Explosive Protests: U.S. Bombings During 'Days Of Rage'

Explosive Protests: U.S. Bombings During 'Days Of Rage'

2:32pm Apr 28, 2015
Bryan Burrough's other books include Barbarians at the Gate, The Big Rich and Public Enemies.
Bryan Burrough's other books include Barbarians at the Gate, The Big Rich and Public Enemies.
Peter Wallburg / Coutesy of Penguin Press

In the early 1970s thousands of bombings were taking place throughout the country — sometimes up to five a day. They were targeted protests, carried out by a multitude of radical activist groups: The Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the FALN, the Black Liberation Army.

According to author Bryan Burrough, there were at least a dozen underground organizations carrying out these attacks at the time. He writes that the bombings functioned as "exploding press releases."

"Most of the bombs that we're talking about were detonated late at night inside empty buildings," Burrough tells NPR's Arun Rath. "The intent by and large was not to kill, but to protest some aspect of the American condition."

But that doesn't mean none of the protesters set out to kill, Burrough says. He writes about the culture of this violent underground in his new book, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

The protest bombers, Burrough tells Rath, were often student leftists who had refused to give up on what he calls "the dream of 1968."


Interview Highlights

On the origin of the most famous underground revolutionaries, the Weather Underground

They were a spin-off of the dominant white protest group the Students for a Democratic Society and in January 1970 the leadership of that group went underground with the intent of triggering this second American Revolution. Unfortunately while they knew a lot about politics they didn't know much about bomb-making and at about their third or fourth attempt to blow something up they ended up in an infamous explosion in Greenwich Village in New York City in March 1970, killing three of their own.

On the myth that the Weathermen never intended to kill anyone

Especially when you look at the Weather Underground the myth has arisen, largely propagated by alumni of the Weather Underground, that they never intended to hurt a soul; that they only bombed ... symbols of American power. In fact I think I show persuasively through on-the-record interviews with former Weatherman leaders that the first 90 days up until that explosion, it's very clear now that they had intended to kill — not just anyone, but their intent was to kill policemen.

After that townhouse bombing the group then did swear off murderous violence, if you will. So they became kind of conventional protest bombers for the last six years of their existence.

On a bomber who surprisingly never faced any legal consequences

Ron Fliegelman, who ... we identify in the book for the first time as the bomb builder, almost the sole bomb builder of the Weather Underground: He built and detonated bombs for Weather for seven years including those at the U.S. Capital and the Pentagon — which, I should point out, Ron says he doesn't remember, but doesn't quarrel with my assertion that he did it. Ron simply returned to his family home in Philadelphia and went on to a successful career for 25 years in the U.S. public schools without anyone knowing his background.

... None of Ron's bombs killed anyone and the statute of limitations on most of these attacks was only five years — and he never faced criminal charges. Unless someone was killed, the statue of limitations has long since passed.

On the former members of the Weather Underground reflecting on their actions

Well, this is a book that could probably only be written now. A lot of the alumni of the underground are in their 60s and 70s and they're at a point in their lives where they're confronting their legacy, if you will. And their reactions run the gamut.

I talked to people who cannot understand how they did what they did, who look back on their 25-year-old selves and think that that person was insane. And I've talked to people who remain active in left-wing causes, who in some cases would not talk with me because I was not properly radical, but certainly look back on these acts as being understandable.

I would put the bombmaker Ron Fliegelman in that category. Ron has no real doubts or remorse about what he did. He said, "To understand the bombs I built, to understand the violence that we unleash, you have to understand what the United States government was doing at that time. "

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

More than 40 years ago, your nightly news often sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

HARRY REASONER: People calling themselves members of the Weather Underground, last night planted bombs in federal office buildings in Washington and Oakland, Calif.

RATH: Harry Reasoner from 1972 - and the Weather Underground wasn't alone. According to a new book by Bryan Burrough, there were at least a dozen radical underground groups that carried out bomb attacks on U.S. soil back then. The book is called "Days Of Rage." At its peak in the early 1970s, thousands of bombings were carried off - up to five a day. But let's be clear - these were different than the bombings of say Oklahoma City or the Boston Marathon. Bryan Burrough writes that the bombs functioned as exploding press releases.

BRYAN BURROUGH: Most of the bombs that we're talking about were detonated late at night inside or outside empty buildings, utility transformers, police offices. The intent, by and large, was not to kill, but to protest some aspect of the American condition.

RATH: You described this other wild scene where there's a bombing in a movie theater. They refuse to clear out. They want to see the end of the movie.

BURROUGH: It actually happened in May 1970 in a theater in the Bronx. The audience said OK, fine, you cleaned it up. Now let us watch the end of the movie.

RATH: I think a lot of people might wonder from a casual look at history how did the peace and love flower children protesting the war in the '60s become militants themselves. But the way you write this - this is a very different group of people.

BURROUGH: It is. By and large the armed violent revolutionaries of the 1970s were one time student leftists and protesters from the 1960s that just refused to give up on the dream that a second American Revolution was actually eminent - kind of the dream of 1968, if you will.

RATH: And can you just give us a sketch of the Weather Underground, probably the most famous of these groups?

BURROUGH: They were a spin-off of the dominant white protest group the Students for a Democratic Society. And in January 1970, the leadership of that group went underground with the intent of triggering this second American Revolution.

Unfortunately, while they knew a lot about politics, they didn't know much about bomb-making. And at about their third or fourth attempt to blow something up, they ended up in an infamous explosion in Greenwich Village in New York City in March 1970, killing three of their own.

RATH: And some of these leaders - some of these former leaders have said in recent years that they did not have violent intentions. They did not want to actually hurt anybody. But you write that was not the case, at least at the beginning.

BURROUGH: No, especially when you look at the Weather Underground the myth has arisen, largely propagated by alumni of the Weather Underground, that they never intended to hurt a soul, that they only bombed kind of symbols of American power. In fact, I think I show persuasively through on-the-record interviews with former Weatherman leaders that the first 90 days up until that explosion, it's very clear now that they had intended to kill, not just anyone, but their intent was to kill policemen.

After that townhouse bombing, the group then did swear off murderous violence, if you will. And so they became kind of conventional protest bombers for the last six years of their existence.

RATH: Bryan, of the violent or formally violent radicals you interviewed or reported on, is there one in particular of whom you think, wow, I cannot believe that person is not in a federal prison?

BURROUGH: Ron Fliegelman, who was - we identify in the book for the first time as the bomb builder - almost the sole bomb builder of the Weather Underground. And he built and detonated bombs for Weather for seven years, including those at the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, which, I should point out, Ron says he doesn't remember, but doesn't quarrel with my assertion that he did it. Ron simply returned to his family home in Philadelphia and went on to a successful career for 25 years in the New York public schools without anyone ever knowing his background.

RATH: The people that you interviewed for this book, the former leaders and bomb makers and so on, are they proud of what they did or embarrassed? How do they look back on this time?

BURROUGH: Well, this is a book really that could probably only have been written now, because a lot of the alumni of the underground are now in their 60s or 70s. And they're at a point in their lives where they're confronting their legacy, if you will. And I would say that their reaction run the gamut.

I talked to people who cannot understand how they did what they did, who look back on their 25-year-old selves and think that that person was insane. And I've talked with people who remain active in left-wing causes, who in some cases wouldn't talk with me because I was not properly radical - but certainly looked back on these acts as being understandable.

I would put the bomb maker, Ron Fliegelman, in that category. Ron has no real doubts or remorse about what he did. He said to understand the bombs I built, to understand the violence that we unleash, you have to understand what the United States government was doing at that time.

RATH: Could he be prosecuted at this point?

BURROUGH: I don't believe he can. None of Ron's bombs killed anyone. And the statute of limitations on most of these attacks for property damage was only five years. And, you know, he never faced criminal charges. Unless someone was killed, the statute of limitations has long run past.

RATH: That's writer Bryan Burrough. His new book is "Days Of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI, And The Forgotten Age Of Revolutionary Violence." Bryan, fascinating stuff.

BURROUGH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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