In This Episode
The end of the Vietnam War means the end of the Weather Underground. Zayd’s parents and their radical comrades, still on the run from the FBI, plan a different kind of future.
For more of the story, check out:
- Emile de Antonio, Underground (1976)
- Mona Rocha, The Weatherwomen: Militant Feminists of the Weather Underground (2020)
Chapter 8: Hard Times
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals: the Weather Underground carries out a bombing campaign against the US government.
[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.
[news clip] About 20 offices, all of them empty at the time, were damaged.
[news clip] The explosion destroyed one of the Pentagon’s 140 women’s restrooms, and blasted out a wall on the fourth floor.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the Black Liberation Army wages a war of its own.
[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.
[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: On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese army tanks rolled into Saigon. It’s the end of the 20 year long Vietnam War.
[news clip] The communist forces, some of them riding in Russian-made tanks, some in captured American jeeps, rolled into Saigon about three and a half hours.
[news clip] The last helicopter came in for a handful of U.S. Marines. A humiliating end to the American presence.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Peace activists in America are thrilled.
[speaker] Surrender of Saigon mean to you?
[speaker] Oh, it’s heavenly. I mean, I’ve been waiting for it for most of my adult life. [crowd chants]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And when news reaches the fugitive members of the Weather Underground who have dedicated the last five years to ending the war, they’re hiding out in L.A..
[clip of Jeff Jones] We’re five people from the Weather Underground organization. We’re in a house. You could call it a safe house. My name is Jeff Jones. And around the table is Kathy Boudin, Cathy Wilkerson, Bernardine Dohrn, and Billy Ayers. We’ve been underground for five years. We’re here with a group of filmmakers, and together we’re going to make a film.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This film by documentarian Emile de Antonio would become, “Underground: The Film the FBI Didn’t Want You to See”–a compilation of archival footage and secret interviews with the five Weather Underground leaders recorded at safe houses around L.A..
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Here we are. We’re in a house. The windows are boarded up. We’re all sitting around. It’s very awkward, but we are willing to take the risk of doing this because it seemed like we could speak to a lot of people, and we do want to do that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They take strict precautions during the shoot. The cameras only show their silhouettes, the backs of their heads. They can’t give away clues about where they live now or what they look like. Authorities haven’t seen their faces in almost five years. But even with all the precautions, the Weathermen are on edge.
[clip of Bill Ayers] Did you catch my face? Just then Haskell? Are you sure?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The film is mostly a recap of the events of the previous five years: the Days of Rage, the town house, going underground. But it’s most interesting now as a historical document of a moment, this group of young revolutionaries on tape, in real time, the day they learn the war they’ve been fighting against for their entire adult lives, is finally over.
[clip of Jeff Jones] We used to chant, “Right on, Take Saigon” or “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. The NLF is Gonna Win.” Who believed it? Who could believe it? It just happened. The victory in Vietnam is a victory for the American people, and we certainly identify it as a victory for ourselves. It’s something we fought for for ten years. And, I don’t know, I’d have to have my foot run over by a police car to feel bad today.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: You can hear how happy they are, but you can also hear them over the course of the conversation struggling with what it means for them and for their future. Because the end of the war also means the end of the anti-war movement, the end maybe of the underground itself. And when your big, long-term purpose is finally achieved, what do you do next? They need a reason to keep going. So as they’re filming this documentary, they keep trying to make clear over and over to the cameras, to each other, to themselves, this isn’t the end.
[clip of Jeff Jones] We are not going to let the war in Vietnam be over.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Bernardine, as usual, sets their direction. She frames the end of the war not as an end at all, but as a beginning.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] If you understand what happened in the Vietnamese war and why Vietnamese defeated the United States, it makes the possibility and the inevitability of revolution in the United States very clear. United States government is not invincible. It didn’t exist for all time and it’s not going to exist for all time. And that lesson is a very powerful lesson. That lesson is is an explosive lesson.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A few weeks later, the Weather Underground sets off a dynamite bomb at a Banco de Ponce branch in New York to show their solidarity with striking Puerto Rican cement workers.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. Its resources and the labor of its people are brought back to the United States.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And then in September, they bomb the Kennecott Copper Corp–retribution for the company’s involvement in a coup in Chile.
[news clip] The Government of Chile and its president were ousted today in an unexpected coup–
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The attacks are aimed at institutions of American imperialism and global capital, but they don’t have the clarity of, say, bombing the Pentagon or New York police headquarters. It feels honestly, a bit rudderless, a resistance in search of something new to resist. In fact, all of the Weather Underground actions from this period are small and scattershot, aimed at targets most people have never even heard of. Despite Bernardine’s bravado about the inevitability of revolution in the United States, it’s clear by 1976 to most of the world, if not to the Weathermen themselves, that the revolutionary moment in America has already passed. The pendulum is about to swing in the other direction towards Ronald Reagan, Rambo and Wall Street, the war on drugs, and the era of mass incarceration.
Bernardine Dohrn: I think a lot of people warned us, older people, that it was going to disrupt the organization. We were like, Oh, no, there’s, for us, race and class in the United States is the whole thing too, not just international and blah, blah, blah. So we were arrogant. Thought we’d last forever.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Their comrades in the Black Liberation Army, meanwhile, have been decimated by police attacks. Jamal Joseph is in hiding. Zayd Shakur is dead. Assata is in jail. So this, the mid to late-1970s, is the era when the underground falls apart. And also when I and my generation of Weather kids and Panther cubs are born. And surprisingly, at least to me, these two transitions the death of one thing and the birth of another, turn out to be intimately connected. This is Chapter 8: Hard Times.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: By 1976, the Jimmy Carter administration is set to take over the Justice Department. New investigations and disclosures are looming, and Nixon’s FBI Associate Director, Mark Felt, goes on CBS’s Face the Nation to defend himself and the bureau from allegations they had illegally spied on American citizens.
[reporter] Mr. Felt, you were a former number two man at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, you have admitted at least one break in aimed at the Weathermen in 1972 without warrant. How can you legally and morally justify that action?
[clip of Mark Felt] Personally, I think this is justified and I do it again tomorrow. Somebody has to come forward and stick up for the FBI. It’s cheap to criticize the FBI now. And actually, the FBI is a wonderful organization, a magnificent organization filled with wonderful, wonderful people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Felt admits the tactics they used are extralegal. But he feels misunderstood. The bureau had broken the law for a higher cause.
[clip of Mark Felt] To not take action against these people and know of a bombing in advance would simply be to stick your fingers in your ears and protect your eardrums when the explosion went off, and then start the investigation.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The courts do not agree. Mark Felt is convicted of conspiracy to violate the Constitution, that he “did unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree, to injure and oppress citizens of the United States who are relatives and acquaintances of the Weathermen fugitives.” Felt would eventually be pardoned by Reagan and later unmasked as Deep Throat, the source of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate exposé. And this is one of those weird ironies of history that the man who authorized illegal break-ins to catch the Weathermen is simultaneously leaking stories about other illegal break-ins that would lead to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. But while these big political stories are playing out in the national news, the collapse of the FBI’s counterintelligence program means something much simpler and more personal to the fugitive members of the Weather Underground. Most of the evidence against them has been gathered illegally and is now inadmissible. Some of the charges are just dropped. Plea deals are suddenly within reach. People like my parents, who have been on the run for years, facing life in prison, start to confront a new and unfamiliar reality: that they might actually have a future. On New Year’s Eve 1976, Bill and Bernardine decided to become a couple. It’s like getting engaged for normal people, but there’s no proposal, no ring.
Bill Ayers: We were on Cape Cod and we had a kind of a retreat of a few days. And it was around that time that we decided we were a couple.
Bernardine Dohrn: We’re not at a big New Year’s Eve party and we’re not in a crowd in the streets, but that’s when I think that it’s our anniversary. I still do to this day, you know? It was like, this is it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They’d already been comrades for years–friends, partners–but now they’re deciding they want to build a real future together. My mom, as usual, takes the decisive step.
Bernardine Dohrn: I want to have a baby. Let’s have a baby. And he said, Sure . . . parentheses, what took you so long?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For my parents, being a couple and having a baby are kind of the same thing, the moment they move from being casually involved, romantic in a free-love kind of way, to committed for the long term. And now it seems inevitable to me at least, that they would decide to become parents. But at the time, it was a surprise. My mom had spent her entire 20s and early 30s absolutely certain she did not want children.
Bernardine Dohrn: My determination to never be pregnant was a determination to not be my mother and to not be like most women I’d grown up seeing. And I had managed that in certain bizarre way. I was really sure that, you know, that that wasn’t going to be me, and suddenly it was me. I don’t really know how to explain it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I don’t think the explanation is all that difficult. Members of the Weather Underground are now in their mid-30s. They’re growing up. Not settling down in any traditional sense, but at least looking forward. For years, there single-minded focus had been fighting the war, building a revolution, changing the world–but now with the movement starting to wind down, they have to decide if they want to commit themselves to a different kind of future. My parents get the news from the Haight-Ashbury free clinic in San Francisco. This is before at home pregnancy tests, so they have to risk going for the test in person, showing their faces to the receptionist, a nurse, and then waiting a few days to call for the results.
Bernardine Dohrn: The person at the other end of the phone said, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but you’re pregnant. That was how many people they had that didn’t expect to pregnant. [laughs] We were like, ahhhhhhh! That’s so wonderful! He said, I haven’t heard that for a while. So, yeah, I was really happy.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s not just my parents. It seems like all at once most members of the Weather Underground leadership are deciding to have kids. Those five fugitives sitting around the table in L.A. celebrating the end of the war–Bernardine, Bill, Jeff, Kathy Wilkerson, and Cathy Boudin–within a few years, all of them are parents. Jeff Jones, my mom’s ex-boyfriend, is now dating another member, Eleanor Stein.
Jeff Jones: We were driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and we were passing through the town of Gaviota, which is not far from where Tim Leary escaped from the San Luis Obispo Correctional Facility, and we were having this discussion and we said, Okay, let’s have a baby. We were going to be together forever, and it would be nice to begin to build a family. And she agreed, fortunately.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kathy Boudin has been underground since the day she staggered out of the townhouse, almost a decade earlier. She’s thinking of having children, too.
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: You can tell from most of them this felt like a happy decision, a fond moment of hope and optimism, a leap of faith into a new kind of future–but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot, since I was born underground and now have kids of my own, why would you choose to have children when you’re on the run from the FBI, setting off bombs, breaking people out of jail? Why would anyone decide to bring a baby into a life that’s so precarious, so dangerous? Some, like Kathy Boudin, seem to have kind of avoided thinking about it, just hoping for the best.
Kathy Boudin: I don’t think that I came face to face with, well, what if I’m arrested? You know, I don’t think I dealt with it in that way. I think once I wanted to have a kid, then everything was about, I want to have a kid. And then, yeah, if you get arrested, you’ll maybe have some people that will agree to take care of the kid for a little while–but it never would have occurred to me and never did occur to me the meaning of that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Even those who do think about it, like my mom, seem to have a false sense of security.
Bernardine Dohrn: I mean, we’ve been safe for a long time, so I felt that we knew how to be safe. We would, you know, certainly not put our baby at risk.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But of course we are at risk. If the parents are in danger, their kids are, too. And this would wind up being one of the most tragic legacies of the Underground, because while their new families, their new futures are taking shape, the revolution is falling apart around them. As the FBI file from 1976 puts it, “the Weather Underground organization has undergone significant ideological changes from 1969 to 1976 . . . the ending of the war in Vietnam, a less abrasive social fabric in the country, a general malaise of the revolutionary left, coupled with their own maturing, has affected their ideological outlook.” It’s true. Without the opposition to the Vietnam War as a common cause, there’s no unifying idea keeping everyone together, headed in the same direction. In its place there are new movements.
[crowd chant, “Gay, gay all the way”]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Weather Underground leaders Bernardine and Bill and Jeff have been fugitives for years, isolated from the evolving Queer and feminist movements.
Bill Ayers: Some people were coming out as gay and saying, What am I doing here, when I ought to be part of the gay movement?
[reporter] Do you think that homosexuality should be legalized completely a la Illinois?
[voice] Definitely. Definitely.
Bill Ayers: Other people, women, were saying the women’s movement is flourishing and I’m over here hiding in an apartment in Santa Monica. Why.
[speaker] Equal rights to have a job, to have respect, not be viewed as a piece of meat–they’re not frivolous demands at all. We just want what men have had all these years.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Allies and comrades in the counterculture start to criticize the Weather leaders as out of touch.
[clip of Alpert] In the same breath that you claim women run the organization. You admit that of the five members of the Weathermen Central Committee, three are men.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In retrospect, women inside the organization, like Kit Bakke and Eleanor Stein, feel mistreated, overlooked.
Kit Bakke: We women didn’t really get to be in charge of much or to say much of anything one way or another.
Eleanor Stein: Relationships inside the organization did tend to be defined by who you were sleeping with or who you were partners with at any given time, in a way that was very limiting for women and, you know, really unacceptable.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Weather people are also watching their Black comrades in the Panthers and the BLA being systematically targeted by the police, locked up and killed. Some cadre members like Laura Whitehorn think Weather Underground leaders have lost sight of the revolution, focusing too much on protecting themselves.
Laura Whitehorn: They didn’t want to get arrested. That would have been a defeat. But on the other hand, I think that’s problematic, especially if you’re a white organization, because I know there were there were opportunities to do different kinds of actions that were avoided for security reasons.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A new faction forms inside the organization calling itself “The Revolutionary Committee.” Many members are women and some are Queer, although the committee’s leader, Clayton Van Lydegraf, is an older, straight guy, a Communist Party member back before he joined SDS and Weathermen. The Revolutionary Committee wants Weathermen to continue the armed struggle, double down on the military strategy with assassinations and prison breaks, use their white privilege and underground know-how to give aid to their Black comrades. It’s a bit like a repeat of the SDS walkout of 1969, except this time Bernardine is the leader of the more moderate faction, facing down a new group of extremists. Jeff Jones, who had successfully argued at Mendocino against a military strategy in favor of engaging with the counterculture and the larger peace movement, tries the same thing again.
Jeff Jones: We are all people who grew up politically in the anti-war movement and in the civil rights movement. That’s where we can make our best contribution, and we need to get back there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He calls it inversion, a plan to surface the organization, make plea deals, serve time where necessary, and then recommit as community organizers to being part of a public mass movement again, instead of an increasingly-isolated armed resistance. But what had worked so well at Mendocino is now called out as an example of Jeff’s white male privilege in action. Kathy Boudin remembers people saying:
Kathy Boudin: Well, wait a minute. There’s nothing fundamentally that’s changed with Black people’s experience in this country, and the U.S. imperialism exists in other countries, not just Vietnam, and there’s a need for an underground. And if you decide to go above ground, then you’re being racist.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The revolution, in other words, can’t be over. Is racism over? Is police brutality over? Is imperialism over? Van Lydegraf and the Revolutionary Committee publish a pamphlet accusing Jeff of seeking to “limit and eventually eliminate armed struggle” to “control women” and to follow the lead of “Yippie, Abbie Hoffman types,” the most reactionary aspects of youth culture. They argue Jeff is standing in the way of progress.
Jeff Jones: And there was a power struggle, and I lost. Your mother put out a statement throwing me out of the organization.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Bernardine doesn’t remember it that way.
Bernardine Dohrn: No!
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: No?
Bernardine Dohrn: Jeff Jones?! Absolutely not. No!
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She believes they were both under attack, both targets of the committee’s drive for ideological purity. But it is true, she issued statements condemning Jeff’s politics as counter-revolutionary, and Jeff is stripped of his leadership position, denounced by his former friends and comrades. Like in a Stalinist show trial, he just disappears. Weather Underground members in good standing are encouraged to shun him.
Jeff Jones: That’s what happens when you purge someone from a political organization. The best thing that can happen to them as they cease to exist politically. The worst thing is that they actually cease to exist.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He’s actually worried that the time, people will try to kill him.
Jeff Jones: Someone could take me out and claim that they had just moved the revolutionary struggle forward.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So he drops out of sight, goes into hiding from his own former comrades.
Jeff Jones: I changed my ID. I changed my hair. I put on a tie when I went to work, and I moved to a completely new neighborhood, and literally no one knew where I was for at least half a year or more.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff’s partner, Eleanor Stein, is pregnant with his kid, but she’s still a member of the organization. And Jeff has been purged, so she stopped speaking to him. Just cuts off contact.
Eleanor Stein: I felt that I really needed to take some time and figure out what I thought. Did I, did I want to stay underground? And if so, why? And what did I want to do, and what did I think about what we had done and about the criticisms?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So you’re pregnant and you leave your partner because you’re not sure where your political line is?
Eleanor Stein: Yes, you, could put it that way. But it’s also true that there was a fundamentally a political disagreement, profoundly different views. And it was driving me crazy. And I really had to get a little distance to come to terms with what I would believe about the world. And it was impossible to do that, you know, being with Jeff.
Jeff Jones: It’s the loneliest experience I’ve ever had. I think back on it and glad I survived it. It was a, but I had a reason to survive. I was in love and I maintained one point of contact with Eleanor, someone she could talk to who knew where I was, and when she was ready to come and find me, she would be able to do that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So Jeff is on his own, hoping for a call that might never come, a chance to try to rebuild his family and his future, while the rest of the group turns on itself and starts to eat its own.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff Jones is an important leader in the Weather Underground. Taking him down is a victory for the insurgent Revolutionary Committee. But the big obstacle to their leadership, the most public face of the group, is Bernardine.
Bill Ayers: She was targeted the most because she, I think, had the most authority within the organization.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The committee accuses her of being a front for the patriarchy, a female leader in name only. In another published pamphlet, they write “on the backs of women who were wasted and excluded from the revolution, Dohrn ascended and was put forward by Ayers and Jones as a leader of women, an alliance and fostering of white and male supremacy.” Van Lydegraf and the others start having regular meetings with Bernardine at a safe house in San Francisco. These long criticism, self-criticism sessions about her failings as a leader and as a person, about her unconscious white privilege and male chauvinism, about how she actually set back the cause of women. They want to show her and everyone else the old way of doing things is over.
Bernardine Dohrn: You know, they wanted a couple of things: to take me apart–which they did–and to get contacts and information that we had with other forces–which they didn’t.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Bernardine had known about criticism, self-criticism in the early days. She’d observed it and allowed it, maybe even encouraged it. But as the group’s leader, she’d always been above the fray, she’d never been the target, never had to endure a criticism session up close. And the brutality of the experience is a surprise to her.
Bernardine Dohrn: It’s a combination of, you know, challenging what you did and what you said with who you are.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What were you being criticized for?
Bernardine Dohrn: Not being radical enough, for not partnering up with Black organizations more than we did, you know, that I was self-serving and privileged–but, you know, it was it was personal, so it was how I dressed and what I, whatever. So it’s stripping away skin and, you know, bone, till you feel like you don’t know who you are. And maybe they’re right. It was devastating. It was terrible. So, I mainly cried. I would say I cried a lot. And I didn’t feel, I didn’t feel like I, you know I, I, I think I really lost my bearing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This goes on for weeks and my mom is pregnant with me at the time, so she wakes up every day with morning sickness, spends hours in these self-criticism sessions, goes home each night exhausted from the experience, and wakes up to do it all again.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was worried that I was doing damage to you, because I was crying so much and I was so unhappy for that period of time.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Of course, she could have just walked away. They weren’t holding her there by force. But she also felt committed to the organization, to making a revolution. And some part of her thinks they may be right. In the end, they do break her. She agrees to record a tape.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] This is Bernardine Dohrn–
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: A kind of public confession. It’s a surreal reversal of her declaration of war from six years earlier. The target this time, not the US government, but herself and her friends.
Bernardine Dohrn, reading: –bear particular responsibility for the criminal consequences of having led the Weather Underground into full-blown opportunism. Why did we do this? I don’t really know. We followed the classic path of white so-called revolutionaries who sold out the revolution.
Bernardine Dohrn: Oh, that makes me sick that I wrote that. We could have just made a mistake. It’s so grandiose and horrible and cringing.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What do you think the mistake was?
Bernardine Dohrn: Well, I think that what’s great about the criticism is that it’s rare and hard for white people to do enough, to give up enough privilege and enough of the trappings of white supremacy.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So she thinks there’s truth to the criticism. After all, their comrades in the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army are mostly in prison now or dead. The leaders of the Weather Underground, with their pregnancies and new families, are still free. They have more to lose now, and they aren’t setting off bombs and breaking people out of jail anymore. But in the tape, she says, more than that, criticizes her friends and herself in personal terms, accuses Bill and Jeff of undermining the revolution with their white male privilege, accuses herself of giving them cover and selling out the women in the group.
Bernardine Dohrn: I said what they wanted to hear. Some of, some I didn’t. And I, I didn’t know what was right in that moment, in that context. I didn’t know what I thought, either.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Not like you.
Bernardine Dohrn: Not like me. But I went there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It really isn’t like her. I’ve said before, I’ve never met anyone more committed to her views, more certain of what’s right. She’s always seemed impervious to criticism, unlikely to be broken by someone else’s bad opinion. But I can also imagine it. She’s been underground for years. The organization she leads is falling apart, and she’s isolated, cut off, giving up on her decade-long dream of making a revolution. And she’s being called out by former friends and comrades as a closet sexist and racist, a counter-revolutionary. And she’s pregnant, contemplating a new life, like her mother’s, that she never really wanted in the first place. I can see how all that would shake your sense of who you are. After she records the tape, my mom retreats from the group or is expelled. It’s never quite clear even to her.
Bernardine Dohrn: They stopped interrogating me and I didn’t see them again.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So by 1977, Bernardine is still underground, but she’s no longer part of an organization, no longer a professional revolutionary. She starts doing odd jobs, cleaning houses for money. It takes a while, but it starts to feel like a relief in a way to think about something other than politics, to do something with her days besides fighting the government and her own friends. She’s a few months pregnant and she suddenly has a lot of time on her hands.
Bernardine Dohrn: So we just had fun, you know? Outstanding new ice cream parlor started around San Francisco, and there was one a half a mile from our apartment and we would go there every night and stand in a long line. You know, it was just entertainment to be in the long line and to wait and to come home eating ice cream.
Bill Ayers: I remember long walks on the beach. I remember long, slow lunches in the park. And that’s what we were doing, taking care of ourselves, taking care of her, because she was about to give birth.
Bernardine Dohrn: And I went and signed up for a community garden and, you know, gardening for the first time while I was pregnant and, you know, just letting go of one whole life and opening myself up to the next one.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The first pictures I have of my mom from underground come from this time. She’d been understandably camera shy as a fugitive, but she makes an exception during her pregnancy. In the snapshots. She’s out on the beach in San Francisco. Tan, wearing a bikini, sporting a big belly and short pixie-cut dyed red. She looks young and healthy. You can see why people call pregnant women glowing. And she also looks sad. But as it turns out, she was lucky to get out when she did. The corps Weathermen–Bill and Bernadine and Jeff and Kathy–had stayed underground for almost a decade, managed to keep a tight knit organization outside the reach of J. Edgar Hoover’s manhunt. But a few months after Bernardine’s confession, most of the members of the Revolutionary Committee, including Van Lydegraf himself, are suddenly arrested, charged with conspiring to assassinate a conservative California state senator. The Committee had been taking trips to the California desert to practice shooting and setting off bombs, and they’d been joined in those trips by two undercover FBI agents. And at this point, the Weather Underground organization, for all intents and purposes, ceases to exist. We reached out to members of the Revolutionary Committee to talk. Some of them have passed away. Clayton Van Lydegraf died in 1992. Those who are still alive haven’t returned our calls or have declined to comment. Maybe everyone has regrets about how it all ended. But at the time, my parents barely notice any of this. They’re thinking about other things.
Bernardine Dohrn: I had long lists of names. None of them were Vladimir or Lenin. I don’t know, Zayd was just on my list.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They decided to name their kid Zayd, after Zayd Malik Shakur, the Panther Minister of Information killed on the New Jersey Turnpike during Assata’s arrest. Many of the Panthers had taken on revolutionary names: Eddie Joseph became Jamal Joseph; Joanne Chesimard became Assata Shakur; James Costan became Zayd.
Bill Ayers: And we remembered Lumumba Shakur saying, Why is it that Black people called their kids Washington and Jefferson and name them after white people, but white people never named their kids after Black people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For my parents, giving me a revolutionary name is a way to memorialize a Black hero, someone history may otherwise try to erase. It’s also a commitment of their own, a promise that they’d never be done with the revolution, that their children would carry that legacy.
Bernardine Dohrn: Oh, your birth was so fun.
Bill Ayers: We didn’t want to go to the hospital. We didn’t have medical insurance. We didn’t have anything.
Bernardine Dohrn: You know, wasn’t even a question for me. Even if I wasn’t being sought and I wasn’t worried about the FBI, I would have had a home birth.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So they put together a team of friends and midwives.
Bill Ayers: I was pretty confident we could do it, and the Bernardine could do it because she’s a strong and willful person.
Bernardine Dohrn: The last week I was very big and we told the team to be ready.
Bill Ayers: And we went for a walk on the beach in San Francisco. She was beginning to get contractions, and then we got home. We were living in a fifth floor walkup in the Fillmore District.
Bernardine Dohrn: Then I went into labor and then I had a very, very long labor.
Bill Ayers: And it went on forever.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was pushing forever.
Bill Ayers: Went on for 36 hours. The fetal heartbeat kept being checked and it was okay. The baby wasn’t in distress. That would be you. You weren’t in distress.
Bernardine Dohrn: Then the midwife gets very serious. Where it’s like, Now, I’m setting you up. I’ll hold your shoulders up and you’re going to bear down. Then the sun was coming up. There’s this miraculous moment where they’re like, I can see the head, I can see the head. And then you feel like you can push more. And, you know, it was very long, but short of being very long, it was glorious and perfect and wonderful. And there you were.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Of course, I don’t remember any of this, but I’ve been told the story many times how I was born at home in a tenement apartment in the Fillmore in San Francisco underground, but I never realized until I started working on this project everything else that was going on at the time–the collapse of the Weather Underground, the conflict with the Revolutionary Committee, the breakup of this group of old friends, and my mom’s deep unhappiness. Like most kids, the way I understood the story, it all started with me. Jeff Jones isn’t there when Eleanor gives birth to their son on the second anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. She names him Thai after a Viet Cong fighter she met on the Weathermen trip to Cuba. It means peace in Vietnamese. Jeff is still on the run in hiding from his former comrades. Underground from the Underground.
Jeff Jones: Well, I, I will describe this Zayd, because it’s quite emotional. I was living in an obscure apartment, a neighborhood in Jersey City, and no one had ever visited me there. No one had, I didn’t have a phone, no one had ever called me there. And I had been there for months. And all of a sudden, one night, about 10 or 11:00 at night, the doorbell rang and there they were.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Wow. How old was he?
Jeff Jones: Three months.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What he look like?
Jeff Jones: He, he looked like a three-month old who was ready to have some hamburger. And, and may I just say Zayd, it was only a few weeks after that that I met you for the first time.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Is that right?
Jeff Jones: We actually agreed to meet up for a weekend camping trip in West Virginia. And when you’re, when your dad wasn’t looking, I slipped you the very first potato chip you ever had. And I don’t, I still don’t think he’s forgiven me for that. But you loved it. So, very quickly, our two families reconnected, sorted it all out, and have been very close ever since.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s true, in spite of the collapse of the organization, all the infighting and denunciations, that complicated political history–our families have been friends for as long as I can remember.
Thai: You know, we were in school together, at least starting in kindergarten.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff and Eleanor’s son, Thai, is my first and closest friend, and also the historian consulting on this series.
Thai: Yeah, we used to walk, you know, eight blocks to school every morning, in the height of the crack epidemic in Manhattan.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: And we couldn’t have been older than six or seven.
Thai: Yeah. Five, six. Yep. And years later, Bill claimed that he was following behind us all the time to make sure we were safe. But there’s no way that’s true. We were on our own.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: By the time you and I became sentient, we were all sort of best friends. Right? How do you think they moved past, like, you know, my mom expelling your dad from, from the group?
Thai: Yeah. I mean, not to mention your dad, you know, breaking up their relationship and stealing Bernardine from Jeff. I mean, I think they had, you know, what you say? They were best friends and they still are best friends.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s actually one of the admirable things to me about the legacy of the Underground, that most of the people involved forgave one another for their past failures and excesses, put aside petty jealousies, raised their families together, and stayed comrades as activists and organizers for the rest of their lives. And one other thing that strikes me is the similarity in Jeff and my mom’s reactions to meeting their sons for the first time.
Bernardine Dohrn: And there you were.
Jeff Jones: And there they were.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: That same kind of surprise that I felt at the birth of my daughters, that maybe all new parents feel, a kind of awe that this new person didn’t exist before. It’s a shock, even if you thought you were ready because your life before didn’t include them, your future wasn’t built around them. And then all of a sudden . . . there they are.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Next time on Mother Country Radicals: my parents and other members of the Underground try to figure out how to continue the revolution while raising kids.
Kathy Boudin: I was determined to not have being a mother stop me from also being a revolutionary because that identity for me was so critical. So I gave myself a certain kind of importance in staying underground, which was to be a symbol of resistance.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the last vestiges of the BLA and the Weather Underground carry out their final militant actions together.
[news clip] She made a break this afternoon from the prison in Clinton, New Jersey, and lawmen once called her the soul of the Black Liberation Army.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Did you ever take part in actions after I was born while you were still underground?
Bill Ayers: Yes.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What were they?
Bill Ayers: Well, I was involved in a few things, and one of them was, in fact, a jailbreak.
Kathy Boudin: A lot of people who do illegal things, you know, see everything working out well. I never thought something was going to wrong.
[police radio] Make sure it doesn’t get on a throughway…yeah I have a problem at Nanuet National Mall, an armored truck was shot at . . . do you know, if anybody was hurt? I don’t know. It’s just people–
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 Nicks is our executive editor. Ariana Gharib Lee is our senior producer, Stephanie Cohn is the producer, Thai Jones is our historical consultant. All three also helped with writing on the series. This episode was sound designed by Ariana Gharib Lee, with help from Stephanie Cohn. 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, Lizzy Roberti, Deniahn, 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.