No Regrets

From our August 2001 issue: “Kill your parents!” urged sixties leftist Bill Ayers, whose father was the chairman of Commonwealth Edison here. In Ayers’s new memoir, Fugitive Days, he reconciles his militant past with his present identity: father of three, esteemed professor at UIC—and unabashed patron of the great bourgeois coffee chain, Starbucks

At 55, Bill Ayers, the notorious sixties radical, still carries a whiff of that rock ‘n’ roll decade: the oversize wire-rim glasses that, in a certain light, reveal themselves as bifocals; a backpack over his shoulder—not some streamlined, chic job, but a funky backpack-of-the-people, complete with a photo button of abolitionist John Brown pinned to one strap.

Yet he is also a man of the moment. For example: There is his cell phone, laid casually on the tabletop of this neighborhood Taylor Street coffee shop, and his passion for double skim lattes. In conversation, he has an immediate, engaging presence; he may not have known you long but, his manner suggests, he’s already fascinated. Then there is his quick laugh and his tendency to punctuate his comments by a tap on your arm.

Overall, it is not easy to imagine him as part of the Weatherman, a group that during the late sixties and early seventies openly called for revolution in America, led a violent rampaging protest in Chicago, and took credit for numerous bombings around the United States.

One of the Weatherman leaders was Bernardine Dohrn, a smart, magnetic figure who, in part because of her penchant for miniskirts and knee-high boots, was dubbed “La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left” by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. After a bomb exploded accidentally and killed three of their colleagues, Ayers and Dohrn “hooked up,” in the parlance of the day, and, since 1982, they have been married. This—violence, death, and white-hot rhetoric—is his past and Ayers insists he has no regrets. “I acted appropriately in the context of those times,” he says. But it’s hard to reconcile this quick-witted man with that revolutionary. Today Bill Ayers seems too happy to have ever been so angry.

Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, claims to abhor nostalgia (“Nothing is more boring than some old person going on and on about the way things used to be"). But he has been thinking lately about the past—both his and the country’s—and soon he will likely be engaged in what he calls “a dialogue” about the sixties, the antiwar movement, and the radical life he led. The spur for this dialogue will be the publication of Fugitive Days (Beacon Press, $24), a memoir Ayers has written about the trajectory of his life, from a pampered son of the Chicago suburbs to a young pacifist to a founder of one of the most radical political organizations in U.S. history.

In the pantheon of radicals of the sixties and seventies, Ayers’s place is unique. “He was not as notorious as Bernardine Dohrn,” says Don Rose, a political consultant who has written about those times. “But what made Ayers of particular interest then was that he was the son of a captain of industry. Now he’s interesting because, of all the farther-out radicals, he has achieved the most scholarly reputation.”

Writing the book has been “a daunting task,” Ayers says, “because I want to be true to those times. I don’t feel nostalgic for the sixties, but there is no doubt in my mind that the events I write about were shaping events, and they provided for me a way of seeing the world that seemed so alive and so resonant that I can’t escape it, no matter what I do.”

Certainly there are moments when Ayers has the sound of the sixties down pat, like when he tells me, “Imperialism or globalization—I don’t have to care what it’s called to hate it.” And then there are moments when he sounds light-years away from his radical sensibilities, more like an old grump lamenting today’s uninformed youth: He tells me a story about going into Starbucks and having the young woman behind the counter mistake his photo pin of John Brown for Walt Whitman. “And when I told her, no, it’s John Brown, she said, ‘Who is John Brown?’”

But I am struck by another part of that story. What are you doing in a Starbucks? I ask the man who professes to hate globalization.

“Oh,” he says. “I have an addiction to caffeine.”

There you have the complexity of Ayers: a man who once tried to overthrow his country’s government and now works for a state university; an opponent of the bourgeoisie who has been married for 20 years; a left-wing radical who loves a good cup of imperialist coffee. Maybe he’s always known how to choose his battles. Once one of his sons wanted to hear about how Ayers had been a draft card burner. “Tell me again how you burned your credit card, Pop,” his son confusedly asked.

“I’m not that radical,” Ayers retorted.

* * *

 

Photograph: Jeff Sciortino


 

He grew up in Glen Ellyn, where the grass was literally always greener. His father, Thomas Ayers, was a long-time executive of Commonwealth Edison and served as chairman from 1973 to 1980. “Nice was crucially important,” Bill Ayers writes of his childhood, and it’s clear in his memoir that what Ayers has long been running from is not so much the law of the 1960s and 1970s but the upper-middle-class sensibility in which he was raised. He attended Lake Forest Academy, where he was the sole member of the Young Socialists of America; he hated every minute of school there. He liked what he found at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor: freewheeling thought, radicalism, and a passionate desire to stop the war in Vietnam, at almost any cost. Soon he dropped out, joined the Students for a Democratic Society, and became a full-time activist; arrests in demonstrations quickly followed, much to his family’s dismay.

One of the more amusing passages in Fugitive Days comes when Ayers recounts a generations-in-conflict conversation when his father counseled caution:

“Don’t close too many doors to the future,” he said. “Don’t take too many steps down a one-way street.”

“What are you doing to end the war?” I challenged.

“Edison isn’t political,” he said. “That’s not our business. . . . I’d be doubtful about a group calling itself Students for a Democratic Society—this is, after all, a democratic society.”

“Well, I’m doubtful about a group calling itself Commonwealth Edison,” I said. “There’s nothing common about wealth.”

He walked out of jail and into his first teaching job, at a daycare center in Ann Arbor. Soon he was the 21-year-old director of the place. It was there he met Diana Oughton, a beautiful and accomplished young woman. They fell in love and attended SDS conventions together. As the war dragged on and U.S. politics became more polarized, some of the war resisters—including Ayers, Oughton, and Dohrn—turned more militant. They started a group called the Weatherman, a name inspired by the Bob Dylan song lyric “You don’t need a weatherman / To know which way the wind blows.”

In 1969, they decided to “bring the war home” by staging a protest in Chicago during the trial of the “Chicago Eight” radicals accused of conspiring to cross state lines to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention here. (Their conviction was later overturned.) “The Days of Rage,” as the 1969 protest was called, brought several hundred members of the Weatherman—many of them attired for battle with helmets and weapons—to Lincoln Park. The tear-gassed marches, window smashing, and clashes with police lasted four days, during which 290 militants were arrested and 63 people were injured. Damage to windows, cars, and other property soared to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Around this time, Ayers summed up the Weatherman philosophy as “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents—that’s where it’s really at.”

“The rhetoric was excessive because the times were excessive,” says Ayers. “The war had escalated, so naturally the language escalated. No one thought I meant that literally.”

Between 1970 and 1974, the Weatherman took credit for 12 bombings, including one of the United States Capitol and another involving several police cars. The group always emphasized that their targets were property, not people. And, in fact, no one was injured—except, of course, some of the Weatherman’s own.

In 1970, a bomb that was apparently being built in a Greenwich Village townhouse, occupied by at least five members of the Weatherman, accidentally exploded—killing three of the group, including Ayers’s beloved Diana Oughton. In Fugitive Days, Ayers tries to imagine what happened. Maybe Diana tried to stop the others from their path? Maybe they all drank too much coffee and smoked too many cigarettes?

Maybe Diana saw that this bomb, packed with nails and screws, would have exacted a heavy human toll if it had ever reached its destination—a New Jersey military base. Could she have, in a gesture of sacrifice, crossed the wires herself? “I’ll never know what happened,” he says. “That’s the price I have to pay.”

The deaths—and two federal indictments—sent Ayers and his remaining comrades underground. The fugitives eluded the FBI for ten years through a series of constantly changing identities and locations. In one of the most haunting scenes in Fugitive Days, Ayers wanders through remote Midwestern cemeteries, looking for the gravestones of babies who, like them, had been born between 1940 and 1950 but had died shortly thereafter. It was from those headstones that the fugitives would build their new identities. Overall, Ayers figures, he had at least 12 separate aliases while living in 15 different states. The one he used most often was “Joe.” Bernardine’s favorite was “Rose,” and to honor her, Ayers got the rose tattoo he now sports on his forearm.

In 1980, Ayers and Dohrn turned themselves in. (The first words Ayers’s father said to him were, “You need a haircut.") By then they had had two children together, and the bombing conspiracy charge against the couple had been dismissed due to government misconduct.

Dohrn plea-bargained to charges of inciting to mob action and resisting police officers. She was sentenced to three years’ probation and a $1,500 fine. Ayers was not charged. Even then he showed a way with words: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country,” he said.

The next year, a Weatherman killed a Brink’s guard and two state troopers in a bungled armored truck robbery. Kathy Boudin, the daughter of an esteemed New York civil rights lawyer, was sentenced to 20 years to life for her role in the crime; Ayers and Dohrn adopted her infant son. Today Ayers says it was partly because of “[the boy’s] questions of who he is and what the background of his mother’s life was that [Ayers] started to write this memoir.”

* * *

 

Now, Ayers is a respected name in the field of education; his books, including To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher and A Good Preschool Teacher, are hailed by some as groundbreaking and thoughtful approaches to learning. Certainly they are reactions against the popular theories of the 1950s, which held that students were empty vessels to be filled with knowledge.

“Essentially, you must see the student before you as a locus of energy,” he says. “He already has a heart, a soul, a mind, interests, and dreams. You need to help him shape those interests, pursue those dreams.” Ayers is distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where two years ago the university named him Senior University Scholar, an award given to outstanding faculty members. He also directs the Center for Youth and Society, an organization that brings an interdisciplinary approach to working with youth—from art education to after-school programs. One of the center’s recent efforts was a symposium inspired by the book Racism Explained to My Daughter, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. “We brought together people to discuss how to address racism with kids,” says Therese Quinn, associate director of the center. What strikes Quinn about Ayers is “his enthusiasm and optimism,” she says. “He is just overwhelmingly generous and supportive.”

“Teaching has always been, for me, linked to issues of social justice,” he says. “I’ve never considered it a neutral or passive profession." 

In Fugitive Days, Ayers has a personable style that pulls the reader in from the book’s start—when he describes the moment he heard about the 1970 Greenwich Village explosion. It is the moment, of course, when his own life figuratively blew apart. “In the beginning, Bill wanted to write about the Vietnam War and why he thought it was wrong,” says Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press, who edited Ayers’s book. “But I told him that most Americans now believed that that war was wrong and certainly the people reading a book of memoirs would feel that. I wanted him to concentrate on his personal story.”

Except for a few minor polemics along the way, Ayers does—and then some. “He very effectively captures the spirit of the times,” says Bernardine Dohrn, who is now a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “He conjures it up and reflects on it.”

Like her husband, Dohrn claims she feels no need to escape the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. “I feel it’s always with me. It’s taken a long time to achieve a precarious balance about it, where it’s not all defining and a cartoon. But this isn’t just my problem; it’s a generation’s problem.”

For two radicals once living underground, Ayers and Dohrn have raised three accomplished children: Zayd (named for a fallen Black Liberation soldier and colleague), 24, graduated from Brown University and has an M.F.A. degree in writing from Boston University, where he now teaches; Malik (for Malcolm X), 21, is attending the University of California at San Diego; and Chesa, 20, their adopted son, just finished his sophomore year at Yale University.

Recently, Ayers himself has returned to school as a student for the first time since he earned his Ph.D. in education at Columbia University—thanks to the monetary award he received from UIC as senior university scholar. He periodically commutes to Bennington College for the school’s low-residency M.F.A. program in writing, in which he is concentrating on nonfiction. So far, he has studied with essayist Philip Lopate and novelist/memoirist Susan Cheever. “It’s exciting and scary and all those good things,” he says. “They have been wonderful in helping me find my own voice.”

That is not something you would have thought Ayers needed help with. It is a different time, though, and he is a different man. But not completely changed. Talk to him for any length of time and some rhetoric of the past slips into the conversation. “I think there will be another mass political movement,” he predicts, “because I believe that the kind of injustice that is built into our world will not go quietly into the night.”

But the time-warp moment is over as quickly as it begins. Ayers—totally back in the present moment—pauses to sip his double skim latte, then greets a graduate student who awaits his attention. “These aren’t mountain times, these are valley times,” he says, acknowledging a change in the culture, the political climate, and maybe even in himself. “But you can still work the vineyard where you are.”

 

Photograph: Jeff Sciortino

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