What was the Weather Underground?

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Kathy Boudin, a former member of the radical left-wing organization Weather Underground who was imprisoned for two decades in connection to the organization’s 1981 Brinks robbery in New York, died on Sunday, leaving behind a complicated legacy with a domestic terror group that has largely faded into the history books.

At its height in the 1970s, the Weather Underground was responsible for at least 25 bombings of government buildings, including at the Capitol and the Pentagon.

But more than just a gang responsible for a string of explosions, the group was a tight-knit revolutionary organization promoting social change, which rose to national prominence during one of the country’s most turbulent moments in the 20th century.

Weather Underground began as a cry for social change

The Weather Underground began as a militant formation within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the largest left-wing organizations in the 1960s that pushed for an end to the Vietnam War.

At first the group referred to themselves as “Weatherman,” taking the name from the 1965 Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and its line: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

They eventually adopted the name Weather Underground.

“The Weather Underground rose, hot and angry, to — in our own terms — smite the war-mongers and strike against the race-haters,” wrote Bill Ayers, a co-founder and leader of the organization, in his online biography and blog website.

Besides Ayers and Boudin, high-profile members included co-founder Bernardine Dohrn, John Jacobs, Jeff Jones, Jim Mellen, Mark Rudd, Howie Machtinger, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins.

In a 1969 manifesto titled after the Dylan line, the group detailed their primary intention: to “dismember and dispose of US imperialism.”

In May 1970, when the SDS was beginning to dissolve, members signed a so-called Declaration of War against the U.S. government.

Ayers wrote in his biography that after signing the declaration in 1970, “within months we had established a pattern of action” to ignite a literal firestorm across the country.

They were responsible for multiple bombings, some deadly

The first high-profile incident came in the “Days of Rage” in October 1969, when the group organized a massive protest in Chicago.

A bronze statue of a policeman was bombed at a Chicago park, but otherwise the group was thwarted in causing more mayhem. More than 120 protesters were arrested and criminal charges were filed against all the top leaders of Weather Underground, according to Influence Watch.

The following year, the Weather Underground attempted to bomb facilities in Detroit and Fort Dirx, N.J.

The FBI foiled the Michigan plot on March 6, and that same day, the Weather Underground accidentally detonated its own bombs in a townhouse in New York, killing three members of the group. Boudin was at the townhouse explosion, stumbling out of the burning building naked, according to The Washington Post.

After the deaths, the group pledged to carry out nonfatal bombings, promising to phone in to buildings and alert people before unleashing explosive attacks.

They bombed the New York City Police Headquarters on Centre Street with dynamite in the summer of 1970. The blast did not injure anyone as the group warned occupants to evacuate six minutes prior to the explosion.

The Underground was responsible for at least 25 attacks against government buildings from San Francisco to New York, according to the FBI, causing millions of dollars in damages. One strike on the State Department in Washington impacted 20 offices on three floors.

In 1978, the FBI arrested five members who attempted to bomb a California politician’s office.

An attempted 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored truck in Nanuet, N.Y., led to the death of two policemen and the driver of the truck.

Boudin and several others were arrested soon after the robbery in one of the final chapters in the group’s history.

Ayers and Dohrn, the two founding members who later married, had by that time already been outed from the group, which seemed to have fallen off the tracks and lost its sense of purpose.

In an interview with author Clara Bingham published on Soundcloud in 2017, Dohrn, who is now a retired law professor, recalled how the Underground “did some core things right” but also “a lot of things wrong.”

“Feeling superior to other people was terrible,” she said. “The American people are largely asleep … but people wake up from time to time and eyes can be opened.”

The group collapsed by the ’80s

By the mid-’70s, the Weather Underground had largely fallen out of the public conversation in the political world.

Another manifesto in 1974, Prairie Fire, represented a new direction toward seizing control of the entire political left and rising back to the surface instead of hiding out from law enforcement underground.

The group created the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC) as a front for the group’s operations on the surface, but it eventually led to their downfall.

Led by Clayton Van Lydegraf, the PFOC denounced Dohrn, Ayers and Jones as counterrevolutionaries and stripped them out of the Weather Underground.

But Van Lydegraf’s group shrunk. After the arrest of several members who attempted to bomb the California state Sen. John Briggs’s office in 1978, only four members were left.

After the Brinks robbery, the group was all but gone. Over the ensuing decades, the FBI and law enforcement hunted the group down, though most of them, including Dohr and Ayers, evaded lengthy jail time.

Boudin was released on parole in 2003 and became a  co-director and co-founder of the Center for Justice at Columbia University.

Jonah Raskin, who was a member of the group in the ’70s, recalled in an article for Tablet Magazine how the organization now belongs “largely to the pages of myth.”

“Writing about them feels like excavating the archeological site of a lost culture,” Raskin said. “The truth of the matter lies somewhere between the notion, on the one hand, that Weatherman and the Weather Underground are merely footnotes in the pages of American history, and on the other hand that they deserve a hefty chapter to themselves.”

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