In This Episode
Former members of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army carry out one last action together, with deadly consequences that reverberate across generations.
For more of the story, check out:
- Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (1987)
- Dhoruba bin Wahad, Assata Shakur & Mumia Abu-Jamal, Still Black, Still Strong (1993)
- Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: the Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (2005)
Chapter 9: Revolutionary Suicide
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals: the Weather Underground organization falls apart.
Bernardine Dohrn: So it’s stripping away skin and bone and, till you feel like you don’t know who you are, and maybe they’re right.
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.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And BLA leaders are targeted by a nationwide manhunt.
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, his is the day.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In the war with the police, the man I’m named after, Zayd Shakur, is killed, and Assata Shakur is arrested.
[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: After the New Jersey Turnpike shooting, Assata is held for a while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. She’s tried by an all-white jury, convicted of murdering state trooper Werner Foerster and sentenced to life in prison. And it’s well, she’s on trial for the shooting. She finds out she’s pregnant with her daughter, Kakuya.
Kakuya Shakur: Of course, when I was born, my mother was in prison. She conceived me in prison, which it took me a long time to figure out how could that possibly happen? You know, as a kid, I’m like, Really? How? But, yes.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Assata had shared a cell during her trial with her codefendant, fellow BLM member Kamau Sidiki.
[clip of Assata Shakur] And the subject of sex came up, and we thought about it and we talked about it and it was really heavy. It was a heavy, heavy thing, because, you know, I didn’t know how to feel, because so much that was around this was like slavery, you know? I mean, it was like very clear they were out to wipe us out. And it was real. It wasn’t any fantasy, it wasn’t any joke thing. They were out to take our heads. And, you know, I felt like a slave. I’m sure he must have felt just like a slave. And we said, well, how can we even think about bringing a child into this world? But then whatever world is there to bring a child in? I mean, the world was a terrible place. And, you know, I thought about my mother, my grandmother, my great, great, great grandmothers, and what they must have thought about as slaves bringing life into this world. You know, we just decided that we were going to live, you know? We were going to live, we were going to struggle, and we’re not going to kill our own hopes, we’re not going to kill our own life. We’re not going to kill our right to live. And so we just decided to be human beings, to be people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: By 1979, Assata has been locked up for six years, separated from her daughter, and imprisoned at the maximum security section of the Clinton Correctional Institution for Women in New Jersey, where it looks like she’ll spend the rest of her life. And then all of a sudden:
[news clip] She made a break this afternoon from the prison in Clinton, New Jersey. Lawmen once called her the soul of the Black Liberation Army.
[news clip] At about 3:00 this afternoon, two armed men managed to walk right into the prison, and they got Joanne Chesimard out. Chesimard, the Black militant leader, then drove away with her accomplices in another vehicle. State police are watching the highways in the area and police helicopters are flying, but now that it’s dark, it’s going to be a good deal harder to find Joanne Chesimard that way.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Prison officials hold a press conference outside the gates.
[clip of James Stabile] Their ID was was checked. They went in to visit her. They pulled guns, were able to overpower a couple of officers, a male and female officer, and get her out.
[speaker] Were the guards harmed in any way?
[clip of James Stabile] No, no. No injuries. They were both unharmed. Shaken but unharmed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: BLA soldiers Sekou Odinga was later convicted of helping Assata escape. I asked him how the BLA managed to get in and out of a maximum security lockup without firing a single shot.
[Sekou Odinga] It was an action of opportunity. The opportunity presented itself. We took advantage of that opportunity.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He’s not giving away details. And prison officials are at a loss to explain what happened.
[reporter] How were they able to get in here with guns?
[prison official] That’s part of the investigation.
[reporter] There’s a sign right there that says anyone coming in is subject to being searched.
[prison official] That’s true. I don’t know how they did it.
[reporter] Can you give us a description?
[prison official] Uh, Black.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Could you hear that? The reporter asks the prison official for a description of the suspects, and the official just says “Black.” But in fact, Assata’s escape was a joint operation of the Black and white undergrounds, an action plan and spearheaded by the BLA, but carried out by a network of Black and white revolutionaries working in solidarity.
Jamal Joseph: It was a joint action with white comrades and Black comrades. So I can say that’s a real example of white comrades putting themselves on the frontline in a potentially deadly situation.
Angela Davis: I have nothing but respect for the white activists who helped Assata to escape, because otherwise Assata probably would not be alive today.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I asked my dad about Assata’s escape and other joint actions involving former members of the Weather Underground and the BLA.
Bill Ayers: The particular action I’m not going to talk about, but I can say that we were asked to be involved in other actions and that we volunteered, not so much in the sense of supporters or allies, but in the sense of being comrades. And when comrades have each other’s backs, that means that you’re willing to work on projects together. And one of the things about an action like that is that the elaborate ness of it means that you can play a small role in a small corner, not even fully understanding what the larger piece is.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Did you ever take part in actions after I was born, while you were still underground?
Bill Ayers: I was involved in a few things, and one of them was, in fact, a jailbreak. And I can’t tell you any of the details except to say that we were pretty clear that Bernardine would be with you and that I would do this, and then we would assess it after the fact. But it was, in retrospect, really risky and really on the edge.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This was new information for me. Before I started working on this project, I always thought–I was always told–that my parents part in the armed struggle ended with my birth. But I can’t say I’m exactly surprised. I’ve always known they were willing to risk almost anything to do what they thought was right.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Did you think about what would happen if you were caught?
Bill Ayers: Yeah. I thought my life would end.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So why?
Bill Ayers: Because it mattered. Because the world needed it to happen. And because I was able to do it, and I was asked to do it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: After her escape, Assata Shakur quickly disappears back into the Revolutionary Underground, and she releases a tape broadcasting her defiance.
[clip of Assata Shakur] We can win. We will win our liberation. And in order to win our liberation, we have got to think positively. We have got to believe that we can win.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: When police put up wanted posters in Harlem and the Bronx, signs appear in response: Assata Shakur, welcome here. Her name still shows up on posters and T-shirts, in lyrics, a symbol of Black liberation and radical resistance. She’s another of the FBI’s wanted women, transformed into a popular icon of resistance, like her predecessors, Angela Davis and Bernardine Dohrn. Assata’s jailbreak is in some ways the final successful action of the revolutionary underground of the 1970s. A little over a year later, the last vestiges of the Weather Underground and the BLA would flame out together in a final explosion of deadly violence with tragic consequences for the movement and for my family. So this is about the end of the radical underground, about the choices people make when they see that end coming, and how those choices would end up reverberating across decades and generations. Members of the Weather Underground had always looked up to political martyrs like Fred Hampton and Che Guevara. They’d romanticized movie outlaws: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Part of that meant romanticizing their violent ends, believing true revolutionaries never give up, never grow old–but in spite of their own expectations, most Weathermen had survived. They’d outrun the FBI, fallen in love, had kids, started to dream about a different future. People around them moved on. The 1970s turned into the 1980s. So when the hail of bullets finally does come, no one is prepared. This is Chapter 9: Revolutionary Suicide. A few months after Assata’s escape, my mom gives birth to my baby brother, Malik. Like me, Malik gets a Black revolutionary name, the middle name of Zayd Malik Shakur and the Muslim name of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. It’s 1980. Reagan is running for president. The next few years would see Wall Street deregulation and massive military buildup.
[clip of President Reagan] At the beginning of this year, I submitted to the Congress a defense budget which reflects my best judgment of the best understood . . .
[news clip] The man who shot John Lennon walked up to the musician as he was leaving his limousine.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The release of the first IBM personal computer, and the launch of MTV.
[clip of Warren Buffet] if you buy things far below what they’re worth, and you buy a group of them . . . .
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The era of the yuppie, glamorized greed, and right-wing resurgence.
[speaker] What are taxes?
[clip of Alex P. Keaton, Family Ties] A tax Is a terrible, hairy, liberal monster.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The revolution, for all intents and purposes, is over, but my parents are still underground. My dad works at my radical preschool, where he can take care of me and my little brother full time. Everyone, including me, calls him Joe Brown, a secret reference to his personal hero, abolitionist John Brown. My mom goes by Rose, as in Rosa Luxemburg. She’s working as a waitress at Teachers restaurant and bar on Broadway. We’re all living in this tiny apartment in Harlem on 123rd Street. Our apartment is so small, we spend most of our time outside. My memories from childhood are all out in the city, wandering over to the Museum of Natural History and looking up at the whale, buying Italian ice in Central Park and playing in the fountains, or marching in protests. After 11 years underground, my parents aren’t really worried about being recognized anymore. I have pictures of myself at four, in these big crowds, holding up homemade signs that say “No nukes” “Silence equals death.” “No justice, no peace.” For our family life is actually going pretty well, but we also have a problem. I’m almost ready for kindergarten and I still don’t have a birth certificate or a Social Security number. We don’t have a lease on our apartment or health insurance or anything else that requires a government I.D. And those are just the logistical pieces of a deeper problem, the precariousness and danger of raising a family on the run. For my mom. Having a second baby brings it home.
Bernardine Dohrn: I felt like we hadn’t hurt you too much by having you be a fugitive. You know, two kids was another thing and you were getting older. And also that the organization was old. The world had moved on. But I just hated the idea of surrendering. It felt like, you know, waving the white flag. It felt like being a radical activist would become something I did once, but not who I was, and I was pretty tied up in that identity, and I didn’t want to do it, but I couldn’t see how to get to the other side without doing that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The federal charges against my parents have been dropped after the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO operations. My dad is basically free and clear, but my mom still faces state charges back in Illinois, stemming from the Days of Rage protests over a decade earlier: mob action, riot, assaulting a police officer. So her lawyer, Michael Kennedy, gets on the phone with state prosecutors and they hammer out a deal. If Bernardine turns herself in voluntarily to police back in Chicago, she’ll avoid real prison time. The problem is we’re not in Chicago, we’re still in New York. And as soon as the lawyers get involved, news starts to leak about a potential deal and about our current whereabouts. On November 27th, 1980, a headline appears in The New York Times: “Bernardine Dohrn reportedly seen on the West Side.” Journalists visit my daycare, they knock on the door of our Harlem apartment. They’ve been tipped off about our address, but we’re not at home. So they talk to the super of our building and people on the block. “Neighbors recalled nothing remarkable about the couple.” the Times reports. “People said the man looked like a hippie. The woman was described as ‘very articulate, if exceptionally intense at times.'”.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: One of the things that struck me about that description is, I mean, of course it rings true for me, but also the fact that even while you were underground, people felt that you were–
Bernardine Dohrn: Intense.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Yeah. You weren’t hiding it.
Bernardine Dohrn: It’s not hide-able. Even all these years later.
[news clip] For the past few years, she’s been living quietly in a fifth-floor walkup.
[news clip] She worked at a number of jobs over the years. She helped manage a clothing store.
[speaker] She was just strictly a family lady with two children. That was her life.
[speaker] She’s a very happy mother, she seems to have a very good relationship. And I think that’s probably a past for her that’s changed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: By the time people start to figure out who they really are, Bernardine and Bill are already gone, taking me and Malik with them. According to the Times, they prepaid three month’s rent, left their jobs, and drove off in a blue station wagon, saying they were returning to Chicago.
Bernardine Dohrn: We felt like we were a balloon going up into the sky. We felt cut loose. We weren’t sure that we could go back to our apartment, to our life, to our friends there, to the daycare center.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So now we have to make this run across the country, with my mom’s picture all over the news again. Police know she’s headed for Chicago. And if she’s arrested before, she can surrender, the deal is off. She could still go to prison for years.
Bernardine Dohrn: We were scared. I didn’t want to get caught, you know, on Highway 80, coming to Chicago. That would be really foolish, and I wanted to actually turn myself in on my feet, not in handcuffs.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So it’s a nervous drive. My parents are quiet. My dad keeps our station wagon well below the speed limit. We do have to stop along the way for gas and food. My mom stays with my little brother in the car, and Bill and I are waiting in line at a Burger King. An older couple starts chatting with me. They think I’m a girl. Everybody did at the time, a kid in 1980 with shoulder-length blond hair. So they’re being friendly, making conversation. They ask me where we’re headed, and I blurt out, We’re going to Chicago to turn ourselves in to the FBI and change our names. They just smile and nod. And when we get our food, my dad picks me up and runs for the car. We do finally make it to Chicago, and my parents show up at the Cook County Courthouse on December 3rd, 1980, into the middle of a media circus.
[news clip] Echoes of the 1960s rang through a Chicago courthouse today with the appearance of Bernardine Dohrn, the one-time radical underground leader who had successfully eluded authorities for 11 years.
[news clip] Today, Bernardine Dawn turned herself in and pleaded not guilty to state charges ranging from mob action to aggravated battery.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Reporters seem amazed that a 1960s radical revolutionary could suddenly appear like a time traveler in the 1980s, a throwback to another age.
[news clip] Today, Bernardine Dohrn of 1980 sounded a lot like Bernardine Dohrn of 1969.
[news clip] She read a statement to the press which sounded like something out of the ’60s. Certainly no regrets.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She’s sitting at the defense table, surrounded by microphones, wearing a white turtleneck and herringbone jacket. Her formerly pin-straight hair, permed and wavy, but she has the same determined expression of 12 years earlier. She wants to make it clear: turning herself in doesn’t mean she’s surrendering.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Given the system which perpetuates such harsh oppression and suffering, rebellion is inevitable and continuous, and I remain committed to the struggle ahead.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She gets three years of probation with no jail time. Surprising for a former “Most Wanted” fugitive. My dad isn’t even charged with a crime–partly it’s another benefit of white privilege, and partly the world has apparently moved on. Nobody’s too worried about ’60s radicals anymore, and it seems for a while at least, like our family has made it out unscathed. So we go back to our lives in New York.
Bernardine Dohrn: Mainly it was a very welcoming and wonderful scene. And, you know, we had to have intense conversations with everybody who we were friends with.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They have to explain to our neighbors and other parents at the daycare who we are, and why they lied, why we deserve a second chance. My mom even tries to get her job back at the restaurant.
Bernardine Dohrn: They practically wanted to put me, you know, in the window. They decided it was a good thing. [laughs] So we, in a weird way, we just went back to our lives.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: By this point, most former members of the Weather Underground have already surfaced. My mom is among the last of the most stubborn holdouts, though not literally the last. “With the surrender of Miss Dohrn” the Times notes in a kind of afterthought, “authorities said they believed they had accounted for all but a handful of other Weather Underground fugitives. Those still at large include Kathy Boudin.
Kathy Boudin: Anti-Black activity was on the rise. I mean, the Ku Klux Klan was appearing, people were being hung. And I think that it reinforced for me the meaning of my staying underground. I should stay underground because this is my essence, and, is a white woman who’s willing to sacrifice her life in a sense to supporting Black people’s struggle. So I gave myself a certain kind of importance in staying underground, which was to be a symbol of resistance to the ongoing oppression and racism of the government.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kathy has been a Weatherman–a Weatherwoman–since the beginning. She’s there at the SDS convention in ’69, there for the Days of Rage riots. She’s one of two people, along with Cathy Wilkerson, who stagger out of the crater of the demolished townhouse. And like Bernardine, Kathy’s now a new mom. Her son, Chesa, is born in August 1980, just a few months after my brother Malik. Kathy has a different back story than most Weathermen. Her father, Leonard Boudin, was himself a radical, a left-wing lawyer who argued on behalf of accused communists called before the House un-American Activities Committee. He represented Paul Robeson and Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower of the Pentagon Papers. And in 1960, his lawyer for Fidel Castro and the new Cuban government. When Kathy is just 17, he encourages her to visit Havana. So years before Bernardine’s Cuba trip, Kathy gets to see a real live revolution, up close.
Kathy Boudin: When I went to Cuba, I felt I was experiencing the transformation of an entire country.
[clip of Fidel Castro] . . . que hayamos hecho una revolucion socialista en la propia narice de Estados Unidos . . .
Kathy Boudin: And then we went to the parade on January 1st.
[news clip] Castro marked the second anniversary of his revolution with the biggest military parade ever staged in Cuba, featuring tanks and other heavy . . .
Kathy Boudin: You know, several million people were there in the main square. We were cheering all the literacy workers and cheering all the farmers that were coming in and the youth. And suddenly tanks came, and everybody was cheering. I was cheering for a moment, and then I said, Well, wait a minute, why am I cheering tanks? I mean, I grew up believing, you know, that you don’t fight and that you don’t use weapons, and that that’s bad. And I started to have tears came down my face. The Cubans that were with me saw me and they said, We know why you’re crying, you know, we know that this is not what you believe in but we have to protect ourselves because your government really doesn’t want our country to have a revolutionary government. It was like this first time in my life that suddenly I took on the idea that, Well, yeah, maybe people do have to fight to make the change that’s needed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In 1964, Cathy joins an SDS community organizing project, the Interracial Movement of the Poor, working with Black women in Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods, seeing the consequences of racism in America up close. Her determination to change things brings her to Weatherman, takes her through the radical underground of the 1970s. And by 1981, a year after my mom turned herself in, Kathy is still a fugitive, still committed to armed revolutionary struggle, but now she also has a new baby who’s just a year old.
Kathy Boudin: And so I was grappling with the desire to go aboveground and just try to build a normal life, and the long history inside myself of like, how was I going to feel comfortable with myself in this normal world of going above ground? And in many ways, I thought a lot about Germany and I thought a lot about, Well, how do you live a life when your government is doing what we were doing? I felt a desperation, but I also think always was that question of who am I and what’s going to give, how do I make my life have meaning?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And as she’s wrestling with what to do next, Kathy gets a message from a comrade in the Black underground asking for her help. I’m not going to mention names, but some members of the BLA are planning another expropriation, a bank robbery to help fund the revolution–straight out of the “Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla”, the Bible for underground militants at the time, which recommends assaults on money carriers and armored vehicles and suggests revolutionaries dedicate 24-hours a day to expropriations from the people’s exploiters. They’re going to rob an armored truck at an upstate shopping mall, steal the bank’s money. And then, while police are looking for a group of Black men trying to make a getaway, the robbers will be hiding in the back of a U-Haul driven by white comrades. It’s a trick. A way of using the racism of the police against them. If cops are searching for Black suspects, the thinking goes they, won’t look twice at a young white couple driving off in a rental truck apparently full of furniture. Kathy’s partner, David Gilbert, the father of her child, is still underground, still determined to follow the leadership of the Black vanguard wherever it leads. So when the BLA calls, he’s in. And this weighs on Kathy.
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. And I think also in terms of men and women, I felt like I wasn’t going to have me as a woman not be able to go do something and have David be able to go. And that, you know, relegated me to a more of a mother, which I felt like was something that I wanted as part of who I was, but I didn’t want it to take away from me the other things that I wanted to be and could do.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: On October 20th, 1981, a Tuesday, Kathy and David dropped their 14-month old son, Chesa, at the babysitter. They say they’ll be back in a few hours.
Kathy Boudin: I think I was very nervous and I sort of believed that if anything were to happen, it would be before it reached us, and that we were completely safe and I’d be back to pick up Chesa at the babysitter. And I think that a lot of people who do illegal things, you know, see everything working out well. I never thought something was going to go wrong.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Just before 4:00 in the afternoon on October 20th, 1980, an armored truck owned by the Brinks Private Security Company makes its scheduled stop at the Nanuet shopping mall. Two security guards head inside. You’ve probably seen this before, armed guards picking up cash at a bank branch or an ATM. It’s pretty routine, a normal day in the life of American cities and suburbs. The guards returned to the parking lot a few minutes later, lugging a cart with bags full of money, but as they start to load the truck, men in ski masks armed with shotguns and M-16 rifles, jump out of a red van nearby. There’s an exchange of gunfire. The Times calls this “an ambush.” In any case, the two guards are outgunned. One, Peter Paige is killed almost instantly. His partner, Joseph Trombino, is hit multiple times in the shoulder. The bank robbers grabbed the money, 1.6 million in cash, and jump back in their van. Meanwhile, Kathy and David are in the rented U-Haul a short distance away in a parking lot, their designated meeting spot. They don’t know yet about the shooting. They don’t know that a guard has been killed. They’re just–
Kathy Boudin: Anxious. Anxious because we really don’t know anything that’s happened. So we’re just waiting. Just sitting there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: All of a sudden, the van pulls up. Masked men pile into the back of the U-Haul and slam the doors. Kathy and David peel out, heading for the New York State Thruway. At this point. It seems to Kathy like things are going according to plan. They’ve ditched the van, David’s in the driver’s seat next to her. The others are hidden in the back with the money out of sight. She doesn’t know it yet, but a college student named Sandra Torgerson is watching the vehicle exchange from a house nearby. A bunch of guys carrying guns and bags of money pile out of the van and into the U-Haul, like something out of a heist movie. Sandra calls the police.
[911 call] Markstown police.
[Sandra on 911] Hello. My name is Sandra Torgerson and I just saw something strange happening behind the Corvettes . . .
[911 call] [unclear] red van?
[Sandra on 911] Yes, red van and a U-Haul truck.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Within minutes, squad cars are converging on the area, cutting off potential escape routes, searching for the truck.
[recording We have is a yellow Honda and a U-Haul trailer or truck. We’ll gert to you as soon as we have it.
Kathy Boudin: I remember driving along the highway and realizing that there was some police alongside, and then realizing that they were actually going to start pulling us over. And that was very, very, very scary.
[recording] We’re going to pull over a U-Haul truck that’s going into the Thruway here. Do you have a description of the people?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: David pulls over to the side of the road. The cops still aren’t sure they have the right truck, but they order Kathy and David out anyway, and they go around to open the back. Traffic on the Thruway is bumper to bumper in both directions, so dozens of motorists are watching this surreal scene unfold from their cars.
[clip of witness] As they opened up the door to the U-Haul. The shots just started being fired. I saw a policeman fall.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The police start shooting back.
Michael Koch: It was a firefight going on. And I’ll use firefight because I was in Vietnam and that’s what I’m accustomed to.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Some of the BLA guys jump into other cars and try to escape. One of the cars crashes. They’re exchanging fire with the police. It’s chaos.
Kathy Boudin: I just didn’t really know what was happening. I just heard some shots, and I just tried to run away. I ran down a hill onto the New York Thruway. I mean, I didn’t even know where I was exactly, but I went down a hill, and there was cars going and I was hoping maybe I’d get picked up by a car and leave.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In the traffic jam. An off-duty corrections officer named Michael Koch hears all the gunshots. He gets out of his car to see what’s going on and sees a woman running towards him.
Michael Koch: She’s running. She runs up to me. I know she’s one of them.
Kathy Boudin: I just remember somebody jumping out of a car and saying, Get down, get down, get down.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: He pulls out a gun.
Kathy Boudin: And he dragged me back up the hill and lay me down on the ground and he handcuffed me. Once I was lying on the ground, I began to gather it. I mean, there was a police officer, a policeman lying next to me on the ground. I mean, I didn’t know he’d been killed. That was the beginning of a new life. I think there was a part of me that had that sense of, without knowing anything, just saying, it, just this life is over, this moment is over, and this sense of and odd relief that it was over. I’m no longer going to be a fugitive, I’m no longer going to be tormented by what should I do? And it really wasn’t until we got taken to the police station that I began to realize what had happened. And one of the things that happened was that Chesa was at the baby sitter.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My parents hear about the Brinks robbery that night. We’re aboveground, back in Harlem. It’s been almost a year since my mom turned herself in.
Bernardine Dohrn: And, you know, we heard on the radio that this Brinks robbery had just happened and gone bad, and that people had been killed, and that people had been arrested.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Police don’t have names yet, and we didn’t have a TV at the time, so my parents have to go downstairs to a bar to see the coverage, footage of Cathy and David being led away in handcuffs.
[news clip] Good evening. Echoes of the violent, radical underground of the 1960s rolled over the New York suburb of Nanuet today in the botched ambush of an armored car that left one guard and two policemen dead.
[news clip] Showing something police had never seen before: white and Black criminals working together. Whites renting the cars, Blacks doing the jobs.
[news clip] Among the four suspects arrested was Katherine Boudin, a fugitive since March six, 1970, when she reportedly fled naked from the flaming ruins of a Greenwich Village townhouse-turned bomb factory.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: You can hear the same confusion white America felt about Diana Oughton after the townhouse, that a privileged young white woman would betray her background, turn on her country.
[news clip] Kathy Boudin came from an affluent middle-class family. She was a magna cum laude graduate of Bryn Mawr. Intelligent, idealistic, and attractive, but then finally, an advocate of violent revolution.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kathy is held in solitary confinement. She spends weeks trying to sort out what happened, the part she played in the crime, the fact that three people are now dead–two policemen, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, and the Brink security guard Peter Paige. Peter’s son, Michael Page, later gave an interview to Fox News about that day.
[Fox news] How did you find out what happened?
[clip of Michael Paige] Well, I was your typical teenager. I was at football practice. Had a great, great practice, was starting defensive halfback. You couldn’t wait to get home to to tell my dad what had happened that day. My neighbor’s father drove me home. That’s when he told me to get out of the car, and then he came over to me and told me my father had been killed.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And in another tragic irony, for an action meant to be about the liberation of Black people in America, one of these policemen, Waverley Brown, was the first Black officer in the history of the Nyack Police Department.
Kathy Boudin: I think that one thing it did for me was to lead me to feel convinced that I would never participate in any violence again. I didn’t want to be involved in something in which people could be killed. And I’m not making in any way a judgment about decisions that people make when they’re building a movement, but I’m making a decision about myself.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kathy would spend decades going over all this in her mind, dealing with the guilt, remorse for the three people killed. But in those first weeks and months after her arrest, she can barely think about it. Something else is consuming her. She doesn’t know what’s next, but she knows she’s left her baby behind.
Kathy Boudin: What was so horrible about this was having done this and left him . . . and not really understanding at the time how I could have done that. How I could have gone out on that day to do that, when there was obviously tremendous risk to him.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My parents go for a walk, try to get their minds around what’s happened.
Bill Ayers: I remember seeing a picture of David Gilbert on the front page of the Daily News, and he was in a straitjacket, and his face was completely bruised and swollen. And I remember just being devastated by the picture of David in particular.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It’s a lot to process. Their friends are in custody, facing life in prison. One of the first things that occurs to Bill and Bernardine as parents of young children themselves is, what’s going to happen to Kathy’s kid?
Bernardine Dohrn: The next day we get a bag of baby clothes and went down and knocked on their door and found Chesa naked on the floor in their living room, and Jean and Leonard trying to figure out how to diaper him.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Chesa has been left with Kathy’s parents, Jean and Leonard. They’re trying to take care of him themselves.
Bill Ayers: You know, they were in their early 70s or something, but Leonard couldn’t even pick him up. You know, I mean, it was like, he could pick him up for a minute, but he couldn’t carry him up the stairs.
Bernardine Dohrn: And, you know, they were devastated, and sad, and they just flattened, really. And they had this baby, you know, that they had barely knew.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It starts to become clear the grandparents are in over their heads, dealing with their daughter’s trial, crippled by their own grief and guilt. They’re in no position to raise another kid.
Bernardine Dohrn: Yeah, I wasn’t quite ready to have the baby, but I thought that we–I don’t know why I thought three would be good–but I thought three would be good. And I thought, you know, they were in trouble and we couldn’t really help them, so this would be a good thing to do for everybody.
Bill Ayers: Here was a kid drowning in a pool, and we had the capacity to pull him out. So we said we have to offer. So we did offer.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Chesa comes to live with us when he’s just 14-months old, moves into our already overcrowded fifth-floor walkup.
Chesa Boudin: When I first arrived in your house, your little brother, my big brother, Malik, who’s almost exactly my age, he said something along the lines of, You can’t have my ball, you can’t have my parents, and you can’t have my mommy. And that was my first welcome to the Family.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Yeah, sounds like him.
Chesa Boudin: He’s been more generous and loving since then, on most occasions.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It wasn’t easy for me and Malik, let alone Chesa, to have a new sibling. He dropped on us unexpectedly, overnight.
Bill Ayers: Chesa landed on us like a bomb. It was not the family we had planned. It was a family we got. I knew it would be, you know, it’d be a challenge, but I didn’t know how big a challenge it would be.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It took a while for any of us, I think, to get used to the new reality. My mom remembers it as maybe less complicated than it was.
Bernardine Dohrn: He fit right in, and you guys were great. You know, Malik, right away took to him. You were happy to ignore him until you decided to take care of him. And then you were devoted to him.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: “Happy to ignore him” is her a nice way of saying I didn’t want another sibling, so I just pretended he didn’t exist.
Bernardine Dohrn: So he had you guys. I always have said to everybody over the years that it was the two of you that both, that created family for him and helped him with his, you know, bundle of worries.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Chesa’s bundle of worries included emotional issues, what we would now call depression. Little petit-mal seizures, where he would go blank for a second, lose focus and kind of drift off. And fits of anger, sudden eruptions of scary, all-consuming rage. It’s clear to me now, looking back, that he was traumatized, that the loss of his parents had damaged him in some way. People used to say to us, Well, at least he was only 14-months old, so he didn’t really know what was happening. But if you’ve ever met a 14-month old, you understand how wrong that is. They know.
Chesa Boudin: It was really distressing. And then to be in a room with them, trying to process the feeling of abandonment and shame and being unlovable and blaming myself–I wouldn’t even be allowed to touch them.
Kathy Boudin: He had no idea who I was. I mean, he didn’t look at me. He didn’t pay attention to me. Of course, Chesa as he began to speak, called Bernardine mom, and I was like, Oh, God, you know? And he, and he, you know, he and I would often talk about the fact that a mom is somebody, the word mom means you’re there. You know, you’re there to answer the child’s needs and fears. And I wasn’t there.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And this is an important part of the story, too, the collateral damage to the next generation, the children of the victims of the Brinks robbery and the children of the people who committed the crime, because none of those kids chose to be part of the revolution. They, we were born into it, and still had to suffer the consequences. At trial, the BLA members accused in the robbery, along with Chesa’s father, David, and former Weatherwoman Judy Clark, refuse to recognize the authority of the racist U.S. court. They call only one witness, Sekou Odinga, who’s awaiting trial for his role in Assata’s escape and other robberies. He tells the court, The Black Liberation Army is fighting for the liberation and self-determination of Black people in this country. And that the 1.6 million they tried to steal was reparations, money stolen from them through the slave labor that was forced on their ancestors. The defendants are all convicted, three counts of second degree murder. They get 75-years-to-life in prison. Kathy is the only one to plead guilty and ask for leniency. But even she strikes a note of defiance, “I was there out of my commitment to the Black liberation struggle and its underground movement” she tells the court. “I am a white person who does not want the crimes committed against Black people to be carried in my name.” She gets 20-years-to-life in prison. And this in some ways is the end of the story.
[news clip] With the arrest of Katherine Boudin, police believe they’ve all but broken up the Weather Underground. Members who surfaced in recent years include Bernardine Dohrn, a University of Chicago valedictorian, William Ayers, son of a prominent Chicago executive, and Kathy Wilkerson, who fled her parents townhouse with Boudin.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But of course, it’s not actually the end. Not yet. Next time on Mother Country Radicals: the final episode of our season.
Eleanor Stein: People are starting to bang on the door and start screaming. So Jeff said–
Jeff Jones: I just want you to know that we are not resisting the arrest and we have a child in the apartment.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The end of the Revolutionary Underground.
Jamal Joseph: The FBI kicked in our door.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And the beginning of something else.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was trying to grab hold of time when I was in prison. Speed it up or slow it down–both, you know, just have a connection to you.
Chesa Boudin: That was an anger that I didn’t know how to articulate or channel or express when I was when I was young.
Kakuya Shakur: Why would you have a child? You know? Like, why did you decide to have a child, why did you do that when you knew you couldn’t raise me?
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 Arwin Nicks with help from Ariana Gharib Lee and Stephanie Cohn. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clawson 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.