Jonathan Lerner was lucky. He didn’t end up killing anybody.
But as a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s, he did help people who killed people — and carried out narcissistic violence in the notion that they were making a better world.
Fifty years later, he has revisited how he got caught up in that mess. He sought to understand how that happens to people. And what lessons he can offer for young people today who are similarly convinced they need to take dramatic action at a time when America’s political system seems hopelessly broken.
Lerner was a founding member of the Weatherman. Named after a line from a Bob Dylan song — “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” — the group split off from the leftist, activist Students from a Democratic Society (SDS), which organized protests and sit-ins. Interested in more radical activity, the Weathermen went underground, moved to safe houses under fake identities to plan bombings and other attacks on the capitalist war machine, and pressured members into orgies along the way to “smash monogamy.” Lerner had figurative, not literal, blood on his hands.
Lerner, an Antioch College drop-out, gravitated toward the group through friends. He operated from the periphery, publishing flyers and pamphlets and newspapers (“literature”) out of safe locations while the group’s warriors did battle in the street with the cops (a.k.a. “pigs”), other leftists, and The Man.
He came to New Haven to discuss a new memoir he has published about his experiences, Swords In The Hands Of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary. He held a reading at the Institute Library, then discussed the book on an episode of WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”
Lerner spoke of how, as a not particularly ideological late teen, he drifted toward a violent, “knee-jerk, superior, dismissive” ultra-radical group.
“There was such a cascade of action and reaction, such an escalation of tension and conflict everywhere in the country,” he recalled. “It seemed like a natural thing to do. It didn’t seem like a break. It seemed like the next natural step. Demonstrations against the war were not slowing the war down. Our protest against police repression of black political organizations was not stopping the police repression.
“We got to a point that I think some people may be reaching now, too, which alarms me, of thinking that there is nothing left to do but tear everything down. Cause as much chaos as possible. Try to pull the underpinnings out from under the country. We thought in our deluded way that we could lead a revolution.”
In The Closet
Lerner also struggled with his sexual identity. The group’s own sexual politics “was this twisted misunderstanding of something that makes sense in feminism — the critique of patriarchal relationships. The idea was couples should be split up so the boyfriends couldn’t oppress the girlfriends.”
What really happened? “The macho self-confident male leaders could have sex with anyone they wanted.”
For Lerner, it meant he could have sex with men but maintain the fiction that he was “bisexual.” Bisexuality was considered “exotic” in the movement. A gay male was seen as “weak,” never “taken seriously.”
“Going along with this increasingly disconnected and isolated pathway of being a Weatherman was a way for me to hide,” Lerner recalled. “A way for me to put on this kind of uniform and armor and costume of a street fighter, when really I’m not a fighter. Ironically the role I had allowed me to not be a fighter and still wear that uniform.”
Lerner wrote press releases and spoke at press conferences. He “gave voice” to the rage of the group, but not to what was inside him.
“It wasn’t very authentic. It allowed me to validate this idea or to argue for this idea that I was bisexual,” he said.
Lerner wouldn’t come out of the closet — and embrace a different liberation movement that took flight in the late 1960s — until he was 42 years old. And came to see life, liberation, and his past actions in a more nuanced way.
A Dinner Burning
At the dawn of Lerner’s activism — before he joined Weatherman, and while still enrolled at Antioch in Ohio — he helped organize an “action” in April 1967 aimed at getting more students to sign up to ride a chartered bus to D.C. to mobilize against the Vietnam War. Inspired by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who famously set himself on fire to protest the war, Lerner and his colleagues set a mannequin on fire outside the campus dining hall at dinnertime.
“Dick’s set himself on fire!” they yelled. Students rushed out, horrified at the seeming suicide protest. Firefighters — dubbed “fascists” by Lerner’s group — arrived to put out the fire.
Lerner reevaluates the action decades later in the pages of Swords In The Hands of Children. On the one hand, he still considered it “brilliant” in some ways. No one got hurt. It caused discussion, debate in the pages of the campus paper. On the other hand, such “escalation” of tactics also “polarized.”
You do something bold and it has the result you sought or you do something transgressive and get away with it, so the next thing you do is bolder and more transgressive. I could make a separate diagram of the left’s escalation of propaganda and of tactics like guerrilla theater during the years that followed; some were considerably less polite than our immolated dummy at dinnertime.
What troubles me about escalation, in the context of artistic gestures in particular but also conflict in general, is the ease with which nuance can get lost, and dialogue discouraged. Yelling ‘fascist’ at the fire guys, for example. That wasn’t scripted, it just struck me as the thing to do in the moment. The fire guys actually were the occupants of a dorm called Maples, the closest thing to a fraternity at countercultural Antioch. They might really have been more conservative politically than the rest of the mildly to wildly leftist student body. Some of them, or even most of them, might have been supporters of the war. But since I never spoke to any of them I wouldn’t know. Certainly the students in Maples were willing to commit to a kind of community-oriented activity, if not activism, that people like me ridiculed as unfashionably virtuous and square. (My own dorm never caught fire so I never needed they help they volunteered at considerable personal risk.) But if we truly wanted to appeal to our community’s powers of reason, or compassion, Maples should have been included. My small impulsive escalation, calling them a repellant name, could hardly have made those guys feel welcome to chat.
Lerner was asked in the WNHH interview whether the effigy-burning led more people to sign up for the charter bus ride to D.C.
“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he acknowledged. “I don’t remember.”
Click on the above audio file or Facebook Live video below for the full interview with Jonathan Lerner on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”