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A young Dohrn was spokesperson and star of the radical Weatherman.
Unlike a number of late-sixties radicals, Bernardine Dohrn did not spring from wealth. “I don’t come from a privileged background,” she says. “I’ve read the literature that suggests all of us were rich and privileged, but 1 was the first person in my family to go to college, and I did it on scholarships and loans and so forth.” Her turn to radicalism came as a surprise. “My parents couldn’t imagine what hit them,” she says. She was born in Chicago on January 12, 1942. Her father, then Bernard Ohrnstein, was Jewish and changed the family name to Dohrn when Bernardine was in high school. Bernard Dohrn had attended law school, but wound up working as a credit manager in a furniture store. In 1950, the family moved to Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, where Dohrn blossomed into a popular and successful student. In 1963, she graduated from the University of Chicago as a political science major and spent the next year working toward an M.A. in history at Chicago. In the fall of 1964, she switched to law school.
At around that time, a group of left-leaning young people gathered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of Students for a Democratic Society, an organization devoted to ending poverty and racial discrimination and getting the United States out of Vietnam. SDS, as it was known, gradually grew more militant, and chapters opened on campuses around the country. “Bernardine was a law student and I signed her up in SDS and she was a little irked by that,” says Michael James, an activist who co-founded the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park. “She was my girlfriend. She wasn’t happy that I’d signed her up. She probably at that time just wanted to be a lawyer and didn’t know if she should be involved.”
In the fall of 1967, after graduating from law school, she moved to New York to take a job with the National Lawyers’ Guild. She quickly made a name in leftist political circles. “First of all, there was her sex appeal,” a man who worked with her at the time is quoted as saying in Kirkpatrick Sales’s book SDS. “She had the most amazing legs—every draft resister on the East Coast knew those legs. People would come from miles around to see her, But she was regarded as a good ‘political person’ at a time when other women in the movement weren’t given any responsibility’ at all. Students really turned on to her. She did a good job.”
Ken Kelley, an old friend of Dohrn’s and one of the founders of the White Panther Party, another radical group, says, “Bernadine was the she-goddess, the she-wolf of the revolution. She was much more than beautiful. She was able more than other women there to project this incredible sexuality and yet not be flirtatious.”
Today, the talk of sexuality infuriates Dohrn. “It’s a completely sexist point of view,” she says. “Nobody would talk that backward way about men. I find it outrageous, really outrageous, and I think women in all walks of life, not just in public life, still receive that dual treatment.”
As the Vietnam War dragged on and U.S. politics grew more polarized, Dohrn and some colleagues turned increasingly militant, forming a group called Weatherman, after Bob Dylan’s refrain “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In October 1969, they decided to “bring the war home” by protesting the Chicago trial of the eight men who’d been accused of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention here. During the Days of Rage, as the protest was called, 300 Weathermen convened in Lincoln Park, built bonfires out of park benches, gave rousing speeches, and went on a window-breaking spree armed with pipes, bats, and rocks.
WBBM-TV newsman Bill Kurtis recalls covering the action. “They were dressed in leather jackets and motorcycle helmets and they had clubs and baseball bats and they came ready to do business,” he says. “I followed them out of Lincoln Park and watched them smash windows up and down a variety of streets and I even watched six cops drive their squad car into the middle of a group of about 300 that were headed for [conspiracy trial judge Julius] Hoffman’s house or down Michigan Avenue. The cops cut the group in two, jumped out, and just beat the hell out of everybody and literally probably saved North Michigan Avenue.
“But it was a real turn,” Kurtis adds. “The demonstrators for the convention only a year before were not violent. But these had clearly stepped over the line.”
On the second day, Dohrn was at the head of a group of women armed with helmets and lead pipes who wildly charged a draft induction center. Ken Kelley says, “In the context of the time, I really believed, and a lot of people really believed, that revolution was imminent and . . . that were going to take over or we were going to die trying, I think the favorite saying of that time was, Well, in a few years, we’re going to either be dead, underground, or in jail.”
Abe Peck, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, followed Weatherman as a founding editor of the Seed, an alternative Chicago newspaper. “They were our secret id, the movement’s secret id,” he says. There was criticism of their violent tactics from some people on the Left, but, Peck adds, “they faced the same conundrum that everybody else faced: How do you stop a juggernaut? They were part of an attempt to scare the U.S. government out of Vietnam. That wasn’t the way to ‘organize’ the American people, but they were out to raise the ante for the government.”
At the end of 1969, SDS held a “National War Council,” in Flint, Michigan. Dohrn, who was known as a charismatic and theatrical speaker, was one of the first to address the group. As described in Destructive Generation, “Bernardine mounted the platform wearing a brown mini-jumpsuit and thigh-high Italian leather boots” and declared there was going to be an “armed struggle.” She lacerated the more moderate SDS leaders and cited the Charles Manson family. ” ‘Dig it,”’ Collier remembers her saying. ‘"First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!’” Then she held up three fingers in a Manson fork salute.
Today, Dohrn says, “I’d love to forget it and I wish I hadn’t said it. But it was completely ripped out of context. What I was trying to say, of course, was that Americans love to read about violence.” At around that time, Chicago state’s attorney’s police made their deadly raid on the Black Panther headquarters and the government unleashed a massive bombing attack on Vietnam. “What I was trying to say was that the front pages instead were filled with stories of the Manson murder. . . when the real violence was being done not by serial killers but by our government, in the name of our citizens.”
Abe Peck recalls that night. “The last time I saw her was at Flint,” he says. “There was a touch of kamikaze ism in the air. These people cared so much about stopping the war and at that point about transforming the country in a very militant way—by any means necessary—and were just psyching themselves up to just cast off anything resembling traditional politics or traditional behavior. It was pretty wild. The ferocity of their thinking was apparent. What you saw was people who were steeling themselves to go over the top, or over the edge, depending on your point of view.”
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