In This Episode
Zayd’s father Bill Ayers joins the Weathermen, and he and his friends teach themselves to be revolutionaries, gearing up to build bombs and brawl with police on the streets of Chicago
For more of the story, check out:
- Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers (1966)
- Carlos Marighella, The Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969)
Chapter 2: Days of Rage
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals:
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Hello, this is Bernardine Dohrn. I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: My mom becomes an activist and a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student protest organization in American history.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] SDS is not, and 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. We’re gonna to be on the streets, and in every state in the country from now on.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And then she splits the organization apart.
Jeff Jones: 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: In the summer of 1969, Bernardine is 27-years old, just back from her trip to Havana. She and the new radical Weatherman organization are ready to build a revolution here in America.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] This is the way we celebrate the example of Black revolutionaries who first inspired us by their fight behind enemy lines for the liberation of their people. Never again will they fight alone.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: At this point, the leader of the Illinois Black Panthers is Chairman Fred Hampton. Fred is just 20-years old, six years younger than Bernardine, but he’s already an important figure in the movement. She looks up to him. All the Weathermen do
Bernardine Dohrn: You know, he’s the boss. He was the leader.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Fred’s office is just a few blocks from hers on the west side of Chicago, and SDS is part of Fred’s Rainbow Coalition of activist groups.
[clip of Fred Hampton] A lot of people don’t understand the Black Panther Party’s relationship with white mother country radicals. But what we’re saying is there are white people in the mother country that are of the same type of things we are for. And we’ve said we will work with anybody, and form a coalition with anybody, that has revolution on their mind.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: The Panthers use SDS’s printing press for their fliers. They speak at each other’s meetings, share what they know about good lawyers and potential undercover cops. They’re friends, comrades. And by 1969, the Panthers are under attack from the police and the FBI, targeted with illegal surveillance, arrests, even violence. Bernardine wants her newly formed Weatherman group to do something, anything to help.
Bernardine Dohrn: We call it opening another front, you know, pulling in the attention of the Chicago police away from the Panthers.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So she calls for a big national action, the “Bring the war home” demonstration, later known as the Days of Rage. Thousands of young radicals will converge on Chicago, ready to take to the streets and fight the cops, take over downtown, the shopping district of the Magnificent Mile, and show the world America’s children are opening up another front of the war, here at home. This is Chapter 2: Days of Rage.
My mom is an important part of this story, but I haven’t yet mentioned my dad and he’s a big part of it too. So I’m going to back up for a second here to introduce him, even though to most people, he’s probably the most familiar name in the group, which is still surprising to me because he wasn’t as well-known as my mom for most of my childhood. He was a teacher, a writer, a professor of education. She was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. My dad was more low-profile. Wanted, but not most wanted. That all changed in 2001, when he published a memoir, “Fugitive Days” about his years underground. The New York Times ran a profile to coincide with the book’s launch. It had a picture of my parents on the steps of our row house under the headline “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.” What he actually said in the interview was, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” The date: September 11th, 2001. It got a lot of coverage on Fox News.
[overlapping fox clips] Talk about Bill Ayers . . . Radical Bill Ayers . . . Bill Ayers of the Weather people . . . the man behind one of the most violent radical groups of the 1960s and ’70s . . . unrepentant about bombing the Pentagon, the Capitol, New York City police headquarters.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And then in 2008, at the height of the presidential primary campaign, the story got even bigger. Hillary Clinton attacked Barack Obama during a debate over his connection to my father, that Obama had held one of his early fundraisers in our living room, and that he and my dad had served on the board of a nonprofit together
[clip of Hillary Clinton] . . . his reported comments, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more. And what they did was set bombs, and in some instances, people died.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And then when Barack won the primary, Sarah Palin got in on the act.
[clip of Sarah Pain] Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country. [boos]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: David Axelrod, who managed Obama’s campaign, says Barack saw it coming.
David Axelrod: He understood what his relationship was with Bill and Bernardine. Barack was friendly with them. We weren’t going to run away from that. They wanted to turn him into a scary, radical Black man. And so Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers—famous names from the radical past were resurfaced for that purpose.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Of course, very few people outside the politically plugged-in campaigns had any idea who William Ayers actually was. What made him a terrorist? Why was he unrepentant? And what was he supposed to be repenting for? My dad is very different from my mom. If she’s reserved, strong-willed and intense, he’s the opposite: outgoing, talkative and playful. He’s good with kids. A born teacher. In fact, he was my teacher. When we were underground, I went to this scruffy alternative daycare on the Upper West side of Manhattan called BJ’s kids.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: That’s us singing about how witches are actually good—midwives and wise women. It was that kind of school, and that’s me unable to carry a tune.
[kid sings] It’s a treasure to share. [song continues]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And Bill, because he needed a job, because they didn’t ask for a Social Security number, because he wanted to stay close to me and my little brother maybe, maybe because he’d once been a teacher himself, he took a job at the daycare. So those are my first memories of him, sitting on the carpet, a bunch of toddlers crowded around reading books, singing songs. I remember him being happiest, most at ease, most himself, when he was teaching. But of course, teaching was just his day job. We were still underground. He’d been a full-time revolutionary for over a decade. Outside of school, Bill taught me how to recognize FBI agents and undercover police. If you see a white guy and a Black guy together in an unmarked car in Harlem, definitely cops. See how the car has a fancy antenna, but no hubcaps or chrome strip down the side? That’s NYPD. They buy in bulk, stripped down. Souped-up radios, but nothing ornamental. So if I noticed a car like that on our block, I was supposed to let my parents know right away.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, interviewing: I remember when I was a kid, I must have been about five or six. I didn’t even know at that time, really, that you guys had planted bombs or any of the rest of it, but I remember asking you if you’d ever been in a fight and you said Yes. And I said, Did you ever punch anybody? And you said, Yes. And I was shocked by that. And partly, I remember it because I remember your response, like, you didn’t really want to talk about it. And you know, for me, picturing my dad hitting somebody was kind of hard to imagine. Do you remember what you were talking about there?
Bill Ayers: I don’t. But, but the contradiction that you felt me experiencing is familiar to me, and it’s familiar to you as a father now. Because what you want to do is be both honest with your children and you want to protect your children. You want them to know something about the world, but you don’t want them to know too much too soon. And so every one of us finds ways to lie to our children.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So there’s a mystery, even for me, how to reconcile the person I know, I’ve always known: fun loving, easygoing—with William Ayres, unrepentant terrorist. How does a born teacher turn himself into a revolutionary? So in this episode, we’re going to follow Bill and the Weatherman as they go back to school. To learn how idealistic young people, students, schoolteachers, Quakers, and community activists—teach themselves to be revolutionaries. How they gear up for the Days of Rage protest and get ready to brawl with riot cops on the streets of Chicago. The process was a bit ridiculous and also deadly serious, and it explains a lot, not just about my family, but about the process of radicalization itself. How ordinary people can be taught to do something they weren’t born to, made capable of action they never even imagined. And how easy it is to lose yourself, to be swept away by the crowd and do something you regret. Because trust me, everyone has regrets. Even an unrepentant terrorist.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: In 1965, while my mom is in Chicago, hearing Dr. King speak for the first time, my dad, Bill Ayers, is a student at the University of Michigan and the son of a corporate executive. He’s just 20-years old when he’s arrested for the first time in Ann Arbor for protesting the Vietnam War. He spends 10 days in county jail.
Bill Ayers: While I was locked up, I met a man whose wife was part of a group that had started a small freedom school affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement, and it sounded intriguing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Most people, after spending a week and a half in a cell, would probably want to take a nap or a shower. But the first thing Bill does when he gets out is visit this school and he’s drawn in by the kids right away.
Bill Ayers: But what captivated me was their energy, their enthusiasm, their open mindedness. They weren’t anybody’s, you know, project to improve. One of the things I remember vividly is that I came out of that first morning with green paint all over my face and my glasses, and my glasses had green paint on them for the next year and a half or two years, until I got a new pair. I was marked from the beginning.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: He drops out of college, starts working at the Ann Arbor School as a teacher full time. And at the same time, he meets a girl.
Bill Ayers: She was three years older than me and she seemed to carry herself with a lot of authority and experience.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It’s not my mom. Diana Oughton is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, just back from volunteering with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker version of the Peace Corps. She’s been teaching in indigenous communities in Guatemala. She started teaching at the Free School, too. The kids love her.
Bill Ayers: Every picture I have in my memory is a picture of Diana sitting in a corner or against a wall with five kids piled on her. Kids were drawn to her. She was warm, she was kind, she was gentle, and she was beautiful.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: She’s also hardworking and unpretentious. She’s always in a t-shirt and jeans, spattered with paint, just like Bill.
Bill Ayers: And we were coworkers for a long time before we became lovers.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Eric Mann was friends with both of them at the time.
Eric Mann: You know that Diana and Bill both came from very wealthy families, right, and kind of ruling class families. And they were both wasps. And what’s funny about is when I met them, there were very joyous. I mean, they really were into this yay kid stuff. You know?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: He means teaching. Diana has a button made to wear on her jacket that says “Kids are only newer people.” And she hands them out to the other teachers and staff at the school. It sounds exactly like the kind of thing my dad would say, the kind of button he would wear. And also like him, Diana can be uncompromising. Eric remembers one time they went to a restaurant.
Eric Mann: Something happened that they thought was racist.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Maybe somebody says something or a Black family doesn’t get seated quickly enough. In any case, Bill and Diana react.
Eric Mann: So they said, All right, we’re getting out of here to protest racism. And the waitress came out and said wait a minute, You didn’t pay. And I said, We got to go back and pay them. That’s not right. I mean, you can’t protest racism by not paying your bill. And Diana says that she has to pay for racism, white people have to pay for racism.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: There’s also a third member of their little group of teachers, Terry Robbins, who would become my dad’s best friend. And even compared to the rest of them, Terry is hard core.
Bill Ayers: Terry had an intensity that was just shattered glass.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: He’s manic, never sleeping, reading everything.
Bill Ayers: He wore glasses. He always had a cigarette in his mouth, and he was generally speaking, moving fast, and always straight ahead. I’ll tell you one story that stands out for me, but Terry is that, you know, we would argue about things all the time.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It’s 1966. They’re staying at a dorm one night for a political meeting in Iowa. They’re both part time organizers as well as teachers by this point. And Bill and Terry disagree about what role white activists should have in the Black freedom movement. Terry says white people have every right to be leaders, to identify problems in communities and help fix them.
Bill Ayers: The idea that somehow you’re going to be the helper and the savior and not and not understand that the people with the problems are the people with the solutions, struck me as weird.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So they go back and forth on this for a while. Finally, Bill is worn out. He turns off the lights, goes to sleep, but Terry stays up.
Bill Ayers: He was gnawing on the problem and really, really sweating it out.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And by the time Bill wakes up in the morning:
Bill Ayers: First thing he said to me is I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to have to not just organize myself out of a job, but organize myself out of my life.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: To me, this sounds dark, but Bill thinks it’s funny. Terry’s like that, all about the grand gestures. We have to do more, sacrifice more. Pretty soon their little group, Bill and Diana and Terry, they don’t have time for teaching anymore. Bill’s the director of the Freedom School by this point, but he’s so busy organizing against the war, he stops paying attention to upkeep and fundraising. And by 1968, the school shuts down. And this seems like a key moment to me that he chooses to give up the thing he loves most, the thing he’s best at. He’s young, idealistic. He wants to make a better world, but teaching does that too, right? Unambiguously, nonviolently. So why walk away from that?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, interviewing: Did it feel like a loss that you were no longer teaching.
Bill Ayers: I think there was a sense of loss, but also a sense of purpose. We used to always think, you know, we’re well-known, we Americans, for loving our children. We love them so much and we don’t give a damn about anybody else’s children. You know, and then thinking about Vietnamese children and they were also children, and they also deserve to live, and our country was destroying them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So this is the big leap. You spend your days taking care of kids, kids who are well-fed, safe, and protected, and at the same time, you know your government is killing kids just like them on the other side of the world. And if you really believe those kids are just as important, just as precious, maybe teaching feels like it’s just not enough. So now, Bill, Diana, and Terry are full-time activists. They join SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, helping to organize against the war, and they’re part of the 1969 SDS Convention when Bernardine leads her walkout, part of the new Weatherman faction. They all decide, to be real revolutionaries, we have to get more militant, harder-edged, get rid of our softness, our gentleness.
Bill Ayers: And so what we were doing was trying to learn how to fight so that we could fight white supremacy, and not just this or that individual racist, but a whole system. And so we knew we had to be tougher than we were.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Eric Mann could tell something about his friends had changed.
Eric Mann: One thing that’s interesting about both Diana and Terry, actually, is they were, when I first met them, they were very kind people, you know, very funny and open. And they did get hardened. They did feel after a while like other people must pay.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Remember, white people have to pay for racism? Now it’s “other people must pay.” And this seems important to me too, because there is something seductive about that feeling of righteousness, when you feel like you’re the ones doing the work, you’re on the front lines, so it must be the other white people, the racist white people, who have to settle your debt. So this is where we left off with my mom, in the summer of 1969. Bernardine has just called for a big militant protest, the Days of Rage action, and Bill gives a speech laying out the plan.
[clip of Bill Ayers] This fall in Chicago we will lead massive demonstrations against the war, in support of the Black Panther Party, and in solidarity with all political prisoners.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: There’s just one problem:
Bill Ayers: We didn’t have a roadmap for how to do it. We really barely had any models. We looked to the Third World to see what we could pick up. So we began to do things like learn how to do karate and learn how to shoot pistols and learn how to make smoke bombs and learn how to make dynamite bombs.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: As they prepare for the upcoming Days of Rage protests, the Weathermen dedicate themselves to training full time. They read books, “The Wretched of the Earth” “On Guerrilla Warfare”, “The Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla.” They watch films too. The Battle of Algiers [clip plays] Bonnie and Clyde [clip plays], Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [clip plays] —all about outlaw rebels going out in a blaze of glory. But they need practice too, like real-world experience, so they pieced together a sort of DIY training program.
Bill Ayers: You know, partly you educate yourself to be a street fighter by being a street fighter. We’d be up at 5:30 in the morning in a public park practicing karate, and, you know, older women would be walking by kind of looking at us patronizingly.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Kind of a funny image, a bunch of wannabe revolutionaries, skinny kids dressed in secondhand clothes, jogging around, doing martial arts in the park. It’s like urban guerilla cosplay. But Weatherwoman Kathy Boudin says this was basically a full time job.
Kathy Boudin: We said that you can only sleep every other night because we have so much to do and so much change to make in ourselves.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Most of it is mental work, rethinking every part of their lives, what they read, what they eat, even who they sleep with.
Kathy Boudin: There was just so much experimentation with sex—sex with women, sex with men, sex in orgies—all of that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Many Weathermen have dropped out of college. These are still their undergraduate years. And these are kids who’d grown up in the 1950s, with all the boring expectations about gender roles, monogamy, no sex until marriage.
Eleanor Stein: For me and I think for many other women, it was kind of a freeing experience.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Eleanor Stein is a cadre member in New York. When she joins Weathermen, she’s married to her teenage sweetheart.
Kathy Boudin: Relationships with men, and how much power men had over us in big ways and small ways, had limited us.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: For Eleanor, smashing monogamy is a feminist gesture. It shows her being married isn’t something you have to do just because you’re a woman. You have agency. You can do what you want.
Eleanor Stein: And I left a relationship. It was voluntary. I wasn’t forced to do it, but I was, I was pushed to do it. I don’t look back on that as a terrible thing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: But for others like Cathy Wilkerson, the sexual free-for-all feels oppressive.
Cathy Wilkerson: It was confusing because a lot of Weathermen were women, so it was not immediately apparent to me the profound kind of sexism that existed in it. Men could sleep with whoever they wanted to whenever they wanted to, basically.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So while free love sounds great on paper, in Weathermen, it could veer into dark territory. Some members feel pressured. Others who are coming out as queer feel judged. But to many Weathermen, sex with comrades builds a bond, breaks down the selfishness of individuality, makes you part of the collective. It is a bit ridiculous, but there’s also something serious about people dedicated to changing the world starting that process by changing themselves. They want to be serious, they just don’t know how. How do you transform yourselves, get rid of your bourgeois hang-ups, your racist or sexist upbringing and unconscious bias? For the Weathermen, they take another page from international revolutionaries.
Eric Mann: The concept of criticism, self-criticism came out of the Chinese Communist Party.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Eric Mann, Bill’s friend from SDS, now leads the Boston chapter of Weathermen.
Eric Mann: It’s actually a healthy part of every organization, evaluating your work, owning up to your own mistakes—that’s all good. But that wasn’t what this is about, let’s be very clear.
Eleanor Stein: You’d be in the living room of somebody’s apartment. They were probably anywhere from 20 to 40 people there.
Eric Mann: And one poor person in the middle.
Eleanor Stein: It was crowded. It was sweaty. It was scary.
Eric Mann: And usually would be me or somebody leading the interrogation.
Eleanor Stein: I know I found myself, several times, sitting in the middle of the room on a chair with a circle of people around me asking me these devastating questions.
Eric Mann: It would start out heavy and get heavier and heavier and heavier.
Jeff Jones: Anything that you might consider a bourgeois hang up would be criticized because it would be holding you back.
Eleanor Stein: There were questions about money, for example.
Eric Mann: Is that not your white privilege?
Eleanor Stein: We saw you going into a movie,
Eric Mann: is it not, I don’t say it’s racism, but it may be bordering on it.
Eleanor Stein: You were seen.
Eric Mann: People were dying in Vietnam and you did this, and then everybody would jump in and people would use some personal stuff that they knew about you, you know, against you.
Cathy Wilkerson: Like, I was the scum of the Earth.
[overlapping voices] . . . privilege, counter-revolutionary, sexist pig, bourgeois self.
Eric Mann: And generally the person sort of shrinks into the chair.
Eleanor Stein: I felt that it was absurd and that there was no reason why I had to sit there and be subjected to this.
Eric Mann: And then the group would forgive them, like Catholicism.
Kathy Boudin: You know, where you get whipped more, and the more you get whipped, the more you feel like you’re becoming purified.
Eric Mann: I have sinned and I realize all the error of my ways.
Cathy Wilkerson: You just destroy somebody and take them apart, and then you put them back together again in your model.
Eleanor Stein: I subscribed at the time to the ethic that there was corruption, racism inside of me and that I had an obligation to rid myself of those, and that going through this collective process was part of it.
Eric Mann: You know, I mean, that would be the end of a successful criticism, self-criticism, and the person would be crying, deeply apologetic. And then, of course, then everybody could be so supportive because the person had no, didn’t have a leg to stand on, no self-respect.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Bill was involved in all this on both sides. Sometimes he was the one leading the sessions and sometimes he was the target.
Bill Ayers: One day after the morning routine, a woman and I, a comrade and I went to a movie and went and got ice cream and I read a poem. I read a poem by Brecht. “So you come after, when man can love their fellow man, remember, we made a lot of mistakes, but we lived in the dark ages” and at the collective house that night, the criticism turned to me and she brought it up, and she said he read me this fucking poem, we had ice cream, I’m critical of myself, but I’m mostly critical of him. Fucking Brecht.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: I mean, what’s wrong with that?
Bill Ayers: What’s wrong with it is it was soft. I mean, how dare you? You know, get busy and get down to Earth and and don’t be a wimp who’s kind of saying forgive me for my harshness. Get harsh, motherfucker! And that was heartbreaking, and I immediately said, thank you for your encouragement and got right back in line.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What’s striking to me now is how different this is from the way he talks about teaching. As a teacher, as a parent, my dad’s always been about freedom, letting kids experiment, letting me experiment, trying to encourage risk-taking and creativity. And criticism, self-criticism is the opposite. It’s about breaking someone down, erasing individuality. Like basic training or hazing in a fraternity, or the worst of today’s call out culture, pointing out errors in orthodoxy, deviations from the group. To me, it seems like the opposite of good teaching. It doesn’t help people learn or grow, just forces them to conform. Eric Mann agrees the criticism, self-criticism sessions were a mistake. But he also sees it another way.
Eric Mann: So what? Did you die? I mean, yes, you know, people were, they’re shooting Black kids today. Today. All over the place. That’s the worst you had, was a bad self-criticism session? You know, get over it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: He has a point. Well, the Weathermen are busy changing themselves, their Black and brown allies are being arrested, threatened with violence, harassed by police and the FBI. Fred Hampton and the Panthers are just trying to figure out how to survive. And with the Days of Rage protest just days away, Bill and the other Weathermen can feel the stakes are rising.
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: The Weathermen have promised to bring the war home. So it stands to reason the first action has to start with something big, something dramatic, something the police can’t ignore. It starts with a bomb.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Terry carried around an old clipping from a 1947 Life magazine. He liked to show people. I have a copy of it with me now. It’s a news story about a five-year old kid, Marion Delgado, who derailed a train by putting a slab of cement on the tracks. A kid’s prank, but it knocked this train off the tracks, damaged a Western Pacific railroad engine. And in the picture, it doesn’t look like an accident. This kid, Marion Delgado, hunches over a railroad track holding up a chunk of concrete, and he’s grinning into the camera. He’s proud of himself. All under the headline “Boy Wrecks Train.” Terry loved it. For him, the kid became a kind of lunatic mascot, an icon of anarchistic mayhem. “Marion Delgado,” Terry would say, “live like him.” This became a Weatherman signature, an inside joke, part of the lingo, their founding myth, a code word. You could call somebody on the phone and say, This is Marion Delgado, and the person on the other end would know right away you were part of that group. But that all comes later. In 1969, what Marion Delgado means to Terry and Bill is simple: you don’t need an army—just one kid with a well-placed rock could take down the entire system. Terry comes up with an idea. He wants to blow up one of Chicago’s most notorious monuments to police power, this big bronze statue of an old timey cop standing on top of a 12-foot marble pedestal in Haymarket Square, a memorial to the confrontation between police and radical anarchists a century earlier. The cop has a mustache, old-fashioned custodian helmet, his hand raised like he’s saying, Halt. The inscription on the pedestal reads, “In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.” When Terry suggests blowing it up, everyone in the group is into it right away.
Bill Ayers: So we had joked about it for years that we were going to knock that statue over. But bringing down a statue is hard. You can’t just put a rope around its neck and pull it down, usually. It’s in concrete. It’s bolted down.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So as usual for this bunch of college kids, they start studying.
Bill Ayers: In terms of making bombs, I mean, I honestly think that we were learning from looking at a textbook.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: It is a literal textbook. “The Blasters Handbook, 15th edition.” I have a copy of this, too. It’s put out by the DuPont Chemical Company, intended for commercial use by construction and coal mining firms. And it advertises itself with the Don Draper-style tagline, “From America’s oldest explosives company come the newest explosive ideas.” A few of the Weathermen start reading up and they assemble this crude device about the size of a flashlight.
Bill Ayers: We had a few sticks of dynamite. They looked like highway flares and we had these blasting caps that look like little aluminum things with wires sticking out of them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Finally, they’re ready . . . they think. October 6th, 1969, two nights before the Days of Rage protest. My dad’s not there for this action. Neither is Diana. But what Terry tells them is he and three other Weathermen drive out to the Haymarket statue. They park five blocks away around 10 p.m..
Bill Ayers: There was nobody on the street. It was a very isolated industrial part of town.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Terry acts as lookout. The others walk up to the base of the statue.
Bill Ayers: One of them cups his hands, gives the foot boost to the other one, who puts the device at the feet of the cop, jumps back down.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And once they light the fuse, they have only a few minutes to get away, and they take off running. They’re worried, this is their first time. They don’t really know what they’re doing. What if they’ve miscalculated? What if the explosion is too big or too small, or it doesn’t go off at all? They get inside the car, slam the doors, and then . . . they feel it before they hear it. The dynamite shatters windows for blocks around and knocks the statue off its pedestal. To this day, my dad calls the Haymarket action and all Weathermen bombings “extreme vandalism”—not terrorism. They’re targeting objects, not people. And it’s true no one was hurt by the bomb, but it’s also true that dynamite is different from pulling down a statue with ropes and chains or even putting a piece of concrete on a train track. This isn’t vandalism. It crosses a line. It’s meant to cross a line. Chicago police hold a press conference.
[clip of police spokesman] And we wonder now what will happen. Now it’s a statue. Will it be a policeman performing his duty tomorrow, or what?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And for the protesters making their way to Chicago, the young people the Weathermen have been working all year to recruit, they wake up on October 7th to headlines about an explosion, a dynamite bomb. And they have to decide, Is this really something I want to be a part of? So the next day, Bill leaves his apartment, heading to the rallying spot for the first day of the protest. He meets Diana at the park. They’re expecting a big crowd.
Bill Ayers: At least a few thousand people. And we look into the park. It’s around dusk. And as we’re approaching, we see lines of police there in city busses. They’re congregated on street corners. There’s a line of police around the park, seems like thousands of police, backing those police up.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And part of them is thinking, OK, well, maybe we’ll still be fine. There are a lot of police, but there are going to be thousands of protesters too.
Bill Ayers: There’s something like two or 300 people. It’s a feeling of depression, a feeling of the wind getting knocked out of you is overwhelming, because I thought we were going to go to battle with several troops. And then I realize, Oh my God, we’re going to battle with just us.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And this, of course, is the result of emphasizing escalation over inclusion, splitting SDS, criticism, self-criticism, insisting only the most militant people are welcome—you find yourselves outnumbered and alone.
Bill Ayers: It’s kind of a telling moment because part of me wants to run and give up. And part of me says we cannot give up at this point.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So a few hundred activists gathered in the park. For all their training, they’re still just scared kids. Most have never been in a fight before. A few wear helmets, others have on football shoulder pads, cups, and jockstraps for protection. Everyone’s looking around hoping more people will show up, but it looks like this is it. Tom Hayden, one of the Chicago 7 and co-founder of SDS, tells the Weathermen he’s with them in spirit. But then he heads home. He won’t be there for the action. Then Jeff Jones, this California surfer type, tall, blond, and handsome, gets up on a bench and he says:.
Jeff Jones: I am Marion Delgado.
Bill Ayers: And we rush out of Lincoln Park heading down to the Gold Coast and we’re roaring down the street.
[news clips] 200 hardcore members of SDS took to the streets . . . they armed themselves with sticks and chains and rocks . . . and rampage through the near north side of this city.
Bill Ayers: I see bank windows crashing. People have Billy clubs that are smashing windows. And every window that smashed a sense of elation rushes through me and through the whole crowd.
[shout] Power to the people!
Bill Ayers: And every time a window breaks, I feel my legs go into overdrive. We’d see a line of police and aren’t exactly sure what to do. And we just plow right into them. They are as shocked as I am. We’ve gone wild. We aren’t arrested that night. And so we live to fight another day. But that night, I’m not sleeping at all because I’m going to the safe houses that we’ve organized. I’m finding one comrade with a shotgun wound in her leg, several comrades with their heads split open. That was the first night of the Days of Rage. And it went on for four days.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: By the end of the week, pretty much everyone who participated is in jail: Jeff, Diana, Bernardine. Lots of broken bones, cuts, some gunshot wounds. Mayor Daley is furious.
[clip of Mayor Daley] What right does anyone to walk down the street with a chain in their hand, or a club, which we saw last night used in the police, or an iron pipe? You know quite well that they’re not playing hockey, unless they’re playing hockey with someone’s head.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And Black Panther leader Fred Hampton isn’t happy either. He tells ABC News:
[clip of Fred Hampton] We think it is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, it’s chauvinistic, it’s Custer-istic, and that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custer-istic in that its leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred, and they call it revolution.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: When Mayor Daley and Fred Hampton agree on something, that’s pretty much a unanimous verdict. Even my dad is ambivalent. When he looks back now on the Days of Rage, as a parent and as a teacher, he feels like maybe he missed a warning sign.
Bill Ayers: I remember saying to you again and again as a teenager, Beware of the crowd. Because it will allow you to do things like hurt women or like insult people on the street, or—because you’re in a crowd and you’re goofing with each other. But the other thing is, the crowd let you be brave in a way that you couldn’t be brave on your own. And I think again and again of the civil rights actions I was involved in, we would gather in churches in Cleveland and Detroit, and we would sing and we would bond and we would be a group. And then I could go out into the street more fearless than I actually am. I’m a naturally peaceful person and I don’t relish any of this stuff, but I think that there’s something good about being in the crowd, about being comrades shoulder to shoulder with others. And there’s something potentially absolutely destructive about it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: The Weathermen are heading into a new stage. Pretty much everyone has charges against them after the Days of Rage. But they have too much to do now.
Bill Ayers: We were determined not to spend another minute on trials. We didn’t want to raise money, we didn’t want to pay lawyers. So we said to ourselves, we have to know how to get ID. We have to figure out how to have safe houses.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: They’re making plans to go underground, to build a clandestine revolutionary organization, a series of cells scattered across the country, to fight back against the government using more militant tactics. But before they can do that, they have to cut ties to their lives, their careers, their families. Bill goes out to dinner with his father. He can’t tell him exactly what’s about to happen, but my grandpa Tom, he has a sense.
Bill Ayers: And we had a very stressful conversation. He was almost in tears. And he said, You’re on the brink of something terrible. He didn’t know we were going underground, I didn’t exactly know either, but I knew we were in the sights of the FBI and I knew we were—and I knew he knew that we were in deep trouble and could be in even deeper trouble. And he begged me not to take the next step.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: I think about what my dad said to me: you don’t want your kids to know too much too soon. And this feels like the opposite, like his dad is trying desperately to tell his son what he knows, as an adult, to stop him from making a life-altering mistake before it’s too late. A year later, the police monument in Haymarket Square was blown off its pedestal again. This time by a much bigger bomb, a high-velocity explosive that ripped off both its legs and sent them flying across the freeway. The explosion could be heard from miles that night. The Chicago Tribune received an anonymous call from somebody calling himself Mr. Weatherman. “We just blew up the Haymarket Square statue for the second time to show our allegiance to our brothers in the New York prisons and our Black brothers everywhere. This is another phase of our revolution to overthrow our racist and fascist society. Power to the people.” ‘Bring the war home’ had started as a slogan, a metaphor. We have to show people what it’s like to have war-like violence on the streets of an American city. But the metaphor had taken on a life of its own, its own momentum, its own imperative. Once you accepted the logic of constant escalation, it was hard to know where to stop. The U.S. was dropping more than 2,000 tons of bombs every day on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, ultimately killing more than a million Vietnamese—men, women and children. So what would it mean to bring that war home, here, into the mother country? It meant their next target wouldn’t be a statue.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Next time on Mother Country Radicals: The FBI comes after The Weathermen and the Panthers and the two groups have to find a way forward together.
Joseph: We called each other comrades and we call each other brothers and sisters.
Angela: We know now from the documents that have been revealed that there was an explicit design to destroy the Black Panther Party.
[clip of Fred Hampton] If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not to struggle, then God damn it, you don’t deserve to win.
[news clips] In New York City, 21 members of the Black Panthers have been indicted, and the police said they’d broke up an elaborate plan for destruction.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And the loss of one of their friends sends The Weathermen in a new, more dangerous direction.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was in a rage at the absolute stench of American life.
Satchel: And it was only a matter of seconds, less than five seconds, that I heard shots
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] For people to be able to enjoy Christmas time in this country without taking action about a blatant murder that takes place in this city against the revolutionary Black leader, it’s an obscenity!
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Mother Country Radicals is an original podcast from Audacy and Crooked Media. It’s produced by Dustlight Productions. I’m Zayd 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. Ariana 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 was sound designed by Stephanie Cohn. 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, Lizzy Roberti Denihan, Andy Slater, and Danny Kutrick. Thanks to our development and operations coordinator at Dustlight, Rachael Garcia, apprentice Shomari Kirkwood and Mark Wilkening, and the team at Chicago Recording Company. Mother Country Radicals is an Audacy Original Podcast.