The Weather Underground

Oct 15, 2003 at 12:00 am

Taking their name from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” — “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” — the Weatherman organization was a radical revolutionary group which emerged from the crumbling Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). SDS, which held its first meeting in Ann Arbor in 1960, was a New Left group centered around the ideas of “participatory democracy” and civil rights. By the end of the decade, faced with the violent racial upheavals of urban riots and the long escalation of the Vietnam War, the group started to break up into competing factions of varying militancy. The Weather Underground was the most severe of these newly formed bared-teeth brigades, committed to the violent overthrow of the government as a precursor to some vague utopian aftermath.

It was a doomed enterprise from the start. The Weather Underground was, for the most part, made up of prematurely radicalized middle-class white kids who responded to the misguided (to put it kindly) absolutism of the U.S. anti-communist foreign policy with the kind of ferocious self-righteousness that one associates with those young and untested by life. The naive emotionalism made, as more than one person says in this new documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, the group seems more akin to a cult than a political movement.

The group had its share of supporters in Detroit, who sent a contingency to the Days of Rage, says Peter Werbe, a WRIF-FM 101.1 talk show host and longtime contributor to the Fifth Estate, an anti-establishment newspaper published since 1965. A scrawling on a Wayne State University building at the time glorified the popular feeling, stating, “Violence in the ’70s.”

Rich Feldman of Huntington Woods was an SDS member in Ann Arbor, but didn’t become a member of Weatherman or its splinter group, the Weather Underground. He says he hopes the movie “gives a sense of the passion that drove people.” He says the Vietnam War and racism at home “drove many people to dedicate their lives, and many of us still do dedicate our lives, to transform this country. It came from a belief and a vision that America could become a country that people could be proud of,” says Feldman, a community and labor activist.

And that’s effectively what Green and Siegel have done, to put the madness in the context of the mad times in which it occurred. Isolated, the late ’69 Days of Rage may seem like merely self-indulgent stupidity, but when seen surrounded by the contemporary events of Altamont, the My Lai massacre et al., a humanizing element of desperation is added to the mix of motivations.

The film combines archival footage and contemporary interviews with past radical superstars such as Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn. Though the film lacks the agenda of either rehabilitation or damnation, it seems, in the end, a cautionary tale, the moral being that no amount of good intentions can compensate for unsound methods.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday, Oct. 17-19. Call 313-833-3237.

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