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Thai Jones chronicles two generations of family radicalism
By Stephen Leon

Witnesses to a century

In the early ’90s, when Jeff Jones worked at Metroland as a staff writer, his teenage son Thai used to drop by our offices with his friends. In their ragtag appearance, their shuffling gait, their often-sullen facial expressions, they looked like stereotypical bored teenagers, perhaps with mischief on their minds, not quite comfortable among the adults in Dad’s office. Metroland’s founder, Peter Iselin, repeated a standing joke every time we watched them skulk through our corridors: He’d lean to me and exclaim, in mock disapproval, “Subversives!”

In March 1970, a bomb-making accident blew up a Greenwich Village townhouse and killed three members of Students for a Democratic Society, the most radical (and violent) faction of which was evolving into the Weather Underground. Later that month, Jeff Jones was scheduled to appear in a Chicago courtroom to face charges stemming from his prominent role in the October 1969 street brawl with cops known as the Days of Rage. With federal investigators intensifying their efforts to track down radicals like Jones, and with a looming court date—which Jones planned to skip, officially making him a fugitive—he decided to visit his father in California before going underground so his dad might worry a little less if he didn’t hear from him for years. Albert Jones, a Quaker and a pacifist who had refused to fight in World War II, agreed with his son about many things—but not the Weathermen’s embracing the tactic of violence. “Son, I believe very strongly in your goals,” he had told Jeff just before the Days of Rage. “But if you set out to hurt somebody, I would hope and pray that you are hurt first.”

The description of the brief meeting of father and son in A Radical Line is full of the kind of detail that humanizes the book’s sweeping political saga. “Albert preferred not to know what his son was up to, and Jeff was in no hurry to fill him in,” writes Thai Jones in his book, released last month by Free Press. “Still, the comforts of the family nest—sitting on the sofa drinking a beer and watching TV—were a welcome change from the rigors of organizing. In the evening, Jeff walked out of the house and wandered through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, listening to the coyotes as the sun swept west across the valley.”

A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience chronicles two generations of activist family history: the author’s parents, Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein, and their activities with the SDS and the Weather Underground at the height of the ’60s protest era; the Communist affiliation and civil-rights and labor activism of Eleanor’s parents, Arthur and Annie Stein; and the deeply felt pacifism of Albert Jones, whose conscientious objection to World War II landed him in an isolated work camp far from his new wife. Throughout, it is a story not only of the century’s most significant leftist political movements, but also of one family’s struggles to balance their radical commitments with the burdens such a life can bestow on spouses, sons and daughters, and parents. “I never wanted it to just be a memoir,” Jones says. “My picture was, a history of these movements, told through the prism of the family.”

When Jeff and Thai Jones sat down to be interviewed for this story earlier this week, Eleanor was not with them: She prefers not to be interviewed, and has chosen to let Jeff and Thai do all the talking. This is mildly ironic, given that the book originally was her idea. While Thai was studying for a masters at Columbia Journalism School, he wanted to take a popular book-writing class taught by Sam Friedman—but needed a book proposal in order to enroll. “So at the last second,” he says, “I called Eleanor, and she came up with this whole idea at midnight on the day of the deadline. So it’s essentially her idea.”

Friedman has good contacts with publishing agents, and his classes already had produced several book contracts. He hooked up Jones with a couple of agents, and one liked it, so he was soon on his way—to Vegas.

The first thing Thai wanted to do was interview Jeff’s parents, divorced and living on the West Coast. He had met his paternal grandparents before, but in Las Vegas, where Al was now living, they got closer. “We went out, played the slot machines, had buffets, and went home and talked politics,” Thai recalls fondly of his September stay in Vegas. He also was pleased with the pieces of family history he got from Jeff’s mother and father, but the other side of the family was trickier, as Eleanor’s parents both had been dead for some time—and they had kept most of their political activities secret, even from their daughter.

“I felt like I could do [the book] when I got the FBI files for Eleanor’s parents, about whom we knew almost nothing, just a little tidbit of family lore. A lot of that was really sketchy, but when I read hundreds and hundreds of pages of FBI files, I knew. . . that was the part I was most worried about, but in the end I had more documentation on that than almost anything else.”

Certain now that he could complete the project, Thai researched his subject intensively, though interviews, newspaper accounts—even weather reports from local newspapers on the day of a given event or meeting, so he could add that detail to his narrative. And he interviewed his parents extensively, but there were ground rules: “Our deal was that everything we told him would be the truth,” says Jeff, but that there were some things they wouldn’t talk about. For example, to this day, there are more than 20 bombings that no one has ever been charged with—because no one knows who actually put what where. And everybody from the Weather Underground community, despite all the bickering that broke them apart over the years, has remained tight-lipped. Jeff and Eleanor weren’t about to break that pattern.

Asked what else he has learned from the process, Thai blurts out, “Not to be too optimistic about the future of the left”—at which, for the first time during the interview, Jeff (though laughing) looks like he disagrees.

“I wouldn’t put it quite the same way, but . . .”

But Thai continues, citing a familiar pattern: national emergency followed by government repression followed by a period of apologizing. “You sort of feel frustrated,” he says, “because you see the same pattern happening over and over again, with no progression.”

Jeff Jones, 57, and Eleanor Stein, 58, have lived in Albany now for 18 and a half years. She is a professor at Albany Law School; he is communications director for Environmental Advocates of New York. Thai, 27, recently had been staying with his parents but has now rented a bungalow in Woodstock to work on his next book proposal. A graduate of Vassar and Columbia, Thai has been a clerk for the Albany Times Union and an intern and reporter for Newsday. (Thai’s younger brother, Arthur, also lives in Albany.)

At the front of Thai’s book is a brief, harrowing narrative of the night in 1981 when the feds stormed the family apartment in Manhattan (Thai was 4) to arrest his parents—effectively ending the fugitive part of their lives. Immediately, the reader focuses on how their radicalism might burden their own next generation.

Although Thai claims to remember the bust (Jeff and Eleanor did not end up getting sentenced to time in prison), he also says he knew relatively little of their past lives as a youth—except that he grew up in a sort of community of lefties, with their children, their stories, their traditions; he says he even “went to a Jewish Communist indoctrination summer camp.” And, he notes wryly, “there were always those picnics where they were passing around cigarettes . . .”

A self-described “armchair radical” who prefers the solitude of writing to any sort of group political activity, Thai clearly is on a different path the one taken by his parents. He also has a unique perspective on what he has learned about their radical days. “The hardest thing for me has always been, even now, picturing Jeff doing the things that he is famous for doing, in 1969,” Thai says. “I think Jeff is totally mellow and mild-mannered, but [he’s] famous for running up and jumping on stages, shoving people away from the microphone, and I cannot picture that. . . . I think it shows how unnatural is was for him, and all of them. The thing about the Weathermen is that it was a bunch of middle-class, white, young adults, who just felt totally uncomfortable with the idea of violence, but who felt they had to will themselves to do it.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Jeff agrees. “Yeah, I think that’s very insightful. I think back to some of the things I did, and just like him, I can hardly imagine doing them. The scariest thing I ever did was the first night of the demonstrations in Chicago in 1969, that became known as the Days of Rage, I led the crowd out of Lincoln Park and headed toward Judge [Julius] Hoffman’s house, and that’s where we had this tremendous battle with the police on the Near North Side of Chicago. To this day, that’s the scariest moment of my life, is those 15 minutes before, just saying, ‘Alright, I’m going to get up, I’m going to give this speech, and people are going to follow me out of this park. And who knows what’s gonna happen.’”

Thai: “They worked for months to gut-check themselves into doing that, and then they went, they threw some punches . . . and now, 30 years later, they’ll all tremble at the thought . . . and they’ll all apologize . . . and it just shows, how unnatural all of that was.”

Though Jeff Jones has always said he has never regretted the choices he made, he does acknowledge the toll those choices took on Al Jones. One of the central tensions of the book, says Thai, is Jeff and his father. “Because his father’s stance was all about being peaceful, and Jeff grew up a Quaker, but his moral compass put him to the opposite of that.”

Thanks to the book, Jeff accompanied Thai to Las Vegas for part of his interview, and got a rare chance to work through a lifetime of baggage. “We talked on levels about things that we had never talked about before—and that we probably never would have talked about if it wasn’t for this book,” Jeff says. “I’m aware that the choices that I made at that point in my life were very painful to my father, caused him lot of grief—he had to deal with a lot of things that he didn’t particularly want to deal with. . . . I was really glad when it was over and we had all survived and come out the other side, and put our lives back together. And we’ve become friends.”

Also, after the townhouse explosion, Jeff’s pacifist background crept back to the fore, and he was instrumental in pushing the Weathermen to keep the bombings low-impact—and no one else died in any of them. He says he believes his father takes some pride in that Jeff, at that time, pushed the Weathermen back from the brink of violence.

And Jeff, in turn, is taking great pride in his son’s accomplishment. “I’m proud of the job that he did, and I feel that he’s done a very honest appreciation of the history. . . . I think our relationship has strengthened through this process,” Jeff says. “I mean, what more could you ask for than to have your son interested in your history and willing to write about it—and not completely reject it or make fun of it? I get a real feeling of warmth and love from the book.

“The lesson that I’m learning right now,” he adds, “is what it means to have been part of making some history, and then watching the process by which future generations redefine that and turn it into something that has meaning to them. I don’t put a whole lot of my effort any longer into trying to defend the way I saw things at the time, or even the way I see things now. I’m much more interested in learning what has some relevance to people today.

“I’m proud to have met Eleanor and been part of these two families that have resisted a lot of the evils of our government over what turns out to be close to a century,” Jeff adds. “And I hope that stands for something people find some positives in.”

Thai adds that he hopes people his age read it, as it is the first take on this slice of history by someone of his generation.

And though he clearly is not subversive in the way his parents once were, Thai says he is very proud of his parents and grandparents and the commitment they made to what they believed in.

Asked if he ever wished they were more normal, Thai answers quickly: “If I had normal parents, I wouldn’t have a book.”

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