At a time when Ann Arbor served as the cradle of political radicalism, Bill Ayers was the vanguard of student activism. A prominent member of the Ann Arbor-founded Students for a Democratic Society, and later leader of the Weathermen (a militant faction of the SDS), Ayers was one of the principle architects of a revolution that inspired profound political dissent throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Today – some 30 years later – Ayers, a one-time fugitive from the law, makes a return to the University to discuss his reflections upon his tumultuous life as an activist and his regrets about some of his actions.
Reading tonight from his recently published “Fugitive Days,” Ayers will provide current students with a riveting account of a generation characterized by countercultural disillusionment, virulent anti-government sentiment and extreme political polarization. The memoir traces Ayers’ days as a University student to his life in hiding as part of The Weather Underground, the group that inspired a titular documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel.
“Fugitive Days” seamlessly juxtaposes the tumult of the ’60s with Ayers’ awe-inspiring personal history. The book opens with a haunting prelude – a flashback reference to the accidental death of Ayers’ former lover, Diana Oughton. Setting the lamentable tone for the rest of the memoir, Ayers’ frenetic thoughts are layered on top of his personal narratives. He writes, “Memory is a motherfucker,” a statement indicative of the compunction he feels over the activities he engaged in as part of the Weathermen.
The book is largely around the storied history of the infamous outfit. Formed in 1968, the Weather Underground was initially established as a response to what the more radical members of the SDS felt was an unjust war in Vietnam. Headed by Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, the Weathermen quickly propelled themselves to the forefront of radical activism.
Drawing their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, the group broke away from non-violent protest, believing in bare aggression as a means to bring about social reform. Cooperating with the Black Panthers, they engineered Chicago’s “Days of Rage,” during which time hundreds of protesters violently confronted city police in an effort to “bring the war back home.” Among their other high-profile activities were the springing of LSD guru Timothy Leary and the bloodless bombing of the Capitol Building.
Lying at the center of the book is the explosion that killed Diana Oughton and two comrades in one of the New York “cells” of the Weather Underground. The tragic accident ultimately prompted the leadership of the Weathermen to go deep underground. Continuing with several bombings of key federal targets, Ayers and close friend Dohrn eventually reached criminal prominence with their placement on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. “Fugitive Days” also chronicles the 10 years Ayers spent running from the law, stealing explosives and practicing “tradecraft.” Throughout his book, Ayers maintains a unique perspective on his crimes; He writes openly about the mistakes that he made, yet remains resolute about what he perceives was right. His account is thus remarkably honest, and provides readers with a window to one of our nation’s most incendiary periods.
Now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and happily married to Bernadine Dohrn, Ayers enjoys a life of relative normality. The disparity between this respectable existence and that as the elusive leader of a band of student militants is nearly inconceivable. As Ann Arbor welcomes him once again (during its own period of discord), students may learn about a similarly controversy-laden chapter of University history. Perhaps older members of the community might re-live old memories, too.