Bernardine Dohrn

by Vida Kuang

by Vida Kuang

Bernardine Dohrn, an alumna of the University of Chicago and current clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern, has lived in Hyde Park for the past twenty-five years. She is the founder of the Children and Family Justice Center and co-founder of the Center on the Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Though she has long been a respected figure in the juvenile justice reform movement, her legal work has sometimes been overshadowed by her involvement with controversial anti-war activist group the Weather Underground in the late sixties and early seventies. The group’s extralegal attempts to “bring the war home” led to Dohrn being placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for several years. In 1980 Dohrn turned herself in, and most of the charges against her were dropped due to FBI misconduct. Despite this, Dohrn and her husband, former “Weatherman” Bill Ayers, continue to face scrutiny for their past actions and supposed connections with their Hyde Park “neighbors,” the Obama family.

Could you begin by telling us about the focus of your legal work in Chicago over the past twenty-five years?

My work has focused on children’s rights, broadly defined. I started the Children and Family Justice Center as part of the Northwestern School of Law’s legal clinic as a way to be teaching and also working in the courts everyday. It has been a very lucky way to advocate for those children who are the poorest Americans and who have been used as fodder for the prison gulag for the last twenty-five years. It has been a way for us to be in the day-to-day trenches and have the luxury of selecting our cases, working the hell out of our cases, doing what’s called “zealous advocacy,” and not letting go of our clients. At the same time, we are working to address policy issues along the way. We have worked on juvenile court reform…this stark use of the juvenile court which has used racialized and racist terms in the past twenty-five years and which has led to white kids disappearing from the system no matter where you are, [while it is used as] a warehouse for youth from the black community.

What do you mean by referring to this as a “lucky” way of doing advocacy? 

Well, we get to combine practicing law and being in the institutions that are creating policy. You know, a lot of people graduate from school wanting to just do policy…and I just don’t know what that means. To me, it means that you can’t know that much if you don’t also have one foot in the reality of it and aren’t listening acutely to your clients.

Most recently, we focused on abolishing the juvenile death penalty, which took us five years. As soon as that was accomplished, on March 1, 2005 [the date of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roper v. Simmons, which ruled that capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles was unconstitutional], we began organizing ourselves on the state level to address the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole–a sentence which is also prohibited by international law and which the United States is the only country to allow for people under the age of eighteen. It’s a sentence where it’s hard to really understand what the words even mean. What it means is that no matter how long you are incarcerated, no matter who you become as a person, or how you contemplate the consequences of your involvement in the crime, you can’t ask for your freedom, ever.

As someone who is recognized as one of the leading figures of student activism in the sixties, do you believe the popular critique that university students–at schools like the UofC and Northwestern–are becoming less “active” and more apolitical?

Well, first of all, the sixties were overrated. This is just a fact. [The decade] has been both demonized and romanticized in equal measure. We did have the greatest music. [Laughs] But still, it’s ridiculous. We wouldn’t have this state of permanent war, this prison gulag, no jobs and massive debts for you guys if we had been successful. It just wasn’t true that it was this state of permanent uprising. I traveled for three years as the leader of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and for the Lawyers Guild, speaking at different schools. No matter where you went, what you heard from the organizers at that school was, “Everybody’s apathetic. We can’t get anybody out. We wish we were more like Michigan State.” So then I’d go to talk at Michigan State and they’d say, “It’s pathetic, we can’t get anyone out, we’re not Ann Arbor.” I’d go to Ann Arbor and they’d say, “We’re not Columbia.” At Columbia they’d say, “We’re not Paris!” There is this constant anxiety of organizers where they just don’t feel like they’re at the epicenter of what’s happening. But, you know, we don’t get to pick our political moment. People want to feel useful and engaged in a way that inspires our best selves, but it’s like there is a big “Brave New World”—style machine in our ears whispering every night that what you do won’t make a difference.

It’s important for the people who have all the power to make the status quo seem inevitable. The challenge is to live in your moment. Your generation today is smarter than we were, more global than we were, more knowledgeable about the world, more multicultural. That’s a lot, you know. We were coming out of the fifties. We were just trying to fight away the blinders.

As many people know, you and Bill Ayers were drawn into the 2008 election somewhat unwillingly and accused of being Obama’s so-called “radical neighbors.” Do you feel there is a difficulty, generally, with being seen as a member of the “radical left”? Is it more difficult to negotiate with those who are seen as more moderate political figures?

No. First of all, I don’t think we were ever very extreme. I don’t accept that definition.  We were part of the anti-war movement. It’s been rewritten and rewritten and rewritten that Bill and I were “terrorists,” but it just isn’t true. The anti-war movement caused almost no deaths; at least we certainly didn’t. Compared to the monstrous crimes that were being committed in our [country’s] name, this was a very restrained movement. What were the choices? The people who joined the Democratic Party–did they help stop the war? The people who went to communes? Some of our friends went to factories to try and organize workers and radicalize unions…you know these are all good things to do. Was there a single right thing to do, and was that to be nice to politicians? Politicians are absolutely not going to stop the war. I don’t say it’s wrong to do that [practice political negotiation], but I object to this self-righteousness of moderates that “if only those radicals would go away, we could really do this.” There is no evidence of that. None. I am very eclectic about where change can come from.

Do you think you and your husband have been misrepresented by the press?

Yes! Don’t you? My sons all have Google Alerts on me so they can tell me what I need to know about what’s going around. It’s insane. We have this massive national security apparatus doing what? Monitoring the habits of two seventy-year-old people? You’re kidding me! I’m a grandmother. And it’s not just us. How does this happen to one of the most erudite and extraordinary ministers in Chicago history [Reverend Jeremiah Wright]? It’s a very bizarre thing to be so demonized. Why is this of interest to anyone? Yes, everyone in Hyde Park knew the Obamas a little, come on. They were dramatic from the get-go. Everybody knew them a little bit, and everyone wishes they knew them better. In retrospect, a lot of the people wish they were their best friends!

There was a long period of time when you had to live on the run. How does it feel to have lived as member of the Hyde Park community for the past twenty-five years? 

I love having lived in Hyde Park. I love having raised my kids here and having watched them grow into adults. The Hyde Park community itself is…insane. As Mike Nichols said a long time ago, it is one of those communities that’s black and white, arm and arm, united against the poor, right? And it is still that, but it’s also better than that. I’ve coached Little League here for five years and like everyone else here, we are fixtures in the community. It’s as good as communities get.

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