Essayist Nancy Janchill being frisked. Photograph by Gordon Parks, who was working a piece on the Black Panthers. From Life magazine, Feb. 6, 1970.
Radical Descent: The Cultivation of an American Revolutionary by Linda Coleman
Pushcart Press, September 2014
250 pages – Amazon
For at least ten of the most exciting and dangerous years of my life, I believed certain murders were defensible. I had faced down bayonets and been arrested. Police had shot my classmates on campus and someone had been blinded.
I was not alone. Linda Coleman’s memoir, Radical Descent, is a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of the author’s involvement with a revolutionary group during the 1970s, in which she explores engaging in right action when confronting evil. What is right action? Coleman questions whether one can ever condone the use of violence to bring about social change, especially since such violence might result in the injury or death of others. Curiously, she doesn’t explore the possibility for personal risk. As a social activist during the late sixties and early seventies, I thought about this often, just as I thought about the morality of inflicting injury on another person.
The 1960s saw the initiation of political dissent in the United States resulting in the loss of innocence of the mainstream: the violent response to the civil rights activists were brought to national awareness probably for the first time because of the commonality of television in American homes. White middle class viewers witnessed a new reality–as they watched children being hosed down and attacked by dogs on the streets of Birmingham, and saw the shadows of the bodies of the three young men who were murdered in Mississippi, having gone down there to register blacks to vote. In the late sixties, when middle class white students protested the Vietnam War and those protests extended to encompass wrongdoings at home, again, the reaction of the legal authorities was violent, resulting in deaths that shocked the nation. For many white Americans it was one thing for members of the Black Panthers to be killed in their beds, but quite another for protesting students to be gunned down on their college campuses.
Several years older than Coleman, I was coming of age then, angry since my teen years about all that I saw amiss in the world, and like Coleman, I was eager to find an avenue to express my social justice consciousness. By 1967 I’d moved out to Berkeley, California, and although a student at the University, my energy was mostly directed toward addressing our nation’s ills. Less than a year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Berkeley erupted over the takeover of a community park created on under-utilized, university-owned land. The California Highway Patrol and the Berkeley Police were sent to destroy the park on May 15, 1969 at 4:30 a.m. Beginning at noon on that same day, I was among the thousands of protestors amassed—and the gathering turned violent. Tear gas was lobbed, and shotguns loaded with lethal buckshot were fired into the crowd. A student was killed, a carpenter-artist blinded, and upwards of another 200 people suffered injuries requiring medical attention. Although, the Black Panthers had come into power, and in 1969 the Weather Underground was founded, police brutality against white protesters, the infringement of their First Amendment rights of free assembly and speech, had not become routine.
Those days I thought about being armed, about how far I would go, and whether I could ever condone violence. And I thought about whether I would be willing to die, because it seems to me, if you are willing to kill you have to be willing to die. I remember reading Man’s Fate Andre Malraux’s 1934 novel, about the early days of the Chinese Communist Insurrection, in which Malraux raises the questions about killing and about death in the first pages of the narrative: the protagonist struggles to plunge a dagger into the silent sleeping form of a man clouded by mosquito netting, and afterwards is left alone with death, a death of his own doing. These crises of conscience–about justifying violence and the moral consequences of such sanctioned violence are what Coleman grapples with in her memoir.
Radical Descent was written over fifteen years and asks: Can violence be an effective and defensible weapon against injustice? As with other revolutionary thinkers of that period, Coleman suggests that all exploitation of man by man is violence. She does not come to the same precipice of engagement as the protagonist in Man’s Fate. Nor does she reflect a comparable level of visceral and emotional anguish, as she attempts to understand how she was swept up with the activities of the 1970s, though the intellectual conflict she endures is unrelenting. In a reading I attended she talked about the energy of those years—which urged taking sides (“Which side are you on?), and how the questions that seemed answerable then are less clear now. Coleman had wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Weather Underground, something that I also contemplated but didn’t pursue: I lacked both courage and conviction, and I wasn’t convinced that violence would bring about the social corrections being sought. (After the death of three members of the group in a town house explosion, the Weather Underground re-evaluated their position on the acceptability/inevitability of human casualties.) Towards the end of her involvement with her group, Coleman sounding less naive and sloganed, introduces the idea of equations, whether there is an equation for justice: as an example, does murderous corporate greed warrant punishment by death.
Coleman wants to believe with the same confidence of her newfound associates, but the surety with which she embarks on her revolutionary path begins to fade relatively soon, and much of the memoir describes her growing inclarity about right action. The sociopolitical atmosphere and actions of her compatriots become secondary to the story. Writing in the voice of the twenty-one year old that Coleman was at the time, she doesn’t assume an adult perspective until the epilogue. While Coleman did this to show her movement toward “no,” I missed the reflection that an older narrative voice could provide. Her honesty, nonetheless, was refreshing and could be humorous: “The truth was I didn’t have a clue what revolution would look like. Would we be marching on Broadway in a ticker-tape parade?… opening the mansions in my parents’ neighborhood to hoards of hungry and poor?” She quickly realizes that she doesn’t want to kill anyone–bloodshed isn’t part of her revolution.
Coleman’s quandary about the course of right action, is understandable. Yet, despite her incessant thinking about right and wrong, her behavior is reactive rather than reflective, and she suffers with doubt and insecurity about her true beliefs. As a twenty-one year old, her lack of self-awareness can be off-putting; she frequently voices observations about her compatriots’ behaviors and underlying motivations–but doesn’t recognize similar forces influencing her own conduct. It is only after Coleman has left her revolutionary group, and is trying to find a place for her adult self, politically and socially, that she is able to think about her motives. In the epilogue, in her adult voice, Coleman acknowledges how her anger toward her parents and the privileged family system in which she was raised contributed to her early choices.
She protects the true identities of her revolutionary compatriots, whose activities heightened after her departure, and is concerned that in some way she remains culpable: “One day, I woke up to headline news that there had been a bombing of a courthouse near Boston, where several people had been injured, one very seriously, one who might die… . I thought right away it was their doing, and in the same instant convinced myself that I couldn’t know for certain, could I? Couldn’t know for certain if it was the dynamite that I had transported that caused injury to those people. I turned away—I’d left the group after all, hadn’t I? It wasn’t blood on my hands, was it?” Still, she wonders if the members of her former cadre are the true warriors. Coleman feared their contempt toward her and her “political” life, which was highlighted by her increasing disavowal of violence and her separation from the group. She recalls their reference to “armchair revolutionaries,” others who talk the talk but whose actions remain safe and essentially mainstream–those people, like me and like Coleman, weren’t persuaded to get blood on her hands.
Twelve years after leaving the group, Coleman’s compatriots are arrested and she is called to testify before the Grand Jury. Married and pregnant, she remembers her promise–“I am not a rat”–and is filled with ambivalence. Afterwards, going forward with her life, Coleman continues to struggle with the question of all the violence in the world, violence that has increased in frequency even since her book’s publication.
In the early 1970s, I returned to New York City from Berkeley, and was working with criminal lawyers who arranged for the work release of a woman from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. A member of the Weather Underground, she was serving time for the attempted firebombing of a bank located in an affluent neighborhood of the city. We became close friends—I was flattered by her friendship because she was committed in a way I hadn’t been, even if I didn’t know whether firebombing was the answer. Occasionally, we’d talk politics. The lawyers had successfully defended a member of a radical group, who had killed a cop, and it felt wrong to me, that he was getting off. “You have to look at the bigger, picture,” my friend told me. Dead is dead, I thought. Maybe this was why she could do what she did, and why I “played safe.” Or why Linda Coleman never found peace with her participation in the group she joined and ultimately left.
Death, suicide and the significance of one’s own life are the central questions in Man’s Fate, particularly the meaning of the revolutionary impulse for the individuals involved. A more recent encounter with this question is presented in a documentary, Red Lines, about the Syrian uprising, (with a death toll of over 200,000 to date). It’s the story of how ordinary citizens become armed revolutionaries. Again, as when I read Man’s Fate, I thought that for most of us, personal experience provides the drive to be willing to kill or be killed, which may explain Coleman’s decision to leave the group, and my own reluctance to step over the line to violence. My friend who came from a similar background as I did—middle class and Jewish–could justify cop killing, though I don’t know whether she could have engaged in such activities–the firebombing was at an hour when there was no one around to be injured or killed, and an evacuation warning was provided as a further precaution.
Linda Coleman’s memoir raises the questions I had more than forty years ago about how to effect change. In the introduction to Radical Descent, she notes the ongoing relevance of the issues that drove her protest: civil rights abuses of people of color and the poor, increasing loss of socioeconomic opportunity for the majority, repeated military involvements and, more recently, environmental devastation, and reaffirms her commitment to the issues that propelled her activities in the 1970s. Now a Zen Buddhist who has taken her vows, and committed to nonviolence, Coleman remains unclear about what, if anything, works to bring about social transformation. Emerging from those years, when so many of us believed in the possibility of making a difference through action, while we still may have the impulse to “do something,” our energy seems to have waned. Is this because there is an underlying doubt as to how effective we can be, as we witness the persistence of problems we thought were corrected during the sixties and seventies? Recent events–the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, to name a few–are making us ask how much was really accomplished. But maybe we are witnessing a reawakening of a people’s consciousness, evidenced by the public outcry in response to what many deemed unprosecuted police brutality, contaminated by racism, in each case. Witnessing the recent killing of police officers out of anger alone, Coleman’s questions are important markers in the conversation about justifiable murder.
Violence isn’t necessarily terroristic in nature. The goal of terrorism is to undermine the social system, making it especially threatening. Violence as a partner to terrorism was Coleman’s concern. Back then, it didn’t seem as close or as rampant–terrorist attacks anywhere, anytime–even in our backyards, as it does today. Many of us have arrived at a new understanding: we have aged out of revolution, so though we envision another kind of world, we don’t support violence to achieve our goals.
Now, as then, Coleman doesn’t have answers about what revolutionary tactics are right in this “war” to fix the system. Her activism, seemingly rooted in guilt over her privileged heritage, was a search for passion and purpose shared by others of us, who found direction in fighting iniquity. Radical Descent is timely in the context of today’s social unrest. Once again, for many of us, we must consider how to coalesce belief and practice in our lives as we contemplate our responses to the state-sanctioned misconduct of justice, not dissimilar to what inspired the protests of the sixties and seventies.