Some know him as a co-founder of the Weather Underground, aka the Weathermen, a Vietnam-era group that bombed public buildings in protest of the war.
Still others know him as a respected author, thinker and professor of education, even as the writer of a comic book.
“Obviously no one, not even me, knows exactly who I am, and I’m living it,” says William “Bill” Ayers, who points out that despite media labels of terrorist, communist or radical, he is a husband of 40 years, a father of three grown sons and a professor retired from the University of Illinois.
Ayers will speak April 26 at the UO on organizing for social justice during troubling times in democracy.
“I fight for the public schools, education, democracy and justice,” Ayers says. “I have been an antiwar activist my whole adult life.”
A conversation with Ayers is wide ranging, impassioned about everything from Occupy, which he supports; to labels, which he doesn’t; to social justice. He says he has been involved with direct action most of his life and anticipates being arrested when he participates in nonviolent civil disobedience as part of a protest against NATO in May when the organization comes to Chicago.
“I believe in it as a tactic,” he says.
He says that he gets asked often if he has renounced violence as a tactic, or if he regrets the Weather Underground bombings, but points out that it’s odd that those such as John McCain, who killed people during the Vietnam War, are not asked if they have renounced violence.
Ayers says that every week during the Vietnam War, 6,000 people were killed and “I can’t find a reasonable way” to equate property destruction with what John McCain did.
He says, “I am always asked about violence and the war in Vietnam, but I never flew in an airplane over a civilian population and intentionally dropped bombs on people.”
It would be “useful to have a truth and reconciliation process, and put up on a stage everyone who’s over 50 or over 55, and have them say what they did from 1965 to 75, the years of the Vietnam War,” Ayers says.
“And I will say exactly what I did and I will take full responsibility for it, I’ll say what I’m sorry for, which is a lot, standing next to Henry Kissinger, [Robert] McNamara, and Bush and Cheney and Gore and McCain and [John] Kerry and [Bob] Kerry and everybody else. And in that context I think we could reach some reconciliation.” He continues, “In that context I’d be more than happy to take full responsibility for everything I did, and to be sorry for a lot of it.”
He points out that if you define terrorism as an act of violence randomly pursued against people in order to influence their politics, then an individual, a religion or a government, among others, can all perpetrate terrorism. Organized governments have historically committed the most acts of terror, he says. “What the hell are drone strikes? What are those?”
Labeling protesters and those who have participated in direct action as terrorists “is a framing that’s convenient for power, but that is completely inaccurate, so inaccurate that it blows your mind,” Ayers says.
Ayers argues that “the use of the domestic terrorism label is overkill at the highest level.” A crime, or destroying property, even federal property, he says, should be prosecuted, but labeling it terrorism “adds nothing except fear, ignorance and misdirection,” and “is a dangerous direction for the country.”
Ayers is “a huge supporter of the Occupy effort” and has occupied Chicago and Wall Street, and spoken at or participated in general assemblies at 14 different Occupy sites. “One of the things about Occupy is that it’s a metaphor; it’s not a point of arrival, it’s an invitation, an opening.”
Radicals, he says, are people who try to get to the bottom of things, go to the root. Ayers says that “to be a radical is in part to get to the base of how things are framed and reframe those things.” Occupy, Ayers says, has changed the discussion of this country. We now talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, and Mitt Romney’s taxes, which we didn’t before, he points out.
The day before Occupy happened, “it was impossible,” he says. “The day after it was inevitable.”
“We should all take Occupy’s invitation up and be part of it,” he says, and go be part of the general assembly.
“In a democracy, even in an aspirational, flawed, partial democracy, whatever else we teach, we need to teach initiative and courage and imagination, and developing a mind of one’s own,” Ayers says. And that, along with the right to an education, will be some of the focus of his talk in Eugene.
William Ayers speaks on teaching and organizing for social justice 7:30 pm Thursday, April 26, in Lillis 182 on the UO campus; Free. A livestream will be at wkly.ws/19f