In This Episode
Jamal Joseph is radicalized at 15, and joins the New York Black Panthers. And a deadly attack by Chicago Police puts both Panthers and Weathermen on a path towards violent revolution.
For more of the story, check out:
- Jamal Joseph, Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention (2012)
- Stanley Nelson, The Black Panther Party: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016)
Chapter 3: I am a Revolutionary
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously, on Mother Country Radicals:
[clip of Fred Hampton] A lot of people don’t understand the Black Panther Party’s relationship with white mother country radicals. What we’ve saying is they are white people in the mother country that are of the same type of things that we are for.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My dad and his friends dedicate themselves full time to becoming revolutionaries.
Bill Ayers So we began to do things like learn how to do karate and learn how to shoot pistols and learn how to make dynamite bombs.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Weathermen plan a protest, The Days of Rage, to draw the attention of law enforcement away from the Black Panthers, who are being targeted by police.
[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.
[clip of CBS News] Two hundred hardcore members of SDS took to the streets.
[clip of NBC News] They armed themselves with sticks and chains and rocks.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois Panthers, and Weathermen role model, disavows the protest.
[clip of Fred Hampton] We think it is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, and chauvinistic. It’s, uh, Custer-istic. And that’s the bad part about it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Still, behind the scenes, the two groups are working together, sharing resources, trying to figure out a way forward to keep up the resistance, and turn it into a revolution. In 1969, after The Days of Rage protests, most Weathermen are already under indictment, many nursing injuries from the riots, concussions, broken bones, and gunshot wounds. My parents are both charged with conspiracy to violate the Federal Anti-riot Act. My mom is also charged with assault on a police officer because when a cop grabbed her in the chaos, she kneed him in the balls. And the police are furious.
Bernardine Dohrn: It just was all happening very fast. I, who hadn’t been arrested ever in my life, was suddenly arrested almost weekly–boom, boom, boom, boom, like that, very fast in this period. Police were after us. They were following us. They were stopping me whenever I was in the car.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: One night, a bunch of detectives break into a member’s apartment for a round of questioning. They hang him by his ankles from a third story window. Other Weathermen arrested at a demonstration in the fall are taken to a precinct where police officers stick revolvers in their mouths, force them to watch their friend get pistol whipped until he has multiple skull fractures and his face is covered in blood. In a way, they had succeeded in their goal of drawing police attention away from Black activist groups. But it isn’t enough. In 1969 alone, police killed 27 Black Panthers, arrest 700 others. Angela Davis says it was government policy at the time.
Angela Davis: And we know now from the documents that have been revealed that there was an explicit design to destroy the Black Panther Party.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: J. Edgar Hoover, who said my mom was the most dangerous woman in America, calls the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and assigns thousands of agents to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize them. The Panthers are under attack, and some Panthers are willing, even eager to fight back. Like SDS, the Black Panther Party is in the process of splitting into factions over questions of revolutionary violence. What comes next? How far are we willing to go? Are we building a mass movement or a militant armed resistance? And just like the Weathermen, there are some Panthers inside the larger organization who want to escalate that conflict, bring the war home. The Panthers break up would ultimately give rise to their own radical splinter faction, the Black Liberation Army, or BLA, a group that would shape the future of the Weathermen and my family for decades to come, a group so important to my parents, they named me after one of its members, Zayd Malik Shakur, who was killed in a shootout with New Jersey state troopers a few years before I was born. When I was a kid and my mom went to jail, she was locked up in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center alongside a group of BLA members, Zayd’s comrades and friends, all of them, including my mom, alleged accomplices to the same crime.
Jamal Joseph: We called each other comrades, and we called each other brothers and sisters.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal Joseph is a member of the New York Panthers, and later the Black Liberation Army, one of those who was locked up with my mom in MCC.
Jamal Joseph: And so we would hear about things that the Weather Underground in the white underground was doing in solidarity to the attacks that were happening in particular to the Black Panther Party. And we felt like right on.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So the New York Panthers, the people who would form the core of the BLA, are important to this story, important in ways that weren’t clear to me before I started working on this project. When historians write about white militants, they spend a lot of time trying to understand what makes them tick, what radicalizes them, but the motivations of Black revolutionaries are often treated as a given as if Black radicalism is natural, not requiring explanation. But not everyone chooses to be a revolutionary. It’s an unusual path, no matter what your skin color. And while the stories of Black and white radicals are different, there are also surprising points of contact, threads of connection. So what leads Jamal Joseph into the underground? And how would he and my mom, two people with very different experiences of America, be radicalized by the same tragedy, and wind up jailed together after the same crime?
This is chapter 3: I Am a Revolutionary.
Long before he ever met my parents, Jamal Joseph, called Eddie at the time, is a 15-year old kid growing up in the Bronx with his grandma, whom he calls Noonie. And April 4th, 1968 is a turning point in his life. Jamal is at a youth center in Harlem after school. He’s doing his homework, talking to friends, it’s like any other day. He heads home that evening towards his grandma’s house, but:
[clip of Walter Cronkite] But there was shock in Harlem tonight when word of Dr. King’s murder reached the nation’s largest Negro community.
Jamal Joseph: I heard sounds of people yelling and screaming and saw some fires, and so I ventured on to 125th Street, and got caught up in the middle of the rebellion.
[news clip] All over America, Black ghettos exploded in rage and grief.
[news clip] There was looting, arson, and bloodshed during the night.
[news clip] Police report that the murder has touched off sporadic acts of violence in a Negro section of the city.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal is just watching the chaos at first. He is too young, too nervous, to break windows or burn cars. He’s inside a store when the cops show up.
Jamal Joseph: Cops came in, beating people and shooting at people, and I ran out the back of the store. Made it to an alley and hopped over a fence. Cops are still chasing me and ran into this wall, literally this wall of Black men who are on community patrol, and they told me to stop running. They stood between the cops and I. The cops said, We’re chasing looters. They said, There’re no looters and we’re a community patrol try to make sure that no innocent Black folk is killed out here tonight.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s a standoff, and then:
Jamal Joseph: They back the police down. I had never seen that kind of organization and that kind of strength, in terms of backing down the cops.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal is amazed. Decades later, you can still hear the excitement of that 15-year old kid.
Jamal Joseph: I was like, They got black leather coats, they got guns, they communists, they crazy! I want to join them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Yeah, it actually reminds me a bit of my mom watching Muhammad Ali back down the sheriffs at the eviction in Chicago. She and Jamal are different races, different genders. She’s in her 20s, and he’s 15. But for both of them, seeing someone take action, stand up against an unjust system and win, it opens up a new range of what’s possible. It can turn anyone into a radical, maybe especially a 15-year old kid. A few months after Dr. King’s death, Jamal shows up at Panther headquarters in Brooklyn.
Jamal Joseph: Older brothers and sisters are looking really, really cool with the leather coats, army fatigues jackets, ‘fros, some of the sisters had their African head wraps.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Someone begins a political education class, explaining the 10-point program, what the Panthers stand for.
Jamal Joseph: I think the brothers on point number five. We want an education that teaches us our true history and the true nature of this decadent American society, I jump up, Choose me brother, arm me! Whole room gives quiet. Brother says, Come here, young brother.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal walks up to the desk, the man reaches down into a drawer.
Jamal Joseph: I’m like, Oh, man, look how far down he’s reaching, he’s going to give me a big ass gun! And he hands me a stack of books: Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, The Little Red Book–and I said, Excuse me, brother, I thought you were going to arm me. And he said, Excuse me, young brother, I just did.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal goes back to his seat and he’s looking around. There’s a poster of Che Guevara up on the wall with a cigar in his mouth, smile lines around the eyes. I actually had the same poster up in my bedroom when I was a kid. Che was an icon for the Weathermen, too.
Jamal Joseph: And the quote is this, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say they’re revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love.” That was the beginning of kind of real radicalization and that big step toward manhood by joining the Black Panther Party.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Pretty soon, Jamal is spending all his time with the New York Panther group. Lumumba and Assata Shakur, who would later become a leader and a symbol of the BLA, Dhoruba fin Wahad, Zayd, and Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mom. And Yedwa, Jamal’s section leader, his mentor. Yedwa’s a Vietnam vet and experienced housing organizer. He’s 26, my mom’s age, an elder by Panther’s standards, 10 years Jamal’s senior. And he’s hard core, even for this group.
Jamal Joseph: If we were going someplace, Yedwa would be, We don’t have to pay, we’re the Black Panther Party. And you’d get 25 Panthers jump in the train. And when the pigs came, he would be like, The subway belongs to the people, motherfuckers, what are you going to do? He was that guy.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: One day, Jamal gets an anonymous letter in the mail threatening his grandma. He thinks the letter might have come from the cops. He asks the Panthers what he should do, and Yedwa gives Jamal his first gun
Jamal Joseph: to actually get to hold one, honestly, was scary. I realized that this thing could kill. And it was handed to me with so much caution and so much warning. They made clear that if you make a mistake, you would hurt an innocent person or one of your comrades.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But the New York Panthers think they have to protect themselves and their families from death threats and police violence, from a whole racist system that puts them at risk. That’s why it’s called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
Jamal Joseph: And yeah, we did do some midnight drills, and we did run through Central Park, and we did hand-to-hand combat, and we did, you know, some gun range kind of stuff.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This is the same time my parents and the Weathermen back in Chicago are gearing up for the Days of Rage. Same training too: jogging in the park, martial arts, target practice. Both groups think they’re prepping for war, training to be urban guerrillas. They’re also reading the same books, watching the same films: Wretched of the Earth, Battle of Algiers–the mini manual of the urban guerrilla. Both groups are looking up to the Cuban government in Havana and Third World revolutionaries overseas. And around the same time, my dad is giving up teaching, because he feels he has to organize against the war full time, the Panthers are taking up so much space in Jamal’s life, he doesn’t have time for anything else, either. He’s doing worse in school, no longer helping around the house. His grandma notices, but doesn’t know what to make of the change.
Jamal Joseph: Why are you so busy? I got basketball practice, grandma. I got karate practice. I got football practice. You would think I was like a three-letter athlete. I wasn’t on team the first, but just making up stuff, right?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: One day she’s cleaning Jamal’s room and finds something under his bed.
Jamal Joseph: Where most 15-year olds might have some, you know, girlie magazines or, you know, there’s cigarettes hidden or whatever the case, I’ve got a box full of radical material.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal walks into the room, sees a stack of books, a Bible, and a belt.
Jamal Joseph: She says, Tell me the truth right now because I don’t know whether to bless you with this belt, or kill you with this Bible.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He admits he’s been spending all this time with the Panthers, and she tells him he’s going to quit, no discussion. Jamal shows up at the office the next day to tell the others these 18 and 20 and 22-year olds he idolizes, and of course, he’s embarrassed, talking tough to show he’s not some mama’s boy.
Jamal Joseph: My grandmother’s tripping. She’s a brainwashed, Uncle Tom. And Afeni did a Bruce Lee move on me. It’s like she jumped in my chest with both hands and both fists, and snatched me by the collar, she said, Don’t ever talk about your grandmother like that. She said, When we’re talking about organizing people in the community, who is your grandmother, but the people? And this is your fault for not being honest. Totally not what I was expecting. And then Yedwa says, Let me go talk to her.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Yedwa shows up at the house wearing a tie, the first time Jamal’s seen him dressed up like that. He sits down with Jamal’s grandma for a talk.
Jamal Joseph: He said, Ma’am, I know he’s giving you some problems. I’d like to keep an eye on him. If you say that his curfew is 10:00 o’clock, if he’s not in here at 9:30, just let me know, and I’ll beat his butt. If you want him to bring you 85 on a next algebra test and he doesn’t walk you a N95 in the door, I’ll give him a swift kick. And grandma says, You know, he never knew his daddy and his grandfather died a few years ago, and it is so hard raising a boy alone, but you seem like a very nice man, so if you promise to keep an eye on him and make sure he does the other stuff that he need to be doing, I’ll let him go back. And so I went back.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: With his grandma’s blessing, Jamal is getting more and more involved with the Black Panther Party. And now things are moving fast. Within a few months, Jamal is appointed leader of the Panther Youth Group, training the high school recruits. He’s reading radical literature, carrying a gun, helping out with the volunteer programs. At 15, he feels like a young revolutionary-in-training, a part of something bigger, more important than himself. And then one night, everything changes. April 1969.
[sound of sirens]
Jamal Joseph: A tactical team of cops with bulletproof vests and shotguns kicked in grandma’s door at four o’clock in the morning and dragged me away to prison
[news clip] in New York City. 21 members of the Black Panthers have been indicted and the police said they broke up an elaborate plan for destruction.
Jamal Joseph: And when I got there, there were other Panthers, Lumumba Shakur, and Afeni Shakur, and Dhoruba, and Cetewayo.
[news clip] They said the Panthers had planned tomorrow morning to bomb five New York City Department stores crowded with shoppers, to bomb a police station, and to dynamite the tracks of a commuter railroad passing through Harlem on the way to the suburbs.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A reporter asks Bobby Seale, Panther National Chairman, whether this alleged plot in New York is part of an official Black Panther policy. You can hear Bobby dragging on his cigarette, disgusted by the question.
[clip of Bobby Seale] I don’t know what the hell they are talking about. They’re lying. They’re trying to destroy the leadership of the party, and they’re trying to destroy the Black Panther Party. They know, the Black Panther Party is a moving force for the revolutionary struggle that’s going on for change.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The 21 New York Panthers are charged with 156 counts of attempted arson, attempted murder, and criminal conspiracy. Bail ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 each. $100,000 is like $700,000 today, might as well be 700 million. Jamal can’t make that bail, none of the Panthers can. So now they’re spending months in jail waiting for trial.
Jamal Joseph: So I just got dropped into the middle of the wolf den. No context for anything.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He’s 16 when he’s sent to Rikers Island.
Jamal Joseph: And I was like, Man, I got to fight this dude. Then I pass another cell, I say, I gotta fight this dude, that dude. Man, it’s going to be war from morning till night.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal and the others are charged with conspiracy to murder in New York police officers, a plot to blow up police stations with dynamite bombs and then wait outside with long-range rifles to pick off officers as they flee the building, one by one.
Jamal Joseph: I’m hearing on the news that we were facing 36-some odd years.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But the case is based almost entirely on testimony from three undercover police who had infiltrated the New York Panther chapter. They claim all that training the group was doing, the jogging, the martial arts, target practice, was actually preparation for mass murder. And one of those undercover cops is someone Jamal knows well.
Jamal Joseph: Yedwa, my mentor, the person who came to my grandmother’s house and convinced her to let me come back.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Yedwa, isn’t just a mentor, he’s the guy always pushing the group forward, urging them to more militant action, the one who tells them they don’t have to pay to ride the subway, who talks to Jamal’s grandma, gives him his first gun–and the whole time he’s been setting them up.
Jamal Joseph: I was devastated, because he really was a big brother and a father figure to me.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: While Jamal is trying to wrap his mind around the betrayal and trying to stay alive inside Rikers, outside the Panthers’ allies are organizing.
Jamal Joseph: The next time back to court, when I’m riding in that van and I’m hearing all this chanting, and I peek through the little strip and I see Foley Square and Center Street, which is where the court buildings are in downtown New York, filled with people, Black and white.
[voice clip] I’m here to get these men and women out of jail for asking for what is their right.
Jamal Joseph: Chanting “Free the Panther 21. Power to the people.”
[crowd chants] Power to the people, power to the people, power to the people.
Jamal Joseph: That’s when it first hit me, and that’s when I felt solidarity and really proud to be part of this Panther 21 case,
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Panther 21 have become a symbol of the American injustice system, weaponized against the movement. Supporters, Black and white, mobilize across the country, attending protests, raising money. Alternative newspapers write articles about the trial, people at demonstrations and meetings hand out leaflets and collect money for the defense. In fact, it was a fundraiser for the Panther 21 at the home of composer Leonard Bernstein that inspired Tom Wolf’s famous essay on “radical chic.” J. Edgar Hoover has already directed his agents to prevent the long-range growth of militant Black organizations, especially among youth, to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence–and most important, to prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement. And if there’s one leader who does just that unify and electrify, it’s Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois Black Panthers.
Jamal Joseph: Fred was always this mythical brother that we would all hear about.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Back in New York, teenage Jamal Joseph listens to Fred’s speeches all the time, on tape cassettes shipped out to local Panther chapters–the social media of the day,
Jamal Joseph: Fred would use that rhythm that they used and still use in the Black church.
[clip of Fred Hampton] When I leave, you can remember I said with the last words on my lips, that I am . . . a revolutionary though. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And it’s not just Jamal. The Weathermen are listening to Fred too. Even after their disagreement over the Days of Rage, Weathermen attend his reading groups in Chicago. They discuss strategy, share resources. Laura Whitehorn is a member of the Chicago Weatherman at the time.
Laura Whitehorn: You know, like Malcolm X, he spoke for and to thousands of people at a time.
[clip of Fred Hampton] We say all power to all people.
[crowd chants] All power to all people.
[clip of Fred Hampton] Black power to Black people.
[crowd chants] Black power to Black people.
Laura Whitehorn: People from every age would get out on the fire escapes to hear him speak.
[clip of Fred Hampton] It’s power to those that we left out.
[crowd chants] Power to those that we left out.
[clip of Fred Hampton] We say Panther power to the vanguard party. [cheers]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Even in private, in small, intimate gatherings, Fred’s every bit as charismatic, as convincing, as when he’s talking to huge crowds. There’s a video of him having a conversation with a few young guys, sitting around a small table, maybe at the Panther office. He’s wearing a bucket hat and has a scraggly beard, and he explains why they need to understand the bigger picture.
[clip of Fred Hampton] With no education, the people will take the local foundation and start stealing money because they won’t be really educated to why it’s the people thing anyway.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Anyway, you can hear him jab the table a few times with his index finger, emphasizing his points. But it’s all friendly.
[clip of Fred Hampton] As a matter of fact, it’s so important to us that a person has to go through six weeks of our political education before we can consider himself a member of the party, able to even run ideology for the party. Why? Because if they don’t have an education, then they’re nowhere. You dig what I’m saying? They’re nowhere because they don’t even understand why they doing what they doing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And this is what Jamal loves most about these recordings of Fred: his dedication to learning, teaching, showing people how to move forward.
Jamal Joseph: There’s a quote that Fred has that I still use, “People learn two ways, you learn to observation and participation. And we’re going to be the example that people can observe, so they can participate in their own liberation.”
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Teenage Jamal would stretch out and listen to these recordings, taking in as much as he could, imagining himself in the crowd, listening to Fred
[clip of Fred Hampton] I learned a lot when I was in prison. I had an educational process, a learning process. You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win, you dare not to struggle, then God dammit, you don’t deserve to win. Let me send peace to you if you’re willing to fight for it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But it’s not just Jamal who’s listening, not just the other Panthers or Weathermen or activists across the country–the FBI is listening to Fred too, and paying close attention. So now it’s December 1969, two months after the Days of Rage. Jamal’s still locked up in Rikers, and back in Chicago, the Panthers and the Weathermen are under attack by police. Fred Hampton is facing charges for allegedly hijacking a Good Humor ice cream truck. Literally, those are the charges
[clip of Fred Hampton] They’re talking about giving me 20 years for an ice cream truck robbery. That’s right.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Robbery of ice cream, with intent to distribute to poor Black kids in Chicago.
[clip of Fred Hampton] Even though they made me a thief, they made me a Robbin Hood-type thief. 710 ice cream bars. I might be big, but I can’t eat 710 ice cream bars.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: We talked to Jeff Haas, Fred’s lawyer at the time. He remembers Fred was struggling that month with what he should do next.
Jeff Haas: He was going to either have to go back to prison to serve the rest of his two to five years for supposedly stealing ice cream from an ice cream truck, or go underground, or leave the country or something.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So on Thursday night, December 3rd, Fred hosts a political education class. The class ends around 9:30 p.m. Fred invites a few people back to his apartment nearby. They have dinner. William O’Neal, the head of his security detail, makes them all some Kool-Aid.
Jeff Haas: About 10 Panthers went to the Monroe Street address and had dinner and Kool-Aid before they went to sleep.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Fred is supposed to stay at his mom’s house that night, but it’s late. He goes in the bedroom with his fiancée, Deborah Johnson. She’s eight months pregnant with Fred’s child.
Jeff Haas: And so sometime around midnight, Fred had called his mother and said, I won’t be coming home tonight, just keep my food on the stove. And then, while he was talking to his mother, around midnight, he actually fell asleep on the phone.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Mark Clark, a 22-year old panther, is on security detail in a chair facing the door, holding a shotgun. Around 4:30 a.m., Doc Satchel, a Panther who was also there that night, hears a knock at the door.
[clip of Doc Satchel] And it was only a matter of seconds, less than five seconds that I heard shots.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Mark Clark is hit, his shotgun goes off and takes out a big chunk of the ceiling. Back in the bedroom, Deborah wakes up. She sees lights flashing.
[clip of Deborah Johnson] Still half asleep, looked up and I saw bullets coming. It looked like the front of the apartment, from the kitchen area. They were, the pigs were just shooting.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She later remembered that night–this is after she gave birth and she’s cradling her baby, Fred Jr.. You can hear him cooing in the background.
[clip of Deborah Johnson] The mattress is just going, you could feel bullets going into it. I just know we’d be dead, everybody in there. When he looked up, he just looked up, he didn’t say a word, he didn’t move except for moving his head up. He laid his head back down. He never said a word, he never got up off the bed. The person who was in the room, the kept calling, Stop shooting, stop shooting, we have a pregnant woman, a pregnant sister in here. The pigs kept on shooting. So he kept on hollering out and finally they stopped. They pushed me and the other brother by the kitchen door and told us the face the wall. I heard the pigs say, He barely alive, he’ll barely make it. So then they started shooting, the pigs they started shooting, shooting again. I heard a sister scream. They stopped shooting. The pigs said, He’s good and dead now.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The next day, the State’s Attorney, Ed Hanrahan, gives a press conference.
[clip of Ed Hanrahan] The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But physical evidence at the scene shows the cops are lying. Chicago police had fired at least 90 shots into the apartment. The Panthers fired only once, from Mark Clark’s fallen shotgun. And through all the gunfire, all the screaming, Fred Hampton never wakes up. The autopsy shows secobarbital, a sedative, in his system. William O’Neal, the Panther who made the Kool-Aid that night, it turns out he’s also an FBI informant. Fred had apparently been drugged on the orders of federal law enforcement, and assassinated by the Chicago police. News starts to travel fast. My dad hears about it in the morning.
[clip of Bill Ayers] I think it was Jeff Jones who said to me, Get up, Fred’s dead.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They go to the apartment where Fred was killed. It’s a crime scene, but the Chicago Panthers keep it open to the public.
[voice of a Panther] Don’t touch nothing, don’t move nothing, because we want to keep everything just the way it is.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A memorial, and evidence against the police, the bloody mattress and all those bullet holes going in and nothing coming back out.
[voice of a Panther] The brother fell here, most of the blood and dried up, but you could see a little bit of it there and a little bit of it on the floor. The brother was shot four or five times, so after they came through the door, they shot him again to make sure he was dead.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A few days later, Bill shows up for Fred’s funeral.
[clip of Bill Ayers] It was an open casket, the line stretched around the block. And by the time I got to the casket, it was filled with money, with tokens, with emblems of revolutionary thought. And I put a ring that I had from Vietnam, and I put a ring in the casket.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s clear now, after MLK, after the Panther 21, after Fred Hampton, that Black groups, Black leaders, are being targeted. Facing not just political repression and infiltration, but violence and terror and assassination.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was, you know, in a rage at the absolute stench of American life.
[clip of Bill Ayers] It wasn’t the first, certainly, person who was killed, but it’s the first person that close to us that was killed. And we were young, we hadn’t experienced death a lot, and it was overwhelming.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It pushes the Weathermen over the edge. You can hear it in my mom’s voice a few days after Fred’s death.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] For people to be able to enjoy Christmas time in this country without remembering and without making a choice about the struggle that’s going on in the world, without taking action about a blatant murder that takes place in the city against a revolutionary Black leader, is an obscenity.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Cathy Wilkerson, a member of Weathermen and Terry’s girlfriend at the time, had been on the verge of leaving the group earlier that year. Sick of the criticism, self-criticism sessions, and the long meetings that never seem to go anywhere, she’s not sure if she wants to stay in the organization at all. But Fred’s death changes her mind.
Cathy Wilkerson: Terry picked up the phone and said, Oh my God, Fred has been killed. And I felt like at that moment, my world turned 180 degrees and I felt like, OK, it was now open warfare. This was Germany in 1939, and they were going to go around and kill all the Black leaders. I had to dedicate my life to responding to this. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense. It didn’t matter that it was unpleasant. This is what I had to deal with. And if somebody said they had a way to deal with it, I would follow them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Weathermen are determined to avenge Fred, to draw the government’s attention away from the Panthers, make it impossible for police to keep killing Black people with impunity. Their first response comes two days later. From the Chicago Tribune December 6th, 1969, “A Black powder bomb exploded on the front of a police squad car in a parking lot early this morning, causing damage to the car and breaking 20 to 30 windows of nearby apartment houses.” Their actions are escalating: first statues now police cars. And my mom knows if they continue down this path, there’s no going back. So she visits her parents. She needs to tell them.
Bernardine Dohrn: Just how much I love them. Now, I couldn’t say anything to them because I knew they were would be under pressure and I didn’t know what was going to happen next. But I felt that they, you know, they were great parents. I was so lucky to have them as my parents. So I flew to Florida, just for maybe a day or two, maybe two nights, and we walked around. I ate grapefruits off their tree in the backyard. I was happy to see them happy. And then I remembered they wanted to drive me to the airport. You know, it was one of those airports that was like three stories up on an escalator, and they let me go at that point, they didn’t come farther than that. And so I, you know, watched them recede, and they were waving and I was waving and blowing kisses. You know, I was in tears and I felt like I wasn’t conflicted, I knew what I was going to do, but I didn’t want them to be hurt. Of course they were.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My dad has already said goodbye. Remember when he meets his father at a steakhouse and my grandpa Tom tries to tell him he’s making a big mistake, throwing away his life, his future? Bill doesn’t listen. After Fred’s death, he’s not even sure he has a future.
[clip of Bill Ayers] Because I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of another way, I couldn’t think of a way to go that avoided the possibility of death. I guess that’s a way of saying it. You know, the only choice that avoided the possibility of death was completely selling out, and I wasn’t interested and I didn’t want to do it. I just felt like if that’s this choice, if the choice is that stark, I would rather risk death.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A couple of months later, in the middle of the night, on February 21st, 1970, gasoline bombs explode all over New York City. One is thrown at a patrol car parked in front of the Charles Street police station in Greenwich Village. Two more target military recruiting booths near Brooklyn College. And three bombs explode outside an elegant Tudor-style home in Inwood in the northern tip of Manhattan. The house belongs to John M. Murtaugh, the judge presiding over the trial of the Panther 21. John Murtaugh Jr. is nine-years old at the time. In an interview with Fox News, he later remembered:
[clip of John Murtaugh Jr.] I was sound asleep in bed. Our whole family was sound asleep. First thing I remember is waking up, no doubt from the sound, my mother coming into the room, pulling me out of bed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The bombs are bottles filled with gasoline, with two-inch firecrackers attached as detonators. They shatter a front window of the house, charred the paint on the car parked in the garage, and ignite the hanging wood eve outside.
[clip of John Murtaugh Jr.] I remember standing in the kitchen with my parents, with my family. We could see flames through the window. You’re stuck in a burning house, but you’re not sure whether it’s safe to leave.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Eventually, the fire department arrives and gets the family outside. Nobody’s hurt. And as the sun rises in the morning, the family, firefighters, and police outside can see graffiti scrawled on the sidewalk in bright red paint, “Kill the pigs,” “The Vietcong have won” and “Free the Panther 21.” It’s the Weather man’s first attack on a civilian target. The New York cell is crossing new lines: violence not just against statues or parked police cars, but people. Again, that brutal logic of escalation, if the United States is willing to kill Fred Hampton in his bed, why should we stop at symbolic violence? Why not fight fire with fire? In fact, the New York cell is gearing up for something bigger, something worse. We’ll get to that next episode. And what about Jamal Joseph? He’s turned 16, still locked up in Rikers when he hears about Fred.
Jamal Joseph: It was a moment where there was no words. Everybody just was heartbroken and silent. And then we gathered and said a revolutionary prayer for Fred and for his family. Fred Hampton is with the ancestors, and we make a commitment to continue his work in the spirit of the people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Dr. King’s assassination made Jamal a radical, but Fred’s murder would make him a soldier.
Jamal Joseph: His death meant, I think, more than any other thing that had happened to the Black Panther Party, that we were seriously at war.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The war they’d been training for, the war between black liberation and police repression is already here.
Jamal Joseph: It convinced me that I was going to be dead before I was 21. It convinced me. I used to say that to people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: You can hear the same change in all of them. Bill, Jamal, Bernardine. There’s still kids in many ways, in their teens and 20s, but after Fred’s death, none of them expects to live much longer. Fred had become a martyr for a generation of young activists. His death taught them they were entering a new stage in the struggle, requiring a new level of dedication and sacrifice.
[clip of Fred Hampton] If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say I don’t want to make that commitment only because of the reason “I’m too young, I want to live a little bit longer” what you did is, you’re dead already?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And his words seem prophetic in hindsight, about what was coming next for all of them.
[clip of Fred Hampton] I don’t believe I’m gonna die in a car wreck. I don’t believe I’m gonna die because of a bad heart. I don’t believe I’m gonna die because of lung cancer. I believe I’m going to be able to die doing the thing I was born for, I believe that I’m gonna die high off the people. I believe that will be able to die as a revolution in the international proletarian revolutionary struggle. And I hope that each one of you will die in the international proletarian revolutionary struggle. Why don’t you live for the people, why don’t you struggle for the people, why don’t you die for the people?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Next time on Mother Country Radicals:
Cathy Wilkerson: We were all terrified, and none of us knew what we were doing.
[news clip] 60 sticks of dynamite, 30 blasting caps, and assorted wires and pipes in the basement wreckage.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Weathermen escalate again.
[news clip] They said it had been used as a bomb factory by young, radical left wingers.
Cathy Wilkerson: There was no discussion about what it would do to human beings.
[clip of James Oughton] I think she was completely carried away. I think it was almost an intellectual Hysteria.
[clip of Bill Ayers] We were racing forward, really on speed and adrenaline. Nothing else.
Bernardine Dohrn: I think it’s important, you know, to remember them. And remember, you know, some of the worst of what happened, what we did.
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. 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 was sound designed by Arianna Gharib Lee. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clausen is the composer. For Audacy, Tim Clark 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 Slater, 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.