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Radical Cheek

Bill Ayers is still explaining himself.



"I think Vietnam made us a little bit crazy," says Mark Rudd, a former member of the Weather Underground, the radical groupuscule that protested the war by bombing government offices in the early 70s. When you realize that your country is killing thousands of people a day for no good reason, and most of your friends and neighbors either approve or don't care, then what do you do? Rudd's not sure, but he doubts he got it right the first time.

People of a certain age will remember Rudd as the campus firebrand who led the shutdown of Columbia University in the spring of 1968. Now he teaches mathematics at a community college in New Mexico. When students ask what he did back then, he tells them he was a revolutionary dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. government. They look at him, he says, like he's from another planet. Rudd hasn't written a book and he doesn't chase the limelight anymore. In Sam Green and Bill Siegel's 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, he's pensive and rueful about the deeds of his younger self.

Bill Ayers, one of Rudd's former comrades in arms, has written a book, Fugitive Days. He's a professor of education at UIC, and he still loves to take the message to the people. He showed up at the February 9 screening of the documentary at Northeastern Illinois University sponsored by the history honors society Phi Alpha Theta to field questions from a standing-room-only crowd of 80. Perhaps half the people were NEIU undergrads; only a quarter looked old enough to be able to recognize Ayers's rhetorical style as classic New Left from before the screaming started: informal, low-key, clever, knowledgeable, easy to like, tough to take issue with...until you thought about it.

"Whenever I speak anywhere, people ask me, 'What about violence?'" he said. "But when Henry Kissinger speaks, nobody ever asks him why he thinks violence will accomplish anything. When President Bush gives an interview, nobody asks him if violence is self-defeating."

Having preemptively passed the buck, Ayers implicitly made the case for violence, speaking warmly of John Brown and the Earth Liberation Front while dismissing the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as moderately successful at best.

The audience at Northeastern wasn't hostile, but it wasn't tossing Ayers any softballs either. One person asked him what distinguished the Weathermen from Al Qaeda. Ayers answered that the Weather Underground never killed anyone. They bombed government facilities that supported war and repression, but only when the occupants weren't around. Nobody was quick enough to ask him whether pro-lifers, impelled by a similar sense of urgency, would be justified in bombing abortion clinics after hours.

Ayers isn't wholly unreflective, and he's willing to put himself in a bad light up to a point. Back in October 1969, during the Days of Rage, Ayers expected to lead thousands of students and blue-collar youth in a destructive raid on downtown Chicago, but only dozens showed up. In the film he confesses to wishing at that moment that someone would somehow rescue them from the folly they were about to commit. But since no one did, they went ahead and rampaged through the Gold Coast, smashing shop windows and windshields and clashing with the police at State and Division.

Ayers said he wishes now that the Weathermen had retained the flexible pragmatism of the early New Left and reconsidered the tactics that failed to win them broader support. Instead, the cadre went underground and started planting bombs. Ayers's real regret, in other words, is that the Weather campaign didn't work. "I still believe that not only is revolutionary change necessary, it's inevitable and it's coming," he said. "The idea that we can live as some kind of uber-nation is unraveling before our eyes. The left is paralyzed, but somehow we're going to have to imagine a way of living that isn't based on greed."

The words, the style, the setting brought back 1969 in all its tie-dyed glory. The sense of deja vu deepened when a big young man in a Green Bay Packers jacket spoke up from the back of the room. "Did you ever think about leaving?" he asked in a slight southern drawl. Yes, said Ayers, a brother of his had fled to Canada. The questioner persisted. "Didn't you undermine the U.S. war effort?" It was a classic setup and Ayers didn't miss a beat: "I certainly hope so."

Ayers was prepared to move on, but an audience member who'd been reading a socialist paper earlier wanted to reinforce the point. He turned around to hit the Packers guy with a question clearly intended as a knockout punch: "Well, wouldn't you have supported the American Revolution against the redcoats?"

The Packers fan mulled it over, then popped the bubble with his off-script response. "Probably not."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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