New Podcast Spotlights Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Their Children’s Story

We spend the hour with an activist who replaced Angela Davis on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List: Bernardine Dohrn, a leader in the radical 1960s organization called the Weather Underground. When Dohrn and her activist husband Bill Ayers literally went underground to avoid arrest, they then raised a family as they continued to fight for revolution. Now a new podcast that was created, written and hosted by their son, Zayd Ayers Dohrn, explores their family history. Dohrn and Ayers discuss how they were radicalized, how they raised their children underground and why they resurfaced, and respond to whether they think their actions — like bombing the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam — perpetuated violence. We feature excerpts of the family from the podcast, as well as of former Weather Underground leaders who were captured and went to prison, like the late Kathy Boudin, mother of former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who then became a brother to Zayd, and Kakuya Shakur, daughter of Assata Shakur, who is still in exile in Cuba. “This is an important part of the story to the collateral damage to the next generation,” says Ayers Dohrn. “None of those kids chose to be part of the revolution. They, we, were born into it and still had to suffer the consequences.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with an activist who replaced Angela Davis on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List: Bernardine Dohrn, leader of the radical ’60s and ’70s organization called the Weather Underground. It was 50 years ago this year that they bombed the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. They also battled with police during Days of Rage on the streets of Chicago and partnered with Black liberation groups to rob banks. When Bernardine Dohrn and her fellow Weather Underground activist husband Bill Ayers literally went underground to avoid arrest, they then raised a family as they continued to fight for revolution.

Now a new podcast series explores their family history. It’s produced by their son, Zayd Ayers Dohrn. This is the trailer for Mother Country Radicals.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: In 1970, a 28-year-old recent law school graduate became the most wanted woman in America.

REPORTER: Angela Davis was replaced on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List this afternoon by Bernardine Rae Dohrn, described as an underground leader of the Weathermen.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: They said she was an “enemy of the state.”

BERNARDINE DOHRN: Within the next 14 days, we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: A “home-grown” terrorist.

REPORTER: A bomb exploded earlier this morning in the Pentagon.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: J. Edgar Hoover called her the most dangerous woman in America.

BERNARDINE DOHRN: I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: She’s also my mother.

AMY GOODMAN: The Mother Country Radicals podcast series was created, written and hosted by Zayd Ayers Dohrn for Crooked Media and Audacy and features interviews with his parents, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, as well as other former Weather Underground leaders who were captured and went to prison, like the late Kathy Boudin, who’s mother of former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who then became a brother to Zayd, raised by Ayers and Dohrn. Zayd also speaks to Kakuya Shakur, daughter of Assata Shakur, who still lives in exile in Cuba. We’ll hear from both later. After resurfacing, Bernardine Dohrn became the founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law. Bill Ayers is now a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. The final installment of the 10-part Mother Country Radicals series is just out.

Today we bring you our interview with Zayd and his parents about the series, which premiered last month. I spoke with them along with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González. We begin with one of the many archival clips featured in Mother Country Radicals.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: In May 1970, Los Angeles radio station KPFK received an anonymous phone call leading them to a cassette tape hidden in a public phone booth. It begins like this.

BERNARDINE DOHRN: Hello. This is Bernardine Dohrn. I’m going to read a declaration of a state of war. This is the first communication from the Weatherman Underground.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Bernardine Dohrn is my mother. She’s recording this tape when she’s just 28 years old, surrounded by a few friends in a safe house in San Francisco, a one-room apartment they’ve rented using a fake ID. The place is crowded, and most of the people in the room are even younger than she is, student activists and grad school dropouts in their early to mid-twenties. There’s a device the size of a lunchbox set up in the middle of a table, an old-school tape cassette player with a red record button.

BERNARDINE DOHRN: All over the world, people fighting American imperialism look to America’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire. Kids know the lines are drawn. Revolution is touching all of our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Zayd Ayers Dohrn, can you take it from there? We have just listened to the voice of Bernardine Dohrn on Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles. Describe how that cassette got on the air.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah, well, the Weather Underground had just gone underground and was deciding what to do next. My mom recorded that tape, sent it to radio stations, basically announcing that they were about to launch a bombing campaign against the U.S. government in protest of the War in Vietnam and in protest of police violence against Black people here in America. And so, yeah, what the show does is goes back from that moment and tells the story of how my mom was radicalized, what took her from being a law student and a straight-A student at the University of Chicago all the way to being on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list, and her friends and comrades, and how they all got to that point, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zayd, could you tell us what drove you to decide to do this podcast? It’s an amazing, amazing series of shows. Could you talk about the motivation and why at this particular time?

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah. Thanks, Juan. Yeah, there were really two motivations. One was political, and one was personal. The political motivation was, I started it right before the pandemic began, when Trump was president. I was thinking about the history of resistance in America and how young people had come together at various times in our history to resist fascism and white supremacy and authoritarianism. And as I went along, you know, George Floyd was murdered, and we had this racial uprising on the street. And as that was happening, I was interviewing my parents and other folks, people in the Black Panther Party, people in the Black Liberation Army, and I was learning that so many of them were radicalized by violence from police against Black people here in America, so the death of Fred Hampton, the killing of a 10-year-old boy named Clifford Glover in Queens. Those were seminal events for so many of these radicals in the ’70s. And I started to realize there’s this kind of interesting echo happening today. That was the political motivation.

The personal motivation was, you know, I was really — we were separated by the pandemic. I was missing my parents. And I was also thinking, you know, they were getting older, my mom was about to turn 80, and I was thinking about wanting to get — wanting to ask them questions I had never asked, wanting to get their voices on tape for my daughters and for future generations, and, yeah, just wanting to kind of have an archive of what they did, how they thought and what made them who they are today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and I’d like to welcome Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, both former comrades of mine with Students for a Democratic Society decades ago. I wanted to ask Bill: The title, Mother Country Radicals, can you talk about the origin and the meaning of that phrase?

BILL AYERS: Yeah. I think that it’s a great title for this series, because what Zayd found as he was going through the archives and listening to people is that this was the title kind of given to us, white radicals at the time, by the Black Panther Party, by Fred Hampton, by Huey P. Newton. And they said they didn’t really — they weren’t interested in allies; they were interested in comrades. They wanted to think of us not as people who were helping the struggle, but people who were invested ourselves in the end of white supremacy, in fighting against police violence and empire. And so they always referred to us as their comrades, their mother country radicals. And that’s what we took on. And I think Zayd took that as a starting point for thinking about the coming together of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get Zayd’s comment on this but first go to Fred Hampton himself, the Black Panther leader in Chicago, before he was assassinated by the Chicago police, but speaking that same year, in 1969.

FRED HAMPTON: A lot of people don’t understand the Black Panther Party’s relationship with white mother country radicals. A lot of people don’t even understand that word that Eldridge uses a lot. But what we’re saying is that there are white people in the mother country that are for the same types of things that we are for — stimulating revolution in the mother country. And we said that we would work with anybody, form coalitions with anybody, that has revolution on their mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Zayd Ayers Dohrn, talk about your choice of this title.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah, well, I really wanted to highlight what I found as I was doing this research into my family and into this history, which was this kind of remarkable moment when white radicals, Black radicals, people of all colors were coming together to try to resist the American government, white supremacy, imperialism abroad. You know, Fred Hampton was involved, right before his death, in trying to put together what he called a rainbow coalition of activist groups here in Chicago. And my mom was running SDS at the time. They were part of that rainbow coalition. So, there was this effort to bring these groups together, and then, of course, Fred was murdered by the Chicago police. And so, part of the series is about trying to understand how white radicals and Black radicals collaborated, how that was complicated, how it was messy, and what kind of lessons we can learn today from that effort.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the remarkable archival footage that is in Mother Country Radicals of Fred Hampton’s assassination.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: About 10 Panthers went to the Monroe Street address and had dinner and Kool-Aid before they went to sleep.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Fred is supposed to stay at his mom’s house that night, but it’s late. He goes in the bedroom with his fiancée, Deborah Johnson. She’s 8 months pregnant with Fred’s child.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: Still half-asleep, I looked up, and I saw bullets coming from, it looked like, the front of the apartment, from the kitchen area. They were — pigs were just shooting.

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: She later remembered that night. This is after she gave birth, and she’s cradling her baby, Fred Jr. You can hear him cooing in the background.

DEBORAH JOHNSON: The mattress is just going — you could feel bullets going into it. I just knew we’d be dead, everybody in there. When he looked up, just looked up, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t move, except moving his head up. He laid his head back down. He never said a word, never got up off the bed. A person was in the room that kept hollering out, “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We have a pregnant woman, or pregnant sister, in here.” Pigs kept on shooting. So he kept on hollering out. Finally they stopped. They pushed me and the other brother by the kitchen door, told us to face the wall. I heard a pig say, “He’s barely alive,” or “He’ll barely make it.” Then they started shooting — the pigs, they started shooting up — shooting again. I heard a sister scream. They stopped shooting. Pig said, “He’s good and dead now.”

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: And through all the gunfire, all the screaming, Fred Hampton never wakes up. The autopsy shows secobarbitol, a sedative, in his system. William O’Neal, the Panther who made the Kool-Aid that night, turns out he’s also an FBI informant. Fred had apparently been drugged on the orders of federal law enforcement and assassinated by the Chicago police.

AMY GOODMAN: It was December 4th, 1969. And somehow I remember seeing footage, Bernardine, of you walking into the house. This was — was it the same day after he was assassinated? Was it a day later? But if you can talk about who Fred Hampton was and how that assassination even further radicalized you, what it meant for the movement in this country and for the Weather Underground?

BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, Amy, I remember — everyone my age who was around remembers where they were the day that Fred Hampton was assassinated, and Mark Clark, his colleague. And, you know, it’s seared into our head because it was people we knew, because it was the city of Chicago, because the Red Squad and the sheriffs and the police all collaborated with the FBI. We took six years to bring them to trial and prove it. The People’s Law Office did an incredible job doing that.

But I remember one of the things that they did was they immediately went and took the door off of its hinges and invited the city of Chicago to walk into that apartment building and look at what the police and the FBI had done in the process of murdering Black radical revolutionary leaders like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. So, yes, I went that day, as many of us did. It was reminiscent of other Chicago massacres and kind of mass participation and observing, not the body in this case, but the site. And so, it had a Chicago feel about it. And it was a somber and terrible moment, where we felt, you know, we must act, we must do more than we’ve been doing, we must do more than the kind of solidarity that we’ve offered. And we used to talk about it as putting our bodies between the bullets and the Black radical leadership in the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zayd, I wanted to ask you — some of the people — I mean, many of the people that you interviewed I knew personally back then, folks like Kathy Boudin, Cathy Wilkerson, Eleanor Stein, Jeff Jones, Jennifer Dohrn and Brian Flanagan, who was a good friend of mine back years ago. What did you take away from their assessment of their role back back then in the movement, and whether it’s bitterness, pride, contrition? What did you get from your interviews with them?

ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah, it was really interesting. Well, it’s funny, because, Juan, the names you mention are all members of the Weather Underground. I also interviewed Angela Davis, Jamal Joseph, Jihad Abdulmumit, Sekou Odinga, members of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. And what I took away from all of them, you know, I was talking to a lot of them about how they had first become radicalized, and I kept hearing these echoes, white radicals and Black radicals, over and over, radicalized by state violence against Black leaders, so many of them — you know, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Fred Hampton’s assassination, other killings of Black people by police. So, one thing is, they were all kind of telling me the same story about how they came to fight that struggle.

And then, in terms of how they look back on it, I would say — I mean, the series talks a lot about that. Later in the series, I get into regrets and questions of tactics and what they would do differently now. And I think the common denominator is that there’s a lot of acknowledgment of mistakes made, but there’s also a lot of sense of we were on the right side of history, we were struggling on the right side, and it’s hard to regret the kind of willingness to put yourself, put your future, put your body on the line for what you believe, if you feel like what you believe is right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back with Zayd Ayers Dohrn, producer of the Mother Country Radicals series, and his parents, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, in 30 seconds.

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