From Urban Guerrillas to “Upstanding Establishment Citizens”: Bill Ayers and the Weather Underground in Perspective

The old saying: “What goes around comes around” applies to the latest turn of events in presidential politics.

During the recent debate in Philadelphia between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Obama downplayed the fact that he had affiliations with 60s radical Bill Ayers, [email him] a former leader of the Weather Underground. Obama dismissed a question about his connections to the ex-fugitive by describing Ayers as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” [Transcript] Questions about Obama’s association with Ayers had surfaced in recent months on various blogs.

Obama not only served alongside Ayers as a director of the Woods Fund, a Chicago-based anti-poverty organization, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times, “In the mid-1990s, Ayers and Dohrn hosted a meet-and-greet at their house to introduce Obama to their neighbors during his first run for the Illinois Senate. In 2001, Ayers contributed $200 to Obama`s campaign.”

The Chicago Sun-Times also notes that a “book Ayers penned about those years, Fugitive Days, landed him in hot water on Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, the New York Times ran a story about the book in which Ayers said, ‘I don`t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn`t do enough.’ Ayers` statement was made before the World Trade Center attacks, but its timing led some to believe it was in response.”

Although the latest media coverage of Ayers contains a critical edge, much of this reportage puts the past in a nostalgic context and emphasizes how Ayers and his wife Bernadine Dohrn, [email her] also a former Weather Underground fugitive, have transformed themselves into establishment figures and are now “distinguished professors” at the University of Illinois in Chicago and Northwestern University.

Dohrn once praised the Charles Manson massacres of 1969 in which actress Sharon Tate and others were brutally butchered to death. During a 1969 speech to the “War Council” in Flint, Michigan, Dohrn made her controversial remarks regarding the Manson Family murders: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach! Wild!”

The 2003 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground, a candid retrospective of former Weather Underground leaders reminiscing about their militant past, begins with Dorhn speaking before a press conference in the early 1970s: “Hello, I`m going to read a declaration of a state of war…within the next 14 days we will attack a symbol or institution of American injustice.”

The headline in today’s Washington Post: “Former 60s Radical Is Now Considered Mainstream in Chicago” confirms that ex-60s fugitives, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s proclamation that there are “no second acts in American lives,”  often re-establish themselves as distinguished and productive members of American society. As long as the cause is fighting “social injustice,” “racism,” and “inequality” then the spin on some ex-fugitive’s militant past will be excused as one bad acid trip or some other youthful indiscretion. Imagine the New York Times or Washington Post describing some anti-government militants on the Far Right in comparable terms.

The irony of recent attempts by the Southern Poverty Law Center to discredit Professor Kevin MacDonald, a tenured professor of psychology at California State at Long Beach, and undermine his continued employment with the university is that Teaching Tolerance magazine, a project of the SPLC, published a glowing interview with Bill Ayers in their Spring 1998 issue.[An Unconditional Embrace]

Although mentioned as an “education activist,” nowhere in the interview is Ayers’ background adequately described. The introduction describes him in the following endearing terms: “Throughout his career as a civil rights organizer, radical anti-Vietnam War activist, teacher and author, Ayers has developed a rich vision of teaching that interweaves passion, responsibility and self-reflection.” Just how “self-reflecting” Mr. Ayers is was disclosed in the above mentioned New York Times interview of September 11, 2001 in which he showed no regrets for dynamiting government buildings.

The bottom-line is that for unrepentant 60s militants with a violent, fugitive past rehabilitation into society is a likely outcome, but for scholars who are branded as Far Right reactionaries simply exercising one’s free speech and association carries the unprecedented risks of job loss, career annihilation, and total social ostracism by one’s colleagues, family, and friends.

Nothing like living freely in a “free society”—culturally dominated by the Left.