The Americans who declared war on their country

The Weathermen blasted their way into history as America's first terrorist group. Now, as one of their leaders is released, the nation reflects on the most violent period in its recent history, writes Mark Honigsbaum

Sunday September 21, 2003
The Observer

In March 1970, a California radio station received an anonymous tape in the post. On it was a recording of a woman's voice apparently declaring war on the United States. 'The lines are drawn,' intoned the mysterious speaker, coldly and deliberately. 'Revolution is touching all of our lives. Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks... within the next 14 days we will bomb a major US institution.'

The voice belonged to Bernardine Dohrn, a handsome and charismatic University of Chicago law-school graduate who had split with the campus-based Students for a Democratic Society a year earlier over its policy of peaceful protest against the Vietnam war. Outraged by what she saw as Nixon's 'genocidal' bombing of the Vietnamese, Dohrn and a core of 12 other student radicals had founded a splinter organisation, Weatherman, dedicated - as the group's later communiqués put it - 'to bringing the war home'.

Taking their cue from a line in Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' that 'you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows', the Weatherman philosophy was an incendiary - some would say infantile - mix of Marx, Ché Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, lubricated by free love (one of their slogans was 'smash monogamy'), LSD and daddy's cash. Nevertheless these angry and predominantly middle-class white kids proved as good as Dohrn's word.

Within months of her declaration the group had detonated a bomb at a National Guard headquarters in Ohio, and within the year had exploded others at the New York City police headquarters, the US Capitol building and the Queens Courthouse in New York.

Interestingly, given the speed with which the media branded the Weathermen terrorists, none of the bombs, all of which were timed to explode at night when the buildings were empty, resulted in loss of life. Indeed, although Dohrn and her colleagues in the Weather Underground, as the group later became known, considered themselves the acme of revolutionary cool - their symbol was a rainbow shot through with a lightning bolt - it could be argued that the only people the Weather people succeeded in terrorising were themselves.

On 6 March 1970, days after Dohrn's earnest declaration of war, members of a Weatherman cell in New York accidentally detonated a makeshift nail-bomb intended for a non-commissioned officers' ball at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The explosion ripped the front off a red-brick townhouse in Greenwich Village where the group had been hiding out, killing three members of the group instantly (the blast was so devastating that one of the would-be bombers, Diana Oughton, the daughter of a prominent Republican banker, could be identified only from the prints on her severed finger).

Only two people survived: Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a progressive New York lawyer, who had gone underground following the 'Days of Rage' protests a year earlier when students ran riot in a wealthy area of Chicago, smashing store windows and clashing with police; and Cathy Wilkerson, the daughter of a radio-station magnate whose townhouse now lay in ruins.

It was the first and - until the World Trade Centre attack in 1993 which killed six people - only time anyone had died in the terrorist-related bombing of a building in New York. Even more remarkably, after emerging naked and bleeding from the townhouse, Boudin, who had been taking a shower upstairs at the time of the explosion, was given some clothes by a neighbour and fled to her parents' house nearby. A few days later, still in the city, she kept an appointment with her dentist.

Last week, 33 years after that surreal and still hard-to-fathom event, Boudin walked free - paroled not for her sentence as part in the townhouse explosives conspiracy (knowledge of which she has always denied) but another equally bloody and senseless crime.

Having spent the Seventies on the run - Boudin fled to Mexico, then lived underground in the US, taking menial cleaning jobs - in 1980 she turned up at a suburban mall in Nanuet, New York, with three heavily armed members of the Black Liberation Army. The plan was for the gunmen to hold up a Brinks security van as it made its last pick-up of the day, then make their getaway in a hire truck driven by Boudin and her husband, David Gilbert.

But the robbery went horribly wrong. The gunmen never gave the security guards a chance to hand over the $1.6 million in cash, shooting one in cold blood and critically wounding a second. Then, as the gunmen transferred to the truck and sped from the scene with Boudin in the passenger seat and Gilbert at the wheel, they were stopped by two policemen.

What happened next is still disputed. At her trial in 1981, Boudin, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter, testified that she had merely been a 'white' decoy, had little involvement in the planning of the robbery, and had surrendered as soon as she and her husband were stopped. However, one officer claimed that Boudin asked the police to lower their guns and tried to escape. According to the officers' families and supporters, that delay may have been critical, enabling the gunmen to burst from the back of the vehicle and mow down the officers - Sergeant Edward O'Grady and Officer Waverly Brown, the first black policeman in Rockland County.

'I can't believe I just watched her walk out of prison,' Brent Newbury, the president of the Rockland Country Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said last week when Boudin emerged from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and was ushered into a waiting car by two friends. 'I'm sick to my stomach right now.'

Last month, a few days after parole board officials said they intended to release Boudin, I travelled to a dingy neighbourhood bar on New York's Upper West Side to speak with her 23-year-old son Chesa and Brian Flanagan, a former Weatherman and key member of the group's 'above-ground' support staff at the time of the townhouse bombing. The parole board's decision had been controversial not only with the police officers' families but also with conservative and liberal critics who argued that Boudin and other ex-members of the organisation had never recanted their advocacy of terrorism and were simply paying lip service to American sensibilities in the wake of 9/11.

Coinciding with the release of a new documentary, Weather Underground, in which Dohrn, Flanagan and other leading lights in the movement, many of them speaking for the first time, defend their political motivations, and in some cases the bombings, the critics appeared to have a point. But if the film brought the Sturm und Drang of the most violent period in recent American history rushing back - the Manson murders, the police shooting of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969, the photograph of the killing of a Vietcong prisoner in cold blood - Boudin's release also prompted more troubling questions: about the nature of redemption and the possibility of forgiveness in post-9/11 America.

As chance would have it, a few days before my meeting with Flanagan and Chesa Boudin, New York suffered a massive blackout, instantly recalling memories of the assault on the Twin Towers. But sitting in Flanagan's bar now, sharing a pint of stout with Chesa, I feel as though I have stepped into a Marxist time-warp. Beside us, two denizens of the Night Café are heatedly debating the Trotskyist split in the international Comintern, as if it happened yesterday, while other regulars - prompted by news reports blaming the blackout on deregulation of the power industry - are toasting the imminent collapse of global capitalism.

Keeping a weather eye, so to speak, on the raucous proceedings (and on me) is Brian Flanagan, a middle-aged Irish New Yorker with salt-and-pepper hair and a stud earring. Flanagan features prominently in the new documentary - most notably in a scene in front of the townhouse where he tells film-maker Sam Green: 'The Vietnam war made us crazy... When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.'

The contrast with Chesa Boudin, a clean-cut Yale senior with an athletic rower's build, couldn't be starker. Yet, in many ways, no one is better placed than Chesa to address the issues that the film and his mother's release provoke. After his parents' arrest, Chesa - who was just 14 months old at the time of the robbery and had been left with a babysitter in Manhattan - was taken in by Bernardine Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers.

Once described by J. Edgar Hoover as 'la Passionara of the lunatic left', Dohrn and Ayers (the Clyde to her Bonnie) had surfaced months before the robbery and turned themselves in. The Vietnam war had ended in 1975 and the cause they had gone underground for no longer served any purpose. Besides, by 1980 almost everyone in the movement had surrendered.

More remarkable still, because of the way the FBI had illegally gathered evidence against them, none of the Weathermen could be prosecuted for conspiring to bomb government buildings, and Dohrn and Ayers were allowed to raise Chesa in freedom. It is a testament to the job they did as his adoptive parents that Chesa turned out so well: he was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale and next month arrives in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship where he plans to study forced migration.

However, Chesa was by no means a certainty for academic honours. Troubled and disturbed by his parents' role in the robbery, he confesses to a difficult childhood and says he didn't learn to read until he was nine. 'At first I blamed myself, then I was angry with them,' he says. 'I remember when I was four-and-a-half, getting off the phone to my mom in prison and thinking through my tears that if only I had been more lovable, if only I could have talked to my parents, I could have stopped them going.'

At first Dohrn and Ayers explained the robbery to their son as like 'Robin Hood'. Later, as Chesa got older, they told him people had been killed and not everyone saw it that way. What, I ask, does he think now?

'Now I think the Sixties were tumultuous times. Children were being napalmed in Vietnam. My parents saw that. Looking back on what they did, it may appear crazy, but that was the historical moment they found themselves in. Yes, they made mistakes. In the case of the townhouse bombing and the Brinks robbery, their mistakes cost lives. But they were also holding up a mirror to society and it was not a pretty sight.'

Chesa's words are carefully chosen. He says he can see the point of view of the policemen's families, but argues that he was also a 'victim' of his parents' crime and that the families need to 'learn to forgive'. He says his father, who made a political stand at the trial, siding with his black co-defendants and refusing to plea-bargain, is serving 75 years to life at Attica with no realistic prospect of parole.

'His role was 99 per cent identical to my mother's. He didn't intend to hurt anyone, either, and he didn't hurt anyone,' says Chesa.

But when I press Chesa on the details of the robbery and what his mother was doing in the townhouse, he evades my question. 'I know the group was responsible for a number of bombings, but I don't know what my mother's particular role was. I don't think it's important for me to know.'

I ask if I can put the question directly to Boudin, but he says she is not granting interviews - a policy she has stuck to since her release - and makes it clear he is 'uncomfortable' speaking on his mother's behalf. Flanagan, who has been following our conversation, nods his approval. Later, after Chesa has left the bar, he explains that Boudin was deliberately left out of the documentary - indeed, while Gilbert is interviewed, she is not mentioned anywhere.

'We didn't want to jeopardise her release. The last thing we needed with the parole decision pending were endless replays of the townhouse going off.'

Later Flanagan drops his guard, hinting that he may have been instrumental in getting Boudin out of New York three days after the blast. But when I ask him what he makes of a claim in a forthcoming book by Susan Braudy, a journalist and friend of Boudin's mother, that Boudin had borrowed a book on bomb-making from a public library days before the explosion - a claim that, if true, would seem to undermine her testimony that she knew nothing about the bomb - Flanagan gives me the same answer he gave Sam Green: 'I will tell you we did them' - the bombings in other words - 'but I'm not going to tell you which ones I did or other people did.'

Most likely this is why no studio has given the Weathermen the screen treatment afforded other Sixties icons such as Malcolm X (Flanagan et al simply won't play ball with the scriptwriters).

Not all ex-Weathermen are as defiant, however. Mark Rudd is a maths teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but in 1968 he led antiwar demonstrations that shut down Colombia University - he held the dean prisoner with the infamous words 'Up against the wall, motherfucker'. Now he appears racked with guilt that his opposition to Vietnam drove him to support bombings that might have taken innocent lives.

'Just like the passive Americans we derided, I acquiesced to this terrible demented logic,' he told Green. 'Not only was I willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences... I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority.'

Naomi Jaffe, another Weather person who has gone on to forge a quieter but still committed life as an anti-racism activist in Albany, New York, also expresses regret, albeit tempered by the caveat: 'We felt that doing nothing in a period of repressive violence was itself a form of violence.'

Not so Chesa's adoptive parents. Dohrn never speaks about her role - perhaps because Green chooses not to put the hard questions. Instead she is shown striding proudly around the marina in San Francisco, where she and Ayers holed up in the Seventies, evading the FBI alongside other 'freaks' and outlaws.

Similarly, while Ayers argues in the film that it was the shock of the townhouse bombing that pulled the Weathermen back from the brink, elsewhere he has argued the opposite view. 'I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough,' he told the New York Times in an interview published on the morning of the World Trade Centre attack under the headline 'No regrets for love of explosives'. Similarly, in his memoir Fugitive Days, Ayers - apparently fearful that he could still face prosecution for his youthful misdemeanours - admits responsibility for planting a bomb in the Pentagon toilets, then almost immediately disclaims it.

Such evasions - one begins to suspect it might be a Weatherman family trait - also lie at the heart of the refusal by the policemen's families to forgive Boudin. Two years ago, in an interview with the New Yorker to coincide with her first parole hearing, Boudin would only say: 'I was responsible for not being responsible' - a formula that had the effect of acknowledging culpability while simultaneously denying it. On that and a subsequent occasion Boudin's parole bid was rejected.

Although she has been a model prisoner, using her time inside jail to pioneer Aids programmes for women, and has since told parole board officials that she only agreed to go with the Black Liberation Army because she felt 'guilty about being white', it is not hard to see why the families feel nothing has changed. Indeed, they argue Boudin is walking free only because, as a 'privileged child' of liberal aristocracy - her father, Leonard Boudin, was a leading radical lawyer who defended many of those accused of communist loyalties by the House Un-American Activities Committee - she bought the best legal representation at her trial.

That is not a view shared by Todd Gitlin, one of the Weather Underground's fiercest critics. Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Colombia University, was a member of the moderate wing of the SDS in the Sixties. He attacks Dohrn and Co in the documentary, arguing that cackhandedness is no defence and that the group's approval of the townhouse bombers' plan to blow up the army ball showed the Weather people were prepared to countenance 'mass murder'. Nevertheless, in a recent interview with the New York Times, Gitlin also argues that Boudin is the 'perfect' parolee. 'To say that Kathy Boudin can be redeemed is to say that the Sixties were worthy,' he says.

As Boudin prepares to rejoin mainstream society - she is believed to have accepted a job offer from a New York hospital to work with HIV-infected women - that is a sentiment many Americans, in the present conservative political climate, may challenge. There may be others, however, willing to take a different view.

'Sure we made mistakes,' Flanagan told me as I left his bar. 'But I think 95 per cent of what we did was great. We got more right than we got wrong.'

· Weather Underground, a documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, will be shown at the London Film Festival on 30 and 31 October

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