Lost in the Movies: Mark Rudd and the Weather Underground

Mark Rudd and the Weather Underground

Microphone in hand, impatiently trailing the wire behind him as he paced at the front of the old theater with about forty people gathered before him, Mark Rudd emphatically, if a tad regretfully, declared that he was not a "revolutionary." At least not any more. On Saturday, July 18th, the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH held a seminar as part of the Maine Film Festival entitled "A New Century - A New Activism." The talk began before the screening of The Weather Underground (a 2002 documentary about the radical left-wing group Rudd belonged to in the 1960s and 1970s) but spilled over into a post-film discussion as well.

Rudd could talk up a storm when he wanted to (he prefaced a response to a Columbia University question by jokingly asking if the questioner wanted the "5, 10, or 20-minute version"; his detailed analysis of the protests he led there in 1968 went on for at least ten). However, he made an effort, and ultimately a successful one, to open the event up to the audience members, and soon a spirited back-and-forth was initiated.

Nonetheless, Rudd himself remained at the center of the conversation, grinning encouragingly when he agreed with a speaker's point, patiently but assuredly responding to challenges (of which there were a few), and taking the lead in posing questions and speculations - without necessarily supplying the answers. It was not hard to see in him the teacher he has become (he instructs mathematics at a community college in New Mexico) and at times difficult to detect any traces of the fiery, scowling twentysomething he had once been, an angry young man on display in The Weather Underground.

Rudd is now sixty-two, with a thick beard and a full head (ironically, given the comb-over style he wore as a young man) of white hair, his build far bulkier than in his slight student days (not to mention his years as a fugitive from justice, when his weight dropped down to starvation levels). His scowl has been replaced by a beaming countenance, the nasally rasp of his youth deepened into a professorial baritone. Yet the physical changes are the least of his many transformations.

Not only did Rudd cast aside his "revolutionary" credentials, he warned his audience that "this is not a heroic story." He was speaking not only of the film to be screened, but a book he had just written, Underground, a memoir whose perspective he described as, "I and my friends made a lot of mistakes. Big ones." One of the biggest, Rudd asserted, was the abandonment of old, solid, rich organizational methods for a more a violent, isolated path, characterized by romantically militant but ultimately suicidal guerrilla rhetoric and tactics.

In 1969, Rudd helped dismantle Students for a Democratic Society, the organization which had initiated him (along with much of his generation) into activism; he formed the Weathermen, later re-tailored as the Weather Underground, in its place. Devoted to the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, one faction of the group (which Rudd and most other surviving members of the group deny knowledge of) built a bomb intended to maim and kill civilians. "Tragically but fortuitously," as Rudd wrote it in a recent essay, the bomb detonated prematurely, blowing up the Greenwich Village townhouse in which it was constructed, and killing several Weather radicals who were working on it.

After that, the group (which quickly went "underground," giving up their identities to avoid government detection) forswore violence directed against people, and focused on destroying property and issuing manifestos. For a time, the Weather Underground continued to grab headlines, but by the early seventies, youth radicalism was already on the wane. In the film, Rudd recalls sitting on a park bench during his years underground, reading a newspaper and realizing the absurdity of his situation: a prominent activist, a student at one of the top schools in the country, he is now reduced to working odd jobs and dodging police. Eventually he surfaced in 1977, avoided any serious charges, and settled down to a life of teaching, while occasionally speaking and writing on the tangled history he participated in.

In the discussion at the Music Hall, Rudd actually didn't talk much about the Weather years, letting the film itself cover that period. Instead, following his excited recounting of the Columbia strike, he attempted to capitalize on the "New" in the seminar's title - albeit with a twist, since many of the new forms he hoped activism would attempt were in fact old ones (which had been abandoned since the sixties). Yet in many ways he did keep the discussion up to date; most notably and surprisingly, by singing the praise of a man significantly less antiwar and left-wing than Rudd himself.

"Obama is for real," Rudd proclaimed proudly. "The consciousness of this individual is very, very high...in fact, if you read one book, don't make it mine. Make it Dreams of My Father!" Acknowledging Barack Obama's defense of the war in Afghanistan and tepid withdrawal from Iraq, Rudd claimed that the president was a "prisoner of the military-industrial complex," but that the administration gave the antiwar movement "an opening" which was not present during the Bush years. In fact, on the subject of Obama's election, and the mass youth involvement which coalesced around the young candidate, Rudd gushed, "This is the greatest thing that's ever happened in my lifetime!"

Overall, Rudd struck a note of optimism - even of cheerfulness, quite different from the somber aura he exudes in The Weather Underground. There he also criticizes his past, but from a more somber, chastened perspective (the interview was conducted ten years ago). Rudd closes the film with the statement, "These are things I am not proud of, and I find it hard to speak publicly about them and to tease out what was right from what was wrong. I think that part of the Weatherman phenomenon that was right was our understanding of what the position of the United States is in the world. It was this knowledge that we just couldn't handle; it was too big. We didn't know what to do. In a way I still don't know what to do with this knowledge. I don't know what needs to be done now, and it's still eating away at me just as it did 30 years ago."

On this particular day, however, Rudd seemed to have stronger ideas about what to do with his knowledge (facilitate mass movements based on personal connections and older organizational models; use the openness of the Obama White House to activists' advantage; advocate a turn away from unilateral war and toward international law - ironically, as he acknowledged, given his own past as an outspoken outlaw). He even had a suggestion of what his - and his generation's role - could be in this new era, delivered with a grin and a bit of a wink.

Rudd told one woman - about the same age as him, and extolling the virtues of the newly involved youth - that he would like to see baby boomers form "a self-immolation brigade." He continued, to appreciative chuckles, "We could provide martyrs for the cause and get ourselves out of the way at the same time." But before the dialogue got too self-deprecating, Rudd revealed a bit of the old determination. "My mother's ninety-seven," he paused to acknowledge, his expression wry and a youthful gleam in his eye. "So I may be around for a while yet..."

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Thanks to whoever preserved the piece on this listserv for 8 years, before I migrated it onto this site.

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