This week in terrorism history: Oct. 24-30

“White middle-class revolutionaries” Charles, Bryce, and Jonathan Tuller

White middle-class revolutionaries you say? Welcome to 1972!

Both of the incidents described below comfortably fall into the category of New Left revolutionary terrorism, which I mentioned last week. Generally speaking, leftist terrorism of this sort was intended by its perpetrators to be a means to reform (if possible) or destroy (if necessary) an existing social or political system so that a new, more just, system can be built on its ashes. In this regard it is both future-looking and idealistic if not utopian.

Of course the problem here was that there weren’t all that many folks interested in signing on to such a revolutionary venture. Exploited classes, the revolutionaries argued, don’t necessarily recognize the extent of their own exploitation. This was an insight that New Left groups garnered from writers like the philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and particularly his influential 1964 book One Dimensional Man. In it Marcuse argues that capitalist society creates manacles of privilege that keep the public docile and content. Here’s a representative passage:

The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

Under such conditions, the people are blinded to their own oppression. They willingly buy in to a system that controls them. The more comfortable they become in material terms, the more enslaved they are to a system that exploits them to maintain an unjust and unequal status quo.

It was this logic that allowed middle-class college students, and other seemingly unlikely revolutionaries, to justify their violent activism. In short, they were rejecting their manacles of privilege and fighting in common cause with oppressed peoples and other revolutionaries worldwide.

In short, New Left terrorists saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, who, through violence, could create the conditions that would lead to the political awakening of the masses who, under the leadership of the terrorist cadres, would then sweep away the corrupt and oppressive old world and create a new, and better, one. This is an old idea. We can trace it back to Italian socialist and revolutionary Carlo Pisacane, who wrote in 1857:

The propaganda of the idea is a chimera; the education of the people is nonsense. Ideas result from deeds, and not the latter from the former; it is not the case that the people will be free once it is educated, rather it will be educated once it is free. The only work a citizen can undertake to benefit his country is to contribute to the material revolution: conspiracies, plots, insurrectional attempts, etc.

Which brings us to Charles Tuller and his sons, Bryce and Jonathan, who in 1972 embarked on a years long spree of revolutionary violence, beginning with the incident described below. Charles Tuller, a 48-year-old native of Alexandria, VA and employee of the US Commerce Department, enlisted his teenage sons and one of their high school friends to form a revolutionary cadre aiming to fundamentally transform American society. A 2018 story posted at Boundary Stones, the history website of public TV station WETA, explains Charles’ rationale:

Concerned with systemic racism and poor socio-economic conditions in many strands of American society, Charles envisioned a grassroots movement that would upend existing power structures and establish a new, more equitable, and communally-based system of governance.

Some years later, in a jailhouse interview, Charles laid out the group’s vanguard strategy:

We decided to form a group and equip ourselves so we could eventually break with our government or what is called law, and try to do something about reconstructing a new system … we would be very security conscious and extremely mobile … able to get to any part of the country, where we would talk with local people and find indigenous leaders … we wanted to latch onto local situations and get people to take some kind of direct action (to) act as their own government, as their own political force … we wanted to act as catalysts …

The first step in their revolution, having stockpiled weapons and camping gear, was to raise the money necessary to live a life on the road while waging war against the status quo. That brings us to our look back at this week in US terrorism history.

  • Oct. 25, 1972 — Crystal City, VA: Four self-described white middle-class revolutionaries (the Tullers and friend William Graham) attempt to rob a branch of the Arlington Trust Company. Two of the perpetrators cut the branch’s phone lines, and then, dressed as telephone repairmen, entered the building asking to speak with the branch manager. When they told him they intended to rob the bank, the manager refused to cooperate. A struggle ensued in which the manager was shot to death. An Arlington police officer, responding to a report of the phone lines being out, was also shot to death, though one of the perpetrators, Bryce Tuller, was wounded in an exchange of gunfire. The four escaped the bank without managing to steal any money. Four days later, on Oct. 29, the group stormed onto an Eastern Air Lines flight at Houston Intercontinental Airport and hijacked it to Cuba. An Eastern ticket agent was shot to death, and another airline employee was wounded.
  • Oct. 26, 1972 — Houston, TX: A police officer is ambushed while leaving a restaurant by two reported members of the Black Panther Party. Officer Jerry Spruill was shot six times in the back, later dying of his wounds. One of the perpetrators, Marvin Fentis, was arrested in 1973 after a shootout with police in Garland, TX. He was paroled after serving 14 years in prison.