The Weather Underground spent nearly a decade combating the US government. From prison breaks to bombings of the Pentagon and the US Capitol, the ‘Weathermen’ used any means necessary to fight capitalism, end the Vietnam War, and struggle in solidarity with the Black Panthers and other organizations. A new podcast series created by Zayd Ayers-Dohrn, a child of the Weather Underground, looks back on the stories of the Weathermen and the history that made them. Zayd’s parents, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, join The Marc Steiner Show along with their son to discuss the podcast, their lifelong journeys as radicals, and what those interested in social change today can learn from the successes, history, and mistakes of the Weather Underground.
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Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, we really thought we were on the brink of revolution. People were organizing in poor communities, and a lot of folks were fighting police in the street, and taking the battle to the doors of power. One of those revolutionary strike groups that went underground, bombed the Pentagon and the US Capitol, broke people out of prison, allied to the Black Panthers and other organizations. They fought capitalism. They fought to end the war in Vietnam in solidarity with Black and other colonized groups. And that group was the Weather Underground.
They became the stuff of legend, and who, despite the full court press of the FBI and the federal government, were never found, never stopped, until they decided it was done. Zayd Ayers Dohrn grew up in that Weather Underground as a child. His parents were Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. And he produced a 10-part podcast series on the Weather Underground called Mother Country Radicals. It can be found on Crooked Podcasts or anywhere you get your podcasts. He joins me for this conversation along with his parents, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. And in full disclosure, Bernardine and Bill have been my friends since our days in SDS in the mid ’60s.
So, Zayd, Bill, Bernardine, welcome. Good to have you all with us.
Bernardine Dohrn: Great to be here.
Zayd Dohrn: Thanks for having us, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Really good. So I was just listening to these episodes, it was like I was having flashbacks. It was just amazing. Zayd, I should start with you just because this is your project, your baby, you were born in it, and clearly had to do this. Your heart and soul is through the narration, and in interviewing your parents, and putting things in a perspective that I’ve not heard anywhere else yet. So talk a bit about that for a second.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, I mean, I think there were a couple reasons I wanted to do it. One was really personal and one was more political. The personal reason was it was the middle of the pandemic and I was separated from my parents, and we didn’t get a lot of chances to be together and to talk. And I was interested in having these conversations. I knew my folks were getting older. My mom was about to turn 80. My adopted brother’s mom, Kathy Boudin, was very sick with cancer, and I started to feel like I really wanted to have a chance to ask the questions I hadn’t asked before and to actually get these people on tape saying their stories. And I wanted to have that for my daughters and for other generations.
The political reason was that it was during the Trump administration, and I was interested in this question of how people resist an out of control authoritarian government, and what that kind of resistance might look like, and what mistakes were made, and what we can be inspired by, what we can draw lessons from. So I was working on all those things. And then as we were working on the project people kept telling me their stories. Not just my parents, but members of the Black Panthers, members of the Black Liberation Army. And so many stories about how people were radicalized came down to police violence against Black people. My mom tells the story of the murder of Fred Hampton in the show. And as that was happening, of course, George Floyd was killed and people were out on the streets, and it started to feel like a really important project to be working on now.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, I should mention this is a 10-part series, and it’s an amazing 10-part series that is really riveting and well done, as someone who’s been producing audio documentaries for a long time now. It was really an amazing job. I mean, it just holds you, it really did. I mean, I’m just amazed. Not amazed that you could do it, but just amazed. The whole 10 episodes just kept you there.
Bernardine, let me jump to you and, Bill, jump in. I’m curious about how the two of you thought of this project and why you think it was important. I know, Bill, you’ve written a book. Bernardine, I know you didn’t write a book, so talk a bit about what this is for you. Bernardine?
Bernardine Dohrn: Yes, I didn’t write the books. Bill did. And I never imagined something like this, I have to say. I think it started two years ago with Zayd asking to tape me, and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to be part of, but I was tickled that he was interested. Obviously, it’s such a big part of my life, but also growing more mysterious and dim, and losing comrades in this last year, particularly. So we had conversations. Still, I didn’t know what it was going to be. And I guess I’m most thrilled that he paired it with the Black radical experience at the time so that the Black Liberation Army comes to life most vividly through Jamal and others. And I think it gives it a flavor of the fundamental issues in American life.
Marc Steiner: Bill?
Bill Ayers: Well, I also wasn’t sure what Zayd was doing, but very supportive of his work through his whole life and was happy to be a part of it. But I agree with you, Marc, what turned out to be this series, is really quite impressive. And it’s a different angle of regard on those days, on that period. And I think what’s interesting, Zayd said it, that there’s a resonance to it because of the ongoing police violence against Black people and Black community. And I think Zayd captured something unique for a new generation.
Marc Steiner: Let’s go back for a moment. I think when people hear the word Weather Underground or Weathermen, and they think – Because most people who were not as involved, people like me, who were in the midst of the revolutionary movements back in the early ’70s, late ’60s, and you all being underground and what you did for all those years – Many people have a hard time relating to what that moment meant and a hard time understanding what the heart of the Weather Underground was and how it evolved, but also how… When people look at January 6 taking place and the attack on the Capitol, and they take a broad brush and say, the Weather Underground, all of that is part of the same thing, that it is just terrorism taking over our world. It took over our world in the late ’60s, early ’70s. But let’s set the moment for those who were not alive then and those who really don’t understand what that was. Bill, I’ll start with you, Bill, and Bernardine, and have Zayd jump in then.
Bill Ayers: I’d like to start with Zayd, if it’s okay with you, and come back to us.
Marc Steiner: Okay, fine. Let’s do that.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, no, I mean, I think one thing I really learned doing this series and talking to my parents and other people is, the series tries to take you through what it looks like for a young, idealistic person to be radicalized. What that means, what it meant at the time for my mom, who was a law student at the University of Chicago, to be marching with Dr. King and trying to be a part of peaceful, nonviolent protests, and seeing white people in Chicago throwing bricks and rocks at Dr. King and knocking him down. And then trying to be in an alliance with Fred Hampton and his Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, and then seeing the Chicago police murder him. And how those series of events drive somebody past where they think they might be willing to go.
And I think part of the series is about what radicalization looks like for anybody, really, taking you inside somebody’s mind, the mind of a young person who is looking at a world that seems to be coming apart around her, around him.
But the other thing I would say about January 6 is that there’s some fundamental differences with the radicalization we’re seeing right now on the right and the radicalization of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. And what I mean by that is, number one, the insurrection at the Capitol was not some kind of grassroots revolutionary movement, it was actually an authoritarian coup attempt to keep a sitting president in power. In other words, that insurrection was on behalf of a sitting president and on behalf of an established government trying to maintain their power illegally.
The other big difference is that the Weathermen and the Black Panthers were radicalized by real things: by systemic racism, by an unjust war overseas, and by police killings of Black people. These people at the Capitol, they’re radicalized by their own racism, by their own bigotry, and by misinformation, by the idea that Democrats are running a pedophilia ring in a pizza parlor. So being radicalized by reality is very different than being radicalized by lies.
Bill Ayers: Yeah, I think, Marc, you’re right, that there comes to be a dominant narrative in terms of the talking heads at any given moment. And I don’t think the dominant narrative is settled on anything, from the anti-war movement to the Black freedom movement of the ’50s and ’60s. I think those narratives shift and change. And what’s remarkable about what Zayd’s done, as you said, Marc, that people have a certain image when they think of the Weather Underground, but of course that’s older people. Younger people have never heard of it. Why would they? And so what Zayd’s doing is introducing a phenomenon that’s not widely known, but it did happen, and it has extraordinary aspects to it. So Zayd’s introducing that to folks and saying, here’s a way to think about it and look at it.
Marc Steiner: Bernardine?
Bernardine Dohrn: Well, it stirred a lot of thinking on my part, about what drove us back then. And I think I want to add to the fury that we felt at the continuing police violence against the Black community, which was virtually every day, if you looked for it in the newspapers. And it was also the genocidal war against Vietnam, and 6,000 bodies a week, year-after-year, and light at the end of the tunnel, and all the lies that the government was telling. So the combination of those things really made us feel like we’d tried everything. And we were going to show their lack of power from the most powerful country in the world by several things, but mainly that they couldn’t find us, that we were supported by people. That nobody turned us in in 10 years of being underground, that there was both passive and active support for what we were doing in trying to show how vulnerable they were as well as how powerful they were.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that struck me about the podcast series – And you said it earlier, Zayd – It was the story of your parents and the Weather Underground. It was also the story of the Black revolutionaries and the Underground, and how that crossed paths and actually supported and were part of one another in ways, I think, most people didn’t really understand or don’t understand, if you look at this history. And maybe think also of the Young Patriots and the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in Chicago coming together in this kind of cross-racial coalition for change, doing different things, one community organizing, one underground with these symbolic attacks against the system. What do you think that those moments have to say and what this podcast has to say about where we are now and what we’re facing?
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, no, I’m glad you saw that, Marc, because I think for me that was really something I came upon while working on the podcast. I did not set out to tell the story of the Black and white revolutionaries. I really was thinking of it as a family history and telling the story of my family. But I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t tell that story without telling the story of the Black movements at the time, because so much of my parents’ story was deeply tied up in those histories. I mean, I mentioned that my mom had been a law student marching with Dr. King, and then had been a part of the Rainbow Coalition when she was running SDS, part of Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, as you said, with the Young Lords and the Young Patriots and so on.
So I think what I realized as I was working on the project is that it was not these separate, the Black freedom movement on one side and then this strange aberration of the white kids in the Weather Underground just going off on their own revolutionary mission, that it was really an entire counterculture that had risen up to try to make change in this country. And the title of the podcast, Mother Country Radicals, comes from what I found Fred Hampton and other Panthers called people like the members of the Weather Underground. They were talking about mother country radicals, meaning white people inside the mother country who can be our allies in our own fight for liberation. Or really not allies. We talk about allyship a lot nowadays, but they talked about it in terms of comrades, in terms of white and Black radicals working together, shoulder to shoulder, to try to fight for change.
Marc Steiner: But what you just said, Zayd, to me is one of the profound differences between then and now. And I think that it was captured in a way in this podcast series that I’ve never really heard done before, and I think it was very critical. People were comrades, they were together. They were not allies of, they were allies together. And so you really, I think, captured that.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, I’m glad. For me, it was a big revelation to hear episode three, which is about Jamal Joseph, who was a member of the New York Black Panthers and the Panther 21, and eventually the Black Liberation Army. His story really changed my thinking about the whole thing, because I realized there were all these moments of overlap and strange coincidences between how white revolutionaries and Black revolutionaries were radicalized. And so some of these people didn’t know each other at first, but the same events, the killing of Martin Luther King, the killing of Fred Hampton, the ongoing war in Vietnam, had the effect of radicalizing Black people and white people, and bringing them into the same movement. And I found that relationship really complicated and fascinating, and it seemed like an important thing to explore.
Bill Ayers: I’d add one thing that, which is that we looked around, we had been revolutionaries, we’d been radicals, we’d been in opposition. And we saw not only the ongoing murder of Black leaders: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Fred; but also the rising of what we thought of as a unique American fascism. And we saw it, and the Black Panther Party saw it, and the Black movement saw it, and the Young Lords saw it. And when we all decided we needed to create something that could survive this impending fascist movement, and that’s why we all began to develop, independently and codependently, the capacity to survive, an underground.
Marc Steiner: And Bernardine, I’d like you to pick up on that point. I mean, as Bill was talking, I was thinking about how this fascist movement, we’re seeing it really developing a lot of power in this country at this moment, and we’re in a different time. And when you think about the struggles that you went through, given what we face today, I mean, how this battle against the power of the extreme right, fascism, whatever we want to describe it as politically, is real and ongoing.
Bernardine Dohrn: Well, let’s just look for a minute at the women’s movement and at the attempt to criminalize abortion under any circumstances across the country. I mean, part of women’s activism, and actually one of the first illegal things I ever did, was be part of a movement at the University of Chicago that helped women find a way to find an abortionist. And that was an illegal act, much as the other thing we did there, which was to help people who wanted to go to Canada to avoid the draft and avoid being genocidal against the Vietnamese, to get to Canada. So these things were tied together at that moment or… They weren’t exactly tied together, but the work came together, and it came together no matter what you were doing.
So when I went to work for the National Lawyers Guild, I was at the Pentagon, I was at mass demonstrations. We were recruiting law students and lawyers to represent people. And at the same time, people were organizing clandestine activities. And many people wanted their kids to go to Canada, Sweden, at the time. So these movements just came together. When I was working on the West Side of Chicago, by the end of the Dr. King summer, young people and their mothers were asking me to help them find a way to keep their sons out of the draft, if it meant going to Vietnam. So the issues tied themselves together right in front of us.
Marc Steiner: I want to pick up on what you just said, Bernardine, because I think that that time, the ’60s and the early ’70s, really did lend themselves to an underground in the sense that you had to “break the law” in order to confront what was going on. Whether it was sitting in the segregated counters, taking the Greyhound buses, or whether it was working in the abortion underground, or helping to get people out of this country who didn’t want to go to Vietnam, and helping people in that way. There were all these interlocking… And you mentioned this in this podcast, these interlocking networks, but the underground was almost… It was essential to what was going on at that moment, in ways that I think is hard for people to put their hands around now.
Bernardine Dohrn: I remember that the Catholic activists also created an underground. I mean, there were so many undergrounds, I can’t even name all of them. We were practically running into each other. And we were supported. We would not have survived for 10 years if we weren’t supported. Not that people agreed with our long-winded communiques, every word. But people protected us, just as we protected draft dodgers and other people who were under severe scrutiny, undocumented people are protected in this country, as they should be.
Bill Ayers: And I think you make an important point that there wasn’t this sharp line that said, this is the aboveground, this is the underground. From the time I was involved in anti-war work, I was breaking unjust laws. And I was breaking unjust laws when it came to supporting women, supporting immigrants, supporting people evading the draft. So this wasn’t a fine line, the aboveground, the underground, it was something that evolved out of necessity.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. And I think that’s really important to think about in terms of where we are now. I want to get back to the heart of the podcast here, but I think that it’s really important to talk for just a moment about how this podcast speaks to this moment, this place we’re in. And, Zayd, I was thinking about the final episode, I think it’s called “The Inheritance”, right? And it’s your inheritance because you’re the child of revolutionaries, but it’s also an inheritance of your entire generation and younger who are now coming to grips of what we face here today, and how this podcast, for you, ties it all together for them.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, that’s exactly right. A lot of it ended up being about my own relationship to the revolution and to the underground, but also my generation and the current generation of young activists. I speak in the podcast to Chesa Boudin, my adopted brother, after his parents were imprisoned for decades for their revolutionary activity, he became a defense attorney, a public defender. And then, of course, ended up the district attorney of San Francisco. I also speak to Kakuya Shakur, who’s the daughter of Assata Shakur. Assata is still underground in Cuba, decades later.
And a lot of what I wanted to understand was how did my generation understand their parents’ activity? How did they respond to it? And how did they either follow in the footsteps of their parents or find some other way to go? And of course, it’s all of those things. I mean, one of the fascinating things about talking to Chesa and Kakuya is you hear from people who have real personal trauma from what they went through, what their parents went through, but who also have, in many ways, gone on to try to change the world the way their parents did. A different way, but to try to change the world, to try to make a more just world.
And what I hope people get, especially young activists today, from listening to the podcast, is you get a sort of roadmap for how people became radicals back then and some mistakes they made along the way, some cautionary tales, but also some real inspiration from people who were willing to put their lives on the line, their futures on the line, for what they believed. And in a lot of ways changed the world and gave us the world that we now have, for better or for worse. Some of it, of course, we’re still struggling with the same problems, with systemic racism and police violence. But also in some ways, these are people who gave us an idea of what it looks like to resist injustice, and gave us another mode of thinking about how to live your life in a way that accords with your own values.
Marc Steiner: I’m going to take us back to that moment again, back to the podcast and back to the late ’60s, early ’70s when all this was occurring. And a few things that struck me, I want to go through. One was the journey to Cuba. And I want to talk to you about what that meant for you and how those things began to change you. Because I’ll just say this very quickly, because I remember coming back to these conversations I had in my head, when I kept saying, yeah, I want to go home and blow shit up. I want to go after things. And this aligned to me was, no, organize the people, then blow stuff up. So that was like this mantra in my head. Then the RYM II happened, and you all went underground, and it was a different way of looking at it, but also we supported you underground, even if there were some differences. Do you know what I’m trying to say? Talk about that moment for the two of you, what made you have to go underground, that was also in this podcast.
Bernardine Dohrn: Well, two things made us have to go underground. One was obviously the continued escalation of the war in Vietnam and the empty promises that there was going to be an end to the war. And with the incredible resistance of the Vietnamese, it wouldn’t be till 1975 that they flattened the Americans on the battlefield and seized back their country and united their country. But you could see that coming, even then. And the second thing really was the American history and the notion that the resistance from the Black community was ongoing, it never stopped. It happened from the day the first slave ships arrived in the United States and continued then in 1970. And yet it was rare to see people like John Brown, just to take a wild example, or the Grimké sisters, in American history. You almost never saw them, unless it was a fanatical picture of John Brown.
So when do white people stand up and ally with Black people, even when they’re invited to come join for joint interest? So that seems to me to be an ongoing thing. Today, I feel like young activists who are African American, young activists who are Latino, young activists who are white, have a better language, intersectionality, they can relate issues, they can tie them together. Back in our time, they were pitted against each other and we didn’t really know how to solve it. So my hat’s off to young activists today who moved us forward again and again.
Marc Steiner: Well put. Bill, did you want to jump into that at all?
Bill Ayers: Well, I didn’t go to Cuba. Bernardine went a couple of times with Spencer Amos with leading delegations to meet the Vietnamese. But I remember going up and meeting a ship in Saint John, New Brunswick, coming back from Cuba with several militants from the United States on the ship, and going through a gray shipyard early, early, early in the morning through the fog, and coming across a ship that had the Cuban flag on its smokestack, and being just overjoyed and spending a day in the kitchen, in the dining area, talking to Cuban revolutionaries, and talking to these Americans who were lit up by the fact that they’d just met Vietnamese who’d come a long, long way to meet with them. And the interesting thing that I remember from that trip was, the Americans, us, were meeting with the Vietnamese and saying, what should we do? We want to make a revolution. We’ve got these big plans. And their response was typically, convince your Republican parents that the war is wrong. And then blow shit up.
Marc Steiner: Zayd, I’m going to come back to the heart of the podcast here before we have to leave each other, but I’d like to hear from you what were some of your revelations in this? Things you didn’t expect, things you didn’t quite understand, that you understood better after producing this series and spending all this time this way with your mother and father and with people like Jeff Jones and others.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah. There were a lot of things. A lot of surprises, a lot of things I felt like I learned. I mean, I think most kids, even kids who grew up in unusual circumstances, as I did, I mean, I grew up underground. My parents were on the run from the FBI. My mom was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. But weirdly ,it all seemed normal to me. Like most kids, you just accept what you’re given. And frankly, a lot of my friends, their parents were also on the run, or their parents were in prison. So in our world, it wasn’t that unusual. And so it took me a while to understand how unusual my childhood had been. And then working on this podcast, I really got to ask some questions that I’d been wondering about for a long time.
In terms of the surprises. I mean, one surprise for me was – And I talk about this in the first episode – I’ve known my mom my whole life as a certain person. As a very committed, ideologically clear, and courageous person who really knew what she believed and always was utterly certain of how to proceed. And so to talk to her about her youth, and how she came of age, and her indecision at the time, and the moments when she thought she hadn’t been brave enough, or the moments when she was convinced not to do what she thought was right. That was a revelation for me, to understand that she hadn’t always been the person I knew and she had become that person along the way. So for me, that was one big one. And there were other ones. I mean, I talk in the show to my dad about their decision to have kids when they were underground. What that meant to them, why they thought it was worth the risk to have kids when they were also fighting a revolution against the state.
And for me, it was a big revolution to hear them, in their own words, talk about how they balanced that, how they balanced having a family with the political commitments they’d made. And then, as we talked about before, it was a big revelation to me to understand how closely they had worked with the Black Panther Party, with the Black Liberation Army. And to understand that it wasn’t just this group that was off on its own extreme ideological project, but was really a part of a much larger movement that had really come to define that era. So those were the big revelations. And throughout the series, you hear me talking about when I’m surprised and asking people to help me understand what was going through their minds.
Marc Steiner: The way the story is told. And I think that, Bill and Bernardine, it’s really important, and Zayd, for people to listen to this and really understand at that moment the role the FBI actually played. What they did inside the Black movement, what they did inside of the rest of the movement, they were the provocateurs, in many ways, that created some of the violence that took place. And I think that came out very clearly inside of this. And I think, Bill, there’s so much of this right now, with the FBI being put on a pedestal in the United States at this moment, especially, allegedly going after the right wing. But that to me, I think, is really important for people to understand about what happened in that period.
Bill Ayers: And it’s still happening. I mean, I think that being in Chicago, we saw the murder of a young man, Laquan McDonald. We saw the mayor of the city suppress the tapes that could have told the truth about that. We see these things ongoing and that’s, I think, part of Zayd’s point. But I agree with you completely. There’s a young comrade, a friend of ours named Alec Karakatsanis, who has a website called Copaganda.
Marc Steiner: Oh, yes.
Bill Ayers: And he talks about The New York Times and Hollywood, and how we hold up the police as if they play a role that is absolute fiction. And, frankly, given our history together, Marc, I mean, watching NATO get a remake is really disgusting. Here’s an aggressive military, militaristic piece of shit, and it’s suddenly getting a makeover as if it’s some kind of force for peace.
Bernardine Dohrn: [inaudible] watch the police in Texas. I mean, Chicago, of course, is always a good example, but here’s this small town in Texas and the police cannot bring themselves to go up against one teenage guy. And we pay for them. It’s astonishing to me.
Bill Ayers: Exorbitantly.
Bernardine Dohrn: I talked myself into another little moment of rage.
Marc Steiner: That’s fine. Just because you’re 80 doesn’t mean you can’t still rage.
Bill Ayers: For sure.
Bernardine Dohrn: Listen, the abortion decision, how dare they? How fucking dare they? I mean, really, this is incredible.
Marc Steiner: I know.
Bernardine Dohrn: Young women, old women, we all have a right to make these decisions about our own bodies and the consequences of pregnancy. It is incredible that these old men sitting there in the court, have been drooling about this for years, and decide to make sweeping proclamations. It’s incredible.
Marc Steiner: You raise the issue, so I want to talk about that, especially in terms of the story that Zayd wove for the rest of us in this series. I mean, I was not in the underground that you were in, but for those eight years, I was in the abortion underground. When my girlfriend in college, who became my first wife, Saita Strongheart now, got pregnant and my mother was part of the abortion underground. I didn’t know that. And she helped arrange it, and I started doing that all the time.
And I feel like here we are again, that we are in a place in this country where we may have to again defy the law to protect women, in this particular case, when it comes to abortions. I mean, it’s like watching all the stuff from voting rights being carved up and destroyed to the Miranda being going after, to abortion, to all this stuff happening at the moment, going after union rights. It feels like everything that we fucking fought for, that people went to jail for, people died for, is being taken back.
Bernardine Dohrn: Yes, it is. And that’s both because they’ve had a plan for all these years to take it back, and because it’s admirable and they have to defeat it. And I have great confidence – I’ve been at the marches the last few weeks – That the younger generation will seize back this initiative and find ways to provide women with what they need and break the law, and find governors who will even be forced to help them do that. So I think the struggle is on, it’s met head-on, and I’m confident about its outcome. But it’s outrageous to me that all of Latin America should have gone the other way. Catholic Latin America now has legal abortion in almost every country. Isn’t that crazy?
Marc Steiner: It’s insane. It’s upside down. And the left is rising once again in Latin America.
Bernardine Dohrn: Exactly.
Marc Steiner: We’re watching that happen.
Bill Ayers: It’s worth remembering, as Emma Karkebral said, that imperialism never means its withdrawals. It’s always coming back. And so these are always contested issues. And we shouldn’t be discouraged by it, nor should we be particularly surprised, but we should double down on our commitments and be ready for the next fight.
Marc Steiner: Zayd, what popped in my head as your parents were talking just now was, talking about the work you’ve just done here. I mean, you put so much into this podcast. I mean, there’s so much here in terms of the historical sound bites and the voices of people who were revolutionaries back then, and the voices of your generation who grew up with your parents, on both the Panther side and the Weather Underground side. So I’d like you to talk a bit about how the voices of Fred Hampton, how the other voices and stories that are in here, speak to your generation, because you’re the one who did this, and speak to those coming right after you.
Zayd Dohrn: Well, I have to say one of the things that really was fascinating to me, is this medium of audio. Doing a podcast or an audio drama, a narrative that really uses voices to bring you back to that time. I didn’t expect this, but I found it to be the perfect medium for doing this project. And the reason is because it feels immersive. You hear these voices, you hear a young Fred Hampton or, frankly, a young Bernardine Dohrn, and you feel like you could imagine those 26-year-olds or 22-year-olds as the people who are in the streets today. It really feels like you’re there. And I mean, of course there’s a lot to be learned from documentary film and stuff, but it’s very different because there’s something about watching old black and white footage or watching talking heads of people reminiscing about their past. It makes a remove between you and that time.
And I think what this project tries to do is really make you feel what it’s like to be young, and angry, and frustrated, and idealistic, and how you proceed when you’re a young person in that moment. And so what’s great about hearing these people’s voices, you mentioned a young Fred Hampton, I think when you hear him, at least for me, when I heard him in this show, I could actually feel for the first time… I mean I knew his work, I knew what he had meant to the movement, but to know him or to hear him and to spend time with him as a young guy in his 20s trying to find a way forward I think is a really compelling idea. And I think it’s compelling for people who knew that history, it’ll take them back. But I also think it’s compelling to people who have never heard this story. I think you’ll really feel, if you hear the series, you can put yourselves in the shoes of these young people trying to make change and understand their decisions, even if you don’t always agree with them.
Marc Steiner: And I think one of the things that was revealed in this podcast, I think, for many people who did not know it, even folks who were involved in the movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, through the early ’80s, is the interlocking network, literally, that you all experienced, Bill and Bernardine, with the Panthers and other organizations. And I think people don’t really understand that kind of synergy that actually existed and what that meant. It’s always seen as separate, a bunch of crazy white kids blowing up buildings. And in this podcast, you’re able to get beneath that and talk about what it really was.
Bernardine Dohrn: Right. And I think almost every sector of the population played a role. I just want to emphasize that again. The Catholic movement sparked activity by Catholic nuns and priests, but also lay people across the country. And they were burning draft cards, and they were flagrantly breaking the law. They were breaking into military bases and damaging the planes that were on the ground and the weaponry they carried against other people of the world. So there were creative things happening almost everywhere you looked, if you looked. I mean, we were underground for 10 years. We ran into lots of people who were also underground. Many of them, of course, undocumented people coming into the country. Occasionally the mafia. But people who were outside the visibility unless you had the eyes for looking at what was really going on. So I just want to emphasize again that people who disagreed with us – And you remember vividly how intense disagreements were in those periods – Also supported us.
Bill Ayers: In the sense that they saw –
Bernardine Dohrn: And I mean, in the sense that they certainly didn’t turn us in, that was way beyond, but they didn’t talk to the FBI. There was a campaign to close the door, to not talk to them, to tell them to go to their lawyer. And it was widespread, thousands, millions of people took advantage of that lesson.
Marc Steiner: That’s true. It is true. Were you going to say something, Bill? Did I hear you?
Bill Ayers: Well, I was talking over Bernardine, therefore I abscond.
Marc Steiner: Hey, don’t do that.
Bill Ayers: No, no. I was simply going to say that the astonishing thing is the broad support in the sense that no one saw any advantage to seeing us in prison, and therefore we had a large base of support. But I think your point when you started, Marc, about the Black movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Chicano Movement, and the white student movement, coming together and identifying the moment we were living in and deciding to work together, shoulder to shoulder, as comrades, was an extraordinary moment.
Marc Steiner: I think there’s so many revelations in this series, and I think from the cops who infiltrated the groups, that were exposed to the… Not being able to capture the Weatherman, well also what happened to you, how the Weathermen fell apart in the end and why, that internal struggle, all these things that made it a very dramatic story. One piece towards the end I really loved was when you came up from underground, Bernardine, and they tried to get you to tell what was going on, you refused. And the line was, I think that you wrote, Zayd, was, let herself be burned at the stake before she would talk to the government. Joan of Arc complex. I’m not telling you shit, I don’t care what you do.
Bernardine Dohrn: Right. Well, we’d asked other people not to talk for a decade. I was hardly going to walk right in and talk to them. It was a widespread notion that if you can’t trust the feds and you can’t trust the FBI or the local police, don’t cooperate with them. And it’s got new, much more sophisticated forms now among Black Lives Matter activists, but it is equally deep, and great contemporary analysis.
Bill Ayers: And it’s a good cultural stance. And you remember from an earlier generation, I’d rather be a red to the rats than a rat to the reds.
Marc Steiner: Right. Right. And so let me also, as we’re here just to tell folks, is that this podcast series, you just won an award, a Tribeca, correct?
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah. We just got back from Tribeca. It was really a great surprise, but we won the award for best audio storytelling at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Marc Steiner: That’s fantastic. That’s great.
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah. That’s exciting.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, it is. It is. I mean, I know you’re a playwright, so this was not like a play you wrote, but you surely scripted this thing out and put the pieces together. Listening to it made you feel you were there at that moment, hearing all the voices, and your voice, Bernardine, from in your 20s. And then comparing that to hearing you talk to Zayd, both of you now. I mean, I think that it’s really an important piece of history to be told this way, because this is how people get the information, and it’s visceral, giving everything is –
Zayd Dohrn: Yeah, yeah, no, exactly right. I think for me, the historical voices were the most important part, of course, and hearing what they had to say. But I thought my role as a writer was to make people see what a compelling human story it is, to really take people from these young teenagers and 20-somethings getting together to try to change the world, and then following them all the way to having their own children, and the ups and downs in between, including riots on the streets of Chicago, and bank robberies, and prison breaks, and all these crazy things that happened. It really is an amazing and wild story. But ultimately, I think if you listen to the series, you really get a sense of the arc of people’s lives and how they made the decisions they made, and why that should be interesting to us today.
Marc Steiner: And also in this podcast, I think you were unafraid, all of you were unafraid, to reveal some of the contradictions that took place even in the revolutionary movements, in the underground, especially towards the end of the podcast. I found all that you went through, some of the stories I’d never heard before, about what actually happened at the end, and how things split and the incredible criticism, self-criticism sessions that many of us went through in many ways in different parts of the movement. But the way you went through it was very painful to even listen to, and not even knowing that took place. I think showing those warts, showing those contradictions, to me, were an important part of the story that people also have to understand, that we have to be honest about things like that. Because I know that had to be difficult for you, Bernardine, just so you can tell that story.
Bernardine Dohrn: Well, our flaws were numerous. And because we were so noisy, our flaws took on a certain way too. And we talk a little bit about that. That’s another take that somebody can do sometime. But we, I think, talked ourselves into such certainty that it was hard for us to admit flaws at all, and we had to be totally wrong or totally right. And now it’s quite obvious that we could have accomplished our goals and continued to fight in a more humane and compassionate way. And I think later movements have shown us that. Many of them have, too many to name.
Marc Steiner: As we conclude this, I think it’s really important, there was a piece towards the end of this that really struck me, when the Vietnam War was over, you all were still underground, there’s a way Zayd tells this story, and I think these might be your words, Zayd, while families were taking shape, the revolution was falling apart around them. No Vietnam, no unifying idea, and then the battles inside to continue an armed struggle with assassinations and prison breaks, and other people saying, no, we have to do it a different way. There’s some real lessons in this, I think, for today’s movements to think about how to move the struggle forward in America today, taking those kinds of examples, what you learned.
Zayd Dohrn: My favorite parts of the series, in a way, are the later parts where my parents and others get into the contradictions of how they tried to keep the movement going, what it was like once they had families of their own. And then, like you said, the way that some of these movements tore themselves apart, not only in the early days, the walk out at an SDS convention in ’69 and the split in the Black Panther Party, the way these groups sometimes fractured around ideological differences. But then later when the Weather Underground started to fall apart and my mom was expelled from the organization, she led… I do think it has lessons. I think it’s about the way movements on the left sometimes have a tendency to strive towards greater ideological purity. And that people sometimes criticize people who should be their allies and comrades in ways that are not helpful towards movement building, but actually end up breaking down the movements that we need so desperately, and end up fighting with people who should be on our side against the real bad guys.
Marc Steiner: That’d be a good lesson for people to take away. Because the left does have a tendency to eat itself alive sometimes, which has been the saddest part of the experience for me in all these years.
Any closing thoughts here before we let you all go about your day in Chicago?
Bernardine Dohrn: It’s really great to see you and hear your voice again, and I want to find ways to tune into you more often.
Marc Steiner: Thank you. And stay in touch, maybe the COVID will allow us to actually see each other again, since it’s maybe dying down. Maybe, we’ll see.
Bernardine Dohrn: Maybe.
Marc Steiner: Maybe.
Zayd Dohrn: Maybe.
Bill Ayers: Great to see you, Marc. And thank you.
Marc Steiner: Great to see you too.
Bill Ayers: It’s always an honor to be with Zayd.
Marc Steiner: Zayd, this is great work. I know it’s really an amazing and important history, and a reflection on where we are today. So thank you, all three, for being who you are and all the work you’ve done, and continue to do. And, Zayd, you’re carrying the torch, and it’s deeply appreciated.
Zayd Dohrn: Thank you, Marc. Really nice to talk to you.
Marc Steiner: And thank you all for joining us today. I want to, once again, thank Zayd Ayers Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn, for joining us today, and Zayd for this incredible podcast he made. You can find links to Mother Country Radicals and more at the Steiner Show site here on The Real News.
And please let me know what you think about what you heard today. You can write to me at email@example.com and I’ll get right back to you. And if you have an extra minute, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, and become part of the future with us. And let me thank Stephen Frank, Dwayne Gladden, Kayla Rivara, and Adam Coley, and our hardworking crew here at The Real News for making this happen. I’m Marc Steiner, stay involved, keep listening, and take care.