The handcuffed woman glowered as federal investigators swarmed the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, storage unit where her “combat materials” were stashed. But not even a hardened homegrown terrorist like 29-year-old Susan Rosenberg was ready to die this November night in 1984.
“Put out the f–king cigarette,” she growled at an officer who had unwisely lit up.
Rosenberg knew that the unit was stuffed with 740 pounds of leaking explosives. The nitroglycerine oozing from her poorly maintained cache of dynamite — stolen from a Texas construction firm four years earlier — was dangerous and highly unstable.
Rosenberg and an accomplice, Tim Blunk, were hauled off to the local police station as the feds delicately dismantled their arsenal and ferried it in small batches across the Delaware River to a bomb-disposal unit in Philadelphia.
The bust marked the beginning of the end of the May 19th Communist Organization, the nation’s only woman-run terror group, William Rosenau recounts in “Tonight We Bombed the U.S. Capitol” (Atria), out Tuesday.
M19’s two-year bombing campaign in New York City and Washington, DC, aimed to cast a cloud over what President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign was promising: a sunny, prosperous “Morning in America.”
Reagan’s election in 1980 told the remnants of America’s radical left that the country had rejected their call to revolution.
But M19’s core of five women and two men pushed back with a series of seven explosions that they intended to be “percussive wake-up calls” for the nation, Rosenau writes — “proof that an underground army was still at work.”
Most of M19’s women were lesbians who claimed their orientation fueled their politics. The men had to prove their worth with initiation tasks: Alan Berkman donated his sperm so that founding member Judy Clark could get pregnant without having to endure conventional sex.M19 bombed the Officers Club at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, on April 20, 1984, the day that the Navy launched military exercises in the Caribbean.
Middle-class and college-educated, M19’s members shared a disdain for their own whiteness. To prove they weren’t merely “mouthing revolution,” they allied with the Black Liberation Army to break cop-killer Joanne Chesimard (aka Assata Shakur) out of prison in 1979. Two years later they assisted in the notorious Brink’s robbery of 1981, which killed two Nyack police officers and a bank guard.
Clark’s arrest in the Brink’s debacle sent the rest of M19 underground. There they plotted to shake up American society with their bombs.
The first target was an FBI field office in Staten Island, located above a US Post Office one block from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. The women planted a timer-controlled bomb in an unguarded restroom on Jan. 28, 1983, setting the detonator to go off after hours.
No one was killed or seriously hurt in this or any of their bombings. But the charge did extensive damage — “You’d never know it was once a ladies’ room,” NYPD Capt. Tosano Simonetti told the Staten Island Advance — and flooded the post office with three inches of water.
Later that year, on Nov. 7, M19 members blended in with the tourists and staffers who swarmed the US Capitol. They stashed a Puma-branded duffel bag under a bench just outside the Senate chamber, an area no longer open to the public.
The blast that night punched a 15-foot crater in a brick wall, shattered chandeliers and shredded a portrait of 19th-century Sen. John C. Calhoun, the slavery-defending South Carolina Democrat.
After each explosion, the group called a news outlet and claimed responsibility in the name of a fictitious organization — the Armed Resistance Unit, the Revolutionary Fighting Group, Red Guerrilla Resistance — creating the illusion of a vast militant network poised to overthrow the system.
But the FBI spotted similarities in the structure of each device and the phrasing of their messages. When the storage manager in Cherry Hill saw suspicious discrepancies in the rental application of a wig-wearing woman, he notified police.
After Rosenberg’s bust, it took the FBI six months to roll up the rest of M19 in ones and twos, hiding in safe houses throughout the Northeast.
All of them were indicted for the bombings in 1988. But they never went to trial, opting for plea deals instead — except for Betty Ann Duke, who skipped bail in 1985 and remains a federal fugitive.
The rest served lengthy sentences before release or parole. Bill Clinton granted Rosenberg a presidential pardon on his last day in office in 2001, after she had served 16 years. Now 64, she teaches women’s studies at CUNY’s Hunter College in Manhattan.
But it was Clark who remained behind bars the longest. Convicted of second-degree murder for her role in the Brink’s robbery, she was jailed for 37 years, until Gov. Cuomo commuted her sentence and she won parole in 2019. Her daughter Harriet — “raised by the collective” as a baby and by her grandparents while her mother was behind bars — was there to greet her on her release. Parole officials said Clark moved to Manhattan and took a job with Hour Children, a nonprofit dedicated to incarcerated women.