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Roots of a Rhodes Scholar Radical

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Meet 22-year-old Yale senior (and newly-announced Rhodes Scholar) Chesa Boudin. Here’s a kid who has had an interesting life. His biological parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, are unrepentant veterans of the Weather Underground. They are also inmates of the New York State prison system. Chesa was a babe of 14 months when mom and dad started doing time. Boudin, serving 20 years to life, was denied parole in 2001 after more than 35,000 Americans wrote letters opposing her release. Gilbert is serving three consecutive 25-years-to-life terms.

What got Boudin and Gilbert where they are today? If not brains and personality, then it must have been their happy participation in the murder of Rockland County police officers Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown, along with Brinks guard Peter Paige, during an attempted robbery in 1981. Boudin pled guilty, while juries convicted Gilbert and several others.

As for Chesa, he’s been raised for the past 21 years by two of his parents’ radical colleagues. Chesa’s adoptive mother — Bernardine Dohrn, whose sultry likeness once hung in every US post office – is currently the director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. His adoptive father, Bill Ayers, is a professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

As many will recall, publication of Ayers’s Fugitive Days – a book that celebrated, among other things, the Weather Underground’s 1972 bombing of the Pentagon — coincided directly with the September 11th tragedies. Ironically, the New York Times had run a glowing profile of Ayers and Dohrn (a puff for the book) that very morning. The piece featured a color photo of the affluent, middle-aged couple holding hands beside a headline that read: “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.” Halfway down the column, Ayers told the Times’s Dinitia Smith: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Recently, when Ayers sat for yet another Times interview — this one to discuss the triumph of Chesa’s Rhodes Scholarship — he showed up wearing a red-star revolutionary pin.

Ayers and Dohrn were there at the founding of the Weather Underground. At a 1969 “War Council” that helped launch the organization, Dohrn raised three fingers in a “fork salute” to Charles Manson, whom she proposed as a revolutionary inspiration. She went on to joke about Manson’s victims and dubbed them the “Tate Eight” after Sharon Tate, the pregnant actress whom members of the Manson tribe stabbed in the womb with a fork. “Dig it,” said Dohrn at the time. “First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!”

Later that same year, Ayers attempted to extort money from the Vietnam Moratorium Committee — demanding $20,000 to abstain from violence during a planned peace protest. After rejecting this demand, a member of the Moratorium group asked Ayers what he really wanted. “To kill all rich people,” Ayers responded. When another peace activist pointed out that Ayers himself came from wealth, the radical answered with an angry slogan: “Bring the war home. Kill your parents.” (Note: Neither of these stories made it into Ayers’s highly selective memoir.)

In the following months and years, Ayers, Dohrn and friends wreaked a lot of havoc. Bombings linked to the Weathermen took place in cities from San Francisco to New York, culminating with the March 1, 1971 bombing of the US Capitol and the May 19, 1972 bombing of a bathroom in the Pentagon. Then there was Boudin’s and Gilbert’s 1981 stunt with the Brinks holdup: the Weather Underground’s sad, last, stupid gasp in collaboration with the Black Liberation Army.

Dohrn and Ayers had realized, by this time, that radical was no longer chic. They’d already surrendered to the FBI the previous year. Charges against Ayers were dropped. (“Guilty as hell. Free as a bird. America is a great country,” Ayers said when interviewed by David Horowitz ten years ago.) Dohrn, meanwhile, pled guilty to aggravated battery and bail-jumping, but received only a fine and probation. Two years after her surrender, she spent seven months in jail for refusing to give information to a grand jury concerning at-large members of the Weathermen organization.

If his recent comments to the New York Times are any indication, Chesa Boudin shows the unmistakable imprint of his four radical parents, whose transgressions he downplays. It seems the larger crimes – couldn't we have guessed? — are those of the United States. “My parents were all dedicated to fighting US imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

Chesa refuses to apologize for the tactics of the Weather Underground. “The historical moment we find ourselves in determines what is most appropriate for social change…I’m sad that my parents [his biological parents, Boudin and Gilbert] have to suffer what they have to suffer on a daily basis, that millions of other people have to suffer as well.”

Most Americans, on the other hand, are rather glad that Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert sit behind bars. (Even better justice was done to three other Weathermen -- among them Bill Ayers's then lover, Dianna Oughton -- all of whom died in a Greenwich Village townhouse blast on March 6, 1970, the victims of their own homemade bomb.)

As for you, Chesa, we wish you bon voyage. Who knows what useful knowledge you’ll pick up during your year as a Rhodes Scholar? Perhaps, given a little distance, you’ll one day be able to cut those radical apron strings. That would be nice. To paraphrase your stepfather’s immortal words from 1969: Revolution begins at home. But you don't have to kill your parents, Chesa. Just move beyond them.