An interview with activists Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn
by Phoebe Parker-Shames, editor
Many CC students worked hard to get Obama elected. We canvassed, attended rallies, energized our friends, and stayed up late to watch results trickle in. Then we sat back, triumphant in our victory and waited for him to bring about the change we so badly wanted. Two years later, with progressive progress stalled, we blame him. Others, ghosts of ‘60s radicalism, blame us.
It isn’t enough “to vote and then sit around and wait. We have to remake the world and remake ourselves to be worthy to live in that remade world,” said Bill Ayers, a professor of education in Chicago. “We are the ones ending the war. When people get mad at Obama for not ending the war, ask yourself what you did to end the war today. Frankly, it’s the only thing you have control over. You can’t control what Obama does or does not do. You can’t control Obama, you can only control yourself.”
Bill himself has an interesting connection to the last Presidential elections, during which he became an unwitting and unwilling part of the attacks against Obama. On the right, everyone from Sarah Palin to Bill O’Reilly raised concerns that Obama might have met with Ayers, even when Ayers has been so active Chicago politics, has done so much to reform the public school system there, was awarded Citizen of the Year award in 1997, was elected as Vice President for Curriculum Studies by the American Educational Research Association in 2008, and is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But he is also a man who, forty years ago, helped set off bombs in the United States Capitol and the Pentagon.
Shortly after 1:00 on the morning of March 1, 1971, the switchboard operator at the Capitol Building received a call. A man’s voice said: “This building will blow up in thirty minutes. Evacuate the building. This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos.” At 1:30, a bomb exploded, dealing the most damage to the structure since the British set fire to it in 1814, according to an ABC broadcast issued that day. A men’s restroom on the Senate side of the building was reduced to plaster fragments, and the explosion ripped through a wall into the nearby barbershop. Tables were overturned in a conference room 100 feet away, and a stained glass window shattered into fragments. No one was injured in the blast. At that time in Laos, according to Vietnamgear.com, estimates of the death toll brought about by the U.S.’s “secret war in Laos” had reached at least 30,000 (although other estimates put the death toll as high as 250,000).
This is one example of the actions taken by the organization Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, now a successful law professor who serves on committees for human rights, helped found in 1969: the Weather Underground Organization. The WUO was a radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that turned to more violent means of activism after years of peaceful protest failed to bring an end to the Vietnam War or progress in civil rights.
I first remember meeting Bill and Bernardine at reunions for my parents’ former commune in southern Oregon. They had met under different names, when Bill and Bernardine were still on the run. When I was in middle school I watched the documentary The Weather Underground, which starred the leaders of the WUO. I was surprised at the archival footage, with Bernardine’s long dark hair and revolutionary determination so different from her current bushy brown tresses and gentle mannerisms. Bill was missing his characteristic round glasses, and I hardly recognized him with long hair covering his gold earring. But the young students in the old footage exuded the same confidence and strikingly articulated convictions that I recognized in the present.
“We really thought we were making a revolution, which sounds a bit preposterous now, but we actually thought, for some good reasons, that it was our obligation to be part of the world revolutionary movement. At our most creative, we saw ourselves as allies with people in Latin America and Africa and Asia who were conducting revolutions and overthrowing imperialism,” Bernardine explained. “No empire is forever and we thought––and in some ways were right––that we were at the turning point of the power in America.”
In today’s world, focused on “terrorism” and sensitive memories of the Pentagon bombing on 9/11, it may be hard to understand the actions of the Weather Underground. Empathizing with Bill and Bernadine requires knowing the historical context of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. Maybe then we can see them for what they were—two young people committed to working outside of the system to create a new one. We Millennials take the system for granted. We work within it without testing its boundaries. Bill and Bernadine—as much of a stereotype of militant ‘60s radicalism as they might be—can teach us a lesson of how to step outside the norm into the underground, and then find the reasons and ways to climb back out.
Bill gives a reminder of the high stakes of the era: “every week the war [in Vietnam] went on, 6000 people were murdered. As far as we could tell, the war would go on forever.” He was quick to point out that the Iraq War, while it does have its parallels, can be a misleading comparison. “That context was very different. For one thing, we supported the Vietnamese, we weren’t just against American involvement, but we supported what we saw as a revolution against imperialism in Vietnam. We wanted them to win; I don’t think you can feel that way now with the war in Iraq.”
Despite mounting opposition to the war, the situation at the time seemed hopeless: even as the majority of the American public shifted from support to massive disapproval of the Vietnam War, even as police beat students as they peacefully protested by the thousands, even as veterans came home revealing the war crimes their superiors forced them to commit on a daily basis, and even as the media uncovered more and more stories of civilian villages being bombed, the war went on. “And we thought: we can’t stop this. It felt like there was a crisis in democracy and in the antiwar movement,” Bill explained.
The atrocities of a war carried out in their name, but without their consent, seemed to call on Bill, Bernardine, and other protestors to find some way to react. The civil rights movement too provided an impetus for action. At the time, the government was killing off black leaders in an approach that many at the time and some historians after have labeled as “systematic repression,” which was confirmed in the mid-’70s with the uncovering of COINTELPRO’s often illegal actions targeting groups like the black panthers and women’s rights groups. The murder of Fred Hampton as he lay asleep in his bed by Chicago Police and the FBI, and those organizations’ subsequent attempts to cover it up, pushed some leaders of the SDS, like Bernardine, to take more serious action. “There was a murderous assault going on against black leaders in this country, and we felt that white people had always wrung their hands but rarely showed solidarity. So we thought we could use our relatively privileged status to hurl ourselves in front of the bullets. Black leaders were being murdered in front of our eyes.”
At that point, active protesters, especially those active in the SDS, realized that the traditional methods of protest were simply not having an effect, and they had to try something different. “So we said, the old is broken, we don’t want to be responsible for the carnage carried out in our names, so we have to resist, we have to defy, we have to do crazy, imaginative things to say we don’t want to be part of this war machine, of this tradition of racism and harm,” Bernardine explained.
A change had to be made, but there were a lot of different opinions on how to make that happen. “A lot of different choices were made,” Bill said. “One of my brothers joined the Democratic Party to try and change the system from the inside, one went to Canada, one joined a commune, one went to the factories to build a labor movement in the working class. I made the choice to oppose the war by taking the war to the warmakers, by creating an underground movement.”
To do so, Bill and Bernardine, along with other SDS members, broke off and formed the Weather Underground.
At the 1969 convention for the Students for a Democratic Society in Chicago, Bill and Bernardine, along with other activists, wrote and distributed a position paper whose title comes from the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan was a popular musician among many SDS leaders, and this particular song seems to address some of the mistrust for the government and growing unrest that they were feeling at the time.
And so Bernardine made the first public statement from the Weather Underground, declaring war against the United States government. The basic idea of the organization was to create public signals that the government could not ignore—to harm symbolic representations of what they perceived as unjust American imperialism, never to hurt people themselves. “We said, we’re going to survive and we’re going to make it painful for them to carry out this war,” Bill explained. Setting bombs in public places meant that they would have to live discretely, however. The police wanted all members of the WUO, and Bernardine was added to the FBI’s top ten most wanted list in 1970. “We went underground in the ‘70s because we couldn’t seem to win [by peaceful means], and we were serious in trying to end the war, to stand on the side of the black freedom movement, and ultimately, to start a revolution to transform society.”
Their lives changed drastically. “We found ourselves living underground, not knowing what that meant. We had learned about the Underground Railroad and a few fragments like that from history, and we tried to invent it for ourselves. What we didn’t know beforehand but soon found out was that a lot of other people were also underground, fleeing the draft, fleeing the military, fleeing because they were gay or lesbian, or part of the drug culture, and of course immigrants as well. There was a vast amount of people on the run from something that was suffocating them.”
So they left Chicago; they changed their names, Bernardine dyed her hair. But the image they described of living underground was not the one movies tend to conjure up. They did mundane jobs like waiting tables or cleaning houses, finding new ways to covertly carry out political action while on the run. “We traveled cheaply, communicated with other people, and invented ways to talk out to the world, publishing articles and op-eds in the New York Times,” Bernardine described.
They lived in many ways as they always had and continue to today: in total alignment with their beliefs. “We lived on a knife’s edge, but ironically, you never feel freer. Underground, you couldn’t move around, you had no money, no freedom. Our world could be undone in a moment if they caught us. But the paradox is you never feel freer than when you live with those kinds of constraints because your purpose is never clearer,” Bill said.
Things changed, however, when the Weather Underground disbanded, and especially after Bernardine gave birth to her second son. “It took me quite a while to realize that living underground had lost its purpose,” Bernardine explained. “Turning myself in seemed like a surrender and it seemed untenable, but I couldn’t think of any political reason to stay underground, so I tried to bring myself together to walk through the door, through that rabbit hole [ . . . ] It was very hard for me to do it, but it was the first step to becoming political activists again.” She described the ride back to Chicago, with her three-year-old son so excited to go to the city and change names again. “He didn’t understand, but that’s how we tried to explain it to him.”
And so, just like that, in 1980, Bill and Bernardine walked through the doors of the Chicago Police Station, and turned themselves in. In the end, Bernardine was put on probation and fined for her involvement with the Weather Underground. She was later imprisoned for six months after refusing to testify against a former member of the organization. Then they, along with most of the other WUO members, returned again to activism. Gone were the bombs and declarations of war; Bill and Bernardine entered the system again, this time working to change America not by reducing it to ashes in order to rebuild it, but through more traditional channels of activism.
Both Bill and Bernardine have continued working towards issues of justice and equality their whole lives. “I’m the same person now as I was then, with the same political criticisms, same hopes and aspirations, and I still work on that.” The tone, but not the sentiment, is what has changed. “Our responsibilities today are just like our responsibilities then, and our responsibility is the same as it will be five to ten years from now, which is to open our eyes to the world around us and to act against any and all injustices we see. It’s hard to do, but simple to say. We have to open our eyes and act, and then we have to doubt. If there’s one thing that we failed to do in the Weathermen Underground was we failed to doubt enough,” Bill reflected. He explained that nowadays he has a more “pedagogical standard”: “If I learned something and if I taught something, then the action was probably a good thing. If I didn’t, if I acted out of my own self interest or I marginalized people it probably wasn’t a good tactic.”
Regardless of your personal opinion on their radical actions during the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s hard not to at least respect the consistency with which Bill and Bernardine have truly lived their beliefs. “I have tried to make my work-work and political-work be wrapped around issues of criminal justice and human rights and that’s what I’ve done the last twenty-five to thirty years,” Bernardine said.
Each generation has its own calling. Bill and Bernardine both insisted that the movements of current generations don’t have to, and perhaps should not, try to emulate the ‘60s, but that the importance of engaged political action is always present. “I think it’s every generation’s job to name its own moment. I think it’s urgent now, an urgent moment, and I really do think that your generation needs to name the moment—it is the 21st century after all and there’s all sorts of the new forces at play than when we were in the Weather Underground [ . . . ] The only thing I know is that to live an ethical life you have to speak up. But you can’t wait for the right moment because there’s never the right moment, but you have to object to what’s being done in our name.”
This effort to stand up for justice and equality is not over, and it cannot simply be handled by those voted into power. Bill and Bernardine stressed that it has to be carried out by each and every one of us. You don’t have to blow up the Capitol Building to make your statement, but you have to do more than sit and complain about how the President does his job. “We are living in the midst of history, but what we do and don’t do makes a difference. I’m not an optimist, but I am hopeful because I can wake up each morning and get to work on what I believe in. Each day I can be defeated, but I can wake up again each morning hoping to kick ass and change the world,” Bill explained.
“We don’t have a choice of what society we’re born into,” he added, “but we can decide what we want that society to be.”
Our generation can’t go underground in the same way as Bill and Bernardine did. It’s been done, and it runs the risk of alienation. But whether you see them as terrorists or inspirations, I have to wonder when people our age might stir up the courage to at least test the surface of the system.