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Rebel Without a Pause

In the early 1970s, Bernardine Dohrn and her Weatherman cohorts were blowing up buildings. Today, she has a new—respectable—revolution to lead.

(page 3 of 5)


A movement in ashes: An accidental bomb blast in 1970 killed Diana Oughton (left) and Ted Gold (right) and drove the rest of the Weatherman group, including Dohrn, underground.

Three months later, on March 6, 1970, a townhouse in Greenwich Village blew up. Several Weathermen had been building a bomb in the basement and something went wrong. Three of them were killed, including Ted Gold and Diana Oughton, who had been Bill Ayers’s girlfriend. When, three days later, Dohrn missed a court date in Chicago, where she was wanted on several riot-related charges stemming from the Days of Rage, she, Ayers, and others became Federal fugitives. They became, in fact, the Weather Underground and, as a group, started busily issuing communiqués. The first one began, “Hello, this is Bernardine Dohrn. I’m going to read a Declaration of War.”

Between 1970 and 1974, the group took credit for 12 bombings, including one of the United States Capitol and another of police cars—though they tried to make the point that their targets were property, not people, and no one was injured. “Bombs as a media event,” says Ken Kelley.

Today, asked about the bombings, Dohrn says, “I think what happened during that era was generally appropriate and restrained. Of course, in today’s context, it’s unimaginable. But, in the context of those times and in the context of a million people being killed [in Vietnam] because of U.S. policies, I feel like it was a moral and popular opposition to an illegal and immoral war.”

In addition to the bombings, the Weather Underground released 22 communiqués and a book, Prairie Fire. Although the group became less newsworthy over the years, a certain radical chic clung to them. According to Peter Collier, the underground leaders got help from Hollywood figures and moneyed radicals. Bill Ayers told the Reader in 1990 that they constantly changed their addresses, phone numbers, names, and identities. Ayers alone adopted at least a dozen different aliases and lived in about 15 different states, though he says he never left the country.

He and Dohrn took up together and their first son, Zayd Osceola (for fallen Black Liberation Army “soldier” Zayd Shakur), was born in 1977, at around the time the Weather Underground decided to break up. Eventually, Ayers and Dohrn settled into a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a five-story walkup on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They each held various jobs. Dohrn worked in a children’s-clothing boutique and Ayers was a baker. In 1980, Dohrn was waitressing and Ayers was teaching at a day-care center when they decided to come forward. “Gradually, I think it evolved that if there was a way of surfacing where you didn’t have to do much time, then why not?” says Ken Kelley. “I don’t think they would have done it if they thought they were going to go to jail for the rest of their lives.”

Dohrn surrendered on Illinois charges of inciting to mob action, aggravated battery, resisting police officers, and jumping bail. At a brief news conference she said, “I regret not at all our efforts to side with the forces of liberation. The nature of the system has not changed.”

Bombing conspiracy charges against the couple had been dropped in the mid-1970s because of illicit government surveillance. Prosecutions for the bombings themselves were never pursued. As a result, Ayers was charged with nothing. Dohrn was allowed to plea-bargain for three years of probation and a $1,500 fine (Richard M. Daley by then was the state’s attorney). As Ayers reportedly once said: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.”

A year later, a remnant of the Weather Underground was arrested after a bungled armored truck robbery in which a Brink’s guard and two state troopers were killed. Due to her Weatherman connections, Dohrn was called before a grand jury. She refused to cooperate, telling reporters she had nothing to hide, but was opposed to grand juries on principle. She was sent to jail. On a weekend furlough, Dohrn married Ayers. By then, they had a second son, Malik (for Malcolm X) Cochise.

Of the Brink’s robbery, she says, “I wasn’t involved at all and I have no idea where they got anything from…. At the time of the Brink’s arrest, there was great hysteria and pandemonium and because I had been friends with and knew people who were arrested there, there was a certain set of assumptions that I must have been involved and I must have been a ringleader. And they were clearly shown to be not true…. It was awful because the kids were young. It was awful because it was a situation that I didn’t create. But there it was.”

One of those arrested in the Brink’s case was Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a prominent liberal New York lawyer. Eventually, Boudin pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to serve from 20 years to life in prison. Dohrn was released from jail after seven months. She and Ayers took custody of Boudin’s infant son, whom they are raising today.

In Destructive Generation, Collier recounts a chance meeting at around that time between Dohrn and Mark Rudd, another radical leader who’d also been underground for a time. “She asked him what he thought about the whole experience,” Collier writes. “He told her that he thought of it as seven years of wasted life; that neither he nor they had accomplished anything, and he wished he’d gotten out at the beginning. ‘She got furious [Rudd recounts] and said: “But what about the contribution we made to the overall struggle for armed struggle and revolution in America?” I couldn’t believe the rhetoric. The same old shit. I just said to myself, “Oh, later for you, lady,” and took off. Later on it occurred to me how her ego was still totally involved with all that dead history. How little she had looked at herself all those years. She should have had to admit how wrong her ideas were, how meshuga her self-conception was. A great revolutionary leader’ She had no great revolutionary ideas. None of us did. She was just the daughter of a credit manager of a Milwaukee furniture store.”’

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