Mark Rudd Emerges from the Underground
By: Stephanie Lee
Former radical group leader Mark Rudd of the Weather Underground, a
1960s militant offshoot group of Columbia's Students for a Democratic
Society (SDS), returned to New York City to celebrate his new book
Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen.
Now a retired community college instructor living in New Mexico with
his second wife, Rudd continues to stay active locally and spreads
his story of organization and mass movement. "It is not a heroic
story," he says, but Rudd hopes that his personal narrative might
point budding activists in the right direction nevertheless.
Stephanie J. Lee spoke with Rudd before his book party last night for
an inside look on how to organize mass movements.
New York Press: Tell me more about this book. What inspired you to
write it? What are you hoping to convey?
Mark Rudd: Basically the book is a story. It's my own story of good
organizing, which is about Columbia, then it's followed by bad
organizing, which is about the Weather Underground. By organizing, I
mean what people do to build a movement and some of the terrible
mistakes you could make while doing it. Good organizing is one-on-one
engagement with peoplemuch like what we did at Columbia. Bad
organizing is the belief that if you just express yourself, people
will join you. I consider Weatherman to be that kind of
self-expression and ineffective.
From what I've been reading, it's unclear whether or not there was
just one specific event that marked the founding of the Weathermen…?
That's interesting. In a way, the specific event was the townhouse
accidentthe bomb on Mar. 6, 1970 on West 11 St., where three people
were killed. But the planning for it had begun before that. Its
origins were in the ideas of militancy and armed struggle, you know,
and the expression of how much we hated war and racism. That began at
Columbia in 1968.
In a sense, this is a New York story that I am telling.
Can you speak a bit more to the evolution of the group, namely what
it had become and your opinions on that?
Well SDS very large organization, about 400 chapters on colleges and
high school campuses. There was quite a large number in New York
City. Within that group, some of us took away a lesson from the
Columbia strike of April 1968, which was more militant. That seemed
to be the lesson from Columbia. We linked that lesson with the
knowledge or belief that there would be revolution around the world.
This could be taken from the motto. We were all followers of Che Guevara.
Between 1968 and 1970, we thought [the lesson learned] is what we
were doing. We formed a factionWeathermen, which wanted to move the
bigger organization into what was based on a piece of paper that
group wrote for a convention in 1969.
After that convention, I was elected national secretary. My faction
won control of the national office in Chicago, and yet, we didn't
really have that many supporters. There were maybe two dozen chapters
that supported this line of anti-imperialism. At the end of '69 we
made a decision to go underground and begin an armed struggle. We
thought we were applying Che's theory.
How successful do you think the Weathermen was in achieving its mission?
Not at all! Everything we set out to do…Nothing we set out to do, we
How did you feel as the leader of this group? Any reflections on that role…
I think part of the problem was that I was in over my head. I was
posing as a great revolutionary, when in fact, I didn't really know
what to do. It didn't take too long for that to catch up with me.
Even though I was a founder of this organization, within months of
being national secretary, I sort of went downward in the leadership.
I demoted myself. I didn't believe I was who I was pretending to
bethe great revolutionary leader. This is not a heroic story.
Why did you leave the group?
I was still a fugitive at the end of 1970. I was a fugitive from Mar.
of 1970, and I officially left as a member at the end of 1970. I
didn't really voice my criticism till much later. I thought that the
problem was mine, that I was not strong enough to be the great heroic
revolutionary that was needed. That's kind of one of the themes of the book.
Can you speak more to the Ayers/Obama controversy?
I would say that I was appalled by the attempt to sort of slur Obama
through this casual acquaintanceship with Bill. As it was happening I
thought geez, the Weather Underground killed three people by a
bizarre accident, and yet John McCain dropped humongous bombs on
people from 10,000 feet in the air on villages and towns. And how
many innocent people did he slaughter? But they all talk about Ayers
being a terrorist. McCain was an actual terrorist! I mean that's what
war is, especially mechanized warit's terrorism. I think I would
have loved it if that fact had come out. It's terroristic but it's
called war and sanctioned by the state, and therefore it's okay.
The US was murdering millions at the time of Vietnam, and we were all
affected by this violence. I think we were a pale reflection of that
terrorism. So that's what I thought about the whole business.
How do you feel about Obama?
I mean I was a strong supporter during the election. I would like to
see him take a much more principled stand on Israel, and a more
balanced stand rather than an unbalanced pro-Israel stand.
And for him to bring out some new economic policies while taking out
the old Bush policies. Did you read the Paul Krugman article? The one
today about old Bush policies?
I want him to do more and take a better, more moral position, and
also, not pursue the war. I'm a critical supporter of Obama, you
know, to push Obama. And I think he's open for that and that's the
beauty of the situation.
What sort of advice do you have for protesters who are very unhappy
with the way things are going right now, namely the War in Iraq but
certainly the concerns of Iran and Afghanistan as well?
We've got to organize. We've got to organize a mass movement and keep
going and keep pushing Obama. I can put it in a nut shell: We have to
organize a movement for a second New Deal, and we have to fund it by
taking money away from the military. I think security can be
established by diplomacy, but we need a mass movement to make this
happen. We need a total turnaround from the U.S.
Now back to you, why did you leave New York? Why New Mexico?
During the time I was a fugitive, I got to know New Mexico and I fell
in love with the place. I'm literally in love with the land and the
people, and that's where I want to be. But I when I think about it
here in New York, I think one of the wonderful things about New
Mexico is that there's less social segregation than in New York.
People mix a bit more between classes and races. New York is very
segregated internally. Even if you happen to live in the same
building, you don't get to know people. You're stuck in the same
class and in the same clique. I found New York to be way too
segregated for my liking. That's what originally drove me out, and I
don't think it changed any. Do you?
I can live a more integrated life in terms of diversity of friends in
There was a long period of time when you had no communication with
your parents. Can you tell me more about how your involvement with
this group affected your family life?
Yeah we didn't speak for seven and a half years. My parents were very
hurt and very fearful for me. It was like a time of terror. When I
turned myself in, we made peace with each other. Oh gosh, it's been
30 years since then. I have two children, and I'm about to have
grandchildren. And everyone made peace, but it was a horrible time
especially for my mother and father.
I'm very remorseful about what I put them through. I thought at the
time that it was necessary.
Are you married? Do you have any kids?
Yes, well I'm in my second marriage. My first marriage was with a
woman from the Weather Underground. I dedicated my book to her. I was
a bachelor for 18 years and now I've remarried. And I have two children.
What are you doing now?
I've retired from teaching at the community college. I'm organizing
in my neighborhood for economic justice issues. Over the years I've
been active in peace, labor and environmental movements. I'm doing
lots of different things. I speak a lot at colleges and speak to
college students about organizing. Basically, I tell my story.
'Underground' by Mark Rudd
A memoir by a former member of SDS and the Weathermen -- and we're
not talking about William Ayers.
By Jon Wiener
March 29, 2009
Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen
William Morrow: 326 pp., $25.99
Mark Rudd is the guy from the Weather Underground who is not Bill
Ayers. Both were leaders of the group that worked for the violent
overthrow of the United States government in the 1970s, but while
Ayers remains unapologetic, Rudd is full of regrets.
Rudd is not Bill Ayers in other ways: Sarah Palin did not accuse
Barack Obama of palling around with him, nor has he been featured on
the New York Times op-ed page or interviewed on "Fresh Air With Terry
Gross." Instead, he has lived in obscurity, as a community college
math teacher in New Mexico, since the government dropped charges
against him in 1977.
The 2003 documentary "The Weather Underground" celebrated the
"idealistic passion" that led Ayers and his comrades to their
campaign of bombing public buildings. At the end of the film, Rudd
appeared briefly for the first time in 25 years, "a befuddled,
gray-haired, overweight, middle-aged guy" full of "guilt and shame."
At least that's the way he describes himself at the beginning of
"Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen." It was that
image, Rudd says, that drove him to write this book -- because in the
film "I never get to explain what I'm guilty and ashamed of."
The Weather Underground was a splinter faction of Students for a
Democratic Society (SDS), the radical antiwar group that by the late
1960s had chapters on hundreds of campuses. Around 1969, the
Weathermen (who named themselves after Bob Dylan's line "You don't
need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows") concluded that
the American people would never stop the war in Vietnam. Rather, it
was up to them -- a few dozen kids -- to act on behalf of the
Vietnamese people by placing small bombs in places like the Capitol
and the Pentagon.
The kids knew best
This, or so the logic went, would somehow spark an uprising of young
blacks and Latinos to overthrow the government. Even the Vietnamese
Communist leaders believed the Weathermen had the wrong strategy,
that they should work to persuade mainstream Americans to end the
war. But the American kids knew better.
Rudd gets right to the point in the opening pages of "Underground":
"Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we
intended," he writes. "We de-organized SDS while we claimed we were
making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies
as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of
violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI. . . . We
might as well have been on their payroll."
Rudd's story begins with his parents dropping him off at Columbia
University the first day of freshman week 1965. What follows is a
straightforward narrative of events, in which he and millions of
other young Americans were radicalized by the war. The book has a
series of climaxes: first, the triumphant student occupation of
Columbia's administration building in the spring of 1968 and the
brutal police bust that followed -- which made headlines
internationally and set an example for radical students at colleges
across the country.
Next, he details the formation of the Weathermen in 1969 and the
disastrous explosion that killed three members in a Greenwich Village
town house in 1970. After that came seven years of life underground,
lonely and intermittently terrifying. Finally, we get the happy
ending -- Rudd coming up from underground in 1977, settling his legal
case, embracing normal life and returning to antiwar activism when
President George W. Bush invaded Iraq.
Rebellion in bloom
Rudd conveys well the festival-like joy of the springtime campus
uprisings of the late 1960s: passionate discussions under the trees
about the causes of war and strategies for stopping it; music and
drugs on all sides; dancing long into the night; "a fluorescence of
energy and imagination such as Columbia had never seen." It was like
that at hundreds of other schools over the next few years.
The authorities looked at these developments and saw only violence
and destruction. The New York Times quoted a Columbia administrator's
description of Rudd as "totally unscrupulous and morally very
dangerous . . . an adolescent having a temper tantrum." The media
embraced this image of him as quintessential student rebel, but to
his credit, Rudd says that "the organizing at Columbia was the work
of hundreds of people at least as committed, intelligent, and
articulate as I was."
The heart of "Underground" comes about halfway through, in 1969, when
SDS was challenged by the hard-core Maoists of the Progressive Labor
Party. The Progressive Labor faction had a strategy for revolution: a
"worker-student alliance" to overthrow capitalism. The national
leadership of SDS -- Rudd and his friends -- concluded that they
needed one too. What they came up with was to call on young people to
become urban guerrillas to fight "Amerikka." The overwhelming
majority of SDS rejected both perspectives, but the faction fight
destroyed the organization.
"The destruction of SDS was probably the single greatest mistake I've
made in my life," Rudd declares forthrightly. "It was a historical crime."
You might think all that is obvious now. But it isn't -- at least not
to Ayers. He wrote about the Weather Underground in the New York
Times in December 2008, declaring that "our effectiveness can be --
and still is being -- debated." His only real regret, he said on
"Fresh Air," is that the violent tactics of the Weathermen didn't end
the war. But, he added, neither did peaceful protest -- so who can
say who was right and who was wrong?
Both Rudd and Ayers want today's activists to learn from the mistakes
of the 1960s. But nobody opposed to the war in Iraq thinks that
becoming an urban guerrilla and putting a bomb in the Pentagon is
going to help bring the troops home. Rudd's historical judgments are,
to use a phrase from the era, "right on." Still, what may be most
striking about "Underground" is how irrelevant its lessons are for our time.
Wiener teaches American history at UC Irvine and is a contributing
editor to the Nation.
Days of Rage Recalled
An unrepentant 1960s radical recounts his past as protester and fugitive
By STEFAN KANFER
MARCH 28, 2009
By Mark Rudd
William Morrow, 325 pages, $25.99
Mark Rudd was a prominent student leader in 1968 when the Students
for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied several buildings at Columbia
University in New York. I lived across the street at the time and
well remember their collective tantrum. Taking over the
administrative offices by force, they issued a roster of demands.
These included (a) the abandonment of plans for a gym that Columbia
intended to build in Harlem -- even though community leaders had
approved the proposal seven years earlier; (b) a break between the
university and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a weapons-research
think tank; (c) official denouncement of the Selective Service
System, which was drafting college-age men for military duty in
Vietnam; and (d) total amnesty for Mr. Rudd and the Ruddlets.
Police were brought in and hundreds of students rioted, trashing the
campus along with parts of the surrounding neighborhood. In Mr.
Rudd's "Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen" -- a series
of rationales for the autobiographer's toxic behavior as a young man,
followed by one of the most unconvincing mea culpas since Bernie
Madoff turned himself in -- he cluelessly describes the collision of
authority and adolescence at Columbia. "It certainly didn't help that
we antagonized the cops by calling them 'pigs' and 'm---------ers.' "
(Mr. Rudd doesn't bother with the hyphens.) He goes on to describe
his behavior following an argument with a professor. The prof
actually wanted to teach students rather than help them destroy an
institution of higher learning: "Breaking away . . . I ran down the
street, picked up a brick I saw lying around, and, in a puny gesture,
shattered the post-office window next door. Throwing that brick gave
me no solace."
Not to worry. There were many other balms for self-styled militants.
Mind-altering drugs, for example, group sex, visits to Cuba for
training in revolutionary tactics and, in later years, grabbing
credit for ending the Vietnam War. (In fact, because the Nixon
administration worried about appearing to bow to the radicals'
pressure, they actually helped prolong the conflict.) "To this day,"
Mr. Rudd writes, four decades after the uprising on the Upper West
Side, "I encounter people who tell me the Columbia strike changed
their lives: a woman who gave up French literature to study law and
work for welfare clients; a male career community organizer who found
direction for his life during the strike."
Unmentioned by Mr. Rudd are Columbia students who were pleased with
the direction of their studies but whose classes were shut down and
whose Ph.D. theses, in a some cases, were burned in the riot (a
disaster in the days before the ubiquity of the copying machine). A
more significant casualty of the Columbia violence: the suffocation
of civilized debate on campus.
The university has never fully recovered from the traumas of 1968.
Over the years its presidents and administrations have tacked one way
and another as the winds of political fashion dictate, lest "the
kids" get upset again. In September 2007, when Iranian president
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at the university, criticism
from outside Columbia that Mr. Ahmadinejad hardly merited the
school's hospitality prompted two ludicrous screeds, one from the
president of the university, the other from the president of Iran.
Both Lee Bollinger and Mr. Ahmadinejad essentially defended the
Iranian's right to free speech in America -- this for the
representative of a country where speaking freely is often rewarded
with prison time. (And, of course, the U.S. military that defends
free speech at Columbia is denied a campus presence in the form of the ROTC.)
By contrast, a year earlier another invited Columbia speaker -- Jim
Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, an independent group
that patrols the border between the U.S. and Mexico -- was mugged
onstage by student intimidators in classic SDS style, and the school
authorities issued only the mildest rebuke.
A trailblazer of that style, of course, was Mr. Rudd. After fomenting
the Columbia brawl in 1968, he moved on to help found a more violent
organization called the Weathermen (later renamed the Weather
Underground). At Indiana University in September 1969, he exhorted
students to follow his lead. In "Underground," he quotes from an FBI
file that he says "all too accurately" captured his remarks that day:
"Some people will get hurt, some killed, to build the revolution. We
want whites to take risks now -- affinity groups will be the main
tactics. Whites in twos and three will off" -- that is, murder --
"the pigs. . . . Don't have non-violent marches."
Of course, Mr. Rudd was not alone in portraying the U.S. as an
imperialist, sexist, racist society led by Caucasian male oppressors
-- in a word, "Amerika." There was, for example, Bernardine Dohrn,
who styled herself as a valorous antifascist fighting the Fourth
Reich. Speaking alongside Mr. Rudd in Chicago in October 1969, she
told a crowd: "We refuse to be good Germans. We live behind enemy lines."
On March 16, 1970, Mr. Rudd's life as a revolutionary took an
unexpected turn. At a townhouse on 11th Street in Greenwich Village
where five of his "comrades" were preparing an attack on a dance at
Fort Dix in New Jersey for noncommissioned officers and their wives
and girlfriends, a bomb loaded with dynamite and nails exploded
prematurely. The blast killed three Weathermen; two others survived
and fled the scene. The group's leadership went underground to avoid arrest.
Mr. Rudd, it should be noted, was fully aware of the planned attack:
One of the bombers who would die in the explosion had told him a few
nights before that they were going to "kill the pigs at a dance at
Fort Dix." The military officers, of course, were meant to "pay for
the American crimes in Vietnam," Mr. Rudd writes. As for their
dancing partners, well, "at that point we had determined that there
were no innocent Americans, at least no white ones."
He stayed on the lam for seven years, dodging federal charges in the
Fort Dix bombing conspiracy and other crimes. Mr. Rudd was unhappy
with the revolution's failure to accomplish much of anything, but he
certainly did not repudiate its methods. In "Underground," he
describes participating, a few weeks after the Greenwich Village
explosion, in a "fund-raising" event that would be colloquially
described as armed robbery at a restaurant, and he recounts a bungled
attempt several months later to bomb the Marin County Courthouse in
California. But he also fell from favor within the organization,
which was rife with political infighting, and drifted into the
"insanely boring" life of a simple fugitive from justice. Still, he
had talked his long-suffering wife into joining him underground, and
in 1974 they had a baby, a son "born under an assumed name."
In 1977, Mr. Rudd finally surfaced in a well-hyped, thoroughly
lawyered surrender to federal authorities. He gloats that at his
arraignment he was "treated more or less as a V.I.P. rather than a
bail jumper and an accused felon revolutionary." Another delight:
Most of the charges against him were dropped, and he got off with two
years' probation and a $2,000 fine.
Since then, the memoirist assures us, he became a sober
community-college math teacher in New Mexico (he retired in 2007),
rueful about the Weathermen's violent history -- though only faintly
so. He is hardly contrite about trying to sow revolution. The U.S. is
still a racist, imperialist stronghold, Mr. Rudd claims, and "there's
no shortage of organizing work to be done." The awakening youth of
America, he says, give him hope.
The real value of "Underground" is not its feeble repentance or its
sham modesty. ("My part in the destruction of the Weather Underground
was actually very small.") Mr. Rudd's essential contribution is his
self-portrait as a youth who persuaded others to wreck rather than
create -- and his snapshots of like-minded contemporaries.
Consider the aforementioned Bernardine Dohrn. In the 1970s, a
"Revolutionary Committee" of fanatical leftists who had deposed her
Weather Underground leadership group released a tape of the contrite
Ms. Dohrn's confession of her antirevolutionary sins. On the tape,
she owned up to "naked white supremacy, white superiority, and
chauvinistic arrogance," Mr. Rudd reports, and to "denying support to
Third World liberation. . . . She even named names of her
co-conspirators." Among the "leading criminals" she denounced, the
author notes, was Bill Ayers.
As the world knows, Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn are now man and wife --
and professors well respected in some quarters. Such are the
after-lives of revolutionaries. During the presidential campaign,
because of Mr. Ayers's connection to Barack Obama, the names Ayers,
Dohrn and Rudd were in the air again, occasioning wistful admiration
from the left and fresh anger from the right. Few noticed that the
superannuated rebels now operate at a safe distance from the
barricades. The main activity of these "activists" is offering
alibis, teaching the naïve and writing books about the days before
Amerika got wise to their party line.
Mr. Kanfer is a Manhattan Institute scholar and the author, most
recently, of "Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of
Marlon Brando" (Knopf).