The years have been kind to Bernardine Dohrn. At 51, she is small-boned and delicate, with hazel eyes and sun-streaked hair. The Swedish genes inherited from her mother show—and she has a tan. "She always has a gorgeous tan," says a lawyer who has worked with her.
The miniskirts and the thigh-high boots that seemed to be her uniform when she was one of the country's most notorious radicals have been replaced by a lawyerly looking business suit and soundbites of jewelry—pearls, a tiny gold chain around the neck, a silver bangle bracelet, a gold wedding band worn on an index finger. Yet, the legendary sensuality somehow remains.
Backed by funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Dohrn has undertaken a project with Northwestern University's law school to reform Chicago's juvenile courts. Now, she and Tom Geraghty, the rumpled, easygoing director of Northwestern's legal clinic, have agreed to sit for a meeting to discuss the "ground rules" for this article. Dohrn arrives after Geraghty, lighting up the law-school conference room with her entry, nervous and jumpy but charming at the same time. She laughs easily, chitchatting about the two root canals and massive periodontal bonework that she has recently undergone. "It was just awful," she says. "I looked just like Richard Nixon for about four days—or half of Richard Nixon. It would be embarrassing to go through life looking like that."
When she speaks, she often flashes a bright smile immediately after stating an opinion or a preference, as if that eager, open face could clinch agreement with whatever she's said. The smile and girlish laugh say one thing, however, and the constant drumming of her nails on the table betrays another. "I want to argue with you to rethink the article," she says. "It's not like we are sneaking in on anything, but we would rather you not do this."
So would the head of PR at the law school. So would Geraghty; so, apparently, would the two other young lawyers that she has asked to attend our meeting. They are protective of her, nervous about the presence of a tape recorder, requesting that it be turned off. After 40 minutes of discussion, Geraghty stops the meeting and Dohrn and the three lawyers abruptly leave the room when it becomes clear that the article will be written with or without their involvement.
* * *
Their reticence is understandable, for Bernardine Dohrn has a past that seems stunningly at odds with the stylish suits she wears today, and with the Establishment-steeped halls of Northwestern. In the late sixties and early seventies, she was a leader of the Weatherman, a radical splinter group that was unabashed about promoting violence. She was a prime mover in the Days of Rage, the rampaging protest over the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial, and she's said to have used the Charles Manson "fork salute," a three-fingered cheer to commemorate the Manson group's savage murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends. After three of her colleagues blew themselves up making a bomb in Greenwich Village, she spent a decade in hiding, and when she emerged, in 1980, she pleaded guilty on riot-related charges.
At the time, she was unapologetic, and, to this day, she has made only guarded public expressions of remorse. Indeed, she told me she senses continuity between her past and her present work. Her brother-in-law John Ayers, adds, "I don't think she's ashamed in any way. She continues to have a radical view of American society."
She is married to Bill Ayers, himself a legendary radical and the son of Thomas Ayers, for years the chairman of Commonwealth Edison here. In 1970, Bill Ayers summed up the Weatherman philosophy: "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at." (His parents now split the year between Chicago and Palma Valley, California, and they are doing just fine.) Dohrn and Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, live in Hyde Park with their two boys and a third child, the son of Kathy Boudin, another radical who is serving time for a 1981 holdup in Nyack, New York, that left three people dead. Dohrn and Ayers are visible around town in liberal social circles; by almost all accounts of those who know them well, they are a lively, thoughtful, loving couple.
Northwestern, the MacArthur Foundation, the University of Illinois—the seeming ease with which Dohrn and Ayers have slipped back into the comfortable end of Chicago life seems to give credence to the most cynical analysis of their late-sixties ideals. Mike Royko, speaking in a recent interview about the radicals in general, says it best: "They came from a background of being rich kids, where apparently tantrums would get them what they wanted. And they wanted immediate gratification and social change."
A number of people who have followed Dohrn's career are furious that she hasn't been made to pay a heavier price for her past, and their lingering auger is probably what has made the Northwestern public relations apparatus nervous. Already, her connection with the school has caused a bit of a flap on campus, with at least one law professor speaking out against her. "I do not in any way challenge the motives or the integrity of any of my colleagues, and I have no reason to doubt that she is a hardworking, socially conscious lawyer," says Professor Dan Polsby. "I do know that some genuinely horrific things are in her background, and I am bewildered and unhappy to reflect that she finds no occasion for the expression of remorse for the cruelties that she—at a younger time, a while ago, but nevertheless—for the cruelties that she inflicted on other people, including many, many innocent people."
Stronger language comes from Peter Collier, a radical turned conservative whose 1989 book, Destructive Generation (co-written with David Horowitz), is bitterly critical of late-sixties political movements. "The part that I think is outrageous has very little to do with her," he says. "It's Northwestern and it's MacArthur and it's the bar. What it shows me is this moron Dan Quayle, he really hit a nerve here on this notion of the cultural elite, the idea that these people would protect and enhance the reputation of this vicious, bloody-minded woman who is kind of the Lady Macbeth of the movement. This is an amazing thing and it could happen only on the Left."
And yet, these seem to be minority views. Despite the concerns of Dohrn and Northwestern, there's a widespread willingness to disregard her past, particularly since she's directing her ideals toward a more generally acceptable end. "I don't care what she did 25 years ago," says Royko. "If she's now got ideas and can propose ways and find ways to make it a better court system, then I'm all for it."
Stephen Presser, a Northwestern law professor known for his conservative views, says, "I think she's a hardworking, socially conscious person who's trying to work for very noble goals. Besides which, any good conservative believes in redemption."
The vehicle of this redemption is a juvenile court, once considered one of the best in the nation, now widely acknowledged to be a disaster—overworked, overcrowded, unresponsive. The worst sufferers are children—sometimes the victims of abusive or neglectful families, sometimes young delinquents who don't get the care that might steer them clear of later trouble.
"In this court, the judges and probably the public defenders and the state's attorneys carry four times the national norm of cases," says Marlene Stern, executive director of the Citizens Committee on the Juvenile Court, a watchdog organization. "Can they plan, can they defend, can they think of what's best for the child? I don't think any of them really can." In a powerful series last year, the Chicago Sun-Times documented how authorities mishandled cases, wasted resources, and failed to provide the kinds of treatment that might do some good.
In short, almost no one doubts that the juvenile court is in desperate need of enormous, ground-shaking reform. And that may be the key point in Bernardine Dohrn's new job.
This time, she's trying to lead a revolution that almost everyone can agree on.
* * *
Several months after our initial meeting, Dohrn changed her mind about being interviewed. We met again in her office at Northwestern, a large space filled with family photographs and with several framed photos of older black women, women with great dignity and character and hard-earned lines in their faces. Behind her desk, there were also two newspaper photographs taped side by side—one of Jane Fonda and one of Germaine Greer. Dohrn said that she was struggling to come to terms with being 51. The newspaper pictures are to remind her to let herself age like Greer and not opt for plastic surgery like Fonda.
Explaining her initial refusal to be interviewed, she said, "I guess I feel very strongly that I disagree with the notion of personalizing history and movements and big events. . . . I've tried to stick to a strategy of not being personal about it myself, but by being very open and serious about the work that I do,
"I just feel that I don't agree with sensationalized versions of history or me. Any version that's sensationalized."
Don't you think your past was sensational?
“Well, they were turbulent times. They were tremendously turbulent times, of course. But sensational is a little different."
Over the course of a 90-minute discussion—and with Tom Geraghty again present—Dohrn talked about her commitment to helping children and her work at Northwestern. In this interview, and in several later telephone conversations, she was somewhat reluctant to talk about her past and her personal life, but over time she became more open and reflective, "I actually feel like I draw on my experiences all the time," she said at one point, referring to her past. . And I feel that I'm doing work that uses me for the first time in a long time."
* * *
Photograph: Art Shay
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."
* * *
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.'''
* * *
In 1980, Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers resurfaced, and she was able to go to work at a major law firm.
Not long after her release from jail, Dohrn made a decided swerve in another direction. She began working as an associate in the New York office of Sidley and Austin, the venerable Chicago law firm. As it turned out, she had a connection there. Her father-in-law, Tom Ayers, had gone to Northwestern with Sidley's senior partner. "My father-in-law knew Howard Trienens, so I met him," Dohrn says. "I went and visited. I talked to a number of New York law firms. I had decided to try and go back and pick up the thread of having gone to law school and be a lawyer again, and so I knew it was going to be an uphill road. And I didn't know quite how uphill it was going to be."
She took and passed the New York bar exam, but ran into a snag before the state's Committee on Character and Fitness of Applicants, where there was apparently concern about her past behavior and lack of remorse. In her application, her supporters included two powerful lawyers, Don H. Reuben, at one time the Chicago Tribune's lawyer, and Harold Tyler, a former Federal judge, who represented her. Reuben told The New York Times, "She's so conservative she's dull. I suspect it's children, the law, life, and reading Time magazine." The committee, however, was unpersuaded and denied her admission. Tyler says today, "They just couldn't see that she had changed, that she was a different person, a wife and a mother now. The fact that she had preached revolution and violence went against her. She went too far."
Still, for Dohrn, the Sidley experience turned out to be "wonderful." "I wouldn't have anticipated it," she says. "I felt that I learned a great deal about the craft of law and I felt that I learned to work with a huge variety of people that I hadn't been in touch with. It was much easier than I would have thought. I worked very hard. People were good to me. People were curious, of course—I always felt that they had to unlearn some stereotypes—but I actually had to unlearn some stereotypes, too."
* * *
In 1987, Dohrn and Ayers and the three children moved back to Chicago. Why Chicago? "Oh, following my man," Dohrn says with a laugh. Ayers had earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University and been offered a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "He never loved being in New York, so we agreed that it was his turn," Dohrn says. "We sort of always fought between the two coasts, he and I, about where to live. He always wanted to live on the West Coast and I always wanted to live on the East Coast, so we always knew that we'd end up back in the middle someday."
For Ayers, certainly, it was a return to the turf that his father had once dominated as a leader of the Establishment. Tom Ayers was "a big, monster-sized executive, and a very, very genuinely nice man with a social conscience," says Royko.
For years, Bill had been a source of great anguish. John Ayers says of his father, "He was a socially conscious business guy, very involved in integration, very pro-integration and change in the cities. It was rough on them. It was a difficult time. I used to joke with him, you know, 'Bill's risen to the top of his field.'''
By all accounts, father and son have worked things out between them.
Dohrn says that her parents, too, "had a very hard time for many years" but today they live happily in Florida, "One of the wonderful facts about those years was that everyone's parents held on to them in their own ways, whatever their own ways were," she says. "Everyone's parents did what they could do to be clear that 'my kid was a good kid—and I may not understand it or I don't agree, but I know my kid's a good kid.' That actually taught me a lot about parenting."
As she headed for Chicago, Dohrn says she puzzled over her next move. "It took me a long time to figure out what to do next with my life," she says. "It really took me an extraordinarily long time. In some ways, I took a break to try and think about it all…. I just started talking to everybody, took everybody to lunch who gave me a name in Chicago."
She decided she wanted to work on behalf of children, and eventually she took a job at the public guardian's office, which represents children in abuse and neglect cases. Later, she worked at the American Civil Liberties Union and then at the Legal Assistance Foundation, a group that provides tree legal help to the poor. For the past 15 months or so, she has been cochair of the national Task Force on Children of the American Bar Association Litigation Section. Christopher Griffin, a Florida lawyer who serves as her cochair, explains the group: "In a microcosm, we're trying to match up the child who has some unmet legal need with the lawyer who on a volunteer basis can represent the child." Of Dohrn, he says, "Bernardine Dohrn brings to the task force a blend of both substantive knowledge of the area and emotional commitment to children's needs that in my experience is just unmatched."
Her husband, Bill Ayers, says of her, "At 51, she's a woman at the height of her powers. "
She has one handicap, though: Having been so battered by her attempt to join the bar in New York, she never applied for admission here. Her job at Northwestern was carefully structured so she didn't have to be a practicing attorney.
In part because of this lack of courtroom experience, several lawyers who worked with her in the public guardian's office question her effectiveness. "She was supposed to visit a court to work with kids and she wouldn't go," says one. "She'd basically sit around with a group of people that we had working for us who would sit around and discuss the problems of poor people and how terrible it was that people were poor and so on and so forth, and they never did any work. It's like great theoreticians, but when it comes down to doing work, forget it." Another lawyer says, "I believe that when she was in our office she went to juvenile court one time. I guess my only question is how she sort of seems to be an expert in the juvenile court area, but I don't know that she's ever handled any caseload. "
Dohrn acknowledges that there's some validity to the criticism. "We think that the people who work there every day have a lot of wisdom—and are overwhelmed by caseloads and numbers, so they don't have the luxury we have of reflecting, doing research, writing, so the fact that there would be resentment would be completely understandable to me," she says. "I think this is one of my ongoing dilemmas with this, that the people who are in the trenches don't write and the people who write never go work in the trenches."
Dohrn's in-the-trenches work for the juvenile court system has been more in the social than in the nitty-gritty legal realm. She's helped raise more than a million dollars in funding for the Children and Family Justice Center she now heads at Northwestern, including a three-year, $650,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as grants from the Chicago Community Trust and the Illinois Lawyers' Trust Fund. She and her husband have held high-profile dinner parties and she's become a sought-after public speaker. In her spare time, she also works with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, and other well-established charitable groups, and she coaches one of her sons' Little League team.
But, all these social trappings notwithstanding, she and her husband say they have not lost any of their old, anti-Establishment fervor. Ayers, who still carries his SDS card in his wallet, says he feels no better about this country "just because a bunch of 40-year-olds are now part of the Establishment."
Dohrn, for her part, refuses to stand for the playing of the national anthem. As she wrote in a 1991 op-ed piece in the liberal weekly The Nation, "The aspects of patriotism that hush dissent, encourage going along, and sanction comfortable distancing and compliance with what is indecent and unacceptable… those aspects are too fundamental to ignore or gloss over." Of course, her protest has its repercussions at ball games—for her sons: "This moment of embarrassment repeatedly presents them with a dilemma. Should they go get popcorn during the anthem? Should they agree with my protest or only with the reasons behind it?" In other words—and this is a question Dohrn grapples with now every day how much can we expect of children?
* * *
Dohrn and her two sons prepare dinner at their house in Hyde Park.
The Cook County Juvenile Court—which handles delinquency, abuse, and neglect cases—is in a big, plodding building at 1100 South Hamilton Avenue. "It's built like a jail," says Marlene Stern, of the Citizens Committee on the Juvenile Court.
Inside, on a bitter-cold February morning, there seem to be several hundred mostly mothers and grandmothers, with children of all ages. They are overwhelmingly black. Outside one of the abuse and neglect courtrooms are rows of packed benches, like the pews of a church, where mothers and grandmothers hold babies and try to restrain squirming, wandering toddlers. An older child dressed in a frilly dress slides on her belly along the floor. The noise is deafening.
Inside the crowded courtroom, the case proceeding can barely be heard. There is too much hubbub, with the door to the court opening and closing constantly. A young woman stands before the judge with her three children stairstepping in age up from infancy. She is pregnant with a fourth. Her children are all dressed in their best clothes. Her two girls cling to her tightly. She is drug addicted and a paranoid schizophrenic. She was offered drug treatment and counseling the last time she was in court, but could not comply. The judge asks about the father. There are four different fathers—one unknown, one in jail, and two living in other states. Kim King, a lawyer with the public guardian's office, says, "I've been here seven years and I've never seen a case that didn't involve drugs."
This is the environment in which Bernardine Dohrn is trying to lead her new revolution, as the director of the Northwestern Legal Clinic's Children and Family Justice Center. The center was founded in 1992 with two missions: on the one hand, to represent individual clients—both parents in abuse and neglect cases and children in delinquency cases—and, on the other, to find and develop a written strategy for reforming the juvenile court system. As the center's director, Dohrn says, she is overseeing the research and policy aspect of the reform effort. "[Bernardine] is highly effective in organizing disparate groups to support the improvement of juvenile justice in Cook County," says Tom Geraghty, the director of Northwestern's legal clinic.
Already, Dohrn's group has staked out its philosophical ground: They are, essentially, in favor of keeping children with their parents whenever feasible. "I can't imagine anyone saying that children should stay with parents at all cost," Dohrn cautions. "The dilemma is that we've created a court where the overwhelming number of cases—75 to 80 percent in abuse and neglect—are neglect. . . meaning poverty, meaning homelessness, meaning families in crisis." These are not cases of obvious, egregious abuse. "My personal view about this is that, in most eases, certainly not all, children are better off with their parents," Dohrn says. "I think it is the law that if the state intervenes into a family's life, they have an obligation to try to fix the problem. . . to try to get the family together if at all possible."
The irony of such profamily sentiment, from someone who once actively opposed authority is not lost on Dohrn's detractors. But more fundamentally, some of those involved in the juvenile system think her approach is wrong or, at minimum, simplistic. "I guess it's hard for us when people who don't represent any kids and sort of come from an intellectual perspective come and say what's best for [the children]," a lawyer in the public guardian's office says. "I think maybe if [Dohrn] had worked with the kids a little more or had some experience, maybe she wouldn't come from such an academic perspective."
Mike Royko is blunter. "If she's one of those people who believe that you should keep people together at all costs, which is the single biggest flaw in the juvenile court system—that's why you keep getting children sent hack to abusive parents who end up murdering them—then I'd say she's a menace."
For now, the debate is academic. Dohrn's center has yet to publish any specific recommendations. And when it does, it has no authority to implement them, or even to ensure that its report will be read by anyone officially connected with the Cook County Juvenile Court. The center has "no arrangement whatsoever" with the court system, Geraghty says. What it does have, he stresses, is "the persuasiveness of [our] ideas and the ability to interact constructively with people in authority." Such interaction, he adds, is something Dohrn is adept at. But until the group produces its guidelines, which should happen over the course of the next three years, and Dohrn can find a way to persuade the powers that be at the juvenile court to consider them, Northwestern's Children and Family Justice Center will remain essentially a well-meaning, thoughtful-but powerless-advisory group. In many ways, it seems the quintessence of the very liberal Establishment institutions that Weatherman, and Dohrn, once railed against. She disagrees. "I consider [my work today] a continuity [from the radical days]," she says. "I'm working in things that I always cared about…. Actually, I'm always astonished at how many people who were involved in organizing activities in the sixties are still trying to pursue the same goals in the context of the nineties. So it doesn't resonate for me, to say I was out [of the Establishment] and now I'm in. I consider that I both work inside and outside."
* * *
It is mid-March now, and Dohrn is swamped with work and with preparations for an upcoming spring vacation in Maui with her family. But, in a final interview before she leaves for Hawaii, she grows momentarily thoughtful—about her past, and about her regrets. "You know, I think you have to live in your context and in your time," she says at one point. The sixties are gone. The radical activism of that age, and the anger, even hatred, that underlay it have evaporated. "I wish that I hadn't been arrogant and self-righteous," she says of herself then. "I wish nobody had gotten hurt, of course. But that doesn't change the reality of the context of the times," she says, adding, "I don't feel that I caused that turbulence, but that I was swimming in it, as were thousands and millions of other people." Today, she has a new context, a new goal. And, she says, it is time people stopped asking if her violent past in any way disqualifies her for this role. "The interesting thing about the rewriting of the sixties, you know, [is that] there's a sense that people want a body. I think the desire for some mutual accounting is legitimate, of course." But, she says, she has accounted for her actions. "I don't feel I escaped the system…. I feel like the rule of law had its way."
In a week or so, when she returns from Hawaii, she'll again take on the rule of law as it has its way with the children of Cook County. Bernardine Dohrn will be back on the job, at her desk, in her Northwestern office. From there, she will continue leading the charge against a system she finds unfair, and chances are good she'll be wearing a well-tailored suit.
Photograph: Art Shay