Former Weather Underground activist Bernardine Dohrn looks back at the barricades

Former Weather Underground activist Bernardine Dohrn looks back at the barricades



Former Weather Underground activist Bernardine Dohrn looks back at the barricades

Bernadine Dohrn

Bernadine Dohrn at her Northwestern University office. Picture: Alamy Source: Supplied

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The Weathermen

The Weathermen (including Bill Ayers, second from right) lead a demonstration in the group's heyday. Source: Getty Images

BERNARDINE Dohrn obviously wouldn't be promoting the film dramatising her early life as a radical activist, The Company You Keep, were she unhappy with it. But it is directed by Robert Redford and stands as one of his better works in the past two decades, a neat example of cinema classicism amid a flurry of competing sound and fury.

Then there are the characters representing Dohrn's life in the aftermath of her involvement as a key member of subversive protest group the Weather Underground. "It's everyone's dream, of course, to have these actors representing them," she says with a laugh. "It doesn't really matter which one you pick, Julie Christie or Susan Sarandon, what could be better? But I think the idea of it was to be more of a nostalgic film than I would make." Dohrn sighs, a sign the activist in her is still itching.

She would prefer people paid attention to today's struggles across the world rather than looking back with melancholy, noting that "sometimes the 60s stands as a proxy for action and inspiration".

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"The novel [of the same name, by Neil Gordon] that it's based on was really wonderful, but of course it's not my film and not how I saw it, so it's more an action drama than a political exegesis," she says.

The Company You Keep is, as some of Redford's better films have tended to be, a political thriller with a humanist perspective.

Adapted by Lem Dobbs, screenwriter of Dark City and The Limey, Redford's film chronicles the resolution, of sorts, of the choices made decades earlier by a disparate group of radical leftists who terrorised the US with a series of insurrections, bombings and other acts of violence in 1969 and the early 1970s.

The Weather Underground, commonly known as the Weathermen, was not a group of idealists partaking in street theatre and silent sit-ins. The group campaigned violently for the overthrow of the US government and committed arson, bombed banks, the Pentagon and other government buildings, led jailbreaks (including, in 1970, of Timothy Leary) and incited riots. In 1981, three former members were involved in an armoured car robbery that left two police officers and a security guard dead.

The film doesn't look back in anger, though. It follows some of the group decades later as a dogged young newspaper reporter (played by Shia LaBeouf in the film's only bum note) and two troubled consciences catch up with the unreconciled crew.

Redford plays Jim Grant, an undistinguished suburban lawyer whose conscience is reawakened by Sarandon's Sharon Solarz, an old WU peer who gives herself up to the FBI.

A recently widowed father of one, Grant grabs his daughter and hits the road to go into hiding while searching for answers. Revelations unfold about the intricacies of the WU's tangled personal relationships as well as the infamous heist that went wrong.

In the film, Dohrn is represented by Solarz as well as a part-time sailor and marijuana-importing Californian, Mimi Lurie, played by Christie. Indeed, she bears a certain resemblance to the actress.

"These are artists at work," Dohrn says. "Neil Gordon, who wrote the novel, blended a couple of us in different ways."

Once placed on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, Dorhn is now a professor of law at Chicago's Northwestern University. It remains a matter of contention for some that she and other former WU members, including Columbia University's Kathy Boudin, have been welcomed back into society and allowed to pursue academic careers.

While Dohrn's days as a radical activist of the extreme Left are long past, she remains committed to political action.

Yet she says she's fine with The Company You Keep not being a political film that focuses on issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War that so exercised the Weather Underground -- at least "as long as everybody knows it's an entertainment and a thriller, and the backdrop is fugitives from the 60s".

The film depicts the one-time radical activists as relatively comfortable people in later life, even if there are secrets nagging at them. David Gilbert remains in jail (and Boudin has served time) for the 1981 armoured car robbery but, by and large, members of the group have escaped punishment. Do the fugitives feel they got away with it?

"No, I think I was 11 years underground," Dohrn replies. "It wasn't exactly a punishment. I do think we won the moral war and it was hard [for] the government to call us terrorists or criminals. Certainly they tried, but we were such a home-grown product -- I grew up in the midwest of America [in] a family who voted Republican all their lives, and I was the first person in my family to go to college. That's an American story."

Dohrn admits the adrenalin-filled adventure stereotype of being on the run isn't far from the truth, though. "We didn't want to disappear [but] we had a pretty great time of it, all things considered," she says.

The US and Australia have romanticised outlaw traditions, not that members of the underground movement had any inkling these might influence the way the WU was perceived one day. Redford, who played the Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, certainly appreciated the tradition. But Dohrn contends WU members differed from the lone outlaw and that their movement protected them. "We were part of something much bigger," she says.

They took care not to get caught, but this also meant she didn't see her parents for more than a decade. As a mother and grandmother, she can imagine how terrible it must have been for them.

"But they insisted I was a good girl," she recalls. "When I saw them after 11 years with two babies and Bill [Ayers], my partner, his parents said, 'Why don't you get a haircut?' and my parents said, 'Why don't you get married?' On one level, nothing had changed, really!"

Dohrn notes the group was protected by the "white-skin privilege" that they protested against: the FBI sought to indict, harass and arrest them, but not assassinate them -- unlike its approach towards radical black leaders. (In 1969, after an armed FBI-police raid led to the killing of rising Black Panther Party star Fred Hampton and another party member, the WU declared war on the US government and destroyed a number of police vehicles. It also bombed a New York police station in 1970 for what it described as the assassination of activist George Jackson, one of the so-called Soledad Brothers, during a botched jailbreak.)

"We were privileged in that sense, we got off lightly, if you want to put it that way," Dohrn says. "On the other hand, [the government] was unable to see what it meant that a majority of the American people were against their policies, against the war, against assassination of black leaders, against shooting down students at Kent State and Jackson State.

"This was a criminal government and the people who murdered two million people over a 10-year period in Vietnam, in my opinion, are war criminals. They were unable to criminalise us, but that's not the victory we wanted. We wanted an end to the war, and revolution."

She laughs, aware that the latter ideal seems absurd now.

Thankfully, Redford doesn't restate the case for revolution in turgid detail, partly because the radicals are now so torn on the issue themselves. Dohrn, for instance, notes her old friends can still disagree about politics or their own behaviour, and she looks back at the "arrogance of our certainty at that time".

"It's a dilemma," she says, sighing. "The certainty allowed us to act and the certainty undermined our force and our persuasiveness. So I can be self-critical about how dogmatic and certain we were. It was clearly terrible. On the other hand, it's very hard to throw yourself over the cliff, so to speak -- to throw yourself into the dramatic lives we lived through."

She recalls seeing Black Panther leaders assassinated blocks away from where she lived, and laments the loss of life in Vietnam, in a "war that was terrible and tragic and had no purpose or vision".

Yet, "even with the vast social movement we had", they couldn't stop the war. There is some lingering frustration at the futility of it all.

The festering memories and moral conflicts are part of an intriguing aftermath. The human frailties exposed in The Company You Keep hold greater dramatic power than a rehash of the battle. The film has a sentimental pull, though. The director uses LaBeouf to symbolise the romantic view of journalism, while Redford's Grant and Sarandon's Solarz typify the liberal idealists who wonder why later generations aren't as angry and committed as they were.

In Redford's 2007 film Lions for Lambs, similar points were made within plodding dogma. The Company You Keep verges on an action thriller, albeit one in which a 76-year-old Redford jogging through woodlands passes as action. But the film unfolds with tension and a plot that requires some attention as the group's members reassemble and quarrel like pensioned-off Avengers.

This is the film's joy: first in seeing the complex relationships reigniting as Grant tracks down his past with the journalist on his tail; then, as a cinematic event, seeing a raft of wonderful, often craggy actors assembling under an old master. They include Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott and Nick Nolte, who, in a cameo as a wood-yard owner, shows he has let himself go even further.

As Dohrn correctly points out, "a lovely thing about this film is representing the diversity of characters and relationships as it plays out in a later era". She notes that social struggles -- such as the Arab Spring, for example -- see people "from a variety of different places" throwing themselves together "for a variety of different reasons".

"So here you have characters who have had 30 years to reflect on what they did or didn't do, and they're now in a life that's stodgier," she observes.

"Some of them still consider themselves activists and revolutionaries, for some it's old personal friendships, and for some it's very bitter or bittersweet -- and I think that's very human."

Dohrn notes that "almost all" the original Weather Underground members remain friends and "our children and grandchildren know each other . . . We don't agree sometimes in moments of reunion, and find ourselves in the same old arguments, or sometimes new arguments -- but in an absolutely familial, comradely, great way.

"Affection, I would say, characterises our friendship these days. And most people are activists, most people are doing great organising or educational work."

She adds that a few people are still missing; they've created new lives and stayed in them. "There's probably people who are still angry who I don't see but I think there's a vast group of us [who] feel we had a moment; we don't think of ourselves as living in the past.

"We think that we're fully engaged in the struggles of our time -- climate change and peace and justice issues and the fight for equality -- so we feel tremendous affection and devotion to each other."

Dohrn "doesn't buy the cliche" that today's younger generation is self-absorbed and not as politically engaged, even if the Occupy movement was a flame that burned out.

"This generation is smarter than we were, they're more global, they care deeply about lots of issues," she contends.

"I think, like every generation, the question of how to make meaning absorbs them. I don't think they're without the longing to make meaning. Some of them, of course, think making meaning means making money, but most of them don't. Most of them want work that is purposeful. Most of them want to make a mark, they want to contribute."

She sees progress in the mobilisation of women, on climate change and many other issues, and regards the achievements of the gay and lesbian movement as "the most rapid social justice transformation" of her lifetime.

"So I see a really rich field of social activism, and every generation is told they don't have what it takes," she notes.

"I also want to say it's overrated. The commodification of the 60s continues and we couldn't stop the war. We didn't make a revolution. We have to live in the present.

"It was never that different than it feels today so it's important for young activists today to look at it not as bigger than life," Dohrn adds. "It wasn't that."