My Conversation with Mark Rudd – You Don’t Need a Weatherman
I met Mark in 1968 when we were both part of a group from SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) invited to see for ourselves the Revolution taking place in Cuba. After we returned I followed as Mark became one of the leaders and spokespeople for the students taking over the Columbia University campus and shutting it down in protest of the University’s part in supporting the war in Vietnam.
Shortly after the Cuba trip, I dropped out of ‘the movement’ and my activist/agitator/organizer role at the University of Florida in Gainesville, moved to San Francisco and joined the hippie culture in Haight Ashbury. Mark, on the other hand, became part of the most radical faction of SDS that then morphed into Weatherman and then the notorious Weather Underground. He spent the years of 1970-77 living underground hiding from the FBI. This is the focus of his book, Underground – My Life in SDS and the Weathermen, published in 2009. He is, as far as I know, the only member of the Weather Underground who has publicly apologized and expressed sincere regret for the destructive activities he engaged in.
Much has been written about the violence-embracing Weather people. Two Hollywood films, “The Company You Keep,” starring Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon, and “Running on Empty,” with Judd Hirsch and River Phoenix give a somewhat nuanced but essentially sympathetic look. I also recently listened to the very well produced ten-part podcast series, “Mother Country Radicals.” It’s narrated by Zayd Dohrn who was born underground, the son of two of the leaders of the Weather Underground, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. It offers a very interesting look into the minds of the people who chose revolutionary violence within the U.S. as a reaction to the war and militarism, and what they believed was support for the Black movement of the time.
In my conversation with Mark we cover a lot of ground. My primary question was, and is, “Why?” Why did he do it? What was behind the choices he and the others in the group made to break from the growing anti-war movement and try to build a force that would attempt to violently overthrow the United States government. And even before that, what caused him, a Jewish kid from New Jersey, to join the anti-war/civil rights movement in the first place. How did he become part of a cadre that was responsible for hundreds, perhaps thousands of bombings within the U.S..
I do want to make clear that after an incident in which three members of the WU group were killed making a bomb (that was intended to kill a large group of people), the group changed course and sought to destroy only buildings and monuments and made successful efforts to not harm any human beings. Nonetheless, Mark looks on those actions with regret and has embraced the philosophy of non-violence. His view, and I agree, is that the bombings terrorized people, did nothing to turn people against the war, and actually turned people off from involvement with the anti-war/peace movement.
So why? Several thoughts arise from Mark’s own website.
1. He talks about the romantic idealization of Che Guevara, the revolutionary who along with Fidel Castro defeated the corrupt, capitalist government of Cuba and then went on to attempt revolutionary actions in other Latin American countries. Che became a heroic idol to many young people all over the world, a feeling I shared myself for a while in those days. Mark calls it “the cult of Che,” and now looks with disdain on his erstwhile hero as “homicidal and suicidal.”
2. He recognizes there was an element of machismo in it all, an effort to overcome feelings of insecurity by asserting a powerful male image challenging the all-powerful authority of universities, governments and “the power structure.” I recall visiting the office of SDS in Chicago and seeing a large poster of Bonnie and Clyde on wall and feeling confused and a bit sick in my stomach. I thought, “am I missing something here?” Mark says it was the cult of male violence and martyrdom.
3. After Mark watched the documentary film, “Weather Underground” (2002) he found himself doing a lot of soul-searching about his actions for which he’d been carrying a lot of guilt. What finally gave him a sense of understanding and compassion for himself was this realization. The awareness of the massive violence being perpetrated by this country on the people of Vietnam and the overall injustice pervading the world, gave him a profound grief. That grief led to the rage and violence. (From my perspective as a psychotherapist, I would say it was unconscious grief which then surfaced through violence). In any case, it’s a great lesson for us all. How do we process the grief we feel about climate change, immigration issues, racial injustice, mass incarceration. How do we make that conscious so it doesn’t rise up destructively through the shadow.
In any event, all the above explanations stand in contrast to the view expressed by the characters in Phillip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. Roth grew up and writes often about the same very Jewish experience as Mark, his family leaving Newark for the all-White suburbs to get away from the influx of Black people to the city. The insular, us vs. them mindset of Jewish immigrant parents. American Pastoral is a fictional story, but based largely on real events involving the young men and women, (predominantly Jewish) of the Weather Underground. It’s told through the eyes of their parents. (Imagine their suffering). His characters view (and I sense Roth’s) is that the bombers were spoiled kids acting out like sociopaths, devoid of real human connections.
I think that characterization is unfair and incomplete in that it leaves out the genuine idealism that was certainly a big part of the picture. In our talk, Mark reflects on the difficulty, the contradictions he felt viscerally in his youth. How Black people were spoken of by his family and his growing awareness of the civil rights struggle. It was his awareness of these contradictions, even more radically manifested by the U.S. killing machine in Vietnam being justified as fighting communism, that first moved him. From that perspective, the people of the WU were highly motivated, clear-eyed witnesses of a horror with which they had not the skills or emotional maturity to respond to. They could only flail about with rage and destructiveness.
Mark believes, and I agree, that perhaps the best summary of the whole trip was in this letter written in 1987 by author, Peter Marin. I highly recommend it.
I know I’m asking for trouble by saying this, but I will anyway. Even though I do not see by any stretch a moral equivalency, understanding the inside story of WU helps me empathize with the emotional reality of the Jan. 6th insurrectionists, the MAGA reactionaries, and militia members who believe in overthrowing the government by force. No matter how foolishly, they are moved by their frustrated need to express their masculinity – a need never met healthily in a culture addicted to violence, a culture which lacks conscious rites of passage. They are also in a trance or cult-like fascinations of their idealized hero tearing down the system. They also suffer from unconscious grief at the loss of what they’ve been told is theirs and no one else’s. They too are idealists, victims of believing their own thoughts.
Understanding can be a doorway to compassion while still calling people to account for their actions.
I’ll close with this from Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodrom,
“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”
Website of Mark Rudd: MarkRudd,com
Film: Weather Underground
Mother Country Radicals 10-part podcast