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March 6, 2015

Radical activist Bill Ayers hosts discussion at Seminary Co-Op

Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, led a discussion of Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas’ book Party in the Street at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore on Wednesday. The discussion was the first installment of Bill Ayers’s new book discussion series, Fresh Ayers, in which he talks with the authors of works on social and political issues at the Seminary Co-Op. In keeping with this theme, Party in the Street explores the relationship between contemporary American social movements and party politics.

Ayers, a Hyde Park resident, is best known as the co-founder of the Weather Underground, a leftist radical organization which was active in the 1960s and 1970s. He opened with the suggestion that the book cannot be judged by its title.

“I thought it would be about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it wasn’t that kind of party. It was a different kind of party,” Ayers joked.

Heaney, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan and co-author of Party in the Street with Rojas, was also present at the event. Heaney said that he was inspired to pursue the subject of the book after participating in an anti–Iraq War demonstration.

“It was a protest in Washington on Labor Day, 2004. People were in groups, wearing pink, yellow, and green shirts, but appeared as if they were forming distinct contingents. I started thinking about how social movements have the dynamism that political parties don’t have, but parties are where we learn about politics, and they play an important disciplinary function,” he said.

He added that his research suggests that the anti­­–Iraq war movement collapsed because Democrats withdrew from the cause in the second half of the decade after wresting a political majority from the GOP.

“The data shows that the percentage of Democrats at the anti-war protests went from about 50 percent early on to into the teens by 2007. It isn’t that the Democratic Party crushed the anti-war movement; it was that loyalty to the movement was partisan. Once the Republicans went away, people stopped participating, even though the policy itself never changed,” Heaney said.

In response, Ayers added his belief that the Vietnam War protests maintained their political strength until the end of the war because the source of the discontent was not so closely tied to partisanship.

“People paid attention to Vietnam not because people were dying; the decisive thing was the draft, because absolutely everyone knew somebody who was there or would potentially go there. That, combined with Cronkite, really brought [the war] home,” he said.

Heaney said that the only way for contemporary social movements to succeed is to draw “crosscutting” support that does not depend on legions from either the Democrats or Republicans.

“To build a successful social movement, one has to use partisan structures but also appeal to people on a nonpartisan basis,” he said.

Ayers told The Maroon that young Americans should disregard the popular myth of “the ’60s” as the apex of protest movements.

“There is no such thing as ‘the ’60s’ Nobody said ‘let’s get loud’ or ‘let’s get high.’ That just flowed naturally. References to ‘the ’60s’ today just operate as a wet blanket on today’s activism,” he said.

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