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Sudden Impact

In the 1969 Days of Rage, antiwar radical Brian Flanagan and city lawyer Richard Elrod, collided, changing their lives and creating an indelible image.

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Brian Flanagan’s acquittal reverberated across the country, and for a brief time, it seemed to both energize Weatherman and even give some validation to the group’s violent tactics. Beranek recalls being crushed. “You want to win,” he says. With benefit of hindsight, however, he acknowledges that justice was probably served. In the first place, he now believes, Flanagan should never have been charged with attempted murder. Moreover, the conflicting testimony of the police witnesses cast doubt even with him as to whether Flanagan ever hit Elrod. “I didn’t condone what these people were doing,” says Beranek, who is now a lawyer in private practice in Orland Park. “But as I reflect, [a conviction] wouldn’t have been right.”

Wolfson, meanwhile, sees the verdict through a looking glass tinged with irony. For starters, his father-a deputy sheriff-wound up working for Elrod. Within a few years, Wolfson himself was tapped to serve as a lawyer for Mayor Richard J. Daley and appointed as a special counsel for the Chicago Police Department in an investigation into undercover police activities. In December 1975, Wolfson was appointed as a Cook County circuit court judge, and in 1994 he moved to the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, where he is currently one of 24 judges.

In Wolfson’s view, the real losers in the Flanagan case turned out to be Weatherman. Flanagan’s acquittal actually “did the revolutionary movement great harm,” Wolfson says. “All the underground newspapers were talking about how Flanagan was being railroaded by the system and that you couldn’t get a fair trial in Cook County. His acquittal proved that to be absolutely wrong.”

Indeed, the trial did seem to herald the long, steady downfall of Weatherman. Shortly after Flanagan’s acquittal, the group went underground and began what would be a series of bombings and attacks on government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. That tactic, however, backfired spectacularly in 1970: three members of the Weather Underground were killed when a bomb members were preparing went off in a Greenwich Village townhouse.

For a few years after his trial, Flanagan participated in the group’s activities. He traveled to Algeria, for instance, to appear with Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, whom the group had helped to escape from prison. By the mid-1970s, however, most members of the Weather Underground, spurred in large part by the townhouse deaths, had reconsidered their credo of random violence.

Flanagan was one of the first to quit the group, having left in the mid-1970s. “I missed home; I missed my girlfriend,” he says. “All we were doing was putting bombs in bathrooms. One day I just walked out.” He worked as a carpenter for a while and then as a bartender for 12 years at the West End, a hangout popular with Columbia University students. Eventually, he began working for the Burgundy Wine Company. He became a trivia buff, even appearing in 1996 on the television game show Jeopardy, where he won $23,000.

In the early 1990s, he played pool on a professional billiards circuit for a year. In 2003, a little grayer, a few decades older, Flanagan took a stool at the bar he owned by then and began to speak into the movie camera as one of the featured voices in the documentary film The Weather Underground. Released in 2003, the film traced the history of Weatherman from its rise just before the Days of Rage to its disbandment in the early 1980s. On a small scale, the movie made Flanagan the star Elrod had feared.

Today, Flanagan tends bar five days a week at the Night Café, a small tavern near Columbia that he bought in the early 1990s. He recognizes the irony: that he has become the very thing he preached against for so long-a capitalist business owner. But he laughs at the suggestion. “Are you kidding?” he says. “Look at this place. It’s one step up from a pushcart!”

Business ownership is not the only bourgeois predilection he has developed. He is a dedicated foodie who likes to compare notes on the city’s best restaurants with his bar’s regulars. He is a connoisseur of fine wines, having toured regions in France and California. And he loves to play golf. “All I can say is that I like a lot of things that are bourgeois. I just don’t like the bourgeoisie,” he says.

In the movie, Flanagan expresses some disdain about the group to which he once dedicated his life. Nonetheless, if there’s any doubt that Flanagan still hews to the Far Left and to the use of violence as a means to an end, one merely has to bring up the issue of current politics. President Bush? “The worst president of our lifetime-but I despised [Massachusetts senator John] Kerry, too. The guy was a war criminal, bragging about killing Vietnamese teenagers.”

He’s getting revved up now. His eyes flash fire. His mouth pinches to a slash. His latest passion is the radical Palestinian group Hamas. Discussing it, Flanagan rants against Israel. And don’t get him started on the war in Iraq, in which he backs the insurgency and its use of violent attacks. Too many parallels with Vietnam, he says. “Get the fuck out of there!” he says. It’s obscene . . . illegal . . . immoral. . . . In fact, if he were 30 years younger he would get out there himself and . . . He catches himself. He looks up and his face softens. He shakes his head and begins to laugh. “See, you got me started,” he says.

From the vantage point of nearly 40 years and a last, long look at the black-and-white image of himself and Flanagan stretched out on a sidewalk, Judge Elrod is ready to pronounce his verdict.

Since his collision with Flanagan that October afternoon, his life has been an unbroken string of professional successes. He won a photo-finish race for sheriff against Republican Bernard Carey in November 1970-just three months after the trial in which a jury rejected his version of events. He would be elected again and again over the next decade and a half-finally relinquishing in 1986 the position he had held for 16 years.

In that year, he became a senior assistant attorney general for Illinois. Two years later, he was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to the Cook County circuit court judgeship he still retains. On the bench, Elrod “has served with distinction and compassion,” a 2002 evaluation by the Chicago Bar Association found. “He is rated excellent in all categories and his integrity is beyond reproach.”

Today, Elrod still struggles against the physical limitations imposed on him by his paralysis. To get around, he uses either crutches or canes or an electric scooter that sits in the hallway outside his judge’s chambers. Nonetheless, he says he harbors no bitterness-either toward Flanagan or about his fate: “I’ve got enough problems in life-and enough happiness. I have two good children and four grandchildren and a wonderful wife who has probably suffered more than I have.”

His lack of animosity toward Flanagan, however, does not extend to absolution or forgiveness. “It’s hard to forgive when the fact remains that Brian Flanagan was there and he was participating in a demonstration that turned violent,” Elrod says. He still believes that Flanagan was the aggressor that day. And he has never quite gotten over Flanagan’s defiant rant after the verdict.

And yet, in what may be a final unexpected turn, Elrod seems far less resentful than his adversary. In fact, he believes justice was served through Flanagan’s acquittal-at least on the charge of attempted murder. “I don’t think he ever meant to kill me,” Elrod says. “I also don’t think he felt sorry for anyone he has hurt. But I can’t go through life hateful or upset at people; life isn’t worth it.”

Thus it was that in 2001, just before the September 11th attacks, Elrod accepted an invitation to dinner with two of the onetime leaders of Weatherman-Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. At a restaurant in downtown Chicago, Elrod and his wife listened as the two former radicals, now long married, with a family of their own, apologized for the heartache and suffering Elrod endured as a result of that day. The pair made it clear that they did not believe Flanagan caused Elrod’s injuries, and that they were not disavowing their militant beliefs. Still, “they were remorseful,” Elrod says. “They said, ‘We’re sorry that things turned out this way.’” (Calls and e-mails seeking comment from Dohrn and Ayers were not returned.)

Thus, his comment about the picture is perhaps not surprising. “No reaction to speak of,” he says, handing it back. A moment later, however, he lifts his arm heavily and reaches out toward the photo. Grasping it with an almost feeble grip, he looks at it one more time. “Let me keep that,” he says, as he opens a desk drawer, drops the picture in, and slowly slides the drawer shut.

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