Cast in this light, Wilkerson’s acceptance of Weatherman’s violent tactics is more understandable than the shorthand history above might imply. As the movement grew and government opposition to it intensified, it was impossible not to perceive the string of events and new ideas, of which much of the country was ignorant, as a famous progression. But toward what? The rhetoric hinted at some sort of revolution that would result in a more just world. But except for the Marxist-Leninist hardliners, whose very precise vision of the future was completely at odds with any place white middle-class Americans wanted to live, nobody ever articulated where we were going.
Terrorism as we know it today — high-altitude sabotage and daily suicide bombings — makes Weatherman’s antics seem like amateur theater. And “theater,” Wilkerson now believes, best defines their most hostile activities. But at the time, she recalls, Weatherman promoted its direct actions as “real politics.” And the police and FBI (and Middle America) responded as if the country were under threat by the Bolsheviks reincarnated.
Weatherman embraced the comparison with intimidating dramatic posturing — terrorist slogans (“Off the pig!” etc.) and images of armed American youth, from which most people disassociated. Many activists jumped off the bandwagon when Weatherman raised the activism bar above the levels of individual consciences. Still, within the “more radical than thou” ethos that thrived in the movement’s rudderless environment, few actually argued very loud against violence as the next step.
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL: Today, you’d hardly peg math teacher Wilkerson as a revolutionary. When she appeared at Porter Square Books, she packed the house.
Plus, Wilkerson says, there were no obvious alternatives. “I think the problem was it wasn’t really a rigorous argument [against violence], because the people who thought that kind of strategy was destructive didn’t feel they had another kind of strategy that was better. Nobody knew what to do.”
And Weatherman had a plan?
“My sense at the beginning of Weatherman . . . was that people absolutely knew what they were doing, that they had a whole strategy, but there was this security in the organization and I just didn’t know what it was. But I thought somebody did. Now, in retrospect, I look back and see that nothing could have been farther from the truth.
“There was a variety of different thoughts about what people thought we were doing, but not a consensus, and much of it was just propelled by this kind of rage and this desire to up the ante. . . . If the government was going to do this at home and abroad, then at least they had to pay a price, so they couldn’t just dismiss the movement completely.”
Made, not born
It’s clear, after reading hundreds of pages of compelling internal debate, that by 1969 Wilkerson had become a master at rationalization. Writing about the transition from SDS to Weatherman, she explains, “I was coming to accept that the slogans ‘Off the Pig’ or ‘Smash the State’ were meant to challenge people to think creatively, but I assumed they were not meant literally.”