The Weathermen’s Basement

A story about a group of anarchists who almost blew up Greenwich Village.

When one thinks about terrorists, a group of rowdy American college kids doesn’t exactly come to mind.  This however, was the reality of homegrown terrorism that began to flourish during the 1960’s and 70’s as opposition to the Vietnam War on college campuses all over America.  At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and the 1968 presidential election began dividing the country, these rebellious students found an ideology that they wanted to spread throughout the world by any means necessary.  While some students used nonviolent tactics to voice their opinions, others went as far as declaring war on the United States through acts of violence and terrorism. One of these groups of outspoken militant youths became known as the Weathermen, which left behind a trail of terror that can still be felt today.

What started out as a passive student movement on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1969, soon grew into a clandestine revolutionary party bent on sabotage and destruction.  A small group of graduate students, whose views leaned toward the radical left, were able to organize and orchestrate several bombings of prominent buildings in the United States.  In the beginning, their tactics were quite clear and most of their explosives were detonated when nobody was around, only causing damage to buildings and surrounding structures.  As time went on, however, the group became more audacious and their next target was going to be a US Army base full of officers in Fort Dix, New Jersey.  To prepare for this massive attack, several members moved into a small house in Greenwich Village, New York City where inside they would prepare bombs for their next target.
The townhouse located on West 11th Street in Lower Manhattan has had a lot of interesting characters living in it throughout the century.  Originally built in the 1840's, it was owned by Merrill Lynch & Company founder Charles E. Merrill and prominent Broadway producer Howard Dietz.  However, it wasn’t until 1963 when advertising executive James Wilkerson purchased it that things would really shake up the neighborhood.  James had a daughter named Cathy who embraced public opposition against the Vietnam War while attending college and soon found herself in the company of many of the founding members of The Weathermen.  In the first week of March 1970, her parents were preparing to go on a vacation to the Caribbean.  Originally Cathy was supposed to go with her parents, but she told them that she had the flu and that she would stay behind to take care of the house. Later that week four members of the Weathermen quietly moved into the empty house, carrying over 60 sticks of dynamite with them.

On March 6th 1970, five members of a radical left group were preparing explosives for one of their most ambitious operations ever on a quiet street in Greenwich Village.  Upstairs, Cathy Wilkerson was ironing sheets and Kathy Boudin was in the shower.  Downstairs, Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins and Ted Gold were preparing nail bombs and duct-taping dynamite sticks together.  None of the members had any experience in creating such intricate explosive devices and somewhere along the way a wire was crossed where it shouldn’t have been or an electrical receiver was activated without knowing.  Out of nowhere there was an explosion, one that would forever change the lives of all the members inside that house.
Within seconds the whole house was obliterated with flames shooting high up into the air.  Neighbors came rushing out of their homes to see what had happened. One of them was Dustin Hoffman whose living room wall was blown apart next door.  There was debris scattered everywhere mixed in with shrapnel and bloody body parts. From the burning wreckage two half-naked women ran out bloodied and injured.  The crime scene was so gruesome that it took the police nine days to collect all the body parts for identification.  In the end, it was confirmed that the three members who were assembling bombs in the basement were all dead.  Surprisingly, both of the women who ran out were able to seek refuge in a neighbors’ home and then flee before the police had a chance to question them.  
Originally investigators thought this was a natural gas explosion from the ongoing fire that happened.  However, after looking through the wreckage, they found some interesting remains.   Buried underneath the rubble were 57 sticks of dynamite, pipe bombs, blasting caps, and even an anti tank shell.  None of these detonated during the initial explosion, which was quite fortunate since there was enough explosives within that basement to level two whole blocks.  This unanticipated horrific event had an impact on the group, but it didn’t stop them from carrying on their malicious agenda against the US government.  Within months they were back plotting new targets, being bolder than ever and continuing their reign of terror.
When it came to blowing up prominent buildings, the Weathermen were not shy about claiming responsibility.  Whenever a bomb was going to be planted in front of a police station or even the Pentagon, the authorities would be notified ahead of time and told what to expect. This type of boldness annoyed the US government so much that it tried to capture these radicals by any means possible such as utilizing illegal tactics in their search of the clandestine group.  While in the beginning this yielded results, in the end, however, the court systems had to let most of these terrorists go or give out lenient sentences because of the illegal searches.  Taking some of these members to trial meant that the government had to release secret information about their tactics that, for the time being, they were not willing to do.  This awkward arrangement led to most charges being dropped against the group and allowing their members’ continued existence.

It may come to some as a surprise, but a handful of the Weathermen are still around today living a carefree life, writing books about their experiences, and speaking at lectures.  While most past members agree that their intentions were never to hurt people but to draw attention to their cause, they do not show sympathy for the damage they had done.  Their ideologies and their discontent for the government is as strong as it was 30 years ago.  While it’s safe to say that we can’t expect any more terrorist actions from these individuals, it is a little harder to stop their influence and admiration by others.  As future revolutionaries look upon themselves to make an impact on the world stage, they will surely look back at the chaos that the Weathermen have created and the legacy they have left behind for generations to come.