Jonah Raskin : A Rag Blog Interview with Bernardine Dohrn

Bernardine Dohrn. Photo by Thomas Good / Next Left Notes.

Never the ‘good girl,’ not then, not now:
A Rag Blog interview with Bernardine Dohrn

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / October 20, 2011

Bernardine Dohrn will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin (and streamed live on the Internet), Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, 2-3 p.m. (CDT). Also, go here to listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Oct. 7, 2011, Rag Radio interview with journalist/activist Jonah Raskin.

Who doesn’t have a reaction to the name and the reputation of Bernadine Dohrn? Is there anyone over the age of 60 who doesn’t remember her role at the outrageous Days of Rage demonstrations, her picture on FBI “wanted posters,” or her dramatic surrender to law enforcement officials in Chicago after a decade as a fugitive?

To former members of SDS, anti-war activists, Yippies, Black Panthers, White Panthers, women’s liberationists, along with students and scholars of Weatherman and the Weather Underground, she probably needs no introduction.

Sam Green featured her in his award-winning 2002 film, The Weather Underground. Todd Gitlin added to her iconic stature in his benchmark cultural history, The Sixties, though he was never on her side of the ideological splits or she on his. Dozens of books about the long decade of defiance have documented and mythologized Dohrn’s role as an American radical. Of course, her flamboyant husband and long-time partner, Bill Ayers, has been at her side for decades, aiding and abetting her much of the time, and adding to her legendary renown and notoriety.

Born in 1942, and a diligent student at the University of Chicago, she attended law school there and in the late 1960s “stepped out of the role of the good girl,” as she once put it. She has never really stepped back into it again, though she’s been a wife, a mother, and a professional woman for more years than she was a street fighting woman.

Since 1991, she has served as the director of the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law. At the same time, she has never been admitted to the bar in any state in the United States and has never practiced law. Her past might not haunt her, but it certainly has haunted character committees established by the legal profession to keep lawyers in line.

I first met Dohrn in the late 1960s when she worked for the National Lawyers Guild, and from afar began to follow her radical activities as reported in underground newspapers. It wasn’t until she was on the lam, a fugitive, and went by the name Molly that I spent days with her in discussion and debate about all the global and local issues of the 1970s, and began to see the woman behind the image.

She turned out to be much more vulnerable, nuanced, and sensitive than I had been led to believe. Since then, I have heard her speak at conferences, visited her in Chicago, and continued our conversation that began more than 40-years ago.

I don’t know any other woman of her generation who has been as controversial, as optimistic and hopeful, and as committed to what I’d have to call “political struggle” as she. The word alacrity fits her better than any other single word in my vocabulary.

While many of the men around her — her husband, Bill Ayers, her former Weatherman comrade, Mark Rudd, and her own son, Zayd — have written accounts of their experiences in, around, and after the revolution, Dohrn never has and perhaps never will. Probably someday someone will write her biography and attempt to reconcile what The New York Times described, in an article about her published in 1993, as “the seeming contradictions” in her life.

That author might also attempt to show how her own personal contradictions have reflected the larger contradictions of the society to which she belongs and at the same time has opposed, confronted, and aimed to reform as well as overturn. On the cusp of her 70th birthday, I asked her if she’d be willing to be interviewed. “Sure,” she said without missing a beat. “Love to have a reason to be in touch with you.”

Bernardine Dohrn, a leader in the Weather Underground (originally the Weathermen) that grew out of SDS in 1969, was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for more than a decade.

A Rag Blog interview with Bernardine Dohrn

What would you say is the predominant thread that runs through your life?

The great good fortune to have come of age at a time of revolutionary upheaval at home and abroad, which opened a path to lifelong justice and antiwar activism. The equally predominant thread is the joy and challenge of raising our children and now, grandchildren.

Why is 2011 not 1968?

U.S. economic and social domination of the world is now obviously declining, although fierce military dominance continues to exercise a cruel grip. We now know that the damage done to the planet from unlimited plunder and exhaustion of oil, coal, and non-renewable resources may not be reversible. That reality weighs more heavily, perhaps, than the bomb in our childhood. As Dr. King said in 1967 — “the greatest purveyor of violence on this earth is my own country.” That gives us all a great responsibility.

How do you think living and working in Chicago has shaped you?

I’m such a Midwest gal, summer lightening over the lake, city-stopping snowstorms, the spirits of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel — all the real deal, unpretentious and intrepid. Always an immigrant city but characterized by Black and white, and now Chicago has one million Mexican-Americans, plus newcomers from everywhere. Here, you can make a difference. Visiting the coasts and the south is essential but this is home.

What are your main impressions of Occupy Wall Street?

Smart, savvy, horizontal, participatory, resisting leaders, spokespeople, and demands, growing, listening, innovative and zesty. I’m in!

How have your feelings about Obama changed over the past four years?

The President was and remains a centrist, intelligent, compromising politician, first in Illinois and since in DC. As the highly financed hard right, finance titans, and the military machine have gained influence and consolidated power, politicians who try to occupy the center move right. Howard Zinn explains it perfectly, writing about JFK.

In what ways does this generation of protesters remind you of yourself and the young rebels of the 1960s?

They are smarter, more global, curious, courageous, and diverse, and open to elders at the get-go. But yes, they do remind me of our generation in their determination to act, to make meaning, to be smitten and inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, Madison and Greece, but to be local, to make art by shifting the frame of the possible.

Once upon a time we read Che, Mao, Marx, and Malcolm. Who do you read now that gives you insights and inspiration?

Vijay Prashad, Barbara Ransby, Adam Green, Martha Biondi, Grace Lee Boggs, Rashid Khalidi, James Bell, Charles Dickens. Lots of murder mysteries and spy novels.

What lessons about an underground organization do you think are worth remembering now?

I have no idea. Maybe that what looks invincible and dominant can be also vulnerable.

Sexism, racism, imperialism seem awfully powerful today. What differences, if any did we make on the society?

We helped remind people that white supremacy is tenacious, takes new forms, and has not been uprooted. The big “we” could not end the Vietnam War, but our resistance helped limit U.S. military intervention options from 1975-1990. Ditto modest constraints on the FBI and CIA, totally unleashed since 9/11. And our progeny have transformed the world we know: women, LGBTQ, Native Americans, the disabled, environmental activists, new stirrings among labor.

Why do you think Americans are so docile and so deferential to the 1% that owns 99% of the wealth?

Not docile, I don’t think. Mad, cheated, scared, self-doubting, and envious. But also poking fun, using humor to ridicule the 1%, savvy about the naked theft. The trick is to avoid cynicism. Ordinary people have the wisdom but they don’t know they have the power.

You’re about to celebrate your 70th birthday. How has aging surprised you?

Are we really still on our feet? Aren’t you 35 Jonah?

I never understood why so many 1960s radicals became lawyers and judges. Can you explain that for me?

Lawyers, teachers, and midwives, I thought. Because we needed great lawyers and we cared about justice. Law’s a great place from which to fight the power. I still love our work of representing individual youth accused of crime and delinquency and working to downsize, close, and abolish the mass incarceration/prison system.

What is your most vivid memory of the 1960s?

Meeting with the Vietnamese in Budapest and Cuba. Grasping the gravity of our location and our responsibility.

[Jonah Raskin is a regular contributor to the Rag Blog and a professor at Sonoma State University. He was active in SDS and the Yippies in the Sixties. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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10 Responses to Jonah Raskin : A Rag Blog Interview with Bernardine Dohrn

  1. Anonymous says:

    I will NEVER forgive this woman, nor her husband, Bill Ayers, for the unconscionable acts perpetrated against SDS. They were (both) responsible for the conditions that lead to demise of American history’s largest, and most successful “Student Movement”. Had Dohrn & Ayers NOT performed unprovoked acts of violence against their fellow American Citizens, I believe “We” (SDS) could have forced an end to the Viet-Nam War more quickly, thus possibly preventing ten thousand, or more, needless American deaths (and who knows how many Vietnamese deaths?).
    Then there is Mark Rudd who admittedly took ALL the papers and documents of what was then commonly called “SDS National”, and unceremoniously dumped them in the Atlantic. That history is lost and gone forever due to his act of stupidity!
    If the Left, in general, and SDS, specifically, could “try” these people for “War Crimes” against SDS & The Student Movement, they would be found guilty and sentenced. Who knows, even SDSers might accept a “Death Penalty” charge just for these two traitors to our cause!
    These people should NOT be deified as “heroes” of the Left nor of SDS. They weren’t then, they still aren’t now!!

  2. The comment above is simplistic nonsense. Whatever one might think of the role played by Dohrn, Ayers, Rudd, and Weatherman, SDS was destroyed by a confluence of circumstances and historical forces that included generational burnout; the role of COENTELPRO and government repression and sabotage; the cumulative effect of disciplined sectarianism from outside the organization; international revolutionary envy; and ideological overreach that didn’t allow for incremental victories. And much more. Weatherman was as much a symptom — a product — of the demise of SDS as it was a cause.

  3. Bert Garskof says:

    I agree with Thorne but would add a few thoughts.It is a mistake, I think, to confuse SDS with the whole anti-war movement or the whole anti-imperialist movement. Really, except for a handful of campuses, SDS may even not have been the most important activist group around.

    Nor was SDS the only group that pushed past legal limits.

    SDS fell apart along with many many other radical or lib/radical organizations, on campuses and in cities,organizations that had in their recent past brought a million demonstrators to NYC and hundreds of thousands to DC., built a flourishing underground press, caught the attention of millions of others. What power to bring down all of that is being ceded to a few people. I do not get it?

    I do not know if this is a fair parallel because I only know what is going on in Rome from the media but it appears that supposed “anarchists” on the fringe of the occupation crowds threw rocks and torched some cars. It has been a few days and I haven’t noticed that the occupiers have given up their struggle.

    I do not know what complex and compound factors made humpty-dumpty fall but it seems to me incorrect to blame the Weather people, perhaps 200 people, for the fall.

    Bert Garskof

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am among those who will never forgive Bernardine and her cohorts, for many things. Her infantile & thrill-oriented infatuation with violence, from Marion Delgado to the Manson gang to “piece now!” in Flint, the derision of pacifists, are just a sampling. Yes, she and the Weather organization did destroy SDS, though I think in fact that the papers went to the Wisc. State Historical Society in exchange for money (at least some papers did). SDS was a membership organization and the shutting down of the organization by a handful was an action that disdained the members, and thus disdained democracy itself. To be honest, what bothers me most is that Bernardine has never shown a pinch of gratitude to the American society that allowed her to become a professor with a good salary and have basic freedoms despite all of the actions she took as a so-called armed revolutionary. I know about America’s flaws as much as anyone who reads the Rag Blog, but I also recognize good things about this nation. Bernardine is a hater, a zealot and an extremist, and I wish that Jonah Raskin had not been as easy on her as he was in his interview.

  5. Good interview, Jonah. My only criticism is from the perspective of a 56-year old junior-league Yippie, that one need not be 60 or over to remember Bernardine and the events of the 1960s.

    As for the two comments from Anonymous, there were many factors and factions that destroyed SDS — including Progressive Labor. To argue that Weather actions — right or wrong — prolonged the war is based on…what? And the death penalty for these alleged crimes?

    Again, whether wrong or right, Weather was a great inspiration to we lumpen prole freaks. Our government murdered 3 million people in Southeast Asia and you’re worried about property damage?

    Thank you Bernardine, Bill and the rest for devoting your lives to justice.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The above comments were from two different “Anonymous” folks.
    Also, to Thorn.. my comment (first anon) was: “They were (both) responsible for the conditions that lead to (the) demise…”
    Might SDS have survived? We’ll never know.
    Others who believe as I also tend to lean in Thorn’s direction that the demise of SDS was a forgone conclusion. It was mostly a question of “When”.
    Might SDS have survived longer without the WU? I do believe it would.
    There is no doubt that the actions by WU turned an edgy/uneasy public, who had started leaning towards the SDS’ anti-war, civil-rights, etc. positions, totally against us.
    WU did us no favors, that is a damned fact!
    Yes, there was CoInTelPro… Being I was personally associated with three separate SDS Chapters, we (mostly) knew who the “Feebies” were (along with the local undercover cops, campus snitches, etc.), we simply told them things like where a protest was going to be, then we went elsewhere.. It was not rocket science to figure out who the stool-pigeons were. We did what we could, within the confines of the “technology” of the era, to confound as much information as we could that might have made it back to J. Edgar.
    It was noted the PL was a factor and a faction, of this I will agree. I am fully aware of the on-going battles between SDS and PL for “control”.
    Had the SDS membership not started declining because of the WU action (at least where I was) then we might have maintained the votes to keep the PL people from taking over.
    I wish to thank the second “anon” for stepping up and voicing similar (apparently equally unpopular) comments.
    To quote Dylan…
    “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows!”

  7. Didier says:

    WU,whether wrong or right, is a part of your/our history and there is nothing to be ashamed about.
    Thanks Thorne & Michael for your inspired comments.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Context: I was in SDS chapters at the Univ. of Texas, the Univ. of Michigan and the collective that made up the Radical Education Project chapter in Ann Arbor and Detroit. I worked alongside Bill Ayers in the latter two as REP shared offices with the Michigan Regional SDS where Bill was based. I don’t really know Bernardine, but saw and heard her innumerable times at rallies, conventions and especially National Interim Committee meetings at the Chicago national office. The REP staff, me included, went with the RYM II faction in the split 1969 split. I once read “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing” in its entirety.
    Comments. 1. Anyone who makes comments such as those above and then signs “Anonymous” without adding their name is cowardly. I will assume those comments were written by an FBI troll until proven otherwise.
    2. The analysis of the founding Weatherman document referenced above was essentially quite reasonable in 1969. After the events of 1968, it was not at all far fetched to think we were on the cusp of a worldwide revolution and that developing a military arm of that struggle within the US would advance that cause – that is, if you were truly a revolutionary. My unwillingness to join them had more to do with my own bourgeois tendencies than the correctness of their basic analysis. Your disagreements with them then were largely tactical.
    3. The demise of SDS had many causes. The actions of the Weathermen may have been one of them. So what? We all made and continue to make mistakes. Get over it. I know first hand that the chief demons in your haunted recollections are all extremely fine human beings to this day, who have accomplished great things in lives dedicated to struggle and you should respect them if not honor them.
    David Pratt Hamilton

  9. Barbara says:

    As the editor of this column, I would think you would welcome the comments of all your readers. I’m surprised to see you defending one point of view when you know well that diverse opinions are healthy and engaging and should be encouraged.
    These events happened long ago and how we remember them help shed new light on those passionate and sad times.

  10. Barbara — Sorry, I really don’t understand your point. I edit The Rag Blog but that doesn’t mean I can’t participate in the discussion — or that, in expressing my opinion, I am somehow not welcoming the comments of others. It should be clear that we encourage robust give-and-take. I wish we had even more of it. — Thorne

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