William Ayers On Obama, the 60s,
Meet William Ayers at San Francisco's New Living Expo, held April 27-29, 2012. Contact the Expo for a speaker schedule.
William Charles "Bill" Ayers is an elementary education theorist and a former leader in the movement that opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He is perhaps best known for his 1960s activism as well as having co-founded the Weather Underground, a self-described communist revolutionary group that conducted a campaign of bombing public buildings during the 1960s and 1970s protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Ayers and other Weather Underground members spent several years in hiding until 1973, when the questionable tactics of FBI agents led government attorneys to drop weapons and bomb-related charges against the group. Shortly thereafter Ayers co-authored Prairie Fire, a book recounting his days in the Weather Underground. In 2001 Ayers published Fugitive Days: A Memoir, further reflecting on his life and times in the underground movement. While Ayers admits to mistakes and excesses, he has not publicly renounced violence as a political tool. Ayers even teaches non-violence to Occupy protestors, but he is not necessarily a pacifist.
Ayers is now a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, formerly holding the titles of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar. During the 2008 US presidential campaign, a controversy arose over his contacts with one-time professorial colleague and presidential candidate Barack Obama. When Sarah Palin said of Obama that he was "palling around with terrorists," she was referring to Bill Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn.
Ever charming, eloquent, and passionate, Ayers remains a lightning rod for controversy. Where historian Studs Terkel called Ayers' Fugitive Days "a deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers," conservative educator Sol Stern has opined, "media mainstreaming of a figure like Mr. Ayers could have terrible consequences." Are conservatives so anxious to marginalize Ayers because he is dangerous to society, or because his truth is dangerous to their authority? Does Ayers' apology for past mistakes go far enough? Read on and judge for yourself.
BART BRODKSKY: You've always been a lightning rod for controversy. We've never met, but from everything I've read, I can't quite square the impression I have of you as both a caring childhood educator and a firebrand radical.
WILLIAM AYERS: I can't either.
BB: [laughs] Tell me how that works!
WA: What is true is that I have radical politics. And by radical I mean, since I was 18 or 19 I got involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. And I've tried to live my life in a way that doesn't make a complete mockery of my values, and on the other hand to try to go to the root of the matter. So, I started off being arrested and opposing the [Vietnam] war, but very quickly I wanted to oppose what I came to believe were the causes of war. So, to me that's what a radical does. A radical tries to reframe the issues, go to the root of the matter, and make the connections. So, in today's world, and you being someone affiliated with the green movement, to me it's very important that we reframe the issue of the [oil] pipeline from Canada, for example, which Bill McKibben has done such a fantastic job with.
WA: But that we also connect the question with [global] warming, the question of oil, the question of oil, the question of environmental catastrophe with the question of war and war making. That's a radical connection to make. That's true; that's who I am. But I also think of radicalism in the way that I imagine it as a deeply humane and humanistic enterprise.
BB: As a "small g" green, I'd like to see the US close many, if not most, of its 800 some overseas military bases, and use the savings to fund sustainable energy and social services. But I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to seeing that done in a capitalist system. Do you think this is possible, or is the current system is completely broken?
WA: I'm not certain that I can predict what's coming. I appreciate what you're saying. We should close all foreign military bases! As long as we buy into the frame that our foreign military bases and our trillion dollar military budgetand you want to talk about a glutton for oil, the Pentagon is the biggest glutton for oil we know!
WA: If those things make us safe, it's very hard to have a conversation. But in your mind, in my mind, and increasingly in the minds of many from the left and the right, from Ron Paul certainly, those bases don't make us safe. That trillion dollar military budget actually makes us more vulnerable in many ways, on a more shaky footing in the world. So, part of what it means for me to be a radical is to reframe it, to show that closing military bases would be good for everything: good for the economy, good for our standing in the world, good for our safety, good for our sense of who we are, all of that. But, you raise the question of socialism. I think that US imperialism is certainly in decline, and is at an end. All imperialism shares certain kinds of ugly features, and that will be as true of China as it was of Great Britain or France or the United States.
BB: Yes, they ultimately fail.
WA: They do fail. They overreach, but in their arrogance they also convince themselves that they are on a civilizing mission, or a mission from God, or bringing humanity into the modern world. These were the words that were actually used, and are actually used. They're always bad business.
BB: Let's talk some specifics. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's one-time Labor Secretary, recently suggested a return to Roosevelt style progressive policies. On the other hand, Richard Wolff, a Marxist economics professor, says that the capitalist model is broken and wants, ideally, to see the government finance cooperative, democratically managed enterprises, factories, and the like. What's your vision for a just social and economic system?
WA: You and I would agree that we want a just social and economic system that requires, among many other things, fighting for a bit more democracy, a bit more social justice, a bit more peace, because we can't predict how this is going to come to an end or what's next. Imagine a couple of guys like you and me sitting around as feudalism was coming to an end. We couldn't have done it; we wouldn't have known what to say. We would have been speechless! I feel somewhat the same right now. Capitalism is an exhausted system. Reich is in a nostalgic mood for when we were at the peak of everything, the peak of empire, the peak of oil, the peak of capitalistic expansion. And we're not at that peak anymore. So I think Reich has it somewhat wrong. The question of should we fight, in Wolf's sense, for government funded cooperatives, that sounds like a good idea to me. That sounds like something that would be worthwhile. But let's look at a couple of other things before we get into predicting or prescribing. Capitalism lives on a very simple principle, which is expand or die. That's the principle. And it can't expand forever. So we see booksyou're probably more aware of this than I am---Mark Kurlansky's book, World Without Fish, a terribly important book. Bill McKibben's work, terribly important. Both of them point, as Naomi Klein does, to the fact that the right wing caricature of folks like you, "small 'g' greens," is in some sense accurate. We do want more participation. We do want profits to slow down, we do want sustainable and local kinds of productivity. Does that mean all aspects of capitalism are done? I don't think so. I think the kind of entrepreneurial nature of capitalism has some very good things to recommend it. But we have reached what you greens call "the tragedy of the commons." We have reached "the progress trap" [unintended consequences of industrial development], you know.
BB: Everything your saying fits within my environmental ethos. But could it be that you're conflating communist values with green values? Is there a difference?
WA: Oh, I think they're very, very close. If you mean by communism Stalinism, or the experience of Russia or China, I don't subscribe to that at all. We always jokingly called ourselves "small-c communists" precisely because we were not part of the Communist Party. Never were; never wanted to be. We went through a period in our youthI'm almost 68when we were enamored of the Third World revolutions that would sweep the world. And they represented for us a kind of a different path. But the "small-g greens" and the "small-c communists" actually have a lot in common. I know that communism is a boogieman word. In fact, socialism is as well. In fact, Europe is a boogieman word! "Who'd want to be like the Europeans?" But the fact is we're going to have to discover, if we're going to survive, some new models of how we're going to organize ourselves, and they will borrow heavily, in my view, from the environmental movement, from the queer movement, from the women's movement. They will also borrow heavily from some of the experiences of social democracy in Europe and they'll borrow from the UN declaration of universal human rights.
BB: We also have to extend our timeline. We have to look forward, as American Indians and the Hopi have done, for at least seven generations. I would say seventy or seven hundred generations.
WA: Yes, I think you're exactly right. And I think that in that regard, Marx writes of a primitive communism, kind of a "small-c communism." And what he's referring to there is the unit of the family, the unit of the tribe, the unit of the clan. A good, functioning family is an example of small scale socialism. And that's what we want. Do I actually say to my granddaughter, "Unless you're producing you're not going to get anything today"? No, you can have dinner regardless of what you produce. She's only seven, so I can take care of that.
BB: And when you're 97 you should still be allowed to have dinner.
WA: Absolutely! And when I'm 97 I expect my granddaughters to take care of me, and I expect they will.
BB: This is part of an intergenerational pact that defines civilization, at least in my mind.
WA: That's part of why this stereotype nonsense about myself and my partner, that we're somehow "people of the 60s"that, to me is nonsensical. I don't remember December 31, 1969, turning to my wife and saying, "Oh shit, it's about to be over." Nobody lives a life by decades! We live a life in flow. I'm as much a part of this generation as you are, and as my kids are, and as my grandkids are. I'm alive now. I'm looking forward.
BB: I know that your critics want to keep you in that 60s mold. You've been called a terrorist, a term you certainly reject for yourself. I don't want to dwell on all of that, but I want to ask you one question from that era. The book Prairie Fire, which you co-authored in '73, was dedicated to some 200 political prisoners, one of which was Sirhan Sirhan. I know you don't remember or acknowledge personally including his name, but if you could, would you remove it now?
WA: Not really. And I'll tell you why. Do you really think Sirhan Sirhan should be in jail?
BB: I don't know enough about it except he is a convicted assassin. [Sirhan Sirhan was convicted of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles in 1968.]
WA: Exactly. Neither do I. But the fact is, it wasn't a dedication. It was an artistic rendition of a wall, and on the wall was wall-to-wall names. I don't knowI probably would recognize three names on that list. Who the hell is Willie Johnson? What did he do? I have no idea. Should he be in jail? I don't know. The dedication actually reads, "To all freedom fighters, to all political prisoners." And the book is a screaming indictment of war and of white supremacy. And beyond that, it's a call to end the gulag. Now, think about it. That's 1976, when there was something like 300,000 people in prison. There are now 2.5 million. I look at that book, which has a lot of inflated rhetoric in it and say, "well geeze, those people were kind of prescient." I'm writing a book now called "What If," and one chapter is called "Abolish the Prisons." I don't know one damn thing about it, but I would think that Sirhan Sirhan needs help, or needed help. I would think that he's not a threat to society. I would think that we could think of a lot of things to do with people who do even very heinous crimes. We could think of a hundred things to do before incarceration. But in our society, we have decided that you do a crime and you do time. And that is an insane, crazyI think in the last 30 years our rate of incarceration has gone up over 400 percent. I think that we should all object as mightily as we can.
BB: You don't see how a general critique of the prison system can be construed as different from endorsing assassination?
WA: I'm telling you that number one, I didn't endorse it. We didn't endorse anything like that. But it's all kind of part of this narrative that we must be insane, that we must be absolutely crazy. The fact that
BB: It sounds like you're embracing the controversy itself. You're not going to back down, are you?
WA: Here's the thing. Look back at Google or whatever you want to look at. This notion that we dedicated the book to Sirhan Sirhan, like the notion that Bernadine [Bernadine Dohrn, Ayers' wife] somehow supported Charles Manson, is an invention of the right. And it's been flogged to death until people pick it up and begin to legitimize it. But it's not true, and so I don't feel the least bit need to [deny it.] But I would say one thing about Prairie Fire and about the communiqués from the Weather Underground and the Weather Underground in general. We did cross lines, not only of legality but, some would say, of common sense. When the president of the United States [Barack Obama] was a candidate and said we committed "despicable acts" years ago, I think that's a defensible statement. But I also think that, you know, we were 20 years old, it was 40 years ago, so what do you want to talk about now?
BB: Okay, let's fast forward
WA: But just quickly, in the 1960s when I got active against the war, and we actually organizedand not just we, but the black movement came out against the war, vets came home and told the truth, and eventually the American people very quickly, three years in, turned against the war. But what happened? Lyndon Johnson stepped down. He said that he was going to work to end the war, and four days after he said that King was dead. Two months later Kennedy was dead, and a few months after that it was clear that the war was going to go on. Every week that the war went on, 6,000 people were murdered. Every week! John Kerry came back from Vietnam and said to the Senate, "We commit war crimes in Vietnam every day, not as a matter of choice, but as a matter of policy." So it always disturbs me that in the kind of commonsense of our world today, I'm asked to explain what I did, and I'm willing to do that, but John McCain, who actually did commit acts of terror, Henry Kissinger who actually engineered the terrorism, they're not asked that same question. So let's have a big stage and let everybody who's over the age of 50 stand on the stage, say what you did, say what you're sorry for, admit your mistakes, and let's have a clearing of the air. I would be delighted to stand on that stage.
BB: I'd add that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are also up for trial in other parts of the world for their alleged war crimes.
WA: They'd be on the stage as well. So the question of who did what: I'm open to saying I made a lot of mistakes. I did a lot of stupid things. I regret a lot of the rhetoric. I regretI deeply regretthe kind of sectarianism and dogmatism that kind of took over my mind for a period of time. All of that I regret. But I refuse to say that what I did was so beyond the pale, when actually there were people who were prominent American politicians who were dropping bombs on civilian populations.
BB: I understand. Now let's fast forward. What do you think of the largely non-violent techniques of the modern Occupy movement? Will they prove effective?
WA: Well, it's very hard for me to say what's effective or not effective. I have a real hard time, partly because of the world I live in, education, making a causal claim or referring to cause and effect. But the Occupy movement is one of the most hopeful things in my mind that's happened in decades. You put it in the frame of non-violent action. I've been arrested dozens of times for non-violent action. It's true that I'm better known for being a Weatherman, but it's actually true that long before that and long after that I've been involved in civil disobedience. I've been involved in peaceful protest constantly. But, what's great about the Occupy movementand we have to begin to think of it not as a point of arrival, but as an invitationit's not something that has a set of demands, that we're going to march into a certain political party and vote a certain way. The brilliance of it is the metaphor, "We are the 99 percent." And then opening a public space where every grievance can be heard. One of the things to note today about the Occupy movement, like every other movement, the day before it happened it was impossible! Today it seems inevitable. The day before it happened nobody was talking about income inequality. You can't open the New York Times today without noting that they're talking about income inequality.
BB: Yes, the idea that one percent can own 40 percent of the nation's wealth is just mind boggling. While some have talked about it for years with nobody listening, the Occupy movement has finally put on the headlines.
WA: Exactly! And they popularized it in such a brilliant way. I looked back at the Free Speech Movement film that I saw and what was Mario Savio's demand? "We need to put our bodies on the machine and grind it to a halt!" What's he want? Free speech! What the hell! But that also resonated, and that also swept the nation. So, I do not have a criticism of Occupy. It's an invitation to the public square, and that's where I think we should be. I've been to twelve different sites, some teach-ins at a few of them, and they're all different. Detroit's looks like a shantytown, as you would expect. Boston's looks like a public library. Chicago's is just an intersection. They're all different, and yet they express a kind of outrage, whether the outrage is foreclosures, whether the outrage is unemployment, the outrage is student loans, it almost doesn't matter. Note one other thing: The response of power is absolutely predictable. Ignore it, ridicule it, try to co-opt it, then beat the hell out of it. And the repeat.
But the great thing about Occupy, now, in the middle of winter in the Midwest, is that demonstration after demonstration has been going on in Chicago around the closing of schools. Everyone of them adopts the Occupy framework. They talk about the 99 percent. They talk about mike check. They say "We're going to occupy the Board of Education." This is a metaphor that has become very powerful and one that I think will resonate for years and years to come.
BB: Many of us are looking forward to the possibility of an American Spring.
WA: I couldn't agree more. And frankly, that's another beautiful thing you're pointing out, is that Occupy borrows from Tahrir Square [Egypt's "Arab Spring"], and it borrows from Madison [Wisconsin.] So, when I was demonstrating in Madison last fall, there were a group of middle-aged nurses carrying a banner that said, "Tahrir Square in Madison."
WA: When people stand upwe've been told that we're powerless, we've been told that we're lazy, we've been told that youth are idle and silly, and when we through our own activity challenge those stereotypes, it is a powerful, powerful thing that spreads. So everything we're seeing now in Russia, and in Spain, and in France, everything we're seeing in the Souththese things are inspired by that contagious notion of freedom. Just liberation!
BB: I was going to ask you, "What's the biggest misperception about you in the media?" but you already answered it for me. You really do live in the present. You are not living in the 60s.
WA: I have a real impatience for people my age for people who are waiting for a ship that has already left the shore. You are alive now and you have to get up and get going, just as we always did. And we have to open our eyes, then we have to be astonished at everything we see, then we have to act. And we have to doubt. And that's where the Weathermen fell down. They forgot to doubt.
BB: Just a couple more questions. I have to ask you about Obama because you know him personally, whereas most of us just see him in the media. Right wing commentators brand him as a socialist with a secret agenda. Some progressives say he's a corporate sell-out. Others say he's an incrementalist, just doing what he can. What is he? Who is he?
WA: It's true, we knew the Obamas for many, many years. Of course, we haven't talked with them in a long time. Barack Obama said during the campaign, "I'm a moderate, pragmatic, compromising, middle of the road Democrat." He might have also added, "quite ambitions." In fact, when I first knew him I remember saying to my partner, "Barack is a very ambitious guy. I think he wants to be mayor of Chicago!"
WA: That's where my imagination broke down! But, the fact is that Barack Obama said during the campaign, "This is who I am." The right wing said no, he's a secret socialist, Muslim, "palling around with terrorists" kind of a guy. Look who he hangs out with, black nationalists and all that. The left looked at him and said, "Okay, he said that but I think he's smiling at me." And here's the truth: He is exactly what he advertises himself to be. The thing we should note, "small-g green," "small-c communist," whoever we are, what we should note is that he also said another thing during the debates. He was asked who Martin Luther King would support. And his response, without missing a beat, was, "Martin Luther King wouldn't support any of us. He would be in the streets building a movement for justice." Exactly correct. It seems to me that we spend way too much time looking longingly at the sites of power we have no access to, the presidency, the White House, the Congress, Wall Street, the Pentagon, and far too little time looking at the sites of power we have absolute access to
BB: It's up to us to lead our leaders, right?
WA: Exactly. And so, we have access to the factory, the farm, the workshop, the school, the neighborhood, the community, the street. That's where we have access. Why would we be drooling longingly looking at the Congress when we actually can get busy. And a quick history lesson, you know this, but Lyndon Johnson was never part of the black freedom movement. FDR was never part of the labor movement. And Abraham Lincoln never belonged to an abolitionist party. Those presidents are remembered for greatness because there were movements on the ground.
BB: Our job is to help move them.
BB: Are you going to be supporting Obama for reelection?
WA: I have never supported a presidential candidate. In fact, I've only voted for Democrats twice in my life. I voted for George McGovern because he could bring peace to Vietnam. And I voted for Barack Obama, proudly, because I thought that he represented the possibility of peace. In fact, he won the Nobel Peace Prize as an aspirational award. And I was very proud to vote for the first African American president. But the question of how I vote is neither here nor there. I've never supported the Democrats. I've never been a member of the Democratic Party. I always vote, and I urge other people to vote to vote, because I think that's part of our responsibility in a democracy.
BB: I apologize for asking how you vote, but your support of Obama was an issue in 2008.
WA: Again, that's largely mythology. It's true that when he was first getting political, he was a guy I knew around the neighborhood. I was asked by a friend if we would host a coffee for him, and we did. We did that kind of thing in our house all the time, not usually for political candidates, but we probably in the last year have had 40 events here supporting people who were doing good work. There was nothing about that in the way it was construed. I find the Democratic Party largely like the Republican Party, very difficult to imagine it making a big difference. In fact, I often say there are two great war parties in the world, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They agree on so much; they're filled with millionaires, and I'm not disinterested in electoral politics, but I don't dwell there.
BB: I wish there were an anti-war candidate I could get enthused about.
WA: I agree with you. But we could build an anti-war movement. And shortly after the election I said to students again and again: The question isn't "Can Obama save us?" The question is: "Can we save him?" And that's true if you think about it. Will he bring us universal healthcare? Will he end the war in Afghanistan? Don't ask that question! Ask yourself, what did I do today to clean up the environment, to make a difference, to build a movement that can actually change things fundamentally? What did I do to end the war? That's the much more important question than will he end it for us. He's not the king, and that's not how power works.
BB: We haven't covered your work as an education theorist and your early work with free schools like Summerhill. Please talk a bit about that.
WA: Mostly I've written about schools and education and kids in crisis. I wrote a book about Summerhill. I just wrote my first graphic novel about teaching, and I'm very happy about that. But mostly, I can sum up my work in education very quickly. I believe that in a democracy, even in a very much failed democracy, we want something different from our schools than in any other kind of social order. While a theological society wants piety in its schools, an authoritarian society wants obedience and conformity, in a democracy, at least theoretically, what we want is for kids to develop minds of their own, to ask the important questions, to recognize one another as incalculably valuable, and to develop a spirit of courage, imagination, initiative, agency. And so all of my education work has been built around the idea that every human being is of incalculable value, and therefore we have to build schools that recognize the value of each. One thing I'm kind of obsessed with these days is that in a democracy we would want whatever the most privileged and wisest parents want, we should want for all of our children. And so, the fact that the mayor of Chicago and the President of the United States and the Education Secretary send their kids to private schools where they have small classes, where they have arts and sciences, where they have access to physical education, museums, and so on. If it's good enough for those kids, it's got to be good enough for the kids on the west side of Chicago. And that's what powers my teaching.
BB: What are you going to be talking about at the New Living Expo?
WA: I'll be talking about the political moment. We're going to be in the middle of the presidential madness. The [candidate] carnival will be coming to town. One thing's for sure; we'll be talking about the difference between movement building, political engagement at that level, as opposed to voting as the be all and end all of political engagement.
BB: Yes! You've been incredibly gracious and generous with your time, and I can't thank you enough.
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WA: Thank you very much. See you at the Expo.
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