Friday, February 26, 2016

Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, by Bryan Burrough

Penguin, 2015
585 pp


In Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough sets out to uncover the "untold story of the underground era" in America, a time frame that lasted from 1970 through 1985.  It is a very detailed, chronological look at the rise and fall of several underground radical revolutionary groups that existed during this time period, exploring  motivations behind their actions, as well as attempts by law enforcement (primarily the FBI, but also police departments across the country) to put an end to the violence. Combining personal interviews, written accounts and other material on both sides of the fence, he has put together what he calls a  "straightforward narrative history of the period." More on that later.

Burrough starts at the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969 with Sam Melville, who, along with his friends, "began planning some kind of bombing campaign." Melville was angry -- Nixon had just been elected, promising reprisals against student protestors, and not much time had gone by since August and the horrific events at the Democratic National Convention. Some people, like Sam, had decided that they weren't going to take it any more -- that it was time to fight back -- and started "talking about a genuine revolution, about guns, about bombs, about guerrilla warfare."  Telling his wife that "the revolution ain't tomorrow. It's now. You dig?" Melville began planning a bombing campaign, along with several like-minded friends. The first target, an office of United Fruit,  turned out to be no longer occupied, but the next bomb hit its mark -- the Marine Midland Bank on Wall Street. Further campaigns struck at "centers of American corporate power."   As the author notes, Melville was a pioneer of sorts, the
 "first to take antigovernment violence to new level, building large bombs and using them to attack symbols of American power."
His tactics would become "the essential blueprint for almost every radical organization of the next decade," although later others would also add in bank robberies, kidnapping and as Burrough puts it in his own way, outright murder. As Burrough notes in an interview on NPR, the people in these groups all read the same philosophers, and shared the same philosophies -- in the book he cites works by Che, Mao, Marighella's Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, Debray's Revolution in the Revolution? as only a few examples.

The book begins in earnest at this point, and starts with Weatherman (which will ultimately become Weather Underground).  In 1969, the group had tried to organize a protest in Chicago which they named "Days of Rage," but when the expected crowd failed to turn up, Burrough says, they became impatient to get the revolution going and began working on a wider campaign of violence.   In the process of preparing a bomb they'd planned to use at a dance at Ft. Dix, three people in an East Village townhouse were killed; two more, Cathy Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, became fugitives and went underground.  According to what is said here, what the group learned from this experience was that they needed to make safer bombs and that symbols of American power should be their targets rather than people. While I won't go into detail here, Weatherman takes up most of the story in this book, and Burrough follows the group's story as it splintered, went through a number of purges and tried to stay steps ahead of the FBI for years.

Other groups under study in this book are the Black Liberation Army (BLA), a violent offshoot of the Black Panthers whose members were in touch with Eldridge Cleaver who was now in Algeria; the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) of Patty Hearst kidnap fame; FALN, a Puerto Rican group whose members advocated for Puerto Rican independence through deadly bombings, one of which killed several people at the Fraunces Tavern in New York City; the New World Liberation Front, at work in California's Bay Area; The Family, who targeted armored cars and cops, and the United Freedom Front, the creation of Ray Levasseur, who came out of prison with a dream of becoming the leader of his own "underground army."

He also examines the radicalization of some of the people who came out of America's prisons and found their way to these groups; when revolutionaries were sent to prison, demands for release often supplied motives for bombing campaigns.  Another segment of people involved here are the attorneys behind the scenes and in court who helped out with money, communiques, and allegedly smuggling contraband into the prisons. The book's subtitle also mentions the FBI, and they are here, especially the infamous Squad 47 out of New York, some of whom were later indicted as the truth behind their illegal "black bag jobs" became known.

Aside from laying out what he calls  a "straightforward narrative history of the period," one of the biggest goals of this book, it seems to me, is in Burrough's attempt to break down the "myth, pure and simple," that this violence was aimed more at specific symbols rather than people.  He notes at the beginning of the book that
"It is ultimately a tragic tale, defined by one unavoidable irony: that so many idealistic young Americans, passionately committed to creating a better world for themselves and those less fortunate, believed they had to kill people to do it."
At the same time, he also wants to  "explain to people today why all this didn't seem as insane then as it does now."

 In speaking about his work in the above-mentioned interview, the author said  that some of the  "young people who went underground" in the 1970s were declaring a "kind of war against America" believing that "a revolution was imminent and that violence would speed the change as it had in China, in North Vietnam, and in Cuba." He also notes that while people in the underground truly believed at the time that their action "shows the lengths to which committed left-wing people" would go to "oppose power in America -- corrupt power as personified by the Nixon administration in the Vietnam War," there are still others, like the son of a victim of an FALN bombing in a New York City bombing who will never see it that way, who will always think of these people as "Murderers first, revolutionaries second" and "Flat-out terrorists."

As the author notes in his epilogue, people can try to understand the "underground struggle as a well-meaning if misguided attempt to right America's wrongs,"  but there are also
"other observers, however, who argue persuasively that the crimes the underground committed overwhelm any altruistic motivations." 
 There's much, much, much more in this highly-complex book that is just impossible to encapsulate here.

 Reader reaction is mixed -- mainly favorable, but there is some negativity surrounding this book, especially coming from people who were there and active in the protest movements of the late 1960s, early 1970s.  There is a wealth of information here, although I must say that in some ways, that becomes one of the book's drawbacks. In some cases, I found that the author's inclusion of so much detail about the less-political side of these radical organizations  (e.g. sex, drugs, and a repeated litany of violent acts and subsequent hunts by law enforcement) sort of threw the politics to one side, which to me is less history than journalism, so that there are a number of times when it felt like his history verged toward more of a true-crime account. To me, a good historical  narrative is set well within the larger context, and  here, a lot seems to have been left out in terms of what was going on in America politically and socially, and maybe more to the point, what was going on with the nonviolent left at the same time. I'm also sort of taken aback by the lack of references here -- to cover over 500 pages, there is a only a very small amount of footnotes to turn to.  I will also note that despite the fact that he sees his work as a straightforward history of the period,  Burrough does let his own judgments become pretty clear throughout the book, but how this is so I will leave to the reader to discover.

 On the other hand,  much of this story is completely new material for me, and since I wasn't anywhere close to being old enough to be involved at the time, I had no expectations political or otherwise going into this account other than how much I could possibly learn about this relatively unknown (to me) story. There were parts I found absolutely fascinating -- I had no clue that some of these groups even existed, so in terms of revisiting the "forgotten age of revolutionary violence," it was a highly-informative book and the author deserves a large amount of credit for his hard work in putting it together.  It is most definitely a work that anyone interested ought to read, and keeping in mind my issues with this book, it's one I'd recommend.

a few professional reviews:

Jordan Michael Smith, The Boston Globe
Maurice Isserman, The New York Times
Rick Perlstein, The Nation