A slightly condensed version of this interview will soon be published in Rad Dad #17 on the eve of the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair. Despite some continuity issues due to conducting an interview over the thankless medium of e-mail, I thought folks might enjoy the interview in its entirety. Please feel free to send me any comments, questions or advice on these pertinent subjects, take care of those kiddies and stay Radical!
PP: I’m chatting with Bill Ayers, Professor at the University of Illinois and former member of the infamous Weather Underground, which carried out a direct action bombing campaign against United States Government buildings in protest of the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism. For a period of ten years Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn lived on the lam from the Federal Government, eventually having two children before resurfacing in early 1980. In 1973, after the existence of COINTELPRO, a covert FBI program used to gather information on, as well as discredit radicals, came to light, Ayers was exonerated, but remained underground with Dohrn for an additional seven years. Dohrn eventually was fined and served three years probation for her acts with the Weather Underground. Both are now highly regarded experts in their fields, Ayers in Education and Dohrn in Law, both with an emphasis on juveniles and families.
I use the terms “underground”, “counterculture”, “anarchist”, and “alternative” within this interview... but these are all just synonyms for the same group of outsiders who have always been around. I’m sure Bill got called a dirty commie or a godless socialist more times than I’ve been called a hippy or an anarchist. Good old labels, just got to live with them.
BA: Well, and resist them—in your own life and in the lives of others.
PP: Just to set the stage here for our readers of Rad Dad and Pirate Papa, charges against you were lessened in 1973, but when were they dropped or dealt with completely? Bernadine surrendered to the FBI in 1980... so that leaves about ten years that you two were on the run, three years with one child then the last year with two, correct?
BA: Zayd, our oldest child, was born in 1977, and Malik in 1980. We adopted a third child, Chesa, in 1981 when his parents were arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
PP: How did you and Bernadine come to the decision to have children while living underground?
BA: I’d been an early childhood teacher for many years, and we both had strong relationships with children. We reached a point in our lives when if we were to start our own family, it was now or never. We chose now.
PP: How did having children affect your eventual choice to turn yourselves in?
BA: I’m not sure. Certainly the rhythm of our lives became centered on the awesome responsibility we took on by choosing to bring new life into the world.
PP: As a father, what were your personal reasons for having kids and how did this decision alter or reinforce your political ideals?
BA: Reason isn’t the exact register. Passion, desire, ecstasy, exuberance, awe…But raising these children was the best thing we’ve ever done, the least conflicted and the purest, the most astonishing and energizing, surprising and humanizing (followed by the experience of caring for our elderly and finally dying parents in our home for many years after our kids had left home).
PP: What were those last few years like living underground with kids? What were some of the ways this affected your family? I would imagine you had strict guidelines that all parties had to live by, structured fictions to deliver under certain circumstances? What else? What was your support community like? What resources were available to you? Did you both have good, steady jobs and sources of income or were you relying on the help of friends and family?
BA: No, none of that. We were quite poor really, sketchy incomes, work in the shadow economy mostly. But we had lots of friends and family, many of whom knew our former identities, some who didn’t. We were who we were, living in the margins but with our values and commitments intact, avoiding political demonstrations, of course, but open about everything but a few delicate details. And being focused on the lives of your children does not require money or equipment or stuff. We hung out in parks and museums and felt we owned them. The only investment the kids want is emotional, thoughtful attention, and money can actually obfuscate that.
PP: Once you had resurfaced, did your children attend public school? Did you ever homeschool or unschool them at any point? Did you or they ever get denied certain resources or opportunities because of your radical past?
BA: They attended public school in New York City, and when we moved to Chicago, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Certainly our past has meant that Bernadine, for example, has never been admitted to the bar, but I don’t think it’s had any negative impact on any of us (who needs the stinkin’ bar to be happy?).
PP: What advice would you offer to young parents in trouble with the law, or forced to live in hiding for whatever reason? What resources are available to them without exposing themselves to watchful eyes?
BA: Breathe, hydrate, eat real food, sweat, sing, and then keep on breathing. The world is large, and most people are compassionate and decent. Be a full human being, active and participating with others, and don’t hide or slink around.
PP: Before you had children of your own, what were your views on kids, parenting, over-population and their inter-relationship with politics?
BA: I taught little kids starting in 1965. I oppose poverty, war, empire, capitalism. Those are problems that we can and must address.
PP: How closely has the government continued to follow your work since you resurfaced and became an upstanding citizen?
BA: Ask them.
PP: At one point in your book Fugitive Days you describe your lives underground as “extending childhood indefinitely.” I was hoping you could talk about that idea a bit more.
BA: I was being glib: we were going to live our Peter Pan complex forever. I still feel connected intimately to my childhood.
PP: How do you view parenting within the contemporary anarchist/alternative/peace/activism movement?
BA: What do you mean?
PP: How do you think this intersection has changed since you raised children within the counter-culture movements of the 1970s and 1980s?
BA: No idea.
PP: For young parents who have not yet built some sort of infrastructure to financially support their families within a capitalist society, it can be quite hard to remain an effective part of whatever social movements they may belong to. These voices and opinions are seldom heard due to hectic schedules, lives based on eking out a meager living for one's family, and a general lack of communal resources available for struggling parents. While small, dedicated groups of activists are working hard to combat some of the anti-breeder philosophies within these movements and provide child care at anarchist book fairs and other gatherings, what other strategies could we use to better include parents in our ongoing political dialogues and activities?
BA: Build your community—right here, right now, just this. Share everything. Pay attention. The greatest gift we give our children id the gift of integrity, and that requires authentic dialogue starting in the first minute of life: I see you, I hear you, I understand. Don’t let anyone—the school, the teacher, the neighbor, the comrade—disrupt that precious and irreplaceable thing.
PP: How can parents support their families and still find the time and energy and monies necessary to tune in, turn on, drop out or some combination of the three?
BA: Priorities—live your values, and include the kids.
PP: In your book A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court you make the simple but astute observation that “violence against children generates violent children.” Most violence, I would go so far as to say, is a direct result of poverty and the myriad difficulties which ensue. What, then, are some simple ways that we, as communities and as individuals, can support parents and children around us, as we strive together for lasting social change? How can we effectively combat violence and poverty both on a local level and on a national and international scope?
Your role within our educational system since the early 1980s speaks for itself and you obviously carefully chose which ways to re-engage the system, approaching matters from an educational standpoint with an eye on the juvenile justice system. What have you learned about social justice and creative ways to engage the system from within, as well as from the outside? How does this relate to the youth of today and their parents?
What are some strategies that you’ve learned for engaging with troubled youth? With young parents?
How do you see racism rearing its ugly head in the 21st century and what anti-racist parenting tactics can we employ to combat its negative effects for future generations?
Do you think there is enough direct action being taken within the activist communities today?
PP: Armed in hindsight by your parental history and assuming you could turn back the clock, would you change anything? Would you still embrace direct action and the destruction of government property to prove your political points and draw attention to neglected issues?
BA: It’s quite impossible to make any causal claims in regard to something as massive, complex, and indistinct as “changing the world.” In the 1960’s a French journalist asked the Chinese premier Chou En Lai how he calculated the impact of the 18th Century French revolution on the Chinese revolution of the 20th Century. His response: It’s too soon to tell. Quite.
People make all kinds of quick judgments on history, and most turn out to be bullshit.
If you take perhaps our most straight forward and easily understood goals, you would have to say we failed to achieve them: we wanted to end a particular war, and even after much sacrifice and struggle and success at persuading people to oppose it, the war ground on for ten excruciating years, and 3 million people were thrown into the furnaces of death; and then we wanted to end empire and usher in a world of equality and mutual recognition, a world without war, and look where we are. We set out to create a society built on a foundation of racial justice, and decades later, massive disparities (life expectancy, infant mortality, incarceration, school success, employment) are still etched along the color line, still reflecting the astonishing power of white supremacy; and then we wanted to eradicate poverty and upend economic exploitation, and the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots intensifies.
From there it gets both murkier and lighter: We wanted to say goodbye to schooling that’s arid, dry, self-referencing and self-satisfied, to teaching as a trivial pursuit of the obvious, to deference, didactism, ego and complacency in a heartless world, to prisons and border guards and walls—whether in Palestine or in Texas—and to quarantines, deletions, and closures. Goodbye to all that. We wanted to welcome the unknown, to say hello to jumping off the edge, to endlessly learning how to live again and how to love anew, to the dance of the dialectic. We tried to embrace relentless curiosity, simple acts of kindness, the complexity of humanity, the wonder of it all, struggle and the poetics of resistance, history, and agency, world peace and inner peace. We wanted to embrace the surprising and contradictory harmonies of love at all times, stunning in all the hopes it held out for a better world. We wanted free love and free land, free food and free housing, dancing in the streets and daring to taste it all with a kiss...I guess we have a ways to go there as well.
So my expansive and expanding dreams are not realized, of course, not yet, not in my lifetime, but neither are they dimmed nor diminished. I’ve always lived with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is, and another foot striving toward a world that could be, but is not yet. Like other freedom lovers, I dwell in possibility.
PP: What advice would you offer to young activists flirting with the dangers of direct action? How about young parents? What can they do, short of taking risks that might endanger the safety of their children or their ability to provide for their familes?
BA: The world is as it is, a mass of contradictions and tragedies, rich with beauty and human accomplishment and possibility, vicious with human denial—an organism that both drains us and replenishes us, gives us life and kills us. What gets me up and going every morning is all the unnecessary suffering, the undeserved pain. I choose to love the world and embrace the moment, but my love is neither romantic nor blind. Rather it’s edged with horror and anger, charged with new discoveries and understandings.
It’s great to feel the energy of rising expectations, to hear the sounds of heavy chains dropping from our minds and our imaginations, to see the shining faces of hope everywhere. Like last year’s election, it’s a moment to embrace, a moment to hold onto in tough times. But as I said to students on election night, there’s no sense trying to read the new leader’s mind—it’s up to us now to get busy transforming ourselves, linking up to change the world.
After all, Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of his generation, was never involved in the Black Freedom Movement, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t a labor leader. Abraham Lincoln didn’t even join an abolitionist political party, but reality forced upon him the freeing of an enslaved people. Each of these three in fact responded to grassroots movements and reality on the ground to do the right thing when it mattered.
And it’s to movements on the ground that we turn as we think beyond the election or the administration, and consider the problems and possibilities of building a future dramatically and decisively different from today. We must agitate for democracy and egalitarianism, press harder for human rights and a sustainable world, link the demands that animate us—for peace and education and universal health care and lifetime guarantees of income, against war and incarceration and surveillance—learn to build a new society through our collective self-transformations and our limited everyday struggles. We must seek ways to become real actors and authentic subjects in our own history.
In the heat of the primary battle, Senator Obama was asked which candidate he thought Martin Luther King Jr. would support, and he responded that Reverend King would not likely endorse any of them, because he’d be in the streets building a movement for justice. That’s a good place to begin again, both in the US, in Australia, and around the world.
Become radicals (go to the root of things), study, learn, organize, talk to strangers, mobilize, display your ethical aspirations publicly. On the important issues of the last two centuries, political radicals from Jane Addams and Emma Goldman, John Brown and Harriet Tubman, to Eugene Debs and WEB DuBois have gotten it right. The legacy continues with the work of Ella Baker and Septima Clark, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X 40 years ago, and on up to today. Of course as Ella Baker said, “Martin didn’t create the Movement, the Movement created Martin,” and it’s true: for every remembered leader there were hundreds, thousands putting their shoulders on history’s wheel. We might reflect then on the people as they make and remake history.
I have no nostalgia for the so-called 60’s, now thoroughly commodified and sold back to us as myth and symbol. It happened—and it was neither as brilliant and ecstatic as some would have it, nor the devil’s own workshop as others insist—move on. Whatever it was, it remains prelude to the necessary changes and fundamental upheavals just ahead. Let’s get busy living, loving, linking arms right now.
The tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent thrust—and the rhythm of and recipe for activism is always the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the world as we find it; we are astonished by the beauty and horrified at the suffering all around us; we dive into the wreckage and swim as hard as we can toward a distant and indistinct shore; we dry ourselves off, doubt that our efforts made enough difference, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more. Repeat for a lifetime.