As the son of former Weather Underground radicals Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, Zayd Ayers Dohrn carries two names that are either honorable or infamous, depending on one’s political outlook. A playwright and professor at Northwestern University, Ayers Dohrn explores his parents’ legacies in a 10-part podcast, Mother Country Radicals.
Ayers Dohrn, 44, was born in New York City while his parents were living underground, in flight from the FBI. When he was 12, the family moved to Chicago, where his father became a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and his mother taught at Northwestern University Law School. His adopted brother, Chesa Boudin, was the son of David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, former Weather Underground members who were imprisoned for their role in an armored car robbery that led to the killing of two police officers and a security guard. Boudin was San Francisco District Attorney from 2020 until he was recalled last month. Ayers Dohrn lives in the South Loop with his wife and daughters, and is working on adapting Mother Country Radicals into a scripted drama.
Why did you decide to do this now, 50 years after most of the events took place?
Two things happened that made me want to do it now. One is personal and one is political. The personal part was that it was during the pandemic, and I was separated from my family. My mom was about to turn 80. My adopted brother’s mom, Kathy Boudin, was very ill. She had cancer. I had this feeling that if I was going to ask them the questions that I wanted to ask them, or if I was going to preserve their voices in any way, that this was my last chance to do that. And in fact, Kathy passed away a few weeks before we released the series. I really felt like they were historical figures, not only members of my family, but people who had worked with Martin Luther King and Fred Hampton and Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary, and all these major historical people. And so I just felt like it was worthwhile to preserve their voices in a more longform, more intimate way than they had been written about and portrayed before.
The political reason was that it was the Trump administration when I started, and I was thinking a lot about how young activists tried to resist out of control law and order authoritarian governments. Everybody I talked to when I was asking them how they were radicalized — literally every single person — referenced Black people being killed by police, such as Fred Hampton. And of course, as I was doing those interviews George Floyd was killed, and we had the reckoning in the country.
Your parents were called terrorists by Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. Did you feel the need to show who they were and what motivated them beyond the caricature of that label?
My parents and their friends have led long lives and have done a lot of different things and been activists for decades. Sarah Palin is a clown. I don’t feel the need to respond to her directly, but I think that the caricature has become “unrepentant terrorists,” “violent extremists,” or whatever. It is worth interrogating that question of what it means to turn to violence, but I do think you need to know more context than that to understand what was really going on.
At the same time, you’re not an apologist for your parents’ acts. You’re critical of bombing the Haymarket monument. Do you feel like they did the right thing?
I think that they were on the right side, which I think is a very key distinction. People compare them to the people in the January 6 insurrection. I think it’s important to make the distinction that it matters what you’re fighting for, and what they were fighting for was an end to the war, for racial justice. I think they made a ton of mistakes along the way. I think it’s worth revisiting those mistakes and trying to understand what happened.
Chicago is known for a long history of activism and community organizing, going back to Saul Alinsky. Do you feel like being in Chicago put your parents on the path that they went on?
I think that Chicago and New York and San Francisco back in the mid ’60s, late ’60s, were the three big centers of youth activism. My parents happened to be in Chicago, but some of the people I write about were in New York. I do think those East, West, and Midwest cities were the triple centers.
Why was Chicago one of the centers, do you think?
It’s a big, diverse city with a lot of energy and a lot of students. My mom came out of the University of Chicago Law School. My dad was at the University of Michigan, so he was in the Midwest. And of course, you had Fred Hampton in Chicago, the Black Panthers. Chicago was just this very important center for racial justice movements. I think Fred being just a great example of why Chicago was on that map. Somebody like that can only only come to the national consciousness in a place like Chicago that’s really diverse, has a lot going on, and is big enough and vibrant enough to generate somebody like that, who can really compel the attention.
How were your parents able to reintegrate themselves into middle class society? And do you feel like they gave you a normal childhood?
I wouldn’t say I had a normal childhood. But they were able to give me a healthy childhood. I was able to go to school and find my own way. In terms of having been able to integrate, it’s both about the kind of era in America and about Chicago itself. I mean, the era is important in the sense that the country really kind of changed and I think in many ways, wanted to put the ’60s and ’70s behind it. You had Reagan in the ’80s, and then Clinton in the ’90s. I think both sides wanted to put some of that in the rearview mirror.
In terms of how they were able to reintegrate in Chicago, my parents put in a lot of years in the trenches of Chicago activism — my dad in education reform and my mom in juvenile justice. They worked in a pretty low profile way for many, many years — my whole adolescence — to try to kind of change things in a more modest, quiet way and then build connections in the activist circles in Chicago. And then of course, that’s how they met Obama and how they became sort of prominent in progressive circles in Chicago.
Was the Weather Underground even capable of conducting a revolution? You devoted a whole episode to three of them who tried to build a bomb, and ended up blowing themselves up in a townhouse. Do you think they even had the skills or the capability of carrying out what they wanted to carry out?
They were mostly idealistic. In some ways, they were sort of dressing up as revolutionaries. They were watching movies, and they were trying to imagine what that might look like. That kind of grandiose notion of what they can be led to overreaches, tragedies like the townhouse. The silly part of it is that they imagined themselves as people much more powerful than they were. When you hear the FBI talking about them, it seems like both sides have this notion. I mean, J. Edgar Hoover calling Bernardine the most dangerous woman in America or the FBI agent we interview in the series saying maybe they could assassinate the president, or maybe they could blow up Congress. So on the one hand, the Weather Underground overestimated themselves. On the other hand, the FBI overestimated them, too.
Once you were born, how did that change your parents’ outlook toward revolution, or what they thought they should be doing to affect social change?
On some level it changed everything. One of the things I wanted to understand better is what it didn’t change. I think one of the things I understood from when I was very little is that my parents loved me deeply. They cared about me, they wanted to protect me, but they also had this deep commitment to this revolutionary movement. And that meant that sometimes we were dealing with the consequences of those actions, whether in dramatic ways, like Chesa losing his parents, and then in small ways. My whole life, I knew that my parents were fiercely committed to their political ideas.
Certainly in Chesa’s case, he ended up kind of carrying on his parents’ idealism. How did your parents’ idealism and beliefs influence your life and career?
I’m a writer and not an activist. That’s not because I don’t believe the country needs to change. I do think it needs radical change, especially around questions of race. But I think, for me, temperamentally and aesthetically, I was always just more interested in telling stories and thinking through the complexity of people, and I think it’s hard to meet some kind of certainty and conviction that my parents and my brother have.
I agree with them politically, I just get lost in the tangle of complexity that is human motivation. And so yeah, for sure, I see the world differently because of who my parents are, and because of what they see.
I think this whole country has woken up in the last couple of years to what racism looks like and how deeply rooted it is in our culture. I think I grew up with that. So it was always obvious to us. And that’s one way in which it changed me and changed my life.