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The Left of the Left

The Weather Underground is remembered in Cinequest documentary

By Richard von Busack

Today, the Weathermen are extinct--as much of a nostalgia item as the Dylan song that they took their name from, "Subterranean Homesick Blues." (The line in question: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.") Before 9/11, there had been previous seminostalgic stories of these radicals on the lam. But the current loin-girding against terrorists makes it hard to examine the criminal careers of the Weathermen with fairness.

San Francisco filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel's documentary The Weather Underground is a balanced but sympathetic account of the movement. Today, some Weathermen are doubt-stricken and sorrowful; some still refuse to renounce the more than a dozen no-injuries bombings they committed during the 1970s. Siegel and Green interview Naomi Jaffe, Mark Rudd, Laura Whitehorn and Bill Flanagan, as well as the one member convicted to serious time--David Gilbert, still serving 75 years in Attica for killing a policeman during an armored-car robbery. Speaking out here is the charismatic husband-and-wife team of Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn ("The La Passionata of the lunatic left," blurbed J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI).

The Weathermen were a cadre that spun off from the antiwar movement in 1969. As Rudd says, "Americans are taught from a very early age that all violence not sanctioned by the government is criminal or mentally ill, and we were called both criminal and mentally ill." Their sex lives spilled all over the map; their colorful but nonspecific communiqués declared war against "a culture of total resistance to mind controlling maniacs." The Weathermen's most unforgivable crime came early on, the incident that made them go into hiding: the accidental detonation of a bomb in a Greenwich City townhouse that killed three. Yet they were, more than anything else, political vandals who bombed evacuated banks and government offices. They outwitted the FBI for years. But the FBI had informants, as we learn in interviews with the jovial Michael Moore look-alike, FBI agent Don Strickland. Some of the group's paranoia was justified by extremes of the law. Green and Siegel recalls the Cointelpro program that harried Martin Luther King Jr. The documentary touches on the murder by Chicago police of Black Panther Fred Hampton, shot to death, it seems, for resisting arrest by sleeping. In the background is the ever-more-drastic war in Vietnam.

After the war was over in 1975, the Weathermen redoubled their efforts after losing their aim: one late assault by the cadre was blowing up a statue, just like the cranky revolutionaries in the Joe Orton play What the Butler Saw. A June 16, 1975, bombing occurred at the Banco de Ponce de Leon in solidarity with "striking Puerto Rican cement workers." Why--to create jobs for the repair crew?

Of course, the film holds up the Weathermen's deeds to criticism. The still angry Todd Gitlin, who saw his organization, the SDS, hijacked by the radical splinter group, denounces them: "They brought themselves to the point they were at. They were not brought." We also hear out the ambiguous feelings of Rudd, who now teaches community college math in Albuquerque. Rudd describes "my feelings of guilt and shame. ... I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority."

The Weather Underground isn't at all a talking-heads film. Green and Siegel have done an excellent job of re-creating a part of the past that didn't leave a lot of visual traces. "Most people under 40 hadn't heard of the Weathermen," Green told me, "so one of the things we didn't want to do was just a bunch of 50-year-olds telling their story. We had to use as much visual material as possible." Dohrn and Ayres tour their former hiding places in Sausalito, their faces telling you what a gut-punch it is to see how much things have changed in 30 years. A miniature camera barrels through the San Francisco Ferry Building, where the Department of Prisons was bombed in retaliation for the killing of Black Panther George Jackson. A no-comment excerpt from the Jane Fonda workout tape shows what became of one ex-radical in the 1980s.

The Weather Underground is a gripping crime story that shows the perils of the past, but also tells of one present-day peril: the danger of lumping radicals with vastly different aims and practices under the one frightening, discussion-stopping name of "terrorist."

(Shows March 1, 4:15pm, C3; March 2, 2pm, C3.)

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From the February 27-March 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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