TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
AUGUST 22, 1996
With the Democratic Convention returning to Chicago for the first time since the notorious convention in 1968, many have begun to reexamine those contentious times. Elizabeth Brackett, of WTTW-Chicago, looks at the lives of two 1960s radicals who remain unrepentant about their violent past.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A touch of mustard, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a bit of olive oil, he serves the vinaigrette, while she mixes the salad greens. He checks the refrigerator for or'deuvres, while she inspects the garden of their Chicago townhouse for damage from the storm the night before.
Revisit the tumultuous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention in this look from Esquire magazine.
May 31, 1996:
Ann Taylor Fleming and author Robert Coles reflect on the controversial life of '60s icon Timothy Leary.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: You know these little babies, I think they needed the rain, but this is a little more than anybody bargained for.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: They could be any successful middle-age professional couple--unless you know their past.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: White youth must choose sides now. We must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressors.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A generation ago, the FBI called them the most dangerous radicals in America. Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, two of the most visible and charismatic leaders of Students for a Democratic Society, the militant arm of the anti-war movement, and the even more militant breakaway group, the Weathermen. They spent a decade underground to avoid bombing and riot charges. The images clash so powerfully, they raise inevitable questions about radical rage giving way to bourgeois comfort.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: There's no right answer. Am I the militant in black leather, shouting slogans, or am I--I was described once as a suburban matron--I mean, you know, I feel like we came into our adulthood at a moment in time where we had the opportunity to have purpose to our lives, and I feel completely fortunate to have been a part of that. I want to still be part of that. I try to live my life still part of that. I have many personal apologies to give to people for things I said and hurts that I did, and of course, I wish we'd done better, so I wish all of that, but don't we all wish that about our lives? In that sense, I feel lucky and unapologetic.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To understand why Dohrn feels that way, you have to go back to the era, the late 60s, 1968 to be exact, a year of political assassinations, riots, and growing opposition to the Vietnam War. When Democrats met in Chicago, the fear debate over the war split the delegates inside the convention hall and outside anti-war protesters were met in the streets by a baton-wielding Chicago police force. To some, including Dohrn and Ayers, the country felt like a police state ripe for a revolution. Twenty-eight years later, their perception of those days has not changed.
BILL AYERS: I'm sure there are people who think that the opposition to the war was wrong and would like to re-write that history, but the opposition to the war was right, and the opposition came from all quarters, and those who opposed it should be proud of that and should say they're proud of that. To apologize for that opposition would be, I think, a perversion. To apologize for militantly opposing racism, which I think is needed now more than ever, to me is a perversion. On a personal level, are there things that I did wrong like every human being? There are thousands of things that you might do differently, you might re-think after the fact. But in terms of throwing oneself against the war in the 1960s and '70s, that was the right thing to do.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: With the Democrats coming back to Chicago for the first time since 1968, the radical actions of those days are being reexamined. But Dohrn and Ayers it was more than just marching in the streets. One year after the convention they were talking revolution.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: (1969) The way that the war has carried out, as you know, from the student movement of the last few years, is that there's very few institutions in this society that are free from participation in the war, and as long as they're participating in the war, we feel that they are all subjects of attack.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And attack they did. In the fall of 1969, the Weathermen staged the Days of Rage, four days of violent demonstrations in Chicago. Cars were overturned, store windows smashed.
What people remember about those four days is that that's when the movement went over the line, that's when it went into illegal activity. It went beyond protest; it went into violence.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: The movement was never not into violence. Violence--the violence was all around us. The violence was being done. The violence was being done by the body bags every day, by a million people in Southeast Asia being killed. The violence was a given. So it's true that we tried to hurl ourselves into the middle of things. But, again, I just want to emphasize that compared to what?
BILL AYERS: We reached a point where we were operating outside of the law, and that is a lot because we were being harassed by the law, and the law was acting outside the law. So in a sense, you know, everyone had lost their bearings, and what we did was certainly serious and had consequences for us personally, but I don't think it was, it was anything that was uncalled for. I mean, I think it was called for.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At the news conference where Dohrn had called for attack, she was flanked by two fellow Weathermen. Six months later, Ted Gold was dead and Kathy Budine was seen fleeing from the rubble of a Greenwich Village townhouse. Two more bodies were found in what appeared to be a Weatherman bomb factory.
BILL AYERS: I It was a terrible tragedy and one that caused, I think, a huge not only sense of loss but kind of a permanent scar but also a, a moment to stop and think and pull back from what might have been a real, really disastrous course.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Three days after the townhouse explosion, Ayers and Dohrn skipped a court date from the Days of Rage case and went underground. Initially, fiery tape recordings were sent to reporters.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: (recording) This is Bernardine Dohrn. Within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Over the next decade, the Weathermen claimed credit for 25 bombings but eventually the movement broke apart, and Dohrn and Ayers began a life together in New York, still underground. Ten years later, Dohrn and Ayers finally turned themselves in, in Chicago. Federal bombing conspiracy charges had been dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As you look back now, the bombings, what the Weathermen did claim credit for, would you do it differently now?
BILL AYERS: Oh, I don't--I don't know that there's much--I doubt it, not if the same conditions prevailed and the same kind of--and I knew what I knew then and didn't know any more than I knew then, probably not.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Local assault and battery charges remained against Dohrn. She was fined $1500 and placed on probation. She remained defiant.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Resistance by every means necessary is happening and will continue to happen within the United States as well as around the world, and I remain committed to the struggle ahead.
BILL AYERS: Joan was saying there's many, many--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Today teaching is the central fact of Ayers' life. A full professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he's written four books.
BILL AYERS: I've been a lot of things, but fundamentally I've been a teacher or someone who's tried to teach, struggled towards teaching, because I found that teaching was a place that I could live my values, teaching was a place that, that I could make a difference, teaching was a place that I seem to--my best self seemed to come out.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: With his love of teaching and his distrust of bureaucracy, it's not surprising that Ayers has been deeply involved in school reform in Chicago, and the effort to decentralize this troubled urban school system.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Shall we fax it back to them today? We should.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dohrn is also heavily involved in reforming a major social system. Chicago has often criticized juvenile court. On the staff of the law school, at Northwestern University, Dohrn heads the Children and Family Justice Center.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: We do at the Children and Family Justice Center pediatric law. That is to say we represent kids in a whole variety of issues in which they come in touch with the courts. So there's no issue that children aren't touched by and affected by. And it also, I think, is like the issue of the environment and peace. It makes you think about what kind of a world you want to live in.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Her work gets high praise from an unlikely supporter, the judge who oversees the juvenile court in Cook County, Chief Judge Donald O'Connell.
DONALD P. O'CONNELL, Cook County Circuit Court: My first reaction was that somebody who has been so against the orderly society and government to now suggest to us and presume to suggest to us ways to resolve problems, I had to be--it had to be proven to me that she had the intentions that I was told that she had and the competence I was told that she had. And she clearly had both. She is very sincerely dedicated to the work that she's doing. She is an outstanding advocate for the children, the interests of children, and has brought many ideas and a great deal of focus and attention on problem areas of the court that need attention.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the past does intrude on her work. Dohrn has a law degree but cannot practice. She was denied a license in part because of a seven-month jail term she served after refusing to testify before a grand jury. The jury was investigating a botched robbery of a Brinks truck in which a guard and two state troopers were killed. Weatherman Kathy Budine was sentenced to 20 years to life for the crime. It happened a year after Dohrn came above ground, and she has denied any involvement. There are still those who haven't forgotten or forgiven. Northwestern Law School Professor Dan Polsby is one of them.
DANIEL POLSBY, Northwestern University Law School: There were many acts of domestic terrorism. It seems to me that in the world as we know it right now. He can't simply walk away from acts of domestic terrorism and say, well, okay, that was a long time ago. It wasn't that long ago, for one thing, and for another thing, it has never been apologized for, and it seems to me that repentance has to proceed forgiveness and not come sometime later.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He is not alone. Thomas Foran was the U.S. Attorney during the Days of Rage.
THOMAS FORAN, Former U.S. Attorney: I'd say they still are against the community; they're still anti-authoritarian; they still think that they know their own little secret of how the world should run that's different than the overwhelming majority of the people. There's no way that anybody would say either of those people had any impact in Chicago. Chicago's a big city. These people are nobodies, and to try to give them attention is an outrage.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dohrn and Ayers do not react to those who say they are still outside the system any more than they do to those who say they sold out, but the years have made a difference. Their family is as important as their activism now. It was their children that brought them out of the underground.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: When I finally realized that the kids were going to be getting older and older and not being able to bring kids home and not have--and having a strange life, that made me be willing to go through that.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: They have raised three teenagers--middle child Malik Cochise, named after Malcolm X and a 19th century Apache chief, came home from a Chicago White Sox game the night we were there. Their oldest, Zade Atheola, named after a Black Panther killed in a shootout with police in 1973, is studying film in California. Sixteen year old Chesa, Kathy Burdine's son, has been raised by Dohrn and Ayers since his mother was jailed when he was 14 months old.
BILL AYERS: The kind of intimacy that we have has developed over, you know, 25 years, and, and includes raising three extraordinary kids, and really sharing every minute of that. And that's been kind of central to our lives in the last 20 years.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Also central, the desire to make a fundamental radical change in society. Would they do it all again? They say, absolutely.