On March 6, 1970, a tonitrous blast demolished a Greenwich Village townhouse. Dead in the smoking rubble were Diana Oughton, 28, Ted Gold, 22, and Terry Robbins, also 22, three members of the Weatherman organization that had recently declared war on the United States in order to hamper the government’s war in Vietnam. Two women, however, managed to crawl out of the rubble and flee the scene. A bomb-making effort gone awry, that very tragedy forced Weatherman to reconsider its tactics. Thus the bombing campaign that did ensue was carefully calibrated to avoid taking human life.
One of the two survivors of the townhouse explosion was Cathy Wilkerson, now in her 60s and a teacher of mathematics. Flying Close to the Sun (Seven Stories Press) is her gripping and deeply personal memoir of the turbulent changes and challenges of the 1960s and her subsequent life underground. It is a compelling chronicle of one woman’s evolving political idealism and radical activism, of doubts and regrets, of risks taken and consequences endured.
In your youth was there a pivotal event that sparked your political consciousness?
I am very interested in this question. Young people form a world view at an early age, though they cannot express it. We pay attention to society’s rules, its consistencies and inconsistencies. For me, coming into contact with the uneven treatment of whites and Blacks tipped me off. I said the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I thought that liberty and justice for all was a good ideal. I thought one was supposed to do something to correct what wasn’t right.
Weatherman’s antecedent, Students for a Democratic Society, went through seismic shifts in the course of the ’60s. The democratic ethos became supplanted by a Marxist-Leninist one.
SDS began with the theme of participatory democracy. We wanted people to participate in decisions that affected their lives, in particular the disenfranchised. SDS focused on young people and on poor people. We were successful in giving young people a voice. In the ’50s young people had no voice in the public sphere, so it was a huge change. The young people of the Civil Rights Movement initiated this; they were our mentors and pointed the way. They also pointed the way for empowering the very poor. Sharecroppers, maids, and porters forced the federal government to come south and enforce civil rights laws. This was a moving experience for our entire generation: everyday people rising up and becoming powerful in a democracy.
That all happened in the late ’50s and early ’60s. By the mid-’60s we thought we could take that power and change foreign policy. Foreign policy was different altogether. It’s rooted in our economic policy and not changed easily. It was very disheartening, watching babies being napalmed every night on TV. We saw the backlash against civil rights. We began to get discouraged and impatient, as young people do. King was killed; Robert Kennedy was killed; leaders of the Black Panther Party were being killed. It became clear that the government was targeting dissident leaders. This was a policy they had in Third World countries now being implemented here.
We believed a democratic movement wouldn’t work. They would kill all the leaders. FBI memos stated: “We must prevent the rise of a Black messiah at any cost.” They assassinated King. They shot Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Panthers. Most of the murders of Panther leaders were engineered by somebody and, for the most part, no one has ever been prosecuted.
You state the Panthers suffered more than the predominantly white radical groups.
Today everyone is looking for leadership in the Black community. Back when many young Black people rose up to take leadership, they were brutally attacked by police. Panthers made mistakes, but no more than the rest of us made. They could have been corrected. Even now, the government is prosecuting eight members of the Panther Party from back then, so they continue to criminalize the leadership of that time.
It’s obvious that your sense of self became subsumed to the group and the opaque leadership.
Weatherman was hierarchical because it was clandestine; it’s very hard to be democratic yet secretive. The leadership has an outcome that they want. People are thus rewarded or punished to the extent they push for that outcome. This occurs not only in Marxist-Leninist organizations, but in corporate America. Leninism and corporate management theory have much in common despite different goals. Corporate America wants to maximize profit. In Leninism, theoretically, the goal is equality for all. Both ultimately think that power comes from the gun.
Corporations feel justified in supporting a foreign policy of military seizure, which we are seeing in Iraq. Leninism argues that capitalism would assassinate the movement’s leadership, so that necessitated a clandestine, hierarchical movement. By the end of the ’60s, particularly after Fred Hampton’s assassination, I found that argument persuasive.
Hampton’s death was a tipping point for you.
Yes, for me and many others. I felt I had no alternative, so I went along with this more militant direction.
Could you talk about the townhouse explosion? That event seems to have changed the original intent of the bombing campaign. It made Weatherman aware of the profound severity of such action. Later bombings were orchestrated to avoid killing people.
That’s true. Not everybody in Weatherman agreed with the strategy of “going to war,” even at the onset. After the accidental explosion, that tendency in Weatherman ended. Thereafter, Weatherman did only symbolic bombings. But when you use a weapon, you have to be honest with yourself that somebody could get hurt.
In retrospect, the hostile reaction of many male SDS members to issues of sexism and women’s liberation is shocking. Today, there is concern that old chauvinistic attitudes, never completely erased, are coming back on the tide of mass media.
You have to remember that this was an era where it was assumed that women would serve men. It was hard for some men to give that up. It’s still hard. Most women who work outside the home still do the bulk of the housework and so on. We were raising this issue in a starker environment. Now women go to medical school, veterinary school, and have access to many fields. I went to engineering school in the ’80s, and the male culture was incredibly exclusionary for women. Now, young women must deal with the marketing of sexuality which began in part as a result of the women’s movement, which gave Madison Avenue permission to promote sex as a way of selling products, to sexualize marketing.
Young women are going to have to figure out how to respond. In some ways they are falling prey to it, but they are also grappling with it in interesting ways. Identity is a bigger issue, of people defining themselves through commodity purchases. Women are at the brunt of this because they shop more, but it’s an issue for men also.
Globally, the backlash against women is horrendous. Conditions are far worse today than 40 years ago. Women are burned by husbands in India. They are raped and tortured in Africa. Women in Afghanistan are confined to their homes. Globally, this is a time of horrific attacks on women. Women’s fate here is tied to women around the world.
What about violence as a means of political change? Do those who take up the gun risk dehumanization?
Weatherman took to violence in response to violence. The world is now saturated with violence. How does our species retain our humanity? If you indulge in violence — or ignore it — your humanity is diminished. Preserving one’s humanity is the heart of the matter. I would never fault the Vietnamese for defending their country. They paid a horrible price and continue to do so because of the Agent Orange, other chemicals, and enormous quantities of military garbage. Afghani women’s reproductive systems will be messed up for possibly thousands of years due to depleted uranium. The issue is to empower people to take control of our lives. Political power is greater than military power in the long run. We have to be creative, like during the Civil Rights Movement.
Are you a pacifist?
I am not, but I have tremendous respect for people who are. I think women have a right to defend themselves, but as a long-range strategy, violence is not a good one for women.
Is it good for anyone?
In the long run, no. Now there are so many available weapons, they are so destructive, and the planet is in an environmentally precarious position.
What is your political identity these days?
I’ve been trying to understand capitalism. Early capitalism liberated common people from feudalism. What was good about early capitalism, and how did that become corrupted? In what situations is competition productive? We can learn a lot from what worked and didn’t work in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The suppression of human and democratic rights is self-defeating. I work in education, and I feel there are some interesting ideas regarding privatization and charter schools. But we now have enough data to argue that charter schools are doing no better than public schools. In fact, they are doing a little worse. The point is to understand that government planning is good for some things and not for other things. We should have a creative tension between private initiative and government planning. But presently privatization has the entire field.
Today you are a math teacher in the New York City public school system. What challenges do you encounter?
In the 21st century, the big decisions will involve math and science. Genetic engineering, pollution, global warming, energy: all involve science. That drove me to become scientifically literate. I work to improve mathematics education and teach it in the context of social issues, how math helps us to solve complex problems. When it’s taught in a holistic way, kids will learn. It takes practice and knowledge to teach this way, to get kids to think rigorously. I feel privileged to be part of this exciting period in education.
Who are the students you’re encountering?
For the last few years, I’ve been working in the South Bronx. There is a mix of kids: Black, Puerto Rican, Dominican, African and a few white kids, most of whom are immigrants. Some were brilliant, well on the way to academic success. Many others have been convinced that they are not smart. We try to change that. They have suffered from low expectations and poor teaching. But education in New York is so much better than 15 years ago. I’m very optimistic.
You end your book with an expression of tentative hope for the future.
I look at all these people throughout the world who are organizing with common purpose, like Vandana Shiva in India, and Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela in Africa. Here, every city I visit is a beehive of positive activity. I am very hopeful.