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.

Significantly, the attack on Park Station falls within the narrow period between December 1969 and March 1970 when the Weather Underground was still loudly devoted to killing people.

"During that ten weeks, they were intending, by their own statements — many statements — to commit acts of violence against persons," said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor and former SDS president who has written extensively about the history of the 1960s. Gitlin admitted he had no direct knowledge of the Weathermen's actions during the time in question, but said the bombing would have fit their MO: "It would have been consistent with their pronounced strategy during February 1970 if they had been involved in Park Station."

Resurfacing at the end of the decade, many of the Weathermen saw charges against them dropped or resolved with meager penalties because of the questionable FBI tactics used against them. Some went on to rehabilitate themselves through careers in academia. Dohrn is now a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Machtinger became a teacher in North Carolina. No former member or associate of the Weather Underground has ever publicly acknowledged a role in the Park Station 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.

Dohrn, Machtinger, and Ayers did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Brian Flanagan, a New York City resident and former Weather Underground member who has condemned the group's tactics as misguided, denied any Weathermen had carried out the bombing. "There's nothing that I have for you on Park Station, except that it was not the Weather," he said. "I'm absolutely positive." He declined to say whether he was in San Francisco when the attack took place: "That's as far as I'm going to go."

Rudd, who once held a leadership position in the group, said he didn't think the Weathermen had a hand in the murder of McDonnell, but acknowledged he could not be sure because he was not based in California at the time of the bombing.

"It's my impression that Weather Underground was not involved in that at all," he said in a telephone interview from New Mexico, where he now lives. "I was on the East Coast at the time, but I was still high enough in the organization. I never heard anything about it. Not only that, I was in a position to know." He added, "Of course, that's not any kind of exculpatory evidence."

----------

If the Weather Underground was involved in the attack on Park Station, the group's denials or silence on events during the winter of 1970 would make sense, at least from a legal perspective. Unlike the bloodless bombings the Weathermen carried out in the mid-1970s, murder and related conspiracy charges carry no statute of limitations. In other words, if prosecutors opted to file charges in the Park Station bombing, Dohrn, Machtinger, and any others implicated in the attack could be hauled into court.

Meanwhile, veteran investigators still fume over the ease with which Ayers and Dohrn have assumed the mantle of middle-class respectability. When people talk to Noel about the Weather Underground's avowed intent not to harm people, he likes to tell the story of a 1971 search of one of the group's principal "safe houses," an apartment on Pine Street in San Francisco's Nob Hill neighborhood. Inside, FBI agents and SFPD inspectors discovered C-4 explosives, voice-activated bomb switches, and concealable shivs made from sharpened knitting needles epoxied into the caps of ballpoint pens.

"'Voice-activated switch' means the bomb goes off when a person comes in and talks," Noel said. "This whole image that these were nice-type people is what makes me upset. It's bullshit. That's not what they were. They were thugs and they were criminals trying to overthrow the U.S. government." During the 2008 election season, Noel even made a brief televised appearance with Greta Van Susteren on FOX News to counter the arguments of Weather Underground apologists who were saying the group had been essentially nonviolent.

Noel, Reagan, and other law enforcement officials interviewed for this story still hold out hope that the Park Station case will one day bring a reckoning for the Weathermen. But the specter of the Vietnam era's radical legacy should be summoned with care, as another prominent cold case from the same period illustrates.

In 2007, the California Attorney General's Office filed charges against eight alleged former Black Liberation Army radicals — Bottom among them — for the attack on Ingleside Police Station and the murder of San Francisco Police Sergeant John Young in 1971. The same Phoenix Task Force that reopened the Park Station investigation was responsible for building the case on the Ingleside attack.

After lengthy litigation and an outcry from liberal activists over the belated prosecution, charges against five of the defendants were dropped. An additional two, including Bottom, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and received probation — hardly a meaningful punishment for someone serving a life sentence. Charges against the eighth and last defendant have yet to be resolved, but by most accounts, the case has been a huge disappointment for cold-case investigators and a humiliation for the state attorney general's office.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...