Tuesday night, Barack Obama holds what he hopes will be his victory celebration in his adopted hometown’s Grant Park. The Associated Press explains: “Grant Park is the place Chicagoans have long gathered to party, protest, and pray,” noting visits by Franklin Roosevelt, the Queen of England, and Pope John Paul II. If the park is a natural place for a party celebrating Chicago’s favorite son, it’s also an unwelcome reminder of two of the Windy City’s black sheep, who nearly derailed his presidential ambitions.
Should Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, by now the most infamous Chicago Friends of Obama, attend the Grant Park victory celebration, their lives will have come full circle. In October 1969, Grant Park served as a rallying point for several events during the radical leftist group Weatherman’s “Days of Rage”—four days of planned chaos in the Windy City. Born into wealth and privilege, Ayers and Dohrn marginalized themselves by voicing insane rhetoric exalting parricide and Charles Manson, committing acts of terrorism against the police, banks, and government, and remaining fugitives from the law throughout the 1970s. Now, 28 years after emerging from hiding, Ayers and Dohrn amazingly have a friend and political ally poised to win the presidency—one who hails from the same Chicago they once terrorized.
The Days of Rage scheme was 1969’s unimaginative sequel to 1968’s protests at the Democratic National Convention. It used the same set (the streets of Chicago), featured the same villain (Mayor Richard J. Daley), and recycled the same script (youth rising up against the Man). Like most sequels, it didn’t receive the favorable reviews that the original did. Bit players at the Democratic National Convention—where Ayers flung slingshot marbles at police—won leading roles in the Days of Rage. The stars of the 1968 installment, the Chicago Eight, largely balked at a repeat performance. Tom Hayden, who gave a pep talk at the opening night of the Days of Rage, was an exception. But even Hayden later cringed at what he had witnessed. “They looked exactly like the people we were accused of being: helmeted, with heavy jackets, clubs, NLF flags, circled around a fire of park benches exactly like a primitive, neophyte army.” Fred Hampton, a Chicago Black Panther leader later shot to death by police, famously ridiculed the rioting Weathermen as “anarchistic, opportunistic, adventuristic, and Custeristic”—the most apt description of the Days of Rage anyone ever offered.
Bill Ayers, in his Fugitive Days memoir, recalls his cohorts loading up with “steel pipes and slingshots, chains, clubs, mace, and rolls of pennies to add weight to a punch.” But the opposition carried guns. After Dohrn had led Weatherwomen on a topless raid of a high school and Ayers and the Weathermen had bizarrely started fistfights in working-class neighborhoods to enhance the group’s street credibility, Weatherman leaders insisted that thousands of revolutionary youth would descend upon Chicago as a result of their agitprop. They didn’t. A mere 300 materialized the first night in Lincoln Park. “We weren’t only outnumbered and outgunned, we might just be out of our minds,” Ayers remembers thinking. “My stomach sank. Where were all the revolutionary youth?” Armed with clubs and protected by motorcycle helmets, Weathermen stormed into Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood trashing cars, smashing windows, and terrorizing residents. Ayers gleefully recalls attacking a police car with its occupants still inside: “We swarmed over and around that car, smashing windows, slashing tires, trashing lights and fenders—it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. I leapt from the trunk to the roof to the cheers of friends, jumped up and down several times until it caved in slightly, and then slid off easily and kept moving, glancing back to see a broken shell with two cops hunkered down in the front seat.”
“We are born in 1969 in America behind enemy lines,” Dohrn explained to a crowd of 70 Weatherwomen in Grant Park the following day. “We are here to teach the people the lesson of what it means to be a ‘good German.’” Telling the crowd that she was in Chicago to “bring the war home,” Dohrn led a charge of women into police lines. One of her followers bit a policeman’s hand; another spat in a cop’s face. The police confiscated metal pipes and chains from the crudely armed women. Dohrn, the unquestioned leader, was arrested in Grant Park for battery, mob action, and resisting arrest.
Dohrn’s arrest catalyzed her decision to go underground. Her last public hurrah came a few months after the Days of Rage, at Weatherman’s “War Council” in Flint, Michigan, where she offered an embarrassing hosanna to the Manson Family: “Dig it: first they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild!” Thereafter, Dohrn’s extremism would be delivered via audiotape rather than in person.
The nihilistic violence of the Days of Rage led to shootings of rioters, hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, several hundred arrests, and the crippling of Richard Elrod, an aide to Mayor Daley. “Elrod is now paralyzed—hopefully for life,” Weatherman’s New Left Notes gloated. “He won’t be so quick to play pig next time.” “We had injured hundreds of pigs,” bragged Susan Stern. “Greatest of all, one of Richard Daley’s chief counsels . . . was paralyzed from the waist down.” So proud of crippling the Daley aide was Weatherman that it published a sadistic parody of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” called “Lay, Elrod, Lay”: “Lay Elrod lay / Lay in the street for a while / Stay Elrod stay / Stay in your bed for a while. . . . Play Elrod play / Play with your toes for a while.” Lamely unimaginative, the song nevertheless reveals Weatherman’s hateful contempt for workaday Americans.
The coda of Days of Rage played itself out in Grant Park, where Weatherman appropriately faced its mirror image. As a remnant of radicals attempted to gather, the American Nazi Party taunted them from across the park. What started with blazes, bangs, and crashes ended in a whimper. Weatherman went home and then went into hiding. A spree of Days of Rage indictments transformed Weatherman into Weather Underground.
During the Days of Rage, besieged Weathermen retreated to the friendly confines of Chicago-area campuses as respite from police clashes. Ayers, who in the mid-sixties had become involved with an experimental school in Ann Arbor where, as writer Thomas Powers observed, “no one ever learned to read,” had attained office in Students for a Democratic Society after boasting of not having read a book in a year. By the 1980s, he and Dohrn, finding the political climate no more welcoming than Mayor Daley’s police, again found sanctuary on campuses. Ayers became an education professor at the University of Illinois–Chicago, while Dohrn, even more strangely, became a law professor at Northwestern despite having led a group that bombed police stations, jails, and a judge’s home. “Kill all the rich people,” Ayers counseled young people in the sixties. “Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.” But in the eighties and nineties, Ayers—whose father had chaired Illinois’ Commonwealth Edison and had provided his wayward son with an allowance, even during his radical days—used his rich father’s good name to help resurrect his own bad one.
The long, strange trip of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn that started in Chicago during the Days of Rage ends Tuesday night at the Grant Park coronation ceremony of their friend, Barack Obama. Ayers and Dohrn were present at the beginning of Obama’s political career, hosting a 1995 fundraiser for Obama’s state senate candidacy from their home. Obama and Ayers spoke at the same events (one organized by Michelle Obama), served on the same Woods Fund charitable board, and promoted one another’s work—with Obama even singling out an Ayers book for acclaim in the Chicago Tribune: “A searing and timely account of the juvenile court system,” he appraised, “and the courageous individuals who rescue hope from despair.” Significantly, after Ayers secured a $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation in 1995, Obama served on the board, including as chairman, of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and dispensed large sums of money to Ayers-affiliated projects.
As if to put an exclamation point on the couples’ transformation from pariahs into paragons, even Richard M. Daley—son of Richard J. Daley, devil figure for Weatherman four decades ago—embraced Ayers and funneled city education projects his way. “He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally,” Mayor Daley said of Ayers to the New York Times. “People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.” Daley describes the former Weatherman merely as an “educator,” but it’s worth recalling that Ayers applies the “educator” label not just to his work as a professor, but also to his earlier attempts at explosive instruction: “Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”
If the projected 1 million people in Grant Park Tuesday night optimistically look to a future of change they can believe in, two attendees may be thinking of their Grant Park past. Haunted during this entire campaign by the living ghosts of has-been bombers, Barack Obama can’t escape the specter of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, even at his victory party.