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Radicalism and Revolution: An Interview with Bernardine Dohrn

Bernardine Rae Dohrn (b. 1942) is a retired law professor from Northwestern University and the former leader of the Weather Underground Organization, a radical-left militant group prolific during the Vietnam War Era. The Weather Underground was responsible for the bombings of various government buildings, including the Pentagon, the United States Capitol Building, and a number of police stationsas well as the accidental townhouse bombing in Greenwich Village which took the lives of three Weather Underground members. Dohrn was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list where she remained for three years. In 1980, she turned herself in; however, most federal charges against her were dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct. She now resides in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago where she continues her advocacy for social reform.

Alex Fasseas & George Davis : Did your revolutionary ideology start to develop as early as your high school years?

Bernardine Dohrn: No, as a high schooler I didn’t even know what that meant, to be “revolutionary.” I mean I was so unworldly and so naive compared to you guys. It was red-white-and-blue all the way—hard to see a bigger world.

AF/GD: What did your life look like before you became involved in radical activism? What allowed you to see “a bigger world?”

BD: Weirdly enough, at UChicago, I was in the same class as Bernie Sanders who led a sit-in my freshman year against the University’s ownership of segregated housing on the south-side. I wasn’t involved in the sit-in since I wasn’t brave enough, so I watched from afar and slowly became more involved as time went by. It was a step-by-step process. It wasn’t until law school before I really became politically involved. I became the head of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Counsel, so I was part of a national network. It was right at the moment when black and white organizations separated, but we were still deeply involved on both sides. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War loomed over my entire law school experience, and everyone except for the seven women in my class were going to be draft-eligible the day they graduated from grad school.

The week law school ended, June of 1967, I went to work for the National Lawyers Guild in New York, and all hell was breaking loose. We worked for months, organizing legal support for the demonstration at the Pentagon that fall, with bonfires and National Guard troops of 18 and 19 years of age, scared to death, and us astonished. People were refusing to enter the military, police were refusing to occupy cities in response to the African American uprisings across the US, and people were coming home from Vietnam and throwing their medals at the government and denouncing them on a daily basis. It was a tumultuous time of upheaval, and an incredible time to mobilize lawyers and law students to do work in that area. So I had one foot in insurrection and one foot in legal representation.

AF/GD:What caused you to abandon a career in civil rights law and turn to a life of radical activism with the formation of the Weather Underground?

BD: After I went to a national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society—as I did once a year—I ended up being elected as one of three national officers. I spent the next year traveling for SDS, during the real escalation of the war in Vietnam and the black freedom movement in the United States. I reveled in those years; I led delegations in meetings with the Vietnamese in Europe, I found myself meeting European leftists from Germany, Spain, and Italy—people rooted in the history of the communist and socialist parties of Europe. Nobody held together during that time. I began to believe that the United States shouldn’t consider itself immune from everything else that the world was going through, and I wondered why couldn’t we have revolution, and why couldn’t we overthrow the government, and why couldn’t there be a government that actually served the people? Still a good question… Then what happened was three of our friends, our comrades, accidentally blew themselves up in Greenwich Village. And instead of us going along and having a small clandestine organization that nobody knew about, we all disappeared the day after March 6th, 1970. I called my parents and told them that I loved them, dyed my hair, and I disappeared.

AF/GD:What was the thought process behind the transition from nonviolent advocacy to a more violent form of radicalism?

BD: We thought of it more as an armed struggle… I think that “violence” is a tricky word. Yes, we were labeled as violent after the townhouse bombing incident in the Village, and because our comrades were intending to do violence to civilians. But we had spent our first year underground having endless discussions and meetings across the country with friends and others on how to proceed, and we came to believe that violence against property was different from violence against people. We were not going to go down the road of hurting people. In fact, we would go out of our way to prevent anybody from being harmed. Our actions would instead be symbolically understandable, self-explanatory—you know, the Capitol building, the Pentagon. So yes, it was a step beyond breaking windows, but it was a careful step.

AF/GD:Some people feel that the Weather Underground should be punished for what they did—that they essentially got away with their crimes…

BD: I would say the government got away with their crimes. You know I always say let’s have a truth and reconciliation process, and we’ll stand up on stage and so can the torturers and the people who thought-up Guantanamo and the people who committed war crimes in Vietnam. Again, there are many things I wish we hadn’t said, less so what we had done. Our rhetoric was relatively high. But I don’t regret throwing myself into that moment. I wish I had been nicer, but I stand by what I had stood by in the past, and am happy to stand on a tribunal if those government officials are up there, also.

AF/GD:How should the young, progressive people of today approach activism and political discourse in general?

BD: The job is in front of you, the job is to name your historical moment. We named ours, and I think we named ours correctly, about US imperialism and the dangers of racism and sexism. For us, those were breakthrough concepts that we tried to fit together, and even though we didn’t do a great job of handling them, we were onto them and they were part of our politics. But at the end of the day, stand up, fight back, ask questions, ask hard questions, pushing the margins wherever you can. And ask each other how you’re going to make meaning in your life, not money—you’ll be fine with the money.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.