Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissidentby Bill Ayers
In this sequel to Fugitive Days, Ayers charts his life after the Weather Underground, when he becomes the GOP’s flaunted “domestic terrorist,” a “public enemy.”
Labeled a "domestic terrorist" by the McCain campaign in 2008 and used by the radical right in an attempt to castigate Obama for "pallin' around/b>/i>
In this sequel to Fugitive Days, Ayers charts his life after the Weather Underground, when he becomes the GOP’s flaunted “domestic terrorist,” a “public enemy.”
Labeled a "domestic terrorist" by the McCain campaign in 2008 and used by the radical right in an attempt to castigate Obama for "pallin' around with terrorists," Bill Ayers is in fact a dedicated teacher, father, and social justice advocate with a sharp memory and even sharper wit. Public Enemy tells his story from the moment he and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, emerged from years on the run and rebuilt their lives as public figures, often celebrated for their community work and much hated by the radical right. In the face of defamation by conservative media, including a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed solely at demonizing Ayers, and in spite of frequent death threats, Bill and Bernardine stay true to their core beliefs in the power of protest, demonstration, and deep commitment. Ayers reveals how he has navigated the challenges and triumphs of this public life with steadfastness and a dash of good humor—from the red carpet at the Oscars, to prison vigils and airports (where he is often detained and where he finally "confesses" that he did write Dreams from My Father), and ultimately on the ground at Grant Park in 2008 and again in 2012.
The one-time Weather Underground fugitive talks about his life as a political bogeyman. While Ayers (Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, 2004, etc.) may be just as radical in his politics as ever, in temperament, the years, fatherhood and a distinguished career as a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago seem to have mellowed him--a bit. "I'm genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment," he admits. However, it's not his outspokenness against militarism, racism, imperialism and other isms associated with the status quo that has drawn Ayers often unwittingly (not to say, unwillingly) into the national political spotlight. Oftentimes, fate has played a hand--on September 11, 2001, for example, when the New York Times by chance ran an article on Ayers' then newly published memoirs of his radical past Fugitive Days under the title "No Regrets for a Love of Explosives." The appearance of the article the morning the Twin Towers fell saddled Ayers in the minds of an influential portion of the media (both liberal and conservative) with the epithet "unrepentant terrorist" and made him too hot to handle for many bookstores, education conferences and college campuses. During his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama's proximity to Ayers as a neighbor and occasional colleague was brutally, albeit ineffectively, cited by both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin as evidence of the future president's own alleged dangerous radicalism. Despite his notoriety earning him death threats, canceled invitations and the indignity of being denied the honorific "emeritus" by his university upon his retirement, the author is surprisingly bemused, and often charmingly amusing, about his predicament. His writing is thoughtful, penetratingly insightful and marvelously lacking in self-pity. No matter how they feel about his politics, readers of this memoir should find the author's humanity irresistible.
“This compelling sequel to Ayers’ Fugitive Days describes the author’s chaotic life after he and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn, became the topic and target of conversation during Barack Obama’s first run for the presidency. . . . Demonized and blacklisted, Ayers maintains not only his sanity but also his humor. . . . A wonderful homage to free speech.” —Booklist, starred review
“The one-time Weather Underground fugitive talks about his life as a political bogeyman. . . . His writing is thoughtful, penetratingly insightful and marvelously lacking in self-pity.
No matter how they feel about his politics, readers of this memoir should find the author’s humanity irresistible.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The legendary Bill Ayers is at his spellbinding best in Public Enemy—a brilliant, spirited document of a revolutionary life in our not-so-revolutionary age. One of the most compelling, insightful memoirs of the year.” —Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“An inspiring, ripping read. Apart from being a committed activist, engaging thinker, and brilliant parent, Bill Ayers is a great storyteller.” —Aleksandar Hemon, author ofThe Lazarus Project
“Bill Ayers is a master teacher, a master storyteller, and a clarion-clear voice of conscience and commitment. Here he is, standing calmly at the center of the never-ending maelstrom, a public enemy trying to make meaning and change and sense of it all.” —Adam Mansbach, author of Rage Is Back
“Bill Ayers writes eloquently of the profound challenges, the joys, and the toll of embracing a deep, lifelong commitment to social change. He has confronted power for more than half a century: in the civil rights movement, against the Vietnam War, living underground for over a decade, and during his long career as a respected educator. This deeply personal memoir spans the gap from the ’60s to the present day, framing the current so-called war on terror in a critical, urgent light.” —Amy Goodman, author of The Exception to the Rulers
“With incisive humor, Bill Ayers’s captivating memoir reveals that behind the fearsome ‘public enemy’ lies a deeply dedicated parent, compassionate teacher, and principled revolutionary activist, representing this country’s best hopes for a democratic future." —Angela Davis, author of Women, Race, and Class
“In no way apologetic, the book is a well-written consideration of an engaged life lived in a contentious time." —Counterpunch
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Confessions of an American Dissident
By BILL AYERS
BEACON PRESSCopyright © 2013 William Ayers
All rights reserved.
Spring 2008, Chicago
It was a mid-April evening, the sweet smells of springtime upon us and the last light reluctantly giving way outside the front window, when my graduate seminar ended and everyone pitched in to clean up. A dozen of my students were spread out in our living room, cups and dishes scattered everywhere, small piles of books and papers marking specific territory. Until a moment before, all of us had focused intensely on the work at hand: thesis development, the art of the personal essay, and the formal demands of oral history research. As a professor for two decades, my favorite teaching moments often popped up during these customary potluck seminars at our home—something about sharing food in a more intimate personal setting, perhaps, or disrupting the assumed hierarchy of teacher authority, or simply being freed from the windowless, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers that passed for classrooms at my university. But the seminar was done for this evening, and as students began to gather their things, a self-described "political junkie" clicked on the TV and flipped to the presidential primary debate, well under way by now, between Hillary Clinton and the young upstart from Chicago, Barack Obama.
ABC was broadcasting the debate to a record-setting audience, and the debate moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos seemed to be doing their best to make a mess of things, avoiding anything of substance in favor of a kind of weird political cage fighting—bloody performance art—throwing up little bits of trivia and gossip and "gotchas," inviting snarls and cuts without any serious illumination or thoughtful reflection. I wandered in and out from the kitchen, muttering that no one watching would be the wiser for the time spent, but my students didn't pay me any mind. The only explicit response I got was from one of the youngest, who glanced at me impatiently as she emphatically shushed me. Everyone, it seemed, was captured by the theater riot beaming from the screen, political junkies all, fascinated by what was being framed by the big brains of punditry as a "historic contest." I stood near the back of the room.
Stephanopoulos, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, turned to Senator Obama and said, "On this ... general theme of patriotism in your relationships ..." The general theme in question was becoming central to the dramatic narrative spun by everyone now running against Obama, and Stephanopoulos was about to press him about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose most impassioned statements about racism, war, and the American government ("God damn America!") had been widely disseminated and discussed.
"But do you believe he's as patriotic as you are?" he asked.
Obama replied, "This is somebody who's a former Marine. So I believe that he loves this country. But I also believe that he's somebody who, because of the experiences he's had over the course of a lifetime, is also angry about the injustices he's had."
Now Stephanopoulos was bearing down on the "general theme of patriotism in your relationships." "A gentleman named William Ayers," Stephanopoulos began. "He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that.... An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are 'friendly.' Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?"
I thought Obama looked slightly stricken, temporarily off-balance, and uncharacteristically tongue-tied. I was probably projecting, because I felt suddenly dizzy, off-balance, and tongue-tied myself. But I know for sure my students were thunderstruck. Their heads snapped in my direction and a few literally dropped to the floor, one with both hands over her mouth. Obama replied: "This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from.... The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts forty years ago, when I was eight years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George."
He had us at "he's a guy who lives in my neighborhood."
An explosion of laughter ricocheted around the room. Some were genuinely amused, some disbelieving and a bit horrified; everyone clamored to make sense of the bombshell that had just dropped into our little seminar, and by extension, reverberated around the country and the world. I sat down, and the student who had shushed me a moment ago turned to me and said, "Oh my God, that guy has the same name as yours." Another explained to her excitedly that that's because we were indeed the same guy: "Bill's the guy, and we're in the neighborhood George is talking about!"
No one in our living room really heard Hillary Clinton raise the stakes. She was concerned about Obama's association with someone who, she pointed out, said in an interview published in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, that he didn't regret bombing government buildings even though, Clinton claimed, "in some instances people died," and "he was just sorry they hadn't done more," and that the relationship continued after 9/11. No one heard Obama match her poke for poke: Your husband, he charged, "pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with somebody." Neither candidate really knew what they were talking about, and each seemed simply to be following fact-free scripts written by pollsters or aides assigned the dirt detail. Clearly, both camps had done some shabby opposition research, and each was busy, busy, busy spinning its particular phony narrative. Each candidate threw a few more chips on the fire before moving on, and no one listening or watching learned anything substantive from the exchange.
My students were amazed to see me cast on TV as some kind of public enemy, and even though I knew the connection was a story that had been percolating in the fever swamps of the right-wing blogs for months, I was amazed too. My partner, Bernardine Dohrn, and I had hosted the initial fund-raiser for Obama and uncharacteristically donated a little money to his campaign for the Illinois senate; we lived a few blocks apart, and he and I had sat on a couple of nonprofit boards together. So? Who could have predicted it would blow up like this?
"A guy around the neighborhood"—as funny as it sounded, I thought he got it exactly right.
Before Obama became a US senator and then a presidential candidate, Bernardine and I thought of him as a guy around the neighborhood, too. Even though lots of people have said to me something like, "Oooo-oooh!!!" remembering that he'd called me "a guy around the neighborhood," I didn't take it that way at all. After all we knew him then not as the huge, all-caps, super-accomplished, unbelievably successful, transcendent person he would become but as someone you might run into at the bookstore or the market. A guy ... around the neighborhood.
Bernardine knew Michelle Obama as a smart, dignified, and community-minded advocate from the time they overlapped at a Chicago law firm, and when we later met Barack, she thought he was almost, if not quite, Michelle's match. He too was brilliant, "the smartest guy in any room he walks into," I said repeatedly, and later added, "Including the US Senate." And not only hugely intelligent but also kind and sturdy and compassionate—a great combination. No one could miss another quality either: political ambition. For years I said to Bernardine—in a real display of the low horizon of my own imagination— "Barack's obviously going places.... I think he wants to be the mayor of Chicago someday."
He and I served together on the board of the Woods Fund, a small Chicago foundation that supported community organizing in the belief that ordinary people have the keys to making a more just and joyful world for all. The people with the problems are also the people with the solutions, we said. Community organizing was the foundation of the Black Freedom Movement, the women's movement, and the labor and immigrant rights movements, the fight for safe workplaces and the forty-hour workweek, and much more. Barack came to the foundation because of his experience as a community organizer and as a lawyer at a civil rights firm. I came as an education professor and school reform activist, as well as someone who wrote about urban problems and city kids.
In our modest boardroom Barack was steady and cool, always a quick study and always a serious practitioner of conversation in search of common ground. Several of the grants we gave out were adventurous and unpredictable, and most of us felt that was exactly our job: to set a learning agenda and to provide teachable moments, times of disequilibrium where new and innovative solutions to old problems might emerge. That meant not all of our grants were successful in any conventional sense, and that board meetings were lively and sometimes contentious, even raucous.
At one meeting, the board split on a small arts grant to a theater group that performed plays challenging bias against gay and lesbian students, largely in schools. The young program officer who presented the grant was interrogated sharply by a senior board member, who said that it offended his personal moral views and his religious convictions. The younger man fought back quietly but bravely, defending it as a question of social justice and community ethics, and simply as the right thing to do. The grant passed, barely.
When we took a break, Barack pointedly told the program officer that he admired him for his steadfastness in a difficult situation. Then he stepped outside with the dissenting board member and told him he understood how hard it must be to see the value of this proposal through his own perspective, but that over time we would all be glad we had stood up against discrimination and for equal rights. Pure Barack.
When Bernardine and I were asked by our state senator, the redoubtable Alice Palmer, to host a coffee for Barack Obama as he launched his first campaign for public office, we said yes. Our home was always open for a rendezvous or two and for all kinds of gatherings, meetings, book talks, seminars, campaigns, salons, fund-raisers, discussion groups, get-togethers, play-readings, and round tables. It was a pretty routine Sunday afternoon: a few dozen folks—colleagues from the university, lawyers, Hyde Park neighbors—with coffee and cake and cookies. When Bernardine stopped the informal conversation, welcomed people to our home, and introduced Alice and Barack, the afternoon took on an unmistakable passing-of-the-torch vibe. Alice was stepping down from the Illinois senate to run for Congress, she wanted to see her seat go to someone who would continue in a progressive direction, and she thought Barack was the one.
Barack praised Alice for her work in and out of government, then spoke about the need to develop a bottom-up, top-down strategy for moving any progressive agenda forward. "Without organized power from the grassroots, nothing will advance; without political leaders who will respond wherever possible, those good efforts are stifled," he said. A South Side minister said a kind word about Barack's work, a couple of other politicians from Alice's generation agreed, and then Bernardine gave a modest pitch for donations—we raised a few hundred bucks. Obama won Alice's seat in the Illinois state senate, and the rest is history.
Of course, years later, on the night of the Stephanopoulos surprise, none of my students knew any of this, and no one in our living room could have seen this coming. By the time everyone settled down, the debate was done. My students stuck around for quite a while, a bit dazed, I think. Someone pointed out helpfully that I wasn't a professor of English, and someone else wondered aloud how this line of attack might impact Senator Obama's chances. Most were super considerate, asking what I needed and attending to me as if I'd been hit by a truck—which was a bit how I felt. How are you? Can I get you some tea? And then: how well did you know him? Are you thrilled to be associated like this? Are you scared? I think for some of them there was an abrupt awareness that, while they'd known me quite well a few minutes before, they had suddenly ceased to know me at all. That made sense to me, because for a moment I wondered who I was as well. When they finally trickled out, some still shaking their heads in marvelous disbelief, others smiling in wonder, each offered a hug or a handshake. It was a bizarre end-of-seminar moment, but quite tender.
The evening became even more surreal: no sleep, of course, and lots of phone calls from family and friends, lots of disbelief and laughter and support, as well as some sense of foreboding and apprehension. Bernardine and I held each other a little closer, trying to regain our balance and come to terms with the sudden sense that this cartoon character, Bill Ayers, who looked exactly like me and shared my name, address, and Social Security number, was about to become a punching bag in a presidential campaign, a character who might actually have an impact on the outcome of a national election. It felt altogether too big and, all in all, too strange.
Fantastic, unreal, crazy—Bill Ayers had been quiet and still, fermenting on a dusty shelf in an unused laboratory for decades, when he was abruptly plucked from a jar of brine. Suddenly, there he was, a little wrinkled, dripping and smelling of vinegar and garlic, but alive! And the Weather Underground, suspended in amber all these years, was reborn out of the blue, not only active and breathing fire but all of a sudden more menacing and dangerous—and far, far better known—than it had ever been before. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation had been administered by the fringe, but its resurrection now lay in the hands of an opportunistic media and eager campaign staffs of the Right, the middle, and even the moderate Left.
Opponents had found it devilishly difficult to generate an effective blow against the smart and charismatic senator from Illinois, anything that might gain traction, score points, and derail this young, forward-charging politician. Hillary Clinton was blazing the trail that night, generating an attack with a murky story line built on a detestable political sleight of hand: old, reliable guilt by association.
Barack Obama emerged out of nowhere, she implied, as if in a dream. While he was certainly a man of charm, smarts, and skill, we should all have been asking, Who is he really? Admire the man's undeniable strengths, to be sure, but plant the doubt: he's an unknown with an "exotic background" and a strange name, a man who may knock everyone out but remains a mystery. The repeated and dramatic refrain came in the form of a question: "What do we really know about this man?" Uncertainty, innuendo, and the scent of fear: a long-standing poisonous brew in American electoral politics. And, of course, in the case of Obama, the venomous signifier of color—the smear that dare not speak its name—seethed and percolated just below the surface. Is he one of us?
A set of shadowy supporting actors added teeth and a little zing: an African American preacher with a Black liberation theology message, a social justice agenda, and a fiery style; an activist white priest identified with the Black community on Chicago's fabled South Side; a scholar with an Arabic name and a record of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people; and eventually an "unrepentant domestic terrorist." That last bit part would be played by me or my stunt double, and if I refused to cooperate, fading pictures of me recovered from my blazing youth would have to do. Each of us was cast as a public enemy, an opponent, and a treacherous foe of the decent people.
I had joined the civil rights movement in the mid-sixties, true. I'd later resisted the draft, become a full-time community organizer and antiwar activist with Students for a Democratic Society, and at the end of the decade, in the ashes of a Greenwich Village explosion that took the lives of three comrades, was one of the team that cofounded the Weather Underground. However, not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either. We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.
Never mind—Senator Obama, contaminated by his links with these dodgy characters, must immediately and repeatedly denounce, deny, and dissociate. The dramatic action involved selectively highlighting the histories and outrageous perspectives of these "un-American" eccentrics, ferreting out every secret tie and dangerous affiliation, and then insisting that the senator defend his associations. It was a war, and bloggers, commentators, and intrepid aspiring Jimmy Olsens on steroids began to man their forward outposts 24/7.
Excerpted from PUBLIC ENEMY by BILL AYERS. Copyright © 2013 William Ayers. Excerpted by permission of BEACON PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Bill Ayers is the author of the acclaimed and controversial memoir Fugitive Days and many books on education, including To Teach, Teaching Toward Freedom, and A Kind and Just Parent. He lives in Hyde Park, Chicago.
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Public Enemy is a book for political true believers of all stripes across the national and global stage. Building on a literary foundation that represents some of best crafted prose of the year, Ayers offers much to savor. He takes us to venues near and far, introducing us to friends and political celebrities, new acquaintances and a few birds of a very different feather while imbedding homilies on the ideals, principles of justice, democracy and work for peace we all seek to sustain. But Bill Ayers' memoir is more than politics writ large. I really appreciated the day to day details of Bill and Bernadine Dohrn raising their young family in the 80's while reminding us of what's is most important in nurturing healthy, self-actualizing and socially responsible children. Through numerous encounters Ayers tells the lessons of men and women, students and children across the generations who inspired as well as challenged him to stick to his better instincts. Among the many lessons, I loved the section on Mike Klonsky, a long time Ayers' friend and Chicago education activist who reminds Bill that resistance to those seeking to silence all of our voices is the real issue each of us is confronting. When Bill thanks Mike for defending him by refusing to participate in an education conference which has barred Bill, Mike sternly replies, "Defending you? I wasn't defending you, I was defending myself. . . I am as radical as you are . . . . " Then, there is principled commitment of the people at Millersville University who welcome and provide space for Bill when so many liberals ran for cover in face of the national discourse condemning our so-called 'unrepentant terrorist'. As a historian and aging activist I also loved the importance Ayers finds for honoring and learning from our elder activists like 90 year old , legendary Greek dissident Manolis Glezos. For all of us who have stood up to the threats and actions of those in power who have tried to intimidate and silence our principled voices in the daily political grind of living in and challenging the existing order, Pubic Enemy offers welcomed sustenance, often even good humor, and for certain needed energy to keep us moving forward. Thanks Bill.