By DAWSON BELL • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
January 25, 2009
Bill Ayers, leader of a 1960s radical anti-war organization who
helped launch Barack Obama's political career in Chicago in the 1990s
then threatened to derail it when their relationship became an issue
in the 2008 campaign, will be in Michigan Monday. Ayers and his wife,
Bernardine Dohrn, are scheduled to make a free appearance at 7 p.m.
Monday at the University of Michigan Hatcher Graduate Library
Gallery, Room 100. See www.shamandrum.com.
He talked Friday to the Free Press at length about the nature of
terrorism and terrorists (He's not one, but John McCain is and "I'm
as much an American as Sarah Palin"), his relationship with Obama ("I
would say he's a guy in the neighborhood, as he said about me.") and
whether the results of the election mean the revolution is over. He
denied knowledge of a 1970 Weather Underground plot to blow up
Detroit police facilities.
Here are some excerpts:
Freep.com: You're in town to talk about your book "Racecourse:
Against White Supremacy".
Ayers: The book is a personal essay or memoir about our involvement
over the last 40 years, 50 years even, of struggles around racism
both in the eudcational system and the juvenile justice system. And
it's based partly on personal story and partly it's a history. Partly
it's a reminder that this country has a long, long history of white
supremacy. And that even though right now we're witnessing an
important shift against white supremacy, it's not a fatal blow.
Freep.com: Both of you have been anxious to see reform, sometimes
pretty radical and rapid reform. Do you have reason to believe now
that there is some opportunity for that to happen that wasn't there
before because of the last election?
Ayers: I think the last election is significant in a variety of ways.
It is a huge thing that something that was unimaginable a few years
ago is suddenly inevitable and obvious, and that is ascension to the
presidency of an African-American man. The other thing that is huge
about the election is that it is a generational shift. That we have
this young, very brilliant, very cool and compassionate person in the
highest office in the land.
But one thing that is often overlooked is that this is a man who
comes out of community organizing. I can't think of a president in
memory who would have been comfortable sitting in the kitchen of a
single mother on welfare on the south side of Chicago, sharing a cup
of coffee. But this man did that for a decade. So that's significant.
And the other thing that I think we overlook is that the election was
a great repudiation of the last eight years, of the politics of fear,
of the politics of war and militarization. And what's going to happen
next all depends on what people do. I'm constantly reminding students
that Lyndon Johnson, who passed the most far-reaching civil rights
legislation, was not a civil rights leader or participant. Franklin
Roosevelt was not a labor leader. And Abraham Lincoln did not belong
to an abolitionist party. So much depends on what we do.
Freep.com: But what … is the substantive change that is possible now
that wasn't possible before?
Ayers: Well change is always possible. So it's not a question of now
it's possible and once it wasn't. But we are in a moment when the
politics of 9/11, fear and loathing and paranoia and war have been
repudiated. And this is the moment of, "Yes we can." So there is a
sense of rising expectations. I think there is also a reality on the
ground, a real crisis, financial crisis, economic crisis, global
crisis in terms of war and peace. That combination of rising
expectations and real crisis creates unique opportunities.
Let's take foreign policy, for example. We've been I think controlled
in many ways by a dominant narrative or controlling metaphor … that
our safety depends on militarization. To me that's always been false,
but it is patently obviously false now. And it's a time when we can
as a nation as a people redefine the controlling metaphor or dominant
narrative. And I would argue that we're in a time where the
possibility of seeing a foreign policy based on justice or a foreign
policy based on being a nation among nations becomes for the first
time in a long time a real alternative.
Freep.com: You heard the inaugural address though. "If you think you
can outlast us you're wrong. If you think you can beat us you'll be
disappointed." What was (Obama) saying?
Ayers: I'm not sure. I thought the inaugural address was a good
speech. Not one of his greatest. But I think he intended it that way.
I think he was lowering expectations. You know he's not Superman.
I think the speech looked in two directions on foreign policy. On the
one hand, it looked in the direction of the so-called glory days of
the past. And the other thing it looked toward was the possibility of
listening to others and living in peace with others. … they're not
both possible. But the question of which road we'll take depends not
just on him. It depends on the mobilization of the popular will and
popular consciousness. That's what I mean about Lyndon Johnson and
civil rights movement. He didn't do that out of his own good heart;
he did that because there was a civil rights movement on the ground.
If we have a peace movement on the ground, if we have a social
justice movement on the ground, I think President Obama and his
administration will respond to that. As they should. As they must.
Freep.com: If the question is exerting influence over the new
administration, I could write a letter to the president. Is there any
difference between that happening and Bill Ayers writing a letter to
Ayers: I don't think so. I've been a public person for a long time.
But no, I don't have influence in the Obama administration, if that's
what you're asking.
Freep.com: How do you describe your relationship with former Senator
now President Obama?
Ayers: I would say he was a guy in the neighborhood, as he said about
me. That is, we knew each other. I knew lots of people in Hyde Park
(in Chicago). It's a small community. I knew him probably as well as
thousands of other people and like millions of other people today I
wish I knew him much much better.
Freep.com: You wouldn't call him a friend?
Ayers: No. But … the fact is. Oh, I would. I call a lot of people
friends. But I don't think he knew me better than he knew thousands
of other people.
And the dishonesty of that narrative that the Republicans tried to
spin, there were three aspects to it that were troubling.
One was the attempt to make me into a monster, which I am certainly not.
Second was the idea of guilt by association. That if you share a
board room or a bus ride or a cup of coffee or you see each other in
a restaurant that you are somehow responsible for one another's
policies and politics. That's an old and tired and despicable
tradition in American politics. And fortunately the American people
But the third aspect of the dishonesty was the idea that some
Americans are true and real and OK Americans and other Americans are
marginal and bad and dangerous and toxic. The problem with that is
that we live in a wild and diverse democracy, and I'm as much an
American as Sarah Palin. I was born here. I'm a citizen I have every
right to speak.
And the idea that she was trying …to say that because I hold certain
views or because I have a certain history that incidentally that I
have dealt with and that I have accounted for in every way required
of me somehow disqualifies me from public participation.
I'm a believer in democracy. I'm a believer in dialogue. And I think
everyone has a responsibility, but especially political leaders, to
meet with and think through with a wide range of people and then to
have a mind of your own. Clearly that's Obama's history; that's
Freep.com: But there are some things that are right and wrong?
Ayers: Sure, killing people is wrong. We agree that the Vietnam War
was wrong and that killing 2,000 innocent people a month for 10 years
Freep.com: And you've denounced terrorism?
Ayers: Consistently. "Fugitive Days" (his 2001 memoir) is an extended
denunciation of terrorism.
Freep.com: I'm still puzzled by the unrepetent terrorist label (that
dogged Ayers during the campaign).
Ayers: What does that mean? Who thinks these things up? What does
that possibily mean?
Freep.com: They're plain English words. I think we both understand them.
Ayers: Well I'm not a religious person so repentent is a little bit
hard for me.
Freep.com: So make it unapologetic.
Ayers: I'm apologetic about many many things. But what is it that
somebody wants me to apologize for. Burning my draft card? That was
destroying government property. Should I apologize for that? Well,
I'm not going to.
Freep.com: What about plotting bombings?
Ayers: Well I never said that I did that. But I was part of an
organization that claimed credit for some of those things. And the
things that we claimed credit for were the destruction of property at
a moment when 2,000 people a month were being murdered. We may have
crossed lines, we certainly did cross lines of legality, of
propriety, maybe even of common sense. Maybe we weren't effective.
Freep.com: How about of right and wrong?
Ayers: No, I don't think we were wrong. But there could be some
situations in which you could kind of map this out and think about
the rightness and wrongness of it. For example, if you had the
opportunity to interview John McCain, would this be at the front of
Freep.com: Would what be?
Ayers: The question terrorism and the question right and wrong. After
all, he killed people actually from the air, innocent people. So
would you be challenging him on that? Or is the fact that he did it
under the rubric of legality, does that make it OK?
Freep.com: Is there no distinction in your mind between an act of war
against a declared enemy and an act of terrorism?
Ayers: You have to start with a definition of terrorism. Let's go
back in American history. So take the question of slavery. Is it
legitimate for people to free the slaves? It was illegal. It was
destruction of property. Was it OK? By today's standards, of course
it was OK. But had you thought it was OK in 1840 you would have been
against the law, against your church, against your Bible, against
your parents, against your friends. So think this through a little bit.
Freep.com: You don't think there is a distinction between domestic
bombings … that hurt real people, and John McCain executing a mission
over North Vietnam? Is there any difference in kind between those two acts?
Ayers: There is no difference in kind between killing of any human
being. Any killing of any human being is a universe lost. Let's be clear.
If we sat on a stage with Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, John
McCain, John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, me and whoever else you want to put
up there … George Bush. And then you could measure responsibility.
And I'd be happy in that context and that company.
Freep.com: They are more guilty than you are?
Ayers: You think so? That's what I'd love to see. Henry Kissinger is
responsible for the death of millions. I'm responsible for the death
of no one. Does that distinction not seem to matter? In other words,
why am I held up as an example of something beyond the pale. Whereas
Kissinger, hey it was normal. He was the secretary of state ... Yeah,
he was the secretary of state overseeing an illegal, immoral,
genocidal attack on civilians. That is terrorism, pure and simple.
Freep.com: Is there any difference in your view between that action
and 2003-09 in Iraq?
Ayers: No. There are big differences between the two wars. In
Vietnam, there had actually been a social revolution. So it was easy
for someone like me to support the Vietnamese right to self
determination. Iraq is not a place that has experienced a social
revolution or any kind of progressive change, so no there are big differences.
Freep.com: Does that make the U.S. action in Iraq more or less justified?
Ayers: No. Neither is justified. And the proof they're not justified
is that the government lied to us about why they went in. And they
did it intentionally. And they did it in a very crude and cruel way.
The lie was uncovered very quickly. It was understood at the time.
Now it has come to be an article of faith, that we know the
government lied us into Iraq as they lied us into Vietnam.
The second thing that's very similar is that when a foreign occupying
power invades and then occupies a country, it looks remarkably
similar. That's why you have vets coming home today, as they came
home from Vietnam, saying, "We had no idea we were going into
something like that."
It's sad. It's naïve. But the fact is they say, "We couldn't tell the
friends from the enemies. We didn't mean to go in there and shoot up
families, but we did." Well that's what occupation looks like, folks.
Freep.com: If non-lethal domestic terrorism was justified to try to
stop the Vietnam War, why wouldn't it be OK now?
Ayers: I'm not a tactician, I have no idea what you're exactly
referencing. What was true during Vietnam was that the country went,
in three short years, the country went from 80% support of the war to
70% opposition to the war. And the anti-war movement was huge,
vibrant and vital. And when the war didn't end but it escalated, that
was a crisis for the anti-war movement. And it splintered into
several groups. Some joined the Democratic Party and tried to build a
peace wing and that resulted in George McGovern's nomination. Some
ran away to Africa, and Europe and Canada. Some went to the communes.
Some went into the factories to organize the industrial working
class. And we did what we did.
But I can't see in that anti-war movement, who did the right thing?
Who was effective at ending the war? It turns out none of us.
Freep.com: What would be appropriate now?
Ayers: What's appropriate now is what's appropriate always, to open
our eyes. See as honestly as we can what's actually going on in the
world. Recognize the unnecessary suffering, the undeserved harm
that's caused by whoever. But certainly a central responsibility is
caused by our own government.
Once you can identify that undeserved suffering, the need is to
oppose it. I've never advocated a particular tactic. Ever. So I'm
advocating opposition to this war, absolutely. And opposition to the
war in Afghanistan.
Freep.com: But you don't oppose any tactics either?
Ayers: No. I have a very simple standard for tactics. As an educator,
I always ask the question, was it educational? Was it effective?
I'm not a tactician. I'm not advocating a tactic. Don't identify me
with a tactic. I was arrested for non-violent direct action.
One of the things you should think about is the idea that there are
the violent people and the non-violent people. If you sit on your
couch and watch what's going on in Iraq and do nothing, that's not
non-violence; that's indifference. That's got nothing to do with
non-violence. Indifference is the problem, not a few knuckleheads
(committing violent acts). It's the orchestrated violence of the U.S.
government today around the world that is the problem.
Freep.com: I have to ask you about the specific allegation from,
(Larry) Grathwol, the FBI informant, that there was a specific plot
to blow up the Detroit Police HQ:
Ayers: None that I know. Then, I don't know everything.
Freep.com: You're familiar with his allegations?
Ayers: No. You're telling me this.
Freep.com: You've never heard of this guy?
Ayers: I've heard of Grathwol. I remember him. But no, I've never
read his book. I don't know what he said. You're the first person telling me.
Freep.com: He said that in February 1970 the Weatherman built two
bombs targeting the Detroit Police Officers Association building and
the 13th precinct.
Ayers: Not true.
Freep.com: (Reading from Grathwol) "The instructions I received from
Billy Ayers was that the bombs to be used in Detroit must have
shrapnel and fire potential."
Ayers: Not true. Not true.
Freep.com: And you've never heard those allegations before?
Ayers: No. Not those. I've heard a lot. But I try not to watch Fox
News too much because I think it's poisonous.