A radical offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Weathermen organization was formed as a vanguard to promote armed struggle in the United States. The group, alternatively referred to as “Weatherman” or simply “Weather,” saw its purpose as attacking U.S. imperialism and supporting black liberation by, in the words of Weathermen leader Bernardine Dohrn, “building a fucking white revolutionary movement.”
Published in the 18 June 1969 edition of the SDS’s newspaper New Left Notes, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows . . .” (a lyric borrowed from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) was the founding statement of the Weathermen organization. In the position piece, the Weathermen emphasized the primary importance of attacking U.S. imperialism by supporting black liberation in the United States; recognized the black community as an oppressed “colony” within the United States; stated that socialism would necessarily replace capitalism once the current U.S. system was overthrown; held that working with reform movements in a united front was counterrevolutionary; and pledged support to all struggles for self-determination in colonial environs. Three days after publication, at the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society National Convention, the SDS split apart as the Weathermen faction expelled the Maoist Progressive Labor bloc and allied with another faction, the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (RYM II).
In October 1969, vowing to “bring the war home,” the Weathermen took to the streets of Chicago to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam, show support for the Black Panther Party, and to evidence solidarity with all political prisoners, especially Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and the Chicago 8 (later 7), who were on trial for conspiracy to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Weathermen had hoped that tens of thousands of youths would descend upon the Windy City and “tear the motherfucker apart.” However, from 8 to 12 October, the “Days of Rage,” only several hundred revolutionaries, donning helmets and carrying clubs, rampaged through the streets, vandalizing property and clashing with police. When the actions, which began with the Weathermen’s bombing of the Haymarket police statue, had ended, there were a total of 284 arrests (40 felonies) with bail charges in excess of $1.5 million. In addition, fifty-seven police officers had been hospitalized and over $1 million in damages had resulted.
In December 1969, the Weathermen convened a “War Council” in Flint, Michigan. In the wake of the low turnout during the “Days of Rage,” the council came to a decision that attempting to build a large-scale white revolutionary force was fruitless and that street-fighting tactics were too costly for the organization. Instead, the Weathermen decided to go underground and engage in a clandestine, armed struggle in support of black militants and national liberation movements. By February 1970, all remaining members (several hundred at this point) of the Weathermen had gone underground and formed small cells of three to five people that were committed to armed action. On 7 March 1970, one of these cells, operating in Greenwich Village, New York City, was building bombs when an accidental explosion occurred. Three members of the Weathermen were killed in the blast. Just ten days later, indictments were handed down in connection with the October 1969 “Days of Rage.” Twelve Weathermen members, most of the group’s leaders, were charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot.
On 9 June 1970, the Weathermen bombed New York City police headquarters, and on 26 July a military-police guard post in San Francisco’s Presidio Army base and a Manhattan Bank of America branch were similarly struck. On 13 September 1970, the Weathermen orchestrated the prison escape of Harvard psychologist-turned-LSD guru Timothy Leary, followed by the bombing of the police statue in Chicago’s Haymarket Square (the second time in one year that the group had done this) on 5 October, a blast at the Marin County, California, courthouse on 8 October, and the 9 October bombing of a Long Island, New York, court building.
On 10 December 1970, the organization publicly changed its name, signing its latest communique, titled “New Morning, Changing Weather,” as the “Weather Underground.” In the statement, a stronger role for women within the Weathermen was evidenced, a critique of the group’s past actions and ideology was made, and philosophical changes taking place within the organization were outlined. Throughout 1971, the Weather Underground continued its bombing campaign with attacks on the U.S. Capitol, prison offices in San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Mateo, California, the New York commissioner of corrections’ offices, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offices of former presidential advisor and Vietnam War escalation-advocate McGeorge Bundy.
Members of the Weathermen march across the Chicago River bridge to the downtown Loop, October 11, 1969. Militant radicals went on a window smashing spree and battled police before the eyes of startled shoppers. At least thirty-five people were arrested and the Illinois National Guard was called out.
In May 1972 the Weather Underground exploded a bomb in the air force wing of the Pentagon and, in the face of new government indictments of conspiracy to bomb police departments handed down in December 1972, continued its terrorist campaign throughout 1973. In the summer of 1974, the Weather Underground issued Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. The first detailed statement of the group’s politics since June 1969, Prairie Fire included self-criticism, aims for the future, and a history of the organization. The document also revealed the group’s new understanding that a U.S. revolution was not imminent and that such an event would be “complicated and protracted.” Prairie Fire also issued a challenge to the anti-imperialist movement to continue its rebellion. Finally, the text provided detailed analysis of feminism and the role of women in the revolutionary movement.
The Weathermen’s bombing campaign continued in 1975, with attacks on the Washington, D.C., offices of the Agency for International Development and the Oakland, California, offices of the Department of Defense on 23 January, and the bombings of the Banco de Ponce offices in New York City’s Rockefeller Center and the Salt Lake City, Utah, headquarters of the Kennecott Corporation on 16 June. In 1976, the Weather Underground split into two factions, due to philosophical differences over issues of race, gender, and organizational approaches. By the end of the year, however, one of the factions— the Central Committee—saw its members leave or be expelled from the group while the other, the Bay Area Revolutionary Committee (BARC), assumed the mantle of the Weather Underground.
In 1977 and 1978, six members of the Weather Underground surfaced and surrendered to authorities, leaving fifteen Weather fugitives still living underground. Weather Underground members continued to surface voluntarily or to be captured by law enforcement during the 1980s, with the final Weather fugitive wanted under federal charges arrested in 1987.