Peace, Love, and Terror

The investigation into a cop killing in the '70s leads to a law professor who helped launch Barack Obama's political career.

A number of law enforcement officials with knowledge of the Park Station case view a BLA link to the bombing with skepticism. Bottom, in particular, was famous among detectives of the era for his big mouth. "He was just a guy who liked to hear himself talk," one investigator said. "We could not corroborate independently what he told us about Park." Another former investigator connected to the case is more blunt: Bottom, he said, "would confess to the Quake of '89."

Mark Goldrosen, a San Francisco attorney who represented Bottom when he was charged in 2007, with seven other defendants, for the 1971 attack on Ingleside Station, concurs with investigators' dismissive takes on his client's statements about the Park bombing. "If he had admitted it, and if it was considered credible, this would have been prosecuted a long time ago," he said.

Another former BLA member, Ruben Scott, also told police in the 1970s that the organization was involved in the Park Station killing, according to law enforcement sources. Scott reportedly said he was not present the night of the bombing.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, photographed in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.
Todd Buchanan
Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, photographed in 2001, are now professors in Chicago.
Brian McDonnell was killed by shrapnel in the 1970 bombing of Park Police Station.
San Francisco Police Department
Brian McDonnell was killed by shrapnel in the 1970 bombing of Park Police Station.

The BLA connection to Park Station might be a red herring — or it could mean McDonnell's murder was simply the result of two militant groups working in tandem. A prime tenet of the Weathermen's through-the-looking-glass revolutionary doctrine was that it was their duty to shed "white-skin privilege" and put themselves at the service of black radicals, and there are indications that the affinity between the BLA and Weathermen was particularly strong.

For example, the BLA collaborated with former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert in a 1981 armed robbery in Nanuet, New York, that ended with the deaths of two police officers and a Brink's armored truck guard. Ayers and Dohrn have also expressed fondness for members of the BLA in surprisingly personal ways. Their son, Zayd Dohrn, is named for BLA member Zayd Shakur, who died in a shootout with New Jersey state troopers in 1973.

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From today's vantage point, the spectacle of so many revolutionary groups competing to blow up or shoot sworn peace officers might seem strange. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, America's major cities were in something close to a guerrilla war. In 1972 alone, the FBI attributed 1,500 bombings within the United States to "civil unrest" from domestic radical groups. Noel, the retired San Francisco FBI agent, said police officers routinely searched their patrol cars for bombs before starting their engines.

In this environment, many law enforcement officials resorted, with unfortunate results, to dubious practices of their own. The most notorious example of police overreach from the era was doubtless the FBI's COINTELPRO, an elaborate program of domestic espionage that targeted peaceful civil-rights groups alongside the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. Senate hearings on the program in the late 1970s concluded with a formal denunciation of such FBI tactics as wiretapping and illegal property searches.

The rise and fall of the Weather Underground is one of the more outlandish chapters in the phantasmagoria of Vietnam-era radicalism. Formed in 1969 as a militant faction of the mass antiwar movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), what was then commonly called the Weathermen — named after the Bob Dylan lyric "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" — proclaimed a desire to foment what they saw as an imminent, global communist revolution within the United States. Their motto: "Bring the war home." (After the winter of 1970, "Weathermen" became the Weather Underground, a nod to the group's fugitive status and disdain for sexist pronouns.)

In December 1969, the group convened a "war council" in Flint, Michigan, announcing plans to attack institutions of the U.S. government and oppose "everything that's good and decent in honky America," according to an account of the meeting by former Weatherman Mark Rudd in his memoir, Underground. Rudd goes on to recount his own contribution to the proceedings: "It's a wonderful feeling to hit a pig," he told the group, using the '60s slang term for a police officer. "It must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building." Presiding over the meeting was Dohrn, the mercurial beauty that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once called "the most dangerous woman in America."

The University of Chicago-educated Dohrn was a diva of the radical left, known for her shrill revolutionary creed. "We're about being crazy motherfuckers," she announced at the war council. Raising four fingers in what became known as the "fork salute," she praised the acolytes of cult leader Charles Manson for stabbing pregnant actress Sharon Tate in the stomach with a fork when they killed her in 1969.

This darker phase of the Weathermen lasted through March 6, 1970, when three members of the group were killed in an accidental explosion while building a bomb at a Greenwich Village townhouse. That bomb, members of the group would later reveal, was intended to cause a massacre at an Army dance in Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Following the townhouse explosion, the Weather leadership convened a summit at a beach house on California's fog-hung Mendocino coast. At that conference, they decided to alter their bombing campaign, targeting only empty government facilities, according to Rudd's memoir. Now in hiding or "underground" because of riot and conspiracy charges, the Weathermen went on to claim responsibility for setting small bombs at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and the State Department, none of which resulted in loss of human life.

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