David Dorfman by Jack Vartoogian
In 2003, as bombs were falling on Iraq in the first wave of the American invasion, I remember sitting in a movie theater in Washington, DC, unable to move, awash in tears. It was the conclusion of a screening of The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, and I was paralyzed by a merciless mix of grief, horror, rage, nostalgia and longing. A series of questions, ricocheting between past and present, had me pinned to my seat. What had happened to America, the country we thought had finally begun to live up to its Constitutional promises as a result of the liberation movements of the 1960s and the example of the Vietnam War? Hadn’t we learned our lessons? What could have led us so deeply astray? And what had happened to those young people in the ‘60s and ‘70s who had been driven to a form of madness in their quest to bring about justice? Moreover, just how had a generation that had lived through the tragedy and insanity of Vietnam blundered so amnesiacally into Iraq? And why were we today—hunkered down in a toxic stew of ignorance, ambition, narcissism, and frivolity—ignoring the illegal acts of our government, the blatant lies of our elected officials, the destruction of our civil liberties, and the hijacking of our government by corporate interests and religious fanatics? It was as though we had learned nothing from history, even a history as close to us as that documented in this film.
In speaking recently with choreographer David Dorfman, I discovered that he, too, had been deeply moved upon seeing this film, and that he had also struggled with those questions that had immobilized me. But rousing himself from his anger and sadness on the very same evening he had watched The Weather Underground, Dorfman determined to make those questions raised by the film the subject of his next work. The result is underground, an evening of dance theater that examines political potency and its attendant responsibilities.
The history of modern art is cyclical. And one of the most regularly recurrent of these cycles is the alternation of art-for-art’s-sake with art that takes as its subject—and as its aim—political change. In his 1822 “In Defense of Poetry,” the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called writers “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley believed that creative practice and political activism are inextricable, that the best poetry coalesces from engagement with the march of human affairs. And certainly literature is filled with examples of writers—Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie, Walter Mosley, Susan Sontag, Wole Soyinka, the list goes on—whose work aims at changing hearts and minds.
But what could dance—too often regarded as escapism—possibly contribute to political change? A lot, it seems. By its very nature, dance is about movement, and thus inherently about change. The Greek kinema, or motion, refers not only to the physical body but also to the body politic. It is no accident that collective political efforts to effect action are known as “movements.” (Nor, alas, that “kinetic” is Pentagon jargon for destructive power.) In the history of modern dance, there is a long tradition of choreographers called, as it were, to arms. Founding mother Isadora Duncan danced the Marseillaise during World War I and performed fiery odes to the Russian Revolution. Martha Graham created anti-fascistic dances during the Spanish Civil War, and a teeming cadre of choreographers in New York in the 1930s and 1940s made art aligned with the politics of the New Masses. In the 1960s, the Judson Dance Theater had People’s Flag Day and Angry Arts Week. And there was an onslaught of choreographic activism in the 1980s in response to the government’s homicidal neglect of AIDS and the sacralization of selfishness under Reaganism.
With underground, Dorfman is on the leading edge of a new cycle of American artistic engagement with the tide of history. After long torpor during the go-go business boom of the Clinton years and an extended post-9/11 paralysis, there is finally arising a resurgence of American artists engaged in political affairs. In leaping into the maelstrom of current events, however, Dorfman looks through the long lens of history, seeing himself—and all of us—as picking up where others left off. Recognizing the Weather Underground as engaged with many of the same problems that plague us today, Dorfman identifies precedent for the complex moral questions that accompany the struggle for justice. In underground, Dorfman draws a direct parallel between contemporary events and those forty years ago: illegal wars fomented by lies, continuous aggression, protest seen as unpatriotic, all underpinned by a mentality of conservatism and fanaticism that justifies these actions. Dorfman was just 13 when Weatherman formed, too young to have thrown himself against the barricades. But today, he asks, how can I live with myself—doing nothing—as immoral actions are committed in my name. Indeed, how can any of us live like this?
In grappling with the questions that Dorfman raises in underground, it is instructive to trace the history of the Weather Underground. For as it evolved as a radical faction of the New Left of the 1960s, this group carried within itself the best and worst traits possible in striving for social and political change. The story actually begins with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly its youth arm the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SDS formed in 1960. Dedicated to ideals of participatory democracy and nonviolent resistance, SDS intended to redress racial injustice and economic inequality. Its manifesto, which came to be known as the Port Huron Statement, was largely written by its field secretary Tom Hayden and formally adopted in 1962. As the 1960s progressed, however, the Vietnam War also came into focus as a pressing injustice. In 1965, as the war dramatically escalated when President Johnson ordered large-scale bombing, the focus of SDS shifted to antiwar action. With the draft as a potent recruiting tool, SDS became the leading peace organization on American college campuses. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and its notorious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) began to focus on SDS as a national security threat and worked to infiltrate and disrupt the movement. In the spring of 1968 SDS organized the “Days of Resistance.” A million students boycotted classes, resulting in the largest student strike in United States history. At Columbia University, a coalition including SDS shut down the campus, drawing national media attention to the organization and vastly increasing SDS membership.
At the 1969 Chicago SDS national convention, however, the organization disintegrated into factions. A splinter group called Weatherman emerged from the chaos brandishing the SDS name and organizational apparatus. This small but vocal group was ready to eschew the SDS nonviolent philosophy for militant action. Taking its name from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” lyric (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), Weatherman members were frustrated by the seeming impotence of New Left tactics. David Gilbert, a group leader who is now serving a life sentence for a post-Weatherman action, spoke about this disappointment in The Weather Underground: “We petitioned, we demonstrated, we sat in. I was willing to get hit over the head; I did. I was willing to go to prison; I did. To me it was a question of what had to be done to stop the much greater violence that was going on.” As if predicting the turn Weatherman would take, before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. had quoted President Kennedy in warning that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable.”
The whole world, it seems, was stirring at this time. Seeking camaraderie with revolutions in Mexico, France, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Angola, China, Uruguay, and Vietnam, Weatherman proposed dramatic actions targeting the military-industrial complex and internal security. In solidarity with the goals of the Black Panthers and other separatist organizations, Weatherman aimed at organizing white youth to overturn their “skin privilege.” Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn advocated immediate commitment: “We must choose sides now,” she insisted. “We must fight on the side of the oppressed or be on the side of the oppressor.”
Weatherman’s strategy was to make the war visible in the United States so that the citizenry could not ignore what the government was doing. “Bring the War Home” was both its tactic and its slogan. In The Weather Underground, Weatherman Naomi Jaffe puts forth the argument that “doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself a form of violence.” That is, if you “allow the country that you live in to murder people and to commit genocide…and you don’t do anything about it, that’s violence.” Weatherman’s first concerted action took place in Chicago in October 1969. While the Days of Rage drew only several hundred people, it caused a national stir with its violence and destruction aimed at the property of wealthy Chicago Gold Coasters. In turn, police shot and arrested protesters.
Members of Weatherman (who were beginning to be called the Weathermen) were discouraged by the small turnout for the Days of Rage. But it was the murder just a few weeks later of the brilliant and charismatic community organizer, 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton, by the FBI and Chicago police that really shocked the group. Hampton had worked closely with Weatherman, and it was clear that COINTELPRO were targeting the membership. Bill Ayers, a Weatherman leader, told filmmakers Green and Siegel that the group saw Hampton’s murder as a clear exposure of state power. “This was how America was,” Ayers said. “It was willing to kill…if it felt its power slipping at all. …None of us imagined that we were going to live through it.” In response, the group adopted a new name, Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and the members decided to engage thenceforward only in covert operations.
The Weathermen taught themselves to use bombs and guns, and they began to plan an attack on Fort Dix. In the documentary, member Brian Flanagan reflects back on those times, remarking that the Weathermen wanted “to give the United States and the rest of the world the sense that this country was going to be completely unlivable if the U.S. continued in Viet Nam.” While he now recognizes that, with the decision to meet killing with killing, the group had lost its moral bearings, he explains that “when you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.” Another WUO leader Mark Rudd, guiltily remarks about his thinking at the time, “We wanted this country to taste a tiny bit of what it had been dishing out. Just like the passive Americans we derided, I acquiesced to this terrible, demented logic. Not only was I willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences, but more importantly, I was overwhelmed by hate. I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority.”
The WUO was jarred out of this madness by the deaths of three Weathermen, killed in an explosion in a Greenwich Village safe house where they were building bombs for the Fort Dix action. Shocked into the realization that killing ordinary people was, in fact, terrorism, group members were careful from that moment on never to hurt anyone. Henceforward, their actions were carefully planned, with elaborate checks and balances, to ensure that human life would never be at stake in their bombings. But with pressure on the FBI now coming from as high as the White House to apprehend the Weathermen, the WUO dropped out of site. They were now the Weather Underground.
Throughout 1970 and 1971, the Weather Underground bombed symbolic public sites in response to specific events: they bombed the National Guard Headquarters after the Kent State massacre; bombs were set in San Francisco in response to the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin; the US Capitol was bombed to protest the illegal invasion of Laos; the New York Department of Corrections was bombed after the uprising at Attica State Penitentiary. For a time, the Weather Underground were seen as countercultural heroes, particularly after helping Timothy Leary escape from the California prison where he was serving a ten-year sentence for the possession of a few joints of marijuana. And their outlaw mystique only grew as Nixon widened the Vietnam War and the country grew ever more disenchanted as the body count climbed with no end in sight. Dohrn, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, issued a communiqué: “We are not just attacking targets,” she said. “We are bringing a pitiful, helpless giant to its knees.”
The bombings—some thirty in all—continued through 1975, but when the war in Vietnam ended that year, the Weather Underground began to unravel as irrelevant. By the end of the 1970s, almost all the Weather Underground had surfaced. Few went to prison, however, as evidence emerged that the FBI and other government agencies had broken the law in the most shocking and outrageous ways in pursuing Weathermen and other New Leftists.
Today, reflecting back on their actions as members of the Weather Underground, the subjects of Green and Siegel’s film struggle with the morality of their choices. In retrospect, Flanagan clearly understands the dangers of fanaticism: “If you think you have the moral high ground, that’s a very dangerous position and you can do some very dreadful things. You see it with terrorists these days…who can do things that are completely unconscionable. …That is a dangerous ethical position we fell into, brought about by the Vietnam War. The war made us all a little crazy.” Rudd, too, acknowledges that he continues to struggle with guilt and shame, finding it difficult to tease out what was right and wrong. Right, he says, “was our understanding of the United States position in the world.” But, he adds, “we couldn’t handle the knowledge. It was too big—we didn’t know what to do. In a way, I still don’t know what to do. It is still eating away at me, just as it did thirty years ago.”
It is this question—what do you do when murder is done in your name and you feel helpless to stop it—that is at the heart of Dorfman’s Underground. Rudd says that the murder of millions of people was “too great a fact” to live with and do nothing. But if doing nothing implicates you morally, when does doing something begin to do the same? That old conundrum of whether murder can ever be a just act is usually played as a parlor game among philosophers: Would murder be an ethical act if the person murdered had been Hitler? But what if it had been someone who would go on to murder just one person? What about two people? Three people? Where do we draw the line? And what about war? Is there ever a justification for mass murder? What is that justification? And if your country is at war, what is your responsibility as a patriot? As a citizen? As a member of the human family?
But we are all living in a time when this is not a game. In that case, what should we do, Dorfman asks. What will we be? Dorfman presents us with no ready solutions. But in raising the issues, he begins to make us see our responsibility in facing up to these questions. And if we watch the work with open hearts and active consciences, we know that we must be ready to answer. In underground’s central monologue, Dorfman addresses the Weather Underground directly, suggesting that he sees the good in what they did but admitting that he doesn’t know whether he himself could have done it. Though proclaiming himself a pacifist, he avers that nonetheless he admires these activists who resorted to violence. For they made a difference, and that difference still exists. And for all the despair that engulfs us, still, he concludes, he feels a sense of irrational hope.
And, finally, there is this unexpected postscript. In June 2006, David Dorfman’s underground received its world premiere. That same summer, the SDS held a national convention at the University of Chicago, the first such gathering since 1969 when Weatherman was formed. With the history of SDS and Weatherman firmly in mind, the new SDS seeks to re-create the best of its predecessors—re-establishing the participatory democracy of the Port Huron Days, in combination with an expansive vision of liberation dating from the late ‘60s. In just one year, the new SDS has organized hundreds of chapters and now has many thousands of members. It seems, then, just possible that Dorfman’s hope is not irrational after all.
For further viewing:
The Weather Underground. Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. The Free History Project, 2003.
For further reading:
Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow, eds. Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out. Nation Books/Avalon, 2005.
Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, eds. Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974. Seven Stories Press, 2006.
David Gilbert. Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner. Abraham Guillen Press/Arm the Spirit, 2004.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007