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A Conversation with Bill Ayers
Bill Ayers, former 1960s radical and now a professor of education, became a household name after last year's presidential campaign. Less than a month before Election Day, he was clumsily referred to by Sarah Palin as one of the "terrorists" that Barack Obama was "palling around" with. In April, I spoke with Ayers about America's wars, public education, the state of marriage, and more.
Gore: You recently spoke at the Human Rights Festival in Athens, Georgia. Do you see any big human rights issues that are as pressing now as the ones that you and many others were involved with over 40 years ago?
Ayers: I do. First of all, I think the human rights framework continues to be vital in a thousand different ways. If you go back and read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights—I actually carry it around in my back pocket, I have for years—there are things like Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal with dignity and rights." That still has very important implications. Or, "Everyone has the right to a nationality."
Here's another one: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution." That's part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That's not some radical idea that gay people have "imposed" on us; it's right there from 1948. One of the overarching human rights issues is the full recognition and civil rights of GLBTQ people.
Another human rights issue is torture—not only by the U.S. abroad, but, for example, in Chicago, where the suspension of the death penalty several years ago was based on torture cases. That is, innocent men were tortured into confessions that put them on death row.
You have the Attorney General of the Justice Department writing memos just a couple years ago explaining why waterboarding is not torture, even though Japanese officials were tried for war crimes, one of which was waterboarding. But the Department of Justice issues an opinion that waterboarding is not torture, because as soon as you remove the gag from the person's mouth, his or her mental suffering ends? Well, that's just insane.
Another human rights issue is war and peace. People have a right to a peaceful existence and war destroys all human rights, yet we are a nation that is pretty much in a perpetual state of war. We're fighting at least two wars now—some would argue three or four.
Speaking of war, it seems like Obama put the anti-war movement in an awkward position. He's going to supposedly end the war in Iraq and pursue the "good war" in Afghanistan. What do you see the antiwar movement doing or what do you hope that it could do during an Obama presidency?
Chicago "Days of Rage" in 1969 (Ayers, right)
I don't think anyone should be deluded. We have lots and lots of historical examples, like Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of this generation and the man who passed and was, in many ways, responsible for the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in the history of the country. But there are two things to remember about that. The civil rights movement brought the agenda to Johnson—it wasn't the other way around. The civil rights movement provided the force, the energy and the moral framework for Johnson to do the right thing. So Johnson didn't save the civil rights movement—the civil rights movement saved Johnson. There's a lesson there for us today, which is, all the hope that Barack Obama will somehow do the right thing is misguided. With any luck, the peace movement, the justice movement can save his presidency, but it doesn't work the other way around.
Secondly, Johnson burned up his presidency in war. All the effective things he might have done were destroyed in the furnace of Vietnam. That was his responsibility and that is his legacy.
In a "Democracy Now!" interview, you suggested that our educational system should try to "educate for initiative and courage," as well as "imagination and hope and possibility." What could President Obama do right now to improve our public education system?
The one thing he could do immediately is to work against No Child Left Behind. Another thing he should do is spend that stimulus money to rebuild the educational infrastructure in places like Chicago and rural Georgia. In Chicago there are school systems that educate kids at the rate of $30,000-$40,000 per kid per year and schools just a few miles down the road that spend less than $5,000 per kid per year. That's a savage inequality.
A third thing he could do is to stop spending any money at all on test prep. Test preparation is not an education. Kids need access to the arts, sports, clubs, and games after school. Kids have had those things stripped away from them and they should be restored.
He should get the military out of the schools. Education is a civilian, not a military undertaking. The idea that Chicago, the most militarized school system in the country, has public high schools that are called "military schools," is an outrage in a democratic society. JROTC is proliferating like mad and the Department of Defense has JROTC and military high schools in its recruitment budget. When they say, "Well, it's not really about recruitment," they're lying. It's completely about recruitment.
Notice these military schools are in poor communities. No one would dare put a military school in Winnetka—a rich Chicago suburb—there's no way. But in the Chicago public schools, who's going to resist? Parents bought into it because they're led to believe there is no alternative or the argument is made again and again that kids will learn to be disciplined and orderly. But what could teach you more discipline than playing in an orchestra? Or being in a theater group? These require enormous discipline. But of course the only discipline that counts, in the mentality of the military, is military discipline. In other words: obedience, conformity, uniformity.
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) re-formed in 2006. Have you been able to talk to the students involved?
I know a lot of the SDS chapters and have spoken at their campuses. I'm a huge supporter of multi-issue radical political organizing that connects the war with global warming or that connects civil rights with GLBTQ issues or that connects GLBTQ issues with the right to universal health care. I like multi-issue organizing and SDS does a lot of that.
New SDS in 2008—photo by Isis, DC Indymedia
But the other thing that I feel very strongly about is that none of us should be so dogmatic or so certain that we know this is good organizing and this isn't. We should have an attitude of experimentalness and we should have an attitude of generosity. So I look at the formation of SDS as a hopeful sign.
The one thing I would say is that the movement we need today is a movement of organizers, not just a movement of people who feel that they take the right position; people who go out and talk to strangers, knock on doors, find ways to get into the public square in unique and new ways, not in old, tired ways, to engage the public in a conversation about the direction of the country. This is the moment of real opportunity because the rising expectations people are experiencing everywhere are coming into collision with the realities of the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, and more. I think that this is a moment when organizing is what we must do.
In the 1960s and 1970s, SDS and the Weatherpeople described America as being tainted by white and male privilege. Almost 40 years later, many on the left still consider that sentiment a pretty good description of the society we live in today. Would you agree with them?
I think the election of Obama was an important blow to white supremacy. I don't think it was a fatal blow. You have to look at the poverty rates, for example. Children born into poverty, people arrested, and people involved in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly people of color.
The system of white supremacy has to be done away with, not this particular individual with a biased attitude. It's the system that privileges people because of their race, their background, their gender, and this does still go on. Not uniformly, not universally. It never did. White supremacy is one of the founding principles of this country and it is not dead yet.
What about male supremacy?
Similarly, women still make significantly less than men for the same jobs and that's astonishing 40 years after the modern feminist movement got underway. So that's one way to measure male supremacy: access, recognition, and so on. But there are other measures as well. One of the things that all of these identity movements have to come to terms with—and the women's movement is a classic example of this—is the question of access versus transformation. Is the goal of the women's movement to have access so they can be as fully equal in the society that has injustice built right into it? If we had a woman president or a woman CEO of General Motors, would that be proof that women had made it? Or is a hope of the women's movement to create a society based on certain feminist principles like cooperation, mutual recognition?
Same with the question of the gay movement. Is the idea that gays should be equal to everyone else in terms of rights? Well, that's part of it. But some people would argue—and I think convincingly—that the real promise of the gay movement isn't that you get to fight in the U.S. Army and go kill people or that you get to enter into this moribund institution called marriage, but rather that we create a society in which being queer is not something considered horrible or an anathema, but that we build a society where the recognition of people in their wild range of diversity is acceptable. That's a different vision.
I don't know if I heard you correctly, did you call marriage a morbid or a moribund institution?
Moribund. An institution that ought to be killed off. Think about it, if you're married, you get rights that if you're not married, you don't get. One of my favorites, for example, is in Montana. You can pass your hunting license onto your spouse. If you're not married you don't have that right. But what's the point of that? Why don't we say instead: "We want universal health care, we want every human being to have the right to name who their heirs are. We need every human being to have a right to name the people they want at their bedside if they're in a serious crisis or in a life-threatening situation."
Why are these things tied to marriage? What's marriage got to do with it? Now if you want to get married and you belong to a temple or a church or an ashram or neighborhood or community of friends, go for it. Knock yourself out.
At this point, since we do have civil marriages, everyone ought to have a right to marry anyone they want. But if we did away with civil marriage altogether, did away with marriage, then you could get married in your religion or your cult or your neighborhood and nobody'd give a shit. A group of friends could come together and toss you up and down on a trampoline and throw rose petals at you, and God bless you all. I mean, people can make all kinds of decisions. Why marriage should be privileged above all others just strikes me as inhuman.
But you're married, aren't you?
Absolutely. All those rights, all those privileges that you get for being married. I don't know if you know the circumstance of my getting married. When my wife [fellow Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn] was called before a grand jury to testify, she refused and was put in prison. We had three kids and we'd been together for years. But at that point, we were vulnerable in front of the law. So we got her a furlough for two days to get married so that we could provide protection for her and me if she were to go to prison. But why should we have to do that? Why shouldn't I have the right to visit her without the nonsense of marriage?
Why, in The Weather Undergrounddocumentary, were you carrying a baseball bat on the streets of Chicago when you were retelling the story of the Days of Rage?
Because the filmmaker handed it to me. He thought it would be cute. I wasn't thinking about it much. He said, "Would you mind walking around with this baseball bat?" and I said "Nah, I don't mind."
Well, this event was out of control—you know, rioting—and here you are as an adult, talking about learning from your mistakes. Yet, you've got a baseball bat in your hand walking down the same street you smashed up 40 years ago. I just found that funny.
Yeah, it was ironic and I think that's how they meant it. But, you know, the truth is that that was a militant demonstration at a certain moment in time. Nobody should be controlled by or living in the nostalgia of the 1960s—for good or bad. We're in a new era. The 1960s is mostly myth and symbol. It didn't happen the way the perceived wisdom tells us it happened. It was more complicated, more layered, more contradictory than any single narrative can tell you. So I think it's kind of one of the great problems for young activists: living in the shadow of this mythological 1960s. Mythologically, we had the best music, the best demonstrations, the best sex. It's not true. It's so not true that it still astonishes me that people take that narrative seriously.
The other side of the narrative is: "Oh, they were out of control, they were domestic terrorists, they were crazy, they were horrible." That's also not true. So I think that people have to get over the 1960s and move on to some sense that we have to reinvent—right here, right now—a movement for social change and social justice and peace that doesn't rely on the mythology of the 1960s.
Just one example is the peace movement—we became a majority movement over time. The majority of Americans today also want peace also and are against the wars that we're waging. So it's not so different than it was back then. There is difference in terms of street mobilization, but let's not romanticize that either because, remember, we didn't end the war. That's very important to remember: that we did not have the power to stop it. The war dragged on for seven years after the majority of the American people opposed it. And it dragged on in a vicious way—6,000 people a week being murdered—so the idea that the anti-war movement then was remarkably successful whereas the anti-war movement today is not is just a myth.
We have to find a new rhetoric of resistance, new ways to mobilize—that's all true. But it's not true that we should measure it against what happened 40 years ago.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.