The Satya Interview With Mark Rudd
Initially a faction of the radical Students for a Democratic
Society (SDS), the Weathermen burst into notoriety in the October 1969
“Days of Rage,” during which hundreds of young people wielding
lead pipes stormed the streets of an upscale Chicago shopping district,
pummeling parked cars and smashing store windows.
Outraged by the Vietnam War and racism in America, the Weathermen became
convinced that only revolutionary militant action could force change.
In early 1970, members went underground to “bring the war home.”
The Weather Underground waged a low-level war against the U.S. government
through much of the 1970s. They took responsibility for bombing two
dozen public buildings, including the Pentagon and Capitol buildings,
eventually landing on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
The documentary The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill
Siegel, chronicles the rise and fall of this radical movement. Nominated
for an Academy Award, the film features candid interviews with former
members of the group, one of whom agreed to share his experience with
Anne Sullivan for Satya.
Mark Rudd was a Weatherman from its founding in early
1970 to the end of that year, when he withdrew from the organization.
He remained an underground fugitive until 1977. Currently, Mark is a
math teacher at a community college in Albuquerque, NM.
What was your involvement in the Weather Underground?
I was one of the founders of the organization, dating back to the time
it was a faction of SDS, in 1969, through our going underground in March
of 1970. I withdrew from the Weather organization at the end of 1970,
but remained a federal fugitive, in close connection to the WU, until
1977 when I turned myself in.
I’m interested in what your life was
like when you were a federal fugitive for seven years. Are you willing
to share this with Satya readers?
It’s a rather long story. I’ll try to be brief. I separated
from the organization early, at the end of 1970, the first year. My
wife and I lived on our own in several parts of the country, working
at mostly unskilled jobs. I became a construction laborer. We had to
move every one and a half years or so, sometimes more often. Lived in
anonymous working class communities, both rural and urban, east coast
and southwest. It was very arduous work always trying to keep clean
ID, staying at least two years ahead of where the FBI knew we had been.
It was scary and nerve-wracking, and I was often depressed because I
felt it was a total waste of my time. I never did get into the romance
of being an outlaw. Too domestic, I think. The hardest part was being
nobody in no community, never letting people know who we were. When
we came up in 1977, it took a year to get to New Mexico, but we jumped
into a community of activists, Anglo, Chicano, Indian, right away. My
wife and I separated several years later, but we have both stayed here,
raised kids, have jobs. I built a house starting from 1982, planted
many trees, and have never ever considered moving again under any circumstances.
My line is “they’ll have to kill me to get me out of here.”
I’m not sure who “they” are.
In your interviews in the documentary, you
seem conflicted about your involvement with the group. How do you feel
about the group now?
Conflicted is a great word because it covers a dual judgment: on the
one hand, it isn’t easy to know what the right thing to do is
when your country is murdering millions of people, and on the other,
in hindsight, the consequences of our revolutionary violence line were
You witnessed the Weather Underground’s
tactics to get their message across escalate from organizing demonstrations
to destroying private property. How did this transformation come about—was
it gradual or spontaneous?
It was both gradual—over the course of years, from 1965 to 1970—and
at the same time it was also an ideological wrenching, a choice that
our belief system thrust on us starting from 1969. Once we decided that
this was a revolutionary time, and that we had to push the struggle
as far as possible as quickly as possible, around the spring and summer
of 1969, the decision to go underground to begin armed struggle came
Certain factions of some movements continue
to use the destruction of property as a means of protest; setting fire
to Hummers by environmental activists is one example. What are your
thoughts on this approach?
People seem to be making the same mistake we made, thinking that motives
can substitute for results. The intention behind the destruction of
property such as Hummers or apartments under construction seems to be
to make a symbolic statement, propaganda by the deed, trying to communicate
how strongly people feel about the destruction of the earth. What the
ELF [Earth Liberation Front] and others arguing for property destruction
forget is that their good motives count not the least in anyone’s
thinking. Most Americans see violence not sanctioned by the government
as either criminal or insane or both (as I said in the movie), and can’t
possibly understand the environmentalists’ goals.
What are those goals, incidentally? Or what should they be? My opinion
is we should build a majority movement to change the political direction
of the government. That is achievable, though difficult. Property destruction
holds us back since it plays into the government’s hands allowing
them to characterize us as terrorists. So ELF and other organizations
should stop thinking they’re doing anything useful. This is harsh,
but I think they are unwitting government agents (as I was, by the way).
That’s an interesting idea—that
by utilizing property destruction as a means to protest the government’s
policies, activists are actually playing into the hands of the institution
Isn’t that obvious? Violence always plays into the hands of the
opposition. It justifies repression. I know this is backwards, that
the original crimes came from those destroying the environment or making
war or imposing an unjust global system, but remember, all that is quite
LEGAL. Violent responses to legal violence are illegal and convince
neutral people watching that it is we who are the aggressors. Not only
does this play into the corporations’ or the government’s
hands, but it sets us up for defeat. The future of our movement is that
we have the potential to build a political majority in this country.
And property destruction or any other acts which are not nonviolent
work against building that majority. Sheesh. Are people so out of touch?
Doesn’t the current intifadah in Palestine, for example, play
into the hands of the [Ariel] Sharon militarists? Didn’t the Weather
Underground actually aid the FBI’s aims? History is full of this
kind of backfire. Personally, I think violence is more of a psychological
phenomenon, the need to mirror bad with bad. It can’t possibly
work in the long run. And in the short run it doesn’t seem very
How has your experience with the Weather Underground
The biggest way it’s affected me has been to make me a total pacifist
for completely pragmatic reasons: only nonviolence has a chance of being
effective. No majority movement for the environment and peace and justice
can be built in this country if it allows violence. Americans cannot
and will not ever accept revolutionary violence. The concept, no matter
how logical, is thoroughly alien. So is pacifism, but at least it has
some historical resonance, such as the civil rights movement.
There are many ways to look at the question. One is that the government
has a huge monopoly on violence, so we have to use political jujitsu.
I heard a recording of a speech by Martin Luther King in which he said,
“They have a lot of experience dealing with violence, they have
dealt with violence for generations, but they have no idea how to handle
love and nonviolence.”
Another is that revolutionary violence has no limits. Property destruction,
no matter how ill-gotten the property, is still considered violence
by most Americans. A cycle of action and reaction starts, it escalates,
and soon revolutionaries are killing counter-revolutionaries and even
each other. Oops. Better to make a rule at the outset—nobody kills
or harms another. Property included.
It also puts us on a higher moral ground, which is not a small thing
to be sneezed away.
I’ve learned a lot of other stuff, too, such as don’t believe
your own ideas just because they’re your ideas. If you’re
given to idealism, as many of us social progressives are, you’d
better figure out some ways of checking reality. Of course realism has
its downside, too, but the left tends to trip out too much.
You feel very strongly that a violent approach
to social change is misguided. I‘d like to bring up an interesting
situation: recently, officials at Cambridge University in England announced
they were rethinking plans to build a new primate research center because
of the expected cost of protecting it from animal rights activists.
While the University may have been trying to save face by scape-goating
activists for its own lack of finances for the project, the idea that
the threat of direct action (or “bullying tactics” according
to some in the press) by activists affected the University’s plans
is interesting. Animal rights activists were criticized by the media
and Parliament, to no one’s surprise, and one article in the Evening
Standard noted that “many animal rights protestors are peaceful,
but they now find themselves in the morally compromised position of
seeing their objectives furthered by the actions of a violent minority.”
The fact of the matter is, however, that the threat of retaliation by
activists may very well have been a central consideration in the University’s
decision to stall the project, at least temporarily. What’s your
initial reaction to this?
Probably the same as yours. Initially it seems like a victory, though
I have a few questions. Were there actual threats, or did the authorities
just claim that they were threatened? Did they cancel the project in
this way in order to discredit the movement? Did the canceling gain
the animal rights movement public support or did it brand the movement
as “terrorist?” Perhaps a threat of massive civil disobedience
and disruption and occupation and pickets, etc., might have been even
more effective. I suspect there’s a downside to the “victory.”
Anne Sullivan is the marketing director for the
Disinformation Company, a publishing and entertainment company in New
York City (www.disinfo.com).
She is an avid viewer of documentary films and highly recommends The
Weather Underground, as well as Aileen: The Life and Death
of a Serial Killer, Bowling for Columbine, Uncovered:
The Whole Truth about the Iraq War, and American Pimp.
Thank you to Mark Rudd for generously agreeing to this interview and
to Sarah Gallogly for her help compiling research materials.