“Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman”

by Cathy Wilkerson
2007 by Seven Stories

This is probably the most important book on the Weathermen written by one of its participants, tackling the many difficult inner complexities and questions that haunted the explosive project while remaining deeply committed to progressive social change and anti-racist organizing. In the end, this book taught me quite directly how and why the WUO went astray, and how a lack of open and participatory democracy can distort even the brightest of movements.

Wilkerson starts off slow by talking a lot of her middle-class childhood, and first stumblings into activism at Swarthmore College, supporting poor blacks organizing in Chester through the ERAP project there, and winding up in SDS as the Vietnam War heats up. A few years later, Wilkerson wanders even more clumsily into becoming the editor of SDS’ weekly paper New Left Notes, just in time for SDS’ grappling with the emergence of women’s liberation. She then spins off into the orbit of Weatherman, again accidentally stumbling into joining their cadre in Chicago just before the Days of Rage “Bring the War Home” through street fighting with police.

Here the book becomes deeply enthralling, full of enigma as Wilkerson delves deeper into the unique and strange cult-like Leninism of Weather, all the while questioning why the rhetoric and macho posturing of imminent revolution and armed struggle doesn’t match her inner voice. In this inner conflict, the desire to belong and to sacrifice everything as a privileged white person for the national liberation movements of Third World peoples and blacks within the US, leads Wilkerson to silence that inner questioning voice and to commit passively to do whatever the Weather leadership (who appear to know what they’re doing) tell her. Despite the apparent flaws of Weather politics, Wilkerson lets her attraction to certain male leaders and the appeal of being part of a revolutionary vanguard convince her to fatefully arrange for her estranged father’s townhouse become the setting for a Weather collective to haphazardly build bombs which were to be used to blow up a military Officer’s ball, and the rest is history.

Wilkerson, an accidental survivor of the ensuing blast, writes with a determination and a wise clarity about those events that defined an era of resistance to US imperialism, and the errors taken by impatient movement leaders which contributed to the general defeat of the left over the next several decades. Now, at a time when the US is again openly asserting its imperial aims, a nuanced and complex understanding of where the old SDS went wrong is desperately needed, and Wilkerson here makes a major contribution to our understanding by asking tough questions, like

How do we build a revolutionary movement in the heart of Empire that is democratic and liberatory, while moving with sufficient urgency to stop the assault on the globe?

What is the role of privileged whites (and students) in supporting the liberation of blacks, Latinos and other oppressed nationalities when those groups demand self-sufficiency and separation from white involvement?

How can movement organizations sustain necessary militancy and collective structure (especially in the face of state repression), while also remaining supportive and nurturing of individual voices, particularly those of women, queer folks, trans folks, youth, people of color, working class folks, and others who have been silenced by dominant society?

What does revolution even mean in the post-industrial US?