This post is the fourth in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 18, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (Link to PARTS I, II, or III)
The final nine months of Diana Oughton’s life were absorbed almost entirely by the disintegration of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the growth of a new, much smaller organization which turned to terrorism as the Weathermen.
When the SDS was founded in 1962 it was a fluid, open group which emphasized persuasion, community organizing and broad popular participation in all important decisions. By 1969, however, the organization was locked in a power struggle between the Progressive Labor Party, a highly disciplined offshoot of the Communist Party, and a more militant faction which became the Weathermen.
By the end of the Chicago convention, the Weathermen had captured control of the SDS national headquarters in Chicago’s West Side ghetto. The new SDS leadership was committed to action and over the summer of 1969 gradually worked out a plan for turning student radicals into a “red army” which would fight the establishment in the streets of America.
Late one night during the convention, Diana called an old friend from Bryn Mawr, asked if she could spend the night and finally arrived with eight exhausted SDS members after 4 a.m. One of the people with Diana that night was Alan Howard, who had been working for the underground Liberation News Service (LNS) in New York since leaving Guatemala.
Before returning to the convention the next day, Diana and Alan went for a long walk down Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. They talked about the impending split in SDS and the Weatherman Manifesto, partly written by Diana’s boyfriend, Bill Ayers. The 25,000-word manifesto–named after a line in a Bob Dylan song, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows”–argued that white radicals in the United States could help bring on a worldwide revolution only by fighting in the streets of the “mother country.”
Howard, who had first started Diana thinking seriously about revolution in Guatemala, now found himself in the awkward position of trying to restrain her, to convince Diana that a premature attempt to bring on the revolution would be suicidal.
Diana insisted that the time had come to fight.
While the SDS was beginning to plan for a four-day series of antiwar demonstrations in October, Diana’s relationship with Bill Ayers and her family both came under increasing strain. Ayers had been elected one of the three national officers of the Weathermen, along with Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dohrn, and was spending most of his time in the national office. Friends of Diana and Ayers say he was increasingly fascinated by Bernardine’s toughness intelligence and hard beauty, so unlike Diana’s warm, almost enveloping softness of spirit.
Ayers told Diana he would not allow himself to be tied to one woman and she began spending her time with a number of other men.
During the same period, Diana’s father canceled a gas company credit card she had been using on behalf of SDS and she wrote him a letter explaining why the money was being spent in a good cause.
“You speak of a revolution against capitalism,” her father answered from the family home in Dwight. “This can only mean that you are developing forces against me and the rest of your family. The oldest and most reasonable form of capitalism is the ownership of agricultural land and this is what your family has been involved with for a hundred years.
“I will resist any effort to change the basic ideology governing my own life and it should be obvious I do not want to support any movement that would develop into violence against me and my family.”
After Diana had returned to the United States from Guatemala, Mr. Oughton had incorporated the family-owned farmland surrounding Dwight, partly in the hope that Diana’s shares in the company would give her a vested interest in the society she was turning against. The move did not strengthen her ties to Dwight or weaken her belief in revolution, however, and Mr. Oughton sometimes did not even know where to send Diana’s dividend checks.
The passionate intensity with which the Weathermen took their political ideas created a state of mind in Diana which her father later called “a kind of intellectual hysteria.” He found her less and less willing to really talk about politics, increasingly heated when she did. She finally refused to discuss the subject altogether.
“I’ve made my decision, daddy,” she said. “There’s no sense talking about it.”
Diana came home less and less often; when she did, it was usually with a group of friends. Her father, opposed to her political ideas but at the same time fascinated by them, attempted to discuss the revolution with her friends but got nowhere. They seemed to talk in a kind of secret language, reducing everything to phrases like, “wow, man” and “outtasight” and “get it together,” responding to every question with mocking laughter and exaggerated disbelief, sure of each other and intolerant of the beliefs of anyone outside their own circle.
Diana’s difficulty in talking about politics with her family was only a reflection of the difficulty all Weathermen found in trying to explain why violence was necessary.
The group’s opponents argued that the Weathermen were repeating the errors of the “Narodniki” (Russian terrorists) who assassinated the Czar in 1881 and set back the cause of reform in Russia for decades. Like the Narodniki, the Weathermen were an elite, self-appointed body from the upper classes who wanted the revolution now and, like children, could not force themselves to be patient. The Weathermen themselves joked about their upper class origins, saying that the first requirement for a prospective member was a father who made at least $30,000 a year.
The arguments against the demonstrations planned for October were generally well thought out, but they ignored one thing which made the Weathermen determined to go ahead anyway: A profound frustration with argument and a hunger for action of almost any sort.
While sentiment against the war in Vietnam grew between 1965 and 1969, SDS had raced ahead in its thinking, rejecting the war first, then rejecting the “liberalism” which they held responsible for the war, finally rejecting “the system” they saw behind everything they opposed. By 1969 they were committed to revolution, but revolution seemed further away than ever as the radical movement broke up into squabbling factions.
It was clear the working class was not about to occupy the factories, that the hordes of rock-loving, marijuana-smoking young people were not necessarily revolutionaries, however much they fought with their parents. The country did not take the revolutionary fervor of SDS seriously, and SDS grew increasingly impatient with strategies which would take 30 years to work. They wanted to act; they wanted the country to take them seriously, and perhaps most important, they wanted to take themselves seriously.
When the Weathermen began planning for a super-militant “kick ass” street battle with police in Chicago, Oct. 8-11, 1969, however, the remnants of the SDS split again. During the summer the Black Panthers denounced the Weathermen, a serious blow from their point of view, but with each setback those who remained became more determined than ever.
On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 6, 1969, only a few hours before Diana’s sister Pamela was to be married in Chicago, Diana called her family in Dwight and abruptly told them she would not be able to come and be a bridesmaid after all.
That weekend Diana was attending the Cleveland SDS conference where the Weathermen raided a Pittsburgh high school, invaded a community college outside Detroit, took a gun away from a policeman in New York, attacked Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs and provoked fights at drive-in restaurants and on beaches in Chicago, Cleveland and other Midwestern cities.
The theory behind the street fights in working class districts was that tough high school students, generally referred to as “Grease,” felt SDS was made up of “sissy intellectuals” who would never fight. A punch in the nose would do more to radicalize the Grease, Weathermen argued, than years of community organizing and patient argument.
In the months following the June, 1969, convention, Weathermen collectives ranging in size from a dozen to 30 or more people began to barricade themselves inside rented houses. They put double locks on every door and nailed chicken wire over the windows to prevent enemies, real or imagined, from throwing in bombs.
Inside they lived a 24-hour existence of intense political discussion, marked by a complete abandonment of all the bourgeois amenities of their largely middle class childhoods. Clothes were strewn everywhere, food rotted on unwashed plates, milk turned sour in half-empty containers, toilets jammed, flies and cockroaches swarmed in kitchens filled with encrusted spoons and spilled food.
Diana’s dividend checks and all other money went into a common fund; every expenditure, without exception was a matter for collective decision. When the collectives needed money for bail or for buying guns and, later, explosives, and sometimes simply as a matter of discipline, the members would go without food for days.
In a number of ways the collectives attempted to destroy the “bourgeois morality” they had been taught as children. On at least one occasion they vandalized gravestones in a cemetery as a way of destroying conventional attitudes of respect for the dead.
The collective also attempted to destroy all their old attitudes about sexual relationships. At the Cleveland conference the Women’s Liberation caucus had proposed that Weathermen attempt to “smash monogamy” on the grounds that it oppressed women and at the same time created love relationships which interfered with revolutionary commitment.
As a result, long-established couples were sometimes ordered to separate and sexual relations became mandatory between all members of a collective. Diana and Bill Ayers were one of the couples forced apart during this period.
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol were usually banned by the collectives for reasons of discipline and economy. On several occasions, however, as the result of a policy decision made by the Weather Bureau in Chicago, collectives took LSD, hashish and other drugs and engaged in what amounted to orgies. In some instances homosexuality and lesbianism were involved.
For a relatively brief period the attempt to destroy traditional sexual behavior led to a situation in which any man could simply announce that he wanted to sleep with a particular woman and she would be required to submit. Women quickly came to resent the fact this did not seem to work in the opposite direction, however, and the sexual experimentation began to moderate.
Diana’s commitment was to the revolution. Her loyalty to her friends and her determination to repress all “bourgeois hang-ups” led her to participate fully in everything, but friends say she was deeply upset by much that was happening. A gentle woman who preferred staying with one man at a time, Diana questioned both the sexual excesses and the emphasis on violence and was brutally criticized as a result.
During street actions in Flint, where she was arrested on a minor charge (later dropped) at the end of September, Diana could not bring herself to shout obscenities at the police, and she sometimes even tried to argue with them.
“You’re a revolutionary now, not a society bitch,” a Weatherman once yelled at her when she was talking to policeman.
Before the October action Diana and Bill Ayers returned to Ann Arbor to gain recruits for the October demonstrations. Diana was jeered during a speech in a student center where the audience included people who had been her allies in the Jesse James Gang the year before. Bill Ayers, a far more persuasive speaker, was also attacked during the meeting for his emphasis on action at the expense of political organizing.
“When I was at Ann Arbor all the talk about revolution was in the abstract,” he argued. “Since we’ve moved to Detroit we’ve made the revolution real. The Grease come up to us and say, ‘hey aren’t you the guys who beat up the pigs at McDonalds (a chain of hamburger drive-ins) last night? How come?”
“You understand the revolution when you make the revolution, not when you talk about it. If I’m going into a new town I don’t look for the guy with a comprehensive political analysis, I look for the kids who are fighting the pigs.”
Ayers predicted that at least 1000 teenagers would move to Chicago from Detroit alone. His estimate, like those of other Weathermen, proved wildly overoptimistic.
When the four days of rage began with a rally in Chicago on Wednesday, Oct. 8, only 300 Weathermen in helmets and denim jackets turned out for the battle. The group went ahead anyway, however, charging through the Loop and Gold Coast areas, smashing windows and windshields and even charging directly into the ranks of police. More than 50 were arrested.
The following day Diana joined 70 Weathermen who marched to Grant Park for an all-women’s action, when they got there they found themselves outnumbered by the police, who threatened to arrest them if they tried to leave the park wearing their helmets and carrying Viet Cong flags at the end of long, heavy poles.
Diana was one of a dozen Weatherwomen who gritted their teeth and plunged into the police lines but were immediately overpowered. After a dozen had been hustled into police vans the rest of the women, some of them crying, dropped their clubs, took off their helmets and were escorted by police to the nearest subway station.
After Diana had been booked she was allowed to call home and her father immediately left for Chicago, driven by his lawyer, to post her bail. When Diana was led out by the police she seemed subdued and resigned, saying little as she got into the car.
“Why don’t you come back to Dwight for a few days?” Mr. Oughton asked.
“No,” she said quickly, not wanting to argue the question, “I’ve got an important meeting in Evanston.”
When the car pulled up in front of the suburban Evanston Church being used by the Weathermen as a temporary headquarters, Diana said, “goody-bye, daddy,” and jumped out. Mr. Oughton watched as a group of excited young men and women ran over to greet his daughter. She did not look back as he drove away.
When the Chicago and Evanston police made a surprise raid on the church early Saturday morning, Oct. 11, arresting 43 Weathermen, Diana was one of those who escaped by jumping out the windows. Later that afternoon Weathermen began filtering into Haymarket Square for the final action of the days of rage.
That night, still trying to find a way out of Chicago, Diana called a friend. “The pigs are picking everybody up,” she said. “Can you give me a ride to the airport? I’ve got to get back to Detroit.”
When Diana’s friend said it would be impossible to drive her to the airport, she changed her mind and went back to Dwight where she stayed for a few days, resting and eating ravenously.
Diana’s mother, distraught at the thought of her daughter fighting with police, tried to talk her into abandoning the Weathermen.
“But, honey,” she said, “you’re only going to make things worse. You’re only going to get yourself killed.”
Diana refused to argue. “It’s the only way, mummy,” she said, stalking back and forth in the hall. “It’s the only way.”
This post is the fourth in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 18, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (Link to PARTS I, II, III, or V )