- Photo by Franco Vogt
- Jonathan Lerner
Jonathan Lerner grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, the son of a State Department official. In 1967 Lerner dropped out of Antioch College and began working at the national office of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1969 he followed the faction that broke away from SDS to form the Weathermen. Lerner moved to Chicago to work at their office, helping to plan the Days of Rage, a violent attack by hundreds of radicals shouting "Bring the War Home!" in downtown Chicago. Lerner became the editor of New Left Notes, which was renamed The Fire Next Time. (One of his essays was entitled "Wargasm.") After flying to Cuba to cut sugarcane with the Venceremos Brigade, Lerner heard that three of his comrades had died in an explosion at a West Village townhouse while making anti-personnel bombs. At this point, the Weathermen dropped out of sight, transforming into the Weather Underground. Lerner had no way of contacting them and spent months traveling through Europe searching for false identification papers. Later in 1970, Lerner reconnected with the Weathermen in New York City, functioning as a liaison between the underground and the outside world. In 1973 Lerner traveled to Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to write about the American Indian Movement uprising. Throughout the 1970s Lerner began exploring his identity as a gay man. He left the Weathermen when the organization began to splinter in 1976. In the years since, Lerner has worked as a journalist focusing on architecture and city planning. He has also published two novels. Lerner's unsparing memoir, Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary (OR Books), will be published in September. He lives with his husband in Hudson.
Your father worked for the State Department. In a sense, you worked as a bureaucrat for the "anti-state" department. Have you noticed this parallel?
Yes. When I was at the SDS collective in Washington, we had an office in an old crumbling townhouse at 3 Thomas Circle. Various Leftist and peace organizations had offices there, and a radical print shop. My father's State Department office was at 1 Thomas Circle, right across the street! I used to run into him in the drugstore downstairs, when I went to buy cigarettes.
What year was this?
1969. Then, at the same time that I was leaving Washington for Chicago, my father went to work at the embassy in Brazil, under a military junta fighting a dirty war against Leftists. He was an innocent administrator in human resources; I don't think he was involved in police torture or CIA activity, but he was there as a functionary of imperialism, as we called it at the time.
How did the Weathermen elude capture for so many years? Weren't they infiltrated by the police?
The organization wasn't infiltrated; that's how it eluded capture. Before the organization went underground, there were police plants, and there was one informer brought into the underground, who was responsible for the arrest of one person—in the very, very beginning, in 1970. But by setting up that arrest, he unmasked himself, so he was no longer able to function as an informer. And that was the end of it. The organization existed for another six or seven years, and nobody was busted. The FBI was desperate to try and crack us, and they weren't able to.
What exactly was the ideology of Weatherman? Were you Marxists?
Well, that evolved. In the beginning, we called ourselves "anti-imperialist," but we were also wild about youth culture, which doesn't really have an "ism." We thought that young people would run amok in the streets, and that would start a revolution. That was our pretty facile understanding at the time that Weatherman was formed, out of SDS.
I'd call the `60s counterculture basically anarchist. Were you anarchists?
In an organizational sense, we were into structure and leadership, centralization, and top-down control. In that sense, we weren't anarchist. In the sense of wanting to create chaos, you might call us anarchists.
At the end of Swords in the Hands of Children, you wonder about the continuing appeal of the Weathermen, and I'd say there are two reasons: They never got caught, and they were basically benign. They didn't hurt anyone else—only themselves, in the West Village townhouse, where three Weathermen died. After that, they vowed to set off bombs without harming innocent people. They were a hippie version of those romantic bank robbers of the 1930s: Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde.
In the book I call them "The Terrorists You'd Want to Cuddle Up With."
The problem with the Weather Underground is that they outlived their time. The counterculture that spawned them died, replaced by its twin offspring: punk and disco. At that point, the leadership decided to "go retro" and become pure Marxist-Leninist. In retrospect, it would've been smarter if they had gone punk.
[Laughs.] Maybe, yeah! They certainly didn't get much audience for going Marxist-Leninist.
Did it strike you as weird that John McCain tried to discredit Obama for associating with Weatherman leader Bill Ayers in 2008?
Not really. I don't know what the nature of Bill and Barack's relationship is. I know that they lived in the same neighborhood. I heard that they played tennis together. But the Republicans are happy to throw mud. I thought it was perfectly characteristic of the Republicans to have discovered that and gleefully smear Obama with it.
I was surprised they expected Americans to remember the Weathermen.
Well, I think the Republicans reinvigorated Bill Ayers's celebrity.
In your book, you imply that the Weathermen's bombs occasionally did kill an innocent person, but that they denied responsibility for such an action.
I'm not implying it; I'm saying I don't know, and that I think it's possible. It wouldn't surprise me if it were true, because there was enough dishonesty and dissembling and spin from the leadership, and since we had only their word for what was going on, it's impossible to know.
What's your overall feeling about being a Weatherman now?
I'm aware of what drove us to do what we did: the idealism and legitimate anger; and I also feel very aware of how destructive a force we were in the Left, and how much we contributed to a culture of violence, and a culture of terrorism. So I have very mixed feelings about it.
Reading your book, I noticed that the Weathermen were all nearly the same age. There was no mentorship, no one older and wiser to guide you.
That's right. In 1969 there were a couple of people around in their 30s, but probably the average age was 22 or 23.
Meanwhile, the intelligent, gray-headed men running the US were conducting a pointless and destructive war in Southeast Asia.
It was a very crazy time.
A crazy time that seems to be returning.
In some ways, yeah. These are scary times, but we've been through scary times before. It kind of always feels like it's the end of the world. [Laughs.] Or, let's say, cyclically it does.
Although Swords in the Hands of Children suggests that the real end of the world is coming.
I feel that environmental collapse is underway, actually, which makes it hard for me to be optimistic in the largest sense. I think you and I will probably be dead before the worst effects of it are seen, but not necessarily. Plus, the incredible political instability in the world, and the millions of people who are refugees now, and the millions of people who are starving to death, I would have trouble being optimistic.
As a Weatherman, you were optimistic.
Well, yeah, but I was also delusional!