* What the underground movement was truly about—what it was always about—was the plight of black Americans. Every single underground group of the 1970s, with the notable exception of the Puerto Rican FALN, was concerned first and foremost with the struggle of blacks against police brutality, racism, and government repression. While late in the decade several groups expanded their worldview to protest events in South Africa and Central America, the black cause remained the core motivation of almost every significant radical who engaged in violent activities during the 1970s. “Helping out the blacks, fighting alongside them, that was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Machtinger. “That was all we were about.”
“Race comes first, always first,” says Elizabeth Fink, a radical attorney in Brooklyn who represented scores of underground figures. “Everything started with the Black Panthers. The whole thrill of being with them. When you heard Huey Newton, you were blown away. The civil rights movement had turned bad, and these people were ready to fight. And yeah, the war. The country was turning into Nazi Germany, that’s how we saw it. Do you have the guts to stand up? The underground did. And oh, the glamour of it. The glamour of dealing with the underground. They were my heroes. Stupid me. It was the revolution, baby. We were gonna make a revolution. We were so, so, so deluded.”
The underground groups of the 1970s were a product of—a kind of grungy bell-bottomed coda to—the raucous protest marches and demonstrations of the 1960s. If the story of the civil rights and antiwar movements is an inspiring tale of American empowerment and moral conviction, the underground years represent a final dark chapter that can seem easier to ignore. To begin to understand it, one needs to understand the voices of black anger, which began to be noticed during the 1950s. All of it, from the first marches in Alabama and Mississippi all the way to the arrest of the last underground radical in 1985, began with the civil rights movement, a cause led by black Americans. And what was true at its inception remained true through the ’60s and into the ’70s-era underground: Blacks, for the most part, led, and whites followed. It was black leaders who initiated the first Southern boycotts; black leaders who led the sit-ins and gave the great speeches; black leaders who, when other avenues appeared blocked, first called for violence and open rebellion. At the end of the ’60s, it was violent black rhetoric that galvanized the people who went underground.
* Apocalyptic revolutionaries represented a strident new voice in the Movement, but they were able to draw from a wellspring of ideas that weren’t entirely new: philosophies, arguments, books, and films that had sprung up around armed-resistance movements worldwide. They studied Lenin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh—it went without saying that revolutionaries were almost always communists—but their favorite blueprint was the Cuban Revolution, their icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Castro’s swashbuckling right-hand man. A handsome doctor, Che represented the thoughtful, “caring” revolutionary who resorted to violence only to fight an unjust government; by 1968 his poster could be found hanging in dormitories across America. The apocalyptic revolutionary’s favorite movie was The Battle of Algiers , a 1966 film that portrayed heroic Algerian guerrillas doing battle against their French occupiers. In time, once people actually began going underground, their bible would become Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla , written in 1969 by a Brazilian Marxist named Carlos Marighella; it outlined dozens of strategies and tactics, analyzing weapons, outlining ways to organize a guerrilla cell, even describing the best ways to rob a bank. A number of underground newspapers would excerpt Marighella’s manual.
* JJ [John Jacobs] fatefully fell in with another up-and-comer, a strikingly attractive twenty-six-year-old law student named Bernardine Dohrn. Dohrn was destined to become the glamorous leading lady of the American underground, unquestionably brilliant, cool, focused, militant, and highly sexual; J. Edgar Hoover would dub her “La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left.” A high school cheerleader in her Wisconsin hometown, she graduated from the University of Chicago in 1963 and, while working toward her law degree, began assisting a host of protest groups, including SDS.
Clad in a tight miniskirt and knee-high Italian boots, Dohrn burst onto the scene at Columbia, where she helped arrange bail bonds. Everyone who met her—every man, at least—seemed mesmerized. “Every guy I knew at Columbia, every single one, wanted to fuck her,” remembers one SDSer, and Dohrn knew it. She liked to wear a button with the slogan CUNNILINGUS IS COOL, FELLATIO IS FUN. She and JJ were immediately smitten with each other. “Bernardine would be arguing political points at the table with blouse open to the navel, sort of leering at JJ,” an SDSer named Steve Tappis recalled. “I couldn’t concentrate on the arguments. Finally, I said, ‘Bernardine! Would you please button your blouse?’ She just pulled out one of her breasts and, in that cold way of hers, said, ‘You like this tit? Take it.’” Another SDSer, Jim Mellen, recalled, “She used sex to explore and cement political alliances. Sex for her was a form of ideological activity.” 2 Yet even many SDS women soon idolized Dohrn. Everyone “wanted to be in her favor, to be like her,” a Weatherman named Susan Stern said years later. “She possessed a splendor all her own, like a queen . . . a high priestess, a mythological silhouette.”
* Weatherman’s taste for orgies proved short-lived, petering out within months. Mark Rudd thought all the sexual experimentation—from Smash Monogamy to orgies to homosexuality—was “disastrous,” fostering petty jealousies, driving people out of the collectives, and introducing a level of sexual confusion that did little to focus cadres on the revolution. Worst of all, he recalls, was a resulting epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, from gonorrhea and pelvic inflammatory disease to crab lice and genital infections they called Weather crud. For Rudd, the final straw came when he was having sex with a woman and noticed a crab in her eyebrow.
* The decision to attack policemen was an unspoken act of solidarity with the group whose approval mattered most to Weatherman leadership: Movement blacks, especially the Black Panthers, who reserved a special hatred for urban police.
* As sad as it was to his friends, Rudd wrote years later, “JJ’s [John Jacobs] expulsion was a brilliant maneuver that successfully rewrote history. Suddenly no one remembered how universally accepted the old ‘Fight the people, all white people are guilty’ line was.” No one would remember that they had tried to kill policemen. “Weather’s history,” Rudd wrote, “had been conveniently cleaned.” A myth was born. “The myth, and this is always Bill Ayers’s line, is that Weather never set out to kill people, and it’s not true—we did,” says Howie Machtinger. “You know, policemen were fair game. What Terry was gonna do, while it was over our line, it wasn’t that far over our line, not like everyone said later. I mean, he wasn’t on a different planet from where we were.”
* After a warning call, the bomb finally detonated at 1:30 a.m., demolishing the restroom, heavily damaging an adjacent barbershop, and blowing out windows in a Senate dining room down a corridor. Damage was estimated at $300,000. On ABC News, anchorman Howard K. Smith noted that it was the first attack on the Capitol since the British burned it in 1814.
Much like the bombing of New York police headquarters nine months earlier, the Capitol bombing had a lasting and dramatic impact on security measures in Washington. For the first time, Capitol police began inspecting all purses and parcels brought into the building. All employees were issued photo identification cards. Gallery attendants received training in identifying suspicious persons. Seldom-used nooks and corridors were closed off. In the following year, the Capitol police force was increased in size to 1,000 officers from 622. Patronage appointments, until then routine, were stopped. Training was formalized. The department purchased its first bomb-sniffing dogs.
* The idea of a Black Liberation Army emerged from conditions in Black communities; conditions of poverty, indecent housing, massive unemployment, poor medical care, and inferior education. The idea came about because Black people are not free or equal in this country. Because ninety percent of the men and women in this country’s prisons are Black and Third World. Because ten-year-old children are shot down in our streets. Because dope has saturated our communities, preying on the disillusionment and frustration of our children. The concept of the BLA arose because of the political, social, and economic oppression of Black people in this country. And where there is oppression, there will be resistance. The BLA is part of that resistance movement. The Black Liberation Army stands for freedom and justice for all people.
—Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur
* Many policemen, along with BLA members themselves, considered the group a murderous black counterpart to the Weathermen. Mainstream politicians, afraid of alienating black voters, played down this talk entirely. Following suit, most of the white-dominated press dismissed the BLA as a ragtag collection of street thugs.
* “None of us, the whites I mean, had any clue what was really going on.”
* The pivotal figure in these debates was a newcomer to the NYPD, a deputy police commissioner named Robert Daley. Daley had been a New York Times reporter who had attracted the attention of Police Commissioner Patrick Murphy while writing a profile of him; when Murphy offered him the department’s top public-relations job, Daley accepted. He was a divisive figure, a publicity hound who, as the Times itself noted later, “was always mugging for the cameras.” What Daley loved most was a good detective yarn, and the story of the BLA was one of the best he had seen. Gunsmoke had barely cleared over Foster and Laurie’s bodies when he began arguing that the NYPD had an obligation to go public with its suspicions that the murders constituted a planned assassination by a national conspiracy of black militants.
This kind of talk startled aides to Mayor Lindsay, who had announced his campaign for the presidency a month earlier. Talk of black terrorists loose in the streets would undercut his candidacy, inflame race relations, and have every cop in the city looking askance at young black men. Lindsay’s combative press secretary, Tom Morgan, made clear to everyone that he didn’t want to see a single word about black conspiracies in the press.
Swarmed by reporters the morning after the murders, the chief of detectives, Albert Seedman, went along, pooh-poohing the conspiracy angle. But the next day, a Saturday, the UPI office received a handwritten communiqué, signed by the “George Jackson Squad of the Black Liberation Army.” * Mailed the previous day, it referenced “the pigs wiped out in lower Manhattan last night” and promised: “This is the start of our spring offensive. There is more to come.”
This was too much for Daley. That same afternoon—even as citizens in far-off Arizona were voting in the caucuses, in which Lindsay placed second to Edmund Muskie—Daley strode into an East Village precinct house and, standing before a bank of microphones, raised Rocco Laurie’s blood-drenched shirt for all to see. He called the murders assassinations, carried out by a conspiracy of urban guerrillas—black urban guerrillas. “Always in the past the police have been quiet about this conspiracy because of fear of accusations of racism,” he said. “But it isn’t the black community that is doing this, it is a few dozen black criminal thugs. . . . It’s terribly serious, much more serious than people seem to think. The police are the last barrier before chaos.”
Suddenly the rhetorical cat was out of the bag. The mayor’s people were apoplectic. But the New York newspapers, sensing a story too hot to handle, downplayed Daley’s dramatic press conference; the Times buried the story on page 35. Talk of a black conspiracy ebbed for several days as reporters focused on the officers’ funerals, which were massive affairs, with hundreds of uniformed officers lining Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But Daley would not let up. In off-the-record chats all that week, he told reporters that there was a true national conspiracy, that the NYPD’s intelligence, gathered over the previous seven months, confirmed the existence of a Black Liberation Army, with hundreds of would-be assassins divided into revolutionary cells. For the most part, no one believed him; no one, at least, printed
more of his theories. It was all too inflammatory, too far-fetched.
Finally, a week after the murders, a Times reporter cornered a reluctant Commissioner Murphy. All available evidence, Murphy admitted, suggested that the Foster-Laurie murders were in fact the work not of a national conspiracy to kill police but of roving bands of militants—“crazies,” Murphy termed them—who moved from city to city, murdering policemen. Daley, however, went much further. He told the Times there was a BLA that was “nationwide in scope,” adding, “We have here a very, very dangerous and criminal conspiracy. The public really doesn’t seem to be aware of it. The time is over when the Police Department should keep its mouth shut on this kind of thing.”
Working with incomplete information, neither man was entirely correct. The BLA was far too disorganized and far too decentralized to be called a true national conspiracy. But it was more than “roving” bands of “crazies.” Daley would not be deterred. Over the vocal opposition of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, he persuaded Commissioner Murphy to hold an unusual press conference on Tuesday, February 8, in which Murphy detailed the BLA’s involvement not only in the Foster-Laurie murders but also in the May attacks and the attacks on policemen in San Francisco and Atlanta. He named nine BLA figures sought by police, including Ronald Carter, Joanne Chesimard, and Twymon Meyers. Prosecutors had adamantly opposed going public, arguing that it would complicate any case they brought. The mayor’s office objected as well, finally persuading Murphy not to use the word “conspiracy.”
* the student was experimenting with gay life, and the habits he developed in San Francisco worried many. “He would pick up guys at bathhouses and bring them back to the safe houses, and you can’t do that, not without being compromised,” recalls Paul Bradley. After the Encirclement, the student was transferred to New York, where his problems continued. “None of us had dealt with gay issues at that point,” recalls Fliegelman. “He would go off and do stuff, and he could be compromised, so he ended up having to leave.”