- Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity
Recent treatments of the Weather Underground, including the 2002 theatrical release of an Oscar-nominated documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, have introduced a whole new generation to the organization and its historical significance. Recent historical works devoted to the topic, such as Jeremy Varon's Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (2004) and Thai Jones' A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience (2004), have heightened this interest. In addition, numerous recent novels also address the theme. Among these works are Liza Nelson's Playing Botticelli (2000), Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep (2003), Jay Cantor's Great Neck (2003), Russell Banks' The Darling (2004).
Since readers have become captivated again with the Weathermen and their history, the recent release of Dan Berger's fully researched history of the Weather Underground is well timed in its efforts to inform such a resurgence of interest. What distinguishes this account is the care taken to conduct oral histories with many individuals who participated in landmark events; Berger interviewed both WUO members and other figures for the purpose of adding depth and reflection to his study. Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity is a thorough-going study of the organization's origin, purpose, and history. Berger combines previously available source material with original field research to develop his portrait of Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization.
Berger makes no secret of the nature of his interest in the Weather Underground. He takes an explicitly activist stance and approach to his subject. This activist orientation shapes both his research process and his writing product. In a post-9/11 era, Berger takes pains to distinguish among militancy, militarism, and terrorism—suggesting that the militancy of the Weather Underground should not be dismissed as mere terrorism. Berger clearly believes today's activists can find valuable guidance in this particular chapter from the history of protest in the United States, and he describes the Weather Underground as, among other things, a "model for white people's participation in anti-racist movements." (273) This is not to say that Berger overlooks the group's shortcomings. For example, he laments the organization's consistent "hostility to feminism." (292) Despite the important contributions of feminists to WUO, both aboveground and below, there was considerable conflict within the group's membership about incorporating anti-sexism alongside anti-racism and anti-imperialism within Weather's priorities. Furthermore, Berger discusses the way Weather's decision to go underground, however strategic, "complicated notions of democracy" within the group. (290) The secrecy of life underground left most members informed only on a 'need to know' basis, rendering broad-based dialogue about goals and deliberation over methods nearly impossible.
Nonetheless, Berger finds it useful to explore the "lessons and legacies" of the Weather Underground. (269) Indeed, Outlaws in America takes its narrative frame from a series of interviews with a key WUO member, David Gilbert, conducted [End Page 803] during visiting hours in prison. In this way, Gilbert's story functions as a lens through which to see the motives behind involvement in groups such as the Weather Underground. Berger's framing device gives a human face to the organization, and Gilbert proves to be characteristically articulate about the organization's history and insightful about its relevance to issues today. Gilbert's incarceration also dramatizes two of Weather's favorite causes—the critique of the prison industrial complex and the call for release of America's political prisoners.
With any study of this kind, in which Berger must piece together fragments of an embattled and later underground existence, there are bound to be points in historical dispute, if not debate. For example, some might challenge his contention that the "Weather Underground never had more than a few score members." (288) Other disparities may be less contentious, such as...