The Dark History of America’s First Female Terrorist Group The women of May 19th bombed the U.S. Capitol and plotted Henry Kissinger’s murder. But they’ve been long forgotten. By WILLIAM ROSENAU 05/03/2020 07:08 AM EDT Facebook Twitter Link More William Rosenau, a senior policy historian at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, and a fellow in the International Security program at New America, is the author of Tonight We Bombed the US Capitol: The Explosive Story of May 19, America’s First Female Terrorist Group (Atria Books/ Simon & Schuster, 2020). On the evening of November 7, 1983, a call came into the U.S. Capitol switchboard. “Listen carefully, I’m only going to tell you this one time,” the caller said. “There is a bomb in the Capitol building. It will go off in five minutes. Evacuate the building.” Then the caller hung up. At 10:58 p.m., a blast went off on the second floor of the structure’s north wing. The explosion blew doors off their hinges, shattered chandeliers and sent a shower of pulverized glass, brick and plaster into the Republican cloakroom. The shock wave from the explosion sounded like a sonic boom. A jogger outside on the Capitol grounds heard the blast: “It was loud enough to make my ears hurt. It kept echoing and echoing—boom, boom.” According to one estimate, the bomb caused $1 million in damage. Later, National Public Radio received a message from a group calling itself the Armed Resistance Unit: “Tonight we bombed the U.S. Capitol.” Nobody was killed or injured in the attack, but the ARU made clear that it had contemplated lethal action: “We purposely aimed our attack at the institutions of imperialist rule rather than at individual members of the ruling class and government. We did not choose to kill any of them at this time. But their lives are not sacred and their hands are stained with the blood of millions.”
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Officials examine the blown-out windows at the Capitol Building following the 1983 bombing. | AP The ARU was a nom de guerre for the May 19th Communist Organization, a group of self-described “revolutionary anti-imperialists” formed in the late 1970s to support armed struggles in southern Africa, the Middle East, Central America, Puerto Rico—and inside the American mainland. Although several hundred people were part of May 19th front groups (such as the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, an early incarnation of what we now call the antifa movement, and the Madame Binh Graphics Collective, which produced revolutionary-themed silkscreens), the group’s inner circle contained fewer than a dozen people. The group was also the first American terrorist group entirely organized and led by women. Women picked the targets, made the bombs and implanted the devices. It was a new sisterhood of the bomb and the gun. “We lived in a country that loved violence,” one member said. “We had to meet it on its own terms.” The Weather Underground Organization—among the most notorious U.S. terrorist formations of the 1970s—has been the subject of documentaries, memoirs and countless academic studies. But May 19th is long forgotten. This is remarkable given the group’s string of violent and spectacular operations from 1979 to 1985: armed robberies that led to the murder of police officers and security guards, audacious prison breakouts and a bombing campaign that in addition to the U.S. Capitol targeted government buildings in Washington and New York. May 19th—along with the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, or FALN), and the tiny and cultish Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA—is also a reminder that today’s political chaos is nothing like we’ve seen in the past. The 1970s and 80s were a time of political derangement and violent upheaval, and May 19th was in the thick of it. By the late 1970s, most of the terrorist formations that had operated during the previous 10 years were seriously weakened, thanks to arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment—and sheer exhaustion from life on the run. But a small group of women, some of whom had belonged to the Weather Underground, vowed to continue the armed struggle. They had spent their entire adult lives engaged in intense left-wing political activism and had progressed steadily from protest to violent extremism. And like many other members of the so-called Generation of 1968—a worldwide youthful cohort that embraced revolution, drugs, rock music and rebellion with equal enthusiasm—they were well-educated products of the middle classes. With the purported science of Marxism-Leninism as their guide, they believed they could bend the arc of history and usher in a new world free from injustice and oppression. So, in 1978, a handful of women formed May 19th, naming the group after the birthday shared by two of their revolutionary heroes, Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh. They were long-time comrades who had moved in far-left circles since the 1960s. Three central figures in May 19th illustrate this generational political trajectory: Judy Clark, Marilyn Buck and Susan Rosenberg. Clark was a classic “red diaper” baby, the daughter of high-level Communist Party, USA, functionaries in New York. One day in 1950, at the height of the so-called Red Scare, her father made a startling announcement: The family was moving to Moscow, where he would serve as the correspondent for the party’s Daily Worker newspaper. When they saw the yellow-eyed, pockmarked face of Stalinism up close, Clark’s parents grew disillusioned with Marxism-Leninism and eventually left the party. But Clark loved the party’s warm embrace—which included lakeside outings and hootenannies with other young communists—and was bitter about her parents’ departure. She decided to keep the faith. Following a weeks-long occupation of an administration building in 1969, Clark was expelled by the president of the University of Chicago, despite the intercession of Saul Bellow. Not long afterward she became a member of the Weather Underground. Marilyn Buck, the child of a veterinarian turned Episcopal priest, had an upper-middle-class childhood in Austin, Texas. An excellent student at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, she was accepted at Brown but decided to attend Berkeley. She eventually returned to Austin, enrolled at the University of Texas, and joined Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, the country’s largest antiwar student organization. Eventually Buck migrated back to the Bay Area of California, the center of West Coast extremism and the home of the Black Panther Party, the BLA, the SLA, and groups like Tribal Thumb, a bizarre commune of ex-convicts and middle-class radicals. As the press later described her, Buck was the only white member of the BLA. Convicted of federal firearms-related offenses, she was sent to a women’s prison in West Virginia in 1974. In 1977, she failed to return from a furlough and became a fugitive. Susan Rosenberg, the daughter of a retired theatrical producer and a kindly dentist who treated poor patients in Spanish Harlem, attended a progressive private school on the Upper West Side. Political activism came early—at age 11 she began attending civil rights and anti-war demonstrations with her parents. By 14 she was a member of the High School Student Union, the youth wing of SDS. A solid student, she enrolled at Barnard College in 1972. Moving increasingly leftward, she came to admire the women of Vietnam who were on the front lines in the struggle against U.S. imperialism. She left tony Barnard for the grittier City College of New York. She would soon meet a man named Mutulu “Doc” Shakur, an acupuncturist (and future stepfather of hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur) who took her under his wing and trained her in the Chinese medical technique. Shakur was also a leader of the Republic of New Afrika, or RNA, which was working to carve out an African American homeland in the Deep South. He planned on robbing banks and armored cars to raise money for the RNA. He had BLA veterans who could handle any required trigger-pulling. What he needed just as urgently were people who could rent safe houses, buy weapons and drive getaway cars without attracting the attention of authorities. Clark, Rosenberg and Buck fit the bill. By 1979, May 19th was on board. The women referred to themselves as the “white edge.” Doc and the other males called them the “crackers.” The women of May 19th participated in two of the most spectacular prison breakouts of the 1970s. American radicals revered the FALN, a terrorist group fighting for an independent, Cuba-aligned Puerto Rico. The FALN’s bomb maker in chief, Willie Morales, was locked up in the Bellevue Hospital prison ward in New York, having blown off nine fingers and part of his face when he accidently set off a pipe bomb at his Queens apartment. In the view of May 19th, Shakur and his men, and what remained of the FALN, springing Morales would be a major political coup. Together, they hatched a plot to free him. On the evening of May 18, 1979, his stumps frantically working a pair of bolt cutters reportedly smuggled in by his lawyer, Morales managed to snip the thin wire covering a window and lower himself several stories using a rope made of Ace bandages. The May 19th women were waiting on the sidewalk below. Years later, the government of Fidel Castro granted him political asylum, and he remains in Cuba to this day. The following November, May 19th women, together with Doc and his crew—a partnership that members sometimes referred to as the "Family"—broke Joanne Chesimard (also known as Assata Shakur) out of a New Jersey prison, taking two guards as hostages. As with Morales, they believed springing Chesimard would be a major political triumph. Chesimard, an important BLA figure, was serving a life sentence for the May 2, 1973, murder of a New Jersey state trooper. The May 19th women moved her to a Pittsburgh safe house, and then to the Bahamas. By 1984, Chesimard was in Havana living under the protection of the Castro regime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is still eager to get her back, and is offering $1 million in reward money. From 1979 through 1981, the Family carried out a string of armed robberies in and around New York, netting nearly $1 million (roughly $3 million in 2020 dollars). The spree came to a bloody end on October 20, 1981, with the botched Brinks armored truck robbery in Nyack, New York, when Family gunmen killed a guard and two policemen. Rosenberg, Clark and Buck served as getaway drivers, although Buck soon became a casualty when she accidently shot herself in the knee with a 9mm pistol. Driving at high speed, Clark crashed her car, was taken in custody, and later received three consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences. In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo partially commuted her sentence, and in 2019 she was paroled after 37 years behind bars. The blood-spattered Brinks debacle alerted the FBI to May 19th’s existence. Anyone suspected of possible involvement in the robbery faced heavy scrutiny and surveillance. Doc Shakur was a federal fugitive and the former BLA members were behind bars or on the run. The May 19th women dropped from public view and went underground. But they hadn’t given up on revolutionary anti-imperialism—far from it. Beginning in January 1983, and using a variety of ferocious sounding noms de guerre (such as Red Guerrilla Resistance and the Revolutionary Fighting Group) intended to throw off investigators, May 19th bombed a string of targets: an FBI office on Staten Island, the National War College at Fort McNair in Washington, the officers club and a computer center at the Washington Navy Yard. In New York, they also bombed the South African consulate, the Israeli Aircraft Industries Building and the headquarters of the city’s largest police union. They made their bombs using dynamite they’d stolen from an Austin, Texas, building site in 1980. Living in scruffy apartments in out-of-the-way neighborhoods in New Haven, Bridgeport and Baltimore, May 19th members eked out a living through office work, printing and other skilled and semi-skilled labor. Using a string of aliases, fake identification, and wigs and other disguises, and moving frequently, the group managed to avoid detection. But underground life was demanding and stressful. They were separated from friends and loved ones. They endured grueling criticism/self-criticism sessions in which they recounted their failures as revolutionaries. And the possibility of arrest, prison or even death loomed over daily life. In this hothouse environment, it became increasingly difficult to think clearly. May 19th had gone so far underground and were so physically and mentally isolated they were losing their grip on reality—a psychological condition Germans call Realitätsverlust. Their post-Capitol Hill bombing communiqué suggested that they had considered mounting a deadly attack on November 7, 1983. Now, at least some May 19th people had concluded that what they called “revolutionary anti-imperialism” required lethal violence, and that such violence was imminent. In a paper circulated within May 19th, one member wrote that they needed to “transform ourselves from target shooters to combat shooters,” adding that “investigative work showed the possibility of doing an action that could possibly eradicate several high ranking officers.” The paper had an ominous conclusion: “We believe that selective assassination of very clear targets is on the agenda now.” The inner circle discussed cops, prosecutors, judges and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as potential targets. By the fall of 1984, their luck began to run out. On November 29, Rosenberg and one of the group’s few male members, Timothy Blunk, were arrested at a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, storage facility after a suspicious night manager called the police. Rosenberg and Blunk were moving Hercules Unigel Tamptite, a high explosive, into a U-Haul trailer. Inside the storage locker, which had been rented by Rosenberg, local police and the FBI found hundreds of pounds of explosives, detonation cord, blasting caps, rifles, handguns and sawed-off shotguns. And on the front seat of their car, their two pistols: a Walther PPK .38-caliber and Browning Hi-Power 9mm, both fully loaded. Rosenberg and Blunk, it seems, were prepared to use deadly force.
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Left: Susan Rosenberg leaves a New Jersey police station on Nov. 30, 1984. Right: Linda Sue Evans in a 1970 AP file photo. | AP The FBI was getting closer to the others. Bureau forensic experts, analyzing the detritus found at bomb scenes, identified the “signatures” of those who built the devices. They belonged to just two people. The FBI’s conclusion: the Armed Resistance Unit, Red Guerrilla Resistance, and May 19th were in fact one group. Information gathered in Connecticut led special agents to a Baltimore housing complex. During a raid on an apartment there on May 11, 1985, the bureau arrested Laura Whitehorn, a May 19th member and Weather Underground veteran, and hauled off cartons of documents, schematic diagrams and a folder marked “In Progress,” which contained detailed notes and surveillance photos of prime targets, including the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Old Executive Office Building. Buck managed to leave Baltimore before the FBI raid. But she and another member. Linda Sue Evans, were trailed by the FBI and arrested outside New York. Evans had a fully loaded 9mm pistol in her purse and Buck had a .38 revolver wrapped in a motel towel. A few days later, two other members, Alan Berkman and Betty Ann Duke, were arrested near a Friendly’s parking lot outside Philadelphia. Like Rosenberg and Blunk, they were carrying fully loaded pistols. And in the trunk of their car there was a 12-gauge sawed-off pump-action shotgun and a loaded 9mm Beretta pistol. Sniffer dogs detected traces of TNT. Berkman, who was wanted in connection with Brinks (the FBI had learned that he had treated Buck’s gunshot wound, and was an accessory after the fact), was denied bail. But the judge allowed Duke to post bond, using the houses of her sisters in Texas as collateral. Then, on the night of October 13, 1985, she disappeared. Marilyn Buck | Atria Books
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With Clark’s release last year, all of May 19th’s key members are out of prison. Rosenberg and Evans received presidential pardons on Bill Clinton’s last day in office. Buck, after serving more than two decades behind bars, and gravely ill with cancer, received an early parole in July 2010 and died three weeks later. Berkman, who served eight years of a 10-year sentence, became a professor at Columbia’s School of Public Health. Hodgkin’s disease killed him in 2009. Whitehorn served 16 years in prison and was released in 1999. Duke remains a federal fugitive, as does Donna Borup, another May 19th member who jumped bail in 1982 after partially blinding a Port Authority policeman during a violent anti-apartheid protest in New York. Police have speculated in the past that the women might be traveling together as “Thelma and Louise”-style outlaws.