In This Episode
The Weathermen go underground, and become famous – and infamous – as counter-culture outlaws.
For more of the story, check out:
- Thai Jones, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground (2004)
- Timothy Leary, The Psychedelic Experience (1964)
Chapter 5: New Morning
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals:
[news clip] Last Friday, an explosion destroyed a New York City townhouse, and in the rubble exposed tragedy in the makings of a sinister conspiracy. Three bodies were found in the rubble.
Bill Ayers: I felt the feeling was falling on your back and cracking your head open. It felt like devastation itself, it felt like an atomic bomb. I mean, I just went to pieces.
Cathy Wilkerson: I was in survival mode for many, many days.
Bill Ayers: We were racing forward, really on speed and adrenaline. Nothing else.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: After the townhouse explosion in the spring of 1970, Weathermen scatter across the country, on the run, scared and isolated. Some lie low with friends and family. Others just cut ties with the group and disappear. They ditch their cars, burn IDs, abandon safe houses and apartments.
Bill Ayers: A few of us were supposed to meet up a couple of days later, and by the time we got there, two people had deserted. And turns out had gone to Canada, a couple. That was another smack in the head, the realization that we were not only dying and killing ourselves, but we were also unraveling.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Bill is still leading the Midwest cell, grieving the loss of his partner and his best friend, watching other members abandon the organization. This collective he’s supposed to run is dissolving in front of his eyes. Some of his friends, like Eleanor Stein, are concerned.
Eleanor Stein: I was worried about whether he could survive it. I think he was maybe overwhelmingly overcome with guilt, especially for Diane. I think he felt that he had organized her into this line of politics, and if it weren’t for him, she would still be alive.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It also made his own death seem much closer.
Bill Ayers: I think that my sense of vulnerability, my sense of mortality was raw and right on the edge. None of us thought that we were going to get out of it alive.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And then Bill gets word from leadership, an order from Bernardine sent out to the cells across the country. “Stop whatever it is you’re doing, no more actions until we talk. Just get yourselves to California and we’ll tell you what to do next.” My mom and her boyfriend at the time, Jeff Jones, had been living in California.
Jeff Jones: One of the great things about Mendocino, you have that long sloping bluff that looks out over the ocean–when you’re living up there or you’re standing there, you feel like you’re almost on a plateau, but you can see the shore birds sometimes when they fly above the land. And of course, off in the distance you have, the roar of the waves.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: As you can probably tell, Jeff is a bird watcher and nature lover. He grew up in California. His father was a film cutter for Walt Disney and a conscientious objector to World War II, a Quaker pacifist. So, like most Weathermen, Jeff is an unlikely soldier, happiest when he’s hiking Mount Tam, swimming in the ocean, or exploring the redwoods. For months, he and Bernardine have been living far away from the urgent intensity of the New York group. They’ve been organizing, building their own clandestine network, and getting ready to go underground, but with a much more California pace and feel. My dad drives across the country heading west. He’s eating at rest stops along the way, listening to the radio. The number-one song at the time is “Bridge Over Troubled Water” which is almost too perfect. When he finally meets up with the others in California, my mom can tell he’s barely holding it together.
Bernardine Dohrn: Shattered. Shattered. He was, he was, I mean, he wouldn’t have said that of course. He wasn’t like beating his breast or, you know, not getting out of bed, but he was shaken.
Bill Ayers: I had taken a lot of speed. I hadn’t eaten well. I hadn’t slept well. I think literally I was pasty-faced with circles under my eyes and skinny, like somebody who just walked out of a, of a fire, and was both lucky to be alive and still a little dazed from the experience.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Everyone looks to Bernardine, as always, for a sense of direction, leadership. But this time it’s Jeff who has a plan.
Jeff Jones: Cook, take a walk, smoke a joint, chill out. We’re not going to talk politics yet. We’re going to talk politics, but we’re not going to do it yet. We’re just going to be together.
Bernardine Dohrn: You know, we all been on the road for years. We were eating terribly and we were just beginning to uncover the fact that, you know, whether we slept and how we ate and everything had to do with how we thought and how we lived. And living to live instead of living to die.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So that’s the plan, at first: walk on the beach, look at tide pools, sleep 11 or 12 hours a night instead of three or four, cook dinner for each other out on the deck, listen to music, let yourself grieve. Weathermen had for years been pushing each other to go further, get tougher. All the criticism, self-criticism, gut checks and street fighting and technical training–it’s been a long time since any of them has stopped moving long enough to think
Jeff Jones: we were sitting around on the couches and on the living room floor with this big panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean in the background, and we began to talk about the politics that led to the disaster at the townhouse, and we had the argument.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A few of the surviving Weathermen, like JJ, Terry’s partner in crime and Bernardine’s ex-boyfriend, are adamant they need to get back to work.
Bill Ayers: And Jeff and Bernardine said, No, absolutely not.
Jeff Jones: We shouldn’t have been having anything to do with an explosive device of that strength or power.
Bernardine Dohrn: If that band had been built, it would have been, could have been a terrible disaster, and set back the whole movement.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For Jeff and Bernard in the townhouse exposed more than a mistake, the shock of losing their friends felt like a sign their way of resisting needed to change. They tell the others, We’re not meant to be killers. We can’t beat the government at its own game. If we keep going in the direction of the townhouse. We’ll never survive.
Bill Ayers: You know, suicide, revolutionary suicide, that wasn’t on the agenda,
Jeff Jones: the choice said Mendocino was, not only do we not want to kill anybody, we don’t want to hurt anybody.
Bill Ayers: JJ disagreed. And so Bernardine, I believe it was Bernardine who said–it could only have been Bernardine–who said, We’re going to go forward and you’re not going to be a part of it, and you cannot come along, and we’re going to go build an underground, but you are not a part of it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Most side with Bernadine. She and Jeff are now fully in charge. JJ and a few others are expelled from the organization they helped found. As the rest of the Weathermen get ready to leave, Mendocino, Bill still doesn’t know where he’s supposed to go, what he should do next. With Diana and Terry gone, he doesn’t really have a collective anymore. And Bernardine knows he’s in fragile shape, that someone needs to take care of him.
Bernardine Dohrn: Maybe I just knew him best at that time. That’s partly why we had him come live with us because we felt like he just needed to be fed and rocked on the waves of the bay and, you know, take a deep breath.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So Bill goes to live with Jeff and Bernardine, on a houseboat in Sausalito. And things start to lighten up here for a while. After the darkness of the townhouse, the first years of life on the run turn out to be surprisingly fun. They’re still fighting the government, but, so it seems, are many young people across the country, and the Weathermen feel for a time in sync with what’s happening around them: the anti-war movement and the wider youth counterculture. In fact, some of the weirdest, trippiest stories of the underground come in this period, as the Weathermen become suddenly famous, infamous as anti-government outlaws, as they join up with international fugitives and acid gurus, and learn how to survive in the multiple overlapping undergrounds of the 1970s. To do this, they would need to start over from scratch, reinvent themselves, and recommit to the cause and to each other. Timothy Leary, who plays a big role in this part of Weathermen history, sets the scene:
[clip of Timothy Leary] The time has come . . . to go out of your mind. Are you ready . . . to die and be reborn?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This is Chapter 5: New Morning. After Mendocino, their next step is to disappear. They’ve been planning for over a year now, prepping, laying the groundwork to live as fugitives, but it still isn’t entirely clear to most of them, what does it actually mean to go underground? My dad remembers the first thing you need is a new name.
Bill Ayers: I went underground by simply changing my name. One day I was one thing and the next there was another thing. So what we did is we went to rural areas, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Minnesota, and we walked through the graveyards until we found a gravestone of a person who was born in 1942, 43, 44, 45, 46, and died within a year.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Someone born the same year as you, or close enough, infants and toddlers who had died more than two decades earlier–you write down that name and then head over to the county courthouse.
Bill Ayers: And ask for a birth certificate. They would give us a birth certificate without any questions, and then we would surround that fundamental ID with fishing licenses, hunting licenses, library cards, anything that made sense. What you really needed was the driver’s license, and so that’s what we did. We got a birth certificate, a whole lot of other ID, and then a driver’s license. And then we were golden.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My dad’s new name is Richard. My mom’s is Mona. She dyes her hair blond, starts wearing T-shirts and blue jeans instead of black leather mini skirts and knee-high boots. Because that’s the second thing you need after the new name: a new look.
Bernardine Dohrn: Going from being a dark brunette to being blond was a big change.
Jeff Jones: L’Oreal Preference, that was my favorite brand.
Bill Ayers: You know, there was a period early on when people were dying their hair bizarre colors of orange and stuff. We could never get the dye correct.
Jeff Jones: At one point, I dyed my hair black. But of course, I’m very blond and I remember going to see a friend of mine, and I remember her saying to me, I hope you don’t think you’re fooling anyone with that black hair. And so I sort of dialed it back, and shifted to a sort of a more natural, darker brown.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: You also need a place to stay. Weathermen rent apartments in cash, they sign month-to-month leases.
Jeff Jones: Your safe houses had to be built around safe identities. You could live as a couple or you could be three, four, five, six people, but in the end, the most important thing was you actually could identify that area there in downtown Berkeley or in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco are just places where you shouldn’t go.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Neighborhoods that are famous as counterculture hangouts, places the government would have under surveillance–you avoid those areas. And when you have to meet up in person:
Bill Ayers: We had learned a method of meeting up, which they called the trajectory. And so whenever we met with each other and whenever we met with aboveground people for the next decade, they walked a trajectory meaning a preplanned route where they could be observed and you could observe anyone following them and there would be switchbacks where it would be incomprehensible that anyone but a tail would be taking that same route.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Finally, you need a way to make money. Revolutionaries still need to eat. So Weathermen get jobs in restaurants or construction sites, as longshoremen, and proof readers and printers. Some of the women do secretarial work. And also:
Jeff Jones: There was an aboveground support network that helped. Some of them generously contributed money to the upkeep of the people who were in the underground and needed financial support.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff says the donors included the band Jefferson Airplane, along with other musicians and movie stars from the counterculture scene. So one day he and my mom stop off to pick up a contribution.
Jeff Jones: We knew some money was being wired to us at the Western Union office on Market Street in San Francisco and we needed the money, so we pulled up in front of the Western Union office. Probably that was a bad idea. I went in. Bernardine was driving.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Bernardine sits alone for a few minutes, waiting, when something across the street catches her eye.
Bernardine Dohrn: I saw a guy standing in a doorway of, you know, a clothing store or something, and it just struck me as odd that he was standing there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: At the same time, Jeff’s getting this weird feeling from two guys inside the Western Union office.
Jeff Jones: There was a way in which they were just kind of leaning against the wall and looking people over that pushed the button for me, and I said, This doesn’t look right. But I need this money. And I did stand in the line. It took a minute or two before it was my turn. I pocketed the cash, which I think was around $700, and then walked back out and I climbed into the truck.
Bernardine Dohrn: Jeff said, Somethings weird going on.
Jeff Jones: And she said someone just walked by and actually looked at the license plate on our truck. So we said, OK, we’re, we’re under surveillance. So she pulled out, and sure enough, a car behind us turned around and started following us down the street.
Bernardine Dohrn: And this car was right behind me and then as we pulled up in front of a stoplight, pulled up next to us. And these two guys dressed like hippies, and they really did look like two cops dressed up like hippies, you know, leaned forward and gave us the peace sign. Everything about that was corny and ridiculous, but they definitely did get a good look of both of us. And we were like, Shit.
Jeff Jones: And so what actually happened was just as the light was turning, she had just enough time to gun that truck across the intersection.
Bernardine Dohrn: Turned left abruptly, and they were caught going forward.
Jeff Jones: And we raced up out of that downtown San Francisco area and we looked back and we had about a five-block head start on anybody coming across that intersection. And we actually disappeared.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: That night, they meet up with Bill at a Chinese restaurant.
Bill Ayers: And we’re sitting here talking, trying to figure it out without getting too freaked out. And we decide that one of our people ought to take the car and ditch it under a bridge.
Bernardine Dohrn: And we took the car and dropped it under a viaduct somewhere in San Francisco, and wiped it down as best we could without lingering or looking weird.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They call an aboveground friend, ask him to pick up the truck. They don’t want to leave even a trace behind.
Bill Ayers: And they go back down to pick up the truck. And are immediately arrested.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They later find out the feds were tipped off by a familiar name.
Jeff Jones: It was William O’Neal, the same Judas in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The FBI informant who helped the police drug and murder Fred Hampton. He’d been with Jeff’s friend at the Western Union in Chicago. That means the FBI has the truck, and the Weathermen quickly realize Jeff’s ID is linked to the registration, and the registration is linked to the safe house where they live.
Bill Ayers: So now we realize that we are doomed, that we, everything is linked to everything. We hadn’t thought that far ahead. We hadn’t realized that if one thing goes, and the dominoes start falling, what happens?
Jeff Jones: So we abandoned San Francisco at that moment and didn’t return for a long, long time. It unleashed a complete sort of recalibration and reorganization that took us months to overcome[–required people to move to entirely different cities, start the process of getting ID all over again. It was a big deal for us.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: When you’re living underground, your whole existence is that precarious. In a second everything you’ve built over years can just disappear. But the other thing about the underground, it’s saving grace is it turns out to be wider, more generous, and more diverse than you might expect.
Bill Ayers: We ran into every underground you could imagine. We ran into not only illegal immigrants, but we ran into the abortion underground, we ran into the drug underground.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: All these different people with different agendas, multiple overlapping subcultures with just one thing in common: they’re all trying not to get caught.
Bill Ayers: And then let’s also remember the criminal underground, so we had paid phone-to-pay-phone communication all the time. And sometimes we would discover the perfect payphone. The perfect pay phone for me was at a Howard Johnsons in the basement of this busy, busy restaurant, at the intersection of two highways just north of New York City. And if you went down to the basement, there was a couch to sit on, which would seat three or four people, and there were two payphones and the restrooms. I got two or three phone calls from Bernardine there, and one late afternoon I showed up and I walked down and sitting on the couch were two guys in suits who looked like absolutely central casting of mafia. I didn’t know what to do, and I went into the bathroom and stood there sweating, wondering what the hell is going to happen? And the phone rang and one of these guys who answered it, and he opened the door to the men’s room and he said, Are you Joe? This is for Joe. And it was indeed for me, and it was from Bernardine. But the phone, the phone was answered by some mobster, some low-level mobster who was waiting for his phone call. So I mean, it struck me as hilarious at the time. Also terrifying. We never use that phone again. If you find the perfect phone like that, other undergrounds have already found it, right?
Bernardine Dohrn: Probably, yup.
Bill Ayers: So I mean, it was it was, there are so many undergrounds–and this is true today–people say, Well, you couldn’t do it today. Open your eyes. There are hundreds of thousands and millions of people who are living underground in some aspect. And that was true then, and it’s true now.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: To mark their new identity as outlaws, the Weathermen give themselves a new name: Weatherman Underground, eventually changed because of the obvious sexism to the Weather Underground Organization. And then on a sunny afternoon in San Francisco, Bernardine records her “Declaration of a State of War” you heard in episode one.
[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. Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries of freaks. If you want to find us, this is where we are: in every tribe, commune, dormitory, 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, narrating: It may seem strange to declare war on the United States when they’re just coming out of Mendocino, where they’ve decided to reject a military strategy. It is strange. It’s a contradiction. But again, moderation for my parents is relative. Swearing off deadly violence doesn’t mean swearing off all violence. The United States still needs to be torn down, brick by brick.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Within the next 14 days, we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Weather Underground isn’t giving up on the revolution, but they’re going to blow up buildings, not people.
[news clip] Before seven o’clock last night, a bomb went off in New York City police headquarters.
[news clip] A bomb planted at the seat of law and order. Police officials said they did see a similarity between this bombing and a recent series of explosions in the New York area. They said also, several groups are being investigated, among them, the Weatherman, militant arm of the SDS
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: 15 sticks of dynamite planted in the second floor men’s room of NYPD headquarters. It takes out the elevator shaft, tears through three walls, and shatters most of the windows. A man had called less than half an hour before the explosion, saying a bomb was about to go off, everybody clear out. The next day, Weathermen issue a statement, “Every time the pigs think they’ve stopped us, we come back a little stronger and a lot smarter. They guard their buildings and we walk right past their guards. They look for us, we get to them first.” All through that summer and fall, Weathermen carry out a wave of bombings against government and corporate targets. In keeping with their new strategy, they call in warnings beforehand to make sure the buildings are empty, that no one is hurt. And after every action, they release a new communique taunting the government.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] We are not just attacking targets, we are bringing a pitiful, helpless giant to its knees. Guard your planes. Guard your colleges. Guard your banks. Guide your children. Guard your doors.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: We’ll talk about the bombing campaign more in our next episode. For now, what’s important is that this is all embarrassing for the FBI. They can’t catch a bunch of 20-somethings whose pictures are on every newspaper and television station in the country. So later that year, my mom becomes only the fourth woman in history on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
[news clip] Angela Davis was replaced on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List this afternoon by Bernardine Rae Dorn, described as an underground leader of the Weathermen. The FBI says she advocates bombings, violent revolution, and terrorist attacks.
Bernardine Dohrn: I remember I thought about it I thought, you know, they don’t know that I’m not carrying a gun, so it’ll be all over before we even think about that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But other Weathermen, like my dad, see this as a badge of honor, a sign they’re winning.
Bill Ayers: I laughed at the time, but I’ve laughed ever since that, you know, you look at what was essentially a public relations stunt by J. Edgar Hoover, the 10 Most Wanted, you know, the G-men are out to get the 10 Most Wanted. And if you look at the 10 Most Wanted list through history, all through the ’30s and the ’40s and the ’50s, there’s these plug-ugly white guys who robbed a bank in Kansas and killed two people, really awful looking people. And suddenly there’s Angela Davis and Susan Saxe and Bernardine Dohrn and Rap Brown, and say, Damn, that’s a good looking list. But I do remember a feeling of both amusement and pride in the fact that, you know, she was the top of her field.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For the FBI, putting Bernardine on the 10 Most Wanted list backfires, raises her profile, makes her a part of this younger, more diverse generation of famous outlaws, Black and white, who are fast becoming counterculture icons.
Bill Ayers: I think it was the Berkeley Barb or the Tribe that first had a back page, an entire back page that said, Bernardine Dohrn: welcome here. And people stuck it up all over their windows facing the street. So I remember the first time I saw it, I was driving in the Haight-Ashbury, and there, I come around a small curve, and there in a window is a giant poster in the front window saying, “Bernardine Dohrn, welcome here.” We saw them springing up all over. Again, a kind of a sense that we were part of something bigger. We were fish in a big sea.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My parents are living together, working together, but they aren’t a couple yet, or at least not an exclusive couple. But Bernardine is no longer with Jeff, and she and Bill are spending a lot of time together.
Bernardine Dohrn: I mean, we, we certainly for the first year, maybe two years or maybe even three years were like, we’re not monogamous. We want to live together, but we’re not planning a future together.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They talk on the phone when they’re in separate cities. They check in when they’re on the road. They’re friends, comrades.
Bill Ayers: There was something about that first year or two when being friends was so, so important. You know, and I do think that falling in love is a state of temporary madness. And that’s both wonderful–everyone should do it–but the question is, is the intimacy strong enough to withstand all the blows that human relationships have? And for us, for Bernardine and me, it was the friendship that was underneath the madness that was telling and critical.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: As this is happening, as my parents are growing closer and as Weathermen are becoming more and more well known, something weird happens. They’re contacted out of the blue by this group of hippie drug smugglers, these weed and acid dealers with the incredible name, “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love.” The Brotherhood is looking for counterculture operatives capable of pulling off a dramatic prison break. A perfect job, they think for the Weather Underground.
Bill Ayers: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love got in touch with us through Michael Kennedy, and Michael was our lawyer and he was also their lawyer. We met with Michael one day and he said, These folks are interested in getting Tim Leary out of prison, and they wondered if you all would be interested in helping if you had any capacity to do that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Leary, of course, is the psychologist and former Harvard researcher who become world famous as the leading evangelist for LSD, preaching the gospel of psychedelic enlightenment to the youth of America. Taking acid mainstream.
[clip of Timothy Leary] LSD is the most powerful substance that the human being has ever developed for influence in mind, I’ve used the comparison of nuclear energy or fissional material. I think that in the right hands, it will bring about changes.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But U.S. law enforcement sees him as a threat. Just as J. Edgar Hoover is calling my mom the most dangerous woman in America and the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” Richard Nixon himself supposedly declares Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” And you can see the pattern here. The establishment is spooked by the youth movement. Leary, the Panthers, the Weathermen, are all tied into one big counterculture, and older traditional authority figures see that culture as a threat. In 1968, Leary is arrested in Laguna Beach with two joints. He’s convicted of possession and smuggling and ends up with 20 years in prison. It turns him into a symbol, an icon of resistance. Leary has lots of fans in the counterculture, but my mom, it turns out, isn’t one of them.
Bernardine Dohrn: You know, it wasn’t our slice of the counterculture pie at all. You know, he didn’t appeal to me because he was, what, you know? I don’t know, you know, a white man, self-centered, rich. But didn’t deserve to be in prison for sure.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love is offering $25,000 for this action. That’s nearly $180,000 dollars today, a lot of money to help fund the revolution. It could also be a potentially useful experience.
Bill Ayers: They could bankroll us learning a whole new set of skills that we could deploy elsewhere.
Bernardine Dohrn: Of the 20 things that we wanted to do, one of them was get people out of prison. Mainly African-American people were in prison for long sentences.
Bill Ayers: And we took it under advisement and thought about it and got very excited about it.
Bernardine Dohrn: It seemed to us like it would be practice for the next and the next. So we talked ourselves into it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They tell the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, We’re in! In exchange for a paper bag full of cash, the Weather underground will break Timothy Leary out of prison. The plan to break Leary out is simple, but people remember it in different ways. So I’m going to let them describe it for themselves.
Bernardine Dohrn: He would get himself over the fence, and we would pick him up within minutes of him doing that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s September 12th, 1970.
Bill Ayers: And so he’d gotten himself in shape. Did a lot of working out, a lot of time in the gym, a lot of push-ups, and he got himself to a place where he could do it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Around nine p.m.
Jeff Jones: He goes outside at shift change, and there’s a telephone pole that leads up to the wire that he actually can shimmy across. So that’s what he does. He goes out, he climbs up the pole. He wraps himself around this cable, and he proceeds to climb across it, I project about 200 feet.
Bill Ayers: We picked a night when there was going to be no moon. The fog was in.
Jeff Jones: He’s going across the yard of the prison, over the wall, and then actually across the big highway. And then he drops down into the bushes on the other side.
Bill Ayers: And we left the giant Buddha statue right next to the railroad tracks so that Larry would walk north until he found the Buddha. Sure enough, it worked like clockwork. He saw the Buddha, he picked the Buddha up. He was ecstatic. And then he cut to the west until he got to the highway.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Few other Weathermen, disguised as a family on a road trip, pull up in a camper.
Bill Ayers: And he makes a run for the car. They throw him in the back.
Jeff Jones: Changed his clothes. The clothes were handed off to another car.
Bill Ayers: And we take his clothes and we put them in a bathroom 15 miles south of the prison. They found them right away, and they were looking south.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the camper with Leary in the back is heading north, toward San Francisco.
Bill Ayers: Yeah, we met with him in the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California, in the Redwoods.
Bernardine Dohrn: He was fun. It was fun. I mean, we’re standing there in a redwood grove in California, you know, and all these, you know, headlines about him being gone and missing.
Bill Ayers: You know, he’s a, he’s a wiry guy, and he has a smile that takes up his whole face. And he couldn’t have been happier. He felt overjoyed to be out of prison. And we spent a couple of hours having a meal and congratulating one another, and then off he went.
Jeff Jones: He didn’t have time to grow a beard, certainly a major haircut, a dye job, a whole new set of clothes. I think that he traveled as a businessman.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They send them to Chicago for a new passport. From there, he catches a flight to Paris and then to Algeria, where he’s taken in by Black Panther fugitive leader Eldridge Cleaver. Remember those multiple overlapping undergrounds? Here’s a good example. The Weathermen need a place to hide Leary and his wife, Rosemary, a country with no extradition treaty beyond the reach of the American government. And the Panthers in exile are happy to oblige. A few weeks later, my aunt Jennifer flies to Algeria for Leary’s 50th birthday and they hold a press conference together. And Leary is thrilled with how it all went down.
[clip of Timothy Leary] I escaped with the help of the Weathermen underground. 25 of their crack underground operators came to California for my escape. They’re beautiful young people. They’re every place. They’re long-haired, they’re short-haired. They’re a model for all white youth and they are the hope of our country. We would like to tell the people of the United States, the third world war has begun. Join us in the fight for freedom because we are everywhere, and we’re happy, and we’re free, and we’re going to make the world free.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: After Leary’s escape, Weather Underground leadership decides to share their new revolutionary philosophy with the larger youth counterculture. So they send a communique to the alternative press. They call it, “New Morning: Changing Weather.” There’s no recording of this, so I asked my mom to read a section.
Bernardine Dohrn: “We want to express ourselves to the mass movement, not as military leaders, but as tribes at council. It has been nine months since the townhouse explosion. In that time, the future of our revolution has been changed decisively. The townhouse forever destroyed our belief that armed struggle is the only real revolutionary struggle.”
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Weathermen are saying we don’t have to kill or die to be part of a revolution, fighting back, breaking people out of jail, building a mass movement, even surviving, can be enough.
Bill Ayers: Our survival is a political statement. And if we could survive with the full power of the state searching for us, that’s a victory.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But not everyone in the movement thinks living underground, blending in with the counterculture, is itself a revolutionary act. Eldridge Cleaver back in Algeria sends his own message to the underground.
[clip of Eldridge Cleaver] We hope that the Weathermen will have a chance to see and hear this. And we want to say, Right on, brothers and sisters. We took upon ourselves Timothy and Rosemary at your request in order to demonstrate our love and solidarity for you and our great, undying respect for the beautiful, revolutionary work. But we also want to say that it has become very clear to me that there’s something seriously wrong with both Dr. Leary and his wife’s brain. And I attribute this to the multiple acid trips that they have taken.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Timothy Leary has alienated Cleaver. His single-minded focus on drug-fueled revolutions in consciousness, rather than actual revolution, isn’t wearing well.
[clip of Eldridge Cleaver] We feel that we need people with clear hands, sober people who have their wits about them, stone cold revolutionaries, motivated by revolutionary love.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: As it turns out, Cleaver is right about Leary. He wasn’t a stone-cold revolutionary after all. When U.S. agents finally catch up to him in Afghanistan after years on the run, Leary winds up back in jail in Folsom Prison, in the cell next to Charles Manson. Leary’s now facing 20 years in jail, so when the FBI visits, offering early release in exchange for information, Leary jumped at the chance. He would later claim he gave up nothing important. But according to his declassified FBI file, “Leary has furnished extensive information which should result in indictment of numerous Weathermen, Weatherman attorneys and Weathfugs, meaning weather underground fugitives. In 1976, he’s released. Leary has sold out the underground, told the FBI everything he knows. But it isn’t much. Weathermen had learned from their earlier mistakes. They’d been careful this time to keep everything about the action–the camper, the cars, the IDs–separate and compartmentalized. Anyway, it hardly matters now. They’re entering a different stage. By the mid 1970s, the Weather Underground has much bigger things to worry about.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Next time on mother country radicals.
Bill Ayers: I guess I would say it this way: that those who know don’t tell and those who tell don’t know. So I know some things that I can’t tell you.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The war my parents and their comrades have been preparing for is finally here.
Dyson: Maybe they had the ability to assassinate the president. Maybe they could blow up Congress and kill congressmen, important congresswomen. And that presented a real situation for a lot of people.
[news] The latest, but probably not the last terror bombing to take place in this country shattered part of a building on the Harvard campus early this morning.
[news] There were three early-morning bomb blasts.
[news clip] –left the men’s room a scrambles, bombing demolished, rips and plaster ripped from wall.
[clip of Bin Wahad] The Black Liberation Army could mainly be simply stated as the opening of a new front in the overall struggle in the United States.
[clip of police officer] They were shooting to kill me, and I was shooting to kill them. It looks to me like it’s open warfare.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: 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. Ariana Gharib Lee is our senior producer. Stephanie Cohn is the producer. Ty Jones is our historical consultant. All three also helped with writing on the series. This episode was sound designed by Ariana Gharib Lee. We had production Help from Julianna Bradley. 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, Lizzy 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.