Bernardine Dohrn is a master of evasion.
She’s been known by at least five names throughout her lifetime: Bernardine Rae Ohrnstein. H.T. Smith. Marion DelGado. Rose Bridges. And she’s been called worse: The most dangerous woman in America. La Pasionaria of the lunatic left, according to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. A fugitive. An outlaw. A communist. A criminal. A terrorist.
And now, for the past 12 years, a professor.
Not many at Northwestern would suspect the charming 70-year-old law professor, with the silk flower dangling delicately from her curled hair, to have the past of Bernardine Dohrn. It’s her magnetism, her polite smile, her calm demeanor that make the elusiveness so flawless. She respectfully declined an interview for this story, unsurprisingly, given her history of discomfort with the press. Reporters have told, retold and sensationalized the story of her and her husband, fellow former radical Bill Ayers. But she was polite in her denial. Teaching, and then family business across the country, she explained. “Regrets.”
Of course, Dohrn is well-trained in the art of avoidance. For 10 years, she skirted authorities as a leader of the subversive militant group, the Weather Underground, whose operatives, hidden behind creative aliases and disguises, launched a series of bombings on key government landmarks to protest U.S. aggression in Vietnam and racism at home. They detonated an explosive in a Pentagon bathroom. They attacked the U.S. Capitol building. They blasted the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. So good was Dohrn at evading capture — and inflaming her enemies — that, for three of the 10 years she spent in obscurity, her smooth olive face, long chocolate hair and thick leather jacket, collar popped, hung in post offices around the country in the form of her very own FBI-certified Most Wanted Fugitive poster. “CAUTION,” the page warned in pointed black letters beneath her cold, blank stare. “DOHRN REPORTEDLY MAY RESIST ARREST, HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH PERSONS WHO ADVOCATE USE OF EXPLOSIVES AND MAY HAVE ACQUIRED FIREARMS. CONSIDER DANGEROUS.” The fourth woman ever placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitive list, Dohrn was arrested at least four times, but altogether served less than a year in prison.
While underground, however, Dohrn became the face of radicalism in America, in part because of her legendary good looks, thigh-high boots, tight mini-skirts and oversized chic sunglasses. Before each meticulously planned bombing, an anonymous caller would place a telephone call to the target, alerting those in harm’s way that a bomb was set to go off, urging all to evacuate. It was often Dohrn’s sharp, crisp voice echoing from the receiver, and it was her voice that declared war on the United States in a communique the Weather Underground broadcast to the world in 1970. Dohrn was hidden, but somehow undeniably present.
And so she has been for the past two decades. Thirty years out of hiding after a judge ruled the evidence against her circumspect, the woman once considered one of the most dangerous in America continues a life that is anonymous yet public. From her small office speckled with family portraits and earthy decorations, tucked away in the tall, lakeside Rubloff building of the Chicago campus, she’s masterfully avoided attention and controversy. Her arrival at Northwestern more than 20 years ago went largely unreported. Besides small media flare-ups after 9/11 and during the 2008 presidential election, Dohrn has operated with relative inconspicuousness, quietly directing the Northwestern Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center to reform the notoriously broken Cook County Juvenile Court system. And she teaches a course titled, ironically, Children in Trouble with the Law, training Northwestern law students in a typically underrecognized field.
Such are the contradictions of Bernardine Dohrn. Journalists and historians have savagely clung to controversial then-and-now caricatures of the former-radical-turned-law professor. And the paradoxes are hard to ignore. Veiled yet detectable. Once one of the FBI’s Most Wanted runaways, Dohrn lives a life of relative freedom and prosperity. Stunningly beautiful, tanned and youthful, even at 70, yet hardened by an ugly past. A fierce proponent of peace and justice, yet best remembered as an advocate for armed violence. A brutal opponent of the establishment, yet a revered professor at the type of institution that once produced her most-hated enemies. Formerly one of the most notorious radicals of the turbulent Sixties, she rebukes the sensationalization of an explicitly explosive past.
Of course, Dohrn is neither running from the authorities nor, as is commonly believed, hiding from her past. Perhaps the greatest paradox is the distance between the caricature and the real woman. While she has certainly traded the dregs of underground life for a more posh living as an academic elite, Dohrn remains largely unapologetic for her less favorable proclivities, which she’ll discuss openly with those she trusts will represent her accurately. The settings may have changed, but her politics remain largely the same.
And they may be more relevant now than ever. Given the salience of the Arab revolts, Occupy protests and the ongoing struggle for democracy and justice, both at home and abroad, that have pushed hundreds of thousands to the streets in outrage, the politics of Bernardine Dohrn are perhaps more important now than at any point since the days that Dohrn herself spent leading violent weaponed gangs in the streets of Chicago.
Oct. 8, 1969. Beneath a fair, moonless sky on a cool autumn night more than 40 years ago, about 600 young anti-war demonstrators gathered on a public field in Lincoln Park. Those who didn’t have army hoods to complete their pseudo-militaristic costumes settled instead on football or motorcycle helmets and construction hats. Many wore stiff denim jackets to protect against the fierce Chicago wind, which fed the flames of a massive bonfire the protesters kept alive with park benches they had wrestled from the ground and smashed to pieces.
The protesters came prepared for battle, mobilized by the Weathermen, the hardened, violent faction of the radical activist Students for a Democratic Society, which Dohrn and her comrades had taken over earlier that year. Organizers planned a four-day demonstration to coincide with the trial of the Chicago Eight, a band of young radicals charged with conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago a year before. Dohrn, Ayers and other Weather Underground leaders intended for the demonstrations to become vicious. In the months leading up to the protest, the Weathermen adopted the tactic of charging into high schools shouting “jailbreak” and occasionally beating or tying up teachers, in hopes of radicalizing students. They’d hoped for 1,500 to 2,000 protesters at the Oct. 8 rally. Between 300 and 600 arrived that night.
Few though they were, the protesters posed real danger. They carried three-foot clubs, steel pipes and wooden sticks. Some of the more sadistic protesters stuck razors haphazardly into potatoes to lob at policemen standing guard outside the protesters’ destination, the Drake Hotel. It was here that Judge Julius J. Hoffman, 74 years old at the time and a graduate of Dohrn’s future employer, the Northwestern Law School, waited peacefully within.
Judge Hoffman, who lived within the opulent walls of the sprawling, luxurious Drake, just a few blocks north of Northwestern’s Chicago campus, represented the epitome of injustice to the protesters. He was an unassuming man, small-framed, bald but for a few tufts of hair above each ear, with a natural frown. But he was powerful. Part of the system. That fall, Hoffman presided over the Chicago Eight trial, which was replete with its own eruptive theatrics, and he was widely criticized for his treatment of the defense. Jerry Rubin, one of the eight young social activists on trial, told Hoffman during a particularly fiery trial session, “You’re the laughingstock of the world. Every kid in the world hates you because they know what you represent. You are synonymous with Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler equals Julius Hitler.”
Disdainful of the injustice they perceived Hoffman and the establishment at large were guilty of, the protesters gathered that autumn night under the Weathermen’s direction. Shortly before 10:30 p.m., small riots erupted on the field. The radical leaders of the Weather Underground urged the crowd to move, “to tear down the Drake hotel and get Hoffman,” according to the Chicago Tribune. And so the crowd obeyed, charging down Clark Street, shouting, breaking windows, hurling stones and bottles, battling police. Two were shot. At least 65 were arrested.
The National Guard was called for the second day of chaos. A phalanx of about 60 members of the Weathermen’s “women’s militia,” wearing helmets, heavy gloves and leather jackets, carrying Vietcong flags and clubs, charged a military induction center. Twelve women, including Dohrn, were arrested on charges of aggravated battery, refusing to obey a policeman and disorderly conduct.
On the morning of the final day of demonstrations, police arrested 41 members of the Weathermen hidden in Evanston’s Covenant United Methodist Church on Harrison Street, not far from Ryan Field. The Chicago Tribune would also label Garrett Theological Seminary on Sheridan’s West Side as a “movement center,” offering sleeping quarters to demonstrators throughout the three days of rampage.
Despite the arrests, the Days of Rage, as the Weathermen called them, were a success. The streets of Chicago were alive with fire, smoke and blood. They had achieved at least a semblance of their mission to “Bring the War Home.” The Weather faction of SDS had solidified itself as a potent force in radical activism.
For a woman who fomented such rage, Dohrn hadn’t always been so radical. Born in Chicago on Jan. 12, 1942, Dohrn lived with her family outside of the city for eight years before they moved to the middle class Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, Wis. At Whitefish Bay High School, Dohrn became treasurer of the Modern Dance Club, a member of the National Honor Society and editor of the school newspaper. Her parents “had a great belief and trust in the system,” Dohrn said in a 1995 book. “They didn’t have any radical ideas, but they were loving and devoted.” Dohrn would later return to Illinois. In 1963, she graduated from the University of Chicago with an honors degree in political science and education. Dohrn was one of only six women in her University of Chicago law school class to graduate with a law degree in 1967.
Even then, she hadn’t been completely radicalized. When students occupied the administration building at the University of Chicago, Dohrn said she was only an observer. “I wished I were daring and courageous enough to be demonstrating,” she said. “But I didn’t know those students and I couldn’t imagine breaking into their world.”
During her last year of law school, things changed. As the conflict in Vietnam escalated, Dohrn was working on community development projects in Chicago when national SDS organizers contacted her and asked her to join them. She accepted and, in part because of her enchanting personality, quickly rose to the top of the movement. At the June 1968 national SDS convention at Michigan State University, Dohrn declared herself a “revolutionary communist” and was elected national intra-organizational secretary, one of SDS’ top three co-equal offices. Gradually, Dohrn’s rhetoric became more inflamed.
It was a formative period, not just for Dohrn, but for the radical student movement at large as it sought to define its true purpose. Some saw the movement as an international communist conspiracy, others as a struggle against racism and imperialism. Some in the black movement saw Dohrn and other SDS members simply as middle class white elites looking to play radical. Milton Gardner, a journalism student and communications coordinator of what the New York Times called “a militant Negro group at Northwestern University,” For Members Only, said in 1969, “White radicals just don’t know their role. They want to take over. They don’t have their own thing, and they don’t have their own issues.”
For Dohrn, the struggle was one of survival in the face of those who doubted the radical movement, but also those in the government who, Dohrn said at the time, were systematically attacking activists. “Our right to have a meeting, our right to exist is very much in question in this country,” she said then.
On a Sunday in June 1969, this conflict came to the fore of the movement. For four days of the SDS national convention in Chicago, members battled furiously over the future of the organization. The Progressive Labor faction voiced the greatest discontent, calling for a more purist revolutionary line. On the fourth day, Dohrn mounted the convention podium, and in a calm, clear voice, denounced the Progressive Labor Party as a “counterrevolutionary” faction that served “the man, not the revolution.” Out of the convention’s “ideological orgy,” as the New York Times would call it, the Weathermen emerged as the dominant force controlling SDS’ national offices.
By December 1969, Dohrn’s radicalization was complete. Her fellow militants had by then formed the violent Weathermen faction, borrowing from a lyric from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Dohrn told the group to “unite with other white radical groups to overthrow the racist American power structure.” It was obvious, she continued, “that peaceful demonstrations accomplish nothing, so it is time for more violence.”
In October, the Weathermen would stage the Days of Rage in Chicago. After the successful rampage, the Weathermen pushed forward with plans for increased militancy, convening a “National War Council” in Flint, Mich. in December 1969. They became drunk with rage. They built an arsenal.
Then, in March 1970, an explosion.
In a small townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, three Weathermen, including Ayers’ girlfriend at the time, Diana Oughton, would perish assembling a bomb. The press would speculate over the origins of the blast. A gas explosion, perhaps. But a Daily News article finally identified the cause, labeling the townhouse an anti-war radical “bomb factory.” Two bodies were recovered, though Oughton’s was “mutilated beyond recognition and identified finally from a fragment of finger,” according to Ayers’ memoir. “The townhouse explosion was the Weather hell,” Jonah Raskin, a Weather member, wrote in 1974, “a devastating event psychologically and politically.”
The attack, it seemed, displayed the frailty of human life.
The event pushed the Weathermen underground, in part to evade the FBI, which began an intensive search for Dohrn and other Weather Underground leaders following the townhouse explosion, but also as a means of distracting authorities to give their brethren in other radical organizations freedom to operate with less persecution. When they failed to show up for trial in Chicago on conspiracy charges they incurred from the Days of Rage riots, they became federal fugitives, or “invisible, legendary radicals,” as Raskin would call them in admittedly bombastic style, as was often the case for Weathermen, who spoke of themselves in highly idealized terms. They were, after all, making history.
In May 1970, well-entrenched underground, Bernardine Dohrn would declare war on the United States on behalf of the Weathermen, recording the message on a simple store-bought radio tape deck. It was, in a sense, an existential statement. We’re alive, it said. Threatening, menacing, hypnotic, Dohrn’s voice hymned the chilling words, “Hello, this is Bernardine Dohrn,” it began. “I’m going to read you a Declaration of War.” It took her only a single take to get the statement right.
“The parents of ‘privileged’ kids have been saying for years that the revolution was a game for us,” Dohrn read in the statement. “But the war and racism of this society show that it is too fucked up. We will never live peaceably under this system.” The words were inflamed, but the times, she now says, were just as inflammatory.
“Freaks are revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are freaks,” Dohrn continued. “If you want to find us, this is where we are. In every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns — fugitives from American justice are free to go.”
She ended the declaration with an ominous warning: “Within the next fourteen days, we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.”
For 19 days, much to the FBI’s relief, nothing happened. But on the twentieth day, an anonymous caller told the New York City switchboard operator “there is a bomb set to go off at police headquarters.” Fifteen minutes later, at 6:57 p.m., a bundle of between 10 and 15 sticks of dynamite exploded inside a second floor men’s bathroom. Papers fluttered through the halls, and glass from windows fell to the streets below. The next morning, a communique arrived at the New York Times and Associated Press, signed by “Weatherman,” taking credit for the attack.
“Every time the pigs think they’ve stopped us, we come back a little stronger and a lot smarter,” it read. “They guard their buildings and we walk right past their guards. They look for us — we get to them first.”
For 10 years, with the help of the Weather Underground’s elaborate network, Dohrn and Ayers remained in hiding. In that time, the organization took credit for 21 bombings, each time warning targets in advance to avoid civilian casualties. Armed propaganda, they called it. “Domestic terrorism,” in the eyes of the FBI, which continued its hunt for the fugitives.
Over time, the chase would fizzle. As the conflict in Vietnam died, so did the fervor of the Weathermen. The judge, former foe Julius Hoffman, dropped the bombing conspiracy charges against Dohrn in 1974 because of illegal enforcement surveillance, but she still faced local charges stemming from the Days of Rage demonstrations in 1969. They remained hidden. “I just couldn’t imagine turning myself in and ‘giving up,’” she said.
In 10 years of hiding, Dohrn would fall in love with Ayers and they’d have two children, Zayd, named for the Black Liberation Army member Zayd Shakur, and Malik, for Malcolm X. As the children aged, the pressure of life underground became unbearable. “By the time Malik was born, it became clear that we wouldn’t be spending the rest of our lives underground,” she said.
At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 1980, Dohrn and Ayers turned themselves in to the Cook County Criminal Court. Dressed in a herringbone jacket and wool slacks, she stood defiant. “I regret not at all our efforts to side with the forces of liberation. The nature of the system has not changed.” Dohrn plea-bargained the remaining charges against her to three years’ probation and a $1,000 fine.
Ayers would remark on the ridiculousness of his freedom. “Guilty as hell, free as a bird — America is a great country.”
A year later, Kathy Boudin, a former Weather Underground member, botched an armored truck robbery. A Brink’s guard and two state troopers were killed in the commotion. Authorities called Dohrn to testify, apparently because of her Weathermen connection.
“I wasn’t involved at all and I have no idea where they got that from,” Dohrn told Chicago magazine in 1993. “At the time of the Brink’s arrest, there was great hysteria and pandemonium, and because I had been friends with and knew people who were arrested there, there was a certain set of assumptions that I must have been involved and I must have been a ringleader. And they were clearly shown to be not true.”
Nonetheless, Dohrn refused to cooperate with the grand jury, which she objected to on principle. Boudin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Dohrn served seven months in jail for her refusal to cooperate.
Eventually Dohrn and Ayers took custody of Boudin’s infant son. Dohrn was left to begin a new future as a 43-year-old wife with three children.
In 1984, 17 years out of law school, Dohrn passed the New York State bar exam. Like all prospective lawyers, however, she was subject to approval by the Committee on Character and Fitness of the State Supreme Court. Her lawyer, Don H. Reuben, a Life Trustee at Northwestern, made a fervent case for her admission. “I think she’s a reformed person,” he said. “I think her philosophy now is to work within the system.”
“I would be very troubled, as to the notion of fairness, if she wasn’t made a member of the bar now,” Reuben told the New York Times then. “This country makes a point of looking at people as they are and not visiting upon them their past silliness of their youth.” In 1985, the panel rejected her application. “She is disappointed,” Reuben said. “She continues to think she is now qualified and that she presented a good record.”
Instead, Dohrn began work at the New York office of the powerful Sidley and Austin law firm. Her father-in-law, Thomas Ayers, and Sidley’s senior partner, Howard Trienens, were old buddies from Northwestern. And in fact, both Ayers and Trienens would serve as chairman of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, Ayers from 1975 to 1986, and Trienens immediately after until 1995. Indeed, Trienens told the Chicago Tribune in 2008 that he personally hired Dohrn at Sidley. “We often hire friends,” he said pointedly.
In 1987, Dohrn and Ayers moved to Hyde Park after the University of Illinois at Chicago offered Ayers a job. First, Dohrn worked in the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, then on the Children’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union. Then, in 1991, she was named director of Northwestern Law’s Juvenile Court Project, and in 1992, director of the newly formed Children and Family Justice Center.
Given her connections at Northwestern, it’s not hard to imagine why Dohrn ended up at the law school. Her father-in-law was, after all, chairman of the board, namesake of Ayers College of Commerce and Industry and the CEO and chairman of Commonwealth Edison.
Trienens denied helping Dohrn come to Northwestern. “The dean hired her,” he said, referring to Robert Bennett, who was dean of the law school in 1991 when Dohrn came to Northwestern. Her job was carefully constructed to avoid faculty approval, whose input is custom for new hires. Law Professor Ronald Allen told the Daily Northwestern in 2001 that Dohrn’s hiring was done without faculty input. “There is a conception that she is a member of the faculty,” he said. “But her hiring was done exclusively by the dean as a low-level administrator and was never dealt with as a faculty issue. Some individuals were upset back then, and others thought she deserved a chance to make a positive contribution. But it was never under the faculty’s purview.”
Regardless, only a handful of objectors raised concerns, among them law Professor Dan Polsby. “I do not in any way challenge the motives or the integrity of any of my colleagues, and I have no reason to doubt that she is a hardworking, socially conscious lawyer,” Polsby told Chicago magazine in 1993. “I do know that some genuinely horrific things are in her background, and I am bewildered and unhappy to reflect that she finds no occasion for the expression of remorse for the cruelties that she — at a younger time, a while ago, but nevertheless — for the cruelties that she inflicted on other people, including many, many innocent people.”
Despite objections, Dohrn was left, it seemed, to live her life peacefully in Chicago, quietly building a new life and career at Northwestern.
Sept. 11, as is often said, changed everything.
On that Tuesday morning in 2001, the New York Times ran a review of Bill Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, on the front page of the paper’s Arts section. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” the article began, quoting a choice line from Ayers’ bombastic, melodramatic prose. “I feel we didn’t do enough.”
Of course, Ayers couldn’t have known the context in which those words would be printed. Later that morning, nearly 3,000 Americans would perish in the attacks on Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and New York.
Northwestern law grad Sean O’Shea, a New York attorney, picked up on the story, discovered Dohrn’s past and was outraged. O’Shea demanded Northwestern return his $1,000 contribution to the law school, and a handful of other alumni followed.
The law school stood by Dohrn, who rebuked the campaign against her as a “witch-hunt” brought on by post-Sept. 11 hysteria. “Any alum who actually researches the efforts we’ve made in the law system for children would probably increase their contribution to the school,” Dohrn told the Daily Northwestern after the controversy. “I love the work we do at Northwestern. It has been a wonderful home for me.”
David van Zandt, law school dean at the time of the controversy, told the New York Times he was positively in support of Dohrn. “All the things she’s done here in the 10 years she’s been here have been just terrific,” he said. “If someone continues to advocate breaking the law, that would be a problem. She’s told me she abhors violence, past, present or future.”
Discontent has ebbed and flowed ever since, and Dohrn and Northwestern have become accustomed to critics. University Archives has dutifully filed pages upon pages of emails from outraged alumni. The law school’s Alumni Relations office has a five-inch thick folder of complaints accrued over the past decade. Phonathon callers are instructed to sympathize with alumni who raise concerns over Dohrn’s past and to assure alumni her former tactics don’t influence her work.
The terrorist charge has predictably re-emerged time and again for a decade. In 2008, Sean Hannity and other conservatives began highlighting an alleged connection between then-presidential candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama and Ayers. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin amplified the allegations with her notorious charge that Obama was “someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” The media, however, debunked the allegation. An Obama campaign spokesman explained to CNN that Ayers and Dohrn hosted a campaign event for Obama after then-Illinois State Sen. Alice Palmer announced Obama as her Congressional successor. Otherwise, as Obama explained during the Democratic presidential primaries, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood [...] the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense.”
Dohrn and her husband have recently found their way back into headlines after the couple auctioned off a $2,500 dinner at their Chicago home to raise funds for the Illinois Humanities Council. Two members of the IHC board have since resigned.
The work Dohrn has done for Northwestern is undeniable. Just last year, she and the law school celebrated 20 years at the Children and Family Justice Center, which has grown into a vibrant part of Northwestern’s vast Legal Clinic and the Chicago legal community at large.
Of course, remnants of her past inevitably remain. Her rhetoric is still inflamed. Her character still controversial. Last year, she wrote that the U.S. “seemed to declare war against (some of) its own youngsters.”
But then again, for a woman with as many contradictions as Dohrn, critics will say just about anything. There are those who say, as a former radical, she’s simply sold out to the establishment.
“The charge that most sixties people joined the establishment and became sellouts is preposterous,” she said in a 1995 book. “Most people have stayed the course. Most people are trying to do work that is meaningful. Most people are trying to live lives that are whole. Most people are trying to live in harmony with their values [...] Today, our work doesn’t amount to a movement [...] but this local work is part of the sixties legacy.”