Review of Bryan Burrough’s "Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence"

tags: book review, Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage

Shawn Francis Peters is a Lecturer, Integrated Studies Program, UW-Madison. His books include “The Catonsville Nine: Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam era” and “Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution.”

Twice a week I leave my office in Ingraham Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and walk perhaps a hundred yards south to teach an undergraduate class in an adjacent structure, Sterling Hall. I doubt that most of my students have given even a moment’s thought to the tumultuous histories of these two buildings, but they are probably known to anyone familiar with the history of campus activism in the Vietnam War era. In 1967, when it was called the Commerce Building, Ingraham was the site of an enormous sit-in demonstration against recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company (memorably chronicled in David Maraniss’s excellent 2004 book They Marched Into Sunlight). Three years later, in the summer of 1970, Sterling was targeted with a bomb meant to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center. The blast left one person dead, injured three others, and caused more than a million dollars in damage.

Such acts of violence were not uncommon in in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Throughout the country bombs were detonated at police stations, courthouses, businesses, and public works facilities. Targets included the headquarters of the New York City Police Department (1970), the United States Capitol (1971), and the Pentagon (1972). Although it seems difficult to imagine today, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when buildings were regularly bombed as a form of political protest.

Bryan Burrough’s hefty new book, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, endeavors to provide the first comprehensive treatment of these fiery acts of protest and the underground culture that spawned them. Like the tumultuous era it portrays, the book is sometimes messy, and its prose can be overheated, but its strengths are considerable. This is a vivid, engrossing, and far-ranging work that provides a detailed glimpse of a half-dozen underground radical groups in the Vietnam era and its aftermath.

If nothing else, Days of Rage represents a heroic work of reportage. Burrough – a journalist whose previous works include Public Enemies and Barbarians at the Gate – tracked down and interviewed dozens of former radicals, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their experiences. His research focused on the revolutionary activities of six groups: Weatherman and the Weather Underground; the Black Liberation Army; the Symbionese Liberation Army; Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (commonly known as FALN); the United Freedom Front; and the Family. These groups had disparate and shifting agendas, and, As Days of Rage shows, individuals were drawn to them for a variety of ideological and personal reasons. However, they were loosely bound by a common, ultimate goal -- the overthrow of the nation’s political, economic, and social order by revolutionary violence. Disillusioned by the failure of the Great Society, and by the impotence of the antiwar and civil rights movements– they believed that meaningful change could not be achieved gradually through the ballot box.

Burrough repeatedly asserts that these organizations and their individual members have been “forgotten,” and that their stories have never been thoroughly or adequately told until Days of Rage. This might be a bit of stretch, especially in the case of the Weatherman and the Weather Underground, whose activities have been chronicled in numerous histories, memoirs, and documentary films. However, his work on the lesser-known revolutionary groups of the period, such as the Black Liberation Army, is in fact unprecedented; they never have received such detailed and exhaustive treatment. And to the extent that he goes over familiar territory, Burrough does a nice job of demythologizing his subjects. To his credit, the reader gets warts-and-all portraits and not hagiography. (Indeed, anyone who reads Days of Rage in search of heroes is likely to be disappointed.)

One of Burrough’s primary aims is to dispel the notion – perhaps most notably promulgated by Bill Ayers – that the revolutionary violence of this era was primarily directed at symbolic targets and not individuals. According to the prevailing narrative, bombs were planted in buildings, but they were detonated in the middle of the night, and only after warnings had been phoned in. Any deaths that resulted were more or less incidental. “This is a myth, pure and simple, designed to obscure what Weatherman actually planned,” Burrough writes of the most prominent revolutionary group of the period. To overthrow a racist and oppressive system, many rank-and-file members of the group were expected to become nothing less than “revolutionary murderers.” Blowing up a few bathrooms in the middle of the night simply wasn’t going to do the trick.

Days of Rage makes this case most forcefully in the sections dealing with Weatherman, but it is reiterated and developed in the coverage of all six groups. They are, for instance, repeatedly seen intentionally targeting police officers – contemptible “pigs” who seemed to embody everything that was supposedly wrong with American life – for injury and death. “It is ultimately a tragic tale, defined by one unavoidable irony: that so many idealistic young Americans, passionately committed to creating a better world for themselves and those less fortunate, believe they had to kill people to do it.”

It is difficult to argue with Burrough on this score. There is abundant evidence (cited here and elsewhere) that the underground revolutionaries of this period were aware their acts of violence would directly result in deaths. And kill, they did. Some of the most startling passages of Days of Rage deal with the Black Liberation Army, which amassed a formidable body count as it targeted policemen. Men like New York City police detectives Cleave Bethea and Philip Hogan, killed by the BLA in 1973, were not bystanders who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They often were, in short, deliberate targets, not “collateral damage.”

Days of Rage recounts dozens of such stories, and they involve an enormous cast of revolutionary firebrands. Burrough tracks their activities with a journalistic eye that can perhaps be a little too all-encompassing; at times, the narrative gets mired in excessive detail. With so much territory covered (and in such breathless prose), it can be difficult for a reader to have perspective on the significance of what’s being described, or know which character is an authentic leader -- and not merely a long-winded radical blowhard.

Pursuing members of these six underground groups were, of course, representatives of a variety of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. Days of Rage shows that their efforts, while persistent, were woefully ineffective, hamstrung by a lack of reliable informants within the radical organizations. As a result, numerous bombings, killings, and robberies simply went unsolved. Even Burrough periodically throws up his hands when trying to ascribe responsibility for certain events.

One comes away from Burrough’s provocative and troubling book marveling at the ultimate futility of the era’s revolutionary violence. The radicals profiled in Days of Rage were earnest in their desire to affect meaningful change; there seems to be no question about that. However, all of their bombings and shootings and manifestos ultimately yielded precious little in terms of significantly improving the lives of the nation’s oppressed. No systematic or enduring approach to mitigating poverty, racial inequality, or imperialism emerged. If anything, the political and socioeconomic system they loathed became even more ossified and dysfunctional, with white, moneyed elites gaining more control. Ironically, it was the non-violent counter-revolutionaries, led by Ronald Reagan, who ultimately prevailed.

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