The Unrepentant Terrorist?
Founder of the Weather Underground, and favorite whipping boy of the failed McCain campaign, Bill Ayers talks to The Rumpus about the ’60s, the present, and his fans in the Chicago Police Department.
Ayers and The Rumpus started our interview with a bomb scare. We sat down on the couch in a busy hotel lobby and a worried security guard approached. “Is that your bag?” she asked, pointing to a backpack and coat that were definitely not ours. “Nope,” we said. “Oh boy,” she said. She asked a few other people. The owner was not there. She radioed in. I considered the irony of being blown up while interviewing Bill Ayers. I figured it would at least get me a wikipedia entry.
Just then a young woman came up. The bag was hers. The security guard radioed back in. Relief! But also a little disappointment?
Anyway, the young woman, Jenny Witt, took her seat and became involved in the interview. It was a nice touch of anarchy for an interview with the founder of the Weathermen. – Scott Hutchins
THE RUMPUS: When your name popped up in the Presidential campaign, and the Weather Underground came up, one of the things that I think many of us – people of my generation – struggled to understand was how you saw the world in the moment of the sixties. Let’s take the summer of ’68, for example – when you were that age, what did the world seem like to you? What did you see?
BILL AYERS: Look at the drumbeat of ’68. January 1968, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. We recognize that the United States has been defeated for the first time in its history. The United States – this military behemoth – has been brought down by a peasant nation. Going into the spring of ’68, you have Columbia University, you have the Mexico City Olympics, you have Russians invading Czechoslovakia, on and on, this drumbeat of things happening. March 31st, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announces he won’t run for President. Here’s the most effective politician of his generation; he’s passed the most far reaching civil rights legislation. He’s ruined his Presidency in the furnaces of war. And he announces he won’t run for President. Those of us who were anti-war activists had this spontaneous explosion.
I was in Ann Arbor where I was president of Students for a Democratic Society. We had this spontaneous demonstration through the streets of Ann Arbor and we ended on the steps of the president of the university’s house. I had a bullhorn and he had a bullhorn and we were shouting back and forth and there were thousands of students trampling his rose bushes…
RUMPUS: Who was the president at that time?
AYERS: Robben Fleming. He was a very good friend of mine. Robben has a chapter on me in his memoir, in which he says, Bill Ayers and I didn’t always agree but he was always determined and articulate. What I remember saying that night was “Fuck you, you motherfucker.” Anyway, what Robben said that night was congratulations. You have won a great victory. Now the war will end.
Five days later King is dead. Two months later [Robert] Kennedy is dead. And four months after that it’s clear that not only will the war not end, but two thousand people a month are being murdered.
See you guys, because you’re young, can say, oh sure the Vietnam war was ten years, three million people died, it was a miserable tragedy, but it wasn’t thirty million, it wasn’t three hundred million. But standing in the summer of 1968, [you didn’t know that]. You said, “What the fuck can we do? We’ve already persuaded everybody that the war is wrong.”
This was a crisis for the anti-war movement. We’re not sophisticated people – we’re mostly kids. So we splintered. Some of us went into the Democratic Party and tried to build a peace wing within the party and succeeded in that. Succeeded in getting McGovern nominated, and succeeded in getting him crushed.
I founded an organization that wanted to survive what we thought was an impending American fascism.
RUMPUS: That’s what I’m looking for. You believed there was an impending American fascism. What did you think it was going to look like?
AYERS: I knew what it was going to look like. Well, it didn’t turn out to be true, but I can tell you what we thought it would look like.
What we thought fascism would look like was that it would have two faces: the face to black people was going to be increasing depression, increasing economic hardship, and the murder of Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. That’s what fascism looks like. That’s exactly what it looks like. Targeted assassinations. Terror against communities. I was in Detroit during the riots of Detroit, I was in Cleveland during the riots in Cleveland, I was in Chicago during the riots in Chicago. And what that looked like was fascism. They were lining up bodies in Cleveland like cordwood. It was disgusting.
The face of fascism in the white community would be conspiracy trials. What we envisioned for ourselves were endless trials, endless prison sentences, conspiracy indictments. And it was all happening. I was indicted on two federal conspiracies. My wife was on the Ten Most Wanted list. That’s what fascism was going to look like. That’s what it did look like.
RUMPUS: But it didn’t turn out that way.
AYERS: It turned out not to be quite the way we imagined it. But if you were living in the middle of it, without the benefit of hindsight, it doesn’t seem to me as crazy as it does now to think of it that way.
AYERS: Let me get back to something – I don’t buy the whole mythology of the sixties. I think I’m an intergenerational person just like you guys and I’m as much a part of this generation as you are. You can’t make me not. I mean, what the fuck – I’m living. I don’t remember looking at my watch on December 31st 1969 and thinking, “Oh, fuck, we’ve got to do something.”
The mythology of the sixties takes two faces right now. One’s the kind of John McCain face: it was the beginning of anarchy. And the other is these old radicals who look nostalgically at a ship that already left the shore. I can’t think of anything more depressing.
Now you may like the images of long-haired hippies running in the streets throwing tear gas canisters, but we didn’t end the war. And that’s what we set out to do. What was not ended by the anti-war movement was ended by the Vietnamese. That’s our shame.
When is the war on terror going to end? You don’t know. You have no fucking idea. Is your hand up? I love you for that.
Young Woman: Can I ask a question?
AYERS: Of course – you’re part of the interview.
RUMPUS: Sure. What’s your name?
Young Woman: Jenny Witt.
RUMPUS: Go for it.
JENNY WITT: Okay. Looking back, you guys didn’t end the war. Vietnam ended the war. Do you think you could have?
AYERS: I can’t think of what we might have done. A lot of contemporaries of mine will say, ah, the fucking Weathermen deflected things. But the problem they all have is they can’t tell me what they did that was so effective. None of us was effective.
I thought in 1965 that my job was to convince most Americans to be against the war. So I spent summers knocking on doors, handing out literature, trying to talk to people who didn’t agree with me, trying to get them to see the war was wrong. And by 1968 a majority of Americans did oppose the war. So we’d done our job. That’s where we ran up against reality.
The rhythm of being an activist today involves a pretty simple rhythm. You have to open your eyes to the reality before you. You have to look and see. Then, when you open your eyes, you have to act. Then – and this is where the Weathermen went off the tracks – after you act you have to doubt. You have to rethink. You have to reconsider. Then you have to act again.
My challenge to my own students is that I often ask, “You all are against slavery, right?” [They say:] “Of course. Slavery is bad.” Then I ask, “Would you have been against slavery in 1840? Because if you were – and I know you flatter yourself to think you would have, and I want to be right there with you, too – if you were against slavery in 1840 and a white person, you would have been against the law, the Bible, your church, your pastor, your parents, common sense, tradition, everything. You would have been against everything.
But of course we would have been, because we’re good people. Are you against the detainment of the Japanese? Yes, you are. Do you want Nelson Mandela let out of prison? Of course. You want apartheid to end? You bet.
But I lived through those things, and I can tell you – to be for Nelson Mandela’s freedom in 1963-4-5 was to be a tiny minority at the University of Michigan. Tiny. To be against Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines – when he came to speak at the University of Michigan and he was wined and dined by the alumni – that was to be one of twenty people.
I only mention that shit not to say, weren’t we great? I mention it to say, what are we missing now? What am I missing now? What aren’t we seeing?
RUMPUS: What aren’t we seeing?
AYERS: For example, your grandchildren will say to you, “You were in Chicago when the first African-American president was elected.” You’ll say, “Yes, I was.” They’ll say, “Wow, were you at Grant Park on November 4th?” You’ll say, “Yes, I was.” It doesn’t matter if you were, you’ll say you were. “And did you go to Washington?” “Yes, I sat right by the podium.” You’ll say the whole thing – you’ll lie about the whole thing. Okay. And then your granddaughter will say, “Is it true it cost Obama half a billion dollars to be elected?” And you’ll say, “I don’t remember that.”
Half a billion fucking dollars, in a democracy, to become President. That’s fucking crazy. And your granddaughter will say, “That’s crazy. You call that democracy?” And you’ll say, “I think he raised it on the internet.” She’ll say, “Big fucking deal. You mean democracy was so polluted by money that it took half a billion?”
I’m not saying that will happen. I’m just saying, that’s the problem with looking backwards as opposed to looking now. Your granddaughter will say, “You lived in Chicago. You lived two miles from a place that caged 16,000 African-American males.” This is only about three miles away. What if I said to you, “There are 16,000 Jews in a prison three miles from your house?” You’d be horrified.
RUMPUS: Looking back on the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s and comparing it to the U.S. now, can you give a progress report? Have things gotten better, not gotten better?
AYERS: Chou En-lai, who was the premier of China under Mao Tse-tung, was asked in the late sixties by a French journalist what the impact of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century was on the Chinese revolution of the twentieth century. Chou En-lai thought about it for quite a long time, and his response was, “It’s too soon to tell.”
So anybody who thinks they know what the sixties mean is interpreting in light of the present. I think that all of history is contested, and all of our understandings of history are contested.
But are there things that are better? Yeah. The fact that we just elected the first African-American president, the fact that we just turned the generational page, the fact that we elected a community organizer – it was unthinkable two years before it happened. Now for the rest of all time it was inevitable.
On the other hand, are we still headed for the precipice at an accelerated rate? We are. Take the question of war and peace, which I think is the question upon which the Obama administration is either going to thrive or die. On the question of war and peace we’re not better off than we were 45 years ago. At that time we had a giant military establishment – I mean, giant. But at this point the world spends two trillion dollars a year on military, and of that two trillion the United States spends one trillion. We have a bigger military than the rest of the world put together. We have 150 foreign military bases.
I gave a talk in Germany last year. I was asked to propose an international law that would highlight power and asymmetries of power. I proposed a law that every country where the U.S. has a military base – those people should be allowed to vote in the American election.
Of course, I gave the talk in Berlin, so they loved it. I was playing to my audience. But the fact is we’re more unstable today as the only superpower than we were 45 years ago as one of two superpowers. It’s an irony, but it’s a more unstable world with the kind of military might that the U.S. has. As long as we drink the kool-aid and think that our safety depends on this kind of military might and intervention, invasion, occupation, we’re forever unsafe.
Our safety only lies in becoming a nation among nations. Yet how do we win that argument? I don’t know.
RUMPUS: You look like you have another point.
AYERS: Yes. Similarly, on the question of poverty – are we better off or worse off? You could say we have a broader middle class. Maybe. But we also have the immiseration of the working class, the greater immiseration and alienation of middle class people. What is the benefit of work in today’s economy? Is the work humanizing or dehumanizing? That’s one question. A second question is – is the gap between the well-off and not well-off less today than it was 45 years ago? It’s much, much greater. So, progress? On two great measures, war and poverty – we’re not doing so well.
Martin Luther King was only an activist for 13 years and every year he changed and every year he became more radical. By the end he was calling for revolution. People don’t know this because they go to too many prayer breakfasts on his birthday.
King talked in his later speeches about the three evils: racism, militarism, and materialism or consumerism. Are we better off or worse off in terms of a culture of consumerism? I think we’re much worse off than 45 years ago. Again, we’ve all drunk the kool-aid. The way you know how you’re doing is you buy more shit. You go look in the basement of any middle-class person who owns a home and you’re horrified. What are they doing with all that shit?
At the same time, we’re in the world of yes we can. That begs the question of yes we can what?
RUMPUS: You mention often that you’re anti-imperialist, but it’s hard for me to figure out what that actually means. What, for instance, would an anti-imperialist Chicago look like?
AYERS: The great thing about Chicago – the wonderful thing about being a citizen of Chicago – is that as weird as people think my ideas are at some level, the majority of the city council agrees with me on almost everything. We agree on gay rights, we agree on handguns, we agree on the Patriot Act, we agree on the war in Iraq. So what would an anti-imperialist Chicago look like? First of all, we’d have to change the way we do schooling, and we’d have to change the way we think about work. We’d have to have a gigantic big tent, democratic, messy conversation about what it means to be an educated person and what work entails. Again King – at the end of his life – was saying we only need to work 4 or 3 days a week. The rest of the time we should be involved in social action, the arts, recreation, and sports. How much healthier would we all be if that was our life?
The fact is in the last 40 years we’ve gone from having a 40-hour work week for the middle-class, upper middle-class, professional. For example, my dad was chairman of Commonwealth Edison for 30 years, worked a 40 hour week. That’s unthinkable today. I’m a professor, I work an 80-hour week. He was home for dinner every night, and he ran the biggest corporation in Chicago. That’s fucking crazy.
So can we imagine a different world? I can. That’s a world where work is rational, it’s in the common good, and we’re actually producing real things rather than spinning our wheels in dreams of consumer heaven.
RUMPUS: In your memoir, you mention tattoos. You have a few?
AYERS: I’m covered.
RUMPUS: What’s your theory on them? Why do you like them?
AYERS: Your body’s always going through changes. It’s fattening or thinning or wrinkling or blotching, and the only thing you really have control over is putting some decoration on it. I always say your body is the temple of your spirit, why not decorate it? My kids say, no, no, your body is the temple of your spirit, keep it clean. I’m covered in tattoos and I get a tattoo every time I write a book. I get the tattoo from the book.
RUMPUS: Do you have a favorite?
AYERS: Do you know the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence? He did a series of large canvas painting of the black migration from the south. It’s called the Migration Series. Brilliant. It’s a great show to take kids to, because you can really see the pathos and the hope and the shattered dreams of the black migration of World War II from Mississippi to Chicago, for example. But he did a lesser known series called the John Brown series. I have a Jacob Lawrence on my back of John Brown distributing weapons to slaves.
RUMPUS: That must have taken a while.
AYERS: That’s my favorite, because it hurt the most. I bled a lot. But you’re supposed to bleed a lot when you’re for freedom. Fuck it.
RUMPUS: I hear there’s a Republican representative in the state house who’s trying to legislate your job away.
AYERS: Yeah, he’s already introduced legislation.
RUMPUS: Do you think it’s going to happen?
AYERS: No. It’s not going to happen. You look at something like that and it kind of reminds me in a small echo of the last presidential campaign. Here we are in Illinois with a political comedy going on of absolutely catastrophic proportions, an economic collapse that’s causing real pain to real people, and this guy – this Republican guy – is going to introduce legislation to ban me from teaching. I’ve taught for 22 years in the university system.
After 9/11, another Republican legislator got a committee to create a sub-committee to investigate me. They did. That cost the state money. They read everything I wrote, and they hired an investigator. They interviewed everybody who’d ever published anything I wrote. By the end the investigator came to me off the record to say he’d really enjoyed reading my stuff and good luck to me.
RUMPUS: Do you see your university life as a second act? Or is it just an extension of what you’ve always done?
AYERS: It’s one long act. The idea that you live your life in phases – I’ve never bought that. I feel like I’m the same person who sat in at the draft board in 1965, I’m the same person who joined a fraternity, I’m the same person who got an MFA at Bennington, and I’m the same person who founded Weather Underground. My values are still intact.
I’m different in the sense that every minute of every day, I change. I’m thinking. But the basic principles that have powered me forward are still there. They’re not different. I still want a world at peace, I still want a world in balance, I still think that injustice anywhere is an assault on all of us. That means that we all can get busy.
To be a human being is to suffer. But it’s the unnecessary suffering, it’s the suffering that we visit upon one another, that really should be stopped. I don’t feel any different than I did in 1965 in that regard.
RUMPUS: Jenny, you’ll ask another question then we’ll wrap it up?
JENNY WITT: It must frustrate you that you’re judged every day today on what you did in the past.
AYERS: It really doesn’t. Because first of all, there’s a perception that there’s a unified judgment about me that’s negative, which isn’t true. When the right wing was beating up on me in the early stages of the last campaign, I got a lot of hate mail, I got a lot of threats from a lot of crazies. Once it jumped to ABC and became a national story, the love outweighed the hate 2 to 1.
I’ll give you two examples. I was shopping in Home Depot yesterday for some crap. I’m heading down one aisle, and a guy comes up behind me. He’s a young guy, African guy with a thick accent. He says to me, “Are you Ayers?” I said I am. He said, “I just want to shake your hand. Thanks for standing up and being brave.” This is a guy who works at Home Depot. How do I know him? I don’t know him.
Last week, I went down to the Chicago Central Police Department to get my fingerprints taken, because I had to get my rap sheet so I could try to get into Canada. I walk in, and the entire fingerprinting group – who are all African-American, many middle-aged, some young – they all say, “Ayers!” We have to line up and get our pictures together. What the fuck? I mean, the central police station.
If you listen to Fox News, or you listen to the people who might write a letter to this or that…
JENNY WITT: My father.
AYERS: Like your father. It seems like I’m this demon. But most people who think about it are not actually persuaded by it. The proof is the last election.
It didn’t work with me. So [at the end of the last Presidential campaign] they ran a series of ads in Florida about my friend Rashid Khalidi who’s a brilliant, brilliant Palestinian scholar, not an anti-Semitic bone in his body. He’s a cosmopolitan guy who grew up in New York City, went to UN international school. His dad was a diplomat from Lebanon.
Anyway, Rashid is a professor at Columbia and we used to be in a blended family. We’re very, very close. So they run these ads in Florida, and CNN is interviewing a high McCain official the last week of the campaign. They ask him, “You claim that Obama has friends that are anti-Semitic. Who?” The McCain guy says, “Rashid Khalidi.” The CNN guy, without any knowledge or depth of understanding, says, “Okay. Who else?” The McCain guy says, “Bill Ayers.” The CNN guy says, “Ayers isn’t an anti-Semite. He’s a terrorist.”
So Rashid calls me on the phone and says, man, let’s trade places. You be the anti-Semite for a week, and I’ll be the terrorist.
JENNY WITT: Wouldn’t you just like to move on?
AYERS: I have moved on. During this campaign, I got up every morning and worked on my graphic novel. I didn’t eat my liver and worry about how I was going to answer shit.
You get to a point where you don’t take the criticism seriously. The way to do that is know who you are. If you know who you are and what your work is, then you don’t have to take the criticism seriously. But the flip side is you can’t take the praise seriously either.
I’d decided a year before the campaign started – I knew [my name] was going to come up; I didn’t know how bad it would be – I wasn’t going say anything. Every now and then I would weaken, because I’m not very good at being quiet. Bill O’Reilly wrote me several times and said, just answer this, just answer this. So I sent one along to my oldest son, and I said, I got to answer this. This is outrageous. I’ve got a good one-sentence answer. Zayd wrote me back and said, no, you can’t answer. Remember, you’re looking at the roller coaster, but don’t get on the roller coaster. I thought, Hmm, very Buddhist advice. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to watch the roller coaster from a great distance, know that cartoon character wasn’t me.
When I became a punch line on the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, I knew it was kind of over.
RUMPUS: In your memoir Fugitive Days, there are lots of fireworks and lots of fun time with explosives. There seems to be some sort of argument in there…
AYERS: You call that an argument?
RUMPUS: Yeah. You made a structural choice, juxtaposing Weathermen bombs with fireworks.
AYERS: The memoir is a memoir of 10 years – 1965 to 1975. But there’s a little prelude about my growing up in tremendous privilege and an afterword about what happened after the Vietnam War. The point of the explosives in the prelude is to say, here’s an American kid in the 50s, and what are we raised on? We’re raised on fireworks and the 4th of July. We’re raised on a belief that everything we do is good. I was born in Hiroshima. I was born in Nagasaki. And those were good things. Those weren’t crimes against humanity. That wasn’t terrorism. That’s what I was trying to do.
RUMPUS: But the thing is, the fireworks are fun.
AYERS: My point is to paint this American pastoral, and in the American pastoral there are bombs. I’m setting up the fact that this guy becomes known as a mad bomber. But I’m saying it was part of my childhood – the sense that Americans are always good. Even our national anthem – the bombs bursting in air – that’s supposed to be good. And I’m clearly putting that whole scene in there as irony.
RUMPUS: To me that scene is much more complicated than just irony. There’s also the sweet relationship with your grandfather. There’s something real and human in it, too.
AYERS: But that’s what I’m saying. Isn’t it ironic? The idea that you have this national holiday based on explosions is fairly bizarre, given the history of this country.
Our conceit is that we’re a peace-loving country, our reality is – a lot has been made of the fact that I had that photograph made of me standing on the American flag. It’s been all over the right wing blogs. And I’ve been asked about it several times. My response is that the American flag is not one thing. You and I would like to believe that it stands for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and that’s a nice thing. You want to believe it. I want to believe it. But if you’re a peasant in rural Vietnam or a peasant in Iraq – or you’re in Gaza – and you see these phosphorous bombs coming towards you, made in America, branded with an American flag, the American flag means something quite different.
We all want to believe this American pastoral, but there’s more to it. We have to be willing to exile ourselves from the fantasies and the mythology that we create around ourselves, or we’re doomed to kind of innocently blunder into every country in the world and murder people.
RUMPUS: Is that your prediction for the future?
AYERS: I’m an optimist in my heart – I’m a hopeless pollyanna just like my mother – but a pessimist in my head. I think that’s the dialectic we all need to be in. We don’t know what the future is, so it’s silly to be an optimist naively or a pessimist cynically. We don’t know, so we should all get the fuck busy.