Looking back, Wilkerson, though still saddened by the loss of her friends, thinks the accident was, pragmatically, for the best. Had people been killed at Fort Dix, the official backlash would have been extreme. Further, the Weatherman deaths were a wake-up call to the larger organization. “Jeez,” somebody must have said, “people can really die because of this shit!”
Outside Weatherman, the bombing was felt as an embarrassment, and activists fell all over each other disowning it. Wilkerson, who absorbed public reaction from a safe house, agrees. “A lot of people felt that. I also think a lot of other people empathized with Weatherman’s rage and disliked the tactics and disliked Weatherman because they treated people in a roughshod kind of way. They humiliated people, they attacked people intellectually, and they were intellectually dishonest. So there was a lot of dislike of Weatherman and distrust of Weatherman. That was almost universal.”
During the four years after the townhouse explosion, the Weather Underground took credit for 15 bombings, all of them “symbolic” — meaning the bombers issued advance warnings and set off explosives in (luckily) unpopulated war-related targets after hours.
The Kent State murders, the one event that might have been a real opportunity to incite white, middle-class dissenters to violence, came two months later, and was followed by large-scale demonstrations and confrontations — a few violent, but largely peaceful. At that juncture, indeed, nobody needed a Weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.
As she tells it
Today, Wilkerson looks like any other down-dressing middle-aged woman. She lives in Brooklyn and, for 20 years, has taught math in the New York public-school system — ironically comfortable with having realized her proto-feminist adolescent fear of being forced to become a nurse, teacher, or secretary. Her manner is remarkably unemotional, considering her past. She’s calm and measured, with an underlying hint of suspicion. Until the current book tour, which packed Cambridge’s Porter Square Books on a rainy night this past week, many of her current co-workers, she reports, were unaware of her angry history.
The first 344 pages of Flying Close to the Sun covers the build-up to the townhouse explosion, which itself is treated in 11 paragraphs. The preceding chapters contain Wilkerson’s autobiography, which requires a slow start covering her not-quite typical middle-class suburban family, childhood, education, exposure to Quakerism, and other early influences. Things pick up when Wilkerson arrives at Swarthmore, is nascently politicized by SDS, and gets involved (and arrested) with a group of black activist women in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania.
From there, the book becomes a very personal ideological odyssey, as Wilkerson sorts her way through the sequence of political issues and theories related to civil rights, economic justice, racism, classism, sexism, and activism. Like for so many of us her age, the Vietnam War became the crucible of wide-ranging dissent, and participation in an escalating stream of direct actions against the war emboldened us among a subculture of like-minded comrades. At the same time, I contend, the experience progressively isolated us from mainstream reality.