerilla warfare from suburbia.
To Dohrn and company, J.J.’s scenario sounded like a nightmare; they saw themselves hiding in the sea of the American counterculture, making bombs in hippie enclaves and driving in Volvos to plant them, as they did, in buildings like the Capitol, the Pentagon, and, in the last of their “armed propaganda” actions, in the federal offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco to protest cuts in public assistance. Calling themselves urban guerrillas, as they do in Prairie Fire, gives them more credit (or blame) then they deserve. They didn’t use guns, and didn’t aim rifles and shoot at police officers as some Black Panthers did, a story Donald Cox tells in his memoir, Nothing But a Nigger (2019).
In addition to J.J., most of the co-authors of “You Don’t Need a Weatherman,” (including Ashley, Long, Mellen, and even Rudd, who had played a decisive role during the protests at Columbia in 1968) had fallen by the wayside by 1974, the casualties of sectarian strife and ideological confrontations. When Prairie Fire was published “the centralized leadership” that J.J. and his comrades had called for boasted five members, all of them now, in 2019, in their 60s and 70s, with grandchildren, pensions, and summer homes, none of them apologetic about their activities in the long ’60s, the era of protest, upheaval, and cultural revolution that stretched from 1955, through the Civil Rights Movement, to 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War.
I know little about the production of Prairie Fire, though from 1970 to 1973 I had discussions about the ideas in the manifesto. By 1974 I was out of the picture. Earlier, I saw things I should not have seen—like the making of a bomb—and heard things—like the fetish for dynamite—I didn’t want to hear. I have read accounts of the making of Prairie Fire in books like Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage but those accounts conflict with what I was told by fugitives 40 years ago.
The members of the central committee who oversaw the writing and publication of Prairie Fire were: Dohrn, a University of Chicago law school graduate with a Jewish father and a Christian Science mother; Jeff Jones, whose father was a pacifist and a conscientious objector in WWII, employed in the 1950s by the Walt Disney Company; Bill Ayers, the scion of a wealthy, powerful Chicago family—his father served as the CEO at Commonwealth Edison—and a student radical at the University of Michigan; Robert Roth, a former Columbia College student and member of SDS who had grown up in a secular Jewish family in New York; and a woman who went by the name Celia Sojourn, (an amalgam of Celia Cruz, the most popular Cuban singer of the 20th century, and Sojourner Truth, the 19th-century African American ex-slave and abolitionist).
What the odd members of the central committee had in common with one another was an uncanny ability to survive the psychological pressures of underground life, remain loyal to one another, and refuse to feel guilty about “mistakes,” like the explosion that took place in March 1970 in the basement of a Manhattan apartment house that claimed the lives of Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins, who were making bombs intended to destroy property and take human lives.
Mark Rudd was the fugitive who expressed to me genuine remorse about the deaths of Oughton, Gold, and Robbins; even years later he was visibly shaken. Nothing conveyed the lack of sorrow about the loss of life more than the undergrounder glibly singing the lyrics to the Beatles “Come Together”:
He say one and one is three
got to be good looking
’cause he’s so hard to see
In a letter addressed to “sisters and brothers,” that serves as a preface to Prairie Fire, Dohrn, Ayers, Jones, and Sojourn explain that their document was written over a 12-month period, “squeezed between on-going work and practice and action,” went through four revisions, and that it was “collectively adopted” as the statement of the entire organization. Yeah, yeah, yeah! Echoing Mao, they explained that Prairie Fire was drafted with a sense of urgency and as ammunition “against those who oppose action and hold back the struggle.” To Dohrn and company, the document marked the beginning of another “cycle” of rebellion and resistance, only more intense than the previous cycle. Neither she nor anyone else in the underground saw the handwriting on the wall. The Weather Underground had written a swan song, not the opening aria of a revolutionary opera.
By 1975, Dohrn, Ayers, Jones, and Sojourn would be denounced as counterrevolutionaries, deposed and banished from leadership. In 1980, they surrendered to the authorities, and returned to the lives and the careers they had abandoned in the late 1960s, though in the first communiqué from May 1970, Dohrn had insisted, “We will never go back” and “never again” will “black revolutionaries … fight alone.” The Weather Underground, she had promised, would create a kind of “fifth column” and “fight behind enemy lines.”
In hindsight, Prairie reads as the last testament of a small left-wing group that rioted in the streets of Chicago in 1969 during the Days of Rage, helped to destroy SDS, and later reincarnated itself as a clandestine organization that placed bombs in government buildings, phoned in warnings, and issued communiqués sometimes only a paragraph or two, sometimes pages long. The 26 communiqués, which began with “A Declaration of a State of War,” provide a record of the ideological twists and turns the organization took. They reflect the inclination to issue orders to the masses, tell them what to think and what to do, as though they were too stoned, and too unsophisticated in the realm of “Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” to figure out a blueprint for action and eager for leaders to lead them, despite Dylan’s injunction, “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parkin’ meters.”
One of the sillier habits of the Weather folk was to read secret messages in pop songs, like the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which depicts a young man who murders a teacher, a judge, and a classmate and gets away with his crimes. There’s little of that kind of silliness in Prairie Fire, though there’s lots of other silliness, as when the authors insist that the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Liberation Army, both of them small isolated organizations, were “leading forces in the development of armed struggle and political consciousness.” The authors added that the SLA and the BLA were “respected by ourselves and other revolutionaries,” though in the 1970s there were few American radicals, rebels, protesters, or activists who identified with or supported the BLA or the SLA.
As Prairie Fire suggests, life underground had produced a warped view of political, social, and cultural life in the United States. It encouraged wishful thinking, and led to glib generalizations about history, revolution, and the future. While there are sections about Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Portugal, there’s nothing about Ireland and its revolutionary tradition, or about France and Czechoslovakia in 1968, or anything about 1968 as a pivotal historical moment. The absence of historical figures, like Hitler and Stalin, is as telling as the presence of historical figures such as Amilcar Cabral and Don Pedro Albizu Campos, and, though there are no footnotes and almost no quotations in the text itself, there are substantial quotations at the start of each section and a three-page bibliography that indicates what the Weather folk were reading.
There are more books by Marx and Lenin than any other writers, and far more writers from the United States (Sam Melville, John Reed, Edgar Snow, Studs Terkel, Stan Steiner, Paul Sweezy, and Harry Magdoff at Monthly Review) than authors from other nations. In between making and planting bombs, and attending to matters of security, there was plenty of time to enjoy books, though some of the most widely read texts didn’t make it to the Prairie Fire bibliography. A favorite was The Spook Who Sat by the Door, a 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee, which follows a black CIA agent named Dan Freeman who creates a band of “Freedom Fighters” and launches guerrilla warfare in the United States. That fantasy fed Weather scenarios, as did books about the clandestine resistance to fascism carried out by the “Red Orchestra.”
Prairie Fire warns about the export of American-made “fascism to the Third World.” Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon appears as a “war criminal,” a “political leader of the counter-revolution” and “an executioner of the Rosenbergs, the men at Attica, the students at Jackson and Kent.” Never mind that the Weather folk didn’t get the facts straight. They had to demonize, much as the FBI had to demonize them. At the end of Prairie Fire, the authors urge readers to “Go to the People,” “Create struggle,” and “tell the truth.” What happened to “Listen!”? They add, “Life itself depends on our ability to deal a swift blow to the monster.” To achieve that aim, they created the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, and, while radicals signed up, they were soon disenchanted. The Weather attempt to manipulate fizzled.
With the exception of Dave Gilbert—who is in prison for life, convicted of murder after the botched robbery of a Brinks armored vehicle and the death of two police officers—most of the Weather survivors enjoy the white skin privileges they never shed. Gilbert’s comrade-in-arms, Judy Clark, another foot soldier in the underground, was released on April 17, 2019, after spending 38 years in prison. She and Gilbert both lived the politics of Prairie Fire and paid with their freedom.
Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of 14 books, including biographies of Jack London, Allen Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman. His new book of poetry is The Thief of Yellow Roses (Regent Press).