By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Yes, the Weather Underground again

Walter Schroeder

Former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers’ reputation, such as it is, rests on his assertion that the radical organization, for all its violent rhetoric and activities, never killed or injured anyone other than three of its own members who died while making a bomb.

In a 2008 interview on the NPR show “Fresh Air,” Ayers told host Terry Gross, “The Weather Underground never killed a police officer, never tried to and never did.” And despite taking responsibility for a series of bombings, he added, “It never targeted people, it never meant to hurt or injure anyone, and thank God it never did hurt or injure anyone.”

Which is why today’s Boston Globe story on the death of William “Lefty” Gilday is such a stunner. Gilday and two radicals from Brandeis University, Susan Saxe and Katherine Ann Power, murdered Boston police officer Walter Schroeder in the course of committing a bank robbery. Reporter David Abel writes of an interview he conducted with Gilday last June, when he was dying of Parkinson’s disease:

Still, he had a lucid memory of the morning of Sept. 23, 1970, when he helped a radical group from the Weather Underground rob a Brighton branch of the State Street Bank and Trust Co.

“I wish we never would have gone to the bank that day,” he said of the group’s failed effort to finance their movement against the Vietnam War.

Now, there are people who have long believed the Weather Underground was involved in Schroeder’s death, but there has never been any evidence beyond a few hints here and there. Same with the killing of a police officer in San Francisco, which remains an unsolved crime. Two years ago I got dragged into this controversy when my old pal Michael Graham mocked a semi-sympathetic commentary about Ayers that I wrote for the Guardian, and noted that an FBI website had linked the Weather Underground to the Schroeder killing.

In fact, it was an error — the FBI had never believed any such thing, and after I contacted the agency, the reference was removed. An agency spokesman went so far as to say that a couple of references in a 1975 Senate report claiming that Saxe and Power were involved in the Weather Underground did not appear to match what the FBI believed. You can read all about that here. After double-checking this morning, I verified that today was the first time the Globe has ever reported the Weather Underground was involved in Schroeder’s death, despite numerous references to Gilday, Saxe and Power’s involvement in violent radicalism.

Given that, for Gilday to assert that he was involved in the Weather Underground after all these years is a huge development. I sent Abel and email this morning and asked how it came about. Here’s his response:

The reference to the Weather Underground came directly from Lefty, during our interview, in addition to other memories from the era, such as how he stole Abby Hoffman’s books. He didn’t dwell on it, and I didn’t press him on the question of whether he was really a member of the Weather Underground, as I had not known that that was something anyone had questioned. He told me that he decided to join a few other folks who he considered “revolutionaries” and they got him connected to the folks in the Weather Underground.

I’d say Abel has got hold of a hell of a story, and I look forward to his following it up. Unfortunately, Gilday does not mention the Weather Underground in the video that accompanies Abel’s story. But perhaps he does in some outtakes that could be posted. And yes, of course, tying Gilday directly to the Weather Underground will likely prove impossible. It’s not like the WU had a hierarchy, dues and membership cards.

Needless to say, the only people in this story who any of us should care about are Officer Schroeder and his family, including his nine children. Here is an online tribute set up in his memory.

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  1. He doesn’t say whether or not he recorded it and has audio of this. Do you know? This is, as you note, huge.
    It’s also a good example of why every reporter, cub or otherwise, should record absolutely everything and back it all up. I stress this to everyone I talk to involved in the biz.
    I’ve been using my iPhone and then I dump all the audio into iTunes. It’s not the best system – since it is hard to scroll back the sound because it is based on moving your finger around – but it works and it’s all on the HD in case someone denies saying something they said.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Tony: I don’t know. My hope is that they video-recorded the whole thing.

  2. Dan,

    To me, doesn’t make Ayers any more or less a scum bag. Or WU any more or less vile. Only reason more aren’t dead, incompetence. Wasn’t lack of effort or intent,

    Last Sunday was also the 10th anniversary of Bill Ayers trampling a flag in the New York Times,

    Some things never change.


  3. LFNeilson

    Though he may have been bright, Gilday was no choir boy. in his extended flight after the bank robbery, he passed through Wilmington and Tewksbury, which has led me to follow that angle of the story. In Tewksbury, he crashed the getaway car and circled back on foot. He then began hitchhiking in the traffic backup he caused. When car dealer Vinnie Coyne let him into his car, Coyne asked about the cause of the tie-up. Gilday pulled a gun and said, “They’re looking for me.” He then squeezcd under the dashboard, put the gun to Coyne’s groin and told him to get him through the roadblock. And they got through.
    In Lowell, they came to a red light, and Coyne took advantage of a distraction to jump out of the car.
    Connection to Weather Underground? I’ve always felt it was just two convicts exploiting a college program for their own ends.

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