In This Episode
Zayd connects to other children of the underground. Out of the shards of the radical movements of the 1970s, a new generation fights to build a better future.
For more of the story, check out:
- Chesa Boudin, Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (2005)
- Patrisse Cullors & asha bandel, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018)
Chapter 10: Inheritance
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Previously on Mother Country Radicals:
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Did you think about what would happen if you were caught?
Bill Ayers: Yeah, I thought my life would end.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: So why?
Bill Ayers: Because it mattered. Because the world needed it to happen.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My parents finally emerged from the underground.
[news clip] Today, Bernardine Dohrn turned herself in and pleaded not guilty to state charges ranging from mob action to aggravated battery.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] Rebellion is inevitable and continuous, and I remain committed to the struggle ahead.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Assata Shakur gives birth to her daughter, Kakuya in prison.
[clip of Assata Shakur] And we said how can we even think about bringing a child into this world? I mean, the world is a terrible place.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And then:
[news clip] She made her break this afternoon from the prison in Clinton, New Jersey. And lawmen once called her the soul of the Black Liberation Army.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert are arrested, leaving their son, Chesa, behind.
[news clip] Echoes of the violent, radical underground of the 1960s rolled over the New York suburb of Nanuet today in the botched ambush of an armored car that left one guard and two policemen dead.
Kathy Boudin: It really wasn’t until we got taken to the police station, uh, that I began to realize what had happened. And one of the things that happened was that Chesa was at the baby sitter.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In the early 1980s, following the disaster of the Brinks robbery, the dominoes finally start to fall for the last remaining members of the Radical Undergrounds. Kathy Boudin, David Gilbert, Judy Clark, and Solomon Bouines are all arrested the day of the robbery. Some are reportedly beaten by police or hurt in a car crash during the frantic scramble to get away. Three days later, the BLA members, Mitayari Shabaka Sundiata and Sekou Odinga are in a car in Queens being followed by police. There’s a chase, a shootout in a nearby construction yard. Sundiata is killed and Sekou is taken into custody.
[news clip] Police and FBI efforts to crack the Weather Underground intensified today following the arrest of radical activist Katherine Boudin and three others in the wake of a bloody Brinks robbery. ABC News has learned that there have now been a total of seven raids in the New York City area.
[news clip] –where they found an arsenal of weapons, bomb-making materials, a police hit-list, and radical literature. These items and intelligence information are leading police to believe there has been a merger of the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: The cops also find addresses, IDs, phone numbers.
Eleanor Stein: So this around 6:00, I think in the evening, our phone rang. And I don’t think our phone had ever rung in the, I think it was like a year that we lived in this apartment. And Jeff answered it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Founding Weatherman Jeff Jones and his partner, Eleanor Stein, are still underground, raising their four-year old son, Thai, together in a small apartment in the Bronx.
Jeff Jones: I picked up the phone and he actually used my real name–first time that had happened in a long time, 11 years. He said, Is this Jeff Jones? And I said, yes.
Eleanor Stein: And he put his hand over the phone and looked at me and said, We’re busted.
Jeff Jones: He said, I’m Larry Whack. I’m a special officer with the FBI. We have your apartment surrounded. We have men on the rooftops of neighboring buildings, we’re heavily armed and we’re coming through your front door.
Eleanor Stein: People are starting to bang on the door and start screaming. So Jeff said–
Jeff Jones: I just want you to know that we’re not resisting the arrest and we have a child in the apartment.
Eleanor Stein: And I had a chance to take Thai aside before the cops came in and said, Something really bad is going to happen, we’re going to be arrested. We’ll be fine, you’ll be fine. It’ll be all right, and we love you. And that was probably the worst moment of my life, having to have that conversation with him.
Thai Jones: I went into my room and I went into my small child’s desk to figure out whether I had anything useful for this situation, and I remember lifting up a pair of child’s safety scissors with the sort of blue plastic protection, and looking at them and really realizing that there was nothing I could do at this moment.
Jeff Jones: Then it all happened. They barge through the front door.
Thai Jones: They came through the door in just this overwhelming, terrifying presence.
Eleanor Stein: There are about 30 cops, full armament, you know, vests, masks, bulletproof, everything. And they said to Jeff, Get on your hands and knees and crawl. And they searched them for weapons and then they cuffed him and he could stand up. And then Thai just trotted out the front door and just kind of held Jeff’s hands behind his back.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff hadn’t participated in the Brinks robbery, but prosecutors take an expansive view of who was involved. Police round up the usual suspects–friends, comrades, fellow travelers–and not just Weathermen. Their primary targets are members of the Black Liberation Army.
Jamal Joseph: We were living in the village on 14th Street.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal Joseph is just starting a family. His new wife, Joyce, is pregnant with their first child.
Jamal Joseph: We slept in the living room on a futon that night because this apartment had a really great fireplace, right? And some nights we would just, you know, make up the bed and have dinner and eat popcorn and fall asleep. The FBI kicked in our door. They came in about three or four in the morning and arrested me. Joyce was there and they drug me into the bedroom, as they were handcuffing me, an FBI agent, about 200 pounds, sits on her back and puts an M-16 to her head. And Joyce says, Get off of me, I’m pregnant. My real hurt that time and my real pain that time was that I was really trying to make a life with Joyce, and just like that, I was in prison, facing life plus 40 years.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I didn’t know about any of this at the time. For my family, life has kind of gone back to normal, or at least as normal as anything I can remember from those days. We’re still living in Harlem, but we’re aboveground now. My mom, who’d finished law school 13 years earlier, is studying for her bar exam. My dad is working at our alternative daycare, taking care of me and my two brothers full time. He’s thinking of going to grad school to get his master’s in education. In pictures, we look like any young family in New York in the 1980s: big hair, three kids, and a station wagon. And then I remember this morning, 1982, the chaos of getting ready in our little apartment, even more crowded now with Chesa part of our family. All of us are fighting for a spot at the sink to brush our teeth, getting dressed, packing lunches, running down the five flights on our way to work or school. We get out onto the street and there they are. They look exactly like my dad always told me they would look. I was only five, but I’d been taught my whole life to watch out for FBI agents and undercover cops. A Black guy and a white guy together in Harlem, leaning on a car with its fancy radio antenna–and we all know right away.
[news clip] Besides the people charged in the actual crimes, the grand jury has jailed six others, associates and friends of the defendants. Jailed them not because they were involved in the robberies, but because they wouldn’t furnish hair and handwriting samples. Former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn refused a handwriting sample. The government already has her signature.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My mom is locked up in MCC, Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, for refusing to cooperate with the federal grand jury investigating the Brinks robbery. Prosecutors think she might have useful evidence, maybe that she was even involved in the conspiracy herself, and they want her to turn government witness, testify against her friends.
Bernardine Dohrn: You either cooperate or you, we can hold you indefinitely in the indefinitely. And the indefinitely turned my stomach. I mean, the idea that I would be away from you guys, not for a term that I could imagine–three months, six months, even a year–but that it was indeterminate, and I knew I was not going to cooperate.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So suddenly, this nightmare, losing my mom, which I’ve been worried about my whole childhood, which I watched my brother Chesa suffered through up close, is actually happening to me. This is the last episode of our season, and we’re going to talk about the personal and political costs of the revolutionary struggle. What it meant to my parents and my family. About the people whose lives were blown apart during the end of the radical undergrounds of the 1970s and the beginning of something else. This is Chapter 10: Inheritance. My mom’s not the only person from the underground locked up in MCC in 1981. Jamal Joseph is there too.
Jamal Joseph: That’s where I saw your mom and dad again, in MCC. We had stacked the joint with people who were somehow either indicted for Brinks or were grand jury resisters around Brinks. We were turning that visiting room into a party spot because the attorneys would come at the same time, and that’s how we all checked in and got messages to each other, in a place where you could hug someone and tell each other to be strong. So we would all be going back and forth and the guards would freak out and they would say, You can’t mingle like that. And we would say, Yes, we’re all on the same case. Check the records.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: MCC winds up being this weird gathering spot for the last surviving members of the radical undergrounds. BLA and ex-Weathermen locked up together, for refusing to cooperate with the government, out of self-preservation or just solidarity. Again, that’s part of the code of the underground.
Jamal Joseph: I wasn’t surprised that Bernardine refused to cooperate because their practice has been consistent in their love for Black revolutionaries and their love for Black people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Still, for the families of the people locked up in MCC, this is a tough time. I was five. I couldn’t understand the principles my mom thought she was standing up for. I just knew she was making a choice not to come home.
Bernardine Dohrn: Do you remember talking to me on the phone?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: I remember visiting.
Bernardine Dohrn: Okay. Yeah.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In fact, some of my earliest memories are of visiting my mom in jail. Metropolitan Correctional Center is this giant concrete building in New York that takes up half a city block. It’s where the government kept-high ranking Al Qaida members after 9/11. It once held Mexican cartel boss El Chapo. It’s where Jeffrey Epstein died. You might walk by the place without realizing it’s a prison. But once you know, it’s obvious. This huge gray, concrete tower with windows that are much too small and too much blank wall space, rising up out of an ordinary street in Lower Manhattan. We weren’t allowed to bring anything with us into the visiting room, so I would smuggle in little pocket edition picture books, slip them down my pants before I went through the metal detectors–Peter Rabbit, Where the Wild Things Are–so my mom and I had something to do during our visit. I liked doing it, tricking the guards, being in on the joke. It made me feel conspiratorial, like my mom and I were in this thing together.
Bernardine Dohrn: That was your Robin Hood period. And you had the Robin Hood outfit and bows and arrows. You were in love with outlaws.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: So I’d go through the metal detectors, get my hands stamped with invisible ink. They’d buzz open the gates, and then I’d get about an hour with her each week at a little round table in a big, noisy room.
Bernardine Dohrn: Well I lived for seeing you. Of course. It was the high point of my week. You know, and Malik was young enough so that he mainly went to sleep in my arms, which is what I wanted. So you. I had to entertain and, you know, plan what we would do and how to keep you busy and made books for you and crossword puzzles and bunches of things. We wrote lots of books and–.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: A calendar.
Bernardine Dohrn: Oh, right. And calendars. Exactly. I was counting the days, but of course there was no end to the days. So . . .
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: That DIY calendar my mom made for me out of magazine cutouts and construction paper with the memorials to revolutionary martyrs–all those assassinations and murders and lynchings–she made that for me in MCC. And when I found it last year as an adult, what struck me was how strange it was, that anyone would send something like that to a little kid, a five-year old who couldn’t possibly understand the meaning of those deadly anniversaries. But it hadn’t occurred to me what calendars meant to her at the time. She was locked up, for she didn’t know how long, separated from her partner and her kids.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was trying to grab hold of time while I was in prison and, you know, speed it up or slow it down. Both. You know, just have a connection to you.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She’s also separated from the rest of her family, her sister and parents. My grandma Dorothy is in her late 60s, and she flies up from Florida to visit her daughter.
Bernardine Dohrn: I was worried about her, and you get yelled at and pushed around and searched and all kinds of crazy things. So she appeared in the visiting room, and, you know, we held hands and cried a little bit, and I was really happy to see her And then she was wanting to know if she should be afraid of all these women. And, you know, I told her no, that they were in a dilemma, like I was in. So she relaxed and then she said, I have something for you. And I really did panic because I didn’t know if somebody gave her something, contraband, to give to me or what she was going to do. And I said, Tell me before you do anything. And she said, Well, it’s right here in my bra. And I said, okay, let me see. And she had two chocolate chip cookies. Just the thing!
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Meanwhile, my dad is single parenting three kids at home. All of us now dealing with the loss of our parents. Chesa first, but now me and Malik too. Our days felt long. We’d get home late after day care and dinner at the West End, where one-time Weatherman Brian Flanagan is now the bartender. Felt like a pretty small world. And my dad would carry all three of us up five flights to our apartment, with grocery bags and strollers and everything hanging from his arms and shoulders. I remember him struggling, literally shaking, trying to carry all of us at the same time.
Bill Ayers: I would joke about it and say, How does he do it? How does he do it? He’s so strong, you know? The physical demand of single parent thing is staggering. It’s staggering. But more intense than that was the sense that you could never be off the clock. It was me emotionally that everyone depended on, and it was exhausting. And I felt like I was losing it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: It was a low point for our family. With Kathy and David in prison, my mom in jail, the revolution dead or dying, and my dad sinking under the weight of trying to keep us all afloat. And then one day we get a bit of good news from my mom’s lawyer. Turns out there’s a technicality in the law. Grand juries are allowed to hold a witness to coerce her testimony, but my mom hasn’t been convicted of a crime, so they can’t imprison her as punishment. And this is a fine line, obviously, the difference between trying to force her to testify or to punish her for not testifying. But after seven months in jail, my mom walks into court for a detention hearing and the judge tells the prosecutors, that fine line has been crossed. He quotes a letter saying Bernardine has a Joan of Arc complex that she would. And I think this is literally true, that she’d let herself be burned at the stake before she’d cooperate with the government.
Bernardine Dohrn: She’s intransigent and unreasonable–and I can’t remember–he didn’t call me hysterical, but you know what was–
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Intense, extraordinary intense?
Bernardine Dohrn: [laughs] Extraordinarily intense. And you would never change her mind, no matter how much they kept me in jail.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They decided she was a waste of their time. A zealot who would never turn, no matter what.
Bernardine Dohrn: So he released me.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I wasn’t in court that day, but I remember the party we had the night she got out at an Italian restaurant downtown near MCC. I remember the red and white checkered tablecloths.
Bill Ayers: And we had just a raucous celebration. And I went down the hallway at one point and the owner of the restaurant stopped me in this narrow hallway, and he was, you know, he looked absolutely like right out of Hollywood gangster film, and he said to me, What’s the celebration? And I said, My wife just got out of federal lockup. And he said, No shit! If you don’t mind my asking, what was she in for? And I swallowed hard. I didn’t want to say the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground. And I said, She wouldn’t talk to a grand jury. And he said, No shit! She’s a stand-up chick. And he picked up the check.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I remember sitting on my mom’s lap for hours that night for the lawyers and family. Friends ate and drank and laughed and told stories until it got late. And I finally fell asleep.
In a way, I got off easy. Other kids born into the underground have a much longer struggle ahead. When the BLA breaks Assata Shakur out of prison, her daughter Kakuya is 5-years old too, the same age I was when my mom went to jail. And for a long time she doesn’t see her mother again, or even hear from her.
Kakuya Shakur: I really thought that she had died and that I probably wouldn’t see her again. You know, as a kid, it was just really difficult to try to process all these things. But I remember really not understanding all the explanations about, you know, my mother was fighting against racial oppression and that there were systemic forces that had imprisoned her unfairly. You know, I still just wanted my mom.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And then after five years of waiting, 10-year old Kakuya gets her wish.
Kakuya Shakur: I remember my Aunt Evelyn just told us, you know, had us sit down and was like, Your mom has been granted political asylum and she’s living in Cuba. And I was like, Oh, okay. And it all happened really quickly. Like, as soon as we could get the passport, like, we were gone.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She gets off the plane in Cuba and there’s a woman waiting for her on the tarmac.
Kakuya Shakur: She was a little different. Like she, the way she had her hair braided. You know, I think she was probably into some tropical ways of dressing. And I just remember thinking, she talks really funny. Like, she didn’t have, like, an American accent anymore. And I was like, she sounds, you know, she . . . really? That’s my mother. It was like meeting a stranger, honestly. And next thing I know I was in school there and I was living with my mother. I couldn’t emotionally, I couldn’t let her in. I was very mean to her. Like I remember the first Christmas there, I was just so upset, right? Like, I was like, I need a Christmas tree. And my mother and my godmother, they were trying to make me happy, trying to figure out how in the world to get a Cuban Christmas tree when there was no such thing. So they went and got some little tropical pine tree or whatever, and it looked like Charlie Brown, you know, it looked a hot mess. And I just was like, Ugh, this does not look like a Christmas tree. [laughs] She wanted me to accept her and she wanted me to feel that that she loved me, but I just was rejecting it, you know, for a good two years. You know, people would say things to me about taking care of your mom, this revolutionary. I’d be like, Well, she needs to take care of me, okay?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I’m struck by how similar these experiences are, for me Kakuya and Chesa–all of us, when we were kids, feeling like we lost our mothers to the cause. The distance that comes from that, the confusion and anger.
Kakuya Shakur: You know, I remember people trying to take our picture and I was like, I don’t even want to hold her hands.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My brother Chesa definitely feels it.
Chesa Boudin: That was an anger that I didn’t know how to articulate or channel or express when I was when I was young. It was a deeper anger about the broader situation, about having lost my relationship with my parents, about having to get on an airplane and fly by myself and get searched every time I wanted to see them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: As Chesa gets older, his anger grows up with him. There’s a constant undercurrent in his relationship with Kathy and David.
Chesa Boudin: I was angry at them a lot, both of them. Sometimes that anger would bubble up on visits. There was one prison visit with my father when I was maybe in sixth or seventh grade, and I was actually doing a overnight visit with him where I would actually spend a full weekend in the prison. We’d cook food. I’d bring homework. We’d be able to watch TV together. Go for walks in the yard. And I brought some schoolwork with me to get done on the weekend. I’m sure for my dad, it was a really cherished opportunity to be involved in my life and to try to help me with homework assignments. Well, I don’t know what set me off. Something set me off, and I remember throwing all of the schoolwork and materials that I brought with me out the window. And it was it was dark out, it was night. And it was windy, and stuff starts blowing across the yard. And my dad knew that if it blew away, I’d go back to school on Monday and I’d have a problem with my teacher and my grades would suffer, and if he left our trailer and went out into the yard to try to reclaim the paper that was blowing around, he risked getting a disciplinary violation for leaving the trailer at night.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Do you remember what he did at that time.
Chesa Boudin: He went and got the papers.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: David doesn’t get a violation, and Chesa manages to get his homework done on time. But even after the anger subsides, the memory stays with him, this strange power dynamic with his parents, the fact that they’re locked up and he’s free. So by the time he’s in sixth or seventh grade, when other kids are most worried about school and sports teams and girlfriends, Chesa begins the long process of trying to understand the choices his parents made.
Chesa Boudin: I mean, I have a really vivid memory, for example, of going into our high school library–I was probably in middle school at the time–and learning how to use the machine, Laserfisch, or whatever it was called, and scrolling through the October 20th, 1981, New York Times. There was some stuff about that period of their lives I really didn’t want to know about, for lots of reasons–to protect them, to protect me, to protect my image of them. I’m sure that’s true to some extent for all children, that there’s aspects about their parents lives that they don’t want to imagine or picture. But for us, for me, for you probably, there’s a darker side of it.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: This is definitely true for me. Before I started working on this project, there were conversations with my parents I chose not to have, things I just didn’t want to know . . . about my dad’s guilt over Diana’s death, my mom’s decision not to cooperate, to stay in jail even if it meant leaving us, her kids, when we needed her most, about the risks they both took even after I was born. When you’re a kid, you sometimes avoid asking your parents hard questions because you’re afraid of what you’ll find. Then when you’re older, you may still avoid them because you don’t want the questions to seem like accusations, to hurt your parents or embarrass them. Because if you’ve already forgiven them for the past, why bring it all back up again? Maybe because there are things you need to know to grow up and move on. So when Chesa visits his parents later as a teenager, he has these big questions on his mind.
Chesa Boudin: I would say to them, Why did you both have to go? It only takes one person to drive the car. And you knew that what happened was was a possibility. Why would you both go? It only takes one person to drive a car.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kakuya is asking her mom similar questions, about why she thought she could be a parent and a revolutionary at the same time.
Kakuya Shakur: Why would you have a child, you know? Like, why did you decide to have a child? Why did you do that when you knew you couldn’t raise me? You know, growing older, I began to understand the political struggle that my mother was so passionate about. I think my mother’s always kind of been one to like move to a different beat a little bit, you know, kind of one of those people who are a little bit ahead of their time, you know, a little bit awkward, a little bit different. She questioned things and felt injustice very deeply within her. Almost like air, you know, like reaching a point where you need to struggle because you can’t live with yourself if you don’t.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: While Kakuya and Chesa are growing up, struggling to understand their parents, other members of the radical underground are struggling to build a future. This is easier, of course, for white radicals. The racism they’ve spent 20 years fighting is ironically what makes it possible for them to start over.
[clip of Jeff Jones] We’re going to remake this country in the streets. Come on, we got to fight it out and someday, we gotta knock those motherfuckers who control this thing on their ass.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein are able to plea bargain after their arrest and avoid prison time. They eventually move to upstate New York, where they become environmental activists.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] There’s no way to be committed to nonviolence in the middle of the most violent society that history has ever created.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: My mom picks up where she left off before she went underground in law school. She passes the bar exam and founds a legal clinic, The Children and Family Justice Center, which works for decades to reform the broken juvenile justice system, to defend young clients in Chicago, mostly Black and brown kids, for free.
[clip of Bill Ayers] History is something that’s made by people. It’s made by Vietnamese people and it’s made by American people. Tomorrow will only be with the people.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Make it. My dad goes back to school, gets a doctorate in education to teach other people to be teachers. He becomes a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a radical school reform activist. In 1997, Mayor Richard Daley, the son of the Chicago mayor who ran the city during the assassination of Fred Hampton and who told police to shoot to kill, he gives my dad Chicago’s Citizen of the Year award. Another weird historical irony that the son of the rogue mayor gives a plaque to the radical who once smashed up the streets of downtown.
[clip of Jamal Joseph] You could use the creative arts in education for the power of social change.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jamal Joseph serves almost six years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for allegedly sheltering people involved in the Brinks robbery. While he’s in prison, Jamal goes back to school. He gets two college degrees and writes his first play. Like me, he’s now a writer and a professor. We have almost exactly the same job.
[Jihad Abdulmumit] I don’t give a damn what you think, actually. You know, we put ourself on the line to build a nation, and you can’t do that to bake sales and selling cookies on the corner.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Jihad Abdulmumit, too, after decades in prison, he also becomes a playwright and a teacher. But for most Black radicals, it’s much more difficult, sometimes impossible, to start over. We reached out to other BLM members and often ended up talking to their kids instead. The truth is, most members of the Black underground are either locked up or dead.
[clip of Afeni Shakur] Where are the women? You all tell those stories. If you don’t do it, we will be erased. They already don’t know–
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Afeni Shakur, who defended herself during the Panther 21 trial, struggles for years to overcome a drug addiction while she raises her son, Tupac. And after Tupac is killed, Afeni found the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation to give mental health support to the Black community through the arts. A throwback to the early Black Panther community programs she helped found and run. She dies in 2016 at 69 years old.
[clip of Assata Shakur] You have to build community, build a sense of freedom, our own space where we can sit in peace and love. All of that is a process. You don’t grow, then you’re going backward.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Assata Shakur is the last prominent member of the group still living underground. In 2013, the FBI puts Assata on their list of most wanted terrorists. The government offers a $2 million reward for her capture. And in 2017, President Trump gives a speech insisting that the Cuban government–
[clip of Donald Trump] Return the fugitives from American justice, including the cop killer, Joanne Chesimard.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Assata, who’s been living openly in Cuba, has to drop out of sight, again, back into the underground.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: When is the last time you saw her, like lately, like as an adult.
Kakuya Shakur: Uh, let’s see. I’m thinking about kids’ ages. I think it was probably 22years ago. I think about that a lot, that she remembers me as a 15-year old. Like, wow, my mother really doesn’t know who I am now as a woman. And then, of course, with my children, she never, she doesn’t know my children. I think a long time ago, I sort of came to the, you know, to the conclusion that they would never be able to meet their grandmother. There’s this deep feeling of loss.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Some people never got their parents back. They never got to move on. Kathy Boudin, meanwhile, spends decades in prison. She dedicates herself to being a mother even while Chesa is growing up in our family. People used to ask me whether he ever knew his biological parents, which always amazed me, that question, because Kathy called our house nearly every day. She read Chesa books, she sent gifts. He visited her in prison practically every weekend. She knew about his friends and his teachers, his disappointments and triumphs. She was fully engaged in his life, just from behind bars. She also mentors other incarcerated mothers inside. She creates an AIDS awareness initiative, and a college education program that become national models for other women’s prisons.
Kathy Boudin: And then I had a longtime childhood friend, and she came and she said to me, You know, Kathy, you always have some cause, that you cared about the Vietnamese and the war and you care about Black people, but you know, you’ve created victims. You yourself are responsible for that. And why don’t you focus on that and focus on them? One of the first things I did was I asked my lawyers to bring me the newspapers of the day that the Brinks happened and read the papers about the families that had suffered as a result of it, and they became real people to me.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: She writes letters of apology to the families of the officers and the guard killed in the robbery, she places them in a State Department of Corrections file. In the letters, she struggles to explain the part she played and why.
Kathy Boudin: It’s very difficult to figure out how do you possibly apologize for being part of something which, you know, people’s husbands were killed and fathers were killed. And I remember spending hours and hours and hours trying to strip away the buts and the this and the that and get to the feelings of, you know, what that meant.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: I visited Kathy a lot when I was a teenager. Chesa had become my brother, so she became kind of a surrogate mom. And she tried to explain it to me too.
Kathy Boudin: Trying to grasp how I could have left Chesa. I mean, it’s all because I didn’t think it was going to happen. And how you can, for me, it’s always been really amazing thing to think about how you can deny reality to yourself because of other needs that are in you. Never finished talking about this, Zayd, ever. I think we’ve had these conversations, but I don’t think that we’ll ever finish them.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: In 2003, 22 years after Brinks, Kathy goes up for parole. By this point, her son has graduated from college.
Chesa Boudin: I was super involved in the campaign around her parole. I wrote my own letters. I did outreach to the governor and the parole board. And there was a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for me. I remember getting that phone call and knowing that it was it was going to be one of the most profound pieces of news that I might ever get in my life, that either my mom was coming home or not. And we got the call and . . . she had good news. She had a good news. But she didn’t get out right away. She, it wasn’t like the next day she gets released. And in fact, we didn’t know when she was going to be released. And I wanted to be there at the prison gates when she got out, and I sort of sat around waiting for a week to see if she’d be released. And she wasn’t. And then I decided I should go ahead and see my dad and I should kind of keep moving forward. And I did the overnight visit with my dad. I went into the prison with him and totally cut off–no Internet, no phones–but we had a TV, and a radio. As we were cleaning up and I was preparing to leave the prison, one of the other inmates who was in the adjoining trailer came running over and said that he just heard news on the radio, that um, that she’d actually been released, that she actually walked out of the prison. On the one hand, I was sad not to be there with her to welcome her–as they say, welcome her home. But in another way, I was in a perfect place. I was in prison, with my dad.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: When Kathy participated in the Brinks robbery, she was 38. She leaves prison 22 years later, in her 60s. She gets a job at Columbia, at the School of Social Work, and I happened to be studying there at the time. So we wind up at the same university, living within just a few blocks of each other in Harlem and on the Upper West Side. And a few years after is release, my first daughter is born.
Kathy Boudin: And suddenly I was babysitting for her. And I think that those years were really wonderful years because I was playing a role in your family.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: For me and my wife, it was a godsend. Our baby daughter adored Kathy, and we needed her. We were both struggling writers at the time with no child care, and she became a part of our family, like Chesa had two decades earlier. But it was sad, too. When Kathy started sitting for us, our daughter was just 14-months old, almost the exact age chaser had been when Cathy left him with his babysitter and never came home.
Kathy Boudin: And so when I would look at Dalin, just that age, and trying to imagine, how could I have done that?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Everyone who survived the revolutionary undergrounds of the 1970s feels some sense of loss and grief. Some lost friends, romantic partners. Others still carry guilt over the people they hurt. Some left their children behind. Many lost their freedom and spent decades in prison. Chesa’s father, David Gilbert, was just paroled, after 40 years behind bars. So I asked them, those still alive, those I could talk to, what they thought about it now, 50 years after they first went underground. If they had a second chance, would they do it all again? For a few, like Mark Rudd, the costs seem too great.
Mark Rudd: Why would you want to do something which was not only unsuccessful, but tragic?
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: But most members of the Underground still feel fundamentally that the struggle was justified.
Brian Flanagan: Well, I’m sure I would, because I hate imperialism, so I would do it again. Maybe do it right this time.
Jihad Abdulmumit: I just wouldn’t have turned left. I would have made right and I got away. Ha, ha! But um, no, I have no regrets at all.
Sekou Odinga: Would I do it all again? Well, obviously, I wouldn’t do it ALL again.
Cathy Wilkerson: I think I did the best I could at every stage. I don’t regret being a passionate person that feels deeply about injustice and who responds that way.
Jeff Jones: Do I regret doing it? No, I don’t. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and I think it actually made a difference.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: They don’t regret being on the right side of the Vietnam War, the right side of the fight against racism. But if you press them, some, like Jamal, Bill, and Cathy, will admit they’re still wrestling with how they did it, and what it all means today.
Jamal Joseph: I would do it again, but much differently. At the time, it felt right. You know, everybody wishes they had a second chance. That being said, no regrets about getting comrades out of jail. All of those brothers and sisters who been in way too long, let’s free them all by any means necessary.
Bill Ayers: I have a thousand regrets, a million regrets. What I don’t regret is throwing my entire life against the machinery of war and racism. I don’t regret that for a minute.
Kathy Boudin: I think if you were to say to me, do you have any regrets in your life, I would say absolutely. You know, there are people that like to say, Well, I have no regrets. But no, I have tremendous regrets. But do I feel that choosing a life in which the sole dedication in it was to imagine transforming an entire society? I do feel that I would make that choice again.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: After Kathy gets out of prison, my brother Chesa goes on to law school. He’d had a rocky start as a student, almost expelled a bunch of times for his outbursts, his unpredictable behavior. But he turned it around. Got straight A’s in high school, gone on to Yale, and won a Rhodes scholarship. There was something in him, an incredible drive, a determination to change things. He becomes a San Francisco public defender. I’ve watched him represent his clients while their kids are sitting in court waiting to see if their mom or dad is going to jail that day. For a kid who spent his own childhood wishing he could free his parents, it makes sense. And then in 2019, he was elected district attorney of San Francisco.
[clip of Chesa Boudin] We won an election, people. [cheers]
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Part of a wave of new progressive prosecutors across the country, trying to fight the racism of mass incarceration, reform the criminal justice system from the inside. And this makes sense to me, too, given what he saw as a kid–the consequences of violent struggle–that he would fight to change the system rather than go to war with it.
Kakuya Shakur: So I said, I’ve got to really study something that makes some difference.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kakuya Shakur is working from inside the system too. She’s a social worker and a poet, focusing on helping families in underserved communities. A mother, who, like her own mom, struggled with whether to have a family at all.
Kakuya Shakur: I think there are all those questions, those contradictions, like, wow, you know, I’m bringing my children into a really heavy, not healthy world. But even having family is a form of kind of resistance. There is hope in having children and saying, well, despite these circumstances, I am going to try to create something better for my children.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Which brings us up to today and the next generation of young people who have to decide for themselves how they’re going to change the world, [crowd chants: Black lives matter] how to learn from past generations, from their courage and their mistakes. While I was working on this series, our 13-year old daughter got into a debate with my dad over dinner. Our daughter had been studying John Brown at school and she thought he seemed crazy for giving his life and the lives of his sons for a political idea. Keep in mind, my dad literally has a tattoo of John Brown on his back. For him, the radical abolitionists are heroes and role models, white people willing to risk everything in the fight against slavery.
L. Dohrn: I mean, I don’t want to diminish his sacrifice. Like, that’s amazing. And he made a difference, but, like, come on. I mean, it’s not really a rational thing to give up your family and then yourself.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Well, I mean, they were they were adults. But he did raise his sons to–
Bill Ayers: Nothing wrong with that.
L. Dohrn: Lamb to the slaughter type of deal.
Bernardine Dohrn: No, the point is, when you say, He was a fanatic, he was an extremist–that’s true, and it’s also true that the rational thing to do was to just let slavery be. I mean, what are you going to do? That’s crazy. To me, that’s crazy.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: What do you think about it?
L. Dohrn: I don’t like it. It unsettles me to think about you or Bill caring about a political issue more than you care about me. I feel like it’s like, weird to think about a father who cares more about sticking it to the man, than his sons.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: “A father who cares more about sticking it to the man, than his sons.” Trust my daughter to get to the heart of the matter. That part unsettles me too. It’s always unsettled me, as a kid and now as a parent, that someone would choose to sacrifice himself and his family for an idea. But as I get older and as I talk to other people in my generation, other Weather kids and Panther cubs, like my brother Chesa or Kakuya Shakur, kids who were born into the revolution, who suffered more than I did for the cause, but still went on in some way to follow in their parents footsteps. I think I understand it better.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: This might be an impossible question–or maybe it’s not, maybe it’s an easy question–but it’s a big question. Do you think it was worth it what your mom tried to do and what your family went through for it?
Kakuya Shakur: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That that’s a deep question, right? I felt deeply loved by my mom, but I knew that struggle was more important, in the broader context. So many different points in our history. It’s like we had no choice but, to you know, to struggle, to resist. And unfortunately, loss was a part of that. All the struggles that came before are contributing to us being in this moment now. Every act that happens, then creates another act. I can almost feel that my life is a result of all of these experiences, the atrocities, the trauma, the struggle, the joy as well–I’m a result of all of that.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: Kakuya’s mom and my parents were all swept up, along with much of their generation, in the struggle for justice, a racial uprising, a moment something like the one we’re living through today, when the future of the country is being contested, when young people of all races are choosing sides. My parents made their choice. And when we look back years from now, it might seem obvious what these young people should have done, the mistakes they made, and the wrong turns. But it also might seem like it’s all part of one long struggle, something larger than any one group, one family, or one generation.
Bernardine Dohrn: We were a part of it, but we were a very small part of it, it turned out, in a long history of people trying to step out of line and to object, and to, you know, call for drastic change. And you know, in the struggle, having new peaks and valleys, taking things much farther along.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: There’s no way she would remember this, but my mom said almost exactly the same thing 50 years earlier.
[clip of Bernardine Dohrn] It’s going to be a struggle that peaks and then rests and gathers back its strength and learns from its mistakes and rises up again. And that’s inevitable.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn, narrating: And maybe that’s how you reconcile having parents who care as much about fighting the state as they do about raising kids. Because for them, revolution is an inheritance. Something passed on for future generations. Decades and centuries of work, plenty of mistakes, some regrets, some hope and rage, and in between, time for reevaluation, learning from the mistakes of the people who came before, trying to do things better next time, to pass it along, for their kids and for generations still to come.
Zayd Ayers Dohrn: Thanks for listening to this season of Mother Country Radicals, an original podcast from Audacy and Crooked Media. Special thanks to everyone who agreed to speak to me for this series, both on and off the record, and to those who couldn’t speak, either because they’re in prison or because they didn’t survive. Thanks to Ben Austin, Dan Cantor, and Annie Asebrook, for their early feedback, to Corinne Hayoun for helping put it all together, and Joe Dapello for figuring it out. Most of all, thanks to Rachel, my partner in life and crime, and to Dalin and Light, who are already building a better future.
Mother Country Radicals is an original podcast from Audacy and Crooked Media. It’s produced by Dustlight Productions. I’m Zayd Ayers Dohrn, your host, writer, and executive producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Jon Favreau, Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Alison Falzetta, with special thanks to Katie Long. From Dustlight, executive producer is Misha Euceph, Arwin Nicks is our executive editor, Ariana Gharib Lee is our senior producer, Stephanie Cohn is the producer, Thai Jones is our historical consultant. All three also helped with writing on the series. This episode was sound designed by Stephanie Cohn. Valentino Rivera is the senior engineer. Andy Clausen is the composer. For Audacy, Tim Clarke is head of audio content, Lindsey Grant is head of platform marketing, and Brian Swarth leads podcast marketing. Special thanks to Melissa Providence, Lizzy, Roberti Denihan, Andy Slater, and Danny Kutrick. Thanks to our development and operations coordinator at Dustlight, Rachel Garcia, apprentice Shomari Kirkwood, and Mark Wilkening and the team at Chicago Recording Company Mother Country Radicals is an Audacy Original Podcast.