For almost a decade of my life, I was a member of the cult of Che Guevara. I worshipped the man as the embodiment of true revolutionary spirit and consciousness. I tried to internalize his thinking. What motivated him? How had he learned to live (and die) for the worldwide revolution? How could I become as fearless and selfless toward the wretched of the earth as he was? How could I become a revolutionary hero like him?
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest student radical organization in the country, consisting of at least 100,000 active members with chapters on 400 college and high school campuses. Instead of valuing what we had, my faction attacked SDS. According to Che’s theory, the first step toward revolution was armed struggle. So, in the spring of 1970 our little clique of ten or so Weatherman leaders decided to close down the national and regional SDS offices. FBI surveillance reports say that I often proclaimed in public meetings, “I hate SDS; it’s soft and liberal, not revolutionary.”
Weatherman understood the foco strategy as necessary to further the global revolution that would bring down U.S. imperialism. Che had proclaimed the overall strategic objective: “Create two, three, many Vietnams!” Vietnam would be the first of a cascade of military defeats, resulting in the fall. After the fall, socialism. We just needed to do our part inside the belly of the beast, not stand by applauding the non-white people of the world while they took all the risks and paid all the costs. That would have been racist.
Hadn’t Che said, “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution?” You don’t talk about revolution, you take gun in hand, challenging the repressive apparatus of the state. In December 1969, the FBI and the Chicago police had just murdered Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers, in his own bed in Chicago. The revolutionary war was under way. Marching in rally after rally in 1969, SDS and other new leftists gleefully chanted the Panther slogan, “The revolution has come! Time to pick up the gun!”
In opting for armed struggle, my friends and I abandoned our real strength, organizing on college campuses. I am proud to have played a leadership role in the Columbia University uprising of 1968, along along with many other student and non-student organizers, black and white. However, just as I got all the media attention as the leader of the strike, so the white SDS loomed so large in the media story of Columbia that the actions of the Student Afro-American Society in holding the first building were “blacked out.”
The antiwar movement in the 1960s and 70s was built, like the labor and civil rights movements immediately preceding and following it, using organizing—figuring out a strategy to grow the movement and then implementing that strategy. Movements do not grow spontaneously. Organizing involves building relationships with people, helping them understand what’s happening, identifying and developing grassroots leadership, forming strategic coalitions—in short, practicing democracy.
Organizing uses a wide variety of tactics, from setting up tables or knocking on doors to talking with people, petitioning, demonstrating, running candidates, confrontations with authority, and nonviolent civil disobedience such as tree-sitting or building occupations, boycotts, or strikes. Look closely at any successful movement and you’ll find an organizing method at its base.
Turning to Violence
Weatherman turned away from organizing toward militancy, an unfortunate and false dichotomy. But our militancy was merely the expression of the willingness to do some sort of violence, to take risks, to suffer consequences, to inflict physical damage. We somehow believed that it would communicate to the people we wanted to recruit how serious we were about revolution. We took as an article of faith, with no proof whatsoever, that they would then join us.
If you wouldn’t go as far as us, we called you a liberal: weak, out of touch with reality, and engaging in wishful thinking that the system could reform without the necessary cleansing violence. Whole years of the antiwar movement were wasted in debates between those wanting systematic and disciplined organizing and those wanting violent militancy. I often said, post-Columbia, that “organizing” was another word for going slow. What I didn’t understand was that organizing was the way to build a movement, not self-expression.
Years later, I realized that I was doing the work of the FBI for them by helping split the antiwar movement over militancy. SDS wasn’t the only casualty of our mistakes: one of our first attempts at bombs was so inept we killed three of our own people. We also demoralized many good antiwar activists who could not stomach our behavior.
During my seven years underground, I realized my error. By 1977, when I turned myself in, all I wanted to do was become an organizer again. That’s what I’ve spent my last 31 years in Albuquerque, N.M., doing—in a variety of movements, from peace to Native American solidarity to union organizing to environmental to electoral.
Another thing I realized during that time underground is that violence is not a practical winning strategy in this country. It divides us from our potential base of support. Americans do not understand violence as being political. We’re taught that all violence not sanctioned by the state is either criminal or mentally ill. That includes destruction of property, which is defined by almost all Americans as violence (terrorism). A few broken windows in a Starbucks and a Nike store in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests justified the expenditure of many millions to repress subsequent demonstrations in Miami (2003), Philadelphia and New York (2004), and St. Paul (2008). Also, the state has infinite violent resources and is willing to use them. We have to seize the moral position, making crystal clear that the people’s movement does not resort to violence, the government does.
After I surrendered, the first ones who welcomed me back were David Dellinger, Ralph DiGia, and other WRL staffers. They understood that I had acted out of principled, if misguided, motives. They also saw that my experiences with violent strategy might have led me toward nonviolence. They were right.
Over the intervening years, I’ve realized that nonviolence has in fact accomplished enormous feats in the 20th century. The civil rights movement was nonviolent and won the end of legal segregation. Subsequent nonviolent movements have changed the lives of women; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community; and people with disabilities. None of these was an absolute victory, but they were significant gains.
Hero or Terrorist?
Why had I opted for the cult of Che? I unsuccessfully pondered this question for years, especially because I’m basically a nonviolent person. In 1989, I picked up a book by feminist author Robin Morgan with the intriguing title, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. Morgan explains that all violence, whether by the state or by revolutionaries, is terrorism. Women are often the target. Violent revolutionaries are playing out a five-millennia-old archetype of male heroes who liberate through their actions, either winning or dying. Their martyrdom itself is often the source of liberation. Think Jesus, though he was the object of violence and did not advocate it. Che was the latest in the series, however.
That explained my problem: I wanted to be a hero, like Che. A male, liberating hero, unafraid to die, because in my death I would inspire the people to greater sacrifice and victory. But liberation doesn’t come from violence; it comes by people mobilizing themselves.
In his last message to the Tricontental conference, Che wrote, as he was about to go to his certain death in Bolivia, “Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this, our battle cry, may have reached some receptive ear, and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons and other men be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.”
The male cult of martyrdom and violence doesn’t get any clearer than that. And I bought into it. I was 20 years old and wanted to be a man. Violence is how men prove themselves. Male desire to prove ourselves is the universal motive coopted and manipulated by old men throughout history to get stupid young men to fight in their wars. I recruited myself to this revolutionary war. I wanted to be a hero like Che.
Reading Morgan’s book was the moment that Che and I parted. In recent years I’ve been reading biographies of my former hero that reveal a much more checkered psychology to the man. A lifelong risk-taker, possibly to prove that he could overcome his disability, asthma, he eventually embraced the world of revolutionary war. But revolutionary war is not immune from the cycles of blood revenge that plague all wars. The soldier has to constantly justify the loss of his friends by killing more. Victorious armed struggles have to end in repression. All soldiers, even revolutionaries, have to justify their own sacrifice in killing another human being through more war. I fully believe that by the time Che went to Bolivia, he was both homicidal and suicidal. He had become a victim of his means, not saved or ennobled by his ends.