The Weatherman and Me
Mark Rudd: Political organizer, ex-federal fugitive, my pseudo stepdad
It was during a dinner party at his house earlier this year that he asked if I wanted to check out his book.
Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen details Mark Rudd’s experiences as a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen, a faction of the anti-Vietnam War movement that wanted to bring down the U.S. government through violence.
Mark is sort of my stepdad. He was married to my mom before she met my dad and my parents had me. We see each other about a dozen times a year on holidays or when my half-brother and -sister come to visit. We have a cordial, mutually appreciative relationship.
"Do you want to read the parts with your mom?" he asked. He flipped to the section where she appeared. I got a few pages in before I started reading about Mark and my mom having sex while listening to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Perhaps realizing what was contained in the section he had directed me to, Mark asked, "How much did you read?" I can't remember what I said, but in my head I was screaming, "Too much!"
I didn't really have a clear understanding of Mark's past until I saw a documentary called The Weather Underground in 2003. I knew Mark had a political history, but I didn't know he was attached to an openly violent group of privileged white kids who were doing things most activists wouldn't dare attempt. It was exciting and somewhat alarming to know someone close to me was a part of this type of movement.
He's a commanding person; he’ll dominate a dinner conversation and argue sometimes for the sake of arguing. He's extremely social, and when I was younger, he'd host big parties at his house with local politicians, hippies, activists and weirdoes. He's articulate and honest—sometimes brutally so. He's also kind and relentlessly generous.
Mark is the person responsible for giving me my only manual labor experience to date: oiling furniture at his house. He was also one of my reluctant driving instructors. I remember Mark repeatedly slamming his foot against the imaginary break on the passenger side of my automatic Mazda 626, yelling, "Stop!"
Mark and I met at his South Valley home, where he's lived for more than 20 years, to talk about his book. He has a great head of hair for a man his age and a big, near cackling laugh. He's filled out since his college days, but his face has the same commanding aura that made him the charismatic star of the left.
We chatted over crackers and hummus about his days in SDS, the Weather Underground—and about the biggest mistakes he made along the way.
I did eventually get to read the whole book without any more shuddering. The first section discusses Mark's organizing efforts as the chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. In 1968, he led the occupation of five buildings on Columbia's campus to protest the university's funding of the Vietnam War. In many ways, he became the face of student organizing and mass protests. He traveled the country speaking at various schools and had his picture featured in the New York Times and Newsweek.
Mark recounts in his book that he and my mom, Sue LeGrand, started seeing each other during the summer of 1967. Both were politically active, but my mom says Mark was more engaged in the movement. "My role in all the Columbia stuff was just grabbing the tail of the tiger and hanging on," my mom recounts.
As he explains in his book, Mark and my mom split in the summer of 1968 due to his infidelity. His celebrity status attracted many women and Mark took advantage. But he and my mom would get back together in 1970 after Mark became a federal fugitive.
SDS continued to increase its membership and influence during the mid to late ’60s. According to Underground, the organization's nonviolent efforts helped force Columbia to sever its ties with a military think tank that propelled the Vietnam War. More importantly, people were paying attention to SDS. "Thousands of people had become radicalized," Mark writes. "That was our biggest victory, the goal SDS had set for itself years before ... ."
Despite its success, the organization's methods came under fire by what came to be called the "Action Faction" of SDS. Mark and several other members felt more needed to be done to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. Peace protests and base building could only get the movement so far. In order to stop the violence abroad, the Action Faction believed any means necessary—including violence—needed to be used. Mark and others also thought opposition to the war wasn't enough. They wanted to bring the entire capitalist system to its knees.
Cracks in SDS unity eventually became a split in 1969. The decision by the majority of its members to sever ties with the broader coalition of SDS would soon lead to the organization's demise. Mark's role in the split is something he greatly regrets. "To act as if we could build a true revolutionary, anti-imperialist movement at a time when what we really should have been doing was uniting as many people as possible to end the war was a terrible mistake," Mark exclaims, shaking his head and frowning. "It's like taking a victory and turning it into defeat."
Some reviews of Mark's book don't give much credence to his feelings of remorse. The New York Times review reads, "Rudd, a retired community college instructor in New Mexico with a penchant for understatement, admits he made some mistakes." When I ask if he'd seen the review, he says, "Yeah, fuck them." It’s a classic Mark response.
When I describe Mark's reaction to the review to my mom, she laughs. "You mean he didn't call them Nazis?"
The faction fighting continued after the SDS split. Mark became a part of the Weatherman sect, which pushed for an increasingly militaristic approach to activism. "I think that there's a kind of one-upmanship amongst young people when they start down this road of radicalism," Mark hypothesizes. "It becomes a question of who's more radical? Who's less radical?"
The Weathermen soon started practicing what they preached. During the "Days of Rage" in Chicago in 1969, Weathermen and women smashed store and car windows, clashed with police and tried to incite mayhem. The event accomplished few tangible effects beyond legal consequences. For Mark's role in the Days of Rage, he was slapped with several federal charges, including conspiracy to commit riots. If Mark had been convicted of the charges, he could have spent years in jail.
In March of 1970, three Weather people were killed when a bomb they were making accidentally went off. The bomb's intended target was a military ball in New Jersey. Mark played no part in the planned bombing, but he assented to it. "At that point, we had determined that there were no innocent Americans, at least no white ones," Mark writes in Underground. "They—we—all played some part in the atrocity of Vietnam ... ."
By the end of 1970, Mark was in hiding, or "underground." He kept his contact with others to a minimum and only saw those he trusted. The FBI was looking for him and he knew he had to lay low if he wanted to avoid being arrested. It was during this time of isolation that he decided to reconnect with my mom. Through an aboveground contact, Mark setup a meeting with her. "I was incredibly lonely," Mark says. "I think we still loved each other on some levels. We were very close."
My mom agreed to join Mark living underground. It meant they had to assume false identities, like "Victor and Irene Kelso," and move a handful of times to places like Santa Fe, suburban Pennsylvania, New York and Philadelphia over the course of seven years. Mark was still facing federal conspiracy charges, and my mom could have been booked for harboring a fugitive. Both could have done jail time if they had been caught. She knew the risks, but my mom wanted to continue a relationship with Mark, and she was willing to roll the dice.
Despite the legal hot soup Mark and my mom would have fallen into had they been taken in, being captured was not her primary concern. "I wasn't so afraid of getting busted as I was afraid of us having to move so we wouldn't get busted," my mom explains as the shrill bark of her Border Terrier pierces the air in her living room. "I liked being settled down, and we always tried to have a life wherever we were."
Moving meant having to pick up and leave quickly, usually in a couple of weeks. "You had to make up good stories to tell the people who had become your neighbors and friends about why you were suddenly leaving," my mom recounts. "It was just hard and stressful. I didn't like lying."
My mom rarely talks to me about her days underground. She's a private person, and she asserted repeatedly that she would never give an interview to anyone except me. She doesn't seem like the type of person who would embark on a dangerous adventure like going underground. We canceled a trip to Oregon last winter because she feared the record snowfall would ruin the vacation. She's a meticulous planner who likes structure and organization. But when she knows what she wants, she usually obtains it. Staying with Mark was important to her, and if going underground is what it took to stick with him, that's what she was going to do.
It wasn't all bad underground. My mom took pleasure in the fact that there was no need for her and Mark to constantly affirm their commitment to what was called the Weather Underground. As the number of Weathermen shrank, the conviction required of the dwindling number of members increased. If a member didn’t seem to be completely committed to the cause, they were harshly ridiculed by their fellow Weathermen. The couple had to spout their dogmatic ideology when they were around other Weather folks, but most of the time, Mark and my mom were just with each other. "You didn't have to constantly worry about doing the correct thing politically," my mom recalls. "We were just being ourselves." The couple worked odd jobs and got some money from Mark’s parents to make ends meet.
My brother Paul was born while the couple was underground in 1974 under a false name. He had it legally changed more than ten years after he was born. By 1977, the political climate had shifted. Much of the evidence against Mark and his fellow Weathermen had been obtained illegally by the government. There was an eagerness on the part of federal prosecutors to avoid embarrassing investigations. Mark's lawyer was confident the time was right for him to come aboveground with minimal risk of severe punishment. Mark turned himself in that year in New York. Neither Mark nor my mom served any jail time.
After they came aboveground, Mark and my mother got married in New Jersey. They worried that someone who hated the radical left might try to hurt Mark or their young son. "We were very happy to be coming up from under," my mom recalls. "But we were nervous about protecting Paul."
After living for a year in New York, they moved to Albuquerque. Mark writes in his book that both he and my mom missed the open sky, chile and the people they met when they lived in New Mexico during the early '70s.
Mark tells me that after they went aboveground, the marriage grew strained. He explains that both he and my mom wanted to see other people. They eventually separated in 1980 when Paul was 6 and my sister Elena was 2. Mark and my mom now maintain amicable relations and see each other regularly at mutual friends' get-togethers, holidays and parties at Mark's house. She also helped him edit his book, which is dedicated to her.
Mark maintains he needed to forge a new identity aboveground that was separate from his Weatherman persona. "I didn't like being Mark Rudd the media icon," he says. "I wanted to be somebody in the present. Whole years went by and I didn't discuss any of this with anyone, and I was perfectly happy."
Mark went on to teach math at Central New Mexico Community College and he achieved reinvention. "I know who I am," Mark says. "I'm much more the algebra teacher at CNM than I am the revolutionary kid." As he says this, Mark is petting his black and white cat Clyde with a clawed gardening tool. His current wife, Marla Painter, begs him to put it down. "He likes it," Mark protests.
In their early and teen years, Mark’s kids and my siblings, Paul and Elena, had no interest in political activism or organizing. "I think there's an innate response in every child to do the opposite of what their parents have done," Elena says. "I was always drawn towards having a normal life with a white picket fence and a house in the suburbs." Elena was born after my mom and Mark went aboveground, but Mark stayed politically active.
Still, many of her father's left-leaning ideals were passed on to Elena. She's a pacifist who contributes to liberal causes like Planned Parenthood and environmental protection groups. But she doesn't attend protests or do the same ground-level organizing her dad took part in.
When Paul was in grade school, Mark took him to a protest during the Iran-Contra scandal. One of Mark's friends gave Paul a sign that read: "Stop Aid to the Contra." His picture landed in the Albuquerque Journal the next day. "Paul was mortified," Mark recalls. "He never went near a demonstration again."
Paul, who is now involved in progressive causes, says his father's activism made him feel different from his schoolmates. "When I was younger, I was kind of embarrassed by anything that made me stick out and that everyone else wasn't doing," Paul says. "Certainly, everyone's parents weren't out there protesting, nor were they holding signs on weekends."
Once Paul went to college, his father's political history was met with admiration from his peers. "It took me a while to shift from that embarrassment to when I hit college, and people learned who my dad was, and it became kind of cool," Paul says. "Maybe I just didn't know what cool was. It took me a while to learn."
Paul says that when he looks at the prospect of changing things for the better through political means, what appeals to him is what's most influential. "Techniques or approaches that are effective are much more appealing to me than those approaches that are based purely on ideology."
That philosophy runs contrary to that of the Weathermen, who put their beliefs ahead of coalition building. But both Paul and Elena say they admire their father. "I have a lot of respect for his underlying beliefs, as well as the fact that he does recognize he didn't always go about the best way of achieving those goals," Elena says. "He's a remarkable man and a brilliant man."
Both Paul and Elena describe their childhoods as normal, despite having a father who kept a busy organizing schedule. "I probably talked to more adults than usual because Mark would bring me around to his various events," Paul reflects. "But it was a perfectly good childhood."
While trying to set up our interview, I speak with Mark about a recent book signing in Taos. "How'd it go?" I ask. "It went OK," Mark responds. "I talked with a lot of old white people."
In Underground, Mark says his book is aimed at young people. "Old people are going to die, and they also don't have the energy that's needed to spearhead mass movements," Mark says. "I'm hoping to talk to young people, and I hope they read my book." Mark says he would love it if up-and-coming activists took a lesson from his successful organizing efforts at Columbia. At the very least, Mark asserts they should be able to learn from his mistakes so they know what not to do.
When he talks with youth, Mark says one of the most common things he hears is that people don't want to get involved in a political movement because they think nothing they do will make a difference. "Nobody would ever say such a dumb thing 40 years ago," Mark says.
Growing up, Mark says his generation had the Civil Rights movement as an example of what can happen when people band together. Up until the election of President Obama, Mark says youth had no recent evidence that organizing can accomplish something important. "I think the Obama campaign and election really did make a difference," Mark asserts. "Things are changing."
Mark says he now considers any act of violence a form of terrorism; be it verbal abuse or dropping bombs out of a plane from 10,000 feet in the air. But he doesn't consider himself a reformed terrorist. "I always saw myself as a militant rather than a terrorist," Mark says. "But I'm willing to cop to it if Henry Kissinger and John McCain cop to it."
Mark now considers himself an advocate for what he calls "nonviolent militancy." "I see no reason why waves of people shouldn't blockade the entrance to Kirtland Air Force Base to stop New Mexico soldiers from going off to murder people in Iraq and Afghanistan," Mark says. "Nonviolent militancy can often be useful. It wakes people up."
With that, Mark invites me into his house for dinner. When we set a date for me to come interview him, supper was not discussed, but it was more or less implied. As he says in his book, Mark has a genetic predisposition for feeding people—and he's a great cook.
After we finish our hamburgers, I thank Mark for letting me come over. "Anytime," he says with a grin. "I wish you'd stay here and live with us."