by Tyrone Boucher
I read Dan Berger’s book Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity in the midst of organizing a conference called Making Money Make Change and thinking constantly about what it means to work with other wealthy/privileged people to support and strengthen social justice movements. I was totally enthralled by the book, I think because it directly addresses some of the questions I’ve been thinking about so much lately in terms of how I approach my activism, and how to work with other privileged people to support and participate in broad-based movements. In the book’s conclusion, Berger asks: “What does it mean to be a white person opposing racism and imperialism? What does it mean to be born of privilege in a world defined by oppression? How can those with such unearned social benefits work in a way to undermine and ultimately dismantle systems of injustice?” (272).
In the course of my work organizing other class privileged folks to fight capitalism, classism, and wealth inequality, I’ve sometimes been encouraged by fellow organizers to take my political intensity down a notch because it can alienate people. It’s important for me to hear this, because it reminds me how important it is to meet people where they’re at, be compassionate and humble in my relationships with other radical or progressive folks who share my privilege, and work in my own communities to help build a strong multiracial, cross-class movement. I appreciate being challenged about this stuff, and it often serves as a much-needed check on my tendency towards stubborn indignation.
But this conversation touches on something that I ponder a lot, something about militancy and ideology and the balance between being gentle enough to be accessible and having a political critique that is strong and uncompromising. I thought about it a lot while reading Outlaws of America - the Weather Underground had an extremely strong critique, and they critiqued from a position of privilege, challenging the racist and imperialist institutions that “benefited” them and their families. Especially in their early days, it seems like they often fell into the trap that wise fellow organizers frequently warn me against – being so angry, uncompromising, and critical that they mistook potential allies for enemies and alienated many people who could have worked with them to fight racism and imperialism.
I do think, though, that there are some important lessons to take from Weather’s militancy and revolutionary politics. I keep returning to the issue of perspective, and how perspective (so heavily influenced by our position in relation to racist and imperial power) informs the way we interpret different political struggles. The WUO has a reputation, even in the Left, as being overly reactionary, violent, and angry; Outlaws of America explored – in greater depth than is usually given to accounts of the WUO – what the intention was behind Weather’s rhetoric and tactics and why their analysis was important in the context of the state repression, imperial violence, and Third World revolutionary struggle that characterized the times.
The WUO invented itself as the “white fighting force” of the grassroots, people-of-color-led revolutionary movement. They saw that in the Global South (as well as in the U.S.), people of color were being targeted by U.S. imperialist violence; and, in order to resist this violence, repressed communities were turning to armed struggle and guerrilla warfare as their only recourse. Weather leaders argued in favor of “bringing the war home” – as the NLF in Vietnam, the Black Panthers in the U.S., and other national liberation movements took up arms to protect their rights to freedom and self-determination, the WUO also committed to “revolutionary violence” as a form of solidarity.
Weather’s strategy of violence was a direct response to a feeling that a people’s revolution was not only possible, but directly imminent. Given this climate, members of the WUO made the choice to commit themselves to bringing about the revolution by means they believed to be the most expedient, even if it meant facing significant possibility of injury, death, or lifelong incarceration.
Some of the critiques of the WUO (critiques that I, Berger, and many former WUO members share) are based on the organization’s tendency towards sectarianism, aggression, and overblown propagandistic rhetoric. But in their more considered, less reactionary moments, the WUO’s strength seemed to lie with its uncompromising alliance with the most repressed communities, its repudiation of privilege based on oppression, and its commitment to throwing down and participating in dangerous, urgent, and militant revolutionary struggles. WUO members saw themselves as directly accountable and responsive to radical groups of color like the Panthers, AIM, the Young Lords, and others; so when these groups called for outright war against the state, the Weather people were ready to rob banks and plant bombs in the service of the revolution.
Weather’s tactics often involved calling upon and leveraging privilege; members’ white skin and (often) class and educational privilege shielded them from the most violent forms of state repression, allowing them greater ability to carry out dangerous and illegal actions. Even during the time when WUO members occupied many of the spots on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, COINTELPRO surveillance and police violence never neared the level faced by radical groups of color. Members’ class privilege and access to personal and family resources increased Weather’s capacity as well. Although their approach to sexism and queer liberation was inadequate at best, they had a strong analysis of white privilege (and, more sporadically, class privilege) that informed the direction of their work; Berger writes, “privilege was [Weather's] raison d’etre – the group set out to use its privilege in the service of revolutionary change” (156).
So again, what does it mean for privileged people to be radical, to be “revolutionary,” and also have a deep commitment to confronting, analyzing, and “leveraging” privilege? What are the limits, for privileged people, of “organizing in our own communities” when the majority of people who have privilege will never choose to truly challenge that privilege or work to destroy the oppressive systems that create it? I’d like to stay mindful of the dangers of becoming overly self-righteous (“I’m a better white person/rich person/straight person/man”), but I want to find a balance that allows privileged radicals to relate in an accessible way to other privileged people (with the hope of moving them towards increased politicization) without compromising a radical analysis. I do believe, for example, that being rich is wrong. I don’t necessarily think it is strategic to say it in a beginner’s workshop for wealthy people on Class Privilege 101, but I do think it’s strategic to say it. I think it’s powerful and important for wealthy people in solidarity with poor people to renounce and redistribute our wealth, and to be outspoken about why we make that choice.
This line of thinking often leads me into conversations about guilt. Guilt is a really touchy issue when talking about privilege, and people seem constantly afraid of “coming from a place of guilt” when doing solidarity work. I think this is important to be aware of, as guilt often works to keep us stagnated and immobilized, or prompts us to lash out at allies or be defensive or just generally make bad decisions. But I also think that the concept of guilt sometimes gets used in a counterproductive way, as an accusation against privileged people making militant or radical choices. For example, many of the people who a) caution me not to give my entire trust fund away because I need some of it for “security” and b) insist that if I do give it all away I must be acting from a place of guilt – are also people with class privilege. And I understand how in this increasingly privatized, class-stratified society, money often does mean security.
But I also think it’s worth calling attention to the ways that class conditioning, privilege, capitalism, and other factors influence how we view “security” and what we believe is necessary for security – as well as what we think is a reasonable personal response to the gross inequality and oppression that gives wealthy (and white) people certain kinds of security at the expense of poor people of color.
I would like to argue for an alternate interpretation of, for example, making the choice to give away all inherited wealth. (Obviously this means different things for different people, but I’m particularly addressing white people in the U.S) Rather than seeing such a move as a symptom of guilt, an attempt to disassociate from privilege, or problematic “downward mobility,” I’d like to make a pitch for it as a step in the direction of alliance with the majority of the world, to whom any financial safety net is totally unavailable – and an acknowledgement of the fact that in the zero-sum game of our capitalist economy, rich people are able to accumulate wealth because other people are poor.
I want to avoid placing inordinate emphasis on the personal, individual choices we make about how to deal with privilege in our own lives – I think that type of micro-focus can become self-serving, and detract from potential to do broader movement building. But I do think our personal choices are worth looking squarely at because of the relationship they have to the way we live our politics. Although I share a lot of the criticisms of the Weather Underground, I was inspired by reading about the commitment of a small group of privileged folks putting everything on the line to fight for justice. Although I doubt many U.S. activists today would identify with the feeling (that imperialism was in its last throes and revolution was imminent) that drove a lot of Weather’s urgency, I think there are important lessons to be learned from that type of uncompromising commitment to social change and the roles that privileged folks can play in bringing it about.