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Documentary: The Weather Underground
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This page was last updated on Saturday, 20th March 2004.

On Monday, 15th March 2004, BBC Four screened the Oscar nominated documentary "The Weather Underground." Coincidentally, the previous Friday, 12th March 2004, BBC One screened John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. There is an interesting connection between these two films. I primarily discuss the relevance of the former based upon my own experience and note the curious coincidence between these two films.

It was an outstanding documentary with relevance to what is happenning right now. Here's why I think so:

I was at Columbia University from 1966 to 1969 and recall the development of this radical group.  Where you [BBC Four] say that this documentary will bring back memories of those who recall the period, it was for me being among the few thousand at Columbia a reminder of what was happening then as now.  

I have a spectacular education as a result, and I'd like to comment on what I believe was the essence of the experience because I think it is relevant for the times we are living through right now.  It was SDS at Columbia which led to the Weatheman Underground.  Mark Rudd was the SDS Chairman and Ted Gold SDS Vice Chairman was always by his side. Ted Gold was killed while making the bomb in the West 11th Street brownstone.

I was a detached observer of this since I was an older student being a veteran struggling to finish my university education on my own by work, GI Bill, loans and grants while living in an SRO (Single Room Occupancy hotel) or what is known in the UK as a bedsit. I was sympathetic with the students and against the war in Vietnam but not radical or a participant in what happened at Columbia.

I did not realise that you where going to screen the documentary about the Weatherman Underground until I got your Email on Friday last.  Just before that I had seen "Marathon Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier.  I had never seen it before.  Hoffman played a graduate student at Columbia, and the Roy Scheider character had a line to the effect that ". . . they were blowing up buildings making bombs in the basement."  

I wrote down in my own notes while watching the film that Dustin Hoffman had lived next door to the building blown up by the Weatherman Underground on West 12th [sic] Street, and Ted Gold had been one of the three killed.  Dustin Hoffman had gone out for a couple of hours. It saved his life.  

His office where he would have been was destroyed.  By the way Dustin Hoffman's father-in-law was connected with Columbia.  Hoffman was interestngly and fascinatingly shown in the documentary looking at the hole and rubble next to his building amid the fire trucks after the explosion.   Imagine what he must have felt when he came back home to see this.  

I was quite surprised and pleased to see that you were going to screen this documentary about the Weatherman Underground and looked forward to seeing it.  It was West 11th Street (across from number 15) where the building was destroyed, and it was in March 1970 I learned.   This event was known but vague in my memory because by that time I was working for RCA Computer Systems Division and away in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for three months trainig.  The documentary filled in all the gaps.  

I probably had one of the last classes at Columbia on 23rd April 1968 before the school was shut down.  It was a French class in Hamilton Hall.  After the class when we came down the stairs, the whole ground floor was crammed with students.  They were protesting at the acting College Dean's office who was subsequently kept there all night.  

The issue was not the war in Vietnam but the fact that Columbia was building a gymnasium on public park land (Morningside Park) between Columbia on Morningside Heights and Harlem below and to the east.   The university had gotten much criticism for being able to build on public park land.  To make it worse they offered the Harlem community "back door" access to the gym at the bottom of the hill on which it was to be built.  This set everyone off.  

The real issue that brought the students into Hamilton Hall that afternoon from a sun dial rally of some 700 at noon in the centre of the campus was disciplinary procedures regarding demonstrating indoors which the university had forbidden.  This indoor demonstrations escalated to the point where the acting College Dean, Henry Coleman, was held captive all night in his office but released the next day.  

During the night the blacks took over Hamilton Hall and drove the whites out. The blacks really meant business, and it was their issue with respect to the gym and the community.   The white guys left not know where to go or what to do.  They wandered up to the administration building, Low Library, in the centre of the campus about 5:30 in the morning and decided to go in and take it over.  

It's interesting to note in the documentary that the white versus black issue was the motivating factor driving the Weatherman Underground. Bernadine Dohrn noted that this was the situation where the whites in some sense were trying to establish their credentials and solidarity with the blacks.

They could never do this it was later stated in the documentary. Skin colour did make a difference, and the had advantages as a result. This was the realisation of the blacks at Columbia on the night of 23rd April 1968 and something the whites were always faced with hence their own actions which kept getting more and more extreme.

The whites expelled by the blacks from Hamilton Hall smashed their way in past a security guard who had no idea what was happening and went on to the president's office (Grayson Kirk) which they took over.  It was all a fluke, and these students were as surprised as everyone by what they were able to do.  It was a tolerant university environment, and people were not supposed to act like this.  You might call it a soft target.  That is the essence of the university, but there were radical militant white students who seized the opportunity to take over the president's office.  The rest is history.  

There were no more classes that spring semester.   For a week the students took over building after building and shut everything down.  The administration finally called in the police which was a mistake.  A police riot ensued which was to be expected.   Faculty, students and administration were beaten indiscriminately.   There were hundreds of injuries, police vandalism and over 700 arrests.   It was a lesson in brutality on the rampage when the police are let loose.  

The university community had been polarised by two extremes: the student radicals and the intransigent administration.  In between there was the mass of students, faculty and administration who had all worked around the clock trying to resolve the problem peacefully.  This was pre-empted when the administration called in the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) or the riot police.  

For most of us we had nothing to do with either extreme.  We were the ones in the middle who came to Columbia for an education, and we were certainly getting one.   Basically we went on strike but only refused to return to the buildings which the administration had placed on a higher value level than the lives of the people.   What happened is that we held classes outside.  

I recall one beautiful sunny May afternoon when my French class was sitting outside on the grass of the South Lawn which stretches from the real library at one end of the campus, Butler Library, to the middle of the campus where the sun dial was located.  The sun dial was the centre for campus demonstrations.

Over in one corner was Wollman Auditorium and student centre.  Out on its patio the Grateful Dead played a concert all afternoon with their music bouncing around in this canyon of surrounding buildings (dormitories, schools including the journalism school, classrooms and library) which went up to around 16 stories high.  

We were reading Franz Fanon's "Les Damnes de la Terre" in French for this particular occasion.  This is his brilliant analysis of the French repression in Algeria and its impact there.   A key to this analysis was that a tactic used was to exert repression downward on the disenfranchised so that they would take out their aggressive response on each other.   In other words get them fighting amongst themselves and not against the forces of repression whatever they might be.  

This was a key lesson learned in this environment at Columbia.  The most important aspect was not to start a conflict between ourselves over what had happened, but to direct efforts against the source of the problem.  Ultimately, what occurred was a complete investigation during the summer of 1968 with hearings conducted by Harvard Law School Professor and former Solicitor General of the US Archibald Cox.  He went into absolutely everything that had occurred getting testimony or written statements from anyone who wanted to be heard and had something to say.  Some radical student groups refused to participate.

These hearings were held in Harkness Theatre, were open to the public and broadcast on the student radio station.   I used to listen to them on the radio.  Archibald Cox was extraordinary in his questioning as were the other members of the Commission.    He was very good.  A very sad thing had happened on about 21st May when the police were brought onto the campus a second time in the middle of the night to clear it again some three weeks after the initial police "clearance."  This was in response to further demonstrations about discipline.

What they did was not only drive students into their dormitories, but they entered the dormitories seeking out students to beat them.  I listened to this in the middle of the night since it was broadcast on the student radio station and recorded it.   I still have this recording to this day.  I lived off campus so I was not directly involved.  But, what had happened was a blatant act of repression where the police had been brought onto the campus, and the same police riot had occurred once again.  

There was need of a thorough investigation and that took place.  Out of it came a tremendous book called "The Cox Commission Report: Crisis at Columbia.  Repot of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968."  Random House Vintage Books, New York, October 1968.   The Executive Committee of the Faculties of Columbia appointed this Commission which included other members as distinguished as Archibald Cox.  

Although the Commission had the full support and cooperation of almost everyone including the Trustees and administration, once it was born it became fully independent to "chart its own course, conduct its own investigation and reach its own conclusions."  The result was a comprehensive analysis of all that had occurred.   A better job could not have been done.  It is a book well worth reading.  

Archibald Cox was later appointed Watergate Special Prosecutor.  He was too good for Nixon who wanted to control his investigation.  Nixon fired him in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre when Eliot Richardson, the US Attorney General, was sacked for refusing to fire Archibald Cox on orders from Nixon. I believe one other went too from the Justice Department before Nixon got someone to dismiss Archibald Cox.  I believe this was Bork.  Had this not occurred the Watergate Investigation might have come up with a comprehensive and thorough report as came out of the Columbia problems.   Problems cannot be solved unless they are fully understood.  

Here is my analysis of what spawned the Weathrman Underground based upon what happened at Columbia.   The radical students succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.  They had a taste of power.  The only way they got that power was by extreme behaviour.  So they kept getting more and more extreme.  They would not define and accept a goal.  Their own objective was just more and more power which was achieved by taking more and more radically extreme positions which logically led to the Weatherman Underground and a terror campaign of bombings in the US.  

They got trapped in their own power trip.   They were not trying to actually achieve anything other than revolutionary anarchy.  That was their objective.  As was stated in the documentary, they wanted to initially bomb an NCO dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey.  That's why they made the bomb which blew up in the basement of the brownstone on West 11th Street while they were making it.  Then with their own deaths they realised, according to the documentary, that they were just terrorists killing innocent people for their own power accumulation's sake.  Repression from the FBI helped to drive them along.  

Thus, they switched to bombing buildings with warnings so that no one would be hurt.   Their campaign then swept the US.  It is my belief that the key to this terrorism came out of Columbia because the problems were not fully resolved.   Had different steps been taken, maybe, and I only say maybe, the Weatherman Underground might not have developed at all.  These were the few disenfranchised leaders of the student "revolution" excluded from the university who went on to create terror on a larger scale in the US.   Thank goodness they blew themselves up initially rather than those at the dance at Fort Dix. It's tragic that anyone was killed, but they at least learned something from it. Fortunately, no one else was killed.

In the aftermath of the Columbia experience the two extremes were driven away.  President Grayson Kirk and his Vice President and Provost David Truman were replaced.   At the other end of the spectrum the student radical leaders were expelled.   Evidently no effective compromise could be reached.  I believe that this is what led to their ever growing need for extremist action which was transferred to the Weatherman Underground.  

What is important in the documentary is that when they first formed nationwide in Chicago in 1969, there were only about 150 who actually showed up in the park and subsequently went on the rampage through the streets.

Finally, there was really only a small core of those who went underground and started their bombing campaign.  I believe that this could have been stopped had other action been taken at Columbia to incorporate these into the university somehow if that were possible.  

The direct parallel that I see now occurring in the UK with regard to terrorism is the same thing with the terrorists having been branded as "evil" along with the extreme actions by the US and UK to bomb and invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.  This was the wrong action to take.  It did not address the problem of terrorism.  It helped create more of it on a very large scale.  

There has been a domestic UK failure to really grapple with all the facts of why this country went to war.  There has been no comprehensive commission with powers to probe every aspect to get at all that needs to be investigated with respect to the invasion of Iraq.  A problem cannot be solved unless it is fully understood.  

It becomes an ever escalating power struggle from each extreme: the top of the US/UK Governments on the one end and the ever growing terrorists on the other.  Each is making the other's power maintenance struggle possible with all the rest of us caught in the middle and used as helpless pawns subjected to fear of terror and actual death in some instances.   As long as these two extremes blindly adhere to their power perogative at the expense of everyone else, terrorism will escalate.  

That is why there is a great hope in the democratic response to terrorism in Spain.   The same remains true in the US and UK with respect to those in charge of their respective Governments.  They have not addressed the terrorism problem properly and acted only to maintain their own power by an inappropriate response to terrorist acts.  This is why it is necessary for the peple to democratically change these governments.  

What I learned at Columbia during the spring of 1968 and its aftermath has been an indispensable part of my education for my life as I've watched this unfold over the decades.   Terrorism has been here for decades.  So far no one has actually got it right to address these problems properly.  One must address the causes of terrorism, but first they must be completely understood.  Knee jerk responses with military power are useless and counterproductive against terrorism.  

Thanks for screening that documentary on the Weatherman Underground.  It did a little more than touch this experience in my life for me.  It raised those critical issues of democratic problem solving and change vis-a-vis those who want power for power's sake and are willing to destroy for that no matter whether they are at the top of government or among "Les Damnes de la Terre."  

It was also fascinating to note that the issue in "Marathon Man" was greed where those who are supposedly in Intelligence were really out to get the diamonds for themselves.  That film said a lot about the character of the secret services and the potential for corruption when operating outside the law and outside democratic government and its institutions.  The Dustin Hoffman connection with these two films/issues is one of those fascinating conincidences or is it?  

The problem of terrorism must be addressed by addressing the problems of humanity democratically and not by the methods of the terrorist and the uncertain effectiveness of secret service and police powers.  

Corrupt self interest seems to be all that surfaces.  

Copyright 1996 - 2004 by Gary D Chance

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