In This Episode
The FBI targets the Weather Underground, and a split in the Black Panther Party gives rise to a new, more militant organization – the Black Liberation Army.
For more of the story, check out:
- The Weather Underground, Prairie Fire: The Politics Of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (1974)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, The Declassified FBI Files on the Weather Underground Organization (2010)
Episode 6: The Belly of the Beast, Part I
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals: The Weather Underground meets Timothy Leary.
[clip of Timothy Leary] I escaped with the help of the Weathermen Underground.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: As they decide to reconnect to the wider youth counterculture, to fight a revolution without deadly violence.
Bill Ayers: Suicide, revolutionary suicide, that wasn’t on the agenda.
Jeff Jones: Not only do we not want to kill anyone, we don’t want to hurt anybody.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But not everyone is a fan of their new direction. In 1971, most of the Panther 21 are still locked up in New York. And to some, it feels like the Weathermen are leaving them behind, selling out. Jamal Joseph is out on bail, but he’s still facing decades in prison.
Jamal Joseph: I think the Panther 21, especially those members of the Panther 21 that were still in prison, felt forgotten.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So the New York Panthers respond to the Weather Underground’s new morning communique with a public letter of their own.
[clip of Jamal Joseph] We of the Panther 21 take this opportunity to greet you with the spirit of revolutionary love and solidarity.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s a comrade-to-comrade reminder: the Weathermen should stay the militant course.
[clip of Jamal Joseph] We need allies. We have a powerful enemy who cannot be defeated without an allied effort. Anyone who has the same interests as we do, the destruction of this evil society is an ally. All others are foes.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And they end their letter with a direct appeal.
[clip of Jamal Joseph] Do you recall the old “ask what you can do for your country”? Destroy it. Mentally, morally, psychologically, and physically, destroy it. And whatever you do, do it good. Your fellow guerrillas in the revolution, the Panther 21.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So the Weathermen decide to show the Panthers they haven’t lost sight of the revolution, and they get to work planning their response. This is Chapter 6: The Belly of the Beast. And this is a big story. So we’ve divided it into two parts. This is part one. In the spring of 1971, Afeni Shakur represents herself in the trial of the Panther 21. Five months pregnant, and without any legal training, without even finishing high school, she gets an undercover detective to admit on the stand he misrepresented the activities of the New York Panthers to his NYPD bosses, and that he tried to encourage the Panthers to commit more violent acts. That undercover cop is Jamal Joseph’s mentor, Yedwe. Real name, Ralph White. The jury deliberates for less than 2 hours. In May 1971, the Panther 21 are acquitted of all charges. And a month later, Afeni gives birth to her son, Tupac. Jamal Joseph is his godfather. But Jamal and many other members of the 21 aren’t around to see their big legal victory or the birth of a new Panther cub. They’ve already disappeared. Earlier that winter, Black Panther leader Huey Newton had come east from California to give a talk at Yale, enlisting Jamal and some other New York Panthers as bodyguards. And this isn’t unusual. After the murders of Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, national leaders often have local Panthers doing security at their public events. But this time, Jamal notices something is off with Huey.
Jamal Joseph: Huey Newton had become a very paranoid man. I mean, the paranoia was so high that he would step on stage and literally have a ring of people around him. Huey finishes his speech and we usher him to a side door. This was a very cold night and there had been a snowstorm and there was a lot of ice on the ground. When we get outside, there is a couple of students from the Yale newspaper. And there’s a white kid that’s got a camera. And when he gets a photo, a flash goes off, but at the same time he slips. You hear all of this noise, and guns come out from everywhere. Half of the guns are pointed toward this poor kid, this kid with his long hair, and his friend who had slipped. And the other half of the guns are pointed at each other–East Coast and West Coast. And he has a moment where we all look at each other, no one says a word, but we understand where we’re at now. We get Huey in his car and he drives off, and the rest of us go to our own cars without any words.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal and the other East Coasters are supposed to meet up with Huey again that night in New Haven, but one of Jamal’s friends is getting a bad feeling.
Jamal Joseph: And I remember I was driving and he said, Jamal, do you know your way to New York? And I said, I do. And he said, That’s where we’re going, because if we go there, we’re going to be killed. And that’s the night I went underground.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Tensions between East Coast and West Coast Panthers have been building for a long time–political infighting, whispers of disloyalty. The Panthers don’t know it yet, or at least they don’t know specifics, but their internal conflicts have been stoked and encouraged for years by the FBI. It’s part of official policy, informants spreading rumors, agents writing forged letters, and fake news planted in the media to turn Panthers against one another. Angela Davis remembers.
Angela Davis: There was a young man in one of our meetings who wanted to lead the whole group out to the streets to kill cops, and we pointed out that this is exactly what an agent would do. So we knew that there were agents within the Black Panther Party. And of course, that sense of ubiquitous repression was eventually, I think, what was responsible for the destruction of the Black Panther Party. Nobody can stand up to that kind of surveillance and repression.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The FBI’s strategy works. In 1971, the Black Panther Party splits apart, East against West.
Jamal Joseph: And that’s when the Panthers who were underground, started identifying themselves as the Black Liberation Army.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Black Liberation Army, or BLA, is a catch-all name for multiple independent cells operating within the Black underground of the 1970s. Many BLA members are former Panthers, but their tactics, like their mindset, have evolved.
[clip of Bin Wahad] Self-defense in itself is never revolutionary. It never has been. It’s only one part of a dialectical whole, which is war. There can be no real self-defense unless you have an effective offense.
[clip of Afeni Shakur] I advocate self-determination for my people. And for all oppressed people inside the United States.
Jihad Abdulmumit: These are not imaginary ghosts that we’re fighting. We were fighting real oppression, real police violence.
[clip of Bin Wahad] The Black Liberation Army can mainly be simply stated as an opening of a new front in the overall struggle in the United States.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Opening a new front, here at home. It’s what people in the Weather Underground are saying, too. And in fact, the BLA and Weathermen would wind up working in the same undergrounds, aiding and abetting and challenging each other while on the run. Members had influenced each other in the ideological debates of the ’60s, now they would support each other in the revolutionary struggles of the ’70s. And some, the last, desperate remnants of both organizations would eventually go out together in a final explosion of violence in the 1980s. So this, the early to mid-’70s, is when both underground go to war, when Black and white revolutionaries alike fulfill their promise to fight back against the United States government by any means necessary. And as in any war, increasing the violence raises the stakes, not just for the revolutionaries themselves, but for the FBI and the police, too. It creates an intensifying logic of escalation. Both sides more and more willing to cross legal and ethical lines in order to win. The US government is actually the first to escalate. For years, police and the FBI had been targeting peaceful Black activist groups with illegal wiretaps, warrantless raids and arrests, beatings and intimidation. And when the Panthers tried to arm themselves in self-defense, the government responds with outright assassinations. Jihad Abdulmumit is 16-years old when he joins the Panther chapter in New Jersey.
Jihad Abdulmumit: It was very common for you to get a call from another Panther office saying that so-and-so was killed today by the police. But all around us there was Panthers getting arrested.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The tactics used against white militant groups are different, not as violent, certainly not as deadly, but still escalating in intensity. Frustrated that the FBI can’t catch the Weather Underground fugitives, J. Edgar Hoover taps Associate Director Mark Felt–later known to the world as Deep Throat–to oversee his new mission to dismantle the group. At first they tried the usual tactics: threats, bribes, money in exchange for cooperation. Bill Dyson is the lead agent on the Weather Underground case.
Bill Dyson: These people weren’t interested in money. We couldn’t even get these people to cooperate at all. They weren’t, they weren’t interested in that type of thing. They’d go to jail if need be. And if you can’t talk to them, you can’t convince them to become informants.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So the FBI escalates again. Mark Felt authorizes black-bag jobs, warrantless breaking and entering, illegal surveillance, even kidnaping and blackmail. And since they don’t know how to find the fugitives themselves, the Bureau focuses its efforts on the above ground friends and family members, the support network. My mom’s sister, my aunt Jennifer, is the unofficial spokeswoman for the Weather Underground at the time. She delivers the organization’s statements after bombings in these informal, freewheeling press conferences.
[reporter] What is your first name?
[Jennifer Dohrn] I’m . . . Jennifer.
[reporter] How do you feel about what your sister is advocating?
[Jennifer Dohrn] I think it’s right on. I think she’s far out. All Weathermen are far out.
[reporter] Could you explain that?
[Jennifer Dohrn] They’re forced to be outlaws, by the way the society is run, and we think they’re great.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So even though she’s aboveground and hasn’t been accused of any crime, the FBI figures Jennifer might be able to lead them to her fugitive older sister. Jennifer is living with her roommate Judy at the time. They would later find out their apartment and phones had been bugged. They’re followed all the time, in case they’re planning to meet up with people underground.
Jennifer Dohrn: Whenever we had meetings, we would go through long trajectories to make sure that we were not being followed. But it was, it was an intense time. You know, the FBI rented an apartment next door to where Judy Clark and I lived in, and our Freedom of Information Act files, you know, they recorded us around the clock everything we do, from, you know, from getting in a shower, to cooking, to making love with whoever either one of us was seeing. I mean, it’s really such an invasion of privacy that they were in my most intimate moments, and knew everything that Judy and I were doing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In fact, Jennifer says the FBI broke into her apartment repeatedly, and that they took advantage of that access.
Jennifer Dohrn: When the head of the FBI in New York City retired, they gave him a going away party, and the FBI gave him one pair of my underwear in a glass case as a trophy. And it was like, you know, I always wondered where that piece of underwear went, but they were in and out of our apartment. So anyway, it’s just like, so, it’s just disgusting, that’s all.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She even hears years later about a plot by the FBI to kidnap her baby son, my cousin Amilcar, and hold him as blackmail to force Bernardine to turn herself in. And the FBI isn’t just harassing Jennifer. Agents go after her and my mom’s parents too, my grandparents, Berney and Dorothy.
Jennifer Dohrn: You know, they would send people their age and say, Oh, this must be so hard for you, my daughters are in college and my son just graduated from college. I know how you must feel. And my mother would make chocolate chip cookies and give them coffee, and they would sit at the table, and they said every time we don’t know anything, because they didn’t.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But FBI agents soon give up playing good cop. They show up in the middle of the night. They pound on my grandfather’s door.
Jennifer Dohrn: Don’t tell your wife. Get in a car. We think we have your daughter’s body here. You know, to drive off to someplace and see, you know, a decomposing body and say, no, that’s not her. How do you get over that?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They hope he’ll be so scared of his daughter getting hurt, he’ll agree to help them catch her. It eventually gets back to my mom, what her parents are going through.
Bernardine Dohrn: I think they were, you know, afraid of what the government and its evil forces could do. They were afraid for me.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In case it’s not obvious what the FBI was doing here, targeting a suspect’s relatives with unauthorized break-ins, warrantless surveillance, theft, let alone kidnaping and blackmail, is all illegal, unconstitutional. Our producer, Ariana Lee, asked Agent Dyson if he had any regrets about the bureau’s tactics.
Bill Dyson: I don’t agree with it. I thought it was horrible that that type of thing came to light.
Ariana Lee: You thought it was horrible it came to light, but not that it happened?
Bill Dyson: I think it’s horrible that didn’t succeed. If they were going to do that type of thing, why do it if it doesn’t succeed? Doesn’t look like they, well, they shouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have done it.
Ariana Lee: I’m just trying to sort of understand whether anyone thought like, Oh, you know, maybe that’s a bridge too far?
Bill Dyson: You had to–I don’t know how I can say it this way–what the Weathermen were doing was presenting a threat. You got the impression that they had the capability and perhaps the desire to really do things that could cause disruption to our government. Like maybe they had the ability to assassinate the president, maybe they could blow up Congress and kill congressmen and congressmen–and that presented a real situation for a lot of people. Can we let this happen? Because you could literally alter history if you kill the president. And there were some people who felt anything goes, we got to do this. We got to protect our country.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: If this is a war, in other words, the ends justify the means. The FBI believes it’s worth breaking the law, doing whatever they have to, in order to win. And the activists in the Revolutionary Undergrounds, both Black and white, are starting to think exactly the same thing. In 1970, members of the Black Liberation Army are still living in and around New York City. They haven’t gone far geographically, but like the Weathermen, they’ve suddenly entered a parallel universe, a universe of safe houses and payphones, code words, and fake IDs. And also, like the Weathermen, they’re aided in their dissent by a network of aboveground supporters, people who aren’t militants or fugitives themselves but offer help with supplies and logistics. People like the man I named after Zayd Shakur.
Jamal Joseph: Zayd was there to give people support. This idea of being able to move from one city to another, or one apartment into another, you know? For someone to have some fake I.D.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In the early 1970s, Zayd is the New York Panther Minister of Information and one of the most beloved people in the New York chapter. Assata Shakur says in her autobiography that Zayd is a feminist, the first man to help cook dinner or roll up his sleeves and wash the dishes, that during the Panther 21 trial, he works relentlessly around the clock to raise bail, to keep programs running, to keep people organized. Zayd is also apparently the best dressed panther in New York.
Jamal Joseph: Because he was a tailor and a designer, and wearing Afrocentric stuff in New York was the shit in those days. And Zayd would make dashikis and pants in these great coats. A great thing about doing your work really well with Zayd and hang out with Zayd was like, Zayd, why don’t you make me a dashiki man? And Zayd would be like, How much money you got? And I was like $5. And he was like, These dashikis are $20. And I’ll be like, I don’t have it. It was like, Keep working for the people and let’s see what we can do.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: When people start to go underground, Zayd is put in charge of making disguises. He’s forced to tone down the style because the BLA’s new look has to be:
Jamal Joseph: As non-Pantherist as you could. You know what I mean? To cut your hair and brush it to the side, and have on a corny sweater and some, you know, corny shoes so that you could just look like, you know, a college student or somebody coming home from work.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And this is how it works in the underground, people use their talents in unexpected ways. Fashion designers make corny disguises. Law students figure out how to break the law. Science majors build bombs. The BLA has an underground support network too, and the Weathermen are part of it.
Jamal Joseph: When Black people went underground, it was that white underground that would help them find hiding places, money, food, help them get out the country, etc.. That became our modern underground railroad, to be like, real clear.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The Panthers had stepped up to hide Timothy Leary in Algeria. Now, in the fall of 1970, the Weathermen have already been fugitives for six months, and they offered to share what they know with their Black comrades, helping with fake IDs, safe houses, and medical care.
Jamal Joseph: I don’t go into too much detail about times in place, but I’ll just say that that I remember meeting Bernardine and the support for exactly what I’m talking about was like real support. I remember coming away going like, That’s a real sister right there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My mom’s sister Jennifer had deep ties to both groups, connecting the Black and white Undergrounds being on call.
Jennifer Dohrn: People were trying to give whatever help we could. There was a party at a friend’s house in Brooklyn. I remember going and we were dancing and dancing, and the man I was seeing at the time, who was a doctor, got a call and nodded at me. We went outside because we never talked inside apartments, and someone had been injured in the Black Liberation Army and he needed to go off and take care of a gunshot wound. So we hugged and he went off and then he came back 4 hours later and the person was okay. He was able to deal with the wounds. And then I just remember we tried to dance again.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So this is how the Black and white undergrounds start to build a relationship, to trust each other with small acts of solidarity while on the run.
Jamal Joseph: We called each other comrades, and we called each other brothers and sisters. And that was people meeting, you know, in apartments and in dark corners and in places in the woods, talking about how do we fight? How do we help people who are already on the run? And how do we advance the struggle?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For the BLA, advancing the struggle means gathering supplies, stockpiling weapons, preparing for a battle they know is coming.
Jamal Joseph: We were training folks for what we thought was an escalation of everything that was going to lead to some armed struggle. And so a lot of the work was getting guns donated, buying guns, putting safe houses together and escape routes together.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Pretty soon they start carrying out actions in their own neighborhoods, first targeting the drug dealers and pimps who’ve been preying on their communities for years. Former Panther and BLA member Jihad Abdulmumit remembers why.
Jihad Abdulmumit: You know, we had a saying back in the Panther Party that “two hurricanes can blow at the same time.” You can sell your heroin and dope on a corner where there’s a Black Panther Party office. You just can’t. It’s just, it’s a contradiction there. Death to the pigs, and death to the pusher. Get the heck out of here with that dope, and we weren’t playing with that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal Joseph is part of a crew taking on dealers in Harlem and the Bronx.
Jamal Joseph: We managed to shut down about 5 to 7 drug dens, you know, where we went in, you know, at gunpoint and disarmed the drug dealers and destroyed the drugs and took the money. You come in with a couple of bags, one to scoop drugs, one to scoop the money. Drugs got flushed down the toilet. You know, one or two occasions where we had a chance to kind of come out and say that, you know, we armed combatants from the Black Liberation Army, we declare this liberated territory. Anyone who is dealing drugs is committing genocide on our people. They will answer to the justice of the people. It will be so funny because a crowd would gather fairly quickly. The grandmothers would be like, Yes, Lord, thank you, Jesus! They’d be a couple of a couple of junkies in the crowd seeing the drug going down the sewers and they would go like, God damn, no!
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But taking down dealers isn’t enough. You need to make real money to fund the revolution.
Jihad Abdulmumit: This movement is not going to go down by having bake sales or fund raising, and nobody at that time was writing any grants as such.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jihad is a teenager when he becomes a BLA soldier, just like Jamal Joseph. He’s part of a small cell in Rochester, New York, focusing on expropriations.
Jihad Abdulmumit: As opposed to bank robbery, expropriation is more a term that relates to the revolutionary aspects of what you’re doing. You’re doing this for a particular reason, not for jewelries and sneakers or some personal aggrandizement. You’re doing this as it connects to a movement.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jihad and his crew pull off a couple of bank robberies without getting caught or hurting anyone. Soon it becomes pretty routine.
Jihad Abdulmumit: Two of us go position ourselves, and the other two come in, you know, 20 seconds later, we jump over the counter and take the money from the different drawers, and then all four of us leave. We get out, get into a car.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: One time they’re leaving the bank and they’re listening in on a CB radio to random truckers out on the highway, calling out warnings to each other about cops on the road.
Jihad Abdulmumit: Breaker, breaker one nine, we have a convoy of Smokey Bears coming up on such and such a mile marker.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Smokey bears, trucker slang for police cars. The cops are getting closer.
Jihad Abdulmumit: And then a trucker said, breaker, breaker one nine, by golly, we have a bear in the air. He even made it sound poetic. And here comes a helicopter coming down kind of low. And then it chases on. It went through Franklin County and into the next county, shooting up the highway there. Eventually it was nothing but police. So, you know, they kicked our ass but sure, at least mine.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jihad would serve 23 years in Lewisburg and Leavenworth federal penitentiaries for bank robberies and for trying to help other comrades escape from prison.
Jihad Abdulmumit: Somebody may look at it now that thinks that they have some more better paramilitary approach to things, but the thing about we had the balls and the audacity to do it and the reason that we were doing it for our own liberation. So that’s why, that’s the only reason why, that I would risk my life as a teenager. I could have been anything. I could have I could have probably went to college and end up being some Uncle Tom congressman or something. [laughs]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Drug dealers, pimps, and banks aren’t the BLA’s only targets. The Black underground is also gearing up for a bigger, more serious fight, with a group they believe poses an even more deadly threat to their communities. The BLA is going to war with the police. 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 Weather Underground launches a new wave of bombings in solidarity with the North Vietnamese and the Black Freedom Movement.
Angela Davis: That it was a powerful idea, that there were these white people who really wanted to support the Black liberation movement.
[news clip] There were three early morning bomb blasts.
[news clip] About 20 offices, all of them empty at the time, were damaged.
[news clip] The men’s room, a shambles, bombing demolished, bricks and plaster ripped from walls.
[news clip] The Associated Press got a phone call from a man saying he was with the Weather Underground.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the Black Liberation Army fights its own battle against the New York City police.
[clip of Walter Cronkite] Last week in New York City, for no apparent reason, a gang of four men opened fire on two young police officers, killing them both.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The war they’ve all been preparing for for years is finally here.
Jamal Joseph: When you were in the Panthers above ground, you would wake up in the morning thinking this might be the day that you got arrested or killed. In the BLA, you woke up thinking, this is the day.
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. Arwin Nix is our executive editor. Arianna 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 Arianna Gharib Lee. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clausen is the composer. For Audacy, Tim Clarke is head of audio content. Lindsey 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.