The New Left Coalition

A crystallization of all JJ’s pet ideas, the paper didn’t just draw parallels between American student protests and the Third World guerrilla campaigns sprouting up around the world: It judged them all part and parcel of a single titanic global struggle between oppressed minorities and the agencies of U.S. imperialism. In other words, Mark Rudd hadn’t just acted like Che at Columbia; he was, in fact, Che’s comrade in arms. But the genius of JJ’s argument was that it allowed white radicals to portray themselves as allies of these oppressed minorities by rallying behind the one group whose leaders—from Martin Luther King to Huey Newton—the JJs of the world adored even more than Che Guevara: American blacks. “I think in our hearts what all of us wanted to be,” former SDS leader Cathy Wilkerson recalls, “was a Black Panther.”

Wars like Vietnam came and went, but it was only the brewing revolution of American blacks, JJ prophesied, that had the potential to destroy the country. Every white revolutionary, he argued, was duty-bound to become 1969’s version of John Brown, the Civil War−era antislavery zealot. “John Brown! Live like him!” became JJ’s rallying cry. What this meant in reality was, like most protest-era rhetoric, open to interpretation. In the minds of apocalyptic radicals like JJ, white American protesters were destined to become Che-style guerrillas in the streets of America, rallying blacks and the white working class to a bloody revolution. ...

The SDS convention took place at the Chicago Coliseum on Wednesday, June 18, 1969; nearly two thousand people attended. The Weathermen arrived as part of the larger RYM—Revolutionary Youth Movement—caucus, but both were consumed with the battle against their archrivals, PL. (The basic difference between the two groups was that PL adopted a Maoist philosophy of focusing on “workers,” while Weatherman put its emphasis on the “oppressed,” especially blacks.) The convention’s first two days were consumed with the trappings of student-leftist gatherings, angry speeches, PL chants against RYM, RYM chants against PL, even fistfights. The turning point came on Friday night, when a delegate from the Black Panthers took the microphone and read a statement that condemned PL as “counterrevolutionary traitors” who, if their ideological positions did not change, “would be dealt with as such.” It amounted to an ultimatum from the Panthers, whose approval every SDS leader sought like lost gold: Dump PL or else. PLers tried to drown out the Panthers, chanting “Read Mao” and “Bullshit!” When RYM supporters chanted the Panther slogan, “Power to the People!” PLers shouted back, “Power to the Workers!” Fistfights broke out. On stage, Mark Rudd called for a recess. As he finished, Dohrn rushed to the rostrum, eyes ablaze, and shouted that it was time to decide whether they could remain in the same organization as those who denied human rights to the oppressed. Anyone who agreed, she announced, should follow her. And with that, Dohrn and the leadership marched into an adjacent arena to decide what to do next.

The RYM caucus and its allies, maybe six hundred people, talked there for three hours, then resumed discussions Saturday morning. The debates lasted all that day. Finally Dohrn, pacing between a set of bleachers, delivered a slow, deliberate speech that detailed the case for expelling PL from SDS. “We are not a caucus,” she concluded. “We are SDS.” And with that, a vote was taken: By a five-to-one margin, PL was expelled. The leadership, led by Dohrn and Bill Ayers, then drafted a statement listing the reasons why. Around eleven everyone filed back into the main hall, and Dohrn strode to the rostrum. For twenty minutes she laid out every PL sin, real and imagined, terming the group reactionary, anticommunist, and “objectively” racist. When she announced PL’s expulsion, chaos ensued. PLers chanted “Shame! Shame!” Dohrn led the RYM caucus out of the auditorium, leading their own chants: “Power to the People!” and “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!”

By Sunday confusion reigned. The PLers, refusing to acknowledge their expulsion, elected their own SDS leadership. At a church across town, the RYM caucus elected theirs, all prominent Weathermen: Mark Rudd as national secretary, Bill Ayers as education secretary, Jeff Jones as the interorganizational secretary. By Monday morning there were, in effect, two functioning SDSes, but everyone understood that Weatherman had carried the day, in large part because its members had taken control of the national office in the days before the convention. Possession is nine-tenths of the law; Weatherman possessed the national office, and so it possessed SDS.

But in name only. The Weathermen who took control of SDS that summer envisioned an SDS unlike any other protest group before or since. Gone was the idea of a national office as a shaggy bureaucracy to guide SDS’s far-flung chapters. In its place the Weathermen became, in effect, an überchapter of their own, one dedicated to the leadership’s twin goals. The first was fanning out across the country to recruit members of the working class. The second was melding recruits with existing Weathermen for a massive protest march planned for October in which the new, far larger group would make its political debut, storming the streets of Chicago in an all-out attack on the police and symbols of government authority. They billed it as “the National Action,” but in time it would become known as the Days of Rage.