Fictionalizing Radical Activism of the 1960s


Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (New York: Penguin Press, 2015), 585 pp., $29.95.

True crime traffics in the imagined thoughts, superficial characterization, and high-voltage action of characters rendered unbelievable by the dictates of a Manichean genre. It is a genre of stereotypes, of sexy-but-dangerous villains and tough-but-fair cigar-chewing cops. At its best, true crime spins a good yarn. The bank robber with a heart of gold, the doggedly persistent detective, the seductive temptress—they may be fun archetypes but they do not teach us anything about how history actually takes place. It is a genre premised on thrill and intrigue, not edification. The genre has predetermined conclusions: the good guys—represented by the police, naturally—catch, defeat, or otherwise outsmart the bad guys. Even while allowing for the occasional crooked cop, it is a narrative that reinforces the power of the state over and against enemies, foreign and domestic.

All this would be enough to disqualify most works in the genre from consideration as legitimate history. But given the many ways in which crime has been understood through race and racist stereotypes, the stock characterizations in true crime stories have ever more damaging implications. Such distortions are more than bad history. They are toxic justifications for continued police brutality, mass incarceration, and the surveillance state in the name of “fighting crime.”

This is what makes Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage not just disappointing but ultimately dangerous. Its genre is history as “true crime.” Burrough chronicles six revolutionary underground organizations from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s: the Weather Underground, which emerged out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party; the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose best known act was kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst; the New World Liberation Front, a curious sequel of sorts to the SLA; the Puerto Rican independence group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional; and a New England group of working-class white radicals that ultimately called itself the United Freedom Front.

These groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough’s America’s Most Wanted lens, are not activists fighting a racist, bellicose country. They are naïve bad guys and narcissistic thugs in love with violence. Their goal was not revolution so much as it was “killing cops.” Burrough provides a hackneyed depiction of one-dimensional human beings. He relies on the same tired racist and/or sexist stereotypes that lead police every day to stop and frisk, lock up, or kill Black people across the country. To render such stereotypes as history provides a dangerous justification to these forms of violence.

And what of the history? There is a growing legion of memoirs from partisans of the underground—especially the Weather Underground, which receives the most attention in Burrough’s book—with a few tabloid-worthy revelations about the group’s structure and functioning. There is also a sizable group of historians, amateur and professional alike, who have been researching and writing about these organizations and that time period for years, myself included. Burrough, however, is the first to bring all of these groups together in such great detail. At nearly 600 pages, Days of Rage is a hefty book that moves along at a brisk pace.

A special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of several previous books on both finance and the FBI, Burrough aims to tell the story of these organizations and of the FBI agents and police officers who chased them down. Burrough says that he has no ideology to pursue or axe to grind, and that he tried to keep his political judgments “to a minimum.” Throughout much of the book, as well as in post-publication interviews, he has labeled his subject matter “revolutionary violence” rather than “terrorism” to emphasize that the organizations he describes did not target civilians, practice indiscriminate violence, or wrack up a high body count. Rather, he sees his subjects as “young people who fatally misjudged America’s political winds and found themselves trapped in an unwinnable struggle they were too proud or stubborn to give up.”

Presenting the book as free of ideology or even politics, together with the support of a major publisher, might explain the book’s generally favorable mention in mainstream media, including some liberal outlets, by credulous journalists who, like everybody else, enjoy a good story. Burrough has been interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and received mostly positive reviews in publications like the Washington Post, The Nation, and The New Yorker. These reviewers gloss over the fact that the book fails to understand even the most basic elements of 1960s-era social change and what led to the rise of underground movements. His ignorance is especially evident in his discussion of the Vietnam War and the Black freedom struggle. Of the former, Burrough claims that underground movements did not care about the war in Vietnam (or the counterculture), despite ample evidence, presented in the book itself, to the contrary. Following the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, for instance, students at more than 60 college campuses went on strike and numerous ROTC buildings or other military institutions were set aflame. The Weather Underground mentioned the Vietnam War in nearly all of its communiqués and writings; opposition to the war was so central to the group that it tore itself apart not long after the war ended.

If his discussion of the Vietnam War is an error of omission, Burrough’s discussion of Black radicalism is an error of commission. He says that the Black Panther Party was declining by 1968, when by all accounts (see, for instance, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire) the organization was at its height, with new chapters forming worldwide. He caricatures the 1970s as a time when people cared about disco, not politics. In disavowing the importance of the Vietnam War and minimizing the transformative vision of the Black freedom struggle, Burrough shows his lack of understanding of the two driving forces of social change inside the US in those years. Such distortions, which appear throughout the book, contravene both history and more than two decades of historical scholarship.

His book thus fails at a most basic level to capture why the organizations it discusses did what they did—meaning both going underground and engaging in armed struggle—when they did, and to what effect. The book is woefully under-sourced and surprisingly ill-informed about its historical context. While this absence of serious analysis seems more naïve than malicious, it forecloses any possibility of helping us better understand its subject-matter. Burrough rests his expertise on the interviews he conducted with participants, but there are serious flaws here. Already, former Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson published a letter in the New York Times charging that Burrough falsely claims that she described herself as the group’s “West coast bomb maker” and erroneously quotes her as saying that “all [Black Panthers] wanted to do” was “kill policemen.” Burrough says that David Gilbert, another former WU member, takes credit in his memoir for a bombing that Gilbert does not even mention in his book. The Black Panther Party, a complex organization whose combination of community programs with strident opposition to the US government captured the imagination of the time as did few others, gets reduced to an organization premised on “killing cops.” He describes the Black Liberation Army, a clandestine splinter of the Panthers, as “the first and only black underground of its kind in US history,” overlooking a succession of organized uprisings and self-defense formations throughout African American history, from slave rebellions to Garvey’s African Legion to the Deacons of Defense. Numerous other such errors, some big and others small, run through the book.

Like so many true-crime books, Days of Rage is overflowing with stock characters. Most troubling are the banal ways in which the book justifies police harassment and killings through stock portraits of Black criminality and women’s emotional imbalance. In an era of renewed nativism and explicit white supremacy, Days of Rage may seem tepid in its rhetoric. Yet in the long run, its distortions of history may prove more damaging precisely because it will be taken more seriously than the far-right extremists whose logic it shares.

Throughout this massive tome, Burrough describes white leftists as smarter, more humane, and more interesting than their Black or Puerto Rican counterpoints. He opens the book with a chapter on Sam Melville and Jane Alpert, a pair of bumbling bombers in the late 1960s who Burrough claims started it all (despite the fact that bombings had been happening for years at that point), and follows that through with a rigid focus on the Weather Underground. Indeed, the WU becomes the litmus test against which he measures all other groups: did they bomb more or fewer targets than the WU, did their structures resemble those of the WU, did they think similarly or differently to the WU? Such an emphasis overlooks the political issues motivating Black and Puerto Rican revolutionaries, aboveground as much as underground. The focus remains squarely on white people—even as Burrough claims that the entire underground was motivated by Black radicalism.

His discussion of Black radicalism leaves much to be desired. He describes Black Power as the province of a small group of charismatic men, each one neatly passing the torch to the next after being felled by death (Malcolm X), incarceration (Huey Newton), or, since he doesn’t know why they were so important, irrelevance (Robert Williams, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown). These charismatic men, enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, spread a politics of unbridled “anger” (more on that later). Even more maddening, Burrough views Black organizing as relevant only to the extent that it interested, conned, or was itself conjured by white leftists.

This is most evident in his discussion of the 1970s prison movement. Burrough calls prison activist and bestselling author George Jackson “a thug with a fountain pen.” This is not only demeaning to someone who catalyzed a generation of prisoner rebellion; it is also factually inaccurate in that, like all California prisoners at the time, Jackson was given only a short golf pencil with which to write. The “thug” invective is transparently offensive, but the “fountain pen” reference plays up Burrough’s stereotype of Black radicals as flashy con artists. It is a dangerous dismissal of imprisoned people at the exact moment when, after forty years of unmitigated prison growth, a radical critique of incarceration has resurfaced in part due to the activism of prisoners.

Burrough’s derision of Black radialism continues. The book’s dramatis personae list includes only one Black woman, Assata Shakur. Meanwhile, it lists Twymon Meyers as “probably [the] most violent revolutionary of the underground era” and Sekou Odinga as the “most important black militant of the underground era,” whatever that means. The white radicals listed are exempted from such hierarchical rankings—they are granted more agency of active, intelligent participation.

That is not to say that the book is only about men. But white men are the only semi-rational actors in Days of Rage. For a history that involved so many women participants and leaders, it is rather remarkable that Burrough so routinely describes them as props. Former WU member Cathy Wilkerson “is a sixty-eight-year-old grandmother now, freckled and still very attractive.” He describes Fay Stender, by all accounts a dedicated attorney and tireless advocate on behalf of incarcerated people who helped make George Jackson known to the larger world, as a “plain woman with a smoldering sexuality.” Stender committed suicide in 1980 a year after being shot by an erstwhile militant, but Burrough sacrifices a genuine opportunity to inveigh against leftwing violence for a cheap catcall.

His puerile objectification of former WU leader Bernardine Dohrn, who went on to a distinguished legal career at Northwestern University, constitutes a narrative thread in itself. He goes out of his way to describe her sexual appeal and (imagined) activities, at one point suggesting that she was “too beautiful to take seriously.” With a barely stifled erection, Burrough quotes FBI agents bragging about having stolen a pair of underwear from Dohrn’s sister Jennifer during an illegal break-in of her apartment. Yet he fails to mention that the Bureau also considered kidnapping Dohrn’s infant son in a macabre plot to force the surrender of the Weather Underground leader. Meanwhile, the women in the United Freedom Front spend most of the book fretting and worrying; they have no politics, no ideas of their own. In the dramatis personae list, they are described only as wives and mothers, whereas their husbands are “charismatic leader,” “radical,” “recruit.”

Given that Burrough sees Black Power as largely a boys’ club, few Black women appear in Days of Rage. Their absence flies in the face of history, as demonstrated through in recent studies such as Sherie Randolph’s biography of Florynce Kennedy, Barbara Ransby’s biography of Ella Baker, and Jeanne Theoharis’s biography of Rosa Parks. It also contravenes the present-day landscape, where Black women lead a host of activist efforts, including the Black Lives Matter movement. The one Black woman who does appear in the book is described by federal prosecutors as the “heart and soul” of the Black Liberation Army: Assata Shakur. In a small sign of the many ways in which Burrough relies almost solely on government sources, he refuses to call her by the name she chose more than forty years ago. Rather, he refers to her exclusively as Joanne Chesimard, the name law enforcement officers and New Jersey officials continue to use in their ongoing effort to apprehend her.

Shakur is perhaps America’s most famous exile, having escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 and subsequently receiving exile status in Cuba. She returned to the news recently, first in 2013 when the FBI made her the first woman on its Most Wanted Terrorists List and then again with the recent change in US-Cuba relations. Some law enforcement officials hope the thaw between the countries will result in her forced return to this country, a move Cuban officials have consistently rejected. She has been a bane to law enforcement and a hero to many activists. Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country have chanted her poetry or worn t-shirts with her name.

Shakur is, thank God, conventionally attractive. Her arrest on the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1973, after police pulled over the car in which she was traveling (in an incident Burrough acknowledges may have been racial profiling) provided “the first time the press was obliged to introduce and attempt to explain a black revolutionary—and an attractive woman at that—to a mainstream audience.” (Angela Davis, for some reason, just does not rate.) After her arrest, Shakur was charged in a number of unsolved cases. Burrough admits that there was little evidence against her, that police created myths about her to justify their efforts to capture or kill her. And yet, it would seem that Shakur is too beautiful for Burrough to take seriously. He describes her as the “unlikeliest field marshal,” “ferocious,” and “spitting-mad angry.” Her “anger” would seem to make her a perfect fit for the “murderous” group of “thugs” and “gangsters” Burrough describes as the Black Liberation Army.

“Anger” should be listed in the book’s cast of characters. Anger is the structuring trope for Burrough’s engagement with Black and Puerto Rican people, as well as women of all races—there is, after all, a passing reference to the “angry lesbians” of the underground. It is anger without a source, rationale, or end goal. He casts the Black Panther Party as bloodthirsty cop killers and describes the divested education system of the 1970s in Chicago’s Humboldt Park as a “seething cauldron of Puerto Rican resentment.” What can be done with such unrestrained, seething anger? It cannot be reasoned with, cannot be dealt with in any way besides brute force. And that is why the NYPD and the FBI dedicated 150 officers to kill suspected BLA member Twymon Meyers on a New York City street in 1973 and then stationed snipers on rooftops at his funeral in Harlem. According to Burrough, Meyers was simply “cut to pieces” in a “blizzard of bullets” that pre-empted an arrest or trial. Yet Burrough describes the unsolved killing of two police officers, shot eight and six times respectively, allegedly by Meyers and two others, as somehow and without explanation “one of the most gruesome murders in the history of New York.”

That discrepant value of human life is the deepest flaw in the book. Yet it is a flaw deeply seated in our society writ large. Burrough had fantastic, even startling (and perhaps, given the outcome, infuriating), access to former members of the underground. He interviewed several participants, seemingly at length, including a number of people who had not shared their stories publicly before. Yet it is the police, especially the FBI, who provide the book’s interpretive frame. It is not only that he relies on FBI agents to fill in the blanks or settle any disputes in the historical record. Burrough is interested in their morale. As with any garden-variety cop show, Days of Rage sees police efforts to capture radicals quelled by government bureaucracy and political correctness, what Burrough absurdly calls “newfound sensitivities about race.”

The “sensitivities” in question are the revelation of the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), a paramilitary underground set up by J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 to destroy the American Left, focusing especially on Black as well as Puerto Rican and indigenous communities. COINTELPRO included mass surveillance, identity theft, illegal break-ins, physical attacks, specious arrests, direct and indirect assassinations. For a book so interested in the previously undisclosed details of who did which illegal action, Days of Rage fails to give us some much-needed inside scoops: which agents wrote the letters encouraging Martin Luther King to commit suicide? Which agents injected fruit with powerful laxatives in order to sicken antiwar activists? Which agent determined and procured the drug combination used to subdue 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton so that Chicago police could kill him in his sleep? Who drew the cartoons mocking rival Black organizations in order to provoke such rancor that ultimately led to two members of the Black Panther Party being shot and killed on the UCLA campus in January 1969? Who debriefed the informants that set up twenty-one members of the New York Black Panther chapter, helping to concoct fanciful charges to pursue against them that ultimately destroyed the chapter? And how do such dirty tricks show up in contemporary campaigns against anarchists, radical environmentalists, Muslim activists, peace campaigners, and others? There is so much about the state’s clandestine attacks—a kind of underground that has had a far more decisive role in shaping contemporary America than the six radical organizations spotlighted here—that Burrough fails to uncover or much mention.

On the rare instance in which he does mention police violence, Burrough resorts to the passive voice, as if to remove police agency from causing harm. For instance, in describing the 1981 police torture of BLA member Sekou Odinga, Burrough says simply that when “he was escorted from the 112th Precinct that evening, Odinga’s body was covered with bruises and cigarette burns” and that he was “found to have sustained damage to his pancreas.” It would seem a mystery as to how those burns and bruises and pancreatic damage got there, though Odinga walked into that precinct a healthy man. Burrough is unwilling to acknowledge that police hurt people. Yet he quotes an FBI agent’s complaint that the bureau got a bad rap in that time period. Burrough lets stand the agent’s erroneous claim that the Weather Underground set “hundreds of bombs,” even while elsewhere in the book Burrough seems to look down on the group for “only” planting two dozen bombs over a six-year period when other subsequent groups did more attacks. As in so many police killings, the facts get in the way of the narrative of police benevolence.

Other than acknowledging the existence of racial profiling and a general movement concern with repression, Burrough does not discuss violence by the state or by right-wing paramilitaries. Burrough repeatedly cites the frequency of bombings in the 1970s, which the FBI said was a daily occurrence in some years. There were, he quotes a retired FBI agent in the prologue, more than 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972. The implication is that all of those bombs were being carried out by the left-wing revolutionaries described in Days of Rage, or at least people like them, even though a tally of the all the bombings those groups did in twenty years would not approach that number. He makes no mention of the white racists, neo-Nazis, anti-Castro guerrillas, the Jewish Defense League, and other paramilitary forces that carried out a string of attacks in those same years. Certainly the FBI agents he interviewed do not mention them. The implication, then, is that the Left was the only proponent of violence. There is a related implication too, a refrain of the canard that a handful of underground organizations somehow “destroyed” the larger Left and did so all by themselves.

The turn to clandestinity was, and remains, a controversial decision. There is a lot to criticize about the sectarianism and violence that accompanied it—as well as the sectarianism and state violence that precipitated it. Burrough is not up to that task, however. Perhaps the most troubling thing about Days of Rage is the way it justifies state violence in the present, with Burrough attributing the rise of the American security state as a response to these groups. He cannot conceive of the state as already having a monopoly on violence that it has consolidated even further. Burrough notes that, for all the bombings, the revolutionary underground killed few people. The same cannot be said for the heroes of Days of Rage: the police. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that police have killed at least 38,000 and perhaps as many as 52,000 Americans since 1973. The Counted, a new database maintained by The Guardian newspaper, reports that police have killed 572 people in the first six months of 2015 alone. Put another way, American police kill more people in a week than six underground groups did in more than twenty years. Days of Rage profoundly misses both the source and substance of violence.

Burrough says the underground was motivated by the “plight of black Americans,” yet it is a plight he fails to engage or understand. The few Black Americans he discusses are “bloodthirsty cop killers,” “thugs,” and, of course, bizarrely “angry.” It is the same doubletalk used by commentators who today bloviate about “black on black crime” and “inner-city thugs” when confronted with examples of police violence. Collectively, they refuse to see the many ways in which police violence structures and eliminates life in the United States. But it does. They refuse to see the many ways people stage creative, life-affirming forms of resistance to state murder. But they do.