Initially formed as a splinter group which believed that peaceful protests were ineffective, the Weathermen were widely criticized for their use of violence as a means of social and political change. Some accused the group of terrorism, while others accused it of giving all activists, both militant and more mainstream, a bad name.
But for the Weathermen, violent action was nothing short of necessary in a time of crisis, a last-ditch effort to grab the country’s attention. And grab attention they did—in March 1970, just days after Bernardine Dohrn publicly announced a “declaration of war.” When an accidentally detonated bomb killed three Weathermen in the basement of a Manhattan townhouse, the group suddenly became the target of an FBI manhunt, and members were forced to go into hiding. The bomb had been intended to be set off at a dance at a local Army base.
How did the Weathermen arrive at this point? Some of the group’s former members, interviewed in THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND, cite the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in a December 1969 Chicago police raid as a turning point. What many believed to be a government-sanctioned killing in an effort to wipe out militant groups such as the Panthers was, for the Weathermen, the final straw.
In 1960, nearly 50 percent of America’s population was under 18 years of age. This surplus of youth set the stage for a widespread revolt against the status quo: against previously upheld structures of racism, sexism and classism, against the violence of the Vietnam War and America’s interventions abroad. At college campuses throughout the country, anger against “the Establishment’s” practices turned to protest, both peaceful and violent.
As the decade continued, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to promote nonviolent protest, grew increasingly militant—as did the mostly white, middle-class “New Left,” which took cues from the civil rights movement, protested policies both home and abroad, and sparked factions like the Weathermen. By the late 1960s, activist movements had also mobilized among Asian Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, as well as a second wave of activism among women, gay and lesbians and the disabled.
1962: Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, holds its first convention in Port Huron, MI, calling for progressive alliances among activist groups.
1964: The Civil Rights Act passes, while America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam escalates.
1965: Berkeley Free Speech Movement spurs massive student protests against the Vietnam War. The first SDS anti-war march in Washington attracts 15,000 people.
1966: Huey Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.
1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are assassinated. Anti-war demonstrations turn violent at the Chicago Democratic Convention and shut down Columbia University.
1969: Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark die in a Chicago police raid. The Weathermen form.
March: Three Weathermen are killed when bomb manufacturing goes awry. The organization becomes the Weather Underground as key players including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Kathy Boudin go into hiding.
June: New York City police headquarters are bombed and the Weathermen take credit, issuing a communiqué from underground.
July: Thirteen Weathermen are indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring to engage in acts of terrorism. A New York bank is bombed in retaliation.
September: Timothy Leary issues a statement from the underground after escaping from prison with the help of the Weathermen.
1971: 50,000 anti-war protesters march on Washington, D.C.
1973: Cease-fire accord in Vietnam.
1977: Weathermen Mark Rudd and Cathy Wilkerson emerge from years of hiding and surrender to the police, receiving two years of probation and three years in prison, respectively.
1980: Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers resurface from the underground, pleading guilty to bail-jumping charges from a 1969 anti-war protest. Dohrn is fined $1,500 and given three years’ probation.
1981: The unofficial end of the Weather Underground occurs when Kathy Boudin resurfaces to participate in an armed robbery in Nanuet, New York, which results in the shooting deaths of three men. Boudin is sentenced to 22 years in prison, and is released in 2003.
Meet the former Weathermen interviewed in the film >>
Read an exclusive Q&A with Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers >>
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