On Oct. 6, Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists." She was referring to Obama's occasional association with Bill Ayers, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who co-founded the militant group, the Weathermen. Palin was not the first to mention the Obama-Ayers connection. The Obama campaign regularly points out that Ayers committed his crimes when Obama was only eight.
The Weathermen formed as a radical offshoot of the 1960s student activist group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A manifesto, which circulated around a June 1969 SDS convention, took its title from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," it read, and thus became known as the Weatherman statement. While SDS promoted nonviolent protests, the Weathermen aligned themselves with violent groups like the Black Panthers. "There is no example of a peaceful road to fundamental social change," wrote Weatherman-founder David Gilbert.
The founding Weathermen came from comfortable, highly-educated backgrounds and felt the need to escape their sheltered bourgeoisie life. They moved into collectives, practiced forced sexual rotation, took weapons training, and planned attacks on the wealthy and powerful. By October 1969, the group was ready for its first major attack: four "Days of Rage," in Chicago's affluent Gold Coast neighborhood. The Weatherman boasted that thousands of student warriors would flood city streets with violence and destruction, but only a few hundred people showed up. Six Weathermen were shot and 287 arrested. The riots were deemed a failure.
Subsequent bombings of government buildings, banks and police departments lead the FBI to declare the Weathermen a domestic terrorist group. Only one explosion a pipe bomb placed on a San Francisco Police Department window ledge in February 1970 resulted in death. It was never conclusively attributed to the group.
On March 6, 1970, several Weatherman gathered in the basement of a four-story Greenwich Village townhouse, preparing for an upcoming dynamite attack on an officer's dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Due to an improperly attached wire, the townhouse exploded. Three Weathermen were killed, including Ayers' then-girlfriend Diana Oughton. Over the next few months the rest of the organization went into hiding.
The townhouse explosion deeply affected the organization, now renamed the Weather Underground Organization (WUO). The WUO still bombed buildings, but they always made sure to issue warnings beforehand to prevent injury. In 1971, they detonated several small bombs around the U.S. Capitol, in protest of the U.S. invasion of Laos. Several more followed: the 1972 Pentagon bombing (for the U.S. bombing of Hanoi); the 1973 bombing of ITT Headquarters in New York (protesting the government-backed coup in Chile); and the 1975 bombing of the U.S. Department of State (escalation in Vietnam).
By 1973, the FBI had launched a full-scale manhunt for the Weather Underground's most wanted members, but was scuttled when the CIA admitted it had conducted illegal investigations. Even the "Days of Rage" arrests were largely dropped because the Chicago Police Department had conducted searches without obtaining warrants.
Three years later, the Weather Underground had split into two ideological factions: those that wanted to continue a campaign of violence, and those including Ayers who urged members to "resurface" and participate in society. The deep divisions could not be repaired and the group disbanded by the end of the year. Some members continued their outlaw lifestyle, but most people drifted slowly back into the mainstream.
Ayers and his wife, fellow Weather Underground member Bernardine Dohrn, participated in some of the early bombings; charges against them were dropped in 1974. The couple remained in hiding until 1980, when they turned themselves in to authorities. Dorhn is now a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University while Ayers teaches education at University of Illinois at Chicago. As for Ayers and Obama, the two men lived three blocks away from each other in Chicago and served on a local charity board during the mid-to-late 1990s. When Obama first ran for Illinois state senator in 1995, he attended a campaign event at Ayers' house. In 2001 Ayers donated $200 to Obama's state senator re-election campaign. By the time the two men met, Ayers' days as a Weatherman had long passed. The wind had blown him another way.