Bernardine Dohrn has a history with the Justice Department. More specifically, in the early 1970s, she was one of the FBI’s most wanted fugitives because of her actions with the Weather Underground, a violent radical organization.
Times have changed. In 2010 and 2011, the Justice Department saw fit to give $400,000 in grants to an organization that lists Dohrn as a member of its board of directors: a $150,000 grant in September of 2010 and a $250,000 grant a year later.
The organization that received the grants is the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the project that brought in the money is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. JDAI aims to keep juvenile criminals out of “secure confinement” and to reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.
As a prominent figure in the Weather Underground — which was initially known as simply “Weatherman” — Dohrn helped lead the “Days of Rage” Chicago riot, and during her tenure the group was responsible for numerous bombings of government buildings. Although Dohrn has never renounced her past, her various legal troubles are behind her: She served some probation, several charges were dismissed, and she spent some time in jail for refusing to cooperate with an investigation. She’s now a law professor at Northwestern University, and her husband, fellow Weather Underground co-founder William Ayers, is a retired education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The Burns Institute’s name comes from a man who himself exemplified the blend of civil-rights activism, academic prestige, and radical politics that defines the group today. W. Haywood Burns worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil-rights movement and eventually became the dean of the law school at Queens College. He also was married to Bernardine Dohrn’s sister, Jennifer, and he “represented the black radical Angela Davis against charges of kidnapping and murder, and coordinated the defense for inmates indicted in the Attica prison riot,” as the New York Times noted in his 1996 obituary.
The Institute’s biography of Burns refers to the 1971 Attica rioters as “people struggling for self-determination.” The rioters protested poor conditions by taking their guards hostage until police launched a full assault on the prison. One of the group’s leaders was Sam Melville, who had bombed numerous government and business buildings shortly before the Weather Underground began doing the same thing. After the horribly managed police assault left 39 dead — in addition to an officer who was killed by the rioters at the outset of the incident, as well as several inmates who were killed by other prisoners during the chaos — the Weather Underground bombed a New York Department of Corrections facility in retaliation. Virtually everyone involved in the Attica riots and their aftermath acted poorly, and yet, as Patrick Brennan has noted on NRO before, a certain group of aging radicals seems to see the incident as some kind of triumph.
Meanwhile, JDAI, the project that earned the Burns Institute its Justice grants, is spearheaded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2010 the federal government agreed to help the Casey Foundation fund training and other consulting services while it expands the program to new sites, and it was through this agreement that the Burns Institute secured its grants. During the grant-application process, the Justice Department does not typically require groups to provide lists of their directors.
The Burns Institute’s primary goal is to reduce racial disparities in juvenile justice, a problem it attributes primarily to discrimination rather than disproportionate misbehavior. The Institute aims to get the U.N. to take a role in American juvenile justice, and it also works with local governments (for a fee) to address the issue. The organization’s process involves bringing together various stakeholders — police, parents, prosecutors, etc. — to discuss policy changes. The group says that this helps decrease juvenile confinement without sacrificing public safety.
If that’s true, it’s good. But there are plenty of charities that do good work without including Weather Underground co-founders on their boards of directors and openly praising prison rioters on their websites. Presidential administrations have considerable discretion when it comes to federal grants. But it is not too much to ask that the Justice Department avoid giving money to groups with ties to violent radicals.
The Burns Institute did not provide a comment in time for publication, Dohrn did not reply to several attempts to contact her, and the Office of Justice Programs declined to provide a quote for attribution.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.