Earlier this month, the Seminary Co-op in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood marked its 54th year as a members-cooperative bookstore by launching a discussion series helmed by its most famous member after President Obama: Bill Ayers. “Fresh Ayers” will feature the retired professor and longtime activist--he co-founded the radical organization Weather Underground in 1969--speaking with a guest about social and political issues. We spoke to Ayers about the series, which will host its next event on March 22.
Your first Fresh Ayers guest was Michael T. Heaney, who argues in his book, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party After 9/11 (co-authored with Fabio Rojas) that the electoral success of the Democratic Party and President Obama, as well as antipathy towards President George W. Bush, played a greater role in the collapse of the post-9/11 antiwar movement than did changes in foreign policy. How'd the evening go?
Michael and I had a lively conversation about the book, about history and politics, and about the dynamic challenges of movement-building that became even livelier when we opened it up to the spirited audience that had gathered at the Co-op that night. Michael’s a curious, thoughtful, and accomplished scholar, and he’s done sustained and serious work in order to develop a nuanced insider/outsider understanding of the modern peace movement and its relationship to the Democratic Party. He got his doctorate at the University of Chicago, and this was a kind of public homecoming for him—his committee members, former students and colleagues were all in attendance.
Before I read the book I just assumed that “Party in the Street” referred to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. I was wrong, but I wasn’t bummed out for long because this is a smart and close examination of the complex ways social movements overlap with and are distinct from established, conventional politics. It’s both informative, and, for me at least, helpful and inspiring.
Tell me more about the series. How did it come about, how often will it take place, and what other guests have you scheduled, or do you hope to schedule?
The Seminary Co-op is a unique and essential Chicago institution, a destination bookstore, an intellectual center, and a propulsive public space. There are readings, author events, happenings of one kind or another going on all the time. I typically hang out in the children’s section with my partner and our grand-kids several hours every month.
Last year the staff at Seminary launched a series of events hosted by the brilliant Hyde Park historian and author Rick Perlstein (Nixonland; The Invisible Bridge) and they called it Rick-epedia. It was dazzling. When they couldn’t find anyone to compare with Rick in terms of productivity or impact, they looked further down and turned to me in the spirit of punning: Fresh Ayers.
We have lined up several terrific authors: Crystal Laura (Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline), Rory Fanning (Worth Fighting For), Jay Gillin (Educating for Insurgency), Roxanne Dunbar (An Indigenous People’s History of the United States), Mark Dostert (Up in Here), and more. Lots of others in the works: Rick Ayers, Margaret Randall, Isabel Nunez.
I’ve tried again and again to get to Sarah Palin to put her in the series, but her people have been unresponsive thus far. If you can get word to her, tell her we would do a super-big special event—we could call it “Palling Around with Sarah and Bill.” For real. If not Sarah, I'm trying to get Antonin Scalia, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush. Stay tuned.
You were a prominent and unrepentant member of the Weather Underground during the 1960s; ever since, you have been a lightning-rod for controversy. In 2009, Anderson's Bookshops in Naperville canceled a signing at the store, citing threats made and fears for the safety of store employees. Are there any concerns that this series might provoke any action against the Seminary Co-op?
Where to begin? I was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, true, and one of a dozen folks who founded the Weather Underground in the 1970s. We were fighting as hard as we knew how against the genocidal American war on Viet Nam - 6,000 people a week murdered for 10 years — and against the ongoing murderous and brutal structures of white supremacy at home. Nothing to be sorry for there. I wasn’t thrust into “prominence” until 2001 in the wake of 9/11, and then catapulted into stratospheric notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign. I write about all of this in two memoirs: Fugitive Days and Public Enemy.
My episodic notoriety is typically accompanied by the label Unrepentant Terrorist Bill Ayers. I begin to think of those two words as part of my name. Who would name their kid Unrepentant Terrorist? Weird.
There’s always the identical demand: Repent! Say you’re sorry! Of course there is much to be sorry for in any lived life, much to rethink and redo. But not being a religious person repentance is out of my realm, and opposing the invasion and occupation of Viet Nam with every fiber is simply not something I regret.
I get threats routinely—mostly over email—but I don’t take them seriously for a second. It’s mostly, I imagine, angry old men with a need to vent. We have never discussed any of that in light of the series.
Back in 2008, when Obama was running for president, he came under fire for being friends with you. It's seven years later, and Obama is entering the homestretch of his second term. Did he live up to the expectations you had? Any chance you'll be booking him as a guest in your series?
What a great idea!! If we could get him and Palin together it would blow the roof off!
President Obama has been true to his politics throughout: a self-described moderate, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politician; he was elected to sit on the throne of empire (in decline for decades now) and command its violent legions, and he’s done it. The reactionaries had imagined him as a fearsome black nationalist and socialist, and liberals had hoped he was a secret leftist. Obviously not, but since I harbored neither illusion I’ve not been disappointed. Of course, if he asked my opinion I would urge him to close all foreign military bases as well as the Pentagon, eliminate nuclear weapons and end drone strikes, institute a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to sort out responsibility for war and racism, tax the filthy rich until it hurts, abolish the federal death penalty and empty the prisons, starting with political prisoners like Leonard Peltier and Oscar Lopez, appoint Bernardine Dohrn to the Supreme Court and Rashid Khalidi as Secretary of State, and more. But he hasn’t asked me. If he comes on Fresh Ayers I'll start there.