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Lessons of Clandestine Organizations

Motivation and practice in the Weather Underground and Jane (a secret abortion network)

Clandestine action might be a reasonable option for activists who perceive themselves to be living in a police state, though the wisdom of undertaking it would depend on the accuracy of that perception. In 1969, police forces were certainly coming down hard on radicals. I and my circle of friends in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), glibly reckoning ourselves to be facing fascism, and with an equally superficial analysis of the chances of revolution, formed the Weather Underground.

I spent the early Seventies in Chicago, not underground myself but as a secret operative of that organization. The Weather Underground was successfully keeping several dozen people hidden. Otherwise, we weren’t actually doing much more than an occasional symbolic bombing of a corporate or governmental target. Our armed actions and refusal to surrender felt purposeful and validating. I liked my cloak-and-dagger role: calls between pay phones, false IDs and disguises, convoluted journeys to meetings with fugitives. Clandestine activity was thrillingly romantic. It put us alongside revered fighters of the day like the Vietcong and the urban guerrillas of Latin America. It also allowed us to feel superior to other activists, who weren’t taking similar risks.

So I was surprised — and embarrassed, actually — to learn years later that at the very same time and place, women I knew were part of another clandestine network. They were doing something at least as risky, but tangible: providing safe abortions, when abortion was still illegal. Unlike ours, their underground organization was little concerned with image. It was called simply Jane.

There’s room for debate on whether fascism has arrived here and now. But it’s unambiguous that legal abortion is increasingly inaccessible. It may disappear. We are approaching the condition that existed before Roe v Wade in 1973. Then, a woman from Chicago or wherever abortion was outlawed could go somewhere it was legal — like New York, or Europe — to have the procedure in a safe medical environment. She only needed the money, time and confidence required for the trip, and a partner or parents who wouldn’t stop her. Perhaps there were medical professionals nearby willing to risk their careers, but finding one was impossible for most. Her alternatives were almost always emotionally traumatic, often physically dangerous, and occasionally fatal. These practices assumed a memorable terminology: Self-administered methods were generically “coat-hanger” abortions, while those done by quacks just in it for the money were termed “back-alley” or “butcher-shop.” Soon enough these may again be women’s only choices.

So there’s a good argument for replicating Jane: sisters doing it for sisters, with help perhaps from some brothers, underground. Today’s militant leftists, too, may be contemplating, or already creating, secret networks. Advances over the decades in the technology of surveillance will demand modes of clandestine operation considerably different from those that worked in the Seventies. Back then, for example, drones, voice recognition software and a tracking device in every pocket did not exist. What is unlikely to have changed, though, are the social dynamics within secret organizations, and the hazards those can create. The Weather Underground and Jane were different: the one male-dominated, swaggering and media-oriented; the other humble, useful and virtually all female. Still their stories, and the similarities of their internal contradictions, can be read as cautionary.

Both formed in 1969. New Leftists were growing frantic over our inability to impede both the Vietnam War and police attacks on black communities and activists. Campus protests were becoming bloody. While the FBI was actively trying to subvert the organization, SDS was riven internally by sectarian fights over direction. Weatherman, one of the sects, seized control. We spent half a year provoking street battles with the cops and allowing SDS to crumble, and then went underground. Jane emerged from the same era’s massive questioning of cultural and political norms. But it was an expression of the nascent women’s movement. In the consciousness-raising groups that were that movement’s innovation, women realized that unwanted pregnancies and dangerous abortions were — like so many other aspects of their lives — not individual problems but systemic. A few women in Chicago decided that they could do something immediate and practical, and at least provide safe abortions.

That Jane existed was actually an open secret. The knowledge spread by word of mouth, and even through classified ads in Chicago’s alt weekly giving a number to call. I certainly knew of Jane. But I didn’t know, for example, that my close friend Alice, who lived in my building, was involved. “I joined after I went to them for an abortion myself, because it was such a good experience,” she told me recently. She meant, “good” by contrast to the nightmare alternatives. “It was in every way liberating; women were with me through the whole thing, and followed up afterwards.” That inspired Alice to join the network herself, as a client counselor. Later she was trained to assist during the procedures. And this illuminated her own career path. After Jane, she returned to school to became a physician assistant. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, she worked at an infectious disease clinic. Later she got a doctorate in public health in the new field of palliative care, which in semi-retirement she still practices. Of course, though a number of women who received abortions from Jane then joined the group, not every client’s life path was altered as profoundly as Alice’s. Most just carried on with whatever they were already planning or doing — which is the whole point of abortion being available.

A great deal has been written about the Weather Underground, by journalists, historians, and former members, including myself. The literature on Jane is more limited, but there is an essential book, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (1995: University of Chicago Press), by Laura Kaplan, who was a member. Kaplan calculates that in its four years of existence, with a rate of medical complications no greater than that of legal facilities, the network provided some 11,000 abortions. Her account, drawing extensively from interviews with participants and clients, also reveals the service’s further accomplishments of demystifying medical practice, educating women about their bodies and health, and empowering individuals.

It also reveals challenges Jane faced in its internal process, apart from the external risks of discovery and prosecution. Our two organizations were quite different, but these problems feel familiar to me. In any activist organization, Kaplan pointed out recently, there’s always “the meeting before the meeting.” A leadership, formalized or not, takes initiative and to some extent exerts control. Internal democracy is never perfect. But this is exacerbated in organizations doing illegal things, which to survive must compartmentalize and share information on a need-to-know basis. “That builds an inherent hierarchy of power, because knowledge is power,” she said. She describes Jane’s structure as concentric circles. The Weather Underground’s was a vertical hierarchy. But in both forms, members always know that their participation in decision-making is limited. That’s rich soil for the flourishing of paranoia and resentment, and it’s amply fertilized by the ongoing stress of the risk-taking. You’re following a leadership whose direction, in which you may well not have a voice, could get you in bad trouble personally or even paradoxically betray the mission you’re sacrificing for. Meanwhile the lack of open communication makes it easy for that leadership to perpetuate itself. Kaplan quotes one Jane member recalling, “It was very unclear how much needed to be secret and how much was kept that way out of a kind of spookiness that happens with secret organizations.”

Another inevitable challenge of secret work is isolation. Fugitives obviously can’t be open about who they are, so their worlds shrink. People in positions like those I and members of Jane had, not in hiding ourselves but hiding illegal activity, can have plenty of social life but still can’t talk about the work and its stresses. The consequences aren’t only personal. Clandestine organizations lose touch with the mass movements they arise from. Kaplan says, “In the women’s liberation movement we were sort of looked down upon, because we weren’t doing ‘real’ organizing.” Jane members “clearly saw it as organizing,” she says, “but we never had a political discussion at a meeting. We weren’t theorists. We were creating an experience for women that was so radically different from anything they had experienced before that it was mind-altering.” For the Weather Underground, as the movement of the Sixties dissipated, our self-conception as a political and military vanguard became increasingly absurd and insupportable. In an attempt to reassert our relevance, the leadership concocted — and the membership adopted — a political line and an organizing strategy so untethered to reality and so further isolating that within a couple of years the organization imploded altogether, in an atmosphere of vitriol and recrimination.

I note another similarity between my experience and Laura Kaplan’s; I can’t say whether it was shared by everyone else in the two organizations. We enjoyed what we were doing. “It was an incredible high. It was really fun, exciting, dangerous, rule breaking on every level,” she recalled. I’ve got nothing against fun. Like Emma Goldman, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. And, you know, work should give pleasure. Pleasure isn’t necessarily an organizational danger. Or, not in an organization like Jane that is doing something grounded and needed. And not if people are self-aware, and keep their egos in check. As it happened, my cinematic fascination with and smugness about secrecy never got myself or anybody else in the Weather Underground busted, but it’s easy to imagine…

It’s grim that political conditions may force activists to face the option of clandestinity. If militants on the left are tempted, I hope that they will first study the failures of the Weather Underground and similar groups of my generation. As for providing illegal abortions, according to Laura Kaplan, “It’s already happening in other countries. It may already be happening here in some parts of the country. What Jane does is give people the support and knowledge that they can do it. And they should.”

Jonathan Lerner’s memoir of the Weather Underground, Swords in the Hands of Children, is published by OR Books

Jonathan Lerner

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