Growing Up in the Struggle

In a new podcast, Zayd Ayers Dohrn unpacks his family’s radical history.

Claire Schwartz
September 8, 2022
Image courtesy Crooked Media

​​It can be tempting to imagine oneself into the righteous side of a historical juncture—to look at archival footage of a crowd protesting school segregation and think, “I would have been there,” or to read about people dodging the draft to protest the Vietnam War and think, “I would have done that.” After the murk of change has settled into a toothless posture of general consensus and the texture of oppositional violence has faded into the vague abstraction of evil, it’s easy enough to imagine one’s own vigorous participation. How, then, might we enter the space of an even more radical form of social struggle? What does it feel like to go beyond civil disobedience and take part in a revolutionary movement? How does one make a life while serving as a target of concerted state violence? How does one even learn the skills necessary to engage in armed struggle? What happens to relationships between comrades when opinions about tactics diverge?

In his new podcast Mother Country Radicals, Zayd Ayers Dohrn makes history live through a thick engagement with radical leftist movements of the early 1970s. The story is, in many ways, the story of his life. Dohrn—a playwright, professor, and director of the MFA in Writing for Screen and Stage in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University—was born in 1978 to Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, members of the Weather Underground, a militant leftist organization that declared war on the US government. Working in solidarity with members of the Black liberation struggle, the white members of the Weather Underground agitated toward the horizon of “the destruction of U.S. imperialism” and aimed to “form a classless communist world,” as they wrote in their 1969 manifesto. In this ten-part series, Dohrn reconstructs the movement and its afterlives in conversation with his parents and their peers—the late Kathy Boudin, Jamal Joseph, and others—as well as children of the movement like Kakuya Shakur, the daughter of Black liberation activists Assata Shakur and Kamau Sadiki, and Thai Jones, the son of Weathermen Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein.

For this week’s newsletter (subscribe here), I spoke with Dohrn about his experience as a child of radicals, the possibilities and risks of political violence, and movement-building as an intergenerational practice. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Claire Schwartz: You’ve said the podcast came out of two overlapping circumstances: one political and one personal. Could you say a little more about the project’s genesis?

Zayd Ayers Dohrn: During the Trump presidency, people—especially young people—were asking: How are we supposed to act in a country that is going so dramatically off the rails? They were looking for historical analogs. The late 1960s and early ’70s—a period of extreme partisanship marked by a significant generational divide between the white law-and-order majority, many of whom were older, and a younger, more diverse generation—was one obvious point of comparison. As I began talking with people who had been active in movements during that period, I heard stories of how many of them had been radicalized when Black people were killed by police—Fred Hampton in 1969, Clifford Glover in 1973. While I was having these conversations, George Floyd was killed. People were in the streets. It felt like the generation that had faced this before might have instructive lessons for us today.

At the same time, I was keenly aware that people in my life were getting older. My mom was about to turn 80. She has incredible stories about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., being shoulder-to-shoulder with Muhammad Ali, her friendship with Fred Hampton, breaking Timothy Leary out of prison. It felt like her voice, and the voices of her comrades, should be archived.

When the pandemic began, my work stalled. I thought: “This would be a good time to ask my parents some questions—and I should probably record it because I want my daughters to hear it one day.” It all went from there.

CS: Even in the most loving of circumstances, these generational transfers can be fraught. On the podcast, you mention your own ambivalence to approaching the material. What did it mean for you to embark on this project?

ZAD: I have been a writer for 20 years and never written this story. In a way, the story felt unremarkable to me because I had never known anything else. Growing up, I almost couldn’t understand why anybody would be interested. Then, whenever I would consider approaching it, I’d think: “This was a long time ago. People have put things to rest. Why make everybody miserable now?” I had to get far enough from the subject in my own mind to find the strangeness, to be able to look at it and say, “There’s something there that I should understand better.” I had to feel that this could be my last chance to ask the difficult questions for it to finally feel worth it.

CS: Can you say a little more about the nature of the difficult questions?

ZAD: There’s the silly stuff—no kid wants to research their parents’ sex lives. But some of it was more serious: I knew my parents had committed crimes, but did I really want to know if their actions had hurt people? If they had done things I would find morally questionable? And certain things I found out were actually hard to hear. For example, my whole life I had been told that my birth changed everything for my parents, that they had given up violent struggle when they had me. But I learned in the course of recording these conversations that that was not entirely true. The true part is: I was born and they decided, “Our lives are different now. We are going to move away from violent revolution toward other kinds of activism.” But it was a process. They still had alliances with people underground, commitments they’d made. It was a big surprise to learn that when I was a kid, they were still participating in very risky actions: bombings, jailbreaks. I was always very aware that Chesa [Boudin]’s parents [Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were incarcerated for their involvement in the 1981 robbery of an armored car carrying money for the Brink’s security company] didn’t pull out of this kind of action in time to shield him from the consequences of their participation, and it changed his whole life. I felt privileged that my parents had the good sense not to take those risks. It turned out not to be so much good sense as good luck.

CS: What did violence mean for you as a kid?

ZAD: I was a child of the ’80s; I was very aware of Reagan and nuclear war and militarization and police violence. I knew the cops had killed some of my parents’ friends. I knew the police were chasing us. So for me, violence was always located in the state. It’s almost impossible for me to think of my parents as violent. They certainly were not violent with me. On the podcast, I talk about how it was unimaginably weird for me to hear that my dad had punched somebody in a fight—there were these moments of real cognitive dissonance in how I thought about them.

CS: Growing up, how were you taught about the use of insurgent violence to contest state violence? Have your feelings toward those kinds of tactics changed?

ZAD: As a kid, I was introduced to people who did not shy away from violent tactics: John Brown, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fred Hampton, Nat Turner. They were our heroes. I look back and think, “That’s not wrong; those people were heroic.” I’m not a pacifist. But I think you have to be really sure that the tactics you’re using match the historical moment and are appropriate to what you’re trying to accomplish. I’m suspicious of people who think that their ideology justifies hurting other people. It’s important to look very, very critically at that decision.

CS: There are also strategic questions about political uses of violence—not only in terms of what violent struggle means for the movement in terms of accomplishing its aims, but also with what it means for the viability of making a life inside a movement. In the podcast, this question comes to a head around the question of family separation. As you mentioned, things really shifted for many members of the Weather Underground when they started having children. In the final episode, your daughter and your father are debating the actions of John Brown, the white abolitionist who led his sons into armed struggle in the lead-up to the Civil War. But it strikes me that this conversation, which hinges on choice, is already a racialized one since family separation is, in so many ways, the condition of Black life in the US. How do you think about this question of family separation as a risk of radical movement-building?

ZAD: I was struck by something my daughter said: “It unsettles me to imagine a father caring more about a cause than about his own kids.” It unsettles me too. I think she’s saying that she gets why you would give everything to fight racism—but as a child, there’s also a primal urge to see your safety as the first priority of your parents.

But as you said, this is all profoundly racialized. I asked Kakuya [Shakur]: “Do you think the sacrifices your family made were worth it?” And she says something to the effect of: “There have been so many points in our history when we had no choice but to struggle. If parents were going to fight for freedom, they had no choice but to risk their kids.” For Black people in the US, caring about their kids has always meant fighting for a more just world; otherwise they were condemning their children to lives of oppression. White parents in America, generally speaking, get to choose, and most people choose to protect their families, which means protecting their privilege. It’s very rare to have white people like Kathy or Bernadine, who decide: “I could live for my little nuclear family, but I’m going to put that at risk for something bigger.”

CS: That is not to say that members of these radical movements were indifferent to the critical work of childcare. Quite the contrary.

ZAD: It’s notable how many of the people involved in the movement went on to work with children or education. My mom went into juvenile justice, my dad into education, Jamal Joseph became a professor, Jihad Abdulmumit became a teacher. I think they felt: “Okay, the revolution didn’t materialize in our lifetimes. The thing to do, then, is to pass something along to the next generation.” That was partly about raising us, their kids, in a certain way, and helping us to raise our children in a certain way. But intergenerational work was also central to their philosophy of movement-building more broadly. Even as they thought they were transforming the world, they were aware that it’s an endless struggle—that they were standing on the shoulders of other people, and that other people would come along to stand on their shoulders.

CS: What people experience during those formative childhood years often informs the choices they make as adults. It was striking that so many members of your generation, the children of radicals, seemed to have chosen to, as you put it, work for change from inside the system. Does that impression feel representative to you of a broader phenomenon, or is that more reflective of your own social life?

ZAD: It does feel representative. The cliché coming out of the ’80s was: The children of hippies become stockbrokers. They turn right. That has not been my experience. The vast majority of the people I know who were raised by radicals have deep respect for the causes our parents were fighting for. Kids are better positioned than anybody to see the hypocrisies of their parents. And one thing that our parents for the most part avoided was hypocrisy. You could quibble with their tactics, but you had to admit that they were living according to their values. They saw the central violence of American life, which is racism, and they fought against it. So I—and almost everybody I know from my generation whose parents took part in these radical movements—look at that and say, “They got the big question right.” And so all of us—Kakuya; Chesa; Thai Jones, who is the historian on the project—are political people. We are artists, activists, academics, social workers, lawyers. But everybody is, in some way, trying to carry on the work of making a more just society.

That said, you’re right that most of us have chosen to work “inside the system,” in the sense that almost nobody in my generation is part of a clandestine resistance, or using violence to achieve their goals. That’s partly because we grew up in an era that didn’t seem to have the revolutionary possibility of the ’60s and ’70s. And it’s partly because my generation saw, more clearly than most, the consequences of turning toward violence in the struggle against injustice.

CS: How, if at all, were you aware of some of the deep griefs your parents were dealing with when you were a child? Was there a sense of processing the loss of comrades, movement losses, personal losses?

ZAD: There is suffering involved in being born into this world and there is suffering involved in living in the struggle. Even once my mom got out of jail, a lot of my life was spent visiting friends and comrades in prison, and hearing about people who had died. So we were always processing loss. And that leads you to consider: What was it for? And was it worth it? My parents and their friends were always looking to revolutionary martyrs like Fred Hampton, and later to their friends like Ted Gold and Terry Robinson, saying, “How can we make those sacrifices mean something?”

CS: These sacrifices were distributed very unevenly even within the movement. The violence the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army faced was orders of magnitude more severe than what members of the Weather Underground were up against, which is not to minimize the very real state violence they, too, experienced. How did these different vulnerabilities shape the various afterlives of these movements—how surviving members of each group came to relate to each other?

ZAD: The white underground made some profound sacrifices; some of them, including members of my adopted family, spent decades in prison; some of them like Diana [Oughton] and Terry [Robbins] died. But death and loss were omnipresent in the Black liberation movement; the scale was totally different. Black fugitives faced a level of shoot-to-kill that not even the most wanted white fugitives faced. And the only people who are still underground or locked up are Black people. I don’t know how I could even untangle the complexity of how that’s shaped relationships within the movement. None of the people I spoke to felt like the thing to do now is to criticize each other’s tactics. It mattered more to them to say: “Being in solidarity was what was important. And we need to recognize those people who stood together.” I think people like Assata Shakur, or Mutulu Shakur, [a former member of the Black Liberation Army] who’s still in prison, could look at this and respond, “This shows what we’ve always been saying: Black and white people experience drastically different outcomes for the same actions.”

CS: Toward the end of the podcast, you ask former members of the underground if they have regrets. No one seems to have regrets about their commitments, but some said something to the effect of: “What we were trying to do didn’t work” and expressed regret about tactics. How did you see people processing questions of how to register successes and failures of the movement?

ZAD: There was one big misjudgment in the movement of that time: They looked at revolutionary movements overseas—the Cuban revolution, Ho Chi Minh—and thought, “A wave of revolutionary change is sweeping the world. America can and must be a part of that.” This country was not fully primed for actual revolutionary change, but members of the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and the Black Liberation Army were plugging into a much bigger movement to eradicate American racism, imperialism, and the war machine. And that bigger movement was incredibly successful in developing a broad-based, radical resistance to state violence that had been taken for granted by many people. The Black Panther Party, in particular, gave the next generation of activists language and inspiration to think about: How do we combat this vast and intractable problem?

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents.