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Criminalizing the History of US Radical Underground Movements

For a book striving for a comprehensive portrait of underground movements, “Days of Rage” fails to capture why such radical organizations did what they did.

These groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough's "America's Most Wanted" lens, are not activists seeking to rebuild a racist, bellicose country from the ground up. They are naïve bad guys and narcissistic thugs. (Photo: Penguin Press)

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, Bryan Burrough, Penguin Press, 2015

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As Black Lives Matter continues to disrupt business as usual, a number of observers are judging the movement against the history of Black radicalism. As often happens in an era of renewed activism, we look to books about previous movements to tell us something about the uprisings of our own day.

That is what makes Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage not just disappointing but dangerous. Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence is a 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; 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. Despite a growing legion of memoirs from partisans of the underground – especially the Weather Underground, which receives the most attention in Burrough’s book – as well as scholarly histories of these organizations, Burrough is the first to bring all of these groups together in the detail that he has done.

But these groups and the young people in them, seen through Burrough’s “America’s Most Wanted” lens, are not activists seeking to rebuild a racist, bellicose country from the ground up. They are naïve bad guys and narcissistic thugs. In his eyes, their goal was not revolution so much as it was “killing cops.” Burrough provides hackneyed depictions of one-dimensional human beings with the kind of deluded stereotypes that everyday lead police to stop and frisk, lock up or kill Black people across the United States. To render them as history provides a dangerous justification to such violence.

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 that of the FBI agents and police officers who chased them down. His lack of any stated ideological axe to grind, 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 New Yorker and even The Nation.

The book consistently relies on a series of outmoded, cartoonish and just plain inaccurate approaches to history.

These reviewers seem either unaware or unconcerned that the book contains serious errors of both fact and interpretation. The book consistently relies on a series of outmoded, cartoonish and just plain inaccurate approaches to history. Burrough, for instance, 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. Indeed, these groups operated at the intersection of Black radicalism, antiwar sentiment and countercultural communities. 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 reduces the 1970s to a caricature of a time when people cared about disco, not politics. Such mischaracterizations, which appear throughout the book, fly in the face of two decades of historical scholarship on the period.

More to the point, it means that a book striving for a comprehensive portrait of underground movements fails at a most basic level to capture why such organizations did what they did – meaning both going underground and engaging in armed struggle – when they did it and to what effect. The book is woefully undersourced and surprisingly naïve about its historical context. While this absence of serious analysis seems more naïve than malicious, it forecloses any possibility that this book might help us better understand the history of the underground or the larger time period. Burrough rests his expertise on the interviews he conducted with participants, but there are serious flaws here. Already, former Weather Underground member Cathy Wilkerson has disputed Burrough’s depiction of her as the group’s “West coast bombmaker.” Numerous other such errors, some big and others small, comprise the book throughout and remove any pretense that Days of Rage might expand our historical thinking.

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 disturbing portraits of Black criminality and women’s emotional imbalance. Behind its self-presentation as objective history lies a book rife with errors and naiveté, led by white saviors, destroyed by Black villains and saved by diligent cops. In an era of renewed nativism and explicit white supremacy, Days of Rage hardly rates. Yet its distortions of history may prove more damning 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 just plain 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 Weather Underground becomes the litmus test against which he measures all other groups: Did they bomb more or fewer targets than the Weather Underground? Were they structured similarly or differently than the Weather Underground? Did they think similarly or differently than the Weather Underground?

Meanwhile – and contrary to the stunning scholarship by Sherie Randolph, Barbara Ransby and Jeanne Theoharis, among many others – Burrough 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, incarceration or, since he doesn’t know why they were so important, irrelevance. Black Power becomes a series of charismatic men enjoying 15 minutes of fame, and spreading a politics of unbridled “anger.” Even more maddening, he casts the relevance of Black organizing only to the extent it interested, conned or was itself conjured by white leftists.

For a history that involved so many women participants, it is rather remarkable that Burrough so routinely describes them as props.

Take his discussion of the 1970s prison movement. Burrough calls prison activist and bestselling author George Jackson “a thug with a fountain pen.” It is not only an offensive claim but one whose factual inaccuracy testifies to Burrough’s limited historical understanding: 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 is equally revealing of the ways Burrough imagines Black radicals to be luxurious con artists.

His listing of the book’s cast of characters 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.

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, it is rather remarkable that Burrough so routinely describes them as props. Former Weather Underground 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 committed suicide in 1980 after being shot six times, as a “plain woman with a smoldering sexuality.” Stender was shot by an erstwhile militant, but Burrough sacrifices a genuine opportunity to inveigh against left-wing violence for a cheap catcall.

His puerile objectification of former Weather Underground 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.” He quotes FBI agents bragging about having stolen a pair of underwear from Dohrn’s sister Jennifer during an illegal break-in of her apartment but does not discuss that the Bureau also considered kidnapping Dohrn’s infant son, too. 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 at the front of the book, they are described only as wives and mothers, whereas their husbands are “charismatic leader,” “radical” or “recruit.” A secretary on “Mad Men” has more depth of character.

Burrough had fantastic, even startling, 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, and 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 Jr. to commit suicide? 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? And how do such dirty tricks show up in contemporary campaigns against anarchists, radical environmentalists, Muslims and others? There is so much about this underground – which has had a far more decisive role in shaping the contemporary United States than the six underground organizations spotlighted here – that Burrough fails to uncover or much mention.

It is easy to criticize from the safety of historical distance. Yet this history is an active part of our present. Burrough notes that, for all the bombings, the revolutionary underground killed few people. The same cannot be said for the protagonists 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 fist six months of 2015 alone. Put another way, US police kill more people in a week than six underground groups did in more than 20 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 with or understand. The few Black Americans he discusses are described as “bloodthirsty cop killers,” “thugs” and irrationally “angry.” This is the same double-talk 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.

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