Bryan Burrough, author of Days of Rage, on drug abuse amongst ’70’s militant groups.
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.
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?
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. Read more “the fix”…