Bill Ayers and the Radical “Spark”: Past and Present

“They just don’t get it.” Yes, the phrase is overused, yet, all too appropriate when addressing the continuing critiques, from both the left and the right, of Bill Ayers. The recent publication of the second phase of his memoir, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident (Beacon, 2013), was followed on the “SDS and ‘60s Leftists” page of Facebook by an un-thoughtful conversation on Ayers, his comrade and wife Bernardine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground (WO). Facilitated by George Fish and responding to a negative book review by Jon Wiener, 43 comments followed Fish’s post. Mostly sour, bitter, and ahistorical in tone, the comments provide the antithesis of Ayers’ book and life, that of learning from the past and continuing, in a human and life affirming way, the ongoing struggle that began for Ayers in the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, Students for a Democratic Society, and then the Weather Underground.

When confronted by a radio interviewer who referred to the sub-title as snide, Ayers softly replied that the entire title was chosen for its irony. Missing both the breadth and depth of Public Enemy, the interviewer as well as Wiener and other critics fail to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and energy that Ayers brings to struggle, both past and present. In this particular book, we alternate between the author’s recollections of first, his experience in the 2008 attempt to demonize Barack Obama because he “palled around with terrorists,” and, second, the years after he surfaced from underground beginning in 1980 from where Ayers left-off in his previous book, Fugitive Days. There are both multiple and complex events, issues, and ideas presented in Public Enemy. A sampling will be discussed in this review.

Recently, South African anti-apartheid struggle leader and Constitutional Court Justice (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court) Albie Sachs spoke at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. Talking about his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Sachs emphasized the importance of acknowledgement for both personal and political healing. Acknowledgement causes me to return to the radio interviewer’s portrayal of Confessions of An American Dissident as snide. In fact, irony aside, Ayers responded by talking about acknowledging one particular flaw during his time in WO. He asserted that neither he nor his comrades ever doubted their positions and that by not being skeptical they were arrogant and without reflection. Doubt is discussed in Public Enemy and Ayers also talks about apologetics within a conceptual framework of an American Truth Commission. In both the book and current media interviews, Ayers has continually repeated that neither he nor the WO ever killed anyone in the bombings of buildings.

Not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either. We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.

The correct term for Weather Underground bombings, in correspondence to the armed struggle in South Africa, is “armed propaganda.” And like Umkhonto We Sizwe underground soldiers in South Africa, Ayers would welcome the opportunity to answer queries about his WO activities at an American TRC. In Public Enemy Ayers writes:

America, it seemed to me, was in urgent need of some kind of truth and reconciliation process… We needed a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility of a more balanced future… Everyone together would have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering, and the victimizers would be asked why and how they created that misery. Society would have the opportunity to witness all of it in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us and moving forward. In that setting and standing with Kissinger and McCain, McNamara and Kerry, Bush and Cheney, I’d be happy to say exactly what I did, take full responsibility, and bow deeply. But without any chain of culpability whatsoever, I’ll stand on the record, or just stand aside.

While five chapters in Public Enemy present the threats and black listing Bill Ayers experienced during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, I will address the topic with brevity as it has already been explored in other reviews. An in-depth description and analysis is portrayed in Maya Schwenwar’s Truthout review, “Bill Ayers Weighs in on Democracy, Selfhood, and His ‘Unrepentant Terrorist’ Alter-Ego.” Besides endless email threats and having someone actually come to his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ayers was banned from talking on college campuses throughout the country. At the time my colleague at the University of South Carolina, Craig Kridel, the Curator of the Museum of Education, posted a page titled “The Bill Ayers Problem” on the Museum webpage. The page title, like Public Enemy, is ironic and at the time I wrote:

The inequality, unfairness, violence, and global greed are what Bill Ayers has fought against for many years. The fight is every bit as important today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War. And while some people might call me insensitive because I refuse to enter a debate on Bill Ayers as a terrorist, I choose not to speak back to the cries of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Colmes and their nameless comrades because the work Bill Ayers is doing does not need defenders but, rather, supporters and allies that fight for a more just world. Finally, as an academic who works with teachers who fought against apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but think that the same people who define Bill Ayers as a terrorist would have given that label to Nelson Mandela and his less known comrades during the struggle against the apartheid regime. We know now what history says about that – we can only hope that Bill Ayers and many other people continue their work as progressive educators and activists.

But Bill Ayers does not rail against his detractors in his writing. Rather, while he is critical in a political/personal way of their harassment and silencing and analyzes their actions, his emphasis is a celebration of people who continue the struggle. While the story of the cancellation of his talk at the University of Wyoming is politically important, from Ayers we learn more about the woman who fought for his right to speak. More accurately, she fought for her own free speech.

‘I’m going to sue the university in federal court,’ she told me during our first conversation. ‘And I’m claiming that it’s my free speech that’s been violated – I have the right to speak to anyone I want to, and right now I want to speak to you.’ She was young and unafraid, smart and sassy, her dreams being rapidly made and used – no fear, no regret. I liked her immediately. Meg’s approach struck me as quite brilliant – students (and not I) were indeed the injured party.

The University of Wyoming student won the case and Bill Ayers spoke on democracy and education with over 1,000 people at the University. In discussing the event, he also honors his sister’s father-in-law, a retired United Church of Christ minister who drove a couple of hours to Laramie for the talk and told Bill: “‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways,’ he said with a wink and a smile gesturing with his Bible. ‘If any of the crazy Christians get out of hand, he wants me to set them straight.’”

Ayers writes of other cancellations at places throughout the country. The University of Nebraska stands out but only because he was in Tapai at the time and was woken with the news from a dean at three in the morning. In contrast to Nebraska, there are brave academics at Millersville University and Georgia Southern University where Ayers was welcomed. At Millersville administrators explained that it was their “duty and honor” to have him speak. “It’s not about you personally, it’s about the mission and the meaning of the university.”

Honoring people throughout Bill Ayers’ journey is the stuff of Public Enemy. One of the funniest yet potent tales is the reaction of Ayers’ comrade and friend, Michael Klonsky, when he was invited to give an education conference keynote address. The organization told Klonsky that they had intended to invite Bill Ayers but that he was “too controversial and too radical.” Klonsky scolded the inviter saying: “How dare you ask me to scab on Bill Ayers?” When Ayers thanked him, he replied: “Defending you? I wasn’t defending you, I was defending myself – I was deeply and personally offended when they said that your were too radical, and by implication that I wasn’t too radical. I’m as radical as you are, motherfucker.”

Bill Ayers’ book is about issues, ideas, actions, and people – it is not solely about Bill Ayers. Epsie Reyes was a colleague at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She supported Hillary, not Barack, in the 2008 democratic primaries, and she was one of many people who consoled Bill Ayers after Hillary Clinton first demonized him in a primary presidential debate. Reyes sent strong emails to both Clinton and the Democratic National Committee “detailing how much money she’d donated and how many weekends she’d devoted to organizing on her behalf, explaining who I really was in her ‘humble opinion,’ and encouraging, then demanding that the campaign apologize to me personally and denounce the smears – or else she would have to rethink her commitments.”

Close friends and colleagues, of course, also came through in both 2001 and 2008. Mona and Rashid Khalidi were both supportive and insightful as were dozens of others. In 2008 there was a surprise call from Edward Said: “Of course it’s painful for you personally, but cringing and going quiet is the worst thing you could do at this moment. Your kids are watching you and your students too and a lot of others. Don’t let them down.”

Said’s message corresponds to the entirety of Public Enemy. Ayers celebrates political struggle and the people who try to sustain the fight. Two quotes come to mind, the first from a speech by Paul Potter referred to in the book. “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.” Margaret Meade’s words correspond to Potter’s connecting the personal to the collective. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In addition to the 2001, 2008, and more recent stories, Public Enemy includes portraits from the time Bernardine and Bill came up from underground in 1980. Ayers writes admiringly about his childrens’ pre-school teacher at the time, BJ, whom he refers to as “an inspired early childhood educator.” “She was one of a kind, and everyone knew it.” Ayers’ portrait of BJ brought a response in Ron Jacobs’ Dissident Voice article, “Get Bill Ayers”: “Indeed, the truest hero in the book is the family’s New York child care provider, BJ.”

On Bill’s journey we meet Bernardine’s lawyers Eleanora Kennedy and Michael Kennedy and various other people including Ellie and Robby Meeropol who were Bill’s friends at the University of Michigan. Robby was the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and he was three years old when his parents were executed. Bernardine and Bill had just adopted Chesa Boudin whose parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had been sentenced for murder in the Brinks Robbery in Nyack, New York. Robby explained that there was no road map and that times would be rough for Chesa – honest responses are very much a part of the many vignettes that Ayers presents throughout Public Enemy.

The real heart of the book, however, within the context of continuing struggle, is the authentic portrayal of the Dohrn/Ayers family – Bernardine Dohrn and their sons Chesa, Malik, and Zayd. The book depicts seriousness and humor and mostly respect and admiration. There is a story from the early above ground days that I must include in this review.

Leaving swim class one day, we were swept up into a raucous women-led march heading from Broadway and Fifty-ninth Street toward Times Square. ‘No more porn! No more porn! No more porn!” we chanted ecstatically, fists pumping and voices rising as we entered the pornography district. It was a feisty and colorful crowd, our attendance just a happy accident, but with Zayd cheerfully perched on my shoulders we were in high spirits and quite pleased to be in cahoots. Soon we spotted a pizza stand along the route, and Zayd was famished from swimming and ready for a slice, so we settled into a booth. Zayd reflected on the parade we’d just left: ‘That was fun,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we want more corn?’

Ayers tells the story of all three sons advising him during 2008 and the respect appears to go both ways. Pages 129 to 131 serve as an illustration as Malik, Zayd, and Chesa join Bernardine in coaxing Bill not to speak with the media – a disposition alien to his being. Malik warns him of ambush and it recalls Mailer’s self-admonitions of never talk to the press – they control the story.

The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away. No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response. ‘Be completely quiet,’ they said, ‘and stay calm.’ ‘It’s harder then it sounds,’ Zayd added, looking right at me, ‘especially for you.’ True, too true: I tend to have a lot on my mind – who doesn’t? – and I’m genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment. My default position, no matter what, is to say something… ‘You’ll get flattened,’ they now said in unison.’

Bill Ayers remained silent through 2008, but of course, “palling around with terrorists” quietly lives on. There is an ethos throughout Public Enemy, consistently present in the ideas, issues, actions, and people portrayed in the book, amidst everything else – this book is homage to Bernardine Dohrn. Her strength, thoughtfulness, commitment, and humanity is the spirit of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident. Whether it is gently chiding Bill with their children or being warmly welcomed back by the judge in Chicago when she surfaced from underground – her humanity is ever present. Political commitment is obvious in Dohrn’s first above ground statement: “This is no surrender. The fight against racism and war continues, and I will spend my energy organizing to defeat the American empire.” Ayers writes of her actions and dispositions when she was imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York for refusing to give Grand Jury testimony on the Brinks Robbery. The emotion of being away from her kids but at the same time focused political commitment. There is also a great story of her mother passing on contraband when she visited the prison – a chocolate chip cookie!

There is much more to Public Enemy than the samples that I present. Bill Ayers critiques the Weather Underground and provides much more breadth to the ideas, issues, actions, people, and events he portrays. He also pushes his story to the present and therein lies the further message. Ayers, Dohrn, and many of their WO (and beyond) comrades continue to work for the same issues they have pursued beginning in the sixties. For Ayers it is education and more and the latter includes working with young activists who continue the fight for the end of racism, class disparity, and imperialism. First in the civil rights movement, then SDS and WO, Ayers was part of the “spark” for a just world. His book is a partial story of continuing to keep that “spark” alive today.

Alan Wieder is an oral historian and the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013) He can be reached at: alanwieder@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alan.