An Extremely Political Life: Thai Jones with Shaina Fineberg
Thai Jones was 4-years-old old when the F.B.I. raided his family’s Bronx apartment to arrest his parents, Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein. Jones and Stein were members of the radical group Weather Underground and had spent the 1970s in hiding.
Jones’s debut book, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience was published this past fall by Free Press. In A Radical Line, Jones not only recalls the experiences of his parents’ involvement in one of America’s most notorious radical groups, but also reaches back into his family history, evoking the lives of his grandparents on both sides, who were just as busy fighting the political battles of their day. The result is an informed and absorbing history of activist politics from 1913 through the 1970s.
In December, I took the train up to Woodstock to meet with Jones. Jones is spending the winter months in an old one-story house, half of which rests above a rushing creek. He rents the house from “an old lefty.” There, amidst leftist accoutrements (hundreds of books, plants on every available surface), Jones and I talked.
Shaina Fineberg (Rail): You come from a long line of political activists. Did you always imagine that you would eventually become involved in organized political activity?
Thai Jones: No. Not at all. Organized political activity never appealed to me. Having to come to compromises—it doesn’t suit my personality.
Rail: Instead, you decided to write a book about politics?
Jones: Well, I always knew that I wanted to write. Not necessarily about politics. My primary interest is in history, not politics. Class struggle, government oppression. The themes of this book are themes that interest me even though leftist politics is not my main interest.
Rail: Your mother’s family is Jewish from Brooklyn. Do you think there was a connection for them between being Jewish and being political?
Jones: Well, the old left was born in Brooklyn. Annie Stein, my maternal grandmother, grew up in a cold-water flat in Williamsburg. Her father was a pushcart peddler. Everyone she knew was Jewish and all they did was argue. My Jewish tradition is the tradition of the Brooklyn Socialist Jew. The tradition of Yiddushkeit—so they were aggressively secular. My grandfather, Arthur Stein, his parents were so secular that they refused to come to his wedding because a rabbi was going to be there. Socialism was a religion back then. Everyone was poor, so there was no sense of being poor.
Rail: So growing up, you must have been involved in political discussions from an early age.
Jones: We talked politics. But we never talked about the specifics of their activities. Jeff, my dad, would come in to talk to my class—when I was in junior high school. I would want him to tell the rip roaring stories, but he would just come in and talk about straightforward politics. He perfected boring interviews. He didn’t seek to use his history to become notorious. What’s amazing about it is that my dad did this from 1966 to 1981. He was a full-time revolutionary. But once the trial and the community service was over—he just led a regular life. One day he was a fugitive and the next day he was a father. They got off to such an awful start as parents—putting me in danger. They spent the next 10 years building this large extended family. They built this incredibly safe environment.
Rail: Were you aware that your family was different from other families?
Jones: Not so much. We thought all people’s parents had been on the F.B.I.’s top 10 wanted list.
Rail: Researching the book—was it like filling in the gaps? Did you already know a lot of the information?
Jones: No. I’m amazed now to think about how little I knew. I knew nothing about my grandparents, or the ’60s stuff. I came at it all from that vantage point. Not knowing much.
Rail: With your family, how could you not know?
Jones: For one thing, they never talked about it. I grew up in a culture of discretion. My whole life I was feinting off questions about it. My parents were not eager to talk about their activities. This atmosphere of “keep the family secrets close”—and what do I do? I write a book about it. But my natural inclination has always been to be evasive about it.
Rail: Well, it’s too late for that now, right? Your book has been called sympathetic to the Weather Underground. Was that your intention?
Jones: I say one thing critical and one thing nice. I’m not horrified by anything they did. Bombing government toilet bowls is not reprehensible even in peace times. Especially during the Vietnam War. It seems almost mild now. But the Weather Underground is despised by the right and the liberal left. They were seen as a slap in the face to the mainstream left. They were the far left group on the spectrum. They were openly dismissive of people whose commitment level was not the same as theirs. They felt that if you’re not going to die for the cause, you’re just wasting your time. They were very combative: Going to peace marches and pulling anti-war signs from grandmothers’ hands. But it is important to remember that the Weather Underground is just one of thousands of groups. Their PR machine was better—so people remember them still. They were middle-class, educated whites. Between 1969 and 1970 bombs were going off everyday. The Weather Underground was only responsible for 20 of those bombs. It’s harder to build a bomb that won’t hurt people. And still, it’s a miracle that no one was killed—except for themselves.
Rail: History certainly remembers the Weather Underground. Why do you think they’ve remained with us, while other radical groups have been forgotten?
Jones: They were sexy. They were the sexiest. They had a great look—the cool revolutionary. They wore sunglasses and tight jeans and cowboy boots and carried guns. Serious, dogmatic leaders of the left are critical of that. But revolution is supposed to be cool.
Rail: And what about today? How do you think our generation compares to that of our parents?
Jones: People from my parents’ generation always criticize me and people from my generation for not being active enough politically. But for me it is a question of context. Four years ago you wouldn’t have expected to see half a million protesters (against the Republican convention). I think people have learned some lessons from the ’60s. You can only get outraged by outrages. Bush’s policies are so outrageous that people are getting outraged. Sixties people think we should just be born angry. But for most people, things really have to touch you personally to protest. Vietnam lasted for 10 years, so by the end many people were touched, and that’s what spurred the movement.
Rail: The inevitable comparison between Iraq and Vietnam—Is Iraq going to be for our generation what Vietnam was for our parents?
Jones: I think that a lot of people try to compare Iraq to Vietnam. Some people stretch the comparisons. Sure, the similarities are far stronger than the differences. But take a closer look and you’ll see that we aren’t yet at the level of Vietnam. At the peak of Vietnam a thousand soldiers were dying per week. In World War I a thousand soldiers were dying every day for each of the countries. Now, we’ve lost around a thousand soldiers in Iraq. The politics of Iraq are difficult for us leftists. Leftists are far more eager to support a Marxist-Leninist rebellion than they are to support a religious fundamentalist rebellion. It’s tricky, Iraq. Because there is a natural inclination to support a country that clearly doesn’t want U.S. troops there. But at the same time, no one on the left wants to support the emergence of another religious fundamentalist, male-dominated society in the region.
Rail: What makes you angriest these days?
Jones: The biggest thing for me is the environment. I just think that of all the short-sighted endeavors of capitalism the reckless destruction of the environment is the worst. We’re going to be dealing with it in a life-or-death way in the next 20 years. And yet there’s just no urgency. People have this science fiction fantasy that when it’s really crucial, a bunch of white-coated scientists will step in and take care of it all. Global capitalism won’t stop mining fuels until they’re all gone. There have been no fundamental improvements with environmental policy. Everything we’ve done so far has been superficial.
Rail: I feel like every bar I go to in Brooklyn is filled with anti-Bush graffiti. Do you think this is Brooklyn’s radical side flaring up?
Jones: One thing about radicals—being a radical means that you’ve disavowed the system. You are no longer working within the rules of the government. You’re saying that the government systems are unjust. A radical really has no right to complain about George Bush or to even take part in the election. When I brought this up to my mother Eleanor, she said: “Annie’s favorite saying was: ‘Never lose your sense of righteous indignation.’”
Shaina Fineberg is a writer based in Brooklyn.