The former Weathermen have something to teach about protest—and doubt
In 2008, Sarah Palin, who shoots animals from helicopters, said former Weathermen Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers were terrorists. President Barack Obama “palled around” with them, she said. This provoked a flurry of media investigation aimed at educating the public about the married pair who long ago helped form the Weather Underground.
No need to educate me. In the old days these people were heroes.
Weathermen were the acknowledged nobility of our messy, hyperconscious youth movement. We marched and protested, but they acted with a righteous boldness that at the time made our efforts feel puny. After the Kent State killings some of us, student radicals, women’s liberationists, peacenicks, occupied the Sacramento State University campus. My friend Andy, who had changed his name to Dove for the revolution, said wistfully as we walked across the quad at midnight, “If we were Weathermen, we’d blow something up.”
But we weren’t Weathermen. We were ordinary kids, waking to the horror of the Vietnam War and the draft, beginning awkwardly to understand that if you don’t object to evil, you’re complicit in it. Most of us were younger than the legendary Dohrn and Ayers; we hadn’t helped write radical doctrine that declared war on our own country. But the actions Weathermen took—bombing empty buildings (with evacuation warnings beforehand), blowing up monuments, seemed dramatic and OK to me—so long as nobody got hurt. Passive resistance had done little to stop the war. Maybe a few explosions would jar people enough to make them pay attention. We read the Berkeley Barb and Berkeley Tribe and countless position papers cranked out from various Bay Area factions: all lauded Weather people. It was a passionate time. For my part, I owned an old Gestetner mimeo and used it to disseminate feverish feminist tracts called Hell Broth. But I knew I would never hurt anybody.
When we protested Sacramento’s then-new Century Theaters because we heard they paid female ushers less than males, some people threw dimes and us and told us to go back to Russia. (The dimes, we guessed, were for calling our Moscow contacts.) One man spat at my Equal Pay for Equal Work sign and said I was a “punk Commie bitch.” I ignored him. Dove, who should have called himself Hawk or Falcon, said I should smash his car window. But I couldn’t, even after the man parked it in a perfect, secluded spot. Dismayed by my meekness, Dove said, “Do you think Bernardine Dohrn would let that fascist get away with spitting at her?”
Forty years later, just last month, Dohrn and Ayers came to the California Stage on R Street to speak for Haitian sugarcane workers. I sat in the top row. A trim woman with a crown of curly hair greeted people in the next row down while musicians with dreadlocks played bongos on stage. I heard the woman say, “We did our best, but a lot of our dreams didn’t happen.” It was Bernadine Dorhn, now a law professor—amiable, attentive, smiling; she didn’t look like a terrorist. When she and Ayers, a retired educator, took the stage, I saw the enduring marriage of friends. She was charming, he was patient and warm. They spoke eloquently about Haiti, the Occupy movement and “permanent-war capitalism.” Did they regret the violent rhetoric and acts of the past? Yes, Ayres said. “In the Weather Underground, we didn’t admit doubt; we didn’t self-criticize.” Doubt is necessary, he went on, if we take seriously a “responsibility to live as a moral person.” I liked this, and liked that he quoted from a Mary Oliver poem about living a fully conscious existence: 1. pay attention, 2. be astonished, 3. do something. He ended saying we have to ask ourselves, what are we not seeing? This seems as shrewd and ethical a political maxim as any I’ve heard: What are we not seeing?
They took a few questions. When someone asked about Obama, Dorhn turned away with an exaggerated, comic wince; Ayers said they had known all along that Obama was a “concession-making moderate.” After other questions, some audience members waved their arms in the air to signal silent approval of the answers. Before I could ask their review of the Republican primary debates (which have thrilled and entertained all winter), the question period ended. I headed to the door. In the lobby, a friend said, “I peeked in and saw all those old hippies waving their arms. What’s going on?”
“Righteousness,” I said, adding that I agreed with about 85 percent of what Dohrn and Ayers said. On the way home, we listened to a radio call-in show about the cultural war presently waged by conservatives. Armed with right-wing religiosity, Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh rail against birth control, liberal teachers, freethinkers, the separation of church and state, gays, women; there’s no room in their tight, prescriptive morality for doubt, or Haitian workers. I’ll throw in with Dohrn and Ayers anytime.