For Americans who had forgotten or who were simply too young to remember, the 1970s-era Weather Underground, a radical leftist group, became familiar, once again, due to a litany of press coverage during the 2008 presidential election cycle. Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, re-emerged as familiar faces, with many questioning the extent of their relationship with then-Sen. Barack Obama.
A new Robert Redford film entitled, “The Company You Keep,” takes what some critics call “a sympathetic look” at the organization. And in a recent interview with The Australian, Dohrn spoke candidly about the movie as well as her checkered past — one that she has undoubtedly been able to escape with intriguing success.
Today, she is most known as a law professor at Northwestern University. This is, naturally, a far cry from her once less-than-coveted position on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. It’s a transformation that’s worth noting, as the former radical leader has reinvented herself with such fanfare that the story, itself, seems almost implausible.
But before we get into the finer details, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane. To begin, if you’re looking for a quick primer on the Underground’s protest activities, The Australian has it:
The Weather Underground, commonly known as the Weathermen, was not a group of idealists partaking in street theatre and silent sit-ins. The group campaigned violently for the overthrow of the US government and committed arson, bombed banks, the Pentagon and other government buildings, led jailbreaks (including, in 1970, of Timothy Leary) and incited riots. In 1981, three former members were involved in an armoured car robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead. […]
Dohrn notes the group was protected by the “white-skin privilege” that they protested against: the FBI sought to indict, harass and arrest them, but not assassinate them — unlike its approach towards radical black leaders. (In 1969, after an armed FBI-police raid led to the killing of rising Black Panther Party star Fred Hampton and another party member, the WU declared war on the US government and destroyed a number of police vehicles. It also bombed a New York police station in 1970 for what it described as the assassination of activist George Jackson, one of the so-called Soledad Brothers, during a botched jailbreak.)
In discussing “The Company You Keep,” Dohrn doesn’t seem at all turned-off by the film. In fact, according to her recent comments, she believes that the movie and the book that it is based on (by the same name) are forms of art.
“It’s everyone’s dream, of course, to have these actors representing them,” Dohrn told The Australian. “It doesn’t really matter which one you pick, Julie Christie or Susan Sarandon, what could be better? But I think the idea of it was to be more of a nostalgic film than I would make.”
The meatier responses come, though, when she is asked if, as a once-fugitive member of the group, she felt that the radicals who comprised the organization got away with their crimes. In the end, Dohrn, herself, was fined $1,500 and given probation for her role in the Underground.
Later, she spent seven months in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury about the Brinks robbery, an operation during which two police officers were killed (recently, TheBlaze also told you about Kathy Boudin, another former Underground member, who participated in this operation and who now also enjoys an academic career).
“No, I think I was 11 years underground. It wasn’t exactly a punishment,” Dohrn responded to the question of whether she escaped punishment. “I do think we won the moral war and it was hard [for] the government to call us terrorists or criminals. Certainly they tried, but we were such a home-grown product — I grew up in the midwest of America [in] a family who voted Republican all their lives, and I was the first person in my family to go to college. That’s an American story.”
Of course, whether or not hers is a true “American story” is predicated upon one’s view of the country. According to a Jan. 14, 1981 article in the Lawrence Journal-News that covered Dohrn’s sentencing, it seems her views America in the wake of her Underground days hadn’t changed much. The judge lectured her, claiming, “we have a system for change that does not involve violence and jeopardizing the lives of others: the election process.” He then asked, “Are you ready to join us?”
“You and I have different views of America,” she responded, with the Journal-News highlighting that she sported a “slight smile” in making this statement. So, it seems that her “American” story may be subjugated to the confines of her views on the country — notions that differ greatly from many other Americans. Let’s also remember that, despite apparently having disdain for the U.S., at least during a portion of her life, Dohrn and her husband have profited greatly from its many opportunities.
As for her days in the Underground, Dohrn doesn’t have bad memories — or she at least refrains from highlighting them. She told The Australian that running and living in hiding did have an some adventurous elements.
“We didn’t want to disappear [but] we had a pretty great time of it, all things considered,” said the former Underground leader.
Dohrn reiterated that the government, at the time, was “criminal.” She also noted that the Underground’s goal was to end the Vietnam War and to achieve “revolution.” As for this latter notion, The Australian notes that she laughed a bit at the idea, acknowledging that it was absurd.
While Ayers and Dohrn have been given quite a bit of media attention over the past few years, other members have received far less media scrutiny. According to the law professor, most are in contact with one another and remain friends — but a few are still living their lives in secret, it seems.
While she notes that “almost all” of the original members are in touch and that they are so close their “children and grandchildren know each other,” she cited moments of disagreement among the group — but it’s apparently nothing that would tear them apart.
“Affection, I would say, characterizes our friendship these days. And most people are activists, most people are doing great organizing or educational work,” Dohrn added.
As for those still missing, she didn’t seem to spend much time discussing or lamenting their whereabouts.
“There’s probably people who are still angry who I don’t see but I think there’s a vast group of us [who] feel we had a moment; we don’t think of ourselves as living in the past,” she continued. “We think that we’re fully engaged in the struggles of our time — climate change and peace and justice issues and the fight for equality — so we feel tremendous affection and devotion to each other” (read the entire interview here).
For more about Dohrn’s views on current affairs, watch a talk she delivered last year:
Many of these statements were more benign than those uttered by her husband in the past. In an article that was ironically published in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, Ayers was more candid about his views on his past criminal history.
”I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough,” he said.
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