EDWARD GUTHMANN / SF Chronicle 21jul03
For 11 years, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers were on the run from the FBI. In the film 'The Weather Underground,' the anti-war activists explain why they fought the law—and why they have no regrets.
The Weather Underground's members included, top, John Jacobs (center) and Terry Robbins (right). ITVS photo by David Fenton
Police hold a demonstrator in custody during the 1969 Days of Rage protests in Chicago in "The Weather Underground." Photo by Paul Sequeira
Bernardine Dohrn with her son Zayd in San Francisco in 1977, during the 11 years that Dohrn and her husband were fugitives
Bernardine Dohrn, September 1969. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society
Bill Ayers, August 1968. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society
It's strange to realize that 61-year-old Bernardine Dohrn was once branded a dangerous woman. Former member of the Weather Underground, poster girl for militant, revolution-spouting anarchy, she is now the mother of three and a professor of law at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Still politically active—she's appalled by the recent U.S. military action in Iraq—Dohrn is warm, funny, extraordinarily articulate. She lives a quiet life in Chicago with her husband, Bill Ayers, a fellow veteran of the Weather Underground and a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and takes care of her 91-year-old mother, who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's.
Dohrn and Ayers have three sons, each raised in an environment, they say, where politics was constantly discussed but never imposed: Zayd, 26, is a playwright and graduate student in New York; Malik, 23, studies and teaches in Guatemala; and Chesa, 22, is a Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar and the only activist in the bunch.
Chesa is the couple's adopted son and has lived with them since he was 14 months old. His parents, former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, are maximum-security inmates in the New York state prison system, incarcerated for their roles in a 1981 Brink's robbery in upstate New York, in which a guard and two police officers were killed.
In 1970, Dohrn and Ayers went underground for 11 years, and were in part the inspiration for the 1988 film "Running on Empty." Today, they're primary figures in "The Weather Underground," an absorbing documentary that looks back on the resistance movement of the '60s and early '70s, and allows its participants to reflect on those events with 30 years' hindsight.
An offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen—later called the Weather Underground—devoted themselves to stopping U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Underground members took credit for two dozen bombing attacks on buildings they called "symbols of American injustice": the National Guard offices in Washington, D.C., the Capitol and the New York City Police Headquarter.
Co-directed by Chicago filmmaker Bill Siegel and San Francisco's Sam Green, "The Weather Underground" captures an explosive moment in American history when student activists, enraged at a misguided war and the deaths of 2,000 Vietnamese per day, resorted to extreme measures to halt the war. The film won the Golden Gate Award for best documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival and played at the Sundance Film Festival.
MANY MEMBERS INTERVIEWED
In addition to Dohrn, Ayers and Gilbert, interviewees include the Weather Underground's Mark Rudd, former Black Panther Party communications secretary Kathleen Cleaver, former FBI agent Don Strickland and political historian Todd Gitlin. Boudin isn't in the film but coincidentally is featured in another recent documentary, "What I Want My Words to Do to You," about a convicts' writing workshop at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.
In March 1970, the fate of Weathermen shifted when Terry Robbins, Ted Gold and Diana Oughton died in a bomb blast at a Greenwich Village townhouse. The bomb that was being assembled, probably by Robbins, had accidentally exploded. Dohrn, Ayers and their fellow radicals went underground, and changed their name to the Weather Underground.
They took aliases (Dohrn was Rose Bridges, Ayers became Joe Brown); concocted ways to obtain false identity papers; grew beards or dyed their hair; moved frequently; and developed a secret code or "Weatherese" to avoid suspicion.
The Weather Underground became "the Eggplant," dynamite was "ice cream" or "pickles," the fact of their fugitive status was "the Joke," as in "I don't think anyone here knows the Joke."
"We each brought our longings and our desires, mostly intact," Ayers writes in his 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," "and we brought our homesickness, a memory of something whole. . . . We were exiles within our own country."
It was their growing family, Dohrn says, that prompted them to surrender to federal authorities on Dec. 3, 1980. They remember the day: the pandemonium at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago, being grabbed by marshals, the surreal jolt of watching their press conference on TV that night at the home of Ayers' brother John.
Ayers still remembers the first words that his father, a former chairman of Commonwealth Edison, spoke upon seeing him for the first time in 11 years: "God, you need a haircut." Two days later, Dohrn, Ayers and their young sons flew to Florida to see Dohrn's family.
Amazingly, because the government had used illegal methods to pursue the fugitives, the charges against Dohrn and Ayers—crossing state lines to destroy property and crossing state lines to create a civil disturbance—were dropped. Instead of going to prison, the couple were allowed to go free and Dohrn was put on three years' probation for a misdemeanor dating back to a 1969 anti-war demonstration. In 1982, she spent eight months in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury about the Brink's robbery that involved Gilbert and Boudin.
Being separated from her family for so long, and feeling responsible for the suffering and discomfort she had caused them, was the toughest part of being underground. Dohrn calls her parents "true believers"—middle-class Jews with no political interests and little understanding of her commitment.
In most cases, she says, the parents of militant radicals "had this feeling of 'My kid's a good kid. I don't know about the rest of this stuff, but my kid's a good kid.' " When other family members made disparaging cracks about Dohrn's activities, "my parents stopped talking to them. They had their own way of acting morally in a pretty crazy situation."
It was tough for the Dohrns. The FBI maintained close surveillance of them for years—watching their home, wiretapping the phone. "My dad was taken in the middle of the night to see bodies to identify them if they were me."
Even though several of their tribesmen continued to visit family after they were underground, Dohrn says, "my parents didn't want to see us. They were too surrounded and too frightened." Messages were delivered back and forth by intermediaries.
There were many times, Dohrn says, when her parents believed they'd never see her again. "Of course, once I became a parent, I could hardly breathe at the thought of what I did to them."
Dohrn acknowledges that she and the Underground "made a lot of mistakes," but neither she nor Ayers would admit regret about the violent actions the group committed.
"When you look back at the extreme situation of that illegal, immoral war," Dohrn says, "and the kind of incredible racist behavior at home, and you think of how relatively restrained the opposition was, I think that's remarkable.
"There weren't people attempting assassinations, there weren't people kidnapping, except for Patty Hearst. There weren't people putting bombs and chemicals into public subways.
"Of course, I wish we'd done things better, tidier, nicer. I wish we'd spoken more articulately. Our rhetoric was way off the charts. I mean, we thought revolution was imminent. We thought U.S. imperialism was doomed, and this was the turning point in the U.S."
The Weather Underground legacy will always be with them. When Ayers' book came out in September 2001, he says, "the state of Illinois launched an investigation into why I was hired (at the University of Illinois, he holds the title "distinguished professor of education and senior university scholar"). The coincidence of my book coming out at the same time as 9/11 caused many right-wing politicians in Illinois to pressure and threaten both our universities to fire us. That continues."
During his promotion tour for "Fugitive Days," Ayers adds, "several bookstores where I spoke felt it was necessary to hire armed security. Every time I speak there are threats. I don't think it's specific to me. It's part of the climate of fear and confusion we're living through."
"We're back at a time when political dissent is all the more urgent, and all the more dangerous."
The Weather Underground: The documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel opens Friday at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Camera in San Jose, and Aug. 8 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Green and Bernardine Dohrn will attend the 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday screenings at the Castro.