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Stream of the Day: ‘The Weather Underground’ Maps the Origins of White Anti-Racist Movement

Sam Green and Bill Seigel's Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary offers an urgent history of radical coalition-building.

Members of the Weather Underground

IFC/PBS

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If those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, the activists and budding revolutionaries of today would be wise to learn about the Weathermen, who later came to be known as The Weather Underground. Formed in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War and the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, the group of was comprised of white student radicals whose goal was the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Closely aligned with the Black Panthers in ideology and organizing, the Weather Underground is an early example of white antir-acism. In Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s Oscar-nominated 2003 documentary, “The Weather Underground,” a combination of archival footage from the 1970s and interviews from 2003 makes for fascinating and surreal viewing amidst the backdrop of the current Black Lives Matter movement.

“There’s no way to be committed to non-violence in the middle of the most violent society that history has ever created,” said a young Bernardine Dohrn in 1969, and it’s both jarring and energizing to hear a petite white girl confidently asserting views that still feel urgent today.

The Weathermen were formed at Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan after a split with the non-violent group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). They took their name from a lyric in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Their formation began with the Days of Rage, a series of demonstrations taking place in Chicago over the course of a few days in October 1969.

As various members explain in the film, the combination of low turnout and a high police presence led to a more violent action than the group intended. Diverging reactions to the Days of Rage created a rift between the Weathermen, SDS, and the Black Panthers, leading the group to adopt more violent actions and eventually heading underground.

In 2003 interviews, now fascinating time capsules on their own, what is striking is the members’ frustration with (and their reflection on) the limited impact of their actions, many of which carried severe consequences. (David Gilbert’s interviews are conducted from a maximum security prison, where he is currently serving a 75-year sentence for armed robbery that led to the death of two police officers.) Members interviewed in the film include Dohrn and Gilbert, along with Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Brian Flanagan, and Laura Whitehorn, who all speak candidly about their beliefs and paths from student activists to FBI’s Most Wanted. With the benefit of hindsight, they are able to reflect on their suburban white disillusionment, the urgent desire to explode the nation out of complacency, and the tactics they created to upend their own middle-class comfort.

In a 2013 interview with Mubi, co-director Bill Siegel said, comparing two of his films: “Both ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’ and ‘The Weather Underground,’ I think, are such great challenges to audiences to think through issues that continue to confront us today. In that sense, I don’t think of either of them as historical films. They’re about making the past present and relevant and useful.”

Whitehorn, a civil rights activist who served 14 years in federal prison for the 1983 U.S. Senate bombing, provides a particularly prescient and hopeful contemplation. Though her interview was recorded in 2003, the echoes to today’s movement are uncanny.

“Most of the movement that was committed to and really thought a revolution was gonna happen in the late ’60s-early ’70s has fallen by the wayside and said ‘Oh, it’s gonna be eons and it’s not gonna happen.’ Not most, but a lot of people. I still have hope,” she said. “I don’t think we’re gonna have a revolution in five years like I did in 1970, but I definitely think that people never stop struggling and never stop waiting for the moment when they can change the things that make their lives unlivable.”

That notion couldn’t be more timely, and “The Weather Underground” is an invaluable resource in galvanizing movements of today. Though their tactics were extreme, their outrage is righteous, and today’s growing anti-racist movements can still learn from their guiding principles. As newly invigorated non-Black activists look for resources to inform their anti-racism in droves, may “The Weather Underground” be a guide post to radicalization.

“The Weather Underground” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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