The Month That Killed the Sixties

An oral history of how everything went to hell in December 1969. Fred Hampton was killed by the police, the hippie spirit died at Altamont, and the Weathermen went underground.

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

 

You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

*

December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?”

* * *

KARL ARMSTRONG
(student, University of Wisconsin–Madison)

I remember sitting in the student union with my brother Dwight and watching news accounts of the My Lai massacre, and I couldn’t believe our country had sunk to such low depths. Even before the My Lai story came out, I had come to the realization that we were basically fighting these peasant people in Vietnam, and it was a very asymmetric sort of war, using all of this technology and bombs, killing hundreds of thousands of people who were basically fighting back with limited resources.

At some point I felt like I became Viet Cong. My allegiance had switched. I thought, I would rather be with these people and lose, than be an American and win. And that’s when I realized that I was no longer an American. I was really a citizen of the world.

I was of the opinion that any kind of demonstration against the war was important, but I just didn’t feel it was going to go anywhere. The war could carry on, and the demonstrations would be ignored. They could do that for the next ten years and it’d be the same thing. I had no problem with the demonstrations, they were my brothers and sisters out there, but I realized that I was in a very special place, because I didn’t have a family of my own and I wasn’t tied up in corporate America. I didn’t have a job. I felt like I wasn’t risking anything. I was a free actor, and I had a responsibility. I decided I would remove all the obstacles in front of me in order to help bring this war to an end.

* * *

DECEMBER 4, CHICAGO: FRED HAMPTON

MARK RUDD (Weathermen leader)

When Fred Hampton was murdered on December 4, [1] it confirmed our whole strategy, which was that a war was taking place already, and we’d better get ready to respond to it.

BERNARDINE DOHRN (Weathermen leader)

Fred Hampton had talked to his friends and to his mom about being a lawyer. He had Bill Kunstler’s book by his bed. He was one of those absolutely charismatic, magnetic people. He was young, twenty-one, but had a great sense of people, and a theatrical ability to make gestures that were very powerful—for example, commandeering ice cream trucks in the summer for kids, and then getting arrested for it. Even in his high school days with the NAACP he did things like demand access to segregated swimming pools on the west side of Chicago.

By the time I knew him he was saying, “I’m high on the people. I’m high on freedom,” and he’d become the chairman of the Black Panther Party here in Chicago. We shared a printing press with the Panthers. They were down the block from us. We agreed about some things and disagreed about other things, but they knew us pretty well and we knew them pretty well. We had an intense relationship with the Panthers; we saw them all the time.

FRED HAMPTON (1969 speech)

A lot of people don’t understand the Black Panther Party’s relationship with white mother country radicals. . . . What we’re saying is that there are white people in the mother country that are for the same types of things that we are for stimulating revolution in the mother country. And we say that we will work with anybody and form a coalition with anybody that has revolution on their mind. [2]

BERNARDINE DOHRN

I knew the National Lawyers Guild people and the People’s Law Office people very well, so on December 4, when Fred was murdered, they immediately took charge of the situation and seized the crib—as the apartment was called—door for evidence of bullet holes. We, the Panther Party survivors, and the People’s Law Office responded in a way that kind of reenacted the murder of Emmett Till—with a massive, public, visual look at what the police had done. And of course the police and the FBI—who we now know conspired to murder him—were both on the scene, and participants.

ERICKA HUGGINS (Black Panther Party member)

When Fred Hampton was murdered, I knew immediately, even though I was incarcerated at the time,[3] that Fred did not die just at the hands of the police officers that invaded his home. It was a setup, and later it was proven that it was set up—that he was drugged. He was killed in his sleep in the middle of the night by the police who arrived in borrowed Chicago Phone Company trucks. So it was orchestrated. J. Edgar Hoover, who was the head of the FBI for forty-seven years, created COINTELPRO as the counterintelligence program. You can read their mission online. I wish I was making it up; I wish it hadn’t occurred. But the fear that is at the root of racism will prompt people who have that fear to do very inhumane things.

Fred was an amazing human being. He was very dedicated to working with all communities. If you just listen to him and just watch him on video, you’ll see why J. Edgar Hoover wanted him dead.

FBI surveillance and harassment was something we were all used to. Our phones were tapped and we were followed all the time. They would leave notes on our car windows threatening us, “Hi John, hi Ericka. We’re watching you.” Every night when we would leave the party office in South Central, unmarked police cars would shine their floodlights on the windows and the doors of the office. This is how we left the office every night. We got used to it. I always remember that whole period in Los Angeles as living in a state of war. But we weren’t warring; something was warring against us.

VIVIAN ROTHSTEIN (SDS organizer)

I was organizing high school kids. They were all white, living in Berwyn and Cicero—very right-wing white communities in the Chicago suburbs. I got to know Fred Hampton in Maywood, where he was head of the NAACP chapter, and I invited him to come and talk to the students. These kids’ parents were so racist; they’d never talked to a black person before. Fred would sit with them for a whole evening and talk to them. He was so warm and understanding and charismatic. They fell in love with him. He was just wonderful.

When he was killed, I took the students that I was working with to where his body lay in state in a Baptist church in Chicago. It was this incredible scene. The kids I worked with knew him before he was this big public figure. He was lying in state with a rifle by his side in the coffin, and beads, and the Black Panther Party newspaper. All these Black Panthers were standing guard around the coffin with their berets and their black leather jackets. I was with a group of white girls and we stood in line for hours, and then we finally went by his casket. I almost passed out in his casket because I’m Jewish and we don’t do viewings. But it was quite an experience having this gaggle of young teenage white girls going through a black church with all of these Panthers around, and they all loved Fred, so they were all crushed. [4]

CATHY WILKERSON (Weathermen member)

When Fred Hampton was killed it felt like the police were going to end democracy in the United States. It also felt like the warmongers, the “U.S. must rule the world” people, and anti-women and anti-black leadership of the country were going to win and solidify control. We were young. We were in a complete panic. It was pretty scary.

MARK RUDD

When the Panthers came along, and they were carrying guns and spouting “by any means necessary,” and the government reacted by taking them seriously, and murdering them, we said, “It’s war. And we’ve got to be out there, and not just applauding from the sidelines.” See, there’s always a tendency for white people to hold back and applaud from the sidelines, but we identified that as being racist, to not take any risks. We didn’t want to be liberals. To be a liberal was to be a hypocrite, and to be a betrayer. So part of our thinking was, Which side are you on? “Avenge Fred Hampton!” became our battle cry.

Black power then became an enormous challenge to white kids. Would we be good Germans? Would we be racist and ignore what’s happening? Or would we support the people who are fighting and taking the risks? That became the challenge for the Weathermen. Most young whites don’t understand the extent of the challenge that the black movement posed to the Weather Underground, and to the movement.

MICHAEL KAZIN (Harvard SDS leader)

The Panthers saw themselves as urban guerrillas. I mean, the whole carrying guns and taking them to the statehouse in Sacramento and taking on the police—they saw themselves as being in an almost fascist country. Huey Newton used to say, “If the pigs are going to act like Nazis, we’re not going to act like Jews.” Which, you know, for a Jew like me, made me feel a little strange. But I understood what he meant. If you didn’t have the Panthers on your side, then you were doing something wrong, because they were the black vanguard.

BERNARDINE DOHRN

It took seven more years to prove it in the court case Iberia Hampton v. Hanrahan, which the People’s Law Office represented. I always tell my law students Fed Supp. 600 is one of the most astonishing cases you’ll ever read, because the federal appellate court found that there was a conspiracy to murder Fred Hampton, and then an elaborate cover-up and the FBI and the Chicago Police Department had lied and withheld documents ordered by the court and had an informer present inside the Panthers who had given them a map of the apartment where Fred and his wife were sleeping. So it was a deliberate assassination. But we knew that; we assumed that from the beginning. [5]

JULIUS LESTER
(writer, photographer, civil rights activist)

It’s very interesting, the different reactions of whites and those of us who were in SNCC had to the murder of Fred Hampton. Our feeling at SNCC was that the rhetoric of the Panthers led to his death. The Panthers had this rhetoric of violence, and if it’s one thing that white America knows, it’s violence. You don’t challenge somebody on their strength. So you don’t get violent with white America, because they’re itching to kill you. Our feeling was that Fred Hampton did not have to die. That was the Panthers’ doing. So our response was very different than the response of SDS. The other deaths of the Panthers were senseless as far as we were concerned. You don’t challenge white policemen with guns; they’re eager to kill you. WESLEY BROWN (draft resister, Black Panther member) After Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated, I realized that I had implicated myself in the kind of rhetoric that could bring about my own undoing. We [the Panthers] got revved up in a frenzy of rhetoric and began to believe our own bullshit about revolutionary change. Huey Newton [6] famously called it “revolutionary suicide.” And so I think all of us had to acknowledge that we were in some ways collaborating in a presentation of ourselves in a flamboyant way that would bring the very thing that we said is going to happen, to us. And then we were surprised when they believed what we said we were trying to do. I didn’t even know if I believed it. I had to examine if what I was doing had contributed to an ongoing struggle for people to better the circumstances of their lives, and where that becomes less the issue, and more about whether you are going to try to kill the police, or bring revolution to the streets.

To what end is it going to serve if I get up in the face of authorities where the pushback can be lethal? What does that achieve if confrontation and escalation of confrontation is the primary strategy to get attention for things that need to be paid attention to? So that’s what I had to ask myself.

FBI REPORT

December 6, 1969: Several Chicago Police cars parked in a precinct parking lot at 3600 North Halsted Street, Chicago, were bombed. No suspects have been developed in this matter and no organization claimed credit until almost five years later when the WUO [Weather Underground Organization] admitted that it was responsible in their book “Prairie Fire.” The WUO stated that they had perpetrated the explosion to protest the shooting deaths of Illinois Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969, by police officers.

* * *

DECEMBER 6, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA: ALTAMONT

PETER COYOTE (Digger, communard)

The story of Altamont is that Sam Cutler, [7] the manager of the Rolling Stones, came to Peter Berg [8] and myself, because we were known for throwing these huge parties, where there was no violence, no trouble, no nothing. The reason there was no violence and no trouble was because we never made the concerts hierarchical—there was never one stage, there were multiple stages. If you throw a party for the summer solstice, everyone is equal under the sun, so what’s to fight about? You can be exactly who you want to be. You’re not taking anything away from anybody.

Peter and I both said the Rolling Stones are not an occasion for a party. There will be one stage, the Stones will own it, and everyone else will be the audience. That’s not the spirit of San Francisco. We’ll have a party, we’ll have six stages, and the Rolling Stones can have one of them. We’ll give everybody redwood trees to plant and yards of silk and this and that, and come up with a party. And Sam said, “Oh, no, we can’t do that for the Rolling Stones.”

We also knew by that time that the Rolling Stones were going to make a documentary, so it’s not a free concert. [9] The audience was going to be extras. So free doesn’t mean there’s no admission ticket. Free means the audience are co-creators of the event. You don’t need security. You only need security when there’s a treasured space that has to be kept clear of everybody else. So the idea of bringing in the Hells  Angels [10] was a terrible mistake. We said, wrong place, wrong time, there’s going to be trouble, and none of us went, and there was trouble.

GREIL MARCUS (Rolling Stone music critic)

I went to Altamont, December 6, with a couple of friends, but I went there as a Rolling Stone writer, to write about it. We drove to the Altamont Speedway in Northern California and got there with no problem. Somehow we missed all of these horrible traffic jams. We knew that the Hells Angels were going to be there providing security. You could tell from the minute you got there—it was quite early, nine in the morning—that the crowd was angry, unfriendly, and pushy. Nobody made room for you—and that was before the Hells Angels started beating people up.

There was this big Hispanic guy, probably six four, very fat, and he took off all his clothes and started dancing. This is right in front of the stage where I was sitting. And he was acting like, “Oh, we’re all free, and I’m dancing to the music, and I’m full of enthusiasm,” but people began to move away because he was trampling people. So the Hells Angels leaped out and started beating him, and they beat him to the ground, and kept beating him. The crowd just immediately clears this huge area. They finally drag him backstage and the crowd comes back like some gigantic insect colony. From that day on it was just ugly. And it was angry. And it was mean, and there were a lot of crazy fucked-up people there.

The Hells Angels killed Meredith Hunter [who was black], because he was right at the front of the stage with his white girlfriend, and they didn’t like that, and they jumped off the stage and started chasing him and beating him. He was stabbed before he pulled a gun out, but he did pull a gun.

MICHAEL RANDALL (Brotherhood of Eternal Love acid dealer)

I was at Altamont. I left before all that happened. You could’ve been there and not known it was going on. It was really huge, three hundred thousand people. I was there for the music, but I had a meeting that I had to go to and one hundred and twenty million doses of acid to sell all over America, so I was busy.

GREIL MARCUS

For all of us involved, we understood it as the end of something, as this overwhelmingly symbolic end of so much that we had believed in and invested ourselves in. And it just so happened that the Rolling Stones had put out an album at that time, Let It Bleed, and the album was about the end of the sixties. That was its explicit subject. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—what an ultimate anti-sixties thing to say. That song and “Gimme Shelter” were about the moral collapse of the counterculture, just to put it in a nutshell.

When they were playing “Gimme Shelter” at Altamont, which was in the middle of their set, I was pushed off the stage, and later I was on top of the VW van behind the stage when the van collapsed. I could tell that something terrible was happening, because you heard screaming, and you heard Keith Richards berating the Angels, and Mick Jagger pleading with them. I said, “The hell with it,” and I left. I started walking away in the dark to go back to my car. At one point I tripped, because it was pitch dark. I was lying on the ground and I could hear them playing “Gimme Shelter,” which at that point I’d heard on the record, and had been overwhelmed by. I heard them playing it and I thought I’d never heard anything sound as good as this sounds. It was so powerful.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today

I went back to my car, where I found my radio had been stolen. People believed they were moral and high-minded. People believed that they had somehow escaped the endemic moral, political, and economic corruption of American society, and they found out that day that that wasn’t true.

JOHN HARTMANN (music agent, manager)

It was sort of like the funeral where they buried King Hippie. Altamont was a big damaging blow to the hippie peace and love ethic. This wasn’t peace and love, this was violence and death. The Stones’ image was as bad boys, not good boys like the Beatles. The Beatles, who started out dirty, became clean in the minds of the public. With the Stones, the whole thing was about the devil, and cross-dressing, and everything that was taboo, you could see manifested in various songs like “Sympathy for the Devil.” So they were the bad boys; they made a huge mistake, because they got the Hells Angels to be the security for Altamont.

GREIL MARCUS

It was probably the worst day of my life in a lot of ways. When it was over, we had a meeting at Rolling Stone among those of us who had been there, and we thought, this was so awful, that we shouldn’t even dignify it by covering it. Jann [Wenner] said, “No, we’re going to cover this from top to bottom. We’re going to use every resource we have and we’re going to lay the blame.” The whole issue was devoted to Altamont as this day of calamity, horror, and bad faith on the part of all different kinds of people.

* * *

MID-DECEMBER, NEW YORK, CHICAGO: SDS

MARK RUDD

I was one of the people who implemented the closing of the SDS New York regional office and the closing of the national office. That decision was made in conjunction with the decision to go underground. Now I consider the closing down of those SDS national and regional offices to be the largest single political error that I’ve ever made.

CATHY WILKERSON

I remember being at the SDS national office in Chicago when the cops were lined up outside. We called the University of Wisconsin, who kept an archive on SDS, and said, “Do you want the remaining papers?” And they came down at the drop of a hat with a van and literally shoveled the papers off the floor into the van, because the [SDS] office had been trashed by the cops.

MARK RUDD

I had a Volkswagen van, and I remember picking up the mailing addresses for the whole New York region; they were in a couple of big boxes. We had a loft on 131 Prince Street that somebody had given us, and Ornette Coleman was practicing the saxophone above us. I remember around the end of December picking up these mailing stencils and taking them with Ted Gold to the West Street Pier, at the end of Fourteenth Street, and dumping them into the garbage barge that was parked there. That was the end of SDS. If I had been an FBI agent, I couldn’t have done it better.

BERNARDINE DOHRN

We felt a lot of despair, and that’s always unhealthy—it’s a human feeling, obviously, but it’s also politically very unhealthy. We felt the holidays taking over—Christmas lights by Thanksgiving, and people going about their lives as if bombs weren’t raining on the Vietnamese—was unspeakable. And everything that captured the public mind—Nixon’s stupid stuff and ultimately the Charles Manson [11] murders—things that obsessed people were just sideshows and circuses. We had to find a way to bring people’s attention back to the crisis of our time, which in our mind was the Vietnamese struggle and the black freedom movement.

By the time of Flint, a lot had happened. The Days of Rage had happened. We had had lots of arrests, and lots of charges against us. The [Chicago Seven] conspiracy trial was ending, and SDS as such didn’t exist. There was still a campus movement around the country, and a huge antiwar movement, but there was also a growing military assault against Vietnam, and against Laos and Cambodia, and Fred Hampton had been assassinated. All of that was right before Flint.

* * *

DECEMBER 27, FLINT, MICHIGAN: NATIONAL WAR COUNCIL

MARK RUDD

The War Council meeting in Flint, Michigan, December 27–31, was kind of a strange hybrid, because on the one hand it was the continuation of an SDS tradition, which was bringing people together a few times a year for conferences and conventions. SDS typically had three of them. And this was the same kind of thing. But we called it the National War Council meeting and sent out pamphlets calling it a “wargasm.” And it was more like a rally. It also was crazy because it was obviously infiltrated by many, many undercover cops.

Flint was insanity. The venue was a dilapidated dance hall in the black neighborhood. There was a giant cardboard machine gun, and pictures of Che [Guevara] and Fred Hampton all over the walls, and orgiastic dancing to Sly and the Family Stone, but we made up our lyrics. “Che vive, viva Che! Che vive, viva Che.” Sly and the Family Stone were very cool. [12]

Stand
In the end you’ll still be you
One that’s done all the things you set out to do
Stand
There’s a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you’re going anywhere
Stand
For the things you know are right
It’s the truth that the truth makes them so uptight
Stand
All the things you want are real
You have you to complete and there is no deal
Stand, stand, stand
Stand, stand, stand

TOM HAYDEN (founder, SDS)

The meeting in Flint was in late December, just a month and a half before the [Chicago Seven] trial ended. I went there and taught a karate class. But frankly, I thought it was spooky. I think people might’ve been on speed—it could be that simple. They were already in another world. The inner group had made a decision to go underground; they weren’t sharing it.

I was feeling very bourgeois. I was with my girlfriend, and some other couple, and a kid might’ve been with us. It was no place for couples. They had smashed monogamy, which was a way of giving yourself to the revolution. Monogamy was a form of possessive individualism to be abandoned.

If I had been footloose and not on trial, it might’ve been seen slightly different. If I hadn’t been in a relationship where there was a small child at stake, it might’ve been different. I think it’s more that I was older, and I had this residual foundation of the early sixties in my soul, which the Weathermen were dismissive of. My rock foundation was the early sixties. Theirs was the mid to late sixties. It doesn’t sound chronologically like it’s much distance in time, but it’s an eternity. If you were a college freshman in ’64 as opposed to a freshman in ’57, that’s an eternity. The only thing I can add, now that I look back on it, was that I was becoming out of touch. I mean, these people were having flat-out naked, wild orgies as a political act.

 

MARK RUDD

I’ve always respected and adored Tom Hayden, and I was really very, very pleased that he came to Flint. You have to understand that from 1962 to 1969, SDS leadership had gone through three generations in seven years. I’d be of the last generation, and Tom being of the first. I think he was the only person there from that first generation.

Tom Hayden has a very clear view of it. He says in one of his essays, as the violence escalated in Vietnam, the violence at home escalated in response. That’s it, that’s a simple way to look at it, and I agree with him.

My FBI files report has me saying at Flint, “We are going to meet and map plans to avenge the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.” My own madness slipped out of my mouth when I said, “It’s a wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.”

img_07701

BILL AYERS (blog, March 3, 2008)

Bernardine was reported to have said in the middle of a speech at an SDS meeting in Flint, Michigan, “Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they put a fork in their bellies. Wild!” I didn’t hear that exactly, but words that were close enough I guess. Her speech was focused on the murder just days earlier of our friend Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, a murder we were certain—although we didn’t know it yet—was part of a larger government plot, the Gestapo-like tactics of an emerging police state. She linked Fred’s murder to the murders of other Panthers around the country, to the assassinations of Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba, the CIA attempts on Fidel’s life, and then to the ongoing terror in Vietnam. “This is the state of the world,” she cried. “This is what screams out for our attention and our response. And what do we find in our newspapers? A sick fascination with a story that has it all: a racist psycho, a killer cult, and a chorus line of Hollywood bodies. Dig it! . . .” So I heard it partly as political talk, agitated and inflamed and full of rhetorical overkill, and partly as a joke, stupid perhaps, tasteless, but a joke nonetheless—and Hunter Thompson for one, was making much more excessive, and funnier, jokes about Charles Manson then, and so was Richard Pryor.

ROBIN MORGAN (radical feminist)

When I was noticeably pregnant with Blake, I ran into Bernardine. This was right around the time when she made the pronouncement about Sharon Tate—that the Manson people stuck a fork in her belly after they killed her, adding, “Wasn’t that cool?” I was pregnant and she said, “Is that a pig child?” And I said, “You mean is the father white?” Because if the father was black then the child was acceptable. “As a matter of fact, as it turns out the father is white,” I said. And she said, “So why are you having it?” I said, “What would you have me do, abort a planned, wanted child? Or perhaps I should just stick it in a trash can when it’s born.” She said, “Now, that would be a good idea.” So, frankly, I have never quite forgiven Bernardine, despite her claims of having revised her virulent anti-feminist politics.

BERNARDINE DOHRN

I feel self-critical about those days. I think that that’s the period of time when I feel like the metaphor of bringing the war home took over my language, and the way that I thought about the movement. I can understand that, because I feel like we had this fierce sense that somebody had to stand up and object to the war, and the bullets were flying. People were dying in the thousands every week in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and were being assassinated at home. So that part I can understand, but obviously I feel now that the language of war, even revolutionary war, made us harsh, made me harsh; and made me speak about war without doing everything to avoid it without recognizing the horror and the harm; and how it turns people, even people who are fighting for freedom, into something else. So I think that period was harsh.

I have vivid memories of that December: the horror of people going shopping, and Christmas bells. You know how in an election cycle like this you can get really cynical about the American people. We can’t talk about the world? We can’t be part of the world? We can’t talk about the environment? That was the feeling times a thousand, because of having the images of war on TV, and having the vets coming home, and knowing from the Vietnamese what the cost was on the ground.

And_Babies

The iconic antiwar propaganda And Babies uses a photograph of the My Lai Massacre. It was created December 26, 1969.

MARK RUDD

The decision was made at Flint that I would step out of the Weather Bureau. I was suffering enormous self-doubt. I didn’t question the rightness of our strategy or of our method, but I questioned my ability to do it. I knew I was posing and it didn’t feel right, and so I experienced this as depression. The other members of the Weather Bureau, which was the leadership of the Weatherman faction of SDS, could see that I was flagging, I was wavering. So, by mutual agreement, we agreed I would demote myself out of the top leadership, down into what you might call a regional leadership position.

Also one of the craziest things that happened was after Flint, I went to Ann Arbor and shacked up with a girlfriend of mine, and we both did acid for the first time. You can imagine what that was like—total paranoia, plus the feelings of exhilaration around psychedelics. I took my first acid trip on December 31, 1969, and took my last acid trip on December 31, 1970, and in between I became a fugitive.

I spent the month of January traveling around the country, trying to recruit people in the organization to go underground. By the time that I got to New York in February, I was still aboveground, and I was still using my own ID. I still had contact with my parents and old friends, and was using regular telephones. But we set up a series of houses in Manhattan that were completely clandestine. We rented apartments under clandestine names and we began living there and operating. And that included an armed robbery to finance the operation.

There were circles of support. And it involved some people being willing and able to go underground and other people wanting to help. It’s not as if there was a clear line between those in the organization and those outside the organization.There were sort of circles of agreement and of support. And I suspect that lawyers felt maybe that they should have been on the front lines but their skill kept them doing legal stuff. We were getting money from wherever we could get money. It wouldn’t matter. We’d get it from our parents; we’d get it from anybody who had money.

TOM HAYDEN

As my day job, I was working inside the system, which the Weathermen considered wrong, and they thought I should go underground with them. I wouldn’t do that because I didn’t feel that I fit in with them. However, I didn’t know if they were right or wrong. This is what was so existential about it. Maybe a police state was coming. Certainly towards the Panthers it seemed to be coming. The Berrigan brothers had gone underground. There were different undergrounds. There was a Catholic underground against the draft. There were Panther undergrounds. There were draft resistance undergrounds. Drug dealer undergrounds, marijuana undergrounds. All across America, a lot of people were breaking one law or another. So it wasn’t a completely strange idea.

So in that sense, I took seriously the Weathermen analysis of repression and I thought it was legitimate, but I wasn’t going to do it. I knew all sides of the debate but I wasn’t leaving my legal defense work in the court [at the Chicago Seven trial]. And I wasn’t giving up on the idea of persuading public opinion, or persuading an appellate judge. It could be that I was trained all my life to use words, and to abandon words for guns just didn’t seem the best use of my talents.

BRIAN FLANAGAN

In December of ’69 we started dumping the collectives, and starting other collectives that were doing violent stuff. The mass collectives that were living openly in apartments we dumped and started going into safe houses and doing arson and various low-level bombings. All of the big names went underground.

* * *

DECEMBER 27, MADISON, WISCONSIN: CHRISTMAS BOMBINGS

KARL ARMSTRONG

It was winter break, so there was no one on campus. I felt like I was out there in the emotional wilderness. I had reached an emotional low point, where I said, “I really have to act.” The armory was half a block away from where I was living, and half of the building was devoted to ROTC. There had been lots of demonstrations at the armory. First of all, I thought it was a beautiful building. I played basketball there. But I realized what it meant symbolically. I was of very mixed mind about it. It went against my grain to destroy property, but I knew that the symbolism was really important.

On December 27, 1969, at two o’clock in the morning, I walked up to the building, threw a jar of gasoline in, and burned the building. Basically it was my declaration of war. I was now at war with the United States. To me it was laughable: It felt like puny acts against the war machine. But it was important, because this was a way of committing myself. After the first act I said, “There’s no turning back.” It was just a matter of marshaling resources, picking the right targets, and trying to be smart. I truly felt out there, and yet, in another sense, I felt really comfortable because I was finally active.

WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL,
DECEMBER 29, 1969 (front page)

FIREBOMBS DAMAGE UW
ROTC BUILDING

Firebombs were thrown through three windows of the ROTC building at Linden and Babcock Dr. on the University of Wisconsin campus early Sunday, damaging several desks and scorching the ceiling of a lecture hall.

No one was injured.

KARL ARMSTRONG

After the firebombing of the armory, I talked to my brother Dwight and I said, “I’d like to do an aerial bombing of the Badger ordnance plant.”* And he said, “Are you crazy? What are you talking about?” And I said, “Well, remember the firebombing of the ROTC building a couple of nights ago? That was me.” I said I thought a bombing of the Badger ordnance plant on New Year’s Eve would be the perfect symbolic bombing against the war. The Badger ordnance plant was producing the bulk of the rocket powder used in Vietnam. It was a huge plant. I picked New Year’s Eve for the symbolic starting the New Year. I thought that symbolically it was the time to do it.

My brother had been a gas jockey at the airport, so he did the flying. We went to Morey Airport and we pulled an ROTC training plane out of the hangar. Dwight wasn’t a certified pilot, and he had never flown at night before. Lynn, my girlfriend, Dwight, and I loaded up a big metal ashtray from the fraternity house and a couple of mayonnaise bottles filled with ammonium nitrate. I knew about bombs from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But we didn’t have a detonator. So I knew they probably wouldn’t go off. The symbolic act seemed more important than the actual damage, [13] because if the bombs did go off, we’d probably have been blown out of the air. We followed the road up to the Badger ordnance plant, and we could see Lynn from the air as she was going in to make the phone call to warn them at the plant that we were going to bomb it in protest of the Vietnam War. I didn’t think anyone would be working there because it was New Year’s Eve.

We flew over in a snowstorm and I dropped one of the bombs out. I told my brother, “I don’t think I hit anything except snow. You have to go a lot lower.” And he said, “If we go any lower, and that bomb goes off, we are dead ducks.” And I said, “You’re going to have to go lower if we’re going to hit anything.” So we made another pass, and by that point I was thinking, Well, it’s just symbolic anyway. And I just dumped the bombs out of the door as we flew over the fuel tanks.

We landed at the airport outside of Prairie du Sac, left the plane in the middle of the runway, and ran to the car with Lynn to go back to Madison. When we got back to Madison, I thought, Maybe we should call the newspapers and tell them what we did. So I called the State Journal and I said, “I just firebombed the Badger ordnance plant.” And the guy says something like, “Yeah, yeah. And what’s your name, please?” And I said, “No, we firebombed the Badger ordnance plant from the air.” Then I remember calling The Daily Cardinal and I believe the Kaleidoscope, the two student newspapers, and told them the bombing was because of the Vietnam War. Basically I wanted to lock into people’s minds that we were acting like Nazi Germany. That this aerial bomb was symbolic of the Allies’ bombing of munitions plants in Germany. It was my way of bringing the war home, so people would be able to see it in a different light.

BILL DYSON (FBI agent)

These leads start coming in and the supposition then was “This guy must have been a Vietnam pilot, because he landed with the wind!” I mean, there’s a snowstorm, he comes in, and he lands the wrong way. And it was like, “Oh my God, this guy stole the plane, and he was actually able to land it? He must be really a tremendous pilot!” And hell, the guy didn’t have a license, and it was miraculous that he was able to land the plane that way. They dropped the fuel. I don’t know where the bombs went. They had no detonator. Maybe it was the Weathermen, we didn’t know. [14]

STEVE REINER (editor of The Daily Cardinal)

After the Christmas bombings by what we would later call the “New Year’s Gang,” there was a debate at the Cardinal about the difference between property damage and personal damage. I think the fact that no one was hurt and that these episodes all seemed to be calculated to destroy property, but not to harm people, helped us rationalize it. We made a distinction between political sabotage and terrorism. I think it was obvious that these guys never intended to hurt anybody. We rationalized it because the levels of frustration, anger, and exasperation that were welling up in all of us had reached a crescendo. We rationalized it because no one was hurt.

This is what I wrote in an editorial: “And if acts such as those committed in the last few days are needed to strike fear into the bodies of once fearless men and rid this campus once and for all of repressive and deadly ideas and institutions, then so be it.” It was the line “then so be it” that I regret writing now. I don’t really regret anything else in the editorial. I think saying that that kind of manifestation is inevitable is absolutely correct. And I think it was. It’s easy to say that it’s inevitable after it happens. But it was inevitable.

* * *

From the book WITNESS TO THE REVOLUTION by Clara Bingham.
Copyright © 2016 by Clara Bingham.
Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

* * *

[1] In one of the most brazen examples of police violence and FBI dirty tricks, Fred Hampton, the twenty-one-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was gunned down in his sleep at 4:30 a.m. on December 4, 1969, by the Chicago police. Mark Clark, another Panther leader, was also killed in the raid. Though the police claimed they acted in self-defense, they were proven wrong by evidence showing ninety gunshots going one way through the front door of Fred Hampton’s apartment, where he slept with his fiancée, who was eight months pregnant. Hampton was killed by two bullets fired to his head at point-blank range in a cold-blooded assassination. The FBI assisted the Chicago police by giving them a map of the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment that they obtained from William O’Neal, an FBI informant who was Hampton’s trusted bodyguard. O’Neal had slipped a sleeping pill into Hampton’s drink when they had dinner together that night, sedating him so that he could not defend himself.

[2] J. Edgar Hoover was particularly threatened by Hampton because he preached racial solidarity against an oppressive U.S. government. He appealed to white as well as black radicals and moderates and had a charisma and way with words that enabled him to unite a fractured movement. One of the FBI’s COINTELPRO objectives was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.” In 1967 the FBI opened a file on Fred Hampton that would eventually fill twelve volumes and more than four thousand pages.

[3] Ericka Huggins, along with Bobby Seale (cofounder of the Black Panther Party), was in jail awaiting trial on murder charges that were part of the New Haven Nine conspiracy trial.

[4] Five thousand people attended Fred Hampton’s funeral.

[5] The police officers were found not guilty in a 1972 trial, but after thirteen years of litigating the civil rights case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, the families of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were awarded $1.8 million—the largest settlement of its kind at the time. In 1990, FBI informant William O’Neal, who was Fred Hampton’s bodyguard, died in what some believe was a suicide.

[6] Huey Newton, who with Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in 1966, wrote an autobiography titled Revolutionary Suicide, which was published in 1973.

[7] After Altamont, Sam Cutler left the Rolling Stones and began working as the Grateful Dead’s tour manager.

[8] Peter Berg, Peter Coyote, and Emmett Grogan cofounded the San Francisco improv and radical community action group called the Diggers. They were fixtures in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in the mid-to late sixties.

[9]  Albert and David Maysles made a documentary, Gimme Shelter, about the last weeks of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, which ended with the Altamont Free Concert in Northern California.

[10] The Hells Angels were a motorcycle gang with a violent, outlaw history who rode Harley-Davidsons and were affiliated with parts of the counterculture, and were sometimes used to provide security.

[11] Charles Manson, a mentally disturbed musician who created a small cult called the Manson Family, was responsible for nine grisly murders committed in Los Angeles in July and early August of 1969, the most famous one being Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski. Manson and his accomplices were indicted for the Tate and other murders in December 1969. The high-profile trial began in Los Angeles in June 1970.

[12] Sly and the Family Stone, who played at Woodstock, was a racially integrated soul/funk band that created an original blend of the black Motown and San Francisco white psychedelic sound. The band released the album Stand! in May 1969; it sold three million copies and is considered one of the most successful albums of the sixties. The single “Stand!” reached number three on the charts in 1969. “Sly was less interested in crossing racial musical lines than in tearing them up,” wrote Greil Marcus in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975), p. 65.

[13] The Badger Army Ammunition Plant, or Badger Ordnance Works, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, made ammunition during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. During World War II it was the largest munitions factory in the world.

[14] Armstrong and the New Year’s Gang didn’t know the Weathermen and were acting independently, but according to FBI informant Larry Grathwohl, Bill Ayers sent a cell of Weathermen to Madison to try to make contact with the New Year’s Gang and scout out more locations in Madison to bomb in February 1970, but the plan was scrapped after events that occurred on March 6. See Larry Grathwohl, Bringing Down America (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976), p. 159.