Born in Chicago in January 1942, Bernardine Rae Dohrn earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Chicago in 1963, and a J.D. from the University of Chicago School of Law four years later. While attending law school, Dohrn became an anti-Vietnam War organizer and worked closely with the Black Freedom Movement. After completing her legal studies, she became a national student organizer for the New York City-based National Lawyers Guild.
Hitting New York in the fall of 1967, the attractive Dohrn, with her tight miniskirt and knee-high Italian leather boots, created an instant sensation among males in leftist circles. As she traveled from campus to campus to do “draft counseling,” potential draft-resisters flocked from miles around just to see her. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw Bernardine,” Sixties student activist Greg Calvert would later recall. “She was wearing an orange sweater and a purple skirt, and while everyone else had on “Stop the War” buttons, hers said: “Cunnilingus is cool, fellatio is fun.”1
On April 4, 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed by an assassin’s bullet, a distraught Dohrn told a friend that while King’s politics may have been passé, she had nonetheless admired the man. Later that night, Dohrn put on what she called her “riot clothes” and proceeded to join the mayhem that was taking place on the streets of New York’s Times Square.2
In the late Sixties, Dohrn became a leader of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), a wing of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In June 1968 she ran unopposed in an election for the SDS post of Inter-Organizational Secretary. Defining her politics at that time, Dohrn declared: “I consider myself a revolutionary Communist.”
In June 1969, Dohrn and ten fellow RYM-affiliated SDS members (including such notables as Jeff Jones and Dohrn’s lover Bill Ayers) produced “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows“—a manifesto whose title was derived from Bob Dylan’s song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Printed in the SDS publication New Left Notes, this manifesto marked the genesis of a new radical outgrowth of SDS—“Weatherman,” of which Dohrn was the acknowledged leader. Stating bluntly that “the goal [of revolution] is the destruction of U.S. imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism,” the manifesto characterized African-Americans as a “black colony” within the United States. Said Dohrn: “The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the [Black] Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build a fu**ing white revolutionary movement, not a national paper alliance. Building a white Left movement from the ground up means we need the Panthers and black radicals there—at ground level.”
In July 1969, Dohrn and a number of fellow Weatherman leaders traveled to Cuba to meet with political representatives of Communist North Vietnam. On August 29, 1969, New Left Notes reported that those Vietnamese delegates had told the American radicals in Cuba: “When you go into a city, look for the person who fights hardest against the cops. That’s the one you talk all night with. Don’t look for the one who says the best thing. Look for the one who fights.” The Vietnamese delegation’s leader, Huynh Va Ba of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, had put it this way: “The war is entering its final phase. You must begin to wage armed struggle as soon as possible to become the vanguard and to take leadership of the revolution.” Dohrn assured Ba that she and her comrades would try their best to fulfill his wishes.3
Aiming to promptly carry out the type of revolutionary violence urged by the Vietcong directive, Weatherman called for a “national action” to be held in Chicago from October 8-11, 1969. Dohrn played a key role in fomenting violent riots at these so-called “Days of Rage.” On the first night, she stood on a makeshift podium, the wind furling Vietnamese flags around her, and used a bullhorn to shout praise and encouragement to the hundreds of supporters who had gathered there. After lauding them for being “truly a vanguard” of “courage[ous]” revolutionaries, Dohrn proceeded to lead the mob into the Loop, downtown Chicago’s historic commercial center, where they smashed windows, set cars on fire, and trashed the famed Chicago Gold Coast. Six people were wounded by police gunfire that first night, and dozens were hospitalized for other injuries. Sixty-eight were arrested and jailed.4
The next day was the so-called Women’s Action. Again, Dohrn roused the troops with a fiery speech and led some 80 protesters into the streets for more mayhem. Dohrn herself was arrested that night and was put in jail.5
A Chicago district attorney named Richard Elrod was seriously injured in the Days of Rage violence and became permanently paralyzed as a result. Dohrn later mocked Elrod by leading her comrades in singing “Lay, Elrod, Lay”—a parody of the Bob Dylan song “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
Also in 1969, Dohrn recounted an incident that provided a window into her psyche: During a recent plane ride, she and her boyfriend had openly fondled one another and relished in the discomfort of their fellow passengers. Said Dohrn afterward: “They didn’t know we were Weathermen. They just knew we were crazy. That’s what we’re about—being crazy motherfu**ers and scaring the sh** out of honky America.”6
In December 1969, Weatherman convened a “War Council” at a black-owned concert hall in a Flint, Michigan ghetto. At that event (whose attendees included SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Jeff Jones), Dohrn launched a scathing attack on Hayden and his white confederates for not being radical enough. Said Dohrn: “Since October 11 [the last day of the Days of Rage], we’ve been wimpy…. A lot of us are still honkies and we’re scared of fighting. We have to get into armed struggle.” Also during the Council, Dohrn gave her most memorable and notorious speech to her followers. Holding her fingers in what became the Weatherman “fork salute,” she said of the bloody murders recently committed by the Manson Family (in which the pregnant actress Sharon Tate and a Folgers Coffee heiress and several other inhabitants of a Benedict Canyon mansion had been brutally stabbed to death): “Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach! Wild!”7
The War Council yielded two major decisions. The first was that Weatherman would go underground and wage a violent, armed struggle against the state, without attempting to organize the masses. Indeed the Council ended with a formal declaration of war against “AmeriKKKa,” always spelled with three K’s to signify the United States’ allegedly ineradicable white racism. The second decision was to dissolve SDS.
During Government Security hearings on March 31, 1970, U.S. Senator Marlow Cook asked Chicago gang leader Mike Soto to offer his assessment of Dohrn, whose whereabouts were unknown. Soto replied: “I have talked to her and she is a violent maniac, because when I talked to her she said ‘let’s pick up arms, let’s blow up this country apart until we take over.'”
In April 1970, federal prosecutors charged Ayers and Dohrn, among others, with having incited the riots in Chicago eight months earlier. In June 1970, a federal grand jury indicted the couple and 12 others for conspiracy to bomb and kill civilians. At that point, Ayers and Dohrn, facing a lengthy trial and possible incarceration, went underground and would evade law-enforement authorities for the next decade. Weatherman thenceforth became known as the Weather Underground Organization.
In May 1970 Dohrn made a tape recording of a “Declaration of a State of War” on behalf of WUO, and sent a transcript of the tape to the New York Times. On October 14, 1970, Dohrn’s name was added to the FBI’s list of the 10 Most Wanted Fugitives and remained there until December 1973.
During her time underground (which spanned most of the 1970s), Dohrn periodically issued additional “war communiqués” to the public at large. These communiqués commonly called for white Americans to shed their “white skin privilege” and launch a violent race war on behalf of Third World People.
In 1974 Dohrn co-authored—along with Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn—a book titled Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. This book contained the following statements:
The title Prairie Fire was an allusion to Mao Zedong‘s observation (in a January 1930 letter) that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” Dohrn’s book was dedicated to a bevy of violent, America-hating revolutionaries, including Sirhan Sirhan (assassin of Robert F. Kennedy).
In late 1975, WUO put out an issue of a magazine, Osawatamie, which carried an article by Dohrn titled “Our Class Struggle,” wherein she clearly articulated her support for communism:
“We are building a communist organization to be part of the forces which build a revolutionary communist party to lead the working class to seize power and build socialism. […] We must further the study of Marxism-Leninism within the WUO. The struggle for Marxism-Leninism is the most significant development in our recent history. […] We discovered thru our own experiences what revolutionaries all over the world have found—that Marxism-Leninism is the science of revolution, the revolutionary ideology of the working class, our guide to the struggle […]”
Also during the Seventies, Dohrn and Ayers, still unmarried, gave birth to two sons. One was named Malik (the Muslim name of Malcolm X), and another was named Zayd (after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther who had been killed while driving the cop-killer JoAnne Chesimard—a.k.a. Assata Shakur—to a hideout in 1973).
Dohrn and Ayers spent the last years of their underground life (in the late 1970s) in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, where they used the aliases Christine Louise Douglas and Anthony J. Lee. Unbeknownst to both, federal charges against them had been dropped in 1974 after the Supreme Court had ruled the FBI’s wiretap techniques unconstitutional.
In the late Seventies, WUO split into two factions, the “May 19 Coalition” (which advocated that its members remain in hiding) and the “Prairie Fire Collective” (which favored coming out of hiding). Dohrn and Ayers were members of the latter. In 1980 they surrendered to authorities and were delighted to find that the charges against them had been dropped. Dohrn did plead guilty, however, to charges of aggravated battery and bail-jumping, for which she paid a $1,500 fine and received three years of probation.
Shortly after turning themselves in, Dohrn and Ayers adopted Chesa Boudin, son of former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, when the parents were convicted of a 1981 murder that had taken place during an armored car robbery.
Dohrn later served seven months in jail for refusing to testify against ex-Weatherman Susan Rosenberg in the latter’s 1982 trial for armed robbery. During that jail stay, said an Associated Press report, Dohrn “changed her mind about one principle, her long-standing opposition to marriage … she took a weekend furlough to wed William Ayers, her longtime companion and her boys’ father.”
From 1984 to 1988, Dohrn was employed by the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin LLP. In 1991 she was hired by Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, as an adjunct professor of law.
Also in 1991, Dohrn was listed as a member of the “tribute committee” for the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights Bicentennial Celebration, which began as part of the struggle to disband the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). More recently, the Chicago Committee fought to abolish the PATRIOT Act.
Dohrn has been a commencement speaker at several university graduations, including California’s prestigious Pitzer College, where in 2004 she told the graduates:
“During your student years here, the shredded economy and loss of jobs, the consequences of deregulation and devolution that bankrupted state and local governments, the relentless punishment and imprisoning of over two million people in America, flagrant corporate plunder and criminality, rolling blackouts, the apparently permanent war on terrorism, the shock and awe occupation of Iraq, systematic and degrading detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial assassinations, and the establishment of a crescent of new U.S. military bases across the Middle East and South Asia—all have transformed whatever blissful illusions were harbored as you entered college.”
In April 2006, Dohrn was invited to speak at the first conference (in Providence, Rhode Island) of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Four months later, the first national convention of this new SDS was held in Chicago and opened its proceedings with a reading of a written greeting from Dohrn.
In August 2006, Dohrn and Ayers were interviewed by the Chicago-based socialist journal In These Times. In the interview, Dohrn called for a major “progressive” movement to push the U.S. government farther to the left—as had happened under Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Asserting that the Democratic Party was not nearly radical enough for her taste, Dohrn said:
“I don’t look to the Democratic Party. I don’t have hope for the Democratic Party. I think the Democratic Party is bankrupt. And I think the only answer is for us to build an independent, radical movement, and, I mean, the big ‘us.’”
In November 2007, Dohrn spoke at a 40th anniversary celebration of the original Students for a Democratic Society. In her remarks, she praised leftist activists for their long-term efforts aimed at “overthrowing everything hateful about this government and corporate structure that we live in, capitalism itself.” She approvingly cited the late Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the greatest purveyor of violence on this earth is my own country.” “I think that’s still true today,” Dohrn added. Further, she lamented “the whole structural implications of white supremacy and the ways in which race and class and gender are just so intertwined in the United States.”
In 2008, Dohrn signed a statement circulated by the Partisan Defense Committee calling for the release of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, praising Mumia for being a “former Black Panther” who had been “framed” as a murderer and sentenced to death by a racist U.S. justice system, and denouncing capital punishment as “a legacy of chattel slavery and a barbaric outrage … the lynch rope made legal.”
As of 2009, Dohrn was an editorial board member of the socialist journal In These Times.
In December 2009, Dohrn and Ayers were among the 1,300 American and European activists who traveled to the Egypt-Gaza border to participate in a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstration led by Code Pink.
In a November 4, 2010 interview, Dohrn said of the American political Right: “It’s racist; it’s armed; it’s hostile; it’s unspeakable.” “The real terrorist is the American government,” she added, “state terrorism unleashed against the world.”
In February 2012 Dohrn stated that the anti-war movement, which had become largely silent since the election of President Barack Obama, had now become the Occupy (i.e., Occupy Wall Street) movement. Dohrn herself had supported the Occupy movement since its inception in September 2011.
Dohrn today is a member of the Chicago based organization Ella’s Daughters—a network of artists, scholars and writers working in the tradition of civil-rights activist Ella Baker (founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights).
Dohrn is currently an associate professor of law at Northwestern University, where she is also director of the Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center. She sits on important committees and boards of the American Bar Association, and she formerly served as an advisory board member for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Dohrn was also a board of trustees member of a Chicago-based graduate school in child development known as the Erikson Institute, named after the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and co-founded by Barbara Bowman, the mother of Barack Obama‘s close advisor Valerie Jarrett. (In 1950 Erikson became a hero to the left by choosing to resign from his professorship at the University of California rather than sign an anti-communist loyalty oath as the school required.) Tom Ayers (father of Bill Ayers) has also served on the Erikson Institute’s board.
Dohrn has expressed no real regret over her radical past. Though she has distanced herself from the Manson remark (insinuating, falsely, that it was a “joke”), her political views are as extreme as ever. Regarding her Weatherman past, she contends: “We rejected terrorism. We were careful not to hurt anybody.” Both assertions are false, however. Weatherman’s twofold agenda was terrorism (which is why Charles Manson was Dohrn’s hero) and war (the organization’s very existence was launched with a formal “declaration of war”).