As SDS collapsed, a splinter group emerged, called Weatherman (in common parlance, “the Weathermen”; later, officially, the Weather Underground Organization), which orchestrated pointless mini-riots, as if meaning to incite miraculous armed rebellion among unarmed political dissenters. It was a poorly thought-out, and counterproductive, tactic. In line with the doctrine of white guilt, Weatherman, Wilkerson reports, decided that inviting the cops to brutalize white protestors would somehow draw fire away from the black community. And that would make things more fair. The Panthers did not, by most accounts, agree.
In Chicago — the long-time national SDS headquarters — the Panther party was directed in part by the likely heir to Martin Luther King’s status in the national black community, Fred Hampton, who had formed local alliances with SDS and several urban street gangs.
“Fred Hampton argued against [our violent tactics] vociferously,” explains Wilkerson in a Phoenix interview earlier this month. “Although many of us didn’t know it at the time, he thought Weatherman strategy was suicidal, and damaging to the black community as well. He said that, far from drawing heat from the police, it would stir the police and make more irrational violence from the police directed at everybody — including, and probably more so, to the black activists. It turned out he was right.”
In late 1969, Hampton was murdered — drugged by an FBI mole then blatantly shot in his sleep by Chicago and Cook County police.
Rather than rethinking its battle plan, Weatherman took the killing as a last-straw outrage, and, Wilkerson’s book suggests, responded by dividing into cells dedicated to bombing establishment targets in various American cities.
An explosive climax
VILLAGE VOID: The bomb-factory explosion brought down the house and damaged neighboring buildings. Firefighters sifting through the debris found more explosives.
This is how Cathy Wilkerson, who’d toiled with SDS for years despite battling internal sexism and relentless ideological soul-searching, came to accept a drastic course of action.
“From the moment I joined Weatherman,” she tells the Phoenix, “I suspended my sense-making. I said, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me, but maybe there’s something here I need to learn, so let me suspend judgment for a while and let me go with this and see what there is.’ But then I got caught up in it, and I lost my connection with my ability to make sense of things, and sort of just accepted that it didn’t make sense and acted purely from an emotional standpoint of anger. And that was particularly true after Fred Hampton was killed in December of 1969.”
March of 1970 found Wilkerson holed up with a Weatherman collective in a Greenwich Village townhouse (18 West 11th Street) owned by her vacationing father. Giving new dimension to the parental cliché, “And don’t have any friends over while we’re out of town,” the radical gang turned the townhouse’s sub-basement into an impromptu bomb factory.
To some unspecified end, the “townhouse collective” planned to bomb a military dance at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. Instead, their inept and inexperienced bomb-making brought down the Wilkerson townhouse. Three conspirators, Ted Gould, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins, the latter a romantic interest of Wilkerson’s who had invited her to New York, were killed in the blast. SDS mainstay Kathy Boudin and Wilkerson survived and went underground. Wilkerson remained in hiding until turning herself in, in 1980. She was subsequently convicted of illegal possession of explosives, not the murder charge that had hung over her head for a decade, and briefly served time.