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Former '60s Radical Recalls Days of Rage

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Former '60s Radical Recalls Days of Rage

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Former '60s Radical Recalls Days of Rage

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the 1960's, Cathy Wilkerson was a young radical. A middle class college kid who was drawn to the causes of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ms. CATHY WILKERSON: The most critical factor was the civil rights movement, and out of that came the student movement and the Black Panther Party which was a northern group of young black people fighting for economic change. And by the late 60's, King was killed, Kennedy was killed, a number of the leaders of the Black Panther Party were killed, the war continued to escalate despite massive demonstrations. And it was in '68 and early '69 that the move really shifted.

SIEGEL: In 1969, Cathy Wilkerson was in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. Wilkerson joined the faction called Weatherman, a reference to a Bob Dylan lyric from "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

(Soundbite of song "Subterranean Homesick Blues")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) Keep a clean nose, watch the plain clothes. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

SIEGEL: SDS tactics had already evolved from persuasion and organization to pugnacious forms of protest designed to polarize and radicalize. Weatherman accelerated that evolution, from confrontation to a clandestine armed struggle. They set out to blow things up. But their biggest explosion was accidental, and the victims were three of their own.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Unidentified Reporter: An explosion destroyed a New York City townhouse. And in the rubble, exposed tragedy in the makings of a sinister conspiracy. Robert Shakne reports.

Mr. ROBERT SHAKNE (Reporter): It was a most unlikely location for a revolutionary conspiracy, a Greenwich Village street of elegant and expensive townhouses.

SIEGEL: In March 1970, Cathy Wilkerson and four others were using her father's townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village as a bomb factory. Mr. Wilkerson and his wife were away. Cathy was cleaning up, ironing the bed linens, when a box of dynamite sticks downstairs accidentally went off.

Ms. WILKERSON: I was still standing, still holding the hot iron in my right hand; my arm is still obeying the signal of my mind had sent fractions of a second before to press down on the crisp, white cotton. A blast reverberated through the house. And in place of the ironing board, a mountain of splintered wood and brick rose up all around me. Plaster dust and little bits of debris blew out from everywhere, instantly filling the air. Even as I tried desperately to process what was happening, I noted with resignation that this was one mess I was not going to be able to clean up.

SIEGEL: That's Cathy Wilkerson reading from her newly-published memoire, "Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman." She was one of two survivors of the townhouse explosion. From there, she went underground for 10 years. Eventually, she served a prison sentence, got out and now trains teachers in teaching math. In her book, Cathy Wilkerson is apologetic for Weatherman's tactics, but not for her radical politics.

She's still a radical, but one who prizes the right to vote, which she regained several years ago. As for her Weatherman years, Wilkerson describes a time when optimism turned to fear and anger, and when she surrendered curiosity to the need to know and independent thinking to orders from the top. For example, taking part in a week of vandalism and violence in Chicago known as the Days of Rage.

Ms. WILKERSON: When I joined Weatherman, these kind of actions didn't really make any sense to me. And the best that I could make sense of what they were doing was this idea of just disrupting business as usual. But it did feel very personal and macho to me. It felt like a lot of testosterone being played out. And once again, I had this first reaction — was, well, am I being a wuss? Should I participate and join in? But when I tried to do that, it just felt silly.

SIEGEL: These things didn't make sense to you at some level?

Ms. WILKERSON: They didn't.

SIEGEL: But you were part of the movement that was doing it. And obviously, the affiliation with this movement, in some way, trumped your independent judgment, your individual judgment of what you were doing.

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, when I joined Weatherman, Weatherman was attempting to be what we called a cadre organization, meaning that once you joined the organization, you are under discipline to the organization, much like…

SIEGEL: The old communist party, for example.

Ms. WILKERSON: The old communist party and, perhaps, Enron, where your social life and your personal life and everything is sort of defined by your loyalty to this job. But certainly, joining Weatherman had that quality.

SIEGEL: If I could manage to empathize with all these events you described that get as far as the Days of Rage, that would be something. But to go from there to dynamites sticks, that's another - a leap that I just can't, I don't understand.

Ms. WILKERSON: Well, first of all, in December of 1969, Fred Hampton, who was the leader of the…

SIEGEL: Leader of the Chicago Black Panthers.

Ms. WILKERSON: Yes. He was assassinated in his bed by the Chicago police who barged into his apartment and shot him in cold blood in the middle of the night. This was a monumental moment for me. It terrified me, it enraged me and it made me say, we cannot let them get away with this. And it was that conversation that very quickly moved into - well, the consequences have to be military, because they won't listen to anything else.

SIEGEL: The dynamite sticks that went off in your father's townhouse in Greenwich Village were being prepared to go off at an officer's club at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Was that correct or…

Ms. WILKERSON: Yes. We had done a few fire bombings, which by that time were so ordinary as to be un-newsworthy. We wanted to do something a little bigger than that, and we didn't know what a little pipe bomb would do. So that was why in the end we decide to put nails in it, because we thought, well, at least if the pipe bomb doesn't do very much, there'll be a lot of chaos, sort of, around.

SIEGEL: Did you wanted to kill officers, to kill Army officers? Was that the idea?

Ms. WILKERSON: We never had a conversation about either the political or the human consequences of it. We wanted the government and the Army to pay attention.

SIEGEL: Waging guerilla war against the United States Army.

Ms. WILKERSON: Yes. We did understand that it was symbolic. But we were in a fairly deep level of denial about every level of it.

SIEGEL: The story of the townhouse explosion is not academic for me. I knew one of the Weatherman who died there. Ted Gold had been my high school and college classmate and a friend. Cathy Wilkerson says they had similar experiences. Both had favored cautious organizing and pointed demonstrations to violent mass tantrums. But their more hot-headed colleagues in SDS had shown that impulsive, destructive actions attracted big followings. They provoked the police, and then the ensuing violence made radicals out of moderates - at least for a time. So they assumed that they were wrong and the hot heads were right.

And they abandoned their own thinking to that of the movement. The townhouse explosion in 1970 was a watershed moment for SDS. Cathy Wilkerson says for her, it was one of many.

Ms. WILKERSON: I had sort of abandoned my critical thinking when I joined Weatherman, and I didn't get it back until I left Weatherman. So in that sense, I feel like joining Weatherman was more of a watershed moment. Fred Hampton being killed was a watershed moment of critical importance. And the townhouse was a watershed moment in that context. Although I understood the insanity of what we were doing very quickly after the townhouse, I didn't figure out another way to think coherently about the world anytime soon after that.

SIEGEL: Cathy Wilkerson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. WILKERSON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Cathy Wilkerson is the author of ""Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman."

BLOCK: And you can read an excerpt about the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion that sent Wilkerson underground at npr.org.

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