DAYS OF RAGE: AMERICA’S RADICAL UNDERGROUND, THE FBI, AND THE FORGOTTEN AGE OF REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE. By Bryan Burrough. Penguin Press, 2015, 585 pp., $34.95.
The Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a mixed bag, populated by individuals who were pacifists, socialists, activists, young, old, mainly white, but with strands of people of color, since its roots, though tangled, were deep in the Civil Rights movement that preceded it. Days of Rage, though, is not mixed at all. It covers only the violent side of the anti-war movement, beginning in 1969 with Sam Melville, “the man who started it all,”a white, thirty-something, long-haired New York City bomber, famously gunned down two years later during the Attica prison revolt. It’s a curious place to begin, but one must start somewhere.
Bryan Burrough has published five other books, three covering financial figures, one on NASA, another on the early years of the FBI. He is an odd author to tell this tale, given his attachment to the magazine Vanity Fair (he effusively thanks its editor, Graydon Carter, “the best in the business”). VF has perfected a sort of celebrity journalism featuring the rich and the powerful behaving badly. There’s a lot of that going on. But Days of Rage doesn’t escape VF’s personality-centric style. The book lists a “Cast of Characters,” 54 people, members of six groupings Burrough’s assembles, such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaction Nacional Puertorriquena), and others, some little known. Given the span of history the book covers (roughly late 60s, early 80s), this is actually a small amount of people; Burrough seems to ascribe to the theory that history is driven by individuals, rather than so-called larger forces.
Indeed, Burrough’s object, he states, was to write a “straightforward narrative history of the period and its people.” He means to keep his judgments “to a minimum.” Earlier, he criticizes John Castellucci’s dense book on the Brink’s Robbery of 1981, The Big Dance, for being “so loosely structured it is often hard to follow.”
The world of the not loosely, but tightly, structured, straightforward narrative, is meant to be fast-read history – if any book of nearly 600 pages can be said to be read fast. A number of odd revelations stand out with this method. Burrough alternates white groups followed by black groups and Puerto Rican groups (the FALN), then mixed racial groups, concluding with the strange (though all the stories are strange) account of two white couples, plus children, merry bombers and eventual cop killers.
Being so schematically structured, Days of Rage presents the White/Black/Puerto Rican worlds as separate, occasionally invaded by the practically all-white FBI, and other law enforcement groups with sparse minority representation, looking for the diverse underground perpetrators. Burrough thus sets up, perhaps unconsciously, a weird race-based story. Succinctly put (which he seldom attempts, brevity-being-the-sister of art not being his strength), he shows that the white radicals went to college, the black radicals went to prison, and the Puerto Ricans did a bit of both, for their sessions of radicalization.
That’s the trouble with fast-read history; it often leaves out nuance. Burrough’s caused cause for all the depicted mayhem is White students’ guilty solidarity with Black struggles: “What the underground movement was truly about – what it was always about – was the plight of black Americans.” He downplays the Vietnam war, the draft, etc.; but the history is more complicated than he allows. He never notices, it seems, that righting wrongs heaped upon Black Americans was not so much the reason for the conduct described, as it was a justification. Not coming from the generation he writes about, Burrough misses other motives, including the effect of WWII’s Holocaust, being fitfully revealed as these kids grew up, on their consciences.
So, beyond the great “man” theory of history, we get the violent theory of history, which is that nothing of importance happens in the world without violence. It’s the “American as cherry pie” analysis of social change, from the street philosopher and former head of SNCC H. Rap Brown, whom Burrough’s quotes. In Days of Rage you will read the Top 10 quotes of the era; he doesn’t miss those beats. His book has been assembled from research, other people’s books, a lot of memoirs, and a few important interviews he undertook with prominent movement veterans. This is the method of magazine journalism, yet Burrough’s most important contribution is those interviews – especially the ones with Liz Fink (nomen est omen), a radical lawyer active in the circles described since the late 1960s, Cathy Wilkerson, the Weatherman who survived the 1970 11th Street townhouse explosion, Ron Fliegelman (Burrough’s chief scoop), Wilkerson’s partner in crime and father of her child, and a few peripheral others, plus a handful of talky former FBI agents.
From a writer of three books dealing with the modern financial world, I was surprised Burrough didn’t have any sort of political economy analysis to offer, even of the Freakonomics sort: Why were all those college kids able to drop things and run off to protest, both in the Civil Rights arena and the anti-war movement? He still doesn’t seem to know. It’s the economy, stupid. The 60s and early 70s still had enough surplus capital floating around to allow for youthful leisure, this being before Ronald Reagan made sure all that money went into the right hands. It’s one of the larger forces Burrough neglects.
Burrough keeps saying throughout, in one version or another, that the world the underground bombers occupied, began to “change”. No one cared anymore, “America yawned.”
The book ends with a Where-are-they-now? Epilogue. I enjoy that sort of thing as much as anyone, but still there is no hard reckoning of how the world changed. That might have forced the author to make “judgments”. But, Burrough should know: His most recent previous book is titled The Big Rich.
Days of Rage is full of period highlights and if one is well versed in the history Burrough doesn’t cover, it’s easy to add context. (The name Berrigan isn’t found in the Index or the text, though Burrough refers once to the “Catholic underground,” though that too missed the Index.)
Fresh ruminations, though, can arise from his depictions: One: The black, violent revolutionaries were among the first to be globalized, to travel abroad, to see their plight in a geo-political context (see Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, etc.). Two: That as the underground and the bombings continued for over the decade of the 70s women became more central, yet remained at the beck and call of the men – their feminism increased, but remained paradoxical because of what they would let the men get away with. An early form of this was Weather-woman Bernardine Dohrn’s hybrid persona of sex-pot and conflicted proto-feminist. This internal volatile dynamic finally helped implode the remaining straggling violent groups.
Heavy on facts and light on analysis, readers not familiar with this material will read Days of Rage chiefly as a lurid tale, a text-movie un-spooling before their eyes: The sexual revolution as adapted by radicals, the boyfriend/girlfriend world of political motives and decisions (though Bill/Hillary are not discussed), the fun of blowing things up (Made it, Ma, top of the world!), thrills and chills, the Patty Hearst circus revisited once again, wild ironies on display and jaw-dropping episodes of coincidence, how drugs fueled so much of the late violent manifestations, and all along the “feckless” FBI fumbling through. Burrough, preposterously, speaks admiringly of J. Edgar Hoover, but the FBI doesn’t come off well, as usual, in this account. But, however flawed, I hope Days of Rage secures a wide readership, especially among the uninformed young.
Though Burrough’s book doesn’t tell you, the Black Panthers’ outbursts led to the militarization of our country’s police forces. The flirting with violence of the Catholic Left led to the Catholic Right’s attacks on abortion clinics and physicians. History was upended; those most prone to violent protest switched sides.
Burrough’s central thesis is all this past has been “forgotten”. But by whom?
America’s talent for forgetting can be salubrious. The problem is not what we forget, but what we remember. That propensity produces many grim examples, one being what the recent Stars-and-Bars-waving young killer, Dylann Roof, chose to remember in Charleston, SC. He murdered nine – no radical bomber in Days of Rage killed nine people at once. Look out for what you remember.
A shorter version of this review ran in the October 23-November 5, 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.