Exclusive Interview: Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers

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If you could take Vietnam and all that happened then, put it in 2004, would you make the same choices that you made then? Would you strategize differently?

Dohrn: I like the bridges that have been built between the feminists and the gay and the environmental movements. All the progeny of the Sixties. All the many movements that have happened since then are now part of a kind of a big tent of anti-globalization and anti-empire. So it’s a different world, but trying to act on your principles, trying to use humor, trying to tweak power, trying to be willing to take the consequences of what you believe in.

I do feel we are in a very similar situation… Isn’t it haunting? Don’t we want to know how many Iraqis are injured every day? Why are we not seeing caskets coming back? What about the Americans injured there?

Ayers: And the one thing we do know now is that, like then, our government is lying to us…. This is not the big deal, but young people know that the government lies to them routinely. Certainly, if I was looking back and saying what can we do differently, I’d say, “Let’s not be sectarian, let’s not be hierarchical, let’s not split every time we turn around.”

I would say for the young: Don’t be straight jacketed by ideology. Don’t be driven by a structure of ideas. But at the same time, I think we would be, should be, and we should be today, activists. We should open our eyes, see what’s in front of us, and act.

And is there something positive that you see? I’m hearing a lot of objections, understandably, but is there some positive tack that you see the government is taking?

Ayers: No.

Dohrn: The positive energy is coming from below. I think that there is a lot going on with young people today.

As professors, do you see that same kind of passion that you had as students in your own students, who might be questioning this at this time?

Ayers: I think that young people are, in so many ways, more advanced than we were in terms of political thinking. They’re not political in a kind of ideological way, but in a cultural, social way. Large numbers of people are broken from the notion that the system is working for people, that the system is just or humane or peaceful.

In February (of 2003), there was the biggest outpouring of anti-war energy in the history of the world. Much bigger than anything we mobilized in the Sixties… The energy is still there, and it’s something that’s being mobilized.

Dohrn: I think the Sixties in some ways is a barrier to young people today. They think of it, you know, what we’re doing is not that. But it’s partly the myth of the Sixties. It always felt embattled and small. It always, almost always, was a small group of people relative to the opposition around.

Following up on that, since you are both professors, do you get a sense of how your students regard you? Is there something sort of romantic about the Weather Underground to them or are you just old farts?

Dohrn: Very much!

Ayers: The last part… that’s it!

I would agree that what you said about the people who were actually agitating, who were really involved, being a very small group in the Sixties—a relatively small group that somehow seemed larger than it was. And now we seem to have more people upset about something and yet it seems smaller. What happened? Is it the way the media covers it?

Dohrn: I think there’s a mystery about what a social movement is. All this tremendous amount of political organizing and creative alternative institutions… and yet it isn’t a movement. That was true in the early half of the Sixties, too, and it cohered suddenly into a movement…. I don’t know what makes that happen.

Ayers: There was a context also that the anti-war movement grew up in, and that was the context of the civil rights movement. And that defined the whole question of what was possible and what one could do. The anti-war movement borrowed both strategy and tactics—all kinds of things from the civil rights movement.

Even calling it the Sixties seems odd to me sometimes. Why is it the Sixties? Who lives their life by decades, you know? Oh, I’m in the Sixties, now it’s 1970, I gotta stop.

Was it easy to go underground and people not know who you were and where you were, and could you still do it today, do you think?

Ayers: It was relatively easy, in the sense that it was more a state of mind than anything. You stepped out your front door and you know, you changed a few details and you were there. But part of it is, yes, it’s easy to get lost in America. The other part was there was a mass base of opposition to war and a mass youth movement that was huge and hard to describe to people who weren’t there. So it’s not that we were never recognized. I was recognized every month, but people didn’t want to turn me in. Why should they? They weren’t on the other side.

Is it possible for old farts to go underground? I mean, is the kind of thing you did really sort of the province of the young?

Dorhn: Yes. Well, you know, of course it isn’t really. But we walked away from our families, from our so-called career paths. Hundreds of thousands of people did. It was a time of massive dropouts and multiple undergrounds.

Does the Weather Underground really have a legacy?

Dohrn: Only history can decide. I think that I don’t feel like fighting for a legacy of a particular organization; we were part of a social upheaval—and it was huge. And it joined other parts of American history that until we were in it, I didn’t know about—you know, the abolitionist type—the various struggles in American history where people hurled themselves into resisting the law and taking the consequences of it.


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