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June 09, 2022
Mother Country Radicals
Chapter 1: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

In This Episode

 In 1970, a former law student named Bernardine Dohrn declared war on the United States government. Decades later, her son Zayd Ayers Dohrn tells the story of how his mother was radicalized, and became the most wanted woman in America. 

 

For more of the story, check out: 


Transcript

 

Chapter 1: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: In May 1970, Los Angeles radio station KPFK received an anonymous phone call leading them to a cassette tape hidden in a public phone booth. It begins like this:

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Hello, this is Bernardine Dohrn. I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war. This is the first communication from the Weatherman underground.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine Dohrn is my mother. She’s recording this tape when she’s just 28 years old, surrounded by a few friends in a safe house in San Francisco, a one-room apartment they’ve rented using a fake ID. The place is crowded, and most of the people in the room are even younger than she is, student activists and grad school dropouts in their early to mid-20s. There’s a device the size of a lunchbox set up in the middle of a table, an old-school tape cassette player with a red record button:

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] All over the world people fighting American imperialism look to America’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire. Kids know lines are drawn. Revolution is touching all of our lives.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: They’ve written this statement together over a bunch of sleepless nights on a stolen typewriter, revisions marked in pen and retyped over and over to get it right. It’s a collaborative effort, a group project, but they all understand as the leader of the organization, the public face, it would be Bernardine delivering their message.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks. If you want to find us, this is where we are. In every tribe, commune, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns—fugitives from American justice are free to go.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It’s funny for me to listen to this tape now, 50 years later. It’s not just how 1970 it is—tribe and commune, making love smoking dope—it’s also how young she sounds. Her voice is a bit shaky. Despite the fact she later became famous—infamous—as a symbol of revolutionary rage, my mother has always been a private person. Reserved, kind of shy. So I can hear her forcing herself to say these words, driving herself to do something that doesn’t come naturally to her. Because she believes somebody has to do something. She has to do something.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] The parents of privileged kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us. Tens of thousands have learned that protests and marches don’t do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My mom was actually one of those privileged kids herself. She’d recently graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, one of the most prestigious and conservative law schools in the country. John Ashcroft, George W. Bush’s attorney general, was one of her classmates. But she’d grown up in modest circumstances, lower middle class, the granddaughter of four immigrants. A straight-A student, a cheerleader, a kid who tap danced at the American Legion

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Within the next 14 days, we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.

 

[reporter] There were very few positive things to say about planting an explosive in a government building, but as an attention-getting device, it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of that bomb that went off here at the State Department.

 

[reporter] A bomb exploded earlier this morning—

 

[reporter] Credit for the capital bombing was claimed in a letter received by The Associated Press today, signed by the—

 

[overlapping voices] —Weather Underground . . .  The Weathermen

 

[reporter] The Weathermen promises more attacks on the establishment around the entire country, starting next week.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardino’s “Declaration of a state of war” set off a campaign of anti-government violence. It would turn her and her friends into outlaws and symbols. Her trademark miniskirt and knee-high boots, straight brown hair and sunglasses, would wind up on wanted posters, newscasts and underground newspapers, across the country, and she would spend the next decade and more on the run from the FBI.

 

[reporter] Angela Davis was replaced on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List this afternoon by Bernardine Rae Dohrn, described as an underground leader of The Weathermen. The FBI says she advocates bombings, violent revolution, and terrorist attacks.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the bureau, called Bernardine, The most dangerous woman in America. But those sound bites don’t really capture her, as a person or as a symbol. They don’t capture what drives her and people like her, which is important because she was part of a moment, not unique in American history but remarkably rare, when middle-class white kids took up arms against their own country, a country they realized that was killing Vietnamese people abroad and Black people here at home. These kids abandoned their promising futures, severed ties with family. Some, including my mom, would go to jail. Others were killed in the struggle. But they were all convinced their privilege put them on the wrong side of history. To get on the right side, they were willing to blow up the world they were supposed to inherit.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My name is Zayd Ayres Dohrn, and this is a family history because I was born underground. For the first years of my life, my parents and I were on the run from the FBI. When people ask me about my childhood today, I still find it kind of hard to explain. Some parts are simple. We used fake names. Outside the house, my parents, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, went by Rose and Tony. I was just called Z. We paid for everything in cash, made calls from pay phones. My parents didn’t apply for jobs that required background checks or Social Security numbers. But our day-to-day life wasn’t that out of the ordinary. We got up in the mornings, went to work or school. We lived in a one-room apartment in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem—literally one room, the kitchenette on one side and a curtained-off bath area on the other. My mom worked as a waitress near Lincoln Center. My dad baked in the bread shop on 125th Street. It felt—I guess this is probably true for most kids, no matter what their circumstances—but to me, it all just felt normal. I knew from my very first memories when I was two or three-years old that the FBI was chasing us, but I didn’t know exactly what FBI was, why they, or it, wanted to catch us, or what would happen if they did. It felt more abstract. A childhood boogeyman, something I knew was bad the same way I knew, like any kid knows, my family had to be good.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Did you know that you had secrets that you couldn’t talk about? I don’t know what you knew, but we tried to make it fun for you.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: They explained the underground to me in terms a kid could understand. We were fighting an unjust empire, like Luke Skywalker or Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. I actually dressed up as Robin for my first few Halloween’s. So like most people, I grew up thinking my parents were heroes. But as I got older, of course, it got more complicated. You grow up, you start to see some of your parents’ flaws, their contradictions, you realize maybe you don’t know everything you thought you knew, that maybe they kept things from you.

 

Zayd, interviewing: What’s it like having me do this kind of research into your past?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I, you know, it’s, it’s wonderful that you’re interested even, really, but it scares me.

 

Zayd, interviewing: What does that mean?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Well, I think, you know, by you doing this project, you’ve made me think. You know, are there secrets—what to keep as a secret and what not to keep.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My mom is the most idealistic person I know. And both definitions of the word apply here: she’s characterized by idealism, and unrealistically aiming for perfection. She sees everything through the lens of the struggle against injustice, and I mean, everything. One example: I recently found a present she gave me when I was a kid when she was locked up in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center after 11 years on the run. It’s a calendar she made me in her cell out of construction paper and yarn, tracing boxes for the days, filling in notable dates, illustrating the months with line drawings and photos. It’s a nice present, thoughtful and handmade, something I could put up over my bed to remind me of her while she was in jail. I found it comforting. But when I dug it up recently, I noticed something about the holidays she’s marked. December 25th is empty. There’s no Christmas or Christmas Eve. No Hanukkah, either, but there is December 2nd: John Brown hanged; December 4th: Fred Hampton murdered; December 15th: Sitting Bull assassinated. And the other months are like that, too. April doesn’t have my birthday, the 26th, but it does have the assassination of Martin Luther King, the killing of Little Bobby Hutton, the Colfax Massacre of 1873—all these anniversaries commemorating people who resisted, American revolutionary martyrs on the day they were executed, lynched, assassinated. Keep in mind, I was five-years old at the time. So that’s who she is, who she’s been for as long as I can remember. She’s an idealist, someone who sees clearly, zealously the difference between right and wrong, who believes in sacrifice for the struggle and expects everyone else, including her kids, to believe in it to. And I don’t think quite like her in those moral absolutes. It’s why I became a writer instead of an activist, because I’m interested in the messiness of what drives people, not just politically but personally, because I’ve seen the costs of the struggle up close. My brothers and I had to live with the consequences of our parents actions, and I grew up wondering how could my mom and dad choose to have children if they were willing to take those risks? But I’ve also been thinking lately about what it meant to them to resist, to be willing to fight back violently against a racist and unjust system. Because these past few years have shown us, even if we weren’t paying attention before, that white supremacy is alive and well in this country.

 

[clip of Donald Trump] They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists . . .

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: That American authoritarianism is an actual possibility. In fact, a historical reality, from slavery through Jim Crow to Selma, Charlottesville, all the way up to the insurrection at the Capitol.

 

[voice clip] —Capitol, I can see at least half a dozen protesters scaling, literally—

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It seems obvious we need some kind of resistance to that. But what kind? What does this moment call for? What can we learn from looking at the history of the revolutionary groups that overlapped and came together in the political undergrounds, plural, of the 1970s and early ’80s?

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] There’s no way to be committed to nonviolence in the middle of the most violent society that history’s ever created.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: For most of us, understanding our parents is a life-long job. We never quite manage it. I’ve never quite managed it. But I want my daughters to know where they came from, who they came from, because the country they’re growing up in today isn’t all that different. And all of us are going to have to decide what to do about it.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] I mean, we live here in America, so you know, we’re born here in this country, too. And the notion that we’re outlaws has got to be put together with the fact that America created us.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: This is Chapter 1: The Most Dangerous Woman in America.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My mom wasn’t always a revolutionary. She grew up a middle-class white girl in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee.

 

[voice clip] Today, some people call it America’s dairy-land. But no matter what mean, we give it, Wisconsin offers—

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Her dad, Bernard, Barney, was a second-generation Jewish immigrant, the credit manager for a chain of appliance stores. Barney had changed his last name to dawn from Ohrnstein to protect his daughters from antisemitism, try to fit in, seem more American. I remember my grandpa’s house filled with commemorative coins from the Franklin Mint: America’s Bicentennial, Reagan’s election, the launch of various space shuttles and satellites. He was a Republican his whole life. He voted for Joe McCarthy, considered himself a patriot. And as Bernardine’s sister, my aunt Jennifer puts it:

 

Jennifer Dohrn: He also was a racist.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Barney had grown up poor in a neighborhood where Jewish and Black folks seemed to be in constant competition.

 

Jennifer Dohrn: And he certainly lived in fear of others, as if he and his community were fighting against them for whatever they could get in this society.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: But he believed in the American dream. He wanted his two daughters to have a better life that he had. In fact, my mom was the first person in her family to go to college, first at Miami of Ohio and then at the University of Chicago. But letting your kids see more of the world than you did move to the city, read books and meet people from diverse backgrounds sometimes means they come to see that world quite differently. My mom got swept up in a moment of historical change.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I saw that the civil rights movement and then the growing anti-war movement were what was happening.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It’s 1964, young Black protesters in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee have been leading sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom rides across state lines, voter registration drives. In response, southern racists sic dogs on demonstrators. They aim fire hoses at Black children in Alabama, and set busses on fire. When three young volunteers—Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney—try to register voters in Mississippi, they’re murdered by the KKK. But still, all over the country, idealistic young people, both Black and white, are signing up, willing to risk their lives to join the cause. Bernardine is just one of many.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I said to my boyfriend, Bob, I think I’m going to go south this summer. I think I’m going to apply to go south this summer. And he said, No, you’re not.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: I hear her say this, and I think poor Bob, now you do not want to have this fight with my mom, trying to argue that a White person for any reason should keep out of the struggle, stay safe. Especially a man trying to tell her what she could and couldn’t do. I have never in my entire life seen her back down from that kind of confrontation. But in that moment, as a 22-year old college kid:

 

Bernardine Dohrn: We had a fight about it and I collapsed.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: She agrees not to go south.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I mean, I, you know, I didn’t want to lose him. He was a very powerful guy. He had taught me a lot. I loved him, I liked him.

 

Zayd, interviewing: Why didn’t he want you to go?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Freedom, I think. I think it was clear that he thought that he would lose me. But I think the other reason, the other cultural reason was that I, you know, would be, I don’t know what, fall in love with somebody else, be free, have sex. So it was a holding on, kind of step on his part. Which I think he knew, and I think I knew.

 

Zayd, interviewing: I was surprised by this story. I’d never heard it before. And it’s not like her, not like the person I’ve known my entire life, who’s defined by her decisiveness, by her certainty. I mean, I can imagine she was feeling a lot of pressure. Going south must have been scary for a 22-year old from a sheltered background, the gender expectations, the whole social order she was pushing up against. But still, to let herself be sidelined, abandon what she thought, what she knew, was right— something must have changed her, shifted the way she saw the world. She wasn’t born a revolutionary. She became one. So by 1966, Bernardine has enrolled in law school, still at the University of Chicago. She’s not sure what she wants to do next. Not corporate law, for sure. Something that will make a difference. And around the same time, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. arrives in the city to take up the cause of northern housing segregation. This is just two years after his “I Have a Dream” speech and Letter from a Birmingham jail. He’s already a Nobel Prize winner. The most important civil rights leader of his generation. Bernardine, goes to hear him speak in a church on the south side. Everyone’s crowded shoulder to shoulder, it’s hot, sweaty—they’re all waving paper fans when Dr. King arrives.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Everybody goes crazy. And then he delivers, you know, he even if it’s his third or fourth speech of the night, he, he transcends whatever you’ve been hearing by, so, by so much. You know?

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] We have some challenging days ahead, some great and noble opportunities to make this a beautiful city that sits on the banks of Lake Michigan, the beautiful city of brotherhood that it is called to be.”

 

Bernardine Dohrn: The cadence, the oratory, the buildup—

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] I say sincerely that the white persons who believe in justice or who believe in humanity are gonna stay with this movement. God said before, they’re going to stay with it because it’s just and right.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: As well as the content about what’s possible when you work together.

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] Let us march in dignity, let us march in discipline. [applause] So don’t despair. Don’t give up! But in one great outpouring, with the gentle signs and glad thunders of the ages, all of us can begin to sing: Glory, hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: King has already been stabbed, assaulted, in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. He comes north to show racism isn’t just a southern problem, it’s an American problem.

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] Well, this is a terrible thing. I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south. But I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.

 

[interviewer] Do you feel you’re in a closed society here Dr. King, here in southwest side of Chicago?

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] Oh yes, it’s definitely a closed society. And we’re going to make it an open society. And we feel that we have to do it this way in order to bring the evil out into the open so that this community will be forced to deal with it.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: On August 5th, Dr. King leads a march through Marquette Park, a working-class area on the south side of Chicago. And Bernardine is there, marching with the crowd behind him. And white people line the streets, on the porches of their bungalows, on all sides, in their yards, screaming at the protesters. In pictures and newsreels, they look exactly like the MAGA mobs at the Capitol on January 6th. Confederate flags, angry faces. They’re throwing bricks, bottles. A rock hits King and knocks him down. He shakes it off.

 

[clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] Oh, I’ve been hit so many times, I’m immune to it.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: But Bernardine is shaken up. She’s not scared, she feels implicated.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: It reminded me of what I’d seen in television when I was a young girl, of Little Rock of, you know, hatred, of vitriol. And I was like thinking, Wow, you know, people are, you know women especially, more than the men. The men I would have expected to be hateful, but seeing the women being hateful was shocking to me. It was a, another reminder that, you know, white people can’t be trusted.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: These white people in Marquette Park aren’t rich. They’re blue-collar working people, like the people my mom grew up with. And it strikes her as strange that they aren’t able to see civil rights as a shared struggle.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I was seeing, you know, what white supremacy looks like for people who are not getting anything out of it except standing on somebody else’s hand. I felt bewildered that people were protecting, you know, what they thought they had and that they were sure that these other people who were Black and brown were going to destroy what they had.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: In fact, the white people she’s talking about sound a lot like her father, my grandpa, Barney. I asked her about this, whether she saw her own family in those faces. Was marching with Dr. King, a rebellion against her father, against his bigotry?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: OK, well, that’s, that’s too psychological for me. I don’t—[laughs]

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And this has been true my whole life, her resistance to psychological explanations. She doesn’t want to reduce a political and moral choice into something personal. In fact, she thinks there’s something unseemly and narcissistic in making the larger struggle all about yourself. But I do think this is the moment she’s first radicalized. Something about seeing the hate in those faces, feeling her own connection to white supremacy, even if only by association. She decides she’s going to fight whatever she sees in those crowds.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I said to myself, because I did feel like I should have gone south and I didn’t, and so I was like, this time I’m not going to miss it.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: By this point, she’s volunteering with Dr. King as part of the Chicago rent strike. She’s 24-years old, a second-year law student. She’s working with the activists trying to stop slumlords from evicting their tenants.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I was wearing an armband that said ‘Legal.’ It was ridiculous. I knew nothing, and I knew very little about landlord-tenant law.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And one day she’s at the church that serves as the headquarters of the strike.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: So now we’re in July, hot, hot, 102-degree day. Somebody shouted, There’s an eviction two blocks away! We run over two blocks and there are the sheriffs carrying everybody’s belongings and throwing them into a pile on the street of one of the apartments in this West Side building. And now the crowd is growing restive, but nobody’s shouting, nobody’s saying anything, and they’re dumping kitchen table, children’s clothing, toys, dresser drawers—everything is piling up in the streets. Suddenly, I feel next to me—have you ever stood next to an NBA player? You just suddenly feel that there’s somebody unusually imposing next to you, but you’re like, mmm. You know, I’m a tiny person here. And this man says to me, Would you hold my suit coat? And it’s Muhammad Ali, the most recognizable person with Dr. King in the world? How did he get there? I have no idea. How did he know to come? Who called him? He hands me a blue, light blue, seersucker summer coat, silk-lined. I’m holding it. He strides forward and he picks up the kitchen table with both hands. These guys are coming and going. And he turns around and walks into the apartment building and up the stairs. And instantly, everybody of the 100 or 200 of us who are now standing there in a circle, goes forward and picks up something and follows him in the building and takes it up. As far as I know, the sheriffs who had started this never reappeared. I don’t know where they, if they melted into the crowd or if they started carrying things back upstairs. But that was it. It was a, you know, a people power moment. It was a moment of defiance. It was a gesture by somebody who could carry it off with such panache and so little fear. And it just gave everybody, you know, a spark of what’s possible. It was that combination of seeing King night after night speaking in churches, being out there on the West Side, and then these marches on the weekends. And altogether, it was so powerful and so brilliant. It changed my life.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: By 1968, Bernardine is 26. A full-time activist living in New York City, crashing with friends and boyfriends, organizing against segregation and the Vietnam War. She’s trying to follow the example of the civil rights leaders who first inspired her.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I was in a tiny little warren of offices at 5 Beekman Street in New York. It was very crowded there. And somebody shouted.

 

[announcement] I have some very sad news for all of you. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis Tennessee.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I don’t remember what anybody else around me did, but I jumped up, put my purse over my shoulder and took the elevator down or ran down the stairs, and jumped down a subway and got off at 42nd Street.

 

[news clip] Men, women and children poured into the streets. They appeared dazed. Many were crying.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: And I don’t know why I did. I didn’t know that everybody else would do the same thing. But by the time I got there, there were thousands and thousands of people there at Times Square. I was there for hours, and I don’t remember going home after that. I don’t remember anything else about that day except being there and having some solace in a crowd.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: King’s death sets off uprisings across the country, in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and L.A.. The political and moral crisis in America feels like it’s spiraling out of control. Black leaders are being assassinated. The Vietnam War is escalating.

 

[overlapping news clips] Five Americans killed . . . 10 Americans were killed . . . 100 Americans were killed . . . 205 killed . . . 221 South Vietnamese . . . estimated enemy killed: 3,414.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Civil rights activism, the peace movement—nothing seems to be working.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: And the hope and excitement that I learned from working with Dr. King and the organizers on the West Side of Chicago was now being destroyed.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It’s a dark time, maybe a bit like the worst moments of the past few years, when each day seems to bring some new injustice, when it feels like everything around you is getting worse.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: I’m, I’m feeling sick at heart. I’m feeling like the country is taking a terrible turn.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine joins a new group: Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. SDS had been part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and led the first demonstrations against the Vietnam War. They created a nationwide community organizing program, sending students into low-income neighborhoods to fight for housing rights, education reform, and free school lunches. But the organization has its problems, too. Meetings often turn into endless arguments. Smart young white guys arguing with other smart young white guys. Women are doing a ton of the work, but getting very little of the credit. If you saw the Trial of the Chicago Seven movie on Netflix, my mom was portrayed as a pretty girl answering phones back at headquarters, a literal secretary, while Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman led the fight out on the streets. But in real life, Bernardine is a smart and serious as any of the guys. A few years older, with a law degree, and more organizing experience than most. And more than any of them, she’s eager to stop talking and fight back with militant protests, civil disobedience, and direct action.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: You just can’t have these analytical ideas in your mind, you know? Then you’re for sure going to have all male speakers and all male leaders.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: You think male speakers are more likely to get into a kind of intellectualizing passive stance?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Yes. Ideological debates, ad nauseum. You know, very radical wordsmithing, but not something people wanted to be part of.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Within a year, Bernardine is elected Inter-organizational Secretary of SDS, not answering the phones, but actually running the organization, one of three national officers and one of the most prominent female leaders of the New Left.

 

Bill Dyson: There’s no question that when she speaks, people listen.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Special Agent Bill Dyson is assigned to run the FBI wiretaps in Chicago at the time. Like most activist groups, SDS is under constant government surveillance.

 

Bill Dyson: She was a little different. She was a little bit unique. For one thing, extremely intelligent. She was physically attractive. She seemed to be able to wear anything and look good. Would she win a beauty contest? Probably not, but she was just physically attractive, and I think that that made her, when she got in on the stage, people would look up and say, Oh boy, who’s that?

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And this kind of thing annoys my mom, obviously. That her appearance is always such a focus for law enforcement, the media, men like Dyson, and men inside the movement too, who try to reduce her to her looks, and miss the content of what she’s actually trying to say. In 1968, SDS becomes the largest student protest organization in American history. Official membership rises above 100,000 with 350 chapters nationwide.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: The SDS meeting that was called the first week of school couldn’t, people couldn’t get in the doors. They were coming out the windows. They needed a room 20 times bigger.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Thousands more read its newspaper and join in demonstrations. When SDS leads the protests at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley unleashes his riot cops on unarmed demonstrators. Tells his police:

 

[clip of Mayor Daley] . . . to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in their hand in Chicago.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: The police riot radicalizes SDS, turns it from a debate club into an army of militants. And while some members still want to focus on building a peaceful mass movement, Bernardine is determined to channel their rage to up the level of protest and provocation.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] SDS this is not, the movement in this country is not something that exists during the school year, and it’s going to start up again in the fall. And if they have to worry about whether we’re going to be in the streets in the fall. We’re going to be on the streets and in every institution in this country from now.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It all comes to a head at the 1969 SDS Convention in Chicago.

 

[reporter] These are leaders of the nationwide youth organization that calls itself SDS, Students for a Democratic Society.

 

[clip of Mike Klonsky] I’m Mike Klonsky, National Secretary of SDS. And this is Bernardine Dohrn, Inter-organizational Secretary.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine and a group of student activists are out on the street outside the convention hall.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] At SDS, we’ve always been quite willing talk about—

 

[clip of Mike Klonsky] We’ll talk about socialism anywhere. In the streets or in Senate, anywhere, you know?

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Mike Klonsky, one of SDS two other leaders, is talking over her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. They’re having a good time with the reporters, giving this crazy, impromptu press conference, playing to the crowd.

 

[reporter] Is there a communists faction making a big power play for SDS at this—?

 

[clip of Mike Klonsky] Is there any communist back there? [crowd yells, laughing] I guess there is.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: That’s my mom laughing. In fact, the whole thing is kind of funny. Inside, the convention is a circus of counterculture college students. It’s like a model U.N. meeting on acid, a cramped, sweaty auditorium, more than a thousand delegates. People are making speeches, moving and seconding proposals. Others are smoking pot, getting in shoving matches on the convention floor. All of it kind of ridiculously, under Robert’s Rules of Order. And then on the third day, Bernardine is up on stage about to give another speech, when the Black Panthers walk into the hall . . .  in sunglasses, leather jackets, bucket hats. What are they doing there at an SDS meeting?

 

Bernardine Dohrn: It would have been weird to have a national convention in Chicago and to have the Panthers not be invited to speak.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: In other words, she’s invited them.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: You know, it was a time where Black power was ascendant and the line was, you know, you should be a supporter and ally, a revolutionary alongside of us. But you know, your challenge is worse than ours, organize white people. And so that’s what we tried to do.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Not everyone in SDS agreed with this strategy. I’m not going to unpack all the complicated factionalism going on inside the organization at the time. There’s too many acronyms, too many obscure political lines. But the central conflict breaks down into one single existential difference. On one side, PL, progressive labor, believes the revolution will come from the working class, that students should become workers themselves, organize in factories and hotels, help build a broader class consciousness. On the other side is Bernardine.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: You can’t talk about class in the United States without talking about race.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And her group, the Revolutionary Youth Movement, known in SDS as the Action Faction.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: You have to take action, you have to do something.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: They’re trying to follow the example of Black and brown people fighting nationalist struggles overseas to build a small but militant resistance like the Viet Cong, the Cuban Revolution, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, or here at home, the vanguard of the revolution, the Black Panther Party.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: They were rising force, and they were well known, deep, had a radical platform.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: When the Panthers walk into the convention hall, SDS members like Eric Mann and Jeff Jones can feel the energy shift.

 

Eric Mann: They went to the microphone and said, We will judge SDS by the company it keeps and PL is no good.

 

Jeff Jones: That was the dramatic moment, that’s, that, that’s when everything changed.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Chaka Walls, the Panther Deputy Minister of Information, tells the convention the Black Panthers are the vanguard because they’ve shed more blood than anyone. And, referring to PL, these armchair Marxists haven’t even shot rubber bands. Jeff Jones remembers this as a turning point.

 

Jeff Jones: And so, there were hundreds of us in the Coliseum. And what happened at that moment was chaos, confusion. The people affiliated with Progressive Labor began to boo the Panthers. Our position was we follow the leadership of the Black liberation struggle. And so this was a very challenging moment.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Even more challenging, because after Chaka Walls accuses white activists of being useless, dead weight in the struggle, he starts mansplaining the role of women in the revolution. We believe in the freedom of love, he says, In pussy power. Someone asks about the role of women in the movement, and another Panther Jewel Cook says, You sisters have a strategic position in the revolution: prone. Female activists start booing. The place is in an uproar. Mark Rudd, the third SDS national officer, remembers it as a full-blown Cultural Revolution moment.

 

Mark Rudd: So immediately, the Progressive Labor Party kids took out their little red books and held them up and started screaming, you know, Fight male chauvinism! Fight male chauvinism! And so the rest of us held up our little read books and screamed, Fight racism!

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine is on stage at the podium.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: And it was complicated because things were said about women that were not cool. But, you know, things were said about the Black struggle that was cool.

 

Mark Rudd: She has to decide what to do.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: Whenever white people have a choice, you can’t make their choice without thinking about how, how easy it is to not stand up for Black people a given moment. I never felt like I wasn’t choosing women, but I felt that, you know that the essential. American dilemma is white people standing up, not just once, but consistently over time, against the apparatus of Black slavery. Yeah, that’s, that one’s easy for me. In fact, and, not that complicated.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My mom’s a feminist, but she’s never seen women’s equality as separate from anti-racism. If anything, she sees the Panthers, the majority of whom were women, as important feminist allies. Or, as Angela Davis puts it:

 

Angela Davis: She knew exactly how to make those connections long before the term intersectionality had ever been introduced, at a time when we hadn’t yet developed the vocabulary that allowed us to talk about gender issues in a intersectional way. I read some of her communiques, and my reaction was always, you know, Right on.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So Bernardine makes her choice.

 

Jeff Jones: And then there’s a quick little huddle up at the front of the room around the podium, and I was on the periphery of that. Bernardine was at the center of it. And, and the discussion was going back and forth and back and forth. And literally, Bernardine stopped the discussion and she said, There’s no discussion.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] White youth must choose sides now. We must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor!

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: She grabs the mic, says we’re siding with the Panthers. PL is out. If you’re with us, follow me.

 

Jeff Jones: And the place, the place went nuts. It was mainly yelling and, and booing and applauding, and for a lot of us, it was a challenge. That moment was an extremely challenging moment. It was a decisive moment. What were we going to do? Where are we going to follow her lead?

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Many did. Around a third of the delegates left the convention with her. Bernardine’s walkout split SDS into. And in fact, some people, like fellow SDS leader Mark Rudd, have come to see this as the moment the peace movement went bad, the end of the good ’60s, and the beginning of something else.

 

Mark Rudd: We created a split in the anti-war movement around the right to revolutionary violence. It’s bullshit!

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: But from Bernardino’s point of view, the good ’60s hadn’t stopped the war, hadn’t stopped the assassination of Black leaders. She thinks the only way forward is to respond to the intensifying violence from the government, to follow the example of the militant Black liberation struggle and fight back by any means necessary. SDS is not the only radical organization splitting apart at the time. The Panthers are also starting to fracture over similar questions, whether to pursue a mass movement or radical violence, expansion or escalation. We’ll get to that in future episodes. For now, what’s left of SDS after the walkout is a much smaller group. The Action Faction, the hardest of the hardcore, just Bernardine and her most radical comrades. They call themselves Weathermen, after a line from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

 

[Dylan sings] You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blows.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It’s a way of saying the revolution is coming, like it or not. We could tell you, weathermen could tell you, but we don’t even need to, because you can see it with your own eyes. And we’re not going to wait for it, either. We’re going to make it happen.

 

A few weeks after The Weathermen walkout, Bernardine leads a delegation of activists to Havana to see a real revolution up close.

 

[reporter] It was not so long ago that Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, was a different kind of country. [music fades into bombs] Then Castro came and the sounds of joy were submerged by the sound of shooting.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: She’s going to meet up with representatives from the Cuban government and the National Liberation Front in Vietnam.

 

[reporter] About 400 young Americans from various parts of the country were assembling in Boston today to take busses into Canada and there to board a Cuban cattle boat for a trip to Cuba. None of them would say anything about this. They maintain they were going to Canada skiing, but none had any ski equipment and it was confirmed they were going to Cuba.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Vietnamese soldiers have traveled to this meeting all the way from the war’s front lines, up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to catch a flight to Havana via Beijing and Moscow, to meet with these young American activists and try to expand the international coalition against the war. But what the Cubans and Vietnamese most want, it turns out, is for these American kids to convince their parents, many of them members of the country’s ruling elite, to oppose the war, to use their money and influence to put pressure on the US government to get out of Vietnam.

 

Bernardine Dohrn: And we were like, Ugh, do we really have to? We’re not gonna. That’ll take forever.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: The Weathermen are young and impatient. They’ve come to rub elbows with real, live third-world revolutionaries, to learn how to make radical change right now. They spend weeks in a hotel in Havana, attending lectures and watching documentaries, drinking rum by the hotel pool at night, trying to learn from their new friends. In an interview when she was underground, Bernardine talks about her trip to Havana.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] This experience in particular made me a full time revolutionary and really changed my own idea of myself and what the revolution is going to be.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: As SDS’s leader. She’s already on the government’s radar, but the Cuba meeting takes it to a whole other level. By the time she gets back, she’s the focus of an entire FBI investigation. The Bureau’s report from the time is both horrified and hilarious, citing an article called “Cuba: School for U.S. Radicals” “Bernardine Dohrn, mini-skirted Weatherwoman, and 30 fellow activists met with Vietnamese communists in Havana in July 1969 . . . Beyond any doubt, Cuba has shaped, supplied technical training to, given political indoctrination for, and perhaps most important of all, served as inspiration for the American radical movement in its avowed aim to bring down the American system that is so fiercely despises.” The FBI got a lot of things about my parents wrong, but they got a few things right. Nine months after returning from Cuba, my mom would officially declare war on the US government.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Hello, this is Bernardine Dohrn. I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine thought a revolution was coming, another chance to be on the right side of history.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] This is the way we celebrate the example of Eldridge Cleaver and our Black revolutionaries who first inspired us by their fight behind enemy lines for the liberation of their people.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And this time she wasn’t going to miss it.

 

[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Never again will they fight alone.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: This season on Mother Country Radicals, I’m going to take you into the underground to meet the other young revolutionaries, my mom’s friends and fellow travelers, who join her as fugitives and urban guerrillas in the 1970s and early ’80s.

 

Joseph: We called each other comrades and we called each other brothers and sisters.

 

Angela Davis: That was a powerful idea, that there were these white people who really wanted to support the Black liberation movement.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bernardine and her friends would soon brawl with police on the streets of Chicago. They’d bomb government buildings, rob banks, brake comrades out of jail, and stay on the run for more than a decade.

 

[reporter] A bomb exploded earlier this morning in the Pentagon.

 

Bill Dyson: Maybe they had the ability to assassinate president. Maybe they could blow up Congress and kill congressmen, important congressmen.

 

[reporter] She made her break this afternoon from the prison in Clinton, New Jersey, and lawmen once called her the soul of the Black Liberation Army.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: I knew about all that. But it turns out there’s a lot more I didn’t know, parts of the story that are still secret even from me.

 

Bill Ayers: I know some things that I can’t tell you.

 

Stein: I don’t think I want to go there.

 

Whitehorn: Uh, no, I’m not going to talk about that. Sorry.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Uncovering these secrets is sometimes uncomfortable.

 

Boudin: So much experimentation with sex, sex with women, sex with men, sex in orgies.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And sometimes it’s shocking.

 

Jennifer Dohrn: When the head of the FBI in New York City retired, they gave him one pair of my underwear in a glass case as a trophy.

 

Stein: People are starting to bang on the door and start screaming,

 

Jennifer Dohrn: Don’t tell your wife, get in the car. We think we have your daughter’s body here.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: But these secrets reveal things I’d never fully understood. Not just about the past, but about today.

 

Joseph: They were the occupying army. They were the ones that were murdering Black men, women and children.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And about where I came from.

 

Boudin: I was determined to not have being a mother stop me from also being a revolutionary.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn, interviewing: Did you ever take part in actions after I was born while you were still underground?

 

Bill Ayers: I was involved in a few things, and one of them was, in fact, a jailbreak.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Next time, my father’s story.

 

[overlapping news clips] Billy Ayres of the Weatherpeople . . . Talk about Bill Ayers . . . radical Bill Ayers.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: As The Weathermen gear up for a violent street protest, the Days of Rage, they cross new lines, determined to transform themselves from peace activists into hardcore revolutionaries.

 

Stein: There was corruption racism inside of me, and I had an obligation to rid myself of those.

 

Boudin: Or you get whipped more and the more you get whipped, the more you feel like you’re becoming purified.

 

[reporter] They armed themselves with sticks and chains and rocks.

 

[reporter] . . . and rampage through the near north side of the city.

 

Bill Ayers: I can remember actually moments walking down the street and thinking, We’re all going to be dead next year and thinking, Do I want to go through with it and thinking, Yes, I do.

 

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Mother Country Radicals is an original podcast from Audacy and Crooked Media. It’s produced by Dustlight Productions. I’m Zaid Ayers Dohrn, your host, writer, and executive producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Jon Favreau, Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Alison Falzetta, with special thanks to Katie Long. From Dustlight, executive producer is Misha Euceph. Arwen Nicks is our executive editor. Arianna Gharib Lee is our senior producer. Stephanie Cohn is the producer. Thai Jones is our historical consultant. All three also helped with writing on the series. This episode with sound design Arwen Nicks, with help from Ariana Gharib Lee and Misha Euceph. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clausen is the composer. For Audacy, Tim Clarke is head of audio content, Lindsay Grant is head of platform marketing and Brian Swarth leads podcast marketing. Special thanks to Melissa Providence, Lizzie Roberti Denihan, Andy Slate, and Danny Kutrick. Thanks to our development and operations coordinator at Dustlight, Rachel Garcia, apprentice Shomari Kirkwood, and Mark Wilkening and the team at Chicago Recording Company. Mother Country Radicals is an Audacy Original Podcast.