Oct. 18, 2003.

PETER HOWELL/TORONTO STAR
Hippie terrorists reincarnated
40 years later, former leaders of the Weather Underground cave to capitalism, adopt life of affluence

CHICAGO—Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers sip lattes in a Starbucks coffee shop, enjoying a beautiful fall day in their affluent Hyde Park neighbourhood near the University of Chicago.

As they celebrate a quiet Columbus Day holiday, there is no hint they were once amongst the most-feared people in America. Now married and nearing retirement, the two were leading members of the Weather Underground (a.k.a. the Weathermen), a home-grown terrorist group that bombed federal buildings and capitalist symbols to protest the Vietnam War.

For 11 years, from 1969-80, Dohrn and Ayers were the Bonnie and Clyde of the anti-war movement, evading FBI capture as they fought for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. They surrendered to federal authorities in Chicago at the dawn of the 1980s, choosing parenthood over martyrdom, and managed to avoid significant jail time due to the FBI's bungling of their case.

Things are very different for them now, in practise if not in attitude. They actively oppose the current Iraq war policies of U.S. President George W. Bush, just as they did the Vietnam policies of their old nemesis, Richard Nixon. They're just not as aggressive as they once were; they're quick to point out they didn't support the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Do we seem violent?" says Ayers, 58, smiling beatifically as he puts his arm around Dohrn, 61.

"No, we seem pretty nice."

That's not how either of them wanted to appear in March, 1970, when Dohrn's stern voice was heard on a tape delivered to a California radio station, making a "declaration of war" against the U.S. government and its capitalist interests. It was the first of many manifestos from the Weather Underground, a small but very determined group of peace "freaks" that had split from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national organization that claimed more than 100,000 members.

Named for a Bob Dylan protest lyric ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"), the Weathermen vowed they would soon begin a campaign of bombings against "symbols of American injustice," to teach Americans how it felt to be one of the 2,000 Vietnamese that were being killed every day in the Indochina conflict. The Weathermen made good on their threat over the next several years, detonating bombs in major cities across the U.S. Their targets included the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, the Queens Courthouse in New York and Gulf Oil's Pittsburgh headquarters.

"Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks," Dohrn's taped threat 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."

The one place you wouldn't have found Dohrn and Ayers back then would have been in an upscale coffee shop like Starbucks, a place far too bourgeois for revolutionaries to countenance. Apart from the decadence of paying $3 for a latte, there is also the burning issue of underdeveloped nations growing coffee beans for overindulged North Americans.

It's the place the couple suggested for this interview, although the irony of the situation isn't lost on them.

"Yes, the Evil Empire," Ayers quips. "As I once said to our kids: Get me into the socialist economy and we'll go there. But for now, you could buy Starbucks or you could get Dunkin' Donuts coffee, and that also comes from some exploited motherf----r somewhere."

Dohrn and Ayers have acquired the pragmatism, or perhaps cynicism, needed to live like capitalists while espousing socialist values. Both wear the uniforms of their trendy neighbourhood: Dohrn is decked out in a dark blazer offset with a jade-coloured stone necklace; Ayers sports a well-tended denim jacket, its collar upturned, and he's recently acquired fashionable rectangle eyeglasses to replace an older owlish pair. They could easily pass for university professors, and that's exactly what they are. Dohrn teaches at Northwestern University law school and is also the director of the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal advocacy group for troubled young people. Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois and the author of Fugitive Days, a memoir about his 11 years spent on the lam.

They're also proud parents of three sons: Zayd, 26, a playwright in New York; Malik, 23, a high school teacher in California; and Chesa, 22, a Yale graduate who recently moved to England to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship. Chesa is their adopted son — his parents David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, also former members of the Weather Underground, were jailed in 1981 for their roles in a Brinks truck hold-up that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a security guard.

Dohrn and Ayers have agreed to an interview to promote The Weather Underground, a documentary about their turbulent former group that was co-directed by Chicago filmmaker Bill Siegel and San Francisco's Sam Green. (The film, a hit on the festival circuit, opens at Toronto's Bloor Cinema on Wednesday, and at Carlton Cinemas a week later.)

For Dohrn to meet the mainstream press is no small change in attitude for her. She's one of the most strident figures in the archival footage seen in The Weather Underground, a mini-skirted mad bomber who gave no quarter to anyone who argued that violence in Vietnam shouldn't be matched with violence in America. She's one of only seven women ever to make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

"I'm not committed to non-violence in any way," she said in 1969.

Dohrn sighs at her youthful radicalism — she once even expressed solidarity with mass murderer Charles Manson — but neither she nor Ayers are repentant. Indeed, they think the Weathermen's message is more current now than ever.

"I think the substance of what we stood for was absolutely right," Dohrn says.

"The tactics, and some of our rhetoric, those are different questions. ... We're in a situation now that is quite different from 1970, but it has got these similarities. The people in power represent the interests of a tiny elite. In a way, that's more naked today than it was then."

Dohrn and Ayers take comfort — some might call it self-deluding refuge — in the fact that none of the 24 deliberate bombings attributed to the Weather Underground resulted in deaths. One accidental bombing in New York in 1970 — the homemade bomb went off as it was being made — killed three Weathermen, including Ayers's then-girlfriend Diana Oughton.

The current Iraq conflict has reawakened not only the anti-war movement but also a general spirit of youthful rebellion.

"That's why neither of us feels nostalgic for a ship that has already left the shore," Ayers says. "We feel absolutely focused on the future, which includes battles against racism, battles against the empire ... which we didn't win."

The couple rejects the notion that the ideals of the 1960s came down to Earth with a thud, leaving revolutionaries like their friend Abbie Hoffman, who committed suicide in 1989, feeling unfulfilled.

Adds Dohrn: "I think that our generation mainly did stay the course and didn't sell out — Starbucks notwithstanding."

Copyright ©The Toronto Star