In This Episode
The Weather Underground Organization and the Black Liberation Army go to war with the United States government.
For more of the story, check out:
- The BLA, Black Liberation Army Papers (1963-1998)
- Sekou Odinga, Dhoruba Bin Wahad & Jamal Joseph, Look for Me in the Whirlwind: From the Panther 21 to 21st Century Revolutions (2017)
Chapter 7: The Belly of the Beast, Part II
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals, members of the New York Panthers form a new militant group.
[clip of Bin Wahad] The Black Liberation Army can mainly be simply stated as the opening of a new front in the overall struggle in the United States.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And they join the Weathermen Underground.
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: But while the two groups learn to live off the grid, the FBI breaks its own rules to find them.
Bill Dyson: What the Weathermen were doing was presenting a threat. Like maybe they had the ability to assassinate the president, maybe they could blow up Congress and kill congressmen, important congressmen. And there were some people who felt anything goes, we’ve got to do this, we got to protect our country.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This is Chapter 7: The Belly of the Beast, Part II. In the early 1970s, the Weather Underground organization launches a new wave of bombings. Another desperate attempt to end the war and draw the attention of law enforcement away from Black comrades. And this is actually a difficult part of the story to write about, to research. People don’t want to talk about the most militant actions of the Underground, who built bombs and who planted them.
Cathy Wilkerson: That’s not something I really want to go into.
Jeff Jones: I’m going to let you down, Zayd. I really don’t want to.
Laura Whitehorn: Oh, no, I’m not going to talk about that. Sorry.
Eleanor Stein: I don’t think I want to go there.
Jeff Jones: I don’t remember.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: That’s right. I have other people who do remember.
Jeff Jones: Well, shame on them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My parents, too–even today, more than 50 years later, in the middle of family conversations:
Bill Ayers: Well, again, I can’t, I can’t say anything specific about, about that.
Bernardine Dohrn: I’m not going to tell you who retrieved it, and I’m not going to tell you who put it there, and I’m not going to tell you who worked on it.
Bill Ayers: I won’t say it.
Bernardine Dohrn: I don’t want you to say it.
Bill Ayers: I guess I would say it this way: 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: There’s a code of silence in the underground, what Weatherman Brian Flanagan calls:
Brian Flanagan: Omerta.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Omerta. That’s the honor code of the Mafia. He’s joking. Kind of. But it’s a code they take seriously to this day. Don’t name names. Don’t implicate friends. Loyalty to comrades is deeply ingrained in the Underground. It’s how they managed to stay alive and out of jail all those years. And there’s also, according to Laura Whitehorn, another reason.
Laura Whitehorn: We developed really sophisticated methods. And why do I want to make those public now? You know, people might want to use them again.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So no names, no operational secrets. But here’s what happened next:
[clip of Walter Cronkite] From the Underground, that radical left-wing group, the Weathermen has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s dynamiting of a statue of a Chicago policeman. The group promises more attacks on the establishment around the entire country starting next week.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: We told you before about the early bombings carried out by the Weathermen. But this, from late 1970 to mid-1972, is when it becomes an all-out assault. After the second bombing of the Haymarket statue in October of 1970, my mom records a new tape, promising this is only the beginning.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] The head of the Police Sergeants’ Association called emotionally for all-out war between the pigs and us. We accept it. Last night we destroyed the pig again. This time it begins a fall offensive of youth resistance that was spread from Santa Barbara to Boston back to . . .
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Two days later, Weathermen bomb the Marin County courthouse, in solidarity with the so-called “Soledad Brothers.” Two days after that, a Long Island City courthouse in support of the New York prison riots. And four days later, another bomb.
[news clip] 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 clip] Later, a Boston newspaper received a letter from a self-styled group of revolutionary women dedicating the blast to Angela Davis.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What did you think of the bomb at the Harvard Center for International Affairs that the Weather Underground said was in solidarity with you? I mean, you had a lot going on at the time.
Angela Davis: Yeah, I did. I did. [laughs] You know, it was obviously an expression of solidarity and an expression of the movement that we were were building. That it was a powerful idea that there were these white people who really wanted to support the Black liberation movement.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Throughout 1971, Weathermen keep up the offensive. They bombed the Office of California Prisons to protest the killing of Black Panther George Jackson. They bombed the New York Department of Corrections to protest the killing of 29 mostly Black inmates during the Attica rebellion. And they bomb an MIT office linked to one of the architects of the Vietnam War. And then in 1972, the Weather Underground escalates again. On the eve of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, they take aim at the heart of American military power.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Here’s how my dad tells the story. In a D.C. safe house, a young woman pulls on a dark wig and thick glasses. She paints her fingertips with clear nail polish so she won’t leave prints. She packs a briefcase, a bunch of papers, and a device about the size of a flashlight. A friend drives her across town and drops her at the main visitor’s entrance to the Pentagon. At 9 a.m., she heads up the stairs and through the marble portico. She’s been coming here for weeks, roaming the halls, eating breakfast alongside civil servants and military personnel. Nobody asks her who she is or what she’s doing there. She’s a young white woman dressed like a government secretary in skirt and blouse. She fits right in and she knows exactly where she’s headed: through the maze-like hallways and into a women’s bathroom in the Air Force wing. She unscrews a drain on the floor, pulls out the device, and slides it into a pipe. Then she replaces the drain cap, gathers her things, and slips back out of the bathroom. She leaves the building and hops into an idling car, which quickly disappears into traffic. And then in the middle of the night, around 12:30 a.m., the Pentagon’s emergency line rings.
[clip of Bill Ayers] In 25 minutes, a bomb will explode in the Air Force section of the Pentagon. I’m calling from the Weather Underground. And believe me, this is no prank. Clear the area. Get everyone out. You have 25 minutes. Vietnam will win.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: There’s a quick scramble to empty the building.
[news clip] The explosion destroyed one of the Pentagon’s 140 women’s restrooms and blasted out a wall on the fourth floor. No one was injured. The explosion came at 1 a.m., just moments after the Pentagon’s duty officer received a warning which said the Pentagon would be bombed in celebration of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: From 1970 to 1975, the Weather Underground carries out at least 25 of these bomb attacks against the American government and U.S. corporations, targeting some of the most secure, well-guarded facilities on the planet. Not just the Pentagon, but the State Department, Gulf Oil, Bank of America headquarters, and the U.S. Capitol Capital.
[news clip] At one minute before 1:00 this morning, the switchboard at the Capitol received a phone call. A man’s voice said a bomb would go off in the building in half an hour.
[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, plumbing 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.
[news clip] The group promises more attacks on the establishment around the entire country starting next week.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The explosions come in the middle of the night while the buildings are deserted. And Weathermen always call in warnings beforehand to make sure their targets are empty. They’re determined after the townhouse to avoid killing. But still, they are setting off bombs in public places–pretty close to the textbook definition of terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. And after the January 6th insurrection, it’s also worth asking what it means to attack symbols of the U.S. government, for political protests to turn violent, for a group of citizens to decide to go to war with their own country.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What about the fact that, you know, setting off bombs, even if the targets are government targets, there’s a sort of an implicit threat or a violence behind that that could terrorize people?
Bill Ayers: I don’t think, I don’t think so. You know, I think the word terrorist is misapplied to us. And the reason is obvious. If you take terrorism and define it as attacks on ordinary people for a political end to intimidate and frighten in order to win a political point, then terrorism is everywhere. But the main terrorists in the last hundred and 50 years have been governments. We were objecting to the terrorist war. We were not terrorists.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Of course, it’s possible ordinary people did feel threatened, people who worked in government buildings or people who just saw the carnage on TV and felt less safe. They could have felt, understandably, that it’s a slippery slope, a danger to democracy when a group of citizens decide the best way to make political change is through violence. Weathermen insist though, now and at the time, that their bombs are symbolic–not intended to terrorize, but to make a point.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Our actions have been against the property and the symbols and the institutions of the ruling class. At this stage of the struggle, its armed propaganda.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And it is true that no one was ever seriously injured or killed in the Weather Underground bombings except for their own people: Terry, Teddy, and Diana at the townhouse. But meanwhile, as the Weather Underground is engaged in this symbolic war with the U.S. government and capitalism, a real war is going on closer to home. In 1973 in Queens, a 10-year old boy named Clifford Glover is out walking with his stepdad to work. Clifford is carrying something. Some say it’s a candy bar, others that he had his own little ranch so he could pretend to be working at his stepfather’s junkyard. It’s just after dawn. Suddenly a car pulls up, two men jump out holding guns. Clifford and his stepfather think they’re being robbed. They run. And one of the men opens fire. At least two bullets hit Clifford in the back. He dies later that day in the hospital.
[news clip] Street violence is not uncommon in New York City. This past weekend, one of its victims was 10-year old Clifford Glover, who was shot to death by a policeman.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It turns out the man who shot Clifford Glover is an undercover cop. Later that week, reporters talked to Clifford’s mother.
[clip of Armstead] I feel like that it was murder because he was a kid. And it seemed liked to me that he would have had to understand that was a kid and could crippled him and not just shot him down.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Clifford Glover’s killing is a foundational event for a whole generation of Black activists. The BLA soldier Sekou Odinga remembers how the long history of police violence against Black people seemed to culminate in this boy’s death.
[Sekou Odinga] Whenever they murdered someone in the community, it was always justifiable, even if it was a little kid like Cliffie Glover in South Jamaica, Queens.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: “It was always justifiable, even if it was a little kid like Cliffie Glover.” The cop who shot Clifford, Officer Thomas Shay, claims he saw a gun in the boy’s hand. But the gun is never found. Officer Shay is tried for the shooting, the first NYPD officer in 50 years to be charged with the murder committed while on duty. But he’s acquitted. And of course, this is all too familiar. After the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald–the relentless sameness of police violence against Black people, Black children in America. How little has changed. You can still hear the frustration in Sekou’s voice 50 years later.
[Sekou Odinga] It ain’t “they murdered the kid”, they find it there was nothing wrong with that. No one’s held responsible for that. So the army held them responsible.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: “The Army held them responsible.” In other words:
Jamal Joseph: Things like this would happen and there would be a BLA response to that, and that their response was: yes, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You cannot just wantonly come in and murder people in a community without a military political consequence.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In the three years leading up to Clifford Glover’s death, 60% of people killed by New York police had been Black, at a time when Black people made up only 20% of the city’s population. The numbers in other major cities–Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit–are even worse. Hundreds of Black people killed every year with little attention and no accountability. To the BLA, it feels like the police have already gone to war with the Black community.
Jamal Joseph: They were the occupying army. They were the ones that were murdering Black men, women and children.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the BLA decides to fight back.
Jamal Joseph: People were in such a rage by what had happened, by people being killed on the streets, by the blatant fascism, you know, by what was going on, that I think that people were like, Let me get some licks in before I die.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: From 1970 to 1975, the BLA carries out a series of attacks in retaliation against the police.
[news clip] Two young police officers were killed and four members of a militant group called the Black Liberation Army were identified by New York police as prime suspects.
[news clip] The Black Liberation Army has been implicated in the murders of four New York policemen, and attacks on others.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Mainstream white media mostly treats the attacks as a deranged response to nothing.
[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: And white people across the country, officers and ordinary citizens, are terrified and angry, while the police unions stoke the outrage.
[clip of police rep] Nine policemen killed, they say killed. They were murdered, out-and-out viciously murdered. The civilians that you say are killed by policemen, they’re not murdered. If they killed, it because the policeman killed in defense of his life, or in defense of someone else’s life.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So the police escalate again in response. And pretty soon militant groups all across the country are at war with the cops.
[news clip] After the shooting, a 70-man police strike force moved into the troubled area. In the shootout, police guns wounded five young men, one fatally. No police were hit.
[clip of police officer] They were shooting to kill me and I was shooting to kill them. This is not the good old days, like the cowboy days. It looks to me like it’s open warfare.
[news clip] There was gunfire. One 21-year old Black man was killed. Three were wounded.
[news clip] The current situation is tense. Police urging calm, and at least one Black militant threatening revenge.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But when you go to war with the police, you pretty quickly wind up outnumbered and outgunned. By 1973, most of the original BLA members have been arrested or killed. A decentralized network that once numbered hundreds of people has nearly been wiped out. I asked Jihad Abdulmumit what it was like to be at war with the police as a teenager. Was he scared?
Jihad Abdulmumit: I love that question. Love it because I’m scared now for my son, who’s 17. And just like he is right now, as I was then, we were not scared at all. Bring it. That was our attitude. And when we, when we were captured, we were trying to escape. Wasn’t crying for any lawyer help or anything like that. Not the young BLA, not my crew, not the teenagers. You put us in jail, we try and escape.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My Aunt Jennifer remembers the intensity of the law enforcement crackdown at the time, how quickly it seemed to decimate the Black underground.
Jennifer Dohrn: The police were at this point systematically looking for people. We went to so many funerals and so many visits in prisons. I mean, you kind of lived with this fear and reality that people were going to be killed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And for Jamal Joseph, it’s clear: he and the other BLA fugitives can’t survive much longer.
Jamal Joseph: When you were in the Panthers aboveground, 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: In the early 1970s, FBI COINTELPRO specialists and New York City Red Squad detectives team up to track down and neutralize the BLA members who remain at large. They’re particularly focused on one person, opening an entire investigation, codenamed CHESROB, into BLA leader, Joanne Chesimard, who’s taken the revolutionary name Assata Shakur.
[clip of Assata Shakur] –that imperialism has to go. It is a poison that is killing people all over this world. The priorities of this planet have to be completely changed, and instead of profit–
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Assata is just 25-years old, but like Angela Davis or Bernardine, she’s smart, charismatic, and militant. A natural leader. And as other BLA leaders have been arrested or killed, she’s taken on an increasingly important and visible role in the organization.
Jamal Joseph: Assata has gotten more and more involved, and had, you know, become elevated within the ranks of the Black Liberation Army.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Robert Daly, deputy commissioner of the New York City Police, describes Assata as “the final wanted fugitive, the soul of the gang, the mother hen who kept them together, kept them moving, kept them shooting.” And the government launches a nationwide manhunt to catch her. The Weathermen are also being hunted at the time, but there are crucial differences in how law enforcement treats Black and white people, even among most wanted criminals. My mom was once pulled over by the police while she was on the run.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was driving a pickup truck alone and I was stopped by, you know, a state trooper with those kind of sunglasses that, were you can’t see his face. Very young. I’m going through in my mind the name on my I.D., which is fairly recent, and my birth date, and my story of who I am and where I came from. And he comes up to the car and I roll down the window and then I realize that my hand was trembling. Embarrassing moment, for somebody being tough and declaring war. He put his hand on mine and he said, Don’t be afraid of us. And he said, I’m just stopping you because your license plate is falling off in the back. And I said, Thank you so much. I’m really grateful for this. I appreciate it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: White radicals, even wanted fugitives get the benefit of the doubt. They can talk their way out of a traffic ticket, walk through the halls of the Pentagon with a bomb in a purse. They are in some key way invisible to American law enforcement. The BLA would have no such protection. On May 2nd, 1973, in the middle of the night, a state trooper pulls over a car on the New Jersey Turnpike: a white Pontiac LeMans with three people inside. The car, according to the police report, has a broken tail light, but that’s often used as a pretext, police code for driving while Black. Trooper James Harper demands the driver’s license and registration, and notices a discrepancy, something suspicious. He calls it in. Trooper Harper doesn’t know it yet, but the driver is underground BLA member Sundiata Acoli. The other two passengers are Zayd, the man I’m named after, and wanted fugitive Assata Shakur. Another trooper, Werner Foerster, soon arrives as backup. And at this point, recollections of what happened diverge. But everyone agrees–somebody starts shooting. Trooper Foerster is killed with bullets from his own gun. Assata and Zayd are both hit, and the three BLA members jump in the car and speed away. But they’re chased down the turnpike by other cops, stopped five miles down the road. Assata gets out and walks toward the police, holding her bleeding arms over her head.
[clip of Assata Shakur] I was shot, with my arms in the air, then shot again in the back, and then left on the ground to die. And the next thing I knew, you know, they were coming by me and saying, Is she dead yet, is she dead yet.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But Assata doesn’t die. She’s taken into custody, locked to her bed at Middlesex General Hospital, charged with murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, and kidnaping. Sundiata is captured soon afterwards, hiding in the woods nearby. And Zayd Shakur’s body is found in a ditch next to their abandoned car. He was just 32-years old when he died. In the BLA, people expected to be killed. But Zayd wasn’t a soldier. He was a member of the support network. And his comrades, like Jamal Joseph and Sekou Odinga, are shaken by his death.
Jamal Joseph: It broke my heart because Zayd was not an angry person. Zayd wasn’t in the military wing of the Black Panther Party.
[Sekou Odinga] It hit hard. Hit real hard, because Zayd was a very close comrade of mine and I considered him my brother.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The tape is hard to make out, but Sekou says, “It hit hard. It hit real hard because Zayd was a very close comrade of mine and I considered him my brother.” So now with Assata in jail, the BLA is hanging by a thread. Remaining members reach out to Bernardine sister, Jennifer, to connect them with the white Underground for help.
Jennifer Dohrn: I would be asked to go visit so many people in New York City jails–Panthers, Black Liberation People–and they all thought I would help them escape. And I couldn’t. I did not have any resources, nor was that what I could go back and make a plan to do. There was a piece of it that was very complicated for me to digest because I was the one who had to go back and face everyone, and I saw what their lives were like, and I went to, you know, their houses and helped cook food for their kids and, you know? And then all the quote, “what we can do” seemed pretty little. Seemed pretty little.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Two weeks after the New Jersey Turnpike shooting, the Weather Underground tries to express the solidarity they feel with the BLA. A bomb explodes in the h103rd police precinct in Queens. No one is hurt. In the accompanying communique, the Weather Underground, claims the attack is a response to police crimes, including the murder of 10-year old Clifford Glover and the killing of Zayd Shakur, “Black warrior, former minister of information of the New York Black Panther Party, killed by New Jersey state troopers.” It’s the first time my parents, in their own particular way, would memorialize Zayd Shakur. The second would be my birth, just a few years later.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Next time on mother country radicals.
Bernardine Dohrn: I want to have a baby. Let’s have a baby. And he said, Sure.
Kathy Boudin: Well, I think I thought that the Vietnamese had kids and they continued fighting. I think that my perspective on kind of where was I in history was other women do this and I’m a revolutionary and I can do both.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A generation of Weather kids arrives, as members of the Underground struggle over what to do next.
Kathy Boudin: There’s a need for an underground, and if you decide to go above ground, then you’re being racist.
Jeff Jones: That’s what happens when you purge someone from a political organization. The best thing that can happen to them is they cease to exist politically. The worst thing is that they actually cease to exist.
Bernardine Dohrn: I said what they wanted to hear and I, I didn’t know what was right.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Unlike you.
Bernardine Dohrn: Not like me. But I went there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Mother Country Radicals is an original podcast from Aydacy 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 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. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clauson is the composer. For Audacy, Tim Clark is head of audio content, Lindsey 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.