Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

Politico posted a story yesterday on Barack Obama's encounters in Chicago with two radicals from the 60s who are responsible for terrorist acts - Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who were members of the Weather Underground. My issue is not whether Obama has any serious connection with these two people - I see no evidence of that, and he denounced their terrorist actions through a spokesman for his campaign. What bothers me is how these two people have managed to get away with their crimes with very little or no punishment and subsequently have reached important positions in American academia - both are tenured professors.
Like many of the most extreme figures from the 1960s Ayers and Dohrn are ambiguous figures in American life. They disappeared in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.

Both have written and spoken at length about their pasts, and today he is an advocate for progressive education and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she’s an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.

But — unlike some other fringe figures of the era — they’re also flatly unrepentant about the bombings they committed in the name of ending the war, defending them on the grounds that they killed no one, except, accidentally, their own members. Dohrn, however, was jailed for less than a year for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating other Weather Underground members’ robbery of a Brinks truck, in which a guard and two New York State Troopers were killed.
I read about this story about a week ago somewhere else on the web and went to look up Ayers' history. What I found was, frankly, disgusting. In September of 2001, Ayers published a sort of memoir/sort of fictional account of his life, Fugitive Days (Beacon Press). A review of the book/interview with him was published on September 11 (obviously, when it was printed on that day, no one knew what it would forever be remembered for - but it's definitely apposite, considering what he had to say about terrorism). (Read this Clyde Haberman article from September 10, 2002, which is an attempt to replicate how September 11 felt just before the attacks - he refers to the article on Ayers). He is totally unrepentant about the acts of violence he committed. Among other things, this is what the New York Times article said about him:
''I don't regret setting bombs,'' Bill Ayers said. ''I feel we didn't do enough.'' Mr. Ayers, who spent the 1970's as a fugitive in the Weather Underground, was sitting in the kitchen of his big turn-of-the-19th-century stone house in the Hyde Park district of Chicago....

Mr. Ayers is probably safe from prosecution anyway. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said there was a five-year statute of limitations on Federal crimes except in cases of murder or when a person has been indicted.

Mr. Ayers, who in 1970 was said to have summed up the Weatherman philosophy as: ''Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at,'' is today distinguished professor of education [my emphasis] at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And he says he doesn't actually remember suggesting that rich people be killed or that people kill their parents, but ''it's been quoted so many times I'm beginning to think I did,'' he said. ''It was a joke about the distribution of wealth.''

He went underground in 1970, after his girlfriend, Diana Oughton, and two other people were killed when bombs they were making exploded in a Greenwich Village town house. With him in the Weather Underground was Bernardine Dohrn, who was put on the F.B.I.'s 10 Most Wanted List. J. Edgar Hoover called her ''the most dangerous woman in America'' and ''la Pasionara of the Lunatic Left.'' Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn later married.

In his book Mr. Ayers describes the Weathermen descending into a ''whirlpool of violence.''

''Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon,'' he writes. But then comes a disclaimer: ''Even though I didn't actually bomb the Pentagon -- we bombed it, in the sense that Weathermen organized it and claimed it.'' He goes on to provide details about the manufacture of the bomb and how a woman he calls Anna placed the bomb in a restroom. No one was killed or injured, though damage was extensive. Between 1970 and 1974 the Weathermen took responsibility for 12 bombings, Mr. Ayers writes, and also helped spring Timothy Leary (sentenced on marijuana charges) from jail....

So, would Mr. Ayers do it all again, he is asked? ''I don't want to discount the possibility,'' he said.

''I don't think you can understand a single thing we did without understanding the violence of the Vietnam War,'' he said, and the fact that ''the enduring scar of racism was fully in flower.'' Mr. Ayers pointed to Bob Kerrey, former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, who has admitted leading a raid in 1969 in which Vietnamese women and children were killed. ''He committed an act of terrorism,'' Mr. Ayers said. ''I didn't kill innocent people.'' ....

All in all, Mr. Ayers had ''a golden childhood,'' he said, though he did have a love affair with explosives. On July 4, he writes, ''my brothers and I loved everything about the wild displays of noise and color, the flares, the surprising candle bombs, but we trembled mostly for the Big Ones, the loud concussions.''

The love affair seems to have continued into adulthood. Even today, he finds ''a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,'' he writes.

He attended Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., then the University of Michigan but dropped out to join Students for a Democratic Society.

In 1967 he met Ms. Dohrn in Ann Arbor, Mich. She had a law degree from the University of Chicago and was a magnetic speaker who often wore thigh-high boots and miniskirts. In 1969, after the Manson family murders in Beverly Hills, Ms. Dohrn told an S.D.S. audience: ''Dig it! Manson killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim's stomach.''

In Chicago recently, Ms. Dohrn said of her remarks: ''It was a joke. We were mocking violence in America. Even in my most inflamed moment I never supported a racist mass murderer.''

Ms. Dohrn, Mr. Ayers and others eventually broke with S.D.S. to form the more radical Weathermen, and in 1969 Ms. Dohrn was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer during the Days of Rage protests against the trial of the Chicago Eight -- antiwar militants accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

In 1970 came the town house explosion in Greenwich Village. Ms. Dohrn failed to appear in court in the Days of Rage case, and she and Mr. Ayers went underground, though there were no charges against Mr. Ayers. Later that spring the couple were indicted along with others in Federal Court for crossing state lines to incite a riot during the Days of Rage, and following that for ''conspiracy to bomb police stations and government buildings.'' Those charges were dropped in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct, including illegal surveillance.

During his fugitive years, Mr. Ayers said, he lived in 15 states....

In the mid-1970's the Weathermen began quarreling. One faction, including Ms. Boudin, wanted to join the Black Liberation Army. Others, including Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers, favored surrendering. Ms. Boudin and Ms. Dohrn had had an intense friendship but broke apart. Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn were purged from the group.

Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers had a son, Zayd, in 1977. After the birth of Malik, in 1980, they decided to surface. Ms. Dohrn pleaded guilty to the original Days of Rage charge, received three years probation and was fined $1,500. The Federal charges against Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn had already been dropped.

Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn tried to persuade Ms. Boudin to surrender because she was pregnant. But she refused, and went on to participate in the Brink's robbery. When she was arrested, Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers volunteered to care for Chesa, then 14 months old, and became his legal guardians.

A few months later Ms. Dohrn was called to testify about the robbery. Ms. Dohrn had not seen Ms. Boudin for a year, she said, and knew nothing of it. Ms. Dohrn was asked to give a handwriting sample, and refused, she said, because the F.B.I. already had one in its possession. ''I felt grand juries were illegal and coercive,'' she said. For refusing to testify, she was jailed for seven months, and she and Mr. Ayers married during a furlough.....
So Ayers didn't regret setting the bombs, nor does he think they did enough. Everything was ideal on the day he set the bomb at the Pentagon. But it's okay, because he didn't actually kill any innocent people. Well, if the bomb that blew up the townhouse in Greenwich Village had actually been used against (and killed) the army officers it was intended for - would that still have been okay because the officers wouldn't have been "innocent"?

On September 16, an interview with Ayers was published in the New York Times magazine. It appears that the magazine had gone to press before September 11, because the interview with him refers in no way to the terrorist attacks on that day. On that same day a letter to the editor from Ayers was published, completely contradicting everything he'd said in the September 11 article. This letter was obviously written after the September 11 attacks. In it he says:
The barbarism unleashed against innocent human beings on Sept. 11 has in an instant transformed the complex landscape of American consciousness. I'm filled with horror and grief for those murdered and harmed, for their families and for all affected forever. ''Fugitive Days,'' the memoir I've written about my participation in the Weather Underground and the antiwar movement and the events of 30 years ago, is now receiving attention in a radically changed context. My book is a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. We are witnessing crimes against humanity. The intent of my book was and is to understand, to tell the truth and to heal.
Brent Staples then published an excoriating review of Ayers' book (on September 30, 2001, in the Times) which takes apart all of Ayers' rationalizations and refusals to take responsibility for himself.
Kathy Boudin has served 17 years in prison for her role in a 1981 Brink's robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead and nine children fatherless. She received a sentence of 20 years to life, but in most cases an inmate with her record of model behavior could expect parole. Few people were surprised, though, when Boudin was turned down for parole at a widely publicized hearing in August. Prison officials cited the extraordinary violence of the crime. But looming over the case was Boudin's membership in the Weathermen, a spinoff of Students for a Democratic Society. A group of affluent white kids, they played at being revolutionaries during the 1970's and took credit for bombing two dozen public buildings, including the Pentagon. The group was defunct by 1981, when Boudin joined a band of thugs associated with the Black Liberation Army -- an offshoot of the Black Panther Party -- which executed the Brink's truck robbery and, to judge from bomb paraphernalia and plans found after the robbery, seemed ready to blow up several New York City police stations. The robbery made clear the extent to which the student protest movement of the 1960's had deteriorated into naked criminality.

Boudin, at 58, is confronting the possibility of spending the rest of her middle age in prison. But her former comrades Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, members of the Weathermen high command -- once known as the Weatherbureau -- who led the group through its most violent period in the 1970's, have served no significant jail time. Both of them teach at name-brand universities and are headed for cozy retirements like those of the bourgeois parents they so despised during their Weathermen days. Ayers has further cushioned his future by writing a maddeningly evasive memoir, ''Fugitive Days'' -- one of those books that tell by not telling.

The jacket copy is the kind of agitprop that could have been written by the young Ayers himself. In it we learn that ''Bill Ayers was born into privilege,'' and we are given to understand throughout ''Fugitive Days'' that privilege is a crime, if not a badge of shame.... The class guilt drums on and on....

The Weathermen's other great theme was blackness. They fetishized it. Not just any blackness, mind you, but poor, angry blackness that tended toward violence and criminality....

When the Weathermen move underground, he likens the group to ''black Americans who must know everything about the dominant culture while remaining . . . invisible to that culture.'' When the group blows up a building, the act is cast as revenge for the power structure's ruthless attacks on the ''black struggle.'' This affinity, by the way, is what landed Kathy Boudin -- Bryn Mawr graduate and famous lawyer's daughter -- among the criminals who robbed that Brink's truck.

''Fugitive Days'' contains a great many obfuscations. Chief among them is the author's reluctance to mention Boudin. The two had a longstanding acquaintance that probably began in Cleveland during their S.D.S. days. They would certainly have known each other by 1969, when the Weathermen split off from S.D.S. in pursuit of a more perfect radicalism. Years later, after Boudin went to jail for the armored truck robbery, Ayers and Dohrn took custody of her young son, Chesa, who was not yet 2 years old. The absence of Boudin in the book is peculiar, especially since she became famous in the event that forms the emotional center of ''Fugitive Days,'' the explosion that leveled the Greenwich Village town house the Weathermen were using as a bomb factory in 1970. Boudin survived the explosion, walking naked from the wreckage and onto the F.B.I.'s most wanted list. But the blast killed three people, including Ayers's lover, Diana Oughton, who was later identified from a fragment of finger.

Ayers fixates on the explosion.... Ayers sifts and sifts this event, but somehow avoids mentioning Boudin -- even as he recounts meeting with ''two of the comrades who'd come out of the explosion alive,'' one of whom had to have been Boudin.

We can only guess why he fails to mention her. One possibility is that he wished to avoid adverse publicity at a time when Boudin was seeking parole. There is also a more complicated possibility. Ayers wants us to see Oughton as a revolutionary saint who struggled against the Weathermen's bomb-based violence. He imagines that she blew up the town house deliberately, killing her comrades and herself, to prevent the explosives from being used against their targets. The notion that Oughton resisted the group's more violent tendencies is borne out in Lucinda Franks's 1981 New York Times Magazine account of an argument that is said to have consumed the day and the night before the explosion. Franks suggests that Boudin favored using antipersonnel bombs, and that Oughton had misgivings.

The story of Oughton's struggle is poignant, whether or not it's true. But elsewhere in ''Fugitive Days'' the task of choosing among the true, the near true and the untrue is frustrating. Ayers reminds us often that he can't tell everything without endangering people involved in the story. But his partial retelling reaches fraudulence when he writes, ''Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon,'' then backs and fills, saying that he bombed it, not literally but metaphorically, as part of the Weathermen group in charge of the operation. He says that he needed to ''claim'' the explosion in order to write about it, and he adds later that he is not ashamed of any of the bombings and would not rule out planting another bomb someday; ''I can't imagine entirely dismissing the possibility.''

In Ayers's hands, a career in terrorism becomes a harmless episode out of a John le Carré novel, in which our hero lives on the run, steals explosives, sets off explosions using ''tradecraft,'' as the flap copy puts it -- as if the Weathermen were characters in ''Smiley's People.'' But the Weathermen game was never really a game. Nor was it ever noble, or even moral. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, readers will find this playacting with violence very difficult to forgive.
And Ayers and Dohrn are still tenured professors in Chicago. Boudin was paroled in 2003. The two police officers are still dead. Oughton is still dead. Why and how Ayers and Dohrn have managed to become rehabilitated in the eyes of some liberals is still astonishing to me.


  1. Was surfing for info on Ayers... This is a wonderful post! Thanks

  2. Killing our police officers and trying to kill our own soldiers is important.

    Michelle Obama and Berbadine Dohrn Ayers's working in the same office 20 years ago proves there was more to the relationship than Obama admits to.

    If he had nothing to hide he would admit the truth.

    Police officers and soldiers and their families should be outraged!!!!

  3. Working in the same office 20 years ago proves a connection? I don't think so. Do you know everyone you ever worked with? Did the fact that you might have worked next to a Communist make you a Communist? Or if you worked next to a Nazi, does that make you a Nazi? No, of course not. Being hired by the same company says nothing about your relationship with the other people hired by the same company.

  4. There's so much more to the Obamas' connection to Ayers besides them working together. Why are so many people closing their eyes to all the red flags (no pun intended) coming out on Obama. We will be in so much trouble if he is elected. But I wanted to say Thanks so much Ms. Lesses for your research. So many have been asking why Bill Ayers wasn't jailed for years. I appreciate your work.

  5. I have been awake researching this topic since it became apparent to me that McCain was using this to slam Obama. As an Obama Supporter I wanted to know what exactly was occurring and the evidence I have found is not as bias as what you have written. Obama is possibly friends with Ayers, sure, but the fact is Ayers has done A LOT of work for Chicago public schools. In 1997 he was awarded the Citizen of the Year award in Chicago for his work on a bill that provided a HUGE grant to underprivileged Chicago children for education. I do not condone his actions as a Weatherman, but what you have written is in many places quotes that were taken out of context and a misrepresentation of what Ayers was really saying. If you believe Obama, who is a strong supporter of education, is wrong for being friends with a man who has pushed education harder than arguably anyone in one of our country's poorest areas than you're nuts.

  6. "If he had nothing to hide he would admit the truth."

    What do you admit when there's nothing to admit? He's said all there is to say. Case closed.

  7. Good article. Now when are you going to apply your investigative skills to the true nature of Barak Obama's relationship with Ayers, and recant that fluff in the first paragraph that Obama has no connection to Ayers because he said so through a spokesperson?? The blind loyalty to Obama is what is truly astonishing.

  8. I think after six years in office Obama has proven that he is his own man, and any possible relationship with Bill Ayers is completely irrelevant. Why are you still banging on about it?

  9. It enrages me that they are responsible for the death of Police Sgt. Brian V. McDonnell (,and they are not in jail or on death row.