When I saw that rampaging mob descend upon the Capitol last Wednesday, I flashed back to my experience on the extreme left in the 1960s. I knew what mob rule looked like. I also recognized why it was so appealing to people who feel disenfranchised for one reason for another — from the right or the left.
I was in my mid-twenties and I wanted to make a difference. I’d marched on Washington numerous times to end the Vietnam War — a worthy cause if ever there was one — and even climbed over the wall of the Pentagon in 1967 to face a line of armed soldiers.
Not long after that, I went on the Venceremos Brigade to Cuba with a group who called themselves the Weathermen. I thought I’d miraculously find some kind of just, socialist system in the country that could serve as a model for the future of the left.
What I found in Cuba was much darker than I’d ever imagined. Not only was the Cuban government not a people’s paradise, it was a repressive, authoritarian dictatorship that didn’t tolerate dissent. And it was hosting a contingent of Weathermen who tried to radicalize the young Americans who had signed up.
The Weathermen were not then nor had they ever been a group of meteorologists. Named after a line in a Bob Dylan song, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” they had emerged from the New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society.
In Cuba, the Weathermen would stay up night after night in their tents, making speeches, haranguing each other with what they called “criticism and self-criticism” sessions (a form of indoctrination they derived from Chairman Mao which involved a lot of speechifying, breast-beating and shaming.) They threw around terms that are familiar today but were unfamiliar then: terms such as “white privilege” and “class struggle”. The overriding message was: You’re either with us or against us. You either commit to bringing down the fascist, imperialist US government by any means necessary, or you’re a tool of the capitalist ruling class.
One by one, I saw the friends I’d made on the Brigade — including my own boyfriend — drink the Kool Aid and decide to join the Weathermen themselves. I was horrified. Did they know what they were signing on to? Did they realize violent revolution meant they might wind up killing innocent people? (The Weathermen actually did wind up killing innocent people.) How could a tiny revolutionary movement with no broad support get anywhere in a country where they were an unpopular splinter group facing a powerful government?
No one could actually explain how this revolution was supposed to work. But it didn’t matter. The fervor of the moment was what mattered. What mattered was being a true believer. I could see how heady it all must feel — how intoxicating to believe that you could change the world. These children of the 60s were rebelling for the hell of it, because it felt good to fantasize about being revolutionaries, to rebel against being white and privileged in America, which came with expectations they didn’t ask for, and a life that seemed stifling.
Despite their diametrically opposed politics, I recognized the mob at the Capitol on Wednesday: their wild, anarchic fervor to destroy, to kill, to tear it all down. They supposedly were fighting for Trump but they were also engaged in revolution for the hell of it, just like the Weathermen. They were rebelling against the powerlessness of being white and lower class in a society they no longer recognize, a society where they’re not respected, where they feel the power they deserve is being handed to people of color and immigrants they fear and revile.
The thrill of declaring “I matter, I’m strong, I can sit at Nancy Pelosi’s desk because I’m just as good as her” overcomes reason.
I’d seen it in Cuba. The emotional tug of violent fanaticism is profound and overwhelming to vulnerable minds. "We're against everything that's 'good and decent' in honky America," said John Jacobs, one of the Weathermen leaders, at the time. "We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother's nightmare."
The most frightening aspect of that trip was how alone I was in my skepticism about the Weathermen. I couldn’t find one other person on that trip who agreed that trying to violently overthrow the US government was insanity. That such a thirst for blood had taken over a group of otherwise ordinary, middle-class kids was incomprehensible to me — and scarier than the actual Weathermen themselves.
On the boat on the way back from Cuba, some converts came to their senses. One girl — who had just a few days earlier been ready to make bombs — sounded like she was emerging from a trance. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to medical school when I get back,” she told me.
That trip was the end of my romance with the American hard left. I’ve been a member of the Democratic Party ever since.
If Twitter had existed back then, the end result of the Weathermen indoctrination attempts might have been very different. They had no charismatic leader like Castro, and no way to reach the masses, so in the end they went “underground” and started bombing public buildings, including banks, the US Capitol and the Pentagon. And they famously blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in a bomb-making accident.
As for the Trumpster mob, one can only hope they’ll lose their fervor once their inciter-in-chief is out of office. But whether or not that happens, we’re all responsible for defending this fragile democracy that we’ve kept going for 200 years.
My motto? Never join a group that is planning to use violence in defense of “freedom.”