Bill Ayers, former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, co-founder of the radical group Weather Underground and vehement anti-war protestor, shared some tales from his new book, discussed his unexpected role in the 2008 presidential election, and called the next generation of activists to action at a talk at International House on Wednesday.
Reading an excerpt from Public Enemy: Memoirs of an American Dissident, Ayers recounted the moment he knew his profile would be a significant issue in the 2008 election. He was watching the presidential debate with a group of graduate students over a potluck dinner when ABC news anchor George Stephanopoulos mentioned Barack Obama’s connection to Ayers. “I felt suddenly tongue-tied and dizzy myself. One student literally dropped to the floor, with both hands over her mouth,” Ayers read. “I felt like I was hit by a truck.”
A side effect of his national notoriety was the backlash, both from institutions that had invited him for lectures—one college withdrew their offer two hours after his acceptance—and from individuals.
“It’s a bad sign and bad tidings when universities feel that they can’t open up space for real dialogue,” he said.
Ayers explained that even now, he is still dealing with protestors and picketers at his events, including at a lecture at Elgin Community College last week.
“It’s something that’s unexpected and still ongoing and weird to me,” Ayers said. “After 2008, wherever I went—except International House—I was picketed and often cancelled. I’m still hoping that some of them [the protestors] will still come in [tonight] because one of the great things is actually engaging with the Tea Party.”
In answering a question about the United States’ propensity for war, Ayers said, “We hate to feel it, we hate to say it; but we are a warlike nation… The day before the idea of putting chemical weapons into international hands [was suggested], you didn’t think of it and I didn’t think of it. What are 100 other things that you and I aren’t thinking of that actually would prepare the groundwork for peace?”
Ayers also called for the United States to join the International Criminal Court and to reconsider some of its positions in the Middle East.
“You want to ban chemical weapons in that area? Let’s talk about Israel. You want to do away with nukes in that region? Let’s talk about Israel,” he said.
Ayers’ wife Bernadine Dohrn also commented about bringing the activist generation of the 1960s and the activists of today together.
“We have to take off our hat and we should be shoulder to shoulder to the generation who is doing this—Occupy, fighting drones…the Dreamers,” Dohrn said. “It’s our job to think about the world that we live in right now and be shoulder to shoulder to the next generation.”
The talk was co-sponsored by I-House and the Seminary Co-Op.