Revolutionary Bombs And Cocaine Corruption In 1970s Militants
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While the hippie movement of the '60s is primarily known as one of peace and love, by the decade’s end many political offshoots of this culture began to abandon their pacifist leanings and embrace tactics of destruction and bloodshed in response to the Vietnam War. Similarly, certain segments of the African-American community rejected Martin Luther King’s call for nonviolence following the civil rights leader’s death, and began urging black citizens to arm themselves and retaliate against those who would oppress them.
In his recent book, Days Of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, And The Forgotten Age Of Revolutionary Violence, author and Vanity Fair correspondent Bryan Burrough chronicles the number of liberal activist groups in the 1970s who turned to violence in order to get their message heard. In his extensive reporting, Burrough gained access to militants who had previously kept their distance from journalists, fearing prosecution for the crimes they had committed.
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According to the FBI, there were more than 2,000 bombs planted throughout the US in the years 1971-72 alone. The most well-known of these militant groups were the Weathermen, also known as the Weather Underground, who were responsible for a number of bombings around the US, including the Pentagon and the US Capitol. Lesser known groups like The Family and the United Freedom Front weren’t as media savvy as the Weather Underground and never achieved very much national attention, but nonetheless were successful in unleashing a wealth of violence and destruction that eventually earned them the attention of the FBI.
While drugs were certainly a staple of the '60s counterculture, with LSD often being hailed as the substance that inspired a generation to reject mainstream values and, in essence, the war in Vietnam, by the 1970s the excesses of mind-altering substances was becoming problematic for groups attempting to plot a violent overthrow of the US government. In our recent interview with the Days Of Rage author, Bryan Burrough explained how these groups established rules about drug use within their ranks, primarily in reaction to incidents of reckless violence amongst coked-up militants, as well as group leaders whose addictions led them to embezzle funds that would have otherwise gone to altruistic projects seeking to better their communities.
I imagine there was quite an adrenaline high to being an underground outlaw who plants bombs and is on the run from the police—an experience that could easily become addictive after so many years.
Bryan Burrough: There’s a quote from Elizabeth Fink in the book, talking about the sheer excitement of working with the Weather Underground, the intrigue, the glamour of doing it. For a lot of these people, once the seismic energy of the '60s went away, once the anti-war movement began to splinter into countless different directions, there was a kind of philosophical and emotional hangover. What the hell do we do now? The movement’s gone, the movement’s died. Going underground, or helping those who went underground, was a way of experiencing some meaning and focus and excitement.
When the Vietnam War came to an end, the Weather Underground were still planting bombs in protest. In Mark Rudd’s memoir, he talked about crying when it was announced that the war was over. It was like: Now what are we going to do?
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They didn’t feel like they’d accomplished their goal of ending the war?
No, quite the opposite. Especially for the Weather Underground. They constantly had these debates questioning what the point was of blowing up government buildings, if it’s not bringing on any change. In almost all of these groups, there was always at least one moment where they had a crisis of confidence.
In the Ray Levasseur’s group, in '77 or '78, Ray’s girlfriend and his partner came to him and said: “Look! Look out in the streets. There’s no revolution! There isn’t going to be a revolution.” And Ray, who had a volcanic temper, but kept it together, said “I get it. But just because people aren’t following us doesn’t mean that we can’t be revolutionaries. What’s the alternative? Do you want to go back to your humdrum, day-job boredom?”
[Being revolutionaries] made them feel like they were doing something with their lives.
While drug use was a common element of that time and culture, I understand that some of these groups had members with severe drug problems. Did that become problematic for any of them?
In terms of drug-related corruption, it was really this group called The Family. This is the group that was run by Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, and a guy that I spoke with at length, Sekou Odinga. It was an odd group, in that they were ostensibly robbing these banks to raise revolutionary funds—or at least that’s what half the group thought they were doing. The other half, which was basically Mutulu’s group, seemed to be far more interested in using the funds for cocaine. And that’s what they did.
Corruption popped up in a minor way in another group, which was the Laaman/Levasseur group [United Freedom Front], who were out of Maine. They had a member named Richard Williams, who they discovered was a heroin addict. And they had a lengthy debate about what to do, they didn’t feel like they could banish him, because he might go to the authorities, they didn’t want to kill him, because they didn’t believe in that. And so they put him through rehab—their own personal rehab.
That ended up having some repercussions, because it was immediately after that rehab that Williams and another member were involved in murdering a New Jersey state trooper. Others in the group have always speculated that Richard pulled out a gun and shot this trooper after a routine traffic stop in large part because of his guilt at having corrupted the group. It was never proven in court, but that was always a speculation.
When you say there was “corruption” in his heroin use, was he diverting funds or harming the group?
Richard always seemed to go through his proceeds very quickly, and that always disturbed Ray, the group’s leader. But it was really just the fact that he was on drugs that made him unreliable in their eyes. If you’re doing a five-man bank job, you need each person to carry out their role seamlessly, and the concern was that Richard was unreliable as a result of drugs. There wasn’t any embezzlement, but he was going through a lot of money.
Though these were counterculture activists coming out of the '60s, wasn’t drug use somewhat common in that culture?
This was the late '70s and early '80s, a time where drug use did tend to run rampant. But both groups tended to have anti-drug policies. Ray’s group out of Maine would tolerate alcohol and marijuana in moderation, but there was a rule against hard drugs. In Mutulu’s group, they attempted to institute an anti-drug policy once it was clear that drugs had become a problem, but it was ignored. Half of that group started doing robberies on the side, quietly, just to gin up money for drug proceeds.
I spoke with this woman, Silvia Baraldini, who was hilarious, she said “I never suspected they were on drugs, I just thought they had very high metabolisms.”
Drugs clearly played a role in [The Family’s] dissolution, particularly in the famous Brinks job in Nanuet, New York, in 1981. They were holding up an armored car outside a mall, and for some reason all four of the gunmen just popped out of the back of this van and just opened fire, killing two police officers and one Brinks guard. And it was always speculated that they were very high on cocaine, which was what the violence has been attributed to.
Was the excessive drug use in response to the groups already falling apart and people becoming disillusioned with the idealism that started it?
It certainly did come around at a time in the late '70s when it was becoming pretty clear that no revolution was imminent. So there was some dissolution, there was some debate around “does it make sense to do this anymore?” But I never talked to anyone who tied drug use to that, saying the drug use was a symptom of that disillusionment.
Was drug legalization ever a component of the post-revolution utopia for any of these groups?
I never asked any of them what they expected to achieve once the revolution came. Among the few groups to ever put that in any type of stuff in writing was the Symbionese Liberation Army, who called for that type of utopia. I don’t recall that drug legalization was part of their program, or anyone’s program.
You can point to a couple of incidents, though. I know that the Weather Underground rationalized two of its bombing actions as strikes against draconian drug laws. One was when the Weather [Underground] helped Timothy Leary escape from prison in 1970. Jeff Jones is quoted in the book saying that was a shot against drug laws. And then in '73, they set off not a bomb, but a stink-bomb, for an appearance of Nelson Rockefeller in New York City. It was a protest against the Rockefeller drug laws.
That’s such a humorous thing to do, something you’d expect out of the Merry Pranksters or Abbey Hoffman. I’ve never really thought of the Weather Underground having a sense of humor. Did they do any other playful, witty protests like that?
No. [Laughs] I’m trying to think if there was anything else, in the entire book, of all these nine or 10 groups, that was at all playful. The only thing that comes to mind was this group called the New World Liberation Front, which was just a guy and his girlfriend. They probably set the most amount of protest bombs of anyone in the 1970s in California, but they got very little publicity for it. One of their early actions in 1975 was against the San Francisco police, who went on a ticket-writing blitz in reaction to not getting the contract they wanted. And the New World Liberation Front replied by pouring liquid steel into dozens of San Francisco parking meters in protest.
When groups like The Family experienced leadership corruption through drug addiction, did everything just fall apart, or did they sustain that dynamic for a long period of time?
I think drug use was there from the beginning, from the first bank they robbed in 1977, but I think it got much worse as time went on. That group was at large from '77-'81, and there was a clear sense that by ‘81 Mutulu’s drug use, and a number of his associates, was just out of control.
Was there any talk of revolution by that point, or was it just survival?
They were still talking about revolution, but The Family was a weird deal. Looking back, you wonder how the non-drug using people could possibly, seriously think they were pursuing a revolution. They never even put out a communique. They were the only group who never did that. They had no political life, no political discourse beyond their own conversations. They never gave money away to the oppressed; they never even made any public statements in support of the oppressed. The first time anybody knew they existed was when people started getting arrested after the Brinks robbery went wrong.
So why were they taken seriously?
Well, no one outside of the group even knew they existed, so the question of being taken seriously was purely an internal matter. The police didn’t realize who they were or what they were doing, until after they arrested them and realized: "Holy shit, this is a bunch of former BLA [Black Liberation Army] and Weather people." They were taken seriously as criminals, but not as revolutionaries.
Between the guns, drugs and general fever of a revolutionary life, did any of them ever enter into any type of psychosis?
I think you could see that in The Family’s increasing violence. In June of 1980, they had a couple of armored car guards laid out on the pavement, and one guy, clearly coked up, came up and just shot them—while they were laying down. He killed one of them. And that type of thing is one of the rare incidents in the book, along with the Brinks job, that you could point to and see a clear influence of drugs. That, and the Richard Williams killing, the guy who was just coming off of rehab.
Do you think that The Family would have had greater success if they’d stayed away from drugs, or were they doomed from the beginning?
I think they were doomed, just because at that point they were the last underground group. It was only a matter of time before they got caught. You couldn’t do this forever. I think with The Family, drugs led to a sloppiness that ultimately led to their arrest and capture.
It sounds like other than outliers like The Family, there wasn’t an exceptional amount of drug use within these activist groups—which seems noteworthy to me considering they all came out of the '60s counterculture. Was there an emphasis on sobriety in order to get the job done?
I think that’s fair. The drug problems they did have were probably not significantly worse than society at large at that time. A lot of people had drug problems. Some of these groups did have drug problems—perhaps you could say that these people came out of the '60s lifestyle where drugs were condoned. But most of the groups themselves, in order to remain professional, did what they could to preclude that from being a problem.
When dealing with such radical characters engaged in ethically questionable practices of using violence to overthrow the US government, I’m curious about how much empathy or understanding you were able to feel toward these people and groups you were reporting on.
I’m not sure I would say empathy as much as understanding. I understand why they did what they did. And look, I think you have to acknowledge that a lot of things that they were fighting against, most Americans today would agree, were worth fighting about, or would object to in some way. The Vietnam War, the mistreatment of African Americans, the corruption of the Nixon administration—the question becomes, do you think that those conditions warrant resorting to political violence? That’s the $64,000 question.
These days, particularly after 9/11, political violence has been rejected. People are so shocked at the unrest we’ve seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, but it has to be noted how incredibly minor that is compared to what we saw in the '60s. What happened in Baltimore would have been a calm night in Newark or Detroit in 1968.
The lack of retaliatory violence that we’ve seen against police in the nine months since Ferguson has been surprising. You had one troubled man who killed the two policemen in New York, but by and large you’ve seen no one saying “lets kill cops.” Which was the case at one time, you heard the Black Panthers shout “off the pigs!” and you saw the Black Liberation Army actually do it.
What’s notable now is the largely, almost exclusively peaceful reaction that we’ve seen. You have to speculate that activists today, on the left, they know that part of the left resorted to violence in the '70s, and it failed.
So you see these groups as ultimately failing in the end?
Yes. It’s very difficult to point to anything that they achieved. You look for any type of result that came of their violence, and about the only thing you could point to are metal detectors, or bomb sniffing dogs. That all started in the early '70s, largely in reaction to the Weather Underground.
It seems strange to me that groups like the Weather Underground didn’t become more of a household name. I never learned about them in school, and only heard the name Bill Ayers when Sarah Palin was accusing Barack Obama of being his friend in 2008. Was there a lot of media suppression of the bombings to keep the idea of spreading?
It’s funny, they weren’t given an awful lot of attention at the time, except when they hit national targets like the Capitol, or the Pentagon. These bombings were so widespread, and so inconsequential, less than 1% of them caused death or injury, they really seemed to be just accepted as part of the fabric of life in America in the '70s. There’s that great quote from the New York Post, who interviewed a bystander of a bombing in 1977, and she said “Oh, another bombing, who was it this time?” It just wasn’t seen as that big of a deal in the '70s. That’s very hard for us to grasp after 9/11. One pipe bomb these days gets widespread, front-page attention.
Josiah M Hesse is a Denver-based journalist covering politics, crime, marijuana, comedy, music, economics and pop culture. His work has appeared in VICE, Noisey, The Cannabist, Splitsider, LaughSpin, and Westword. Follow him on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse or email him at [email protected]