Bill Ayers was a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago until 2010, and he has published several books on pedagogy, including Teaching Toward Freedom (2010) and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher (2001). Before becoming a teacher, he was best known for his antiwar and civil rights activism in the Sixties and Seventies as co-founder of the Weather Underground, an activist group that bombed a series of public buildings—something he recounts and reflects on in his memoir Fugitive Days (2010). Ayers’s name came up notoriously during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Barack Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists” for having served on a charity board with Ayers and having conducted a fund-raiser at his home. Ayers was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and now lives with his partner Bernardine Dohrn—also a former Weatherman—in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, where the editors of The Point met with him last September.
The Point: In Fugitive Days, you write about how you expected a bigger working-class presence at the Days of Rage demonstrations in 1969. And given all the efforts that you guys made not just there, but over the years, to win over the working class and to bring them into your struggle, why do you think the working class didn’t rally in the way that you expected? And why do so many working-class Americans continue to vote conservative?
Bill Ayers: Well, you’ll have to read your Tom Frank for that.
TP: So you agree with his—
BA: To some extent. Well, first of all I think that we have to be careful with terms like the working class, obviously. When Marx wrote about the working class he was writing about something much more bounded than we’re talking about. The truth is that the antiwar movement was powered by the working class. The students were the ones that got the media and so forth, but it was the soldiers on the ground who really energized the antiwar movement in the late Sixties. Whether or not the working class came to Chicago in 1969 in the Days of Rage is not a measure of their commitment to stopping the war or to seeing life in certain way. There were very few of us who were there, and those of us that were had an illusion about ourselves. I think I say in the book that there was one moment when J. Edgar Hoover and us had the same distorted lens about who we were—“a real threat,” you know? He thought so and we thought so and we were buddies in that regard. Good work!
Organizing the working class in England or the U.S. or any other advanced capitalist country has been a daunting challenge. One question is: Who is the working class today, and how has it changed? Where are we in that? I don’t have a knee-jerk kind of 1930s thing about we must build the unions and that’s the way to the future. I’m writing this book right now called Pallin’ Around, and the subtitle is: “Talking to the Tea Party.” And frankly I find talking to the Tea Party exhilarating, I love it.
We agree on some things and disagree on other things. I’ll give you just one example. I spoke at the University of Georgia, and a whole contingent of Tea Party people in Hell’s Angels regalia came in and sat in the front and scowled at me while I gave my talk. And afterwards the head of the group got to the microphone and said, I’m surprised that I agree with almost everything you said, but I’m worried that you’re a big government guy. And I said, I’m not a big government guy, I’m worried you’re a big government guy. And he says, I’m not a big—how can you say that? I say, Well let’s agree then, we’ll cut the Pentagon to nothing. Let’s just eliminate the Pentagon. He says, Well not the Pentagon. Exactly. So who’s the big government guy? These labels are nonsense. And the Tea Party, if you want to call them working class, you know, a working-class insurgency from below, they are a mass of contradictions; they don’t have a single consistent viewpoint; but part of their impulse is to be wary of government. I’m wary of government. Part of their impulse is to dislike and be worried about the rich. I’m that way too. So I don’t find them to be as atrocious as most people do, as your liberals do. I’m not a liberal.
TP: You keep mentioning that you are not a liberal. What is it about liberalism that you—well, what is liberalism according to you?
BA: I’m not sure I can define it better than you guys can. There are things about classic liberalism that obviously I’m drawn to and I bet all of you are as well. Those are things like liberty, freedom, the Bill of Rights. But the reason that I reject the label is that I grew up cutting my teeth against the liberals. I wasn’t part of John Kennedy’s vision of the world, or Lyndon Johnson’s. I thought of them as anti-Communist imperial monsters. Now in my view, if you were to line up the Presidents in the order of who made the greatest accomplishments, you’d put Lyndon Johnson in that arena with both Roosevelts probably, and Lincoln and so on. But the idea that Lyndon Johnson was operating as a free agent and coming up with these ideas on his own is nonsense. Johnson was responding to a black freedom movement that was tearing the country open and he did what he had to do as a conservative politician. But I see Johnson as the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of the Dominican Republic and so on. So I’m not a liberal in that sense, because i think of liberals as part of that establishment. I’m anti-establishment. So all the labels, the reason that I keep joking and rejecting this idea that I’m liberal, well partly that’s because I think of myself as a radical, and by that I mean, not even in the terms of Left-Right that you might imagine—but someone who wants to go to the root of problems.
TP: In terms of going to the root of problems, and speaking of presidents, where would you place Obama? Have you been surprised or disappointed by anything in his presidency?
BA: Not surprised and not disappointed. Everyone who knew Obama from being in Hyde Park knew he was the smartest guy in any room he walked into; a decent, compassionate, lovely person; pragmatic, middle-of-the-road and ambitious. After I had known him for a while, I remember saying to my partner, “You know, this guy is really ambitious, I think he wants to be Mayor of Chicago.” That was the limit of my imagination. But Obama doesn’t disappoint me, because all during the campaign he said, I’m a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road, compromising politician. The Right said, He’s lying, he’s a socialist who pals around with terrorists, he’s a secret Muslim and blah blah blah. That was their line. The liberals all said, He’s winking at me, I can feel him winking in my direction. He wasn’t winking. He said exactly who he was and he’s lived that out perfectly.
So you can be disappointed but only if you thought he was something that he said he wasn’t! Every politician—FDR, Lyndon Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama—they’re all conservative by nature. They are part of the big thing and they’re moving in a very constrained world. Agitators, organizers, activists, intellectuals aren’t bound by those rules. We’re not trying to figure out, how do I thread this particular needle? We’re actually saying, here’s a principle that I’d like to arc toward. That’s a very different role in life. I didn’t expect Obama to go to the root of things. I didn’t expect him to have a principled position on anything. I mean, just pay some moderate attention to the guy. He’s running for Senate and he’s saying, I’m not for gay marriage because I’m a Christian. Jump off a bridge! I mean what the hell are you talking about? You know, I mean, what’s he doing now? He’s evolving. Evolving? Well, evolve for Christ’s sake! And this is a guy—the whole gay community, and the whole environmental community and all these other people said, he’s our guy.
If you listen to the debate, he and McCain said the same thing about gay rights. The exact same thing. McCain seemed to be winking to the Right, and Obama seemed to be winking to the Left. Neither one of them—if McCain had been elected we’d still be where we are on gay rights. Did Obama do anything on gay rights that McCain wouldn’t have done?
TP: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? That wouldn’t have been different?
BA: Maybe. But even there, Obama’s generals, his Pentagon, they’re telling him what to do. And the force for gay rights is inevitable. And you can say Obama will help us, and maybe he will, but only if we have something on the ground that will make him help us. Frankly, the gay movement on the ground has been one of the great propulsive things that has made politicians do what they do. Mayor Daley for twenty years riding in an open car in the gay parade—what was that about? Do you think he’s—I mean, he’s a fucking Catholic, he’s all tied in with the Catholic hierarchy, what was that about? Well, that’s about being a politician who feels the pressure from below. He didn’t come to it on his own. He came to it because he had to come to it. And the great example, the killer example in history, is of course Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator. Read his speeches. Read the debates. Wendell Phillips called him “the great slaver from Illinois.” Frederick Douglass ran a primary campaign against him the second time around, in 1864. They hated him. Why’d they hate him? Because he said things like “I believe in white supremacy.” That’s what Lincoln said. “The white man will always be above the black man. I don’t want them to run for office, or have political rights, or vote. I want them to go back to Africa.” That was Lincoln. Oh really? He said that? Yeah, read his speeches. And it was Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Wendell Phillips—these were the people who made abolition real. Now, none of you guys is in favor of slavery, right?
TP: No. Well, we’re still evolving.
BA: I’m evolving on that issue too! But the funny thing is—and this is why it’s worth mentioning Lincoln—that if we lived in 1840, it would have been a question that every one of us would have had to think about, and most of us would have, on a daily basis, gone along with it. And even if we thought it was repulsive, we’d say, John Brown’s a fucking idiot. He’s going to make people pro-slavery. Isn’t he? Didn’t he? It turns out he wasn’t and he didn’t. One of Thoreau’s greatest pieces was “In Defense of Captain John Brown,” and W.E.B. DuBois’ greatest book was called John Brown. Nobody reads it, but it was a great book. And to this day, people, black people, Dick Gregory, Tavis Smiley, go every June 4th to John Brown’s farm. Why? John Brown’s a crazy person, he’s a religious fanatic, an idiot, a dogmatist, a nut. Except that he moved history in a way that Lincoln didn’t.
So no, I’m not disappointed in Obama. He said who he is; he’s doing what he said he would do. But I do think his strategy for re-election is so misguided. He’s counting on the Republicans to self-destruct, and they might, you know, but they might not. So he might be a one-term president.
TP: You became personally involved in the 2008 campaign season…
BA: My involvement was to shut the fuck up.
TP: But what did you make of the enthusiasm surrounding the Obama campaign? A lot of people I was around who were your age compared it to the Sixties, but obviously there were some important differences too.
BA: Well, huge differences, and I—look, I was down in Grant Park the night that he was elected, were you?
BA: I think I saw you, were you the one I saw? And I broke into tears four times, I burst into tears four times. Why? Well, partly there was a sense of palpable relief that George Bush was leaving and that the Republicans had slipped back and that was a wonderful feeling. Something about the fact that an African American had, given the long sad history of our country, now become President—that was also exhilarating. Something about seeing a million people—I was the last person to leave Grant Park that night, and I found the place where I was beaten bloody forty years earlier and dragged to jail and that made me cry. When the family came out, that made me cry, and the reason I had a hard time leaving Grant Park was that to see a million people like that, feeling the way that million people felt, was so exhilarating. It wasn’t Obama per se; it was the feeling on the ground; it was seeing an old black woman in a wheelchair being wheeled by her son waving a big American flag, and then seeing a guy with his baby in his arms saying, “I didn’t want her to miss tonight! I wanted to be able to tell her!” And to see all these people, a Hispanic cop dancing with an old white woman, wow! I mean, that’s the world I want to live in, and because it’s the world I want to live in, I had a hard time leaving.
And I knew that the sun would rise, and all hell would break loose, and shit would come back. But I’m that way, and I’m that way a lot, and of course Bernardine always criticizes me. I cried at Avatar, I was sobbing. And she said, “That’s the biggest fucking cliché,” and I’m like, “Yes, but I want to live on the blue planet!” I really did feel that way.
But I don’t buy that it was an exciting thing because it was the most interesting or most exciting political moment. It wasn’t political in the way I think of politics. It was the Democratic Party, it was the Presidential election. We elected a president; we didn’t elect a king. So all the speculation in the next three months—people camped out at his house, and wondering who’s coming to visit, who’s going to be the Secretary of State—that all struck me as inane and stupid. Because of all the things I said before. It’s not Lyndon Johnson who makes the black freedom movement; it’s the black freedom movement who makes Lyndon Johnson. The question isn’t: Is Obama going to save us in 2008? The question is: Can we save his presidency? And the answer so far has been no. Because you know, so far, we have not got a movement on the ground that has any seriousness or sustainability around war, even though the American people hate war. We just watched this budget debacle right? Seventy-three percent of Americans want to tax the rich. Why can’t the politicians respond to that? Because they are the rich. And they are beholden to the rich. It’s a captured system.
TP: So why isn’t there that activist pressure then? Because you make the argument that politicians don’t want to change, they’re forced to.
BA: Politicians are conservative by nature. So where’s the activism? Nobody knows. And anyone who thinks they know, like Todd Gitlin, has their head up their ass. Nobody knows. The day before every revolution that’s ever happened, that revolution was impossible. The day before Rosa Parks, that was impossible. The day after, it was inevitable. And that’s in the nature of social change. So you can analyze what didn’t work, but it’s very hard to predict what will work. And all that means to me is that people who have a vision of a better world have a responsibility to open their eyes, to pay attention, to act on what the moment demands, and to be humble about that action. And I know that’s a little jarring, coming from a Weatherman, but what I mean by being humble is doubting if your action did anything. So you have to open your eyes, act and doubt. And then you have to repeat for a lifetime.
What will create the next upheaval? I don’t know, but let’s look at two things real quickly: the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the Sixties and the Arab Spring starting in Tunisia and Cairo. What they had in common was people who were told, and who believed inside themselves, that they were a certain way, and the society at large believed it. There was always resistance and there was always a counter-narrative, but we were told all through the early twentieth century that black people in the South don’t want an education, they don’t want to vote, they’re simple people, they don’t want this, they don’t want that. And it was the people themselves, through their own self-activity, who changed their conception of themselves, and then changed the world.
So, that’s where activism is so important. In Cairo, these young men hanging around in the street, we’re told these guys are lazy, they’re uneducated, they don’t care, they don’t have any political instincts—just like the working class in America, apparently—and then suddenly what the hell happened? What was that? They changed the world by changing themselves. Now is that over? No. Is the civil rights movement over? No. These movements have not accomplished what they set out to accomplish. And part of the reason they haven’t is that what they wanted to accomplish kept expanding. So that’s in the nature of activism as well. Do you get defeated? Yes. That’s the nature of it.
So I don’t know why there’s not more activism today. I do think that your generation is twenty times smarter than our generation ever was, but the problem with being smart like you guys is that it can lead you really easily to being cynical, and cynicism is actually a pacifying attitude; in cynicism you’re smarter than everyone else, so it’s easy to say, Fuck, look at that. And that’s interesting, but it’s not the same as actually being an agent for change. I think that you’re smarter than we were, but we had two things: one is, in our naïveté we believed we could change the world. And number two, we believed that another world was possible. And once that belief took hold of some critical mass, a tiny minority nonetheless, but a critical mass of people, then the world did change.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview published in Issue 5 of The Point as part of a symposium on the Left. For Bill Ayers’s reflections on John McCain (“he actually did commit war crimes”), Teach for America (“one of the great frauds”), Waiting for Superman (“this school reform debate couldn’t be more dishonest”) and the Weather Underground (“we didn’t even succeed on the littlest thing”), subscribe now or find The Point at your local independent bookstore.
 We conducted our interview with Bill Ayers on September 2nd, 2011. Just over two weeks later, protesters for what would become the Occupy Wall Street movement began arriving in Zuccotti Park.