Growing Up in the Weather Underground: A Father and Son Tell Their Story

StoryDecember 03, 2004
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We take a look at one American family’s tradition of resistance in a new book titled the Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience written by Thai Jones, son of Jeff Jones, a former member of the Weather Underground movement. [includes rush transcript]

Today an unusual family story: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, we take a look at one American family’s tradition of resistance in a new book titled the “Radical Line.” The author, Thai Jones used multiple aliases before he reached the age of four. In 1981, heavily armed agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York Police Department swept into his family’s New York apartment and arrested his parents, fugitive leaders of the Weather Underground movement. First let’s go back some 35 years to the days of the Vietnam War.

  • “The Weather Underground”–Excerpt of documentary.
  • Thai Jones, author of the new book A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience (Free Press).
  • Jeff Jones, former member of the Weather Underground. He now works as the communications director for the Environmental Advocates of New York.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: First we wanted to go back for a moment, some 35 years to the days of the Vietnam war and a clip of this film. The Weather Underground.

ANNOUNCER: At 7:30 this morning, KPFK received a call from a woman identifying herself as a member of the Weather Underground.

WOMAN: Hello. I am going to read a declaration of a state of war. This is the first communication from the Weathermen Underground. The lines are drawn. Revolution is touching all of our lives. Freaks are revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are freaks. If you want to find us, this is where we are. In every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and town house where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns. Fugitives from American justice are free to go. Within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.


JEFF JONES: [sirens] Power belongs to the young people, and the black people in this country. Come on. We got to fight it out. We got a build a strong base and someday we’re going to knock those mf — s who control this thing right on their ass.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Jeff Jones at the end of that clip from the film Weather Underground. He joins us in the studio now today, many years later, as a dad. Jeff Jones, father of Thai Jones. Thai Jones, who has written this new book A Radical Line: From The Labor Movement To The Weather Underground, One Family’s Century Of Conscience. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

JEFF JONES: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Thai, why don’t you begin the way you begin your book. It is a very dramatic moment. You are four years old.

THAI JONES: Well it starts on a night that my parents were arrested. We were sitting around, it was World Series time, we had just had dinner and the telephone in the apartment rang and because we were underground, no one had that number. That phone had basically never rung in about the six months we had lived there. And Jeff picked it up and it was an F.B.I. Agent and he said, “We have the building surrounded. We have sharpshooters on the rooftops and in a few seconds, the F.B.I. Is going to knock on your door.” So Jeff turned to Eleanor and said, “We are busted.”

AMY GOODMAN: Eleanor is your mom?

THAI JONES: Eleanor is my mom. The next thing I knew, there was banging on the door. About 20 fully armored swat, F.B.I. And police officers with M-16’s and shotguns stormed you this the house. They took Jeff out into the hallway and made him crawl down the hallway. What I remember is that there was a moment in all this sort of craziness when people had forgotten about me and I went down to my little bedroom at the end of the hall and I was sort of looking through my belongings to see if I could find some way to help out. And I just had this feeling of, you know, I had like a cowboy hat, I had some stuffed animals, I had a little pair of child’s safety scissors, so I just remember feeling helpless and I went back out and just stood with Jeff in the hallway. And I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea that our family was different. I mean I knew that we had had different names but I had never questioned that. And so this book is sort of about exploring how that came about.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you had different names?

THAI JONES: Well, we had, you know, they were changing their aliases and I would change my names. They were always similar. I was Timmy, I was T.T. So they would say listen, Timmy, these people know you by this name, these people know you by this other name, these people know all your names and I just was like whatever, you know. I mean if it had gone on a few more years, I was four so I just sort of didn’t question it and I was amazed talking to people during the research.

JUAN GONZALEZ: At the moment that they were taken into custody, what happened to you?

THAI JONES: They convinced the F.B.I. to let a parent of one of my friends from daycare drive into the Bronx to pick me up. So I ended up spending that night with them, some people I knew. And then Eleanor was only in jail overnight and Jeff was actually in jail for a few weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Jones, how did they find you?

JEFF JONES: We don’t know how they found us. The point in time in which this took place was three days after the robbery of the Brinks truck in Nyack, New York in October of 1981 and there was a massive F.B.I. presence that had come into the New York City area immediately after that. Somehow or other we were found. But we still don’t know how it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: When they told you they were going to get you that night, what did you say about who was inside?

JEFF JONES: Well, on the phone, when the F.B.I. agent called, I said two things. I told him I wanted to say two things to him. One, I said, “You have your bust and we do not intend to resist the arrest,” and the other thing I told him was that we had a child in the apartment and that I appreciated his call. It’s important from our family story at that particular moment in history, we had already been in negotiations through a lawyer to turn ourselves in. Our 11 years underground were going to come to an end at some point. It just happened to end that way at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you go underground?

JEFF JONES: Well we went underground in 1970 at the height of the anti-war movement, at the height of trying to build support for the black liberation struggle, and we felt that there needed to be some level of resistance from the white movement in this country in support of people who were fighting back against the government policy in Vietnam, the racist policy of the government, and to this day, we still, lots of us, including me, still think it was the right thing to try to do. We might have done it differently, and we certainly made some mistakes, but that’s what we were trying to do. Of course, I am sorry I put Thai in jeopardy as a result of that, but I think that when he did his book, he found out that had happened before in our family.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, specifically about that, because I am familiar with much of the history of the Weathermen and SDS because we were together in the SDS before the Weathermen developed. But I was most fascinated by the history of your family and how you began to uncover that history yourself, Thai. Could you talk about that process of discovery?

THAI JONES: Sure. I think the book has two things. I mean first of all, it’s, I think it’s really the first examination of the 1960’s from the next generation in sort of a historical way because I went at it as sort of a reporter. But the other difference is that I go back another generation to the 1930’s and I show how those movements, Jeff’s father was a pacifist and a Quaker and he was a conscientious objector during World War II. And Eleanor’s mother and father were Jewish Communist Party members from Brooklyn. So they were very different types of protests, but it just showed that the 1960’s didn’t just happen. There were some strains leading up to them and so all of that, I didn’t know any of that story before I started.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about your mother’s parents, Arthur and Annie Stein. Can you talk about them, Annie Stein and Arthur and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

THAI JONES: Sure. For me they are the real heroes of the story. Annie was, she fought for integration her whole life. That was her main issue. And they were Communist Party members in the 1930’s. Then they worked with Roosevelt in Washington and by the 1950’s, it actually was illegal to be a member of the Communist Party and also a government worker. So, they went underground in Washington, so there are actually two different undergrounds in the book. And Artie, my grandfather, went before the HUAC committee twice, took the fifth both times, and that was sort of the rite of passage for his time.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say took the fifth, what were they asking him about?

THAI JONES: Well they really didn’t have anything. The way it worked is they were just fed names by these informers and the system was designed to just get more names and keep the tribunals running so people who had known him in the 1930’s who had sort of been pressured and given names gave his name. So they really were just sort of putting him through the wringer. I don’t think they expected any information from him.

AMY GOODMAN: He lost his job?

THAI JONES: Well, yeah for the last about 10 years of his life, he just could not keep a steady job. He worked there for a few months and then the F.B.I. would come and tell the boss who he was and he would get fired and he actually died very young of a heart attack at 53.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jeff, in terms of their experiences, how did they shape your political development and Eleanor’s, as well?

JEFF JONES: Well, it was a real honor for me to get to know Eleanor’s mother, Annie. I didn’t know Arthur, her father. Annie was a great leader of the desegregation movement. She fought against racism in the New York City Public School Department and she was a very consistent person. It was great to work with her. On my side of the family, my father and mother were Quaker pacifists and my father refused to participate in World War II. That’s what I grew up with, the Southern California Quaker culture with a group of families where the men had gone to either jail or C.P.S. camps rather than violate their religious beliefs of pacifism.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the F.B.I. going after your grandfather, your mother’s father, going to his place of work and then he would lose his job. In your case, Jeff, and you write about this, Thai, in A Radical Line, when you went underground your father worked for Disney and the F.B.I. would go after him to go to the Disney studios to make it clear who he was and who his son was.

JEFF JONES: Exactly. He would — the Disney Corporation was a very mainstream conservative organization and so the F.B.I. would make a point of showing up during work hours to just put extra pressure on my father so that he would have to sort of deal with them in the presence of his co-workers and his bosses.

AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t agree with what you did?

JEFF JONES: He didn’t agree with the violent part of what we did, as a pacifist and for me that was a dramatic moment in my life where I went from being a pacifist to understanding that there might be a need to take action that involved violence. That was, that’s sort of the dramatic juncture in our relationship. He did not agree and at one point he told me that he hoped if we did use violence and that if anyone was injured or hurt that it would be us rather than anyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do?

JEFF JONES: Well, I don’t talk about what I did. But I would like to point out that the Weather Underground is known mainly for bombings. It was much more than that. It was a resistance network. Something that, a theme that I think this country will be talking about a lot more in the next four years. Between in 1969 into 1970 in this country, there were an average of two bombings that a day that were organized and carried out by somebody in resistance to the Vietnam war. We have long since forgotten than we lived in a country where that stuff was going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Thai, do you consider your father a terrorist?

THAI JONES: Well I don’t think he would consider himself a terrorist, but I think that back then they called it a guerrilla. But it’s the same tactics. I think you have to admit it’s the same tactics of people with less power fighting against people with more power. But I think that the distinction between — you know, it’s much easier to build a bomb that will hurt someone than to build a bomb that won’t hurt anyone. So, they made a real effort to not hurt anybody and all their bombings, no one was ever hurt but themselves. So I think that’s an important distinction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In terms of the impact after your parents’ arrest and in terms of your political development, how did your thinking evolve then over the years as you were growing up?

THAI JONES: Well, they got off to such a bad start as parents that they, you know, they definitely felt like they had to make up for it. So, you know, I and lots of kids from that same history grew up together in a very safe extended family. And, you know, what’s amazing to me is that none of us grew up to be young Republicans. On the one hand it’s hard to rebel against your parents if your parents are symbols of rebellion themselves. But for the most part, they raised us to be critical and to think for ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the investigation into what your parents were involved with? Can you talk about what surprised you in this book? And what you were willing to write about and what you were not willing to write about?

THAI JONES: Sure. I mean I never wanted to get my parents thrown in jail. So there were some things I might have asked just for my reporter’s integrity but I did not want to know.


THAI JONES: Well just who did what, when, just the details that no one knows and hopefully no one will ever know. For me the strangest thing was imagining my parents doing the things that they were famous for doing in those days. They are so parental. They are so mild and mellow now. And it just shows how uncomfortable they were back then. The effort it took to be violent and to be crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

THAI JONES: Well like Jeff is famous for jumping up on stages and shoving speakers out of the way to grab the microphone and taking over meetings and, you know, if you know him now, you couldn’t imagine that kind of behavior. And the whole violence, the whole stance of violence, it was just so unnatural for this group of middle-class white Americans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jeff, after the arrests, what were the charges eventually lodged against you and did you have to serve any time and could you give us some details on that, as well?

JEFF JONES: Sure. The main charge that I had was an explosives possession charge from New Jersey where I had, as Thai gleefully describes in the book, made a terrible mistake and was growing marijuana on a fire escape when I was still a fugitive, for which a fire inspector found the plants, came to the apartment, we had to run for it, and I picked up some extra charges that no one else had. But those were dealt with in New Jersey, and then I also had some charges stemming from the “Days Of Rage,” so-called “Days Of Rage” demonstrations in Chicago in 1969. I was very fortunate. I proposed to the judge in New Jersey that society would be better served if I was to do an alternative to incarceration program, voluntary community service. I volunteered in an emergency room in Harlem for six months and also worked for free at the daycare center where Thai had been going at the time we were arrested. So then we just continued on with our new names at the daycare center.

AMY GOODMAN: Thai, we just have 30 seconds. I will give you the last word.

THAI JONES: Well I think the last word is that people look at the Weather Underground and say what did they accomplish? And obviously the answer is: not much, but you know, what they show us is that there’s a point in which comfortable white Americans are willing to throw it over and take to the streets and when I started this project, it was hard to imagine that point, but now two years later, I think we are sort of headed down that road and five years from now, who knows? I mean we already had half a million people on the street of New York during the Republican convention. And that’s more than ever was during the 1960’s.

AMY GOODMAN: Thai and Jeff Jones, I want to thank you for being with us. Thai Jones’ book is called A Radical Line: From The Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century Of Conscience.

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