Bill Ayers: Still Radical After All These Years
WHEN KATHERINE ANN POWER turned herself in Wednesday, it recalled other fugitive radicals of the '60s. Earlier this summer, the Chicago Tribune told the story of William Ayers, son of the one-time head of the largest utility in the Midwest.
CHICAGO - Robed, standing behind a lectern, shouting into the wind on a breezy evening, Bill Ayers looked more like an academic than a revolutionary as he addressed the graduation crowd gathered outside Amundsen High School.
Few people knew who he was. Nor did the selection of Ayers, once a name very much in the news, cause much of a stir in the front office.
The day before, a reporter had called. Bill Ayers? At Amundsen High? "Just a moment, I'll check it out," said a secretary in the principal's office, before yelling to colleagues, "Who's giving the commencement address?"
"Don't know," came a muffled reply. "Some teacher from UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago)."
`On to the Drake'
For Bill Ayers, once a leader of the Weather Underground, it has been almost a quarter of a century since that fall night of Oct. 8, 1969, when he and 300 other radicals, wearing helmets, leather gloves and boots, stormed out of Chicago's Lincoln Park, carrying pipes and sticks and yelling, "On to the Drake!"
They were launching an attack on the penthouse of an apartment cooperative in the Drake Tower. The marchers believed it was the home of U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman, the feisty jurist who was about to preside over the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial.
In fact, Hoffman lived downstairs, not in the penthouse. The mob, diverted by police, never found him. But during the chaos, which lasted four days, 290 militants were arrested, 63 people, mostly police officers, were injured and thousands of dollars of damage was done.
Now Ayers faced a restless sea of graduates, parents, relatives and friends, all anxious to get on to another matter, the presentation of hard-earned diplomas.
"Fight to define yourselves," he urged the crowd. "Stand up for yourselves. Make your own decisions. Decide who and what you will believe in. Make thoughtful and careful choices. Take risks on behalf of your beliefs."
The words were politely received.
"Thank you, Dr. William Ayers, of the University of Illinois, for that lovely speech," said assistant principal Pauline Tarvardian.
Always a teacher
To Ayers, 47, they were the themes he has always offered, as a radical, a professor and a father. He started teaching in an alternative school in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1965. He was 20.
"I found out I'm at my best with kids," he said later. Has he always, in a way, been a teacher? "Exactly," he said. "That's how I always think of myself."
His purpose in agreeing to an interview was to discuss his new book, "To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher" (Teachers College Press). But as Ayers admits, it is hard to separate his evolving philosophy, his home life and his teaching.
"He's done what a lot of New Left guys have done, gone into academia where you share your thinking but don't do a lot of organizing," says political consultant and writer Don Rose.
Ayers agrees: "I'm an unreconstructed lefty. In the '60s and '70s, there was clarity about one issue, Vietnam, and the resistance it called for. Problems are less clear now, but my views remain the same."
It has been quite a journey for Bill Ayers.
Born in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Ayers grew up in nearby Glen Ellyn, the son of Thomas Ayers, later chairman of Commonwealth Edison Co. At Lake Forest Academy, from which he graduated in 1963, he played football, discovered works of James Baldwin and was the only member of the Young Socialists Association. But it was at the University of Michigan, in the turbulent '60s, "where the whole world opened up for me," Ayers said.
Rallies. Sit-ins. Draft-board disruptions. Plunging into Students for a Democratic Society, Ayers became a state organizer. During the troubles at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Ayers was in the thick of battles in Lincoln Park and outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel. He burned his draft card.
"Pop, tell us that story again of how you burned your credit card," his son, Malik, once asked him. "I'm not that radical," Ayers retorted.
Convinced that stronger efforts were needed to derail the war, an SDS group, including Ayers, formed the Weather Underground. Plotting to blow up Fort Dix in New Jersey and police headquarters in New York and Detroit, they set up a bomb factory in a townhouse in New York's Greenwich Village.
On the night of March 6, 1970, a bomb blew up, apparently when Terry Robbins, following instructions in a book, crossed a pair of wires. The blast, which badly shook neighbor Dustin Hoffman, leveled the townhouse and killed three people.
Rather than face the legal fallout, the Weather Underground members, including Ayers and another friend, Bernardine Dohrn, went underground. Over the next four years, the group took credit for a dozen bombings, including one at the U.S. Capitol, to protest the war.
They were on the run for 11 years, mostly in New York. They lived, much of the time, in a two-bedroom, $246-a-month apartment, on the top floor of a five-story walkup. She worked at an infants' clothing store and as a part-time waitress. He taught at a day-care center.
Ayers and Dohrn later married and had two children, delivered at home. After each birth, they planted a tree in a park and ingested special foods, notably ginger tea, to replenish lost body heat.
In November 1980, they turned themselves in. Over the years, most of the charges had been dropped, or downgraded. Dohrn wound up with a $1,500 fine and three years' probation; Ayers, with nothing.
Several years ago, for an article in Seven Days magazine, writer Rose obtained FBI reports on Ayers. They included an interview with his father, whose theme with federal agents, Rose recalled, "was along the lines of `I probably didn't take him camping enough.' "`
"It's funny," Ayers said. "When we came out of hiding, the first thing my father said to me was, `Your hair's a bit long.' And the first thing that Bernardine's mother asked her was, `Are you married?' "
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