An Antiwar Activist Couple Who Shaped History
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The New Yorker Documentary | The New Yorker Documentary | Episode 68
An Antiwar Activist Couple Who Shaped History
“Radical Love,” directed by William Kirkley, tells the story of Michael and Eleanora Kennedy’s lifelong dedication to radical political movements—from the Black Panthers to the Weather Underground—and to each other.
The story behind the film.
Released on 10/13/2021
[Eleonora] We wanted a little cottage
that we could work on.
So we thought we'd get a fixer upper.
The broker, she said, I have a perfect cottage for you.
She took us around and I couldn't see a thing.
This empty, freezing cold windy fog.
We pulled in the driveway and in the mist,
I could see this beautiful house.
And I said, Wuthering Heights.
And Michael said,
We'll have a look.
The ceilings were collapsing.
Was magnificent.
Michael looked at me and said,
Wuthering Heights?
Weathering blights.
But if you want it, of course.
So we fell in love.
When you fall in love,
you don't see flaws.
[melancholy piano music]
[grieving music]
That was from my dad's funeral.
It hung here since he died.
[grieving music]
What was surprising to me
is he wanted to have the military at his wake.
He wasn't the biggest fan of our government.
So it'll stay here.
[raindrops pouring]
[grieving music]
It was a house for two people madly in love.
A place where love was everything.
We've come to the end of a long wonderful stay.
The life where we spend making memories.
And now we have the memories.
So now we're just getting ready for the movers
and we'll be moving on.
And I'm going to take care of
the most special things for Michael.
He had that, the two side,
the Buddha and the killer.
So I take special care of the Buddhas.
[grieving music]
[brooding music]
Radical is a word that's largely misused
and misunderstood.
But a radical is somebody who goes to the root.
For a radical lawyer,
the law is the field of struggle.
Is seeing the law as it is,
and imagining the law as it could be.
[Bill] The law could be fundamentally transformed
serving a more humane society.
And there was really nobody better at that
than Michael Kennedy.
We're not gonna sit here in our ivory towers
and read about the law
and all the wonderful things it's supposed to stand for
and let those motherfuckers across the way terrorize people.
There's a big difference between condemning the government
and condemning our country,
which we have to love.
Just hate the fucking government.
[Bill] A liberal wants to make reforms in the system.
A radical wants to transform the system altogether.
It's times like these, that more than ever
we've got, you know,
we've got to remember how many other brothers and sisters
are rotting in stinking holes charged
with the same type of crap that these men were charged with.
That's the rule of a radical lawyer.
Make the courtroom a site of resistance.
Get people back on the street,
defend them and to not allow the state
to steamroll people into prison.
It's almost a year since the massacres in Vietnam
and the daily massacres that go on
against the people of the world have occurred.
I was graduating from law school and took a job
as the National Lawyers Guild organizer.
Michael and I were together when we first met Bernardine.
We thought we could work with her,
fight with her and learn from her.
When I first met Eleonora she's of course always elegant,
always flawlessly dressed.
Our friendship was formed the second I met them.
It was a political match and it was a personal match.
[Bill] We had a relationship
where we talked back and forth,
read books together and talked about the world.
And what we had in common
was we knew our government was full of shit.
We knew the war they were running in Southeast Asia
was an Imperial war about racism.
[Protesters] We want peace.
We want peace.
We want peace.
[Bernardine] This world of social activism
transforming our imagination about what's possible
was happening right in front of me.
We believe an action like that is action of insanity.
It's not a revolution even.
You see going out in the streets
and getting people shot and killed in Maine,
that's insanity.
[Bernardine] On December 4th,
Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated
by a unit of the Chicago Police Department.
As we felt the heavy hand of the state repression
and watched it happening to Black Panther Party,
for white radicals,
we needed to think of where this could be going.
Being a revolutionary
I think it's a necessity.
This country was built on a revolution,
threw the fucking British out.
Michael was passionate about justice,
justice for all.
Racism, sexism, antisemitism,
all cut him to the quick.
He was able to take the cases that nobody else would
and fight like hell for them.
And I assisted him with everything.
I was his trial consultant.
As a team,
I was all intuition
and Michael was all intellect.
So separately, we could miss something,
but together we didn't miss much, ever.
We represented various political groups.
He was representing Los Siete de la Raza.
At the same time he was representing
part of the Black Panther Party.
We represented The Chicago Eight
and the Weather Underground.
[protesters chanting]
Once you stand up, assume you don't get crushed.
And we didn't because we were privileged white people
for the most part.
You don't get crushed,
you'll stand up again.
Hey, I've done that before,
and then you see other people standing up.
Michael and I we're close.
We agreed about what was happening in the world.
We agreed that it was gonna be a pitched fight
in the courts,
but that the courts shouldn't take over
from the organizing work or the activism work.
And I talked to Michael about being my lawyer
and he said he would.
[Eleonora] We help the Weathermen in any way we could,
legal or illegal.
I was so angry at the American people.
You know, it was like,
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
We're in the wrong side of history.
In the Weather Underground,
we were waking up to a world that was out of balance,
and we were trying to make sense of that world.
We would build a revolutionary youth movement capable
of actively engaging in the war against the imperialists.
We will lead massive demonstrations against the war
in support of the Black Panther Party.
We have gone on the offensive.
It is we who you call the shots now.
We abolish this system,
this society altogether and build a new one.
We're not a terrorist organization.
And it's irresponsible of people to make that accusation.
We want to make a revolution.
We think there has to be a revolution.
Our intention was to conduct a campaign of sabotage.
[woman chanting]
Was it risky?
It was terribly risky.
We gotta knock those motherfuckers
who control this thing right on their ass.
[protesters shouting]
[Bernardine] We needed
the protection of being clandestine.
Eleonora and I always,
our joke has been,
we do our best work in the dark.
[Eleonora] The fear that we always had
was having the Weathermen found when they were underground.
[Bernardine] Eleonora taught us that
dressing for the moment could be very important.
When we went into somewhere dangerous
recognizing that we were using our privilege
to both be invisible if necessary
or to be unfeared by the authorities.
Eleonora could deploy her elegance,
her style,
her charm
to do a lot of things
that other people might not have gotten away with.
Being well-dressed
I could always get away with a lot more,
and I did.
A Chanel suit
took me places where no one else could tread.
Whenever we would have to meet with Weathermen,
we would have to go on what was called a trajectory.
And once we got to the end of the trajectory,
if it was all clear, we would go to the designated place.
I was meeting with Jennifer Dohrn, Bernardine's sister.
FBI, they came right in after us
and we just knew.
Jennifer and I ran to the bathroom.
I swallowed all the paperwork.
It was very uncomfortable,
but it would have been a whole lot more uncomfortable
if they were able to take the paperwork.
There's two groups of young Americans.
One group goes into the Pentagon,
cases the place,
finds a bathroom where they can unscrew a drain pipe,
puts a small bomb in there.
[bomb exploiting]
A bomb exploded early this morning in the Pentagon.
People calling themselves members of the Weather Underground
last night planted bombs
in federal office buildings in Washington.
No one's hurt.
Does a million dollars worth of damage.
And unbeknownst to us, destroys a computer system,
which was running the air war.
What could be more delightful than that?
Bombing the Pentagon was an escalation
and we felt it was essential to make a major statement.
Property is not the most important thing in the world.
Money is not the most important thing in the world.
But humanity is, and rights are and civil rights.
Another group of young Americans
goes into My Lai village in Vietnam
and slaughters, men, women and children.
Who's the terrorist?
What do you do when there's no end in sight?
Yes, a million people have been killed.
How do you stop it?
It's your government.
How do you end it?
And we went underground,
determined to survive
what we saw as an impending American fascism,
determined to build a revolutionary force.
And that's why we did what we did.
Now we are everywhere.
We're not just attacking targets.
We're bringing a pitiful helpless giant to its knees.
The tape recording warns
that the Weathermen plan to attack some symbol
of American injustice as it was called,
within the next few weeks.
[Reporter] An explosion.
The explosion occurred.
The bomb exploded.
A pipe bomb.
Was definitely a high explosive.
[Reporter] Fortunately, there were no injuries.
The FBI was monitoring us.
Our phones were tapped.
Two men were in the doorway and said,
We're here to talk to you about Bernardine Dohrn.
And I said,
Nothing to say, please leave.
And they said, Okay, you can talk to us now
or you're gonna get a subpoena.
We were gone in 48 hours.
We had to leave the world behind.
I didn't know how long we would be gone
or what would become of us,
but we had each other.
I was looking over my shoulder a lot.
I was afraid that the government would be able to go
to wherever we were and I was going to be extradited back.
And my body was breaking down from anxiety, I think.
We believed in what we were doing
and if it took us out as we were doing it
we'd have been taken out.
It just didn't happen to us.
Happen a lot of other people.
[Bernardine] I came very slowly
and reluctantly to the decision
that it was time for me to turn myself in.
I hated those words.
We were around from 1970 to 1981.
Michael said there's times in life
when you have to make yourself very small for a moment
in order to go through the eye of the needle.
And this is one of those times.
[Eleonora] The government would loved Triff Snatcher
We did an all nighter with the district attorney.
[Bernardine] Michael said, She has young children,
she's turning herself in of her own free will.
[Eleonora] And they gave in, they collapsed.
And they said,
Okay, bring her in.
[Reporter] Today after more then a decade, as a fugitive,
Dohrn came out of hiding
and surrendered to a Cook County judge.
[Michael] When the federal government tried to prosecute,
we were allowed to bring forth ill gotten evidence.
Illegal wiretaps, and other forms of surveillance.
And frequently the government would dismiss cases,
rather than let us bring out the fact
that they had acted illegally.
I was given three years of probation.
Judge Suria gave me a lecture
and I tried to be very polite
and say, Thank you, judge Suria.
But I denounce imperialism, racism, war.
Resistance by every means necessary
is happening and will continue to happen,
and I remain committed to the struggle ahead.
It's impossible to live 73 years and not have regrets.
We made mistakes,
we learned from those mistakes.
What I don't regret is hurling myself against US empire,
against US racism with every fiber of my being.
I regret using the metaphor of war.
It helped make certain things more acceptable
that we eventually turned away from.
Everybody loses in war.
It was both an inflated sense of our own importance
and an authentic effort to be on the side of history
and do our part.
The love was the light
and that helped us through any of the darkness,
any of the fears.
I am so close friends with Bill and Bernardine
and always will be, they're family.
Being a revolutionary is the way you live your life
and respect for other people,
people who are different,
Take personal risk to better humanity.
I get emotional,
'cause I'm, I'm old now
I'm 78.
I've lived a phenomenal life.
And what I loved about it most
is I was never afraid, not once.
Because if we don't rebel, if we don't stand up,
no one will.
Our babies won't learn how.
[dramatic piano music]
[light piano music]
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