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I See Clouds, I See Rain, I See Stormy Weather

A little excited about meeting Bernadine Dohrn!!!
It was the second half of the turbulent 1960's. There was a non-violent youth movement to end the Vietnam War and bring U.S. soldiers home. Idealistic students believed in the strength of knowledge and the power of protest. They exercised this belief on campuses across America with teach-ins, sit-ins and peaceful protests. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) mobilized hundreds of thousands of students to act on their belief that the war was wrong. However, when their non-violent tactics didn't work, militant groups started to form. Becky and I were excited to meet with Bernadine Dohrn, who began as a student leader in SDS and then joined the militant Weather Underground. Hearing her story inspired and challenged us to wonder, "What is our generation doing to make a difference?"


A Little Love From Home - Each item I pulled out made me smile…

On the radio you could hear Bob Dylan singing, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." For this group of radicals, the wind was blowing towards a revolution. Fed up with the lack of response to their demands, a group of militant members of the SDS split and formed their own faction. It was initially called the Weathermen, but once under feminist control, they changed the name to Weather Underground. (Go girl power!) Dohrn told us she became militant because, "Being right didn't mean anything unless you were willing to take risks."

Dohrn didn't start out as a radical, but her work with the movement eventually led her down that path. While in law school, she worked side by side with SNCC and Martin Luther King, Jr. on housing rights for Chicago's poor. After law school she organized lawyers to support the student and black liberation protests. She helped organize 300 lawyers at the Pentagon Demonstration, the first big anti-war mobilization in 1967. Dohrn believes that "lawyers should be on the side of justice, not just technicians but active participants." Dohrn used her education to help rally her peers towards the movement, but like many others, she felt more had to be done.

Jen meets Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground
Dohrn traveled around the country, recruiting members for SDS. At each campus, big or small, she received the same response - students always had a sense of being small and powerless. They felt unable to do enough or to do anything fast enough. Dohrn realized that the most powerful weapon against social change is the belief that we cannot make a difference. Still, Dohrn encouraged students to continue organizing and taking risks.

By 1968, taking risks became the strategy of frustrated activists, like Dohrn, who were no longer interested in peaceful protest. As their actions became stronger, so too did the response of the establishment, and violence rose on both sides. There was the student takeover at Columbia University in the spring of 1968. Students broke into the university president's office. They found documents showing that Columbia was involved in military research supporting the war and were being paid off by the government to maintain their secrecy. To break up the protest, the police were called in, and reacted with unprovoked violence against the students. This is just one example of many where police acted with aggression towards student protesters. This did nothing to deter students from further protest. Instead, it forced them to realize they could no longer work within a repressive system and they needed to find new ways to fight against it.
Jen and Beck have their own sit-in

By the summer of 1969, the Weather Underground's protests were neither non-violent nor peaceful. To infuriate the cops, they blew up the Haymarket statue in Chicago. There were also bombings at the Capitol and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Their actions were bold, but they were carried out against property, not against individuals, and every bombing had a purpose and a message. Dohrn remembers, "We were completely self-restrained as a movement compared to other world movements." Nonetheless, all of this activity brought them to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The FBI created an operation called COINTELPRO to closely watch the Weather Underground and to keep them tied up with lawyers and courts instead of working for the movement. Dohrn remembers, "I had never been arrested until the fall of '69. Suddenly I was arrested everyday, sometimes two times a day. I was arrested for demonstrations, for having allergy medication, for stealing a car, which I obviously didn't do." Finally, because of this harassment, Dohrn and others decided to go underground, and when three of their friends blew themselves up making a bomb in NYC, they decided to really disappear.
The power of protest

Go underground? Disappear? Becky and I imagined Bernadine, this beautiful, vibrant woman sitting before us, living in tunnels and never seeing the light of day. How does one "go underground?" Well, first you don't show up for trial dates. When that happens, they put out a warrant for your arrest and place you on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Sounds like a scene from a movie doesn't it? But that is exactly what happened to Dohrn and her cohorts.

"We died our hair. We stayed away from phones and never went home. We weren't on the run but we entered another realm - got jobs, false ID's, cars. People were fleeing to the coast to join the counterculture, the hippies, and the gay ghetto, dropouts of society in search of something. We were just a faction of this huge sub-culture. The FBI spent three years knocking on doors looking for us. They harassed our friends and family and put them in jail for refusing to talk."

Bernadine Dohrn shows off her FBI wanted poster
Dohrn and the other Underground members continued to work for the movement. "We wrote for the clandestine press. We worked with people in the mass movement. We still tried to figure out how to stop the War and the savage attack on the black liberation movement. We tried to be a force against things we thought were terrible, to show the weaknesses of the system. We lived strange lives, but they were rich and they were full."

With the end of the war in 1975, came the end of their movement. There were debates about what to do next. A lot of people turned themselves in. They believed they needed to go back and "face the music." Some thought they should have been more militant and went off to continue fighting, oftentimes leading to their arrests. It wasn't until 1980 and her second child, that Dohrn decided it was time to turn herself in. "I had a second baby and realized I can't live like this anymore." She returned to Chicago where the charges were dropped to misdemeanors and she was given three years probation.

Bernadine Dohrn continues to work for a better world
Now, almost three decades later, Dohrn works for children's and women's rights at Northwestern University. Her commitment to social change has not faltered but seems only strengthened by her experiences of the Anti-War and Underground movements. "There's so much left to do," Bernadine told us. "We didn't give you guys a better world. I thought we would, but we didn't." So where do we start, I wondered? What can WE do? Well, Bernadine believes that people "have only begun to tap the well of human possibility and imagination. Unless you can imagine the world other than it is you can't make a difference." I think about my generation and the next. Has our imagination left us? I believe not.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca – Bayonets and pencils just don’t mix
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 1
Irene – The Vietnam War Part 2
Stephanie – A personal account: Cambodia’s civil war
Nick – Bucking the draft
Teddy – DNC: Don’t Count on Civility
Jennifer – Students united can never be divided
Making A Difference – Bombs, oil, sanctions, and a decision we all have to make: The US and Iraq