“The revolution ain’t tomorrow. It’s now. You dig?” As chronicled in journalist Bryan Burrough’s revelatory new book, Days of Rage, that’s what a hippie radical named Sam Melville told his girlfriend in the summer of 1969, shortly before stealing a bunch of dynamite and setting it off in banks, government buildings and corporate headquarters around Manhattan. It was among the first in a series of bombings carried out by homegrown would-be revolutionaries — in 1972 alone, there were more than 1,900 on U.S. soil (though the vast majority resulted in zero casualties). “When you look at the totality of the political actions,” says Burrough, “the bombing, the mayhem, the assassinations, I don’t know how you say that’s not of political and historical significance.”
Days of Rage traces the colorful sagas of the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army (of Patty Hearst fame) and the FALN, a violent Puerto Rico-independence movement. Burrough based his 2004 book Public Enemies (a chronicle of Prohibition-era gangsters) largely on FBI files, and he initially assumed he could do the same this time. But that route proved useless, in some cases because, according to Burrough, the FBI had used illegal methods to pursue radicals and then purged its files. He ended up having to do an enormous amount of reporting, much of it awkward at best. “Think about the challenge in calling up people you don’t know and asking them about buildings they bombed in 1971,” says Burrough, who points out that some of the best journalism on the subject appeared in Rolling Stone.
The book is filled with fresh information, but the Weathermen sections may get the most attention; Burrough suggests that one of its leaders, Bill Ayers (whose minor associations with Barack Obama have long obsessed the right), and other members have long coasted on inaccurate claims that they never intended to hurt anyone. Even an oft-romanticized figure like Black Panther George Jackson (subject of a laudatory Bob Dylan song) comes off as something close to a monster. Burrough reminds readers that Jackson killed a prison guard by tossing him from a balcony. Still, Burrough adds, “I don’t endorse what they did. But judged on their own terms, what some of these people did was kind of remarkable.”