On November 6 I was able to attend a speech given by ex–Weather Underground Organization (WUO) cadre and educator Bill Ayers in Berkeley. The WUO was one of many urban guerrilla groups that emerged from the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s, though one of the more prominent because of its membership’s leadership in the 100,000 strong Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the length of it’s campaign against the U$ government and its racism both here, in Vietnam and elsewhere especially in Latin America. After getting on to the complimentary seats list on behalf of Slingshot, I grabbed a stack of 100 copies of the paper from the Long Haul Infoshop and meandered to the Hillside Club. The usual gauntlet of beady–eyed sectarians distributing pamphlets to the masses outside was sparse. A couple Spartacists who for a change didn’t hassle me for not taking up exactly their line and someone from KPFA, the local Pacifica station that this was a benefit for and I were it compared to the Commie alphabet soup I’m used to from places like Chicago and Cleveland.
After being introduced to a packed room, Ayers introduced his long time partner who was also in the WUO and an educator, Bernardine Dohrn. He started talking about the 2008 Presidential Campaign, and how Hillary Clinton was actually the first person to question Obama about his relationship with Ayers, before the McCain campaign really ran with it. I think this is relevant to radicals because she was also the one to start in on Obama about whether or not he is a birth right citizen; sometimes radicals do get caught up in Democratic politics and it might be a good idea as some radicals start to think about possible intervention in the 2016 elections that we not forget the not so subtle racism and, basically Red baiting in the Clinton campaign.
He went on to talk a great deal about his family, saying Dohrn used to joke that they only survived 11 years together on the run because she never told him they were underground.
Dohrn talked about resisting the Grand Jury invoked after the 1981 Brinks robbery which left three people dead and a number of radicals in prison including two ex–WUO cadre, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. She described Grand Juries, including how they started in England and how they along with prisons should be abolished. She described the prisoner support she received, and how she felt like she was supporting her visitors more than vice versa, a feeling I’ve gotten from pen palling with political prisoners and prisoners of war! She concluded with how her mother, who had voted for Sen. Joseph McCarthy three times, smuggled a homemade chocolate chip cookie into prison for her in her bra! Ayers went on to read from the part of his new memoirs that dealt with this time.
The host brought up a part of the book regarding talking with Tea Partiers, and Ayers responded giving examples of talking with all kinds of people and the meaninglessness of labels.
Ayers was asked about his stance on Obama and Arnie Duncan’s educational policies. He talked about how both of their educational policies have a corporate nature involving privatization and standardized tests. He went on to say all kids should have access to the education children of these politicians get. He told some illustrative stories then Dohrn talked about the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012. Attacks on public education are an important part of the current capitalist/neo–liberal agenda. Resistance in places like Chicago are very important and potentially radical such as the occupation of the Whittier Field House in Pilsen, Chi back in ’10.
Ayers emphasized how Obama is an admittedly moderate politician, and then Dohrn pointed out how it’s irrelevant because “he sits in the throne of empire,” we live in an empire in decline and we need to acknowledge that and organize at the grassroots. Ayers expanded on the need for grassroots organizing.
They were asked if the WUO ruined the movement and what advice they have for young radicals. Dohrn replied she had no advice for young people, but plenty for old ones, follow the youth! She praised groups like the Immigrant Youth Justice League and the queer movement and the wide anti–war sentiment from when Obama proposed military action against Syria. She talked about harnessing that momentum and also praised Code Pink. If I’m not mistaken all references to the queer movement were monolithic.
Ayers followed advocating that we all think about what we can do for peace everyday and act on it, not just when there’s a war. He talked about how the G8 was prevented from meeting in Chi and described the NATO protests last year and how the Black Bloc’s slogan, “Shit’s fucked up!” was something we could all get behind. He also spoke highly of the Iraq and Afghan Veterans Against the War and was seconded by Dohrn.
Dohrn talked about how the WUO was only a small part of the New Left, and how people should research many other groups from the era such as the Black Panthers. She praised the women’s movement of the time and how many New Leftists participated in the turn towards labor, organizing in the factories and how that’s continued to effect the labor movement today.
Ayers pointed out that the movement wasn’t confined to the ’60s and paraphrased the Port Huron Statement saying we are all part of this generation, looking uncomfortably at the world we inherit. He talked about the changes in the citizens of the U$ becoming against the war in Vietnam and praised the Black Freedom Movement and its work against the war, desertion by troops and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Dohrn talked about how the Vietnam War still affects people here, and the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Committee like in South Africa at the end of Apartheid. Ayers admitted the WUO made a thousand mistakes but opposing the war with every fiber of their bodies was not one of them. Dohrn brought up how they weren’t just an anti–war group, they were trying to make a revolution, and she wishes they hadn’t used the language of war in their rhetoric.
The last question they fielded was about how we can fight back against the attack on public education. Ayers talked about the need to re–frame the discussion. Every kid in public schools deserves a good education and this struggle is linked to environmentalism, poverty, women’s rights and Dohrn added racial justice.
After the talk, I was able to ask Dohrn and Ayers a few questions.
AI: I recently read in Jane Alpert’s memoirs (Growing Up Underground, also available to borrow from the Long Haul!) that the code name for the Weather Underground was the eggplant and I’ve got a comrade in town, that’s his street name so I thought it was kind of funny so I started calling him The Eggplant whenever I refer to him.
AI: I was just wondering why? Why the eggplant?
BD: The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. [A song by the Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, which I think I remembered reading this in Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers years ago since I knew the song from Dr. Demento broadcasts.]
AI: Oh, okay, ’cause of the Days of Rage.
BD: Yes. Well just because SDS came out of the National Office, was in Chicago, and I was born there, some of us were from there. Just that was the connection.
AI: I came in on a press pass from Slingshot and you know from reading collections like Weatherman and seeing the old film Underground I realized the importance of controlling our own media. New Left Notes (SDS’s journal) and you even did a journal and a political statement (Osawatomie and Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti–Imperialism, along with many communiques) while you were underground. You talked a lot about mainstream media but only a little about underground, not even underground but the DIY stuff like KPFA, could you expand a bit about the importance of controlling our own media?
BA: I spend very little time whining about the mainstream media. The reality is that every movement has and develops its own media, it’s part of building a movement, is develop your own media and your own means of communication. One of the things that I think is an indication of the weakness of the progressive movement now and then is that we get into these silly kind of arguments about how the press is reporting us as if that’s what makes a movement. That doesn’t make a movement. So if the New York Times says that there were 50,000 of us in Washington and really there were 100,000 a lot of progressives get very agitated and their nose out of joint about that I don’t. I don’t look to the New York Times for affirmation, I don’t look to the Washington Post to see if I’m a real person. As we build a movement we have to build our own ways to communicate. The wonderful thing, you can go through history, all social movements have done this, but the wonderful thing about this moment is that today, our generation, this generation has more access to more information, and to more different kinds of formats than we ever had in history. We have to use that as a tool to help us build a revolution. That’s what we have to do, so yes, independent media.