Days of Rage

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An interview with Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage, about leftist extremist groups of the 1970s resonates for me today.
These groups were largely the product of the civil rights movement which had begun in the early part of the century, but had begun coming to fruition in the late 1940s and 1950s. By the 1960s it had begun to make real strides, and to influence many young people in particular.
Nor were all these young people black. Some whites felt the black cause to be significant and became Freedom Riders in the South. Some of them got killed or injured, just like the black people standing up for their rights. Some formed their own groups, especially in the wake of the Free Speech Movement centered around Berkeley. Besides the primarily black organizations like Martin Luther King’s Southern Leadership Conference, the Black Muslims, SNCC, and others, there was SDS, a primarily white organization, and would shortly be organizations for feminism and gay rights. I lived through that era, but hadn’t been paying close attention, especially before the 60s. I was quite surprised when I viewed a documentary showing the relationships of one movement to the others.
Anyone of my age knows that a different and more decent society was supposed to result from the protests and other actions of these groups, but it didn’t happen. Assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X were largely instrumental in that. Burrough’s book is about underground organizations of the 1970s who mistakenly thought that the country, having seen protests not only about segregation but Vietnam, the most senseless and ill-managed war of our history to that time, was on the brink of revolution, and wanted to help it along.
Most whites were unaware of the black community’s general view of civil rights. Dr. King’s nonviolent approach deservedly got the most publicity, but there was always an element in the community that felt blacks should have the right to defend themselves from persecution. That sounds like an issue the NRA ought to support, but it seems unlikely they ever will, since they recently banned guns from one of their meetings, and because the rights white people demand are usually prohibited to blacks–especially when they’re about carrying guns.
The leadership of the SDS, known as the Weathermen, decided to go underground in the early 70s, with the idea of fomenting violent revolution. They intended to do this by assassinating policemen, whom they saw as the people most actively persecuting the black community. Fortunately, an accident killing several Weathermen leaders largely disrupted that plan: they decided they couldn’t kill innocent people (though that happened sometimes anyway), so turned to bombing symbols of corporate power, like banks. Most such bombs were set off at night, when there was minimal chance of hurting anyone.
There were two primarily black organizations doing similar things at the time. The more publicized was the Black Panther Party, who stood for the right of the black community to arm and defend themselves, though that wasn’t all. They also put together programs for child care and feeding people to help the community in nonviolent ways. But powerful whites were alarmed, and either killed or imprisoned many of the Panthers, including most of the leadership.
Much less known (the author says there was actually a debate at the time as to whether or not they existed) was the Black Liberation Army. Their tactic was much the same as the Weathermen: to assassinate policemen. How successful at that they were, I don’t know, but the author located one of the original founders of the group, who commented that it would have been more effective to assassinate the bosses of the police.
None of these groups realized that violent revolution was the last thing most Americans wanted. In fact, their activities created a huge backlash. Many current Republican leaders were either growing up in the sixties, or not long after. They deplored (like older Republicans) the apparent lack of patriotism, and became more extreme themselves. Some also turned to violence ( Timothy McVeigh was the most famous of these), but found this was no better received than had been the leftist bombings. Others decided to organize.
There are some ironies here. The gay rights movement began at about the same time as the conservative resurgence. Their respective messages were mostly opposite, but their tactics weren’t: they organized to spread their message and challenge the laws they didn’t like. No one growing up the sixties could have imagined that gay rights would be so well accepted as to make gay marriage legal. Few from the sixties would have imagined how anti-democratic the political atmosphere would become, either.
I sympathized with the the concerns of the revolutionary groups at the time, but not with their aims or tactics. Having been reading about Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, my take was that violent revolution was not an appropriate aim, with the possible exception of REALLY extreme circumstances. You’re too likely to get a worse result than the status quo. And though this country never came close to a violent revolution, the reaction to its leftist revolutionaries did bring out the worst in the left’s conservative adversaries.
After the Vietnam war had been lost should have been a perfect time to reflect on our country’s mistakes, and resolve to change our policies to encourage more and better democracy. The opposite happened. Conservatives became energized, and began successfully opposing liberal causes. Nobody wanted to hear that this country had made mistakes that it needed to fix. And when mistakes aren’t fixed, their consequences pile up. That’s pretty much where we are now, statistically no longer the “greatest country in the world”. We probably never really were, but a hundred years ago that was more generally believable than it is now. We’re still the richest country in the world, but that wealth no longer seems unlimited. Pollution marks the end of the frontier.
So we’re a country built on a revolution with a meaning that no one ever entirely agreed on. The southern states wouldn’t agree to submerge their autonomy in the constitution without concessions regarding slaves. Slaves were the plainest symbol of how the best aspirations of the revolutionaries only applied to a few populations at best.
A recent article suggests that, from the perspective of minorities, this country would have been better off staying with England. Not because England was perfect, but because in general they treated minorities better. Fewer massacres, and less stealing of land. And slavery ended sooner in the British Empire.
The emotions roused by slavery on either side in this country are nothing short of amazing. The Civil War remains the most destructive war to our nation that we’ve fought in, and it isn’t over yet: the emotions are still powerful.
Racism was still powerful in the 1960s when civil rights bills were passed and were only effective on the surface, as we see today. Black people are still being killed by police and others with impunity, as they have been for our entire history. Propagandists encourage black and white hatred with as much virulence as they ever have.
White radicals in the 1960s and 70s wanted to change the country for the better, but used unwise tactics. So did some black radicals. They created a backlash that has been successfully trying to change the country for the worse, at least from my perspective. Conflict seems to be almost inevitable, but it certainly does get old. I’m reminded of a sign I saw in a picture of a protest sometime ago: “Do we have to protest this shit AGAIN?” Apparently we do.

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