Days of Rage
America's Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
Bryan Burrough, 2015
One of my absolute favourite places on the internet is The Atavist Magazine. A rare cut above the fleeting distractions of thinkpiece journalism, the Atavist publishes focused, polished gems of long-form journalism, intensely researched and powerfully written, on fascinating yet esoteric stories from long forgotten history. Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage reminded me of The Atavist in more ways than one. Interesting, thoroughly researched, and certainly well written, Burrough's subject here is the 1970's heyday of the American radical underground and the larger than life characters who inhabited it.
The old revolutionaries of the early 70’s seem a world apart from us today, remembered condescendingly as minor inconveniences or mere vandals, if at all. Perhaps we moved on to more exciting times. Perhaps the Western hegemon simply can’t tolerate the memory that some of its sons and daughters wanted so desperately to bring the whole thing crashing down. Perhaps (as seemed more and more likely as I progressed through Days of Rage), the whole episode just seemed too bizarre to be real. And to be sure, the story is certainly a bizarre one. LSD-fueled revolutionary orgies, Harvard professors breaking out of prison, FBI assassinations, former Black Panthers trying to set up a world government in Northern Africa, and Puerto Rican terrorists on the floor of Congress are only a handful of the wonderful anecdotes that Burrough’s research turns up. These are all told with an excellent hand for narrative, coloured with painstaking detail from interviews with every major character still alive, free, and willing to tell their tale.
Burrough’s research goes far beyond storytelling though. More than simply a polished collation of past work, Days of Rage represents a genuinely original contribution to the public understanding of 70’s revolutionary terrorism, as Burrough unearths new details and conspiracies. Of particular note is the discovery of Weatherman’s secret “bomb guru”, which Burrough has described in an excerpt of Days of Rage published in Vanity Fair. Perhaps most important is Burrough’s insistence on holding revolutionaries to account, reminding his readers that however they may have sought to be remembered, his subjects were genuine terrorists. The accounting of Weatherman’s dreams of bombing army bases and subway stations casts them in a harsher, but more honest light than the tales of them as bathroom-bombers. On a topic bound up in so much posturing and regret, an impartial historian is needed to prevent the script being rewritten by the players, or by moralistic commentators who let their halo biases wash away the sins of well-written murderers.
At times, Burrough's sharp focus risks isolating his subjects from their historical context. The subtitular domain of the book is the left-wing radical underground of the 1970's, but focusing on this alone obscures how that movement was posed as a response to right-wing terrorists of the KKK and their ilk. Already well over 500 pages of intensely researched work, we can hardly blame Burrough for drawing the line somewhere, but even an extra chapter from secondary sources would have helped to insulate against any claims of bias here. Similarly, while far from uncritical of the FBI, the investigation of law enforcement takes a back seat (I suspect mainly out of a lack of willing penitents) to the story of those they were (at times overzealously) chasing. Perhaps because they're always framed in response to the actions of the various revolutionary groups (and thus diffused throughout the book, whereas each revolutionary group gets their own chapter), the FBI never feel like main characters. Contrast this with the richly detailed story of the FBI in Lawrence Wright’s 9/11 investigation The Looming Tower (which Dunlop has reviewed here, with my review forthcoming), who admittedly benefit from having a single adversary and a clearer claim to being the good guys.
It was all a mistake. People weren’t ready.
- Sekou Odinga
While Days of Rage is a triumph of investigative reporting, Burrough’s narrative approach means that it’s not really an academic work. Readers looking for research on the psychology of radicalisation or the history of militant vigilantism in American black ghettoes will need to look elsewhere. But despite this intention, Days of Rage still has a great deal to contribute to the academic literature. The historical distance allows Burrough to trace the entire course of his characters lives, not only their complaints and their crimes but their reflections and regrets as well; important acts that are all too often omitted from the terrorist script. Days of Rage makes a valuable contribution to an important topic, wrapped up in a fascinating tale of a forgotten history, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone I know.
The cover image shows a modern tribute to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in downtown Los Angeles. The bicycle in front carries a commercialised Mao Tse-Tung satchel bag. The thought of the Black Panther Party and the revolutionary writings of Mao were two of the largest sources of inspiration for the 1970s radical underground. The image is provided courtesy of
archie4oz on flickr, under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.