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Democracy Now! Exclusive (Part 2): Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn on the Weather Underground, the McCain Campaign Attacks, President-Elect Obama and the Antiwar Movement Today

StoryNovember 24, 2008
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William Ayers

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 has just been reissued.

Bernardine Dohrn

Associate Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and the director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center.

Until just a few weeks ago, Ayers and his antiwar actions from nearly forty years ago formed a central part of the Republican attack on Obama. In their first joint television interview, education professor Bill Ayers and his wife, law professor Bernardine Dohrn, spoke to Democracy Now! earlier this month. Today, we bring you the final part of that interview. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Right now, we turn to the second part of our exclusive broadcast interview with former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Until just a few weeks ago, Ayers and his antiwar actions from nearly forty years ago formed a central part of the Republican attack on Obama.

In their first joint television interview, education professor Bill Ayers and his wife, law professor Bernardine Dohrn, spoke to Democracy Now!

Today, we bring you the final part of the interview. I asked them for their thoughts on why the McCain campaign had focused on Bill Ayers, in particular, and not on Bernardine Dohrn.


    Well, I think that there’s a couple of things. One is that, you know, it’s worth noting that this was an attempt to tie Senator Obama to not just me, but also to Reverend Wright, to Rashid Khalidi. The idea was to create this great doubt. And the interesting thing, fascinating to me, is that even though I was put together as a caricature, totally dishonest, not at all representative of who I am or what I’ve done, every time McCain mentioned me at a certain point, his poll numbers went down. So, I was meant to defeat Senator Obama; I ended up hurting Senator McCain.

    But I think the reason it was me is two things. One is, there was this great desire in building the narrative of the other side to take the black freedom movement, to reduce it to one church and one man and one statement: Reverend Wright. Anyone who was honest and not into the swift-boating moment would have done something like read Reverend Wright’s sermons, which are extraordinary, or read Reverend Wright’s books, which are amazing, or hear him actually speak. He’s an extraordinarily important and wonderful human being. But that wasn’t it. It was the reduction of the ’60s to this one sentence.

    With me, like with Reverend Wright, they had some documentation that we were in a room together. The dishonest narrative wasn’t just the demonizing of me, it was the idea that if you talk to somebody, that somehow you get the disease. It’s a classic kind of not only guilt by association, but the idea that in a democracy you can only talk to people who pass a certain political litmus test. This is why the McCain-Palin campaign kept talking about who are the real Americans, what parts of America are the real America. Frankly, I’m as real an American as anybody else, and not only should everyone talk broadly and widely and listen with the possibility of being changed and speak with the possibility of changing others, but we should also — and I would argue political leaders, most of all — should talk to political radicals. Why? Because historically, Jane Addams, you know, Eugene Debs, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X got it right. And that’s why we should have a large discourse, and we should celebrate it. It’s the essence of democracy.

    So, the fact that I was in a room with Obama, and it’s documentable, it becomes, somehow, proof that somehow something horrible went on. Everything that went on was public. Everything I say is out loud, it’s not whispered. This thing in the tape you played about I’ve been in hiding and they caught up with me is just utter nonsense. I’ve not been in hiding. Nobody caught up with me. And O’Reilly saying, “Why won’t this story go away?” I’ll tell you why it won’t go away, because you keep bringing it up. You know, it’s insane.


    And, Bill, of course, the infamous quote, that on September 11th in the New York Times, reviewing your book, saying, “I’d do it again.” Your explanation of what you meant?


    Well, the fact is that you can’t get to be sixty-four years old and not have a lot of regrets. And in my view, an honest reading of Fugitive Days sees it as a book filled with regrets, filled with regrets about, you know, the incompetence and the self-righteousness and the wrong-headedness, at the same — alongside a certain amount of, you know, hopefulness and willingness to sacrifice. So these things are going together. So, it’s not that I have no regrets.

    But the fact is — and I did say to a New York Times reporter — I have no regrets for opposing this government and its war with every ounce of my being. I don’t have anything to apologize for. I wish we had done more. And by “we,” I mean you, I mean me, I mean everybody who’s over fifty. I wish we had all done more. And more does not mean a particular tactic. It means we should have been smarter, more determined, more capable of uniting, more able to think of ways to bring this to an end, because democracy failed us in 1968, profoundly. It failed us because we wanted a war to end, we couldn’t end it, and we couldn’t figure out how. So I think we all should have done more.

    And frankly, today, an honest assessment of the wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not doing enough. We should be doing more. And what that means is, we should be thinking harder, uniting harder and working harder for peace and justice.


    And knocking on doors. I mean, I think we have the opportunity right now. Hundreds of thousands of people have just experienced their first time of talking to strangers, listening to strangers, about politics and about the future of the planet. That’s a remarkable opportunity, because we have to do a lot more listening and a lot more talking to deal with, really, the future of the planet, massive starvation, the destruction of water and rivers and oceans, and the relationship of all that to war and armament. I don’t see how we can move forward out of this economic crisis without massive demilitarizing of the US empire machine.


    And —


    I think that’s what we have to do. But how we do that, I don’t have any formula for how we do that. I want to talk to everybody about how key that question is of how much money and resources and off-the-budget, you know, budgeting of our tax dollars goes into that unaccountable, highly privatized war machine of domination and mayhem, when we have so many fundamental human needs here and around the world. And what?


    And I was going to just say, I mean, not only do we need to reframe kind of foreign policy to say, could it be about justice, could we be a nation among nations, rather than the most militarized, dominant kind of nation? But the second part of that is, could we invest in people, and could we imagine an economy not based on the idea that what’s good for the most wealthy is going to trickle down and be good for all of us, but rather, based on the idea that investing in education — very important — investing in Social Security, investing in health, investing in employment, investing in rebuilding, this is what could transform the whole situation? So we’re at a moment, and this is — I think connecting these ideas, these demands, these movements is really where we’re headed.


    In a part of The Weather Underground, the film, you are reading from Fugitive Days, Bernardine Dohrn, from Bill’s book, and you’re talking about when you were underground. You’re talking about being surveilled and harassed. This is forty years later. We see the police infiltrate peace groups, terrorist databases with thousands of names, the latest revelations in Maryland, people opposed to the death penalty who are working for peace on a terrorist database, Catholic nuns on that database.

    But if you could go back, because you do in this book, in Fugitive Days

    , what it was like to live underground and how you both decided to resurface, where you were, how you dealt with, well, actually, not being known where you were, and then what happened when you surfaced? How did you deal with the law? I mean, Bernardine, you’re a lawyer today.


    That’s a big, long question, Amy. You know, being underground was more ordinary than you can imagine, even though it was an extraordinary kind of Alice-in-Wonderland-through-the-rabbit-hole transformation, because the day after we disappeared — we didn’t really disappear, of course, we just failed to show up for a court date in Chicago — we — and Bill writes about this quite beautifully, I think — you know, we had to invent what it meant. We had to try to figure out how to live, how to work. And we found ourselves thrown into a part of the economy, a largely invisible but huge part of the economy, where people work off the books, where people are not who they say, a massive immigrant and undocumented population, people who at that time were fleeing the draft or military service for moral reasons, not out of cowardice, and people who were trying to live — women who wanted to live as who they were, gay and lesbian people who couldn’t tolerate being denied and stifled. So, there was a really rich sea of people transforming themselves and making themselves up and inventing themselves.

    We had to live, you know, work jobs. I worked cleaning women’s houses. I worked in the fields cutting grapes. I worked as a waitress. So, all the jobs, transient kind of jobs that people do brought us, I think, back into touch with how we got thrust into the peace movement and the student activist movement of the ’60s and how hierarchical and unfair large parts of American society are. So we took care of each other, and, interestingly enough, we were protected. A lot of people from the ’60s were painted as a fringe element. And in some ways, of course, our rhetoric was wildly overheated. But, in fact, for eleven years, we were protected. Nobody turned us in. People helped take care of us, even when they disagreed with us, and wanted to sit down and argue about various choices and what was a priority to do. And so, there was a large sea of support. We were part of a big umbrella that hated what was being done by the Nixon administration and thought that there was a tradition in US political life that was better.

    So, in some ways, it’s very similar today, even though the tactics and the framing of things are different. The Bush administration has been utterly discredited and repudiated, unprecedented. We have to immediately move to, you know, overturn the Military Commission Act, probably the worst piece of legislation passed —- well, I think it probably surpasses the Alien and Sedition Act -— that denies habeas corpus

    , that gives the US and the President the secret ability to define torture, that pardons everybody for war crimes that have been committed, and come to some — I think we should do now what we failed to do around the Vietnam War, which is, you know, a new form, a US form of a truth and reconciliation, independent commission to hear testimony about the last eight years and to find out who was responsible for the worst crimes that were committed. And then, I don’t really care what happens in terms of how much prosecution and who’s sent to jail, but I think an honest recounting and an honest listening of who’s paying the price for these policies from the top is really called for.

    I’ve been teaching a class on torture for the last six years. We had a young man who was in Iraq come talk to the class. He was an interrogator and came to realize that what he was doing was torture and left the military and has written a book about it. He just reflects, to me, one of hundreds of thousands of young people who are struggling to come to an ethical understanding of their own life and their role in relationship to power in this moment. And I think our attention — you know, the ’60s is past. It’s interesting. It sets a context. I think without the ’60s, we wouldn’t be where we are now. And yet, I think Bill and I feel very much like our job is to live in the present and to be part of today’s social struggles.


    How does it feel to be speaking in the press, Bill Ayers, right now? You haven’t for many, many months, since your name was first invoked.


    Well, I mean, you know, I speak all the time, so it doesn’t feel that unusual, although I didn’t want to comment on the presidential campaign, while it was going on, to the media. So that’s what I — that’s the only thing that I didn’t do. Again, I couldn’t find a way — I couldn’t think of a way to disrupt, you know, the dishonest narrative, the dishonest narrative of guilt by association or the dishonest narrative of unrepentant terrorist. I couldn’t find a way to object to that and push it back. So, that’s done now and moving on.


    Bill, in the decision to resurface after ten years that you and Bernardine made with your two boys, how did you resurface? What is the process?


    See, I thought you were going to speak to that when you started.


    I meant to speak to that.


    You know, why didn’t you say something?


    There were charges against me. We didn’t know —- Bill was his usual generous and patient self. After the end of the Weather Underground organization, most people -—


    Which was right at the end of the war.


    Which was in 1976 —




    —- right after the United States -— well, let me just diverge for one minute. How did the war in Vietnam end? This is one thing from the past that we might note here, because to listen to the Republican campaign, you would think that somehow the US, you know, wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, that something shameful happened. In fact, the US was militarily defeated and driven out of Vietnam, both by opposition here and by the Vietnamese people. So, we might just note that moment, because how the war ended does matter in terms of how this war might end: better, sooner, quicker, save more lives.

    But we — I was stubborn, and I couldn’t bring myself to turn ourselves in. So, Bill was generous and easygoing and let me come to it by myself. We regrouped. We had a life organized around our two children. And we worked at a school and worked at jobs and became child-centered parents to the best of our ability. I came to realize, after the birth of our second child, who’s now a teacher, a middle school teacher, that, you know, they couldn’t continue like this and that there was no political reason for to us stay underground. So we agreed to turn ourselves in in Chicago, and not completely knowing whether there were secret charges or what had happened. Of course, all the federal charges from the old days had been dismissed because of massive illegal FBI activity, and several FBI agents had been indicted. So we came to Chicago, left our two boys with dear family friends, not knowing what would happen, and walked the gauntlet, really, into a hive of media — that’s my main memory of it — and then went back to our fifth floor walkup apartment in New York and resumed our lives there. Just changed our names, as the kids said.


    And like everybody else, made our twisty ways towards, you know, back to school, to work. And that’s what we continue to do, trying to figure out how to name the moment that we’re in, how to participate in it. We’ve been very involved in the last couple years in a movement-building process with lots and lots of friends, and we’re hopeful.


    Well, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Are there any final regrets? And also, what you felt so far, as you’ve led your life above ground, underground, and above ground again, what you felt were the greatest successes?


    You know, of course we have regrets. I think our sectarian errors — but they’re easy to say, Amy, and really hard to do. That’s what I’ve come to realize. We can list off, you know, what we wish we’d done better. I’ve written about it extensively. Bill’s written about it extensively. But doing it right, of course, is hard. I think we have an opportunity now for unity, for connecting issues and for popular organizing. That’s how I see it.

    In my lifetime, I’ve seen young people change the world, so I remain very hopeful — in Birmingham, in Beijing, in Soweto, in Seattle, at Stonewall, young people standing up, not with any particular tactic or with any particular form of militancy. You know, the bus riders into the South changed the world. So, we’re in a perilous moment, but tremendously hopeful moment.


    You know, I think that I would echo Bernardine’s regret. I think that if we’ve learned one thing from those perilous years, it’s that dogma, certainty, self-righteousness, sectarianism of all kinds is dangerous and self-defeating. So, to me, the rhythm that we’ve tried to live our lives by and that we urge on our students and others is open your eyes, see the world as it really is, act, take some action within the world, engage. And then, importantly, and something we forgot to do in 1970, doubt. Act and then doubt. Question yourself. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? And then act again. So that rhythm of opening your eyes, seeing the world, acting, doubting, acting, doubting, it seems to me is what ought to power us forward.

    What I’m proudest of, what I feel most strongly about, is that we’ve had this extraordinary forty years together. We’ve raised three of the most extraordinary young men that I can imagine, and they continue to kind of help us, inspire us, awe us. And I guess the other thing is, I think that Bernardine mentioned that we had her mother living with us for the last five years of her life. We had my father living with us for the last three years of his life. They both died at home with a lot of dignity, and I guess I feel the most — that’s the best accomplishment, those two things: our kids, our parents. And onward from here.


    I want to just add one last thing. The best of the new left and the best of the social struggles of today have at their core the valuing of human life. All human life. You have to say both parts of that, because people in the United States have to find our place in the world and, in some ways, get off the necks and the backs of the people of the world. We have to live differently. We have to live — and I say this with all humility, too, you know — we have to all together learn to live differently so that others may live. And so, that core notion that animates social justice movements is really the valuing of all human life.


Bernardine Dohrn, law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. Bill Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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