For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
It is clear to me exactly when it ended. I can fix the day, the setting—a windblown vacant lot in the San Gabriel Valley, with a phone booth and a streetlight. The ultraviolet sizzle of the Los Angeles sky at dusk is like nothing else. Three of us sat in the car watching while our comrade, Alice, talked on the phone, standing in a pool of light as it got dark around her. We were quiet; everyone’s wheels were spinning.
Our little clandestine cell had been hunting in the Los Angeles–San Diego corridor for more than a year, looking for a chink in the armor of the military-industrial complex, a gap in the defenses of the war machine big enough to permit delivery of one of our group’s patented surprise packages. It was early in 1973. Richard Nixon, an apparent sociopath, had won a second term in the White House with false promises of peace in Vietnam, while high-altitude bombings of civilian populations continued across Indochina. Legal remonstrance had proved futile. The Holocaust was fresh in memory—never again!—and all-white police forces roamed the ghettos beating and shooting black suspects at will. We had learned in the civil rights movement the meaning of the categorical imperative: One does not stand idly by in the face of evil. The need to act gnawed at us, and that afternoon we found our opening.
Southern California bristled with military installations and defense contractors, and there weren’t many that we had not sniffed around. But all the airfields and weapons contractors girded their domains with razor wire and motion sensors, and the longer we looked, the more helpless we felt. The best we had done was at Air America, the CIA’s notorious pirates-for-hire, who flew agents, mercenaries, weapons, and drugs in and out of illegal operation zones in Laos and Cambodia. One of our group, disguised as a nurse, had wandered through an open gate at their complex in Van Nuys and made it all the way into a hangar, where she saw crates of hardware stacked and marked for shipment to Thailand. But she had no cover, no excuse to be there, and had to scoot back out before she was noticed, without seeing any kind of hole or corner where a device could be lodged.
That day, on the edge of the desert, we found a hole. On the outskirts of the last town in the valley—a patchy grid of scattered, weather-beaten ranch homes and trailers amid the cactus and yucca—lay a little backwater airfield, unfenced, with a squadron of B-52s parked on the tarmac. We’d seen these planes up close at military air shows, built low to the ground with big openings around the wheel-wells where the wings joined the fuselage. A small bomb planted there—ten sticks of dynamite with a pocket-watch fuse—would cripple the plane, and destroy it completely if its fuel tanks detonated. As we drove incredulously past the disused lanes around the field’s edge, it was easy to picture an approach on bicycles, with backpacks, posing as desert campers. Where the sage grass grew in tall clumps, a bike-hiker could easily fade into the twilight and wait for the wee hours.
Alice had been talking too long. The phone booth now looked sinister under the streetlight, and I began to mistrust what was happening over the wire. It was a previously scheduled, phone-booth-to-phone-booth call to our leader-ship contact on the East Coast, an exchange of information on our activities and theirs, a quick update on strategy and analysis—routine communication that is the daily bread of a serious political organization. After our breakthrough, we had approached the contact exultantly, eager to share the news and fully expecting the East Coast to be as joyous over the discovery as we were.
To mount an action we needed to mobilize a considerable array of human and material resources, which required full support of leadership. How could they not say yes? Our organization existed to shock and repudiate the war effort, and what we viewed as the concomitant outrages of institutionalized racism at home. With pinprick attacks on symbolic targets, this underground organization had defined a new genre of militant, but non-lethal, direct action—annealed by the trauma of a 1970 bomb-building accident in New York City that killed three of its members. Regrouped and rededicated, the group waged a brash campaign of midnight attacks that held a mirror up to the pathological violence of the war, gave voice to the anger many others felt, and mocked the FBI’s inability to catch us. Destroying two heavy bombers would drive our message home as never before: No business-as-usual while the war goes on.
Why was I so uneasy when the call went on so long? In our little collective, we often lost our way. Most of the group were fugitives who had been forced to cut off contact with their families and friends. We had only carefully-rationed meetings with our allies in the above-ground antiwar movement. For safety’s sake, we lived deliberately sterilized lives, almost entirely dependent on each other for human warmth and stimulation. Sometimes the only way to practice our intense political convictions was by analyzing our own behavior, on the seductive theory that what is personal is political too. We could scarcely dare to admit that only in these rare, transcendent moments of action were we really living. Survival required ignoring the precariousness of our existence. But in unguarded moments, it inevitably impinged.
Alice hung up the phone and slouched back across the crumbling pavement. She climbed in and we started off toward the last of the light over the ocean. “They don’t want us to do it,” she said simply, and I realized with a sinking feeling that she was relieved. A silence... “Why? How can they think that?” I did not know how to say that I felt as if I was falling from a great height. “We’ve been criticized a lot in the East,” she went on. “People think just doing actions all the time is too macho. Sonia said we need to just chill out for a while. Besides, think how heavy it would be to do planes. It would be really bad heat. Really, really bad for everyone.”
“It’s all we’ve been trying to do for the past year,” I said. But the others were silent. Eventually, we speculated that our collective was perhaps not trusted, not thought competent. Years later, I heard the theory that the leadership by this time was making plans to disband the organization, surface, and seek plea bargains on the relatively minor charges most of them faced from the wild street demonstrations of 1968 and 1969. A “heavy” action against a military target would screw up the chances for lenient deals. And playing in our own minds was dread of the stress and toil that mobilizing for an action would entail.
That night, the four of us ceased to function regularly as the fingers of one hand—as we had, up to that time, to a commendable extent. We rode silently home, disconnected, spinning away from each other into inner space. In the weeks that followed, we all did our best to pretend that nothing irrevocable had happened. But as time went by, we clung more and more to the abstractions of political ideology and increasingly lost sight of the slender, ineffable truth that had guided us and justified our extreme and rarefied way of life—that in the face of a great wrong, there is a duty to act. Enforced isolation and the enormous pressure of the odds finally tipped the balance of our existence too far inward.
The once-fresh hypothesis that our example would inspire a spontaneous movement of the young and disaffected overgrew its natural limits; it became a doctrinaire theory of international class struggle in which revolutionary nationalist movements in the Third World replaced the industrial proletariat of Marx’s vision as the vanguard. Study groups were formed. Work began on a manifesto explaining “our class stand.” Organizing networks to distribute clandestinely produced political tracts became our de facto strategy for helping to build a political movement that would support a revolution led by black and Third World insurgents. But while we dug in, the world moved on. Middle America was turning against the war. The rafters were beginning to rattle with the beginnings of an extraordinary transformation in the lives of women. And by mid-1973, the Senate Watergate hearings had cracked open the putrid core of the Republican government right before our eyes. The fucker was going down!
The victory was as much ours as anyone’s. Others had marched and thrown their medals on the White House lawn. We had created a theater of the real, blown up the royal privy, and made good on our promise that there would be no peace at home while the slaughter went on. It was time to fold up our tents and melt into the night. But we did not get it. Instead of recognizing the war of the flea for what it was—an artful game of witness and confrontation—we fell for the delusion that revolutionary change was at hand. A sclerotic, small-group orthodoxy set in, built on fixed and unspoken absolutes. Blacks had to lead; original sin clung ineluctably to the white race. Feminism had to be ultra, fueling the compulsion to segregate humanity into orders of political purity. Succumbing to the acquired habit of blocking out heterodoxical information, we developed a tin ear for the dialectics of real life. Among the many sins we were accused of, the only one that counted was that we had become cognitively impaired. Our muddle-headedness helped to inflict on the next generation a legacy of arid political correctness that hurt its chances of reaching higher ground.
That night in the San Gabriel Valley was the beginning of the end. But most of us did not realize we were through until a long time after it happened. Some may not know it yet.
Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001)
Cathy Wilkerson, review of Fugitive Days, Z Magazine, December, 2001
Hal Jacobs, Weatherman (Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1970)
Marvin Doyle is a pseudonym of a former member of the Weather Underground.
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