Me & Bill Ayers: In Which I Pal Around With Terrorists, Remember My Father, and Reaffirm the First Amendment

my autographed copy of Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers
me & Bill Ayers
The picture you’re looking at is my copy of Bill Ayers’s memoir Fugitive Days, inscribed to me in early November of 2001. The inscription reads

To Laura —
With hope — wounded but alive — for a world at peace and in balance.
Best,
Bill Ayers

Ayers’s memoir is only in part an account of his fugitive days. The rest of it is a political autobiography — the story of a person who was born into enormous wealth and privilege after World War II and who went from rather pedestrian boyhood concerns to being concerned with, and appalled by, his country’s involvement in a place called Vietnam, and its callous disregard for those who lived in poverty, those who were born with the wrong color of skin, those who lived and died for his country’s mistakes.

Some readers of this blog will know of Bill Ayers from back when this memoir was published; others from even before that, but most Americans know who he is because his name came up so frequently in the 2008 election. He’s the terrorist Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of palling around with. He was a founding member of the Weathermen, later the Weather Underground (whoo hoo feminism!), which is what part of Students for a Democratic Society became after its disastrous 1969 convention in Chicago.* The Weather people were responsible for a string of bombings of various targets, including the United States Capitol, although the only lives they ever destroyed were there own, in a botched bomb-making attempt in a New York City townhouse. They were, as terrorist organizations go, actually extremely careful not to take lives with their bombs, although it’s not entirely clear that that was the original intent. The bomb that killed three of their members in that townhouse was packed with nails — it was their imitation of the same kind of anti-personnel bomb that the United States was using in Vietnam.

Ayers’s book was published on September 11, 2001. I interviewed him, by phone, for what had been planned as a simple review of his memoir for a local alternative paper, a day or two later. The first thing I remember doing, after learning about the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, is making a peace sign in the window of my apartment out of masking tape. It stayed there for the next two years. The next things I remember are lying on my futon sofa, listening to NPR and realizing that any chance for peace was far flimsier than my improvised sign. I remember sitting on that same sofa and talking on the phone to Bill Ayers about what a terrible, terrible time it was.

Last Wednesday, April 28, Bill Ayers spoke on the campus of the University of Wyoming, on what would have been my father’s eighty-seventh birthday. Few people are in a position to realize both the irony of that coincidence and its deep appropriateness.

Ayers had been invited to speak earlier in the month by the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming. Protests poured in — to the University, to sundry officials, even to the governor, and as a result, the Center’s director withdrew the invitation. Shortly thereafter, a University of Wyoming student invited Ayers back to speak on campus. The University of Wyoming said they would not allow him to speak. The student booked an alternative venue, just in case, and Ayers and the student sued the University. The Casper Star Tribune has a collection of articles on the controversy; WyoFile has a more succinct account with links to the final decision by Chief Wyoming US District Judge William F. Downes, a decision which will cheer you greatly and give you hope for the future if, like me, you are a fan of the First Amendment. “When the Weather Underground was bombing the Capitol of the United States in 1971,” Judge Downes writes,

I served in the uniform of my country. Like many of my fellow veterans of that era, even to this day, when I hear the name of that organization, I can scarcely swallow the bile of my contempt for it. The fact remains Mr. Ayers is a citizen of the United States who wishes to speak. He need not offer any more justification than that. The controversy surrounding the past life of Professor Ayers and the widely held public perception of his past conduct cannot serve as a justification to defrock him of the guarantees of the First Amendment.The Bill of Rights is a document for all seasons. We don’t just display it when the weather is fair and put it away when the storm is tempest. To be a free people, we must have the courage to exercise our constitutional rights. To be a prudent people, we have to protect the rights of others, recognizing that that is the best guarantor of our own rights.

In April 1969, when the Weathermen were not yet a fully formed idea, some students at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa, decided to turn the American flag upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War. The move, in the context of that time, was not even that radical. The Iowa Young Democrats — Democrats! — had passed a resolution at their convention earlier that year stating that all schools should be encouraged to fly the flag upside down, at half staff — the signal for a ship in distress — for the duration of the war as a symbol of a country in distress. The Grinnell chief of police, however, did see it as a radical act, and he, along with the Poweshiek County sheriff and two sheriff’s deputies came to campus to confiscate the flag. Students organized quickly, with one group going to talk to the President of the college, one group going to write, print, and distribute flyers explaining their action in the community, and one group going to law enforcement headquarters to recapture the flag.

The flag did arrive back on campus, only to be turned upside down and then righted again. My father spent the next two days, from dawn to dusk, standing vigil next to that flag to ensure that no one could turn it upside down again. Some of his students came to stand with him, and eventually convinced him to let them take turns so he could get food, or at least use the bathroom.

My father is generally described as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and while he did not live long enough for me to solicit his opinions on the Weather Underground, I can guess with great assurance that his opinion would be, if possible, lower than that of Judge Downes. But I like to think that he would have agreed with Downes in another way: I like to think that he would have agreed that Ayers should be allowed to speak, and I like to think that he would, as an academic, shared my disgust with the University of Wyoming for refusing to allow the speech.

I am an odd case for a radical. I was raised on dead white men, and I chose to study them when I got to college. I read the same texts my father did — sometimes from the same books he read — but I came to utterly different conclusions about the world. When I was little, I liked to imagine that heaven was a sort of endless tea/cocktail party, set in brownstone buildings on cobblestone streets, where like minded — and un-like-minded — people would gather to converse and argue. I always liked to imagine my father hanging out with Plato and Aristotle and Samuel Johnson and Thoreau. This is a vision of heaven that I think could only be dreamt up by a faculty brat, and I’m sure it’s far from many people’s ideal. I like to think that someday, though, I may sit around a coffee table with my father and Judge Downes and Bill Ayers and hash over all these things.

In the meantime, I, too, wish for a world at peace and in balance.

*The Weathermen are often blamed for the downfall of SDS, but they don’t deserve all of the credit. I’ve read far more history of student activism in the 1960s than any sane person should, and it’s evident from many accounts that the tactics of the Progressive Labor Party were at least as destructive as the Weathermen were at that convention. As it so happens, I watched the same group use exactly the same tactics to attempt to derail the national convention of United Students Against Sweatshops in the same city thirty-two years later.

4 thoughts on “Me & Bill Ayers: In Which I Pal Around With Terrorists, Remember My Father, and Reaffirm the First Amendment”

  1. You *HAVE* read A Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, right? Heaven is where people sit around conversing and arguing, indeed. (If you haven’t, I can send you my copy.)

  2. Super post, Laura. Having read so much on the subject you can understand why so many of us who lived through that time are still obsessed with it.

  3. So well put. I wish I could come up with that kind of language. Thanks for the great history and perspective!

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