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From today’s vantage point, the spectacle of so many revolutionary groups competing to blow up or shoot sworn peace officers might seem strange. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, America’s major cities were in something close to a guerrilla war. In 1972 alone, the FBI attributed 1,500 bombings within the United States to “civil unrest” from domestic radical groups. Max Noel, a retired FBI agent who investigated the Weathermen in the 1970s while based at the bureau’s San Francisco field office, said police officers routinely searched their patrol cars for bombs before starting their engines.

In this environment, many law-enforcement officials resorted, with unfortunate results, to dubious practices of their own. The most notorious example of police overreach from the era was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, an elaborate program of domestic espionage that targeted peaceful civil-rights groups alongside the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. Senate hearings on the program in the late 1970s concluded with a formal denunciation of such FBI tactics as wiretapping and illegal property searches.

Former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn (right) is suspected by investigators of organizing the deadly attack on Park Police Station
Photos courtesy Max Noel
Former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn (right) is suspected by investigators of organizing the deadly attack on Park Police Station
Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers (below), pictured in a law-enforcement identification kit from the 1970s
Photos courtesy Max Noel
Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers (below), pictured in a law-enforcement identification kit from the 1970s

The rise and fall of the Weather Underground is one of the more outlandish chapters in the phantasmagoria of Vietnam-era radicalism. Formed in 1969 as a militant faction of the mass antiwar movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), what was then commonly called the Weathermen—named after the Bob Dylan lyric “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—proclaimed a desire to foment what they saw as an imminent, global, communist revolution within the U.S. Their motto: “Bring the war home.” (After the winter of 1970, the Weathermen became the Weather Underground, a nod to the group’s fugitive status and disdain for sexist pronouns.)

In December 1969, the group convened a “war council” in Flint, Michigan, announcing its plans to attack institutions of the U.S. government and oppose “everything that’s good and decent in honky America,” according to an account of the meeting by former Weatherman Mark Rudd in his memoir, Underground.

Presiding over the meeting was Dohrn, the mercurial beauty whom FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once called “the most dangerous woman in America.” The University of Chicago-educated Dohrn was a diva of the radical left, known for her shrill revolutionary creed. “We’re about being crazy motherfuckers,” she announced at the war council.

This darker phase of the Weathermen lasted through March 6, 1970, when three members of the group were killed in an accidental explosion while building a bomb at a Greenwich Village townhouse. That bomb, members of the group would later reveal, was intended to cause a massacre at an Army dance in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Following the townhouse explosion, the Weather leadership convened a summit at a beach house on California’s fog-hung Mendocino coast. At that conference, they decided to alter their bombing campaign, targeting only empty government facilities, according to Rudd’s memoir. Now in hiding or “underground” because of riot and conspiracy charges, the Weathermen went on to claim responsibility for setting small bombs at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol and the State Department, none of which resulted in the loss of human life.

The attack on Park Station falls within the narrow period between December 1969 and March 1970 when the Weather Underground was still loudly devoted to killing people. “During that 10 weeks, they were intending, by their own statements—many statements—to commit acts of violence against persons,” said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor and former SDS president who has written extensively on the history of the 1960s. Gitlin admitted that he had no direct knowledge of the Weathermen’s actions during the time in question, but said the bombing would have fit their m.o.

Resurfacing at the end of the decade, many of the Weathermen saw charges against them dropped or resolved with meager penalties because of the questionable FBI tactics used against them. Some went on to rehabilitate themselves through careers in academia. Dohrn is now a professor at Northwestern University Law School, and Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Machtinger became a teacher in North Carolina. No former member or associate of the Weather Underground has ever publicly acknowledged a role in the Park Station bombing.

Dohrn, Machtinger and Ayers did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Brian Flanagan, a New York City resident and former Weather Underground member who has condemned the group’s tactics as misguided, denied that any Weathermen had carried out the bombing. “There’s nothing that I have for you on Park Station, except that it was not the Weather,” he said. “I’m absolutely positive.” He declined to say whether he was in San Francisco when the attack took place.

Rudd, who once held a leadership position in the group, said he didn’t think the Weathermen had a hand in the murder of McDonnell, but he acknowledged that he could not be sure, since he was not based in California at the time of the bombing. “It’s my impression that Weather Underground was not involved in that at all,” he said in a telephone interview from New Mexico, where he now lives. “I was on the East Coast at the time, but I was still high enough in the organization. I never heard anything about it. Not only that, I was in a position to know.” He added, “Of course, that’s not any kind of exculpatory evidence.”

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