distinguished professor of education and a senior university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author many books, including his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist, which is being reissued this week.
Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and the Director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center.
In the late stages of the presidential race, no other name was used more by the McCain-Palin campaign against Barack Obama than Bill Ayers. Ayers is a respected Chicago professor who was a member of the 1960s militant antiwar group the Weather Underground. In their first joint television interview, Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn discuss the McCain campaign attacks, President-elect Obama, the Weather Underground, the legacy of 1960s social justice movements, and more. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: It’s been ten days since Senator Barack Obama won the election, cementing his path to become the country’s forty-fourth president and the first African American president in US history. Over the course of his almost two-year campaign, Obama came under attack on a number of fronts. But in the late stages of the presidential race, no other name was used more by the McCain-Palin campaign against Obama than Bill Ayers.
Bill Ayers is a respected Chicago professor who was a member of the 1960s militant antiwar group the Weather Underground. On Wednesday, more than a week after Obama beat John McCain in the election, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin again brought up Obama’s alleged ties to Ayers in an interview on CNN.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: Well, I still am concerned about that association with Bill Ayers. And if anybody still wants to talk about it, I will, because this is an unrepentant domestic terrorist who had campaigned to blow up — to destroy our Pentagon and our US Capitol. That’s an association that still bothers me. And I think it’s still fair to talk about it. However, the campaign is over. That chapter is closed. Now is the time to move on and to, again, make sure that all of us are doing all that we can to progress as a nation, keep us secure, get the economy back on the right track. And many of us do have some ideas on how to do that, and hopefully, we’ll be able to put all that wisdom and experience to good use together.
WOLF BLITZER: So, looking back, you don’t regret that tough language during the campaign?
GOV. SARAH PALIN: No, and I do not think that it is off base nor mean-spirited nor negative campaigning to call someone out on their associations and on their record.
AMY GOODMAN: In the closing weeks of the presidential race, Governor Palin repeatedly invoked Bill Ayers on the campaign trail as a line of attack against Obama.
GOV. SARAH PALIN: I’m afraid this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country.
There’s no question that Bill Ayers, via his own admittance, was one who sought to destroy our US Capitol and our Pentagon. That is a domestic terrorist.
One of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to the New York Times, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group — part of a group that, quote, "launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the US Capitol."
AMY GOODMAN: The McCain campaign even put out automated robocalls to voters in swing states to highlight Obama’s alleged links to Bill Ayers.
McCAIN ROBOCALL: Hello, I’m calling for John McCain and the RNC, because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the US Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge’s home, and killed Americans. And Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda if they take control of Washington. Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country. This call was paid for by McCain-Palin 2008 and the Republican National Committee.
AMY GOODMAN: On television, an attack ad by the conservative American Issues Project was played in key battleground states linking Obama to Bill Ayers.
AMERICAN ISSUES PROJECT AD: Beyond the speeches, how much do you know about Barack Obama? What does he really believe? Consider this. United 93 never hit the Capitol on 9/11, but the Capitol was bombed thirty years before by an American terrorist group called Weather Underground that declared war on the US, targeting the Capitol, the Pentagon, police stations and more. One of the group’s leaders, William Ayers, admits to the bombings, proudly saying later, “We didn’t do enough.” Some members of the group Ayers founded even went on to kill police. But Barack Obama is friends with Ayers, defending him as, quote, "respectable and mainstream." Obama’s political career was launched in Ayers’s home, and the two served together on a left-wing board. Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it? Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama? American Issues Project is responsible for the content of this ad.
AMY GOODMAN: On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly made Bill Ayers his drumbeat.
BILL O’REILLY: Hi, I’m Bill O’Reilly. Thanks for watching us tonight. The Factor confronts William Ayers. That is the subject of this evening’s talking points memo. As I said before, the radical Chicago teacher Bill Ayers is Barack Obama’s worst nightmare. Here’s a guy who simply won’t go away, a man most Americans detest, but a legitimate issue in evaluating a potential president’s associations.
One caveat here, The Factor believes the economy and national security are the two most important issues in this campaign by far. We don’t believe William Ayers rises anywhere near those things. However, Ayers is interesting. Here’s a guy who calls himself an anarchist, has admitted committing terrorist acts, even participated in bombing a police station here in New York City. And Barack Obama gave him a blurb for his book in the Chicago Tribune? That, ladies and gentlemen, is no small thing.
Ayers has been hiding out. We watched him for a number of days before Jesse Waters finally caught up with him.
JESSE WATERS: How do you feel about being the centerpiece of this presidential election? What’s your relationship with Barack Obama, Mr. Ayers? Did he write a blurb for your book and sit on a panel with you?
BILL AYERS: This is my property. Would you please leave?
JESSE WATERS: Mr. Ayers, do you want to take this opportunity to apologize for your terrorist acts? Mr. Ayers? Don’t you think it’s time for some repentance? Do you still consider yourself an anarchist?
BILL O’REILLY: Did you notice the red star on his shirt there? You know, here’s the irony. After Jesse’s brief chat with Mr. Ayers, the guy calls the police, the same police he tried to kill back in the ’60s. That is called irony. Well, he police came and escorted Ayers back to his car. Don’t you just love this? When a terrorist guy needs some help, who does he call? The cops. Like everybody else.
Now, some misguided souls feel sorry for Bill Ayers; I don’t. He’s had plenty of time to apologize for trying to hurt fellow Americans. He has never said he’s sorry, most likely because he’s not sorry. I actually think Barack Obama should apologize for hanging with the guy. He should throw him under the bus, just like he did Revered Wright. Look, Senator, everybody makes mistakes. You made one. This is a bad guy. Just say you made a mistake in judgment. Then it goes all away. But Obama has not done that, so poor Jesse had to track Ayers down. That should be the end of the story, but, of course, it won’t be.
AMY GOODMAN: Throughout the entire presidential race, Bill Ayers did not once talk to the media. Today, he and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a fellow member of the Weather Underground, are speaking out in their first joint television interview since the controversy began.
Bill Ayers is now a distinguished professor of education and a senior university scholar at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He’s the author of many books, including his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist, which is being reissued this week.
Bernardine Dohrn is an associate professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and the director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center.
Well, Democracy Now!’s Juan Gonzalez and I spoke with both of them from a studio in their hometown of Chicago. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the McCain campaign attacks, President-elect Obama, the Weather Underground, their plans for the future and much more.
I began by asking Bill Ayers to respond to the controversy surrounding him in the presidential race.
BILL AYERS: We actually didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. We recognized that there was this cartoon character kind of thrust up on the screen, and I was an unwitting and unwilling part of his presidential campaign. We tried not to watch it, because, pretty much, it was distracting and kind of crazy-producing. On the other hand, as you played those, there’s so much that’s dishonest in it that it’s kind of impossible to kind of know where to enter it.
First of all, the idea that Bill O’Reilly says, you know, that I was in hiding. I wasn’t in hiding. I was teaching and speaking and writing and doing all the things I do. What I wasn’t doing was commenting on the presidential campaign to the media. And I decided not to do that. We decided not to do that when this all began, because we couldn’t figure out a way to interrupt what we took to be a profoundly dishonest narrative that, you know, had no — we had no purchase. We had no way into it.
And what’s dishonest about it, I mean, there are many things. One is, I was not a terrorist. I never was a terrorist. And the idea that the Weather Underground carried out terrorism is nonsense. We never killed or hurt a person. We never intended to. We existed from 1970 to 1976, the last years, the last half-decade of the war in Vietnam. And by contrast, the war in Vietnam really was a terrorist undertaking. The war in Vietnam was terror on a mass scale, with thousands of people every month being murdered, mostly from the air. And we were doing everything we could to stop it. So, again, it’s hard to know where to start to interrupt that narrative.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bill, for a lot of younger listeners and viewers who may be not familiar with the Weather Underground — I remember back more than forty years ago I was in the Students for a Democratic Society with you and Bernardine — and could you talk a little bit about how the Weather Underground developed and what were its goals?
BILL AYERS: Sure. When I was first arrested opposing the war in Vietnam was the year that the United States built the war up, 1965. And at that time, I was arrested in the draft board with thirty-nine other students trying to disrupt the normal activity of the draft board. You know, one of the things to note about that arrest is, while thirty-nine of us were arrested and while hundreds of students supported us, thousands of students opposed us, because in 1965 the war was popular. Again, in retrospect, it’s hard to remember that.
In ’65, 70 percent of Americans supported the war. By 1968, 70 percent opposed the war. A lot had happened in those years. Certainly, the activism of the student movement was part of it. Perhaps more important was strong elements of the black freedom movement coming out unequivocally against the war. And perhaps most decisive was Vietnam vets coming home and adding energy to the antiwar movement, starting their own antiwar organizations and denouncing the people who had sent them there, telling us, telling all the American people, that the war was immoral, that they were asked to do war crimes on a regular basis as a part of policy, not by accident. And that just, you know, kind of deflated the whole idea of this so-called noble enterprise.
So here was this illegal, immoral war. In 1968, the sitting president announced that he would leave office at the end of his term, rather than run for reelection, in order to end the war. We felt that we had run a great victory when he made that announcement in March of 1968. Four days after that announcement, King was dead. A couple of months later, Kennedy was dead. And a few months after that, it was clear that the war was going to escalate. And the question was, what do you do? It’s 1968, there’s no end point in sight, and thousands of people are being murdered every month. People did many things. Some joined the Democratic Party and tried to organize a peace wing. Some left the country. Others decided to organize in communities. Some built communes. And we decided that we would build an organization that could resist and create a more militant response to the American misdeeds in Vietnam.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, obviously, when you say that the Weathermen was not a terrorist organization, many Americans, who would see that the organization set bombs in government buildings and in other places, would dispute that. Why would you say that it was not a terrorist organization?
BILL AYERS: Because —-
BERNARDINE DOHRN: No—-
BILL AYERS: Go ahead.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Can I jump in, Juan?
BILL AYERS: Sure.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sure, Bernardine.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Nothing the Weather Underground did was terrorist. And, you know, we could make lots of choices if we were reliving it. Nothing we did was perfect. But decision was made, after the death of our three comrades in a townhouse, not to hurt people, to engage in direct actions that were symbolic, that were recognizable and understandable to the American people and that protected people. And that kind of restraint was widespread. There were tens of thousands of political bombings over that first three — 1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, all across the country, not under anybody’s leadership, but they were overwhelmingly restrained, symbolic.
Now, nobody in today’s world can defend bombings. How could you do that after 9/11, after, you know, Oklahoma City? It’s a new context, in a different context. So you have to go back to the savage and unrestrained terror that the United States was unleashing in the world, in Vietnam, as Bill said, and at home. You remember that the assassinations of black political leaders in the United States was a regular feature of life. And, you know, it seemed — the context of the time has to be understood.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill O’Reilly, Bill Ayers, in the ad said that you admitted to bombing a police station and weren’t sorry about it.
BILL AYERS: What I wrote in my book, Fugitive Days, I wrote about the extraordinary decade in which many of us came of age and committed ourselves to fighting against war and against injustice and for peace. And mostly what we did was nonviolent direct action through that whole latter part of the ’60s. And then we reached a kind of crisis, which is, we had convinced the American people — we and forces — you know, it’s an interesting thing to think about the years ’65, ’68. In three years, the American people swung all the way over to oppose the war. Kind of reminds you of the recent events, where in three years a popular war became massively unpopular.
But in any case, the question was, what do you do? And in no way do I think, or in my book do I rationalize or argue, that what we did was the best thing or the only thing. But what I do say is it was understandable in its own terms. “Is it terrorism?” Juan asked. No, it’s not, because terrorism targets people and intends to intimidate and murder people in order to get a political — its political way. We never did that. We never intended to do it. And no one was hurt or killed. So that’s an important distinction.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn today on Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The allegations repeatedly raised by folks on the right throughout the country that you helped launch Barack Obama’s career, what were the actual facts, in your perspective, of that relationship with Obama and the event that you held at your house?
BILL AYERS: You know, we, like thousands of other people, we knew Obama, and we knew him as well, probably, as thousands of other people. He was a guy in the neighborhood. He was somebody that was active in civic life, as we are. And so, of course we would meet and see one another at meetings and so on.
The idea that we launched his political career is a myth that was created with the intention of hurting his candidacy. You know, like millions and millions of other people, we wish that we knew him better. I mean, you know, he is an extraordinary person who has accomplished something extraordinary. But did we launch his career? We were asked by our state senator if we would hold a coffee for him some, I don’t know, twelve or fifteen years ago, and we did, which we’ve done for many people and many causes. So it wasn’t anything extraordinary, and it wasn’t anything outside of our normal lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers, we have the clip of Barack Obama in the debate talking about you, in the last debate, saying he was setting the record straight.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain’s campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus. So let’s get the record straight.
Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan’s former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of the Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper. Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign, he has never been involved in this campaign, and he will not advise me in the White House. So that’s Mr. Ayers.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Barack Obama in the last debate. His comment within that quote, he said, “Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts.” Your thoughts on that, Bill?
BILL AYERS: Well, we were a radical domestic group, and he did condemn those acts. You know, I don’t think that what we did was exactly — it certainly wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t something that I’ve defended in every way. But on the other hand, I don’t expect somebody to today endorse what we did forty years ago or even to understand it. To me, nothing that he said is either, you know, false or wrong or terrible. The other thing I guess I would say about it is, we would disagree on our evaluation of what went on forty years ago, but we disagree on many things, so it’s not surprising.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what do you disagree with?
BILL AYERS: Well, you know, I would say calling those acts despicable forty years ago, I guess I would disagree with. But more to the point is that it’s an irrelevant — it’s an irrelevant issue in this campaign.
And what’s interesting is that it was raised up in an attempt to replay the culture wars. You know, there was this wonderful moment on Stephen Colbert where the word for the night was “the ’60s." And he has a clip of Obama saying, “Can’t we just leave the ’60s behind?” And it comes back to Colbert, in full anger, saying, “No, Senator. We can’t leave it behind. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
And frankly, I think the fact that this may be the last time that the ’60s is raised in that kind of cultural warrior-ish way is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I think it is time to move on, and there’s a new generation. And a lot of the nostalgia for the ’60s, both the hatred of it and the love of it, is misplaced. I think it’s time to look forward. On the other hand, I think that it’s a sad thing that we’ve never really had a truth and reconciliation process about the war in Vietnam, about the black freedom movement and what happened. And that means, among other things, that we haven’t learned the lessons of invasion and occupation. We haven’t learned the lessons of what happens when people get involved in direction action and struggle, and both the advances that can be made and also the limits of those struggles. We haven’t learned the lessons that might make for a more peaceful, more just future. I think that’s the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernardine, I wanted to stay there for a minute, and then, Bernardine, I wanted to get your response, with this clip actually focusing on you. And this is that film that came out a few years ago called Weather Underground. It perhaps gives some context to this. It begins with, well, the Black Panther who was killed soon after this, Fred Hampton.
FRED HAMPTON: So we say — we always say in the Black Panther Party that they can do anything they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary.
WALTER CRONKITE: In Chicago today, two Black Panthers were killed as police raided a Panther stronghold. Police arrived at Fred Hampton’s West Side apartment at 4:45 this morning. They had a search warrant authorizing them to look for illegal weapons. The state’s attorney’s office says that Hampton and another man were killed in the fifteen-minute gun battle which followed.
BLACK PANTHER: The pigs murdered Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton while he lay in bed. Their lies, their oinking to the people won’t — can’t bear up to the evidence that we have that they murdered our deputy chairman in cold blood as he lay in his bed asleep.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: The Panther Party organized tours of the apartment that they were in when they were murdered, and I went with a group of people from the SDS national office, which is a couple of blocks away.
BLACK PANTHER TOUR GUIDE: Don’t touch nothing. Don’t move nothing, because we want to keep everything just the way it is.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: It was a scene of carnage. It was a scene of war. You see this door ridden with bullets, not little bullet holes, but shattered.
BLACK PANTHER TOUR GUIDE: The room where First Brother Mark Clark was murdered at.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: You walk through a living room into the bedroom, and there’s a mattress soaked in his blood, red blood down the floor.
SKIP ANDREW: Anyone who went through that apartment and examined the evidence that was remaining there could come to only one conclusion, and that is that Fred Hampton, twenty-one years old and a member of a militant, well-known militant group, was murdered in his bed probably as he lay asleep.
THOMAS STRIETER: This blatant act of legitimatized murder strips all credibility for law enforcement. In the context of other acts against militant blacks in recent months, it suggests an official policy of systematic repression.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: We felt that the murder of Fred required us to be more grave, more serious, more determined to raise the stakes and not just be the white people who wrung their hands when black people were being murdered.
It’s two-and-a-half weeks since Fred Hampton was murdered by the pigs who own this city. And for people to be able to enjoy Christmas time in this country, without remembering and without making a choice about the struggle that’s going on in the world, without taking action about a blatant murder that takes place in the city against a revolutionary black leader, is an obscenity.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernardine Dohrn in 1969, just after Fred Hampton was killed. And this is from the documentary The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. Bernardine Dohrn, take us back then and continue with the context.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, as we now know — it’s thoroughly documented and decided by courts, federal courts here in Chicago, in Illinois — was carried out in a conspiracy, in a secret conspiracy, between the FBI and the Chicago Police Department. It was covered up, denied. Lies were told. And it was, you know, one of many targeted assassinations of African American leaders in political life. You know, I think during this election campaign, still the echoes and fears for the safety of African American political leaders echoed, certainly from people in our generation, because of the traumatic experiences with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s assassination and so many Panthers targeted and assassinated.
The murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark certainly galvanized us and threw us into a level of activity and purposefulness, but so did the Vietnam War. And really, one of the extraordinary things was the merger of those two great rivers of struggle. And they were not separate, the black freedom movement and the war in Vietnam, eventually. So, you know, you had a situation in that era, almost unimaginable now and rarely remembered, where Dr. King, in one of the great talks, speeches of his life at Riverside Church in 1967, said, “The greatest purveyor of violence on this earth is my own country.” That was a painful and agonizing thing for him to say. He said it against the pressures of people around him, the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the Democratic Party. But he said it because he felt that it was true and that it required a certain kind of action. A year later, he was assassinated and dead.
I raise the question when I speak now, is that still true today? Is the greatest purveyor of violence on this earth our own country? Not the only purveyor of violence, but the greatest. If that’s true, we felt then and I still believe, it requires people who are citizens here, who care about the great moral issues of our time, to respond, to not let these crimes and suffering be done in our name. Now, how you respond is a whole other question.
And I think, you know, one of the things that’s interesting about reviving the ’60s, by using Bill as a caricature, as a placeholder during this election to try to make the ’60s seem dangerous and terrifying, is worth examining. In fact, the ’60s was liberatory and exciting and gave birth to a whole progeny of social struggles that transformed American life. Barack Obama could not have been elected president without the great struggles of the civil rights and the black freedom movement; without white people in the United States wrestling with the issue of racism and white supremacy; without the women’s movement; without the veterans’ movement, really, to tell the truth about the Vietnam War and all wars of occupation and conquest; the disabled rights movement; the environmental movement; the green movement; the labor struggles. So these are the part of the ’60s that are being pushed aside, disremembered, and in an attempt to really rewrite the notion that, you know, the issues of our day are defined by what people do.
On the other hand, the exciting thing about today — Bill and I were in Grant Park last week, the day of the — night of the election. And I think one wants to note that many of the tools of the ’60s — the participatory engaged organizing, the door-to-door, the volunteerism, people changing their lives to go listen and talk to people they don’t know about critical issues of our time — this is extremely hopeful. Many of the great tools of the ’60s have been picked up and transformed in the course of this campaign, in the course of these terrible wars we’re involved in, and now in the course of this economic collapse and global peril. So I’m hopeful that we can, not continually rerun the disagreements about the ’60s, but actually recognize that the ’60s were a springboard for this election and for really a historic and momentous milestone that just happened last week. And we can savor that milestone, before we have to critique it and disagree with it and fall to squabbling again.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Bernardine, when you quote Martin Luther King about the greatest purveyor of violence is our own country, that’s not a sentiment that is shared by most political leaders today, certainly not by Barack Obama. And the issue of whether that lesson has been learned or whether the movement that is marshaled behind Obama will perhaps once again be disappointed? As you say, in 1968, you were expecting that the war would be ended, because a majority of the population opposed it. Your concerns about how the political leaders in the United States today deal with the fact of our country being an empire?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Well, I think it’s in our hands, Juan. I think that there is a great peace movement. I think that the people — many of the people who worked in this campaign and were galvanized by this campaign want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, want no US ongoing military bases in Iraq, want hands off — US hands off Iraqi oil, which I think is the only way that we can begin to repair the incredible harm done to that country and to the displacement of people all over the Middle East. And I think, you know, the same is true for the 160 military bases the US has around the world.
We’re in an incredible historic moment, where the question of the relationship between these issues — let’s just take, for example, war and warming. The global crisis we’re in is related to these wars over oil and control of oil fields. And, you know, we have to connect these issues and to continue to organize independent social struggles.
I think my favorite — our favorite moment of this whole election campaign — and there were certainly, really, many unprecedented and moving moments of the last year and a half — was when, at the height of the primary campaign, Senator — then-Senator Obama was asked, “Who would Martin Luther King support? Would you support you or Senator Clinton?” And without his frequent pauses in thinking, he said, “He wouldn’t support either of us. He’d be out in the street building an independent social justice movement.”
So, as a community — or as an ex-community organizer, he does recognize that social change and really justice comes from below. If we’re going to get universal healthcare, we have to have a movement that insists on universal healthcare. We can do it in stages. It doesn’t have to be all at once. But I think that relationship between social mobilization and participation by large sectors of the population, the whole population, and changing the direction of this country is recognizable and real.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website, democracynow.org. We’ll go back to the interview in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with our Democracy Now! exclusive, I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, in this first joint interview with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn since the Obama campaign has ended. They joined us from a studio in Chicago. Bill Ayers spoke about being at Grant Park the night Barack Obama was elected president.
BILL AYERS: It was an extraordinary feeling. I’ve been in a lot of large crowds in my life, but I’ve never been in one that didn’t either have an edge of anger or a lot of drunkenness or kind of performance. This was all unity, all love. And what people were celebrating was this milestone, which was sweet and exciting and important. But they were also celebrating — there was — you could kind of cut the relief in people’s feelings with a knife. I mean, it was the sense that we were going to leave behind the era of 9/11 and the era of fear and war without end and repression and constitutional shredding and scapegoating of gay and lesbian people, on and on. And there we were, millions, in the park, representing everybody, hugging, dancing, carrying on right in the spot, forty years ago, where many of us were beaten and dragged to jail. It was an extraordinary feeling.
I don’t think at this moment we should be getting into at all the business of trying to read the mind of the President-elect and see where we, you know, might do this or that. The question is, as Bernardine is saying, how do we build the movement on the ground that demands peace, that demands justice? This is always the question. It’s happening — the question is being raised in a new context. So how do — you know, I often think, thinking historically, Lyndon Johnson wasn’t the civil rights movement, but he was an effective politician who passed civil rights legislation. FDR wasn’t a labor leader. Lincoln didn’t belong to an abolitionist party. They all responded to something going on on the ground. And in a lot of ways, we have to get beyond — progressive people have to get beyond the idea that we’re waiting for a savior. We’re not waiting for a savior. We need to transform ourselves, transform our movements, reach out to one another and build an irresistible social force for change.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I want to add one word about the election last week, because I’m not done with savoring it and being struck by the uniqueness of the moment. One of the things, I’ve been using the word “jubilant” to describe the feeling in Grant Park and in Harlem and in Soweto and in Indonesia and in, you know, India. It was a global celebration of an election. And it was somber at the same time that it was ecstatic. I think people felt that way when they were home with their kids or taking care of their elderly parents or whether they wanted to go out to some public place and just be part of the phenomena.
And it does represent two important things, at least. One of them, it seems to me, is a pretty decisive rejection of the politics of fear, whether it’s fear that there’s some secret cell of domestic terrorists from the ’60s hanging around or fear that our major primary approach to the world and to raising our children should be one of fear. Obviously, life is — includes tragedy and pain and suffering, and that will come along, but approaching the world as five percent of the world’s people now seems possible, adjusting how the United States thinks of itself in the world. That’s, to me, an enormous thing.
Secondly, you want to recognize here that the famous and much talked-about Bradley Effect, the notion that white people cannot leave behind some of the trappings of white supremacy and racism that have been the ugly river beneath all US discourse, is really important. I was struck when you were playing those tapes that the real coded message underneath those tapes that used Bill as a fear proxy is that you don’t know who Barack Obama really is. There was some notion of him being unknowable, exotic, strange, foreign, deceitful. And, you know, strangely enough, we feel like if all they could come up with was that he knew us casually, the guy is pretty clean, is pretty extraordinary. He’s been vetted and vetted and vetted, and there was nothing there to throw at him, except this question of maybe an African American man is not knowable to white people. And it’s worth — we don’t —- neither Bill or I think that we’re in a post-racial world, but it is worth noting that that was rejected by almost all sectors of the population, including independent voters.
BILL AYERS: The attack on -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill, if I can, I’d like to change tack for a moment —-
BILL AYERS: Sure.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- and talk a little bit about how you evolved from the period of Weathermen. Obviously, you were fugitives for awhile, then you came above-ground and settled your problems with the law. You became a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leader of the reform movement in education in that city. This whole issue of public education and what you see as what needs to be done in public education to revamp our public school system, and what you would hope an Obama presidency would address?
BILL AYERS: You know, I think we’ve suffered so much in the last decades, really, under the wrong way of thinking about education, education reform, foreign policy, the economy, so much of the kind of meta-narrative, or the dominant discourse, is so mistaken and so misplaced. And a lot of what I’m — what I have fought for and what I am struggling for is simply to say, let’s change the frame on education.
I can give you a couple of simple examples. When somebody says, as people said in this campaign, “We really need to get the rotten teachers out of the classroom,” I mean, immediately we all kind of nod dully. But if somebody said, instead of that frame, somebody said, “What we really need is for every child to be in a classroom with a thoughtful, well-educated, caring, intellectual, well-compensated and well-rested teacher,” we’d all nod to that, too.
So, the question is, who gets to set the agenda? To me, the agenda for education in the last couple of decades has been so wrongheaded, because it’s been based on the idea that we do our best with a lot of competition, which is very narrowly conducted and highly supervised and surveilled. That, to me, is the wrong model for democratic education. In fact, the way I think we have to ask the question is, since all of us, no matter — educational leaders, no matter where they are — the old Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, medieval Saudi Arabia — we all agree that the kids should do their homework, not do drugs, be in school, learn the subject matters.
So what makes education in a democracy distinct? And I would argue that what makes education in a democracy distinct is that we don’t educate for obedience and conformity; we educate for initiative and courage. We educate for imagination and hope and possibility. And we recognize that the full development of each person requires the full development of all people. Or another way of saying it is, the full development of all is the condition whereby we can educate each. And that shifting of the frame is so important. And frankly, I’m hopeful that in this period of rising expectations, of rethinking so much, that this is where we can go.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers, Juan mentioned that course of history, that time when you were fugitives and then when you came, surfaced above ground. But I was wondering if we could go back there, especially because you’ve just re-released your book Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist. First of all, why are you releasing it now? Very significantly, it came out on a day that most people would not have noticed it, September 11th, 2001. And can you talk, actually, about what it was like to be underground, and then what happened as you chose, you and Bernardine chose, to resurface, and how you dealt with things from there, how you dealt with the law and then became the two professors that you have become?
BILL AYERS: You’re going to have to help me, I think. But, OK, the release of the book. I mean, the books — I’ve written several books. And the book was released now, because the publisher wanted to release it now, but it’s been in production for a while, this re-release. It was released initially September 11th, 2001. And, of course, like everything else, pretty much we forgot about what else happened on that day, except the terrible tragedy of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the Pentagon. So, the book had a life, and I, at the time, went on a book tour and was very lucky to be on a book tour, actually, because I found myself in independent bookstores all across the country, where there was, in effect, at that time, an ongoing rolling teach-in going on. You remember the months right after 9/11. There was an uncharacteristic questioning and wondering and conversation. And that was a very kind of tragic and also kind of hopeful moment. The book was published in paperback a year later. And then Beacon decided to bring it out again.
I’ll say a couple things about the book. One is that I didn’t want it to come out in the last few months, partly because I thought it would have been lost. I didn’t see how anybody could pick it up and read it when so much else was going on. So, you know, it was — it’s coming out now. But the book is a memoir. That is, it’s a story of one imperfect person set down in a particular historical and social context and how he makes his way, how he makes his choices. It’s not a political manifesto. It’s not a history. It’s one person’s memory of those times. And so, it’s a story about a very privileged kid, myself, going to the University of Michigan in 1963, having my eyes kind of painfully opened and seeing the world in flames, and making choice after choice after choice that — you know, on the kind of side of justice and peace and struggling for those things, and finding myself taking more and more militant positions and actions in order to end the war.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, a quick question.
BILL AYERS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t Dr. King meet with your father? Talk about those years.
BILL AYERS: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: When Dr. King came to Chicago, he said he felt his life was more in danger there than anywhere else. Ultimately, as he tried to challenge segregation in the North and housing in the North, he was forced out of Chicago. But talk about those early years.
BILL AYERS: Yeah, I think Bernardine was very involved in that, and I want her to say a word about that. But it’s true. When King came north and was leading the movement in Chicago — and he had said this is going to be the hardest nut to crack. Before this, we were fighting feudalism. Now we’re actually taking on power in its own headquarters. And Mayor Daley negotiated with King, and the chief negotiators were two prominent businessmen, one of whom was my father. So my father was negotiating between King and Daley. He was the chairman of Commonwealth Edison at the time. Bernardine was in the streets fighting. I was in a few of those demonstrations. So it was a kind of an odd and interesting time.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I wasn’t fighting. I was being a law student.
BILL AYERS: Well, I know, I know. Well, we wrote a book together, about this and other incidents that’s also coming out this month called Race Course. And the subtitle is Against White Supremacy. Maybe talk a little bit about King and then come back to — and the Chicago days.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: You know, one of the great things about both of us being from Chicago and from Hyde Park, you know, is that you have two generations of Daleys and many two-generation stories here: Bill and his father; my mom, who lived with us for the last five years of her life, growing up in an immigrant family here in Chicago. So, the threads are deep.
But for me, as a law student going to work with Dr. King on the West Side of Chicago in 1965, when he moved to Chicago, around the key issues of housing, habitable housing for poor people, and desegregated housing, which was tied to habitable housing, is that, you know, I had that great opportunity, which many law students still do today, of seeing law and justice tied to a social movement. And so, I went around with experienced community organizers from the South with an armband that said “Legal.” I was a second-year law student. I knew practically nothing. But my eyes were opened. I learned, I watched, I listened. And I was able to try to understand, you know, that new left kind of mantra, that the people with the problems are the people with the solutions and that you don’t hand people solutions, you encourage people to take up and remake their own world, a lesson for participatory democracy and community organizers today. So, for me, that relationship between justice and social change was forged right at that moment.
BILL AYERS: And, you know, the other thing about King coming north is that Martin Luther King, who’s mythologized as this person who led a bus boycott, had a dream, gave a speech, won a Nobel, all those things, and then kind of was quiet, misses 1965 to ’68, when King, the angry pilgrim, was becoming more radical every year, every day, as he tried to forge a unity between racial justice, economic justice and global justice.
And frankly, that’s very much what we have to do today. When we said before, you know, it’s the end of the era of 9/11, this vote is a repudiation of the era of war and fear, it’s also an affirmation of possibility. And we’re looking forward to kind of January ’09, rising expectations, new hopes, finding ways to unite movements. One of the things I think we have to do as progressives is get over the idea that we’re somehow a barricaded minority with some precious ideas that don’t fit with the larger vision of democracy and so on, because I think, actually, we are very much — you know, I’m sometimes amused to be called “in the mainstream.” I’m still a political radical. I’m still a progressive. I still consider myself an activist. At the same time, I’ll take it, because, frankly, I think the mainstream includes peace. It includes racial reconciliation. It includes a repudiation of white power. It includes the rights of all human beings for dignity and recognition, including and importantly gay and lesbian and transgendered people, and on and on. I don’t think these are minority positions. It sometimes startles me to read what the Chicago City Council passes as resolutions. They, too, are against the PATRIOT Act. They, too, are against nuclear weapons. So, why do I have to pretend that I’m protecting some precious turf, when actually I should join with everybody, link movements together and build a force for real fundamental social change.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Ayers, now a distinguished professor of education at University of Illinois, Chicago, speaking along with Bernardine Dohrn, his wife, attorney. She is an associate professor of law at Northwestern. She runs the Northwestern Children and Family Justice Center there. And that does it for part one of our Democracy Now! exclusive. We will bring you the rest of this interview on Monday. Tell your friends.