Over 300 people packed the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library last night to hear social and political activists Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, give an impassioned call for Americans to become politically active and question their country’s policies.
Ayers, known for his controversial anti-war past and his supposed ties to President Barack Obama, discussed the newly appointed president, social and criminal justice and his days as a member of the violent activist organization, The Weather Underground, at the event.
After decades of work as an education policy expert and professor in Chicago, Ayers was pushed into the national political spotlight last fall when Republican vice presidential-nominee Sarah Palin raised concerns about Obama’s connection to Ayers, indirectly referring to Ayers as a “terrorist.” The most significant connection the two shared was time spent on a Chicago education board in the late 1990s.
While Ayers said Obama’s election signified a new chapter in American politics, it is not up to Obama alone to solve all of the challenges facing the United States today. Rather, it is up to ordinary citizens to respond to injustice in today’s society, he said.
“Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of his generation, was not in the civil rights movement. F.D.R. was not in the labor movement. And Lincoln did not belong to an abolitionist party,” Ayers said. “They responded to something on the ground. And it’s that something on the ground that we have to pay attention to; that we have to remember.”
Ayers said that to create effective and lasting change, Americans need to re-define their ideas about activism and issues of social justice as well as the United States’ role in the international community.
“The challenge to all of us is not just to sit around wondering what the Obama administration is going to do,” he said. “Remember, he’s not king, not a monarch, he’s a citizen.”
Dohrn agreed, saying it is time for citizens to work with the president to create change.
“We have to stop being spectators of the blogs, and we have to go back to being organizers and mobilizers,” Dohrn said.
Ayers and Dohrn also discussed the United States’ role in the world today, citing it as something that needs to be handled in a way in which the United States does not continue to be a dominating force upon other nations, but a “nation among nations,” as Ayers said.
Dohrn, citing youth activism in Birmingham, Little Rock, and Tiananmen Square, said young people can be some of the strongest catalysts for social change.
“It’s young people who are the risk takers who break the norms to show what’s really happening,” Dohrn said.
When Ayers and Dohrn took questions from the audience, one member asked whether Ayers condemns his own actions during the 1960s and 70s, including bombing the Capitol Building and Pentagon.
Both Ayers and Dohrn said they take responsibility for their actions during that time, but they cannot apologize for them.
“Our view is that we, as individuals and in terms of organizations, were never terrorists,” Dohrn said. “We don’t think terrorism is a good idea.”
Ayers, who said the spirit of the Vietnam War era is still alive today, said he does feel remorse for some of his actions during that time, as a Weatherman.
“I don’t defend what the Underground did,” Ayers said. “I never made a claim that we were all that effective. We were not terrorists because we did not hurt people. Some of that I feel some remorse for, but none of that do I think was terrorism.”
Ayers also said that it is vitally important for citizens to act and push for change as the nation faces such daunting challenges.
“I do think if you’re not willing to open your eyes and act, then you sit cynically on your couch and watch the world as it goes to hell,” Ayers said.
The majority of students in attendance said after the event that the talk was inspirational, especially given its relevant call for change in society today.
“I thought it was eye-opening and excellent,” said LSA sophomore Scott Templin. “I feel this spirit of radical and passionate activism, embodied by the two speakers, are so relevant in today’s day and age because, like they said, we need to stand up and we need to act.”
But other students said that certain questions were left unanswered, including Ayers’s controversial role in last year’s presidential election.
“I think everybody kind of wanted to know about his relation to Obama, but that didn’t really come out,” said LSA sophomore Bradley Pritts.