An Evening with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

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On Wednesday November 6 I was able to attend a speech given by ex-Weather Underground Organization (WUO) cadre and educator Bill Ayers in Berkeley.   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 Sparticists 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 Chi and Clevo.

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.

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.  He talked about their kids and parents, and described their home life with stories such as how once when his father, after he got Alzheimer’s and was living with them, was passed by six Anarchists staying at the house while attending an Anarchist conference in town said “This is some hotel you have here!”

Dohrn talked about resisting the Grand Jury invoked after the Brinks robbery which left three people dead and a number of radicals in prison including two ex-WUO cadre.  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 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.

Ayers emphasized how Obama is an admittedly moderate politician, 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.

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 effects 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.

The crowd, which had been applauding and occasionally laughing and at one point shared a collective gasp went wild one more time as Dohrn and Ayers were mobbed with people asking questions and taking photos.  I was able to ask a few questions which I’ll try to post the answers to later!

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