by Kevin Gillies (First published in Vancouver, November 1998)
Wayne Curry's few friends knew the East Van resident as just another
embittered old hippie. They had no idea that Curry - a.k.a. John
Jacobs, Weatherman - had so much to be bitter about.
by Kevin Gillies
(First published in Vancouver, November 1998)
Wayne Curry's few friends knew the East Van resident as just another embittered old hippie. They had no idea that Curry - a.k.a. John Jacobs, Weatherman - had so much to be bitter about.
Tears streamed down the cheeks of a distraught 22-year-old as she read the poem "do not go Gentle Into That Good Night." It was not the first time Dylan Thomas' invocation to "rage, rage against the dying of the light" had been read at a funeral, but there had perhaps never been a service at which the words were more apt.
Seven days earlier, on October 19, 1997, police had been called to an East Vancouver basement suite where paramedics were having difficulty with an ill and angry man. Marion MacPherson, the common-law wife of 50-year-old Wayne Curry, had found him asleep when she came home that day. Beside his bed but untouched, she said, were a bottle of whiskey and a half gram of coke, his painkillers of choice.
MacPherson called for an ambulance, but by the time paramedics arrived Curry was awake and in the midst of an anguished fit. He was enduring the final stages of a cancer that had begun as melanoma and progressed to invade his brain, lungs, skin and lymph nodes. In the late stages his skin had become ultra-sensitive to touch. Using gentle diplomacy, the police were able to coax Curry out of the house and toward the ambulance. As they walked along, a female police officer patted him softly on the back and said "You're doing fine."
The comforting touch had an unexpected effect. Pain became rage, and Curry slugged the officer in the face before stumbling back to the house. It took another hour and another batch of police officers to strap him onto a stretcher and send him off to Vancouver General Hospital where medical staff took over. "He fought all the way," MacPherson recalls. "The police said he was one of the strongest sons of bitches they'd ever seen."
Curry died 18 hours later. His death came as no surprise to MacPherson, the four grown children in the couple's blended family, or the few close friends he'd made during his quarter-century in Vancouver. He had been diagnosed with melanoma in 1976, and the disease had followed a slow but predictable course. Even the furious nature of his exit was not a complete shock. During the last two decades of his life, Curry had supplemented stints of blue-collar work with the money he made selling marijuana and he was known to harbour no love for the police.
But if friends weren't astonished by the events of October 19, they would be two days later. Sandy McGuire, a landscaping contractor who had first met the American expat 18 years earlier, stopped by the Curry house to see how Marion and the kids were doing. MacPherson was speaking on the phone, and McGuire overheard her saying she would have to get in touch with the police about Wayne's real identity. They, in turn, would contact the FBI. "It was one of those spine-tingling things," McGuire, 50, recalls.
As McGuire would learn that night, his friend had gone out with the same fiery anger that, at Columbia University 30 years earlier, had earned Curry an impressive name - albeit a different one. Curry was then known as John Jacobs. In the pantheon of '60s radicals he was among the most illustrious: a co-founder of the Weatherman organization, one of the masterminds behind Chicago's Days of Rage and for years a staple on FBI most-wanted posters. In the early 1970s, following a particularly bloody and disastrous period of revolutionary activism, he had disappeared, virtually without a trace, perplexing the U.S. authorities and many of his former comrades in arms.
In fact, Jacobs had quietly crossed the border into Canada, soon settling in Vancouver. As fellow activists were picked up and sentenced to short jail terms or probation, he successfully created a new identity for himself as a humble and perhaps slightly "burnt-out" ex-hippie and blue-collar worker. Eluding American justice - or "kicking the imperialists' ass" as he later wrote - would be one of his proudest accomplishments. How he died would have been another. "He got to hit a cop," Marion MacPherson says. "I told them not to touch him."
John Gregory Jacobs was born September 30, 1947 in New York State, the youngest of Douglas and Lucille Jacobs' two sons. Before leaving the profession to operate a Connecticut book store, Douglas Jacobs had been a prominent journalist, one of the first Americans to cover the Spanish Civil War. "Our parents were leftists," says J.J.'s older brother Robert, now an Oregon school-bus driver. "They were political - socially aware, politically conscious progressives of the times."
J.J.'s childhood seems to have been happy and normal, but by the early 1960s the teenager was beginning to rebel - not against his parents, to whom he was close, but against American society. In high school he became fascinated with the Russian Revolution and the writings of Marx and Lenin. A contemporary hero was also beginning to cast a spell - Che Guevara, the Argentinean revolutionary who helped Castro take Cuba.
In 1965, after graduating from high school, J.J. moved to New York, where he worked for a leftist newspaper. In that first summer, J.J. met many politically connected people. At Columbia University that fall he would befriend many more, including a fellow freshman named Mark Rudd. A little over two years later, they would lead the infamous Columbia Student Rebellion.
1968 was a tumultuous year in the United States, kicking off with the Tet Offensive, which would result in the deaths of 50,000 American and South Vietnamese troops. Every American had a friend, relative or neighbour who was returned home in a body bag, and war footage dominated TV newscasts. In that year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Black Panther Bobby Hutton was killed by Oakland police, and in South Carolina police killed black student protesters during sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters. On university campuses across the U.S., riots and protests were commonplace.
Rudd and J.J. were members of Students for a Democratic Society, which was in the process of shifting from its former role as a new left protest group to one that advocated outright revolution. Rudd remembers watching Harlem burn, then roaming the streets with J.J. the night King was assassinated. "At one point we got separated and I went home," he recalls. "Later I learned J.J. had wandered the streets alone all night, reveling in the celebratory violence and anarchy."
At the time, Columbia officials were planning to build a new gymnasium in a park in the predominantly black neighbourhood near the university. To many students, it smacked of racism and small-scale imperialism. In his book The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, author Ron Jacobs (no relation) says Columbia became a metaphor for the U.S. government. "At the same time they were talking principles of freedom and democracy, they were using the power that they had - strong financial power - and using the wealth of the university to basically colonize the surrounding neighborhood ."
By then J.J. was taking a leadership role in the SDS. Jeff Jones, co-ordinator of its New York chapter at the time, remembers him as a true Maoist ideologue, "very committed to not just a basic Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, but also militant tactics - confrontation tactics - and a world view of the United States as the centre of an imperialist system."
When Columbia president Grayson Kirk tried to push his gym plans ahead, students stormed his office. In an article that appeared in Rolling Stone in 1982, Peter Collier and David Horowitz describe the rebellion. "While Rudd influenced the daily flow of events at Col-umbia and reveled in the lime-light J.J. worked behind the scene, explaining how the events fit into a larger pattern of apocalypse that included the Tet offensive, LBJ's decision not to run for re-election and the revolutionary protests' in France, which, by May, nearly toppled the de Gaulle government. The corrupt structure of the capitalist world was teetering, he argued, and all that it needed was a strategically applied push to send it crashing down."
During these events, J.J. became known for his commitment to the dictum "auda-city, audacity and more audacity." Rudd chuckles, recalling how Mathematics Hall, taken over by J.J. and his cohorts, became known as the Hall of Crazies. They also invaded the president's office. "There was a famous story of a discussion among the occupiers of what to do when the bust was imminent," says Rudd. "J.J. suggested putting Columbia's rare Ming Dynasty vases on the window sills to deter attacks from that direction. That was vetoed. Then he suggested pushing the cops off the window sills non-violently.'"
Unlike many peace activists, the occupiers weren't protesting war itself but rather the role of the U.S. as a capitalist aggressor. "We were all Guevarists," says Rudd. "We were all in the cult of Che. Cuba represented a departure from Soviet Marxism, and Che was the most romantic and heroic of the bunch."
With J.J. busy working behind the scene, and Rudd handling the media, the events at Columbia intensified. According to Collier and Horowitz, "As the conflict at the university deepened, [J.J.] became a legendary nom de guerre." Their article quotes Rudd as saying, "He had brains, vision and the ability to talk. When he was on, he was brilliant. Nobody else ever came close." More than 700 were arrested in the Columbia rebellion, and a student strike shut down the remainder of the school year. J.J.'s revolution had begun.
By early 1969, Jacobs was cemented within the leadership of the ultra-left-wing action faction, which was preparing for the SDS's national convention. That June, Jacobs' manifesto, "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows," was published in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. The manifesto took its title from a line in the Bob Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and predicted a political armageddon, tying the struggles of black Americans into a world revolution that would attack U.S. imperialism and racism. "For better or worse he was the author of the Weatherman paper and the underground armed-struggle strategy," says Rudd. "He had the anti-imperialist vision."
A small leadership group that included J.J., Rudd and Jones as well as Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and a handful of others quickly became known as Weatherman, and began to plan a demonstration to take place in Chicago - the Days of Rage. As J.J. wrote, Weatherman would shove the war right back down "their dumb, fascist throats and show them, while we were at it, how much better we were than them, both tactically and strategically, as a people. In an all-out civil war over Vietnam and other fascist U.S. imperialism, we were going to bring the war home. Turn the imperialists' war into a civil war', in Lenin's words. And we were going to kick ass."
Thousands of angry young Americans were expected to descend on Chicago, but far fewer made the trip. "We had set the tone and the level of militancy so high that only a couple of hundred people were willing to come and participate in a demonstration on those terms," says Jones. The demonstration quickly became a riot, with students taking on police in hand-to-hand combat. Rudd regards the protest as a test. "I think the Days of Rage was a rite of passage for us," he says. "J.J., if I remember correctly, led one of the actions and got arrested right away. He passed his test."
Later, in analyzing the low turnout, the Weather Bureau looked to their model, the Cuban Revolution. "I was very, very depressed, realizing that so few of our expected troops actually came to Chicago, and that the arrests were so many and costly - also that so many people had been injured, mostly by the cops," says Rudd. "But we rationalized the defeat by analogizing to Fidel's Moncada," in which the armed effort was initially defeated but eventually triumphed. J.J. urged the other Weatherman members not to be discouraged but rather to take the movement underground. His argument won the day, explains Rudd. "And that was what we then set out to do."
There was no turning back. On the eve of the Days of Rage, Weatherman had blown up a police statue in Chicago. A few weeks later the group firebombed some Chicago police cars. During the next year, bombs would be set off in the National Guard headquarters in Washington, the headquarters of the NYPD, the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco and in several other American cities.
But along the way, the renamed Weather Underground made a terrible "military error," one that would both affect J.J.'s status within the movement and saddle him with a weight of guilt he would carry to his grave. On March 6, 1970, a homemade bomb, made of nails wrapped around an explosive centre, detonated at a New York residence occupied by several members, killing three of them. Eleven days later federal indictments came down against surviving members for their role in the Days of Rage. Leaders of the Underground analyzed the events and made several decisions. One was that J.J. would have to leave the group.
For more, read the November issue of Vancouver magazine.