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Bernardine Dohrn Was Called The Most Dangerous Woman In America. Now, Her Son Reconsiders Her Legacy.




In retrospect, the decision to name themselves after a song lyric written by America’s most lauded suburban white bard is telling, because the Weathermen’s actions often came off like a performance art project deconstructing middle-class whiteness: a mix of childish zest, appropriated Black vernacular, and sometimes cringey fantasies about revolution.

As Bryan Burrough chronicles in Days of Rage, they had essentialist ideas about working-class people being “more tough” and less bourgeois, and sought to recruit them into their movement. They took over classrooms at a community college in Detroit during exams and “lectured the thirty or so confused students on the evils of racism and imperialism,” he writes. In Pittsburgh, 26 Weatherwomen “stormed the halls of South Hills High School, waving a North Vietnamese flag, tossing leaflets, and … lifting their skirts and exposing their breasts.”

They started training for what was later known as “Days of Rage” demonstrating against the arrest of protesters at the ’68 Democratic National Convention, including New Left leader (and later Jane Fonda’s husband) Tom Hayden. “We really barely had any models,” Ayers says in the podcast. “So we began to do things like learn how to do karate and learn how to shoot pistols and learn how to make smoke bombs and learn how to make dynamite bombs.”

They expected thousands of students to show up at Chicago’s Lincoln Park, but only about 200 did. Together, the group smashed windows and attacked a draft induction center. By then, 21-year-old Fred Hampton called the group “Custeristic.” “We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided,” he said. “They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrains.”

They tried to leave behind cultural norms: “So much experimentation with sex, sex with women, sex with men, sex in orgies,” Boudin says in the podcast. Jonathan Lerner said the sexual experiments were basically for the men: “For me, it was sort of liberating, because I got a chance to have sex with some of the men I was after,” he told Burrough. “I have a memory of several women who came out as lesbians having their first sex with women, and it was weird because everyone was sitting around watching. … It was basically creepy.”

At a “wargasm” dance in a Black neighborhood in Detroit, Dohrn joked about the Manson murders, in words that have haunted her since: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!”

During the Obama-era controversy, she explained her Manson comments as an ironic joke, meant to highlight the amount of press coverage the true crime spectacle was getting. But in the podcast, she says she regrets the moment. “It was glorifying violence,” she admits. Tom Hayden was sitting in the front row and “came right up to me,” she remembers, asking “How could you say that?”

In retrospect, that embrace of violence seems like a consequence of hardening themselves, especially as white women, to leave behind aspects of femininity and bourgeois propriety that they felt were in service of capitalist inequality. After all, Dohrn had become radicalized through seeing white women’s reactions to the civil rights movement. “The men I would have expected to be hateful,” she says in the podcast, “but seeing the women being hateful was shocking to me.”

And there was a lot to unlearn. Members subjected each other to daylong “self-criticism” sessions, where they accused each other of not being revolutionary enough, of upholding the wrong values. “The more you get whipped, the more you feel like you’re becoming purified,” Boudin explains in the podcast.

“The models they were looking to were mostly these Communist, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban models, and those models had a very structural Marxist analysis,” Dohrn told me. “They resisted personal things — the criticism and self-criticism were an inverse of that. The whole point of them was to stamp out personal preference, personal history in service of a collective.”

Still, there was plenty of dissension within the group. “We had fought ourselves into a stalemate with several different factions internally,” Dohrn told me, explaining why she wasn’t present for the most infamous — and tragic — moment of the group, which came in New York in 1970.

Boudin, Wilkerson, and Diana Oughton were all in Wilkerson’s father’s townhouse in New Jersey, preparing explosives for a bombing at the Fort Dix military base that would “bring the war home.”

Dohrn wasn’t in touch with Boudin at that point. “I regret that I let go of arguing with a couple of collectives, one of which she was part of … the last few weeks before the townhouse exploded,” she told me.

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