“These are scary times. But now I understand that there has never been a time that wasn’t.” So ends Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary, Jonathan Lerner’s memoirs as an avowed underground revolutionary. In 1967, when he was nineteen, he dropped out of college and joined the Students for a Democratic Society; in 1969 (his watershed year) he helped destroy the SDS and went underground as part of the Weathermen (later Weather Underground), until 1976, when it too imploded. At its height, the Weather Underground comprised several hundred members, all committed to violent change, and was responsible for bombings at the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the US State Department, among other places.
This book is actually three different stories: the first, and largest, narrative thread is Lerner’s recollection of the events from 1967 to 1976; the second is his commentary on the events unfolding during July-November 2016 while he is writing down the first narrative; and the third is his own personal journey as a gay man. The first story provides the larger context for both of the others: in particular he draws connections between the events he participated in during his twenties and how they foreshadow the subsequent escalation of violence we currently experience. The third story often takes a back seat to the first two—it is not until Lerner has left the Weather Underground and living in Europe as a hustler that it begins to take center stage.
Although Lerner focuses largely on the years 1968-76, he begins with his political awakening in 1961, the summer he turned 13: he joined a picket line as part of a campaign to desegregate McLean Gardens, an apartment complex in Washington, DC, near where his family lived in Chevy Chase. Lerner admits that his “original impulse had been innocent and idealistic. I wanted to humanize the world.” But as he documents his journey to becoming a revolutionary, his unflinching honesty exposes how corrupt, even cult-like, the Weather Underground was. (He is just as quick to acknowledge how his male white privilege often shielded him from the worst consequences of his actions, especially when those actions became more and more violent.) Lerner also forthrightly acknowledges the ironies of his life: for example, as someone who declared in 1968 that “elections don’t mean shit” he has voted in every one since 1972, including the most recent.
As interesting as Lerner’s recollections of the turbulent Sixties and Seventies are, his subsequent life-journey as a journalist and novelist provides insight into his continuing evolution as an activist: he still works for change, but it is now at the micro- instead of the macro-level. Both he and his husband Peter are involved in politics, but “at the hyperlocal scale of our very small city, where 6,500 people live in 2.5 square miles.” Lerner is currently on the Conservation Advisory Council, while Peter is working to equalize the city’s voting districts; Lerner wryly notes that “while I am now a sworn official of the city, working within the system, my husband likes to joke that he is busy overthrowing the government.”
As a piece of oral history, as an explanation for the current state of affairs, and as a personal story, Swords in the Hands of Children makes compelling reading.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske