the Weather Underground, the McCain Campaign Attacks, President-Elect
Obama and the Antiwar Movement Today
Until just a few weeks ago Ayers and his anti-war actions from nearly
40 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.
November 24, 2008
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.
AMY GOODMAN: 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
anti-war actions from nearly 40 years ago formed a central part of
the Republican attack on Obama. In their first joint television
interview, education professor Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn spoke
to Democracy Now! Today we bring you the final part of the interview.
I asked them about their thoughts on why the John McCain campaign had
focused on Bill Ayers in particular and not on Bernardine Dohrn.
BILL AYERS: Well, I think that there's a couple of things, one is
that, you know, it's worth noting that this was an * 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 50. 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.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: 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 U.S. empire machine.
BILL AYERS: And, and…
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I think that's what we have to do, but how do we
have 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?
BILL AYERS: 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 educationvery importantinvesting 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 isI think connect these ideas, these
demands, these movements is really where we're headed.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 aboutwhen you're underground, you're talking about
being surveilled and harassed. This is 40 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
database, Catholic nuns; on a 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 withwell, 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.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: That's a big, long question, Amy. Weyou 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 our court date in Chicago.
Weand 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. 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 livewomen 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 60's 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 60's were painted as a fringe element. And
in some ways, of course, our rhetoric was wildly overheated. But in
fact, for 11 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 the priority to
do. And, so, there was 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 U.S. 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 repudiatedunprecedented. 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 sedition act that denies habeas corpus,
that gives the U.S. And the President the secret ability to define
torture, that pardons everybody for war crimes that have been
committed. And come to someI think we should do now what we failed
to do in the Vietnam War, which is, you know, a new forum, a U.S.
forum 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 60's is past. It's interesting, it sets a
context. I think without the 60's, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to speaking in the press, Bill Ayers,
right now? You haven't for many, many months since your name was first invoked.
BILL AYERS: Well, I mean ityou 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
whatthat's the only thing that I didn't do. Again, I couldn't find a
wayI couldn't think of a way to disrupt the dishonest narrative of
guilt by association or the dishonest narrative of unrepentent
terrorists. I couldn't find a way to object to that and push it back.
So, that's done now and moving on.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, in the decision to resurface after 10 years that
you and Bernardine made with your two boys, how did you resurface?
What is the process?
BILL AYERS: See, I thought you were going to speak to that when you started.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I meant to speak to that.
BILL AYERS: Why don't you say something?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: There were charges against me. We didn't knowBill
was his usual generous and patient self. After the end of the Weather
Underground organization, most people…
BILL AYERS: Which was right at the end of the war.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Which was in 1976, right after the United
Stateswell, let me just divert 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 U.S., you know, wasn't defeated in Vietnamthat
something shameful happened. In fact, the U.S. 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
endbetter, sooner, quicker, save more lives.
But weI 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. We worked at a school and worked and 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 teachera middle
school teacher, that, you know, they couldn't continue like this and
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 and what had happened. Of course,
all the federal charges from the old days had been dismissed because
of massive illegal F.B.I. activity, and several F.B.I. 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 mediathat's my main memory of
itand 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.
BILL AYERS: And like everybody else, made our twisty ways towards,
you know, back to school, to work, and that's what we continue to
dotrying 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 of
years in a movement-building process with lots and lots of friends,
and we're hopeful.
AMY GOODMAN: 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 againwhat you felt were the greatest successes?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: 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, ye're in a perilous moment, but tremendously
BILL AYERS: 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
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 40 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 we had her mother living with us
the last five years of our her life, we had my father living with us
the last three years of his life. They both died at home with a lot
of dignity, and, I guess, I feel that's the best accomplishment,
those two thingsour kids, our parents, and onward from here.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I want to say 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 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. So that core notion that
animates social justice movements is really the valuing of all human life.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernardine Dohrn, law professor at Northwestern
University in Chicago. Bill Ayers is an education professor at the
University of Illinois, Chicago.
If you would like a copy of today's broadcast, you can go to our
website at democracynow.org. Up next, Professor Noam Chomsky. His
first major address since the election. Stay with us.