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

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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.”

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