- Zayd Ayers Dohrncreator, writer and host of the podcast Mother Country Radicals and son of Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
- William Ayersformer activist with the radical 1960s organization the Weather Underground, retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
- Bernardine Dohrnformer leader of the radical 1960s organization the Weather Underground, founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law.
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.”
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.
AMY GOODMAN: “Draft Morning,” by The Byrds. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Today we’re spending the hour with former Weather Underground leaders Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, and their son Zayd Ayers Dohrn. His 10-part series, Mother Country Radicals, recently won the Tribeca Film Festival award for best podcast.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Mother Country Radicals. In episode one, Zayd, you begin to unpack some of the conflicts that arose between predominantly white activists, like those in Students for a Democratic Society, the larger group from which members splintered off to form Weather Underground, and Black activists, like those in the Black Panthers and, later, the Black Liberation Army. Let’s first turn to Bernardine Dohrn in Mother Country Radicals.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Whenever white people have a choice, you can’t make that choice without thinking about how — how easy it is to not stand up for Black people at a given moment. I never felt like I wasn’t choosing women, but I felt that, you know, the essential American dilemma is white people standing up, not just once, but consistently over time, against the apparatus of Black slavery.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is Angela Davis.
ANGELA DAVIS: She knew exactly how to make those connections, long before the term “intersectionality” had ever been introduced, at a time when we hadn’t yet developed the vocabulary that allowed us to talk about gender issues in an intersectional way. I read some of her communiqués, and my reaction was always, you know, “Right on.”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Angela Davis actually speaking about Bernardine. And, Bernardine, I want to go to you next, because Angela Davis was on the FBI Most Wanted List. You replaced her on that list. I want to go back to that time. I mean, this is the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover. And for those who aren’t familiar with this history, talk about how you got involved with SDS and then how you got involved with the Weather Underground, became the leader of the Weather Underground.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, you know, it’s astonishing, what can I say, to be — there’s no such thing as replacing Angela Davis on any list or on anything. She’s a colleague and a comrade and a sister and a friend. But I think her pointing out that we didn’t have language back in 1969, '70, ’71, ’72, about — not just language, but the connective tissue of the word “intersectionality,” so that you didn't have to choose between being a woman and being against the War in Vietnam, that was insane, and yet the politics of the time made that often true on the ground. So, her whole life and her whole career helping to make that manifest for Black Lives Matter and Undocumented and Unafraid and the activists of today is quite dramatic, and you can see their wisdom and their ability to fight for unity at the same time as they have disagreements and move in different ways. You know, I’m filled with admiration for this generation of activists and in awe, really, and trying to tag along and keep up with them on the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Bernardine, by the way, happy birthday! You’ve recently turned 80 years old.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, interestingly, back decades ago, you were one of the older members of the student movement and one of the older leaders. You actually were in law school. Talk about what radicalized you at that time, and then joining SDS, and then why you formed, with Bill Ayers and others, the Weather Underground.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: You know, I always felt that I had been a wimp by my failure to go South with SNCC and the Southern civil rights movement. I thought about it. I didn’t know anybody connected to it. I wanted to go. You know, my boyfriend talked me out of wanting to go. You know, it was ridiculous. So, when the civil rights movement, Dr. King and all the allies around him came to Chicago, I was a second-year law student, and I was like, “This is it. I have to now put myself in this struggle here in Chicago, and, if possible, with him.” And I took a bunch of law students to meet with Dr. King. He, of course, as he always did, had tons of law firms and lawyers around him and willing to help and organize.
And he said to me — we said we’d like to do something. He said, “Find the biggest slumlord in Chicago. Identify and give me the evidence for who the biggest slumlord is in Chicago.” We ran back to the law school, the group of us from the University of Chicago Law School. We went to the law library and who we felt were the people who would help us, not so much the faculty, and we spent a week looking at records and going through, you know, films. And we couldn’t find anything that would identify slumlords.
We went back to Dr. King the next weekend, ashamed. He did turn to me and say, “What did you find?” We said we can’t identify, because of this, this and this. And he said, “That’s fine. We’ll call a citywide rent strike.” And we were — moved on the agenda about how to organize a citywide rent strike.
So, it was, for me, you know, so — it’s an example of how if you just take a step toward the movement, toward somebody you admire, toward somebody who’s organizing a campaign around you, you will stay yourself, but you will be changed by it, and you will grow from it. And I think that’s still true today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, a central tension in the podcast is the balance between your lives as activists and that as parents. Could you talk about that? Maybe Zayd could chime in, as well, in terms of what he tried to do with the podcast.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: You want me to start? Yeah, I mean, for me, the personal entry into the story is, obviously, these are my parents. I grew up — you know, when I was born, they were underground. They were on the run from the FBI. And so, I grew up my first few years in this kind of strange situation of being underground, of knowing that we were underground, knowing that the FBI was chasing us, even though I’m not sure I knew what the FBI was. And, you know, so when I started working on this project, a lot of it was me thinking — I have two daughters now, and I was trying to imagine, you know, what kind of commitment would make people ready to have children when they were fugitives, I mean, to balance that idea. I mean, they were great parents, and yet there was this tension or this risk associated with having kids when you’re also fighting a armed revolution against the state. And, you know, my mom went to jail when I was a kid. My adopted brother Chesa, his parents both went to prison for decades.
And so, a lot of the show — and later on in the podcast, in episodes nine and 10, a lot of it ends up being about my peers — you know, myself, Chesa Boudin, my adopted brother, Kakuya Shakur, who is Assata Shakur’s daugher, and Assata, of course, is still underground in Cuba. And so, talking to Chesa and Kakuya about what it was like to be kids born into the revolution really informs a lot of the show and a lot of the kind of sense of what — the questions I’m asking about how can you balance family with the struggle.
BILL AYERS: I mean, I think that one of Zayd’s kids asked me the other day, “When you had kids, did that change your politics?” And she was referring to her father. And I —
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: And she’s 14.
BILL AYERS: And she’s 14 years old.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah.
BILL AYERS: And I said to her that I thought that it certainly didn’t make me change my politics, but it did make me think twice about the kinds of risks I was willing to take and wanted to take. I had a particular responsibility to this child, to Malik, the next child, and to Chesa. We had a particular responsibility to them, but we also couldn’t lose sight of the fact that other people’s children were under attack in Vietnam, in the United States, and we couldn’t — in Puerto Rico. And we couldn’t just let that go. And I don’t think that contradiction is any different than the contradictions faced by revolutionaries and radicals around the world through all time. So, you talk a little bit about, you know: What about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or —
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah, Fred Hampton had a son. So, you know.
BILL AYERS: — Fred Hampton or, you know, the Haymarket folks? I mean, you refer to all of them.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: There’s a picture — I don’t know if it’s in this — of Zayd on his changing table, or I think it just was a table in our house at the time. And, you know, I had a picture of Ho Chi Minh right next to him. And who else?
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Che Guevara.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Che Guevara. But also, you know, Zayd was Robin Hood for several years at Halloween time. And for him, the sheriff of Nottingham, you know, characterized a lot of the evil that we were seeing from our own government. So, yeah, we tried to make it integrated with our life once we had children.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to an exchange, in episode nine of Mother Country Radicals, between you, Zayd, and your father, Bill Ayers.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Did you ever take part in actions after I was born while you were still underground?
BILL AYERS: I was involved in a few things, and one of them was, in fact, a jailbreak. And I can’t tell you any of the details except to say that we were pretty clear that Bernardine would be with you and that I would do this, and then we would assess it after the fact. But it was, in retrospect, really risky and really on the edge.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: This was new information for me. Before I started working on this project, I always thought — I was always told that my parents’ part in the armed struggle ended with my birth. But I can’t say I’m exactly surprised. I’ve always known they were willing to risk almost anything to do what they thought was right.
Did you think about what would happen if you were caught?
BILL AYERS: Yeah, I thought my life would end.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: So, why?
BILL AYERS: Because it mattered. Because the world needed it to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers and Zayd Ayers Dohrn. So, let’s talk about this issue of violence and, Bernardine and Bill, how you felt then and how you feel today. Either of you can take it. If you could talk about — I mean, there are some actions you admit involvement in, and some you don’t.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, I don’t, just to be clear, except for, you know, the communiqués, which I was definitely part of.
But I think, you know, we live — it always seems odd to me to be asked about the question of violence. We live in one of the most violent countries in human history. We have military still to this day in scores of countries around the world. Imagine if some other country, Italy, had a military base in the middle of North Carolina. I mean, it’s unspeakable the way — one thing we take for granted, the United States, should we have arms and wars everywhere in the world, and, on the other hand, you know, we’re a sacred country. So, I think telling the truth about what the cost of violence is, U.S. violence in the world, and having that feel part of us — of course, I want to just say, Democracy Now!, with you, Amy, and you, Juan, has always covered U.S. wars abroad and done really a remarkable job of making that part of what we have to think about every day and the concrete nature of that and who pays the heaviest prices. So, but the illusion of the United States as being against violence, what can you say? You know, this last year, children killed — it’s unspeakable. So, we had to focus on that. We thought we saw the truth, and we thought it didn’t have to be this way. We could save lives.
BILL AYERS: And I think it’s still true. I think we live in a sewer of violence. And we like to think of ourselves as peaceful people. We want think of the United States as a peaceful place. But it’s just not true. It’s a violent, violent society. And at the time when we were part of the Weather Underground, 6,000 people a week were being murdered by our government in Vietnam, and we were trying to rise up to stop the genocide. That was our purpose. But it always, as Bernardine said, strikes us as odd that John McCain, who was a war criminal, was not always asked, “What does it feel like to be a war criminal?” But we were trying to stop the war crimes, and we’re always asked, you know, “Why were you violent?” It’s like asking Nat Turner, “Why did you rise up and kill people on the plantation?” Well, wait, the whole system was violent. Rising up against it was the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Bill and Bernardine about your decision to go underground, and then about your decision to resurface.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, you know, went underground the day after the explosion at the townhouse in the Village.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain that explosion.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that explosion.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, we heard on the news, actually, in — I was in California, Bill was still in Michigan. Were you in Michigan? And I heard on the news that there had been a gas leak explosion in New York. We thought that was probably — I thought that was probably not a gas explosion. And I took that news to be very bad news, because I had been in New York a week before, and I knew that people were working on explosive devices. I didn’t know where or what. That explosion really meant that scores of us around the country disappeared. And we had thought that it would be necessary for some people to build a clandestine operation organization because of government misconduct and government violence, really, against the activists, but we didn’t really know how it would come about. And it came about in a chaotic way where lots of people disappeared.
And then, over the course of the next year, people decided to return to their lives and work in organizations, public organizations. And other people, for a variety of reasons, decided to join the underground and be part of the underground. It was a very — even after that moment, Amy and Juan, you know, over the course of the 10 years, people actually came and went. Many people left being underground after Stonewall happened, because they were gay activists, and they wanted to join the public movement. And similarly with other things, sometimes family matters, sometimes personal things and sometimes wanting to be public. So, there was more churning than one would think in the actual way in which it happened. And I like that part of it, that it had — you could be underground, it could be assumed that you would never talk about it, but you could go back and do public work. And eventually, of course, we all did that.
BILL AYERS: You know, when I think about the choice to go underground, we — the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam began in 1965. For five years, we opposed the war with militant actions, with letter writing, with talking to congresspeople and so on. Eventually, by 1968, a majority of Americans opposed the war. And the war ground on, 6,000 people a week being murdered in Southeast Asia. And we had tried everything.
And I think about the choice to go underground. We knew, or we thought, by 1970, that we would have to build some clandestine capacity, not only to take the war to the war makers, but also to survive what we thought of as an impending American fascism. So we were building a clandestine organization alongside a public organization.
And then the townhouse explosion happened. Three of our comrades were killed. And we all went underground in a minute. We didn’t want to build — spend all of our time building a legal system and so on, so we were underground.
And then the War in Vietnam ended in 1975 with the U.S. defeat, which was brought about by the Vietnamese Revolution itself, and we spent another couple of years, you know, thinking about coming above ground. And it took a while to persuade Bernardine, because she didn’t want to — she didn’t want to give the state any kind of victory. But eventually we did, and we went back to public political work. And so, that was the 11 years we spent underground. Zayd was born underground. Malik was born underground.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, with their son Zayd Ayers Dohrn, producer of the new 10-part podcast series, Mother Country Radicals. Back in 20 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Dylan, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Zayd Ayers Dohrn.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask Zayd — in addition to looking at this history, your podcast, Mother Country Radicals, also tries to look forward, to the future of activism. Could you tell us about what you found out about the next generation of activists?
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah. I mean, it’s connected to this question of violence, I think, because the people who I talked to — I mean, my brother, Chesa Boudin, who, you know, saw his parents — you know, when he was one-and-a-half, they left him with a babysitter and went off to rob a bank with the Black Liberation Army and then never came home, spent decades in prison. And so he grew up with us, kind of dealing with the consequences of that violent struggle. Or, Kakuya Shakur, who I speak to later in the podcast, her mom, you know, was imprisoned and then had to flee to Cuba and is still underground 20 years, 30 years later — 40 years later. And Kakuya talks about, you know, her mom has never met her children. Assata Shakur has never met her grandchildren.
AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from Mother Country Radicals. This is Kakuya Shakur, Assata Shakur’s daughter.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: This might be an impossible question, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an easy question. But it’s a big question. Do you think it was worth it, what your mom tried to do and what your family went through for it?
KAKUYA SHAKUR: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, that’s a deep question, right? I felt deeply loved by my mom, but I knew that struggle, you know, was more important, in the broader context. So many different points in our history, it’s like we had no choice but to — you know, to struggle, to resist. And unfortunately, loss was a part of that. All the struggles that came before are contributing to us being in this moment now. Every act that happens then creates another act. I can almost feel that my life is a result of all of these experiences, the atrocities, the trauma, the struggle, the joy, as well. I’m a result of all of that.
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: These are all young people who had to live with the consequences of that violent struggle, and yet most of the people I talked to of my generation are still committed in some way to that struggle for a better world. So, Chesa, of course, became a public defender and then the district attorney of San Francisco. Kakuya Shakur is working as a social worker here in Chicago. So I think a lot of them grapple — and I talk to them on the show about this — they grapple with, you know: What does it mean to try to change the world? How far should we go? And also, they’re very aware of kind of what it can look like when people decide to go down the path of revolutionary violence, what that does to families, what that does to individuals. And so, I think it’s a complicated question, and I try to wrestle in the show with that complexity.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip of Mother Country Radicals, as you raise Kathy Boudin, who just recently died of cancer, the former Weather Underground member. She was jailed in 1981 along with her then-husband David Gilbert in connection with the armed car robbery carried out by the Black Liberation Army in Rockland County, New York, that left a security guard and two police officers dead. She would serve 22 years in prison. And as you mentioned, Chesa, their son, Chesa Boudin, he went on to be elected the district attorney of San Francisco and was recently recalled. In this clip, Kathy Boudin talks about being Chesa’s mother.
KATHY BOUDIN: I was determined to not have being a mother stop me from also being a revolutionary, because that identity, for me, was so critical. And I think also, in terms of men and women, I felt like I wasn’t going to have me as a woman not be able to go do something, and have David be able to go, and that, you know, relegated me to a role of a mother, which I felt like was something that I wanted as part of who I was, but I didn’t want it to take away from me the other things that I wanted to be and could do.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Kathy Boudin. She also talks about how Bernardine and Bill, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, our guests today, ended up adopting their son Chesa while Kathy and her husband David Gilbert were imprisoned.
KATHY BOUDIN: He had no idea who I was. I mean, he didn’t look at me. He didn’t pay attention to me. Of course, Chesa, as he began to speak, called Bernardine “mom.” And I was like, “Oh god,” you know?
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: And this is an important part of the story, too, the collateral damage to the next generation, the children of the victims of the Brink’s robbery and the children of the people who committed the crime, because none of those kids chose to be part of the revolution. They — we — were born into it and still had to suffer the consequences.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Zayd Ayers Dohrn narrating this incredible series. Bill and Bernardine, if you can talk about how you ended up adopting Chesa, you know, having Chesa, adding to your family of Malik and Zayd, and what you saw your role was together, you not in prison, then in prison, and so many Black Panthers and members of the Black Liberation Army actually killed?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, I’m glad you brought up Kathy’s name. And, you know, of course, we’re all stricken by her absence. Seems like a sudden absence even though it was a 30-year struggle that she had against cancer. She and I had a long two days of conversations the week she died, and, you know, we had — part of it was just spurred by her saying we’ve had an incredible relationship. And we really have had an incredible women’s friendship and sisterhood, hard fought for, very difficult for her in the years when she was in prison and we were raising Chesa, very difficult for us to have Chesa do so many prison visits during this period of time when he was struggling with many other issues. And yet we, somehow, worked very hard, and her parents worked very hard, David’s parents, to make it one family.
You know, many families in America, because of the massive prison system, are faced with this situation of a critical family member in prison and children visiting prisons. And so, we were not alone. And that, I think, helped and brought Chesa into the struggle against mass incarceration. And, really, all of our children have vivid memories of getting searched and going into prison to visit Kathy in particular. And so, you know, it is part of the American story, and an odd part for us, but not really odd at all, very common. We must do away with mass incarceration. It’s insane. There’s a million ways to sanction illegal behavior, that the rest of the world does quite successfully.
BILL AYERS: You know, we had two little kids when Kathy and David were arrested. We had not met Chesa. But Bernardine and I — I was working in a day care center in Manhattan. Bernardine and I had one conversation. We took a long walk around the block. And we said, “If something were to happen to us, what would our friends, what would our family, what would our comrades do?” And without much thought, we said we’re going to take him. And we went and talked to his grandparents, where he was living just a few days later, and he came to live with us right away. And it changed the dynamic of the family, you know, and it was enriching in the long run, and very powerful. And so, we’re not — we have no regrets on that regard.
You know, Zayd just said, you know, kids have to suffer the consequences, and that’s true, but that’s also universally true. Imagine Ted Cruz’s kids. They have to suffer the consequences of having Ted Cruz for a father. You know, I mean, so everybody gets the family they get, and you roll with it from there. And we tried to roll with it with love and compassion and engagement. That’s where we were.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Luckily, Bill was a, you know, longtime early childhood educator and had the confidence to do this. I’m not sure, without him, I would have ever even thought of it. So, we made a family. And, you know, both Malik Dohrn and — who was just six months older than Chesa, our early pictures are of them holding hands and them building blocks. Zayd then became Chesa’s protector and really helped him into school and reading and friendships, making friends with people, you know, as a model. And that — Chesa would have gotten there anyway, wherever he was, but in our family that was how it worked. And, you know, it was wonderful to have the surprise family of three boys that I never expected.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Zayd, what it was like to do this podcast, this audio storytelling, for which you just won the best audio storytelling at the Tribeca Film Festival, of these public figures, who were known all over the country, especially at the time — your mother, what did J. Edgar Hoover call her? The most dangerous woman in America — to tell this story of these public figures, who you know so intimately, who you know as mom and dad?
ZAYD AYERS DOHRN: Yeah. Well, I mean, that was a big part of why I wanted to do this, is because I, obviously, know them very well, and I’ve seen my whole life the different public stories that are out there about them. And I wanted to tell a story that was about the people I know, not just my parents, but their friends and comrades, these people who in some ways have been represented in the media for 40 or 50 years, but I think we’ve never really actually understood what drove them, what made them want to, you know, kind of conduct the struggle in the way they did, what radicalized them. And so, for me, it was about understanding my parents, helping my daughters understand my parents. And I think people who listen will not only get a sense of the history, but even if you know the history, I don’t know that anybody has seen — you know, has actually heard these people at length discuss why they did what they did and what brought them to that place in their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Zayd Ayers Dohrn, creator and host of the new 10-part podcast series, Mother Country Radicals, from Crooked Media and Audacy, featuring his parents, the former Weather Underground leaders Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The series has been a top 10 podcast in the country. People can listen to the whole thing now, the whole series, for free on Apple, Spotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.
Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Mary Conlon. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.