"Everyone who considers himself a revolutionary should be armed": Bill Ayers, the Weathermen and the Days of Rage

Organizing, orgies, escalating violence—it all climaxed for the Weathermen at the Days of Rage in Chicago in '69

By Bryan Burrough

Published April 11, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

A demonstrator istands atop a pedestal from which the statue of the Haymarket Riot policeman was blasted days earlier, Chicago, Oct. 11, 1969.   (AP)
A demonstrator istands atop a pedestal from which the statue of the Haymarket Riot policeman was blasted days earlier, Chicago, Oct. 11, 1969. (AP)

Excerpted from "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence"

While the FBI and Chicago police looked on, the new Weatherman leaders of SDS embarked on an uproarious six-month period, the second half of 1969, that would come to define them. It was then that the group’s most bizarre behaviors took place: the street brawls, the women running topless through high schools, the forced breakups of Weatherman couples, the orgies. All of it was designed to transform Weatherman’s five hundred or so core followers into the makings of JJ’s dream: an “urban fighting force” to rally the working class toward revolution. Almost everything that happened that summer and fall, in fact, was designed in some way to “toughen up” a band of coffeehouse intellectuals whose only experience with actual violence, other than watching The Battle of Algiers, was throwing the occasional rock during a street demonstration. “We have one task,” Bill Ayers announced at meeting after meeting, “and that is to make ourselves into tools of the revolution.” The idea wasn’t to go underground—not yet, anyway. For the moment, the focus was to be on recruiting, violent street demonstrations, and, come the fall, the Days of Rage in Chicago.

Few outside Weatherman itself thought that any of this, especially the Days of Rage, made much sense. When Mark Rudd met with leaders of the group that organized the largest mass protests of the era, the National Mobilization Committee—the “Mobe”—they adamantly refused to join forces, arguing that street fighting and battling police were counterproductive. The Panthers too thought the Days of Rage a bad idea. The Chicago Panthers’ charismatic young leader, Fred Hampton, held shouting matches with Dohrn and other leaders; the Panthers refused to help, and Hampton actually went public with his opposition, calling the Days of Rage “Custeristic.”

Inside Weatherman, especially in its male-dominated upper reaches, the surest way to lose face was to share these doubts. JJ set a macho tone, and a number of those who trailed in his wake, including Bill Ayers, Terry Robbins, and Howie Machtinger, were short young men who seemed to compensate by adopting façades of arrogant swagger, scoffing at anyone who dared question Weather dogma; several of them had begun carrying guns. When Rudd made the mistake of questioning the Days of Rage, Ayers and Robbins snorted. “How could you succumb to that liberal bullshit?” Robbins demanded. “We’ve got to do it. It’s the only strategy to build the revolution.” As Rudd wrote later, “The scene plays in my memory like a grade-B gangster flick. Billy looks on in smirking contempt as Terry dismisses me with a flick of his ever-present cigarette. ‘How could you be so weak?’ That settled it.”

Yet even those whom Weatherman most wanted to emulate, the leaders of revolutionary Cuba, had their doubts. The extent of Weatherman’s ties to the Cuban government has been a source of speculation for more than forty years, the subject of multiple FBI investigations that ended up proving little. It is clear that several Weathermen, including Ayers, enjoyed contacts with Cuban diplomats in New York and Canada that would endure for years to come. The genesis of the relationship can be traced at least to the days immediately after Weatherman took control of SDS, when Dohrn led a group, part of a larger delegation of protesters, in an extended visit to Havana. The Cubans treated Dohrn like visiting royalty, featuring her in government magazines and introducing her to dignitaries from throughout the revolutionary world. The highlight of the visit was a meeting with a delegation from North Vietnam, which seemed far more eager to discuss formation of a Viet Cong−style underground in America than half measures like street fighting. Their message was mixed: Even as they lectured Dohrn on ways this underground could be formed, they cautioned her “about not getting too far ahead of the masses,” in Mark Rudd’s words, which was exactly what Weatherman was doing. In the end, after giving the Weathermen rings forged from the metal of downed U.S. fighter planes, a North Vietnamese delegate simply urged the Weathermen to do their best. “The war is entering its final phase,” he told Dohrn. “You must begin to wage armed struggle as soon as possible to become the vanguard and take leadership of the revolution.”

Back in the United States, JJ and the other new SDS leaders were already preparing the ground. Within days of their convention victory, detachments of Weathermen, more than two hundred in all, began arriving in cities across the country: thirty in both Seattle and New York; twenty-five in Columbus, Ohio; fifteen in Denver; plus smaller groups scattered throughout the Midwest, in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. In each, members lived together in “collectives.” The leadership, based in Chicago and now known as the Weather Bureau—JJ, Rudd, Ayers, Jeff Jones, and others—traveled among them, leading the collectives in increasingly outlandish protests aimed at rallying the working class, to whom they referred as “greasers” or, more commonly, “the grease.” Their most common tactic was a series of “invasions” they mounted of blue-collar high schools and community colleges, in which Weathermen ran through the halls screaming and urging students to join them at the Days of Rage. In August, in the Detroit suburb of Warren, a group of Weatherwomen took over a classroom at Macomb Community College during exams and lectured the thirty or so confused students on the evils of racism and imperialism; when the teacher called the police, the Weatherwomen were arrested. A month later, in Pittsburgh, twenty-six Weatherwomen stormed the halls of South Hills High School, tossing leaflets, waving a North Vietnamese flag, and, when this didn’t sufficiently engage male students, lifting their skirts and exposing their breasts. Once again, most of the Weatherwomen ended up in jail.

All through July, August, and into September, Weathermen led similar protests around the country, brawling with PLers in Boston and New York and fighting with police in Seattle and in Detroit, where on September 27 JJ led a march of sixty Weathermen that turned violent, the protesters pelting police with rocks and bottles. These actions were successful insofar as they boosted morale in the ranks and created a sense that Weatherman was actually “doing something.” The problem, it soon became apparent, was that, for all the effort, Weatherman wasn’t finding much of anyone in the “working class” who wanted to join its revolution. In several cases its representatives ended up in shoving matches with the very people they were trying to befriend. When Mark Rudd tried to recruit a band of tough-looking teens at a Milwaukee hamburger joint, they beat him so badly he had to be hospitalized.

Rudd, in fact, though he was still the symbol of SDS to many, was proving a less-than-inspiring leader. A telling snapshot, offered in Kirkpatrick Sale’s SDS, came during his appearance at Columbia on September 25, in a speech in which he implored the audience to prepare for the revolution. “I’ve got myself a gun—has everyone here got a gun?” Rudd all but sneered. “Anyone? No? We-e-ll, you’d better fuckin’ get your shit together!” When a non-Weatherman SDSer named Paul Rockwell approached the stage, insisting he had heard enough, Rudd took two menacing steps toward him. Rockwell barreled into Rudd and slammed him into the podium, at which point Rudd simply shrugged and slunk to one side of the stage. “Rudd’s face was a picture of stunned fear,” Sale wrote, “all his rhetoric having done nothing to overcome his ingrained middle-class unfamiliarity with, and anxiety about, violence.”

Rudd could see his stock falling. With every passing day, power and influence were passing to the more aggressive leaders, Jeff Jones, Terry Robbins, and especially Bernardine Dohrn, who, as the leadership’s sole female, seemed to hold every other Weatherman leader in thrall. “Power doesn’t flow out of the barrel of a gun,” Rudd snarled at Dohrn during one Weather Bureau meeting. “Power flows out of Bernardine’s cunt.”

The heart of Weatherman’s work remained in Chicago, where the leadership and their friends lived together in groups of five and six. The brutality they experienced there—especially from the Chicago police but also from others—would have a powerful impact on their eventual decision to go underground. One of Jeff Jones’s friends, Jonathan Lerner, was given control of the national office, a set of second-story rooms at 1608 West Madison, on the edge of a ghetto. Lerner’s tiny staff paid the bills, answered mail, and put out the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. “The office was a terrifying place,” Lerner recalls. “The presence of the cops was constant, sitting outside, following us to the bank. We were under siege by this group of black boys, ten, eleven years old. They would come up the fire escapes, race through, and steal people’s purses. It was absurd. Eventually we boarded up all the windows to keep the kids out, put deadbolts on all the doors, and built a metal cage like an airlock to get in. None of it helped.”

Another danger, though the leadership never publicized it, was the Panthers, whose offices were several blocks away. If SDS was a focus of police harassment, the Chicago Panthers were approaching open war with the police. Their derelict offices were regularly raided, their members stopped and frisked on an hourly basis. The Weathermen idolized the Panthers, but the relationship fast deteriorated. “The Panthers were in a stage of total madness,” recalls Lerner. “As those months went on, as they became more paranoid and more crazy, they kind of took it out on us. To them our offices were much bigger, much nicer than theirs, we had lots of equipment, and cars, and the printing press. It rapidly developed into this rip-off relationship. That was emotionally horrible. You couldn’t dare question it politically. It was completely insane.” Tensions climaxed when a group of Panthers stormed the SDS office, jammed a gun into a girl’s face, beat up the SDS printer, Ron Fliegelman, and ransacked the office, making off with typewriters and other equipment. Afterward, Bernardine Dohrn and others went to the Panther offices to complain, Lerner recalls, “and were basically kicked down the stairs.”

For all the threats of political violence, however, the emotional violence Weathermen unleashed among themselves proved even more destructive. Throughout this period, the Weather Bureau issued a series of directives designed to mold every individual Weatherman—or “cadre”—into a revolutionary combatant. The most grueling of these practices, borrowed from the Maoist Chinese, was known as criticism/self-criticism, essentially a marathon all-night interrogation in which members were accused of every conceivable human weakness, from cowardice to insubordination. For many, these sessions were too much; dozens of Weathermen left the group as a result. This was the point: to weed out the weak and the unready, to break down all traces of individualism and transform the deponent into a tough, obedient, unquestioning soldier. Another initiative, which actually originated with a group of Detroit Weatherwomen, was the Smash Monogamy program, which ordained that every member of Weatherman break up with his or her romantic partner. The idea, again, was to sever individual Weathermen from every meaningful relationship except that with the group itself. Scores of Weather couples were forced to break up, though it was noted that Dohrn always seemed exempt; while she and JJ did break up during this period, Dohrn began an extended monogamous relationship with Jeff Jones.

The Smash Monogamy program led to Weatherman’s most notorious initiative: orgies. The idea was to break down the last remaining personal barriers. As Terry Robbins put it, “People who fuck together fight together.” One of the first, called the “national orgy,” occurred in Columbus, Ohio, during a visit by the leadership. “We were doing booze, dope, and dancing,” a Weatherman named Gerry Long recalled:

And suddenly you could see the wheels turning in people’s minds. Will it happen? When? How to get started? We knew it wouldn’t happen of its own accord; somebody had to do something about it. We were constantly talking about asserting leadership in ambiguous situations, and here was a case in point. After a while, Jeff Jones went upstairs to the attic, where the mattresses were, with an old girlfriend. JJ sees them go up and follows, taking off his clothes, too, and lying down beside them. Finally, Billy [Ayers] yells, “It’s time to do it!” and takes the hand of the woman he’s been dancing with and goes up, too. Within minutes, there was a whole group of naked people looking down from the head of the stairs, saying, “Come on up!” I took the hand of this girl and exchanged a few pleasantries to give it a slightly personal quality, and then we fucked. And there were people fucking and thrashing around all over. They’d sort of roll over on you, and sometimes you found yourself spread over more than one person. The room was like some modern sculpture. There’d be all these humps in a row. You’d see a knee and then buttocks and then three knees and four buttocks. They were all moving up and down, rolling around.

The next day there was a lingering awkwardness, Long recalls, until one woman piped up, “I’m sure they have to do it this way in Vietnam.”

“I was one of the people who instigated [the orgies], one in Chicago, one I remember, after a demonstration in Washington in November,” recalls Jon Lerner, who was in the process of coming out. “Billy Ayers and I were the leaders in D.C. After the demonstration, about thirty of us came back to this house. Somebody had a bunch of acid. We sort of said, ‘Let’s all drop acid and have an orgy,’ so we did. For me, it was sort of liberating, because I got a chance to have sex with some of the men I was after. The creepy thing was, I have a memory of several women who came out as lesbians having their first sex with women, and it was weird because everyone was sitting around watching. There were people who clearly didn’t want to be there, standing on the sidelines, legs crossed. It was basically creepy.”

Weatherman’s taste for orgies proved short-lived, petering out within months. Mark Rudd thought all the sexual experimentation—from Smash Monogamy to orgies to homosexuality—was “disastrous,” fostering petty jealousies, driving people out of the collectives, and introducing a level of sexual confusion that did little to focus cadres on the revolution. Worst of all, he recalls, was a resulting epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, from gonorrhea and pelvic inflammatory disease to crab lice and genital infections they called Weather crud. For Rudd, the final straw came when he was having sex with a woman and noticed a crab in her eyebrow.

All of it—the organizing and recruiting, the orgies, the escalating violence—climaxed at the Days of Rage in October. Weatherman leaders crisscrossed the country, giving interviews in which they predicted it would be the largest, most violent mass protest the Movement had seen, something on par with an urban Armageddon. As Mark Rudd told an Ohio television station, “thousands and thousands” of protesters were coming to Chicago “to fight back, to fight the government, to fight their agents, the police.” Exactly what that meant, no one was entirely sure. “We’re not urging anybody to bring guns to Chicago,” Bill Ayers said at the time. “We’re not urging anybody to shoot from a crowd. But we’re also going to make it clear that when a pig gets iced, that’s a good thing, and that everyone who considers himself a revolutionary should be armed, should own a gun.” Two nights before the protest, leadership sent a team to detonate Weatherman’s first bomb, a small one that destroyed the ten-foot bronze statue of a policeman in Haymarket Square, site of the violent 1886 labor rally in which eleven people (seven of them policemen) were killed. After the Weather bomb went off, a union official vowed that police were ready to meet violence head on. “We now feel,” he said, “that it’s kill or be killed.”

After months of speechmaking and posturing, the long-awaited Days of Rage began on a cool Wednesday night, October 8, 1969, on a rise at the southern end of Lincoln Park. At dusk the Weathermen began gathering around a bonfire—most of the leadership, Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones, all ready for battle. Then they waited, and waited, and waited. By nightfall it was clear something was wrong. Thousands had been expected. At best two hundred people had shown up, almost all of them veteran Weathermen. Everyone stood around blinking, vaguely embarrassed, until one young man, glancing about nervously, muttered, “This is an awful small group to start a revolution.”

Small, but ready for havoc. Most were wearing some kind of helmet, goggles, or gas mask; beneath their clothes they hid lead pipes, chains, blackjacks, and their emergency contact information. At 10:25 p.m., after several desultory speeches, Jeff Jones stepped into the firelight and shouted the code words, “I am Marion Delgado!”—evoking the name of a five-year-old California boy who in 1947 had placed a concrete block on railroad tracks to derail an oncoming locomotive. With that, amid a volley of war whoops and echoing ululations—a bit of street theater taken directly from The Battle of Algiers—the attack began, some two hundred Weathermen running from the park into the wealthy neighborhood known as the Gold Coast. Chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” they tossed bricks through the bay windows of chandeliered apartment houses and bashed the windshields of dozens of cars. Racing toward downtown, they smashed more windows, at the Astor Tower Hotel, the Park Dearborn Hotel, and the Lake Shore Apartments. High above, a few irked residents threw ashtrays and flowerpots.

The police, dozens of whom had been lining Lincoln Park, were caught off guard; they had assumed that the demonstration would take place inside the park. Scrambling to stop the surging protesters, police managed to erect a roadblock in front of the Drake Hotel. Seeing it, the charging Weathermen veered a block east, then ran south into another roadblock, this one manned by thirty helmeted police officers. A melee ensued. Thirty protesters were beaten to the pavement. Others broke through and split into groups, which the police ran down, truncheons swinging, gunshots fired. Six Weathermen were shot, none seriously; dozens were hauled off to jail. By midnight it was over.

It took three days to bail many out of jail. The Weatherman contingent, once again two hundred strong, reassembled on Saturday, at first marching peacefully through downtown streets past double lines of Mayor Daley’s finest. At a signal the war whoops again rose, and they broke into a run, swinging pipes at car windshields and chucking rocks. They never had a chance. This time uniformed officers, augmented by plainclothes detectives, appeared at every corner, mercilessly beating everyone with long hair until they fell, bloodied, into the gutters. More than 120 people were arrested. This time someone was seriously hurt: a city attorney named Richard Elrod, who charged at a Weatherman named Brian Flanagan, lost his balance, and hit his head, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Flanagan was indicted and later turned himself in; a jury eventually found him not guilty.

It was, all in all, a humiliating debut for Weatherman. Bail bonds alone cost SDS $2.3 million. All the group’s top leaders were arrested and now faced criminal charges, typically assault and incitement to riot. But the Days of Rage event did achieve something important: It marked Weatherman as the leading player on the “heavy edge” of the New Left, the furthest left, the wildest, the craziest, the most committed. The leadership chose to declare victory. The next issue of New Left Notes argued:

We came to Chicago to join the other side . . . to do material damage to pig Amerika and all that it’s about . . . to do it in the road—in the open—so that white Amerika could dig on the opening of a new front . . . to attack . . .to vamp on those privileges and destroy the motherfucker from the inside. We did what we set out to do, and in the process turned a corner.


“The Days of Rage was really a shock to us, that nobody came but us,” recalls Jon Lerner. “You know, we didn’t step back and take a sober view of it. We took a reactive view, which was ‘Well, if we’re the only people who will do this, it’s us against the world.’ And after that, it was.”

Excerpted from "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence" by Bryan Burrough. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2015 by Bryan Burrough.

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