Tonight We Bombed the U.S. Capitol
1 KEEPERS OF THE FLAME
. . . our dreams
will be the shell casings
that pierce the enemy
as our love, and resistance
—Susan Rosenberg, “Compañera” (Fall 1986)1
NEW YORK, 1979
There is no record of the founding of May 19th. The closest thing to a formal beginning was a fiery manifesto the nascent group issued in 1979: “The Principles of Unity of the May 19th Communist Organization.” Their creed was “revolutionary anti-imperialism,” and like other millenarians, they wrapped their faith in reason. “Our science is Marxism-Leninism,” they wrote.2
The United States, according to May 19th, was the ultimate “white oppressor nation,” a “parasite on the Third World,” a poisonous spider at the center of a noxious global web.
May 19th believed that national liberation wasn’t just an international challenge: the United States had its own internal colonies filled with blacks, American Indians, and Puerto Ricans, who were just as ruthlessly exploited as the denizens of any sweltering tropical dictatorship. And it wasn’t just racial minorities who were subjugated. The oppression of women in general, and lesbians in particular, was another symptom of a national sickness. Imperialism, capitalism, and racism were strong, but still, May 19th saw some hopeful signs. They heard revolutionary rumblings inside the guts of the American monster and detected systemic weaknesses that were ready to be exploited.
May 19th insisted that the “oppressed nations within the U.S. are preparing themselves to wage a full-scale people’s war against the enemy that has entered its final decline.”3
The women offered apocalyptic visions and end-time prophesies: a “much more brutal fascist regime,” the liberation of captive peoples, and the destruction of the United States.4
How could their tiny band of middle-class intellectuals contribute to the global struggle, and bend the arc of history to speed up the destruction of the “parasite” nation? One of their lawyers later described the women as “Revolutionaries. Dreamers. Lovers of Freedom. . . . Some are lesbians. All love women, people fighting everywhere for self-determination and dignity.”5
But ushering in the new world required more than just good intentions and beautiful dreams. Mao Zedong had made that point back in 1927 when the Chinese Communist Party had been fighting for power. The revolution, Mao said, “is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”6
According to May 19th’s analysis, the ruling class would never give up peacefully, and May 19th, one member said later, wanted to “ensure that all the shooting didn’t come from one side.”7
May 19th said that the First World mass movements of the 1960s had taken a wrong turn. Instead of doing all they could to support national liberation struggles in places such as Vietnam, South Africa, and Palestine, sixties radicals thought they were leading a global revolution. May 19th pledged to avoid that mistake. They vowed to shed their “white-skin privilege” and work as “North American anti-imperialists” under the leadership of black and brown people. “We, white women, say NO to amerika where white is a badge of acceptance of daily murder,” they declared.8
May 19th didn’t immediately reach for bombs and guns. They started off with nonviolent agitation and propaganda: demonstrations, picketing, speeches, film screenings, and politically informed graphic art. May 19th had a number of affiliated groups that promoted its agenda and served as recruitment pools.I
The all-women Madame Binh Graphics Collective pumped out propaganda posters. Other affiliated groups raised funds for Robert Mugabe’s wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union, a guerrilla movement fighting to end white minority rule in Rhodesia. They raised hell about imprisoned Puerto Ricans they called “freedom fighters.” There was an “everlasting spiral of activity, urgency, and exhaustion,” former May 19th member Mary Patten recalled.9
Two women were the heart and soul of the new formation. Although a decade apart in age, they had much in common: a solidly middle-class New York upbringing, early ideological commitment,
education at elite institutions—and an unwavering dedication to revolution, new values, and sexual self-actualization. Judy and Susan: sisters in arms.
• • •
Judith Alice Clark was born to Joseph and Ruth Clark in New York on November 23, 1949. She described her childhood as happy, but it was an unusual upbringing, at least in her early years.
As a young man in Brooklyn, Joe had been a member of a Marxist-Leninist microsect that had followed the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky into anti-Stalinism.
Later, Joe concluded that Trotsky and his worshippers had been all wrong. Comrade Joseph Stalin, not Trotsky, was the true communist godhead. Joe switched sides and joined the Moscow-dominated Communist Party USA. He rose quickly through the Party’s ranks, and before long he was a full-time high-level Party functionary, and an editor of the Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker.
Unsurprisingly, FBI Red hunters kept tabs on the Clarks. They had a sense they were being watched, but it didn’t rattle them—they were on the right side of history, after all. Stalin’s Soviet Union was their alpha and omega. They were utopians, like Tillie Olsen, a true-believing American poet who wrote in 1934 that the Soviet Union was “a heaven . . . brought down to earth in Russia.”10
In 1950, Joe got to see his revolution’s control center firsthand. He moved Ruth, their son, Andrew, and baby Judy to Moscow, where he took up a position as a Daily Worker correspondent. The relocation represented a remarkable devotion to the communist cause, given the harsh conditions that prevailed in the Soviet capital and the anticommunist sentiment that saturated postwar America.
After a three-year stint, the Clarks returned to New York, and Joe and Ruth continued their Party work. The family lived in Brooklyn: first in Bensonhurst and then in solidly lower-middle-class Flatbush. In the summer they would often go out to Mohegan Lake in Westchester County, where there was a colony of fellow communists. The folk singer Pete Seeger, a supporter of the Communist Party, made occasional appearances at lakeside hootenannies. Those annual excursions to the cozy summer community reinforced social bonds among Party members—being a communist meant total commitment.
But by the mid-1950s, Ruth and Joe had growing doubts about the communist cause. Even as pampered guests of the USSR, they had seen the pockmarked face of Stalinism up close. As with many other Party members around the world, the bloody Soviet suppression of a nationwide uprising in Hungary in 1956, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret” speech in 1957 denouncing Stalin’s crimes, forced the Clarks to reassess their slavish devotion to Moscow.
Ruth’s Party-related activities dropped off, and in 1957, Joe finally checked out of the Party. There were repercussions: former comrades denounced him as a “deserter” and “liquidationist,”11
and it was tough for him to find work. Being a former Communist Party member, Daily Worker editor, and onetime Moscow resident was not exactly a formula for success in late-1950s America. But he managed to eke out a living at the Direct Mail Envelope Company and then at the American Cancer Society. Ruth helped support the family with odd jobs, including door-to-door interviewing for Trix cereal.
Although only a pre-teenager, Judy was developing a political consciousness, and she didn’t like her parents’ growing anticommunism. Weaned on Marxism-Leninism, she was a classic “red-diaper baby,” who’d loved the Party’s warm embrace. “Until I was about eight years
old,” she recalled, “I had lived in a home and in an extended ‘Party family’ that encouraged important ideals, like tolerance of diversity in the world; awareness of history, of racism, of other forms of injustice.”12
That all got yanked away. “I couldn’t bear the loss of community and ideology and purposefulness in my life.”13
According to Judy, Ruth turned rightward, trying to bring the family into the American mainstream. She was “getting more and more into wanting her family to be like from Father Knows Best.”14
But unlike the stereotypical 1950s mother, Ruth pursued a serious career. By the 1970s, she was a senior executive at Daniel Yankelovich’s polling firm and the de facto inventor of the exit poll.15
Joe remained a man of the left, a socialist, but a staunch anticommunist and opponent of Stalinism. He was a cofounder of Dissent magazine, a lone voice of democratic socialism in midcentury America. In pungent prose, Joe attacked Stalinism, communism, and Fidel Castro, the tropical Spartacus, whose unfolding revolution in Cuba displayed a “distinctive, often mad character.”16
• • •
Judy, however, kept the far-left faith. “I would be the ‘keeper of the flame’ in my family,” she recalled.17
By the time she was fifteen, she was politically active in her own right: she marched on a Congress of Racial Equality picket line outside a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Queens. “I was always drawn to the most militant groups,” she said. “And if the group I was in wasn’t radical enough, I would push at the edge.”18
Judy attended the academically rigorous Midwood High School in Brooklyn,19
then the University of Chicago, where she joined Students for a Democratic Society. Agitation was part of the on-campus zeitgeist, and in January 1969, she and hundreds of other students occupied an administration building, demanding the rehiring of a
sociology professor denied tenure and insisting on a permanent student voice in the faculty-hiring process.
The university’s president, Edward H. Levi—whose diminutive frame, low-key manner, and modest lifestyle belied a formidable persona—weighed his options. He could have followed the lead of his Columbia University counterpart, Grayson Kirk, who had faced a similar challenge the year before. Kirk had called in the police, who’d kicked out the protestors and restored a semblance of order. But Levi was a shrewder character than Kirk: cops meant cracked skulls, bad press, and more anguish for his beloved university. Levi decided to wait it out, and sure enough, after two weeks, the militants voted to leave the building.
After the demonstration, the university disciplinary committee voted to expel forty-two protestors, including Judy. Though she and her father had bitter ideological differences (thirty years later, she wrote that he had subjected her to his “fits of fury and political harangues”), Joe was a loving man who wanted to help his only daughter.20
He asked Irving Howe, Dissent’s coeditor, to reach out to the novelist Saul Bellow, who had deep Chicago ties. Bellow intervened with Levi, asking him to please give the Clark girl a second chance.
“No. She’s a bad one,” the university president said.21
Judy was out.
No matter. By now she was a self-described revolutionary. “I felt that my parents had kind of failed, and so, if they failed, I had to do something different,” Judy said in an interview in 2017. “I romanticized the revolutions going on around the world, and I sort of felt like I had to show I could do whatever was necessary.”22
As the Students for a Democratic Society self-destructed, Judy became part of what would become known as the Weather Underground. She lived in a collective of a dozen or so radicals—mostly women but led by men—and she was an enthusiastic part of violent Weather street actions, including the notorious “Days of Rage” rampage on the streets of Chicago in 1969. On March 17, 1970, the feds issued a warrant for her arrest. The charge: interstate flight to avoid prosecution for “mob action.” According to the FBI wanted poster that soon was hanging in post offices around the country, Judy was five feet, three inches tall, with brown hair and brown eyes and a medium build. And she had “sparkling eyes,” according to one fellow activist’s poetic tribute.23
Judy Clark: A “red-diaper baby” who kept the faith
Judy was on the run until December. Bureau men eventually nabbed her in New York at an Upper East Side movie house, where she was watching Yellow Submarine. She served nine months in the Cook County Jail, and after her release, she moved back in with her parents in Brooklyn.
Judy was eager to return to activism. She joined the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or WITCH, a loosely connected feminist network founded in 1968 by the writer Robin Morgan
and future Weather Underground member Naomi Jaffe. According to WITCH, men as such weren’t the enemy. The true evil was late capitalism—corporations, consumerism, and commodification—as the group explained in a 1968 manifesto:
WITCH is a total concept, a new dimension of women. It means breaking the bond of woman as a biologically and sexually defined creature. It implies the destruction of passivity, consumerism and commodity fetishism. . . . Who is the enemy? WITCHes must name names, or rather we must name trademarks and brand names.24
WITCH loved to put on a good spectacle—one Halloween, thirteen women dressed as witches went to lower Manhattan to “hex” the temple of modern capital, the New York Stock Exchange. WITCH also conducted what it called “invisible actions,” such as the ex post facto “snuffing out” of Lurleen Wallace, the wife of Alabama governor George Wallace, who had succumbed to breast cancer in May 1968.25
During the mid-1970s, Judy edited Midnight Special, a publication for convicts sponsored by the far-left National Lawyers Guild. Her readers included Congressman Larry McDonald, a leader of the ultraright John Birch Society known for his fanciful conspiracy mongering, his rabid commitment to fighting communism and subversion, and for his tenuous hold on reality. But the Georgia congressman stumbled upon the truth when he said in 1982 that Midnight Special “served as an inter-prison communications service by publishing messages from militant inmates and providing inflammatory accounts of prison strikes and disturbances.”26
By the late 1970s, Judy had earned just about every radical credential. But the path of radicalism that lay ahead of her was likely beyond anything she imagined.
• • •
Susan Rosenberg: Barnard dropout, acupuncturist, “North American anti-imperialist”
Susan Lisa Rosenberg was born in New York on October 5, 1955, the only child of Bella and Emanuel. Bella was a theatrical producer and Manny a kindly dentist who treated indigent patients at his clinic in Spanish Harlem.
Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg were classic New York liberals. “We were always liberal, always into causes, taking part in Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war marches,” Manny recalled. “Susan asked to go with me even though she was only 11 or 12 at the time. I never pressured her.”27
Susan’s parents sent her to the private but progressive Walden School, not far from their Upper West Side apartment. Students were
on a first-name basis with their teachers, no grades were handed out, and the school stressed personal expression over competition.28
Susan was politically precocious and moving steadily to the left: in an eleventh-grade essay, she expressed a proto-Marxist notion when she wrote that “capitalist production does not begin or end with people’s needs. It begins and ends with money.”29
By age fourteen, she was a member of the High School Student Union, the youth branch of Students for a Democratic Society.30
She was teargassed at an antiwar demonstration, and she started hanging out with the Black Panthers and their Puerto Rican analogue, the Young Lords.31
Susan was part of a political demographic, summarized by one neoconservative scold as “liberal parents, radical children.”32
Susan was an excellent student. Before her senior year, she was admitted to Barnard, entering in 1972. Her academic career flourished: in the back of a blue book, her English professor scribbled “very funny and perceptive exam.” She got involved in the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. A legendary professor of American history, James Shenton, ignited her interest in abolitionism and in the life of John Brown, the fiery white insurrectionist who believed that the evil of slavery could be ended only through armed rebellion. She also found inspiration in the revolutionary women of Vietnam. “I saw the women of Vietnam rise up as part of their nation to say, ‘We’re going to have our own destiny,’?” she said in 1989. “I had never seen anything like that. And I wanted to be like that.”33
Susan switched though from the well-heeled Barnard to the grittier City College of New York. Slender and with “magnetic green eyes” (as an interviewer later noted), Susan now coiffed her hair in an eye-popping foot-high Afro.34
In the mid-1970s, she doubled down on the revolution. She went
to Cuba in 1976 as part of the Venceremos Brigade, an organization founded in 1969 by New Left fidelistas in solidarity with the Castro revolution.35
Like other youthful leftists, Susan idealized Cuba and the bearded ex-guerrillas who were building socialism on the island. Venceremos participants cut sugarcane, smoked as many Havana cigars as they liked, and fraternized with Partido Comunista de Cuba dignitaries. If the North American pilgrims got lucky, Castro himself—the all-powerful Líder Máximo—might mingle and yuck it up with the visiting gringos.36
Venceremos veterans typically returned from their island excursion even more dewy-eyed about Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist experiment.
• • •
After she returned from Cuba, Susan found work as a drug counselor at the city-run Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. From its beginning in the early 1970s, conflict swirled around the hospital’s drug treatment program, known as the Lincoln Detox Center. The program included an “acupuncture collective” run by Mutulu “Doc” Shakur (born Jeral Wayne Williams), who was close to the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.37
Shakur was also involved in the Republic of New Africa, or RNA, a pan-African revolutionary movement trying to carve out an independent black homeland from five states that made up the old “Black Belt” in the Deep South. The RNA saw itself as a state in being, complete with elected officials and its own “consulates” in cities such as New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.38
Their slogan: “Free the Land.”
In 1970, RNA minister of defense Henry Hatches declared, “WE HAVE ENTERED THE ERA OF SELF-DEFENSE.”39
Mississippi attorney general A. F. Summer was apoplectic about the RNA. There was
the whole “homeland” business, but much more troubling was the RNA’s audacity to carry weapons in public—for people like Summer, the Second Amendment applied to whites only. There was an armed insurrection under way, Summer insisted. He appealed to the Nixon White House for help. Some functionary called over to the FBI.
The Bureau’s boss, J. Edgar Hoover, hated black separatists and all other disrupters of the racial status quo, including nonviolent organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Bureau called the RNA and the Panthers “black nationalist, hate-type organizations” and deemed them worthy of heavy surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, and aggressive counterintelligence measures designed to disrupt their operations.
The Bureau knew about Doc. Back in 1969 he’d spoken at length—and apparently wittingly—with an FBI special agent, telling the agent all about the RNA’s convention in Detroit the previous year, when a local cop had been shot in a scuffle outside a church meeting hall.40
Shakur said he’d told the Motor City cops that he had nothing to do with it, but they hauled him off to jail anyway. However, the police couldn’t make anything stick, so he was released and soon he was back in Jamaica, Queens.
Shakur had a doctorate from an organization called the “Institut d’Acupuncture du Québec” in Montreal. His instructor, a Romanian refugee named Oscar Wexu, taught an acupuncture style the Chinese had used to fight the mass opium addiction that had come with British imperialism. In the Bronx, Doc touted the technique as a powerful nonchemical alternative to methadone, an opioid used to wean addicts off heroin, which was ravaging the South Bronx and other parts of the city. Methadone, Shakur and others claimed, was the poisonous fruit of an ongoing conspiracy to chemically enslave poor black and brown people. According to White Lightning, an organization of ex-
addicts, “armies of slum-lords, script doctors, organized crime, greedy drug companies, methadone pushers, corrupt cops, and producers of rot-gut wine are plundering our communities.”41
Susan learned acupuncture under Doc’s tutelage and eventually earned a degree from the institute in Montreal. She was one of Doc’s favorites, a youthful protégée who shared his medical interests as well as his political ideology.
Doc’s agenda included more than getting ghetto residents off heroin; he also wanted to turn them into forces for the revolution. Toward that end, Shakur and his comrades handed out tracts such as “The Opium Trail: Heroin and Imperialism” and lectured drug-addled patients about the systemic political and social evils that underlay their addiction. National liberation in Africa was also a hot topic: Lincoln organized concerts and fund-raisers for the Zimbabwe African National Union, or ZANU.42
Robert Mugabe, a leader of one of the movement’s factions, would come to power in 1980.
Lincoln Detox started attracting attention, much of it unwanted. Lyndon LaRouche, the leader of an increasingly violent right-wing political cult, learned about the detox program from one of his followers who worked on the hospital’s staff.
Like the left-wing acupuncturists at the South Bronx hospital, LaRouche believed there was a conspiracy afoot—but in his view, Lincoln Detox was a product, not a victim, of the master plan. He believed that the treatment program was part of an elaborate demonology that included the Central Intelligence Agency, Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s political henchmen, the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and even the British royal family.
One of LaRouche’s many obsessions was brainwashing, a technique he believed his enemies were using to create Manchurian Candidate–style automata programmed for political assassinations.
LaRouche personally handled the “deprogramming” of one hapless disciple suspected of being part of an assassination plot against him. A tape recording of the session captured sounds of sobbing, retching, and a sinister voice that issued a chilling command: “raise the voltage.”43
According to LaRouche, Lincoln Detox had created legions of “ghetto zombies” poised to be exploited by his many perceived enemies on the left. Like Shakur and his comrades, LaRouche hated methadone, but for starkly different reasons. According to one LaRouche publication, white communities were under threat from gang members, “welfare loafer[s], and methadone-crazed dope fiend[s].”44
On May 15, 1974, members of a LaRouche group, the U.S. Labor Party, or USLP, held a press conference at the hospital to “expose” the sinister doings inside its walls. Predictably, a fight broke out. The USLP claimed that Lincoln Detox staff members “led a crowd of 50 zombies to attack the Labor Party organizers, shooting, stabbing and clubbing them.”45
Lincoln Detox personnel said they had merely been defending themselves against LaRouche’s goon squad.
LaRouche and his underlings didn’t succeed in shutting down the program. That came four years later, after Brooklyn democratic assemblyman (now U.S. senator) Charles E. Schumer, among others, accused Lincoln Detox of widespread waste and fraud, including no-show jobs, dubious expenditures, and “leakage” of methadone from the hospital’s inventory. (Back in 1975, Lincoln Detox staffers had trashed the lower Manhattan offices of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation after the agency threatened to cut the program’s funding. Three years later, hospital administrators and city officials feared sabotage and more violence if they took any steps to rein in the program.)
But Shakur and his friends had gone too far. By now, mainstream opinion considered Lincoln Detox a taxpayer-funded playpen for left-
wing lunatics. Mayor Ed Koch had had enough. He said that Shakur and his comrades had run Lincoln Detox like a Red reeducation center, with “Che Guevara as their patron saint, with his pictures all over the wall. It wasn’t a hospital; it was a radical cell.”46
In November 1978, the mayor ordered city funding cut off and sent in the cops to shut the place down.
After Lincoln Detox shuttered, Susan moved with Shakur to his new enterprise, the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America, or BAAANA, whose offices were on the second floor of Shakur’s four-story brownstone at 245 West 139th Street in Harlem. Barbara Zeller, a medical doctor and activist, served as BAAANA’s medical adviser. Her husband, Alan Berkman, also a physician, was another friend of Susan’s from her stint at Lincoln Detox, and he dropped in from time to time. There were parties at the place, where Susan met black nationalists, assorted activists, and former Weatherpeople, including Judy. Lincoln Detox was a bust, but for Susan and the others, the struggle would continue, and their vehicle would be the May 19th Communist Organization. I
. The FBI, among others, sometimes referred to these as “front groups,” that is, nominally independent organizations with little or no apparent link to May 19th.