Notes on “Days of Rage” (3)

This concludes my series of posts on Bryan Burrough’s important and riveting new book, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here. We recorded an interview with Burrough about the book earlier this week; the interview is posted here.

• Joanne Chesimard/Assata Shakur was a member and leader of the cop-killing Black Liberation Army. Burrough quotes others who characterize her as the group’s “heart and soul.” In 1973 she participated in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which Trooper Werner Foerster was murdered and Trooper James Harper seriously injured. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout.

• Chesimard escaped from prison in New Jersey and has been on the lam since 1979. She is believed to be holed up in Havana, in the sheltering arms of the Communists who run the asylum and the asylum operation. In 2013 the FBI made Chesimard the first woman to be named to the Most Wanted Terrorists list. She has had a substantial reward out on her capture for several years. Burrough’s account of Chesimard’s escape from prison is dramatic and maddening.

• Now the local angle. Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison is a fan of hers. In 2000 Ellison gave a speech supporting SLA member Kathleen Soliah/Sara Jane Olson at the National Lawyers Guild Minnesota chapter fundraiser for Soliah/Olson in St. Paul. Ellison sought Soliah/Olson’s release from custody after her apprehension the previous year. Ellison also spoke favorably of cop killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Chesimard. In a 2006 Star Tribune column on Ellison, my friend Kathy Kersten quoted from Ellison’s speech. (Kathy’s column is no longer accessible online but I excerpted it in this post.)

• Kathy gave us Ellison’s prayer for Chesimard/Shakur: “I am praying that Castro does not get to the point where he has to really barter with these guys over here because they’re going to get Assata Shakur, they’re going to get a whole lot of other people,” he told the crowd. “I hope the Cuba[n] people can stick to it, because the freedom of some good decent people depends on it.” When Kathy sought out Ellison for her column in 2006, he declined to comment on his current view of Soliah/Olson and Chesimard/Shakur. He’s just that kind of guy.

• Ellison was first elected to office as a state representative in 2002 and to Congress in 2006. Ellison now represents the beating heart of the radical left within the Democratic Party.

• George Jackson was an incarcerated convict with a thuggish bent and a long rap sheet. At his parole hearing in 1965, Burrough recalls, Jackson’s own father testified that he would be better off remaining in prison. In 1970 Jackson participated in the brutal murder of a prison guard in revenge for the killing of three black inmates. Radical attorney Fay Stender formulated the brilliant idea of turning Jackson into a celebrity by cobbling together his letters to family and friends for publication and by portraying him “as an innocent victim being persecuted for his revolutionary beliefs” (as Burrough puts it). With the help of a friendly editor at Bantam Books, Stender omitted the letter in which Jackson fantasized about poisoning the Chicago water supply — “in an effort to portray him as the American Dreyfus” (Burrough again).

• Published in October 1970, Jackson’s Soledead Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson became an immediate best-seller. In the New York Times Book Review, Julius Lester declared it “one of the most significant and important documents since the first black was pushed off the ship at Jamestown colony.”

• In 1971 Jackson attempted to break out of prison in an operation that involved the murder of five guards later found in Jackson’s cell with their throats slit. Jackson’s posthumous literary offering was Blood In My Eye, published in February 1972. Burrough finds it “a straightforward call for a bloody black-led revolution in the streets of America[.]” The Times expressed disappointment in Jackson’s second book, asserting that it “lack[ed] the visceral brilliance, the epistolary panache” of Soledad Brother.

• In death Jackson served as the inspiration for Donald DeFreeze, later to assume the name Cinque as the founder and leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

• Burrough’s book prompts me to reflect on the role played by the New York Times as an instrument of celebrity propping up the revolutionary left. As a corollary, the Times is invested in protecting the reputation of the left. It is, shall we say, not given much to introspection regarding the impact of its judgments.

• Not surprisingly, the Times assigned Burrough’s book for review to Maurice Isserman, a scholarly partisan of the leftist persuasion. The Times published Isserman’s subtly disparaging review under the heading “Blow-up.” Isserman’s review is almost a comic coda to the Times’s promotion of the literary contributions of Eldrdige Cleaver and George Jackson back in the day and, we may as well add, of Bill Ayers in a fawning profile by Dinitia Smith published on the evocative date of 9/11/01. (In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Timesman Bremt Staples gave up on Ayers.)

• Burrough notes over and over again how many of the radical terrorist perpetrators have escaped justice. Bill Ayers is a painful case in point, but he is far from alone. In a cruel irony, however, the wheels of justice caught up with FBI officials who dogged the terrorists. In the so-called Squad 47 established to investigate the bombings, the FBI had persistently committed and condoned official misconduct, partly in response to pressure from above. President Reagan ultimately pardoned the two senior FBI official convicted of crimes committed in pursuit of the Weatherman terrrists, Mark Felt (Deep Throat) and Edward Miller, while their case was pending on appeal in the DC Circuit. (Former FBI Director Patrick Gray had also been charged, but the case against him was dropped for lack of evidence.)

• I would like to close out these posts on Burrough’s book by giving the last word to Don Strickland, one of the FBI agents who dogged the terrorists as a member of Squad 47. Burrough quotes Strickland speaking inelegantly to the point in an interview he conducted for the book: “What really galls me is we did all this stuff, risking our lives every day, putting our lives on the line. And we end up being the villains! And these Weatherman scumbags end up being the f***ing Robin Hoods.”

Thanks for sticking with me through this series.