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Former radical fields questions from ‘60s class

By Kris DiLorenzo
JIM MACLEAN/RIVERTOWNS ENTERPRISE

Mark Rudd talks to students during Gerard Marciano’s “Culture of the 1960s” class on Feb. 29.

 

HASTINGS — “The Sixties won’t go away,” declared Hastings High School English teacher Gerard Marciano as he readied his “Culture of the 1960s” class for a Skype session with Mark Rudd, that era’s best-known radical political activist and formerly one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives.

Marciano’s classroom on Feb. 29 was standing-room-only, with more than 18 visitors from other classes joining his 22 students, who took turns posing thoughtful questions to Rudd, now a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Rudd is the former leader of the Weathermen, a faction of the anti-Vietnam War Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that in 1969 broke away from the national SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organization, formed in 1960. The Weathermen, who considered themselves revolutionaries, espoused violence and committed robberies and carried out bombings, including some at the Capitol Building and the Pentagon. 

Rudd spoke frankly about his participation in and later renunciation of violence as a means to political change, his days as a Columbia University leader during the 1968 takeover of campus buildings, and his time hiding from federal agents between 1970 and 1977. He also gave his perspective on current events and issues. 

Marciano, who has been teaching at the school for 24 years, scored this interview after years of communication with Rudd, who he met six years ago when Rudd made an appearance in Nyack to promote his book, "Underground: My Life in SDS and the Weathermen," published by William Morrow & Company in 2009. Protestors stood outside, angry about what they assumed — incorrectly — to be Rudd’s responsibility in the 1981 Weathermen shooting of a Brink’s armored car guard and two police officers in nearby Nanuet. (Rudd had already surrendered to the FBI in 1977.) Because they threatened his life, Rudd was brought in through the back door. Accompanied by a dozen of his students and four parents, Marciano caught Rudd on his way back from the men’s room and succeeded in getting him to spend time with the students on the spot.

“I knew I was going to have something with this man down the road, probably, if this went well,” Marciano told the Enterprise on March 1. “It went ridiculously well. He was really happy with it. We went back and forth, and the rest is history now. I think he’ll do this for me again.”

Rudd’s conversation with the students was a highlight of Marciano’s “Culture of the 1960s” course — a course that almost didn’t happen. The first time Marciano offered it, in 2011, seven students registered, and the elective was due to be scrapped. The school board agreed to let it go ahead, word got out, and according to Marciano, “We had a flood of kids sign up in June and over the summer. All the new students coming into the school wanted this. Forty-six students signed up, and I had to offer two sections.”

The course curriculum includes listening to albums by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and the Grateful Dead and other artists; reading Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in America”; and viewing the documentary films “Gimme Shelter” and “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.”

Marciano believes there are several reasons why high school students are interested in the 1960s, citing a feeling of powerlessness, college tuition hovering around $60,000 a year, a tight job market, and “a feeling like maybe your hero as President didn’t work out as well as you thought, a feeling like we’ve been attacked and demoralized and humiliated,” he explained. “’What can anyone do? We’ve tried everything. We’ve tried electing this person, that person. We’ve done everything that we can within the system, we’ve watched our parents try — there are a lot of idealistic people living in Hastings — and we can’t seem to make the world a better place. In fact, it’s gotten worse. What are we going to do?’ Let’s go back to where it all started.”

Marciano, 55, became fascinated with the 1960s at a young age. “I had an older brother, and my perspective on the ‘60s is really through his eyes,” he said. “He was two years older, and was a very progressive person. I just absorbed that.”

To familiarize students with Rudd’s background, Marciano previously screened part of "The Weather Underground," an Academy Award-nominated 2002 documentary about the Weathermen. “They freaked out,” Marciano said of his students. ”They couldn’t believe it.”

In their Q&A session with Rudd, students asked about his motivation for choosing to use violence to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and the capitalist system; his family’s reaction to his activities; his life as a fugitive; and his life after turning himself in to the government.

Students inquired as to the specific events that led Rudd to form the Weathermen, and how he would have felt if someone bombed a building harboring his family. They wanted to know how he felt about surrendering to the FBI in 1977, and the source of the name “Weathermen.” In answer to that question, Rudd said, “Bob Dylan’s song, 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,'” and recited the line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” then added, “He hated that we stole it.”

Rudd’s sense of humor surfaced several times during the conversation. When asked if anyone in Albuquerque recognized him, he replied, “No, I’m just a fat, old gray-haired guy.” Rudd, now 69, is married with two children.

However, he is still passionate about certain issues. When asked, Rudd said emphatically, “Climate change,” emphasizing that “the only way to make change is through a mass movement. We’ve got to organize.”

The theme of organizing reappeared across a wide range of topics, including the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, the student movement, Bernie Sanders, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter Alcea, a senior, had this to say about the class: “It’s not every day you meet someone who was such a driving force behind the resistance to the war in the ‘60s. You just hear about them, or read about them. He was invisible for so many years, but caused so many problems for the government because of his beliefs. I was really anxious at first. I thought he might come off as just an anti-government rebel. But he was so calm, and focused, so open about his unique past. We all knew it was special.”

Rudd also confessed to robbing a steakhouse in a Westchester mall, generating laughter. He explained how the Weathermen did it: “We came in waving guns, cleaned out the cash register, and left.”

However, he made it clear that he no longer believes that violence achieves its aims, though he’s still an activist. Next week he and his wife, Maria Painter, will go to Vietnam to visit sites of previous destruction, where people are still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, the chemical weapon the U.S. used against the North Vietnamese.

Anna Heubert-Aubry, a junior, said, “After learning about Mark and the Weather Underground, talking to him was surreal. Listening to him talk with such passion about all the turmoil he caused, and faced, and all he gave up to go underground, was enlightening, to say the least. It was not just learning; it was experiencing.


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

MARCH 4, 2016

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