From the CHicago Sun Times

A '60s radical looks back at life in the underground 

September 2, 2001 


Bill Ayers, author, teacher, political radical and former member of the Weather Underground guerilla group, says he has plenty of regrets about his life, but not "the big regret people seem to want me to have." 

He does not regret, he says, "throwing myself as wholeheartedly as I could figure out into opposition to war and to the system of racial injustice. Even though I did some extreme things and committed some illegal acts, I don't regret any of it." 

He does regret, he readily concedes, that ''people were hurt, that three of my dear friends were killed, that we were stupid, immature, intolerant and unwise. I regret that I hurt people's feelings.'' 

But mostly, he says, he regrets that the war in Vietnam, against which he had protested for a decade, "dragged on'' until 1975, and that racial injustice "continues to stain" the country. "I wish we had been more effective,'' he says.

Ayers, a 56-year-old professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, calls his new book about his 10 years underground "one boy's story." But in a recent interview in his UIC office, the desk and walls bristling with memorabilia, the shelves and floor stacked with books, including three he has written on education, he allowed that this particular story "wouldn't have happened 10 years before or 10 years later" than it did. 

Raised in affluence in west suburban Glen Ellyn, the son of a former chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison, Ayers took a sharp left turn at the University of Michigan. 

He jumped into the leading edge of the student movement, where he would stay as that movement became both larger and more mainstream, and also more militant and even violent at the extremes, until the horrific March 1970 event he calls "the Townhouse." 

He couldn't have done otherwise, Ayers says. His coming of age, he says, was like emerging from a sheltered room to find "that large parts of the house are on fire. I felt called upon to help put out the fire." 

Ayers was one of a group of Weatherman members who went underground after the Days of Rage, a mano a mano protest that was waged to "bring the war home" in Chicago in 1969. 

Then a bomb meant for a nearby Army base, loaded with nails and screws "to transform this into something deadly, something unspeakable," Ayers writes, went off in a Manhattan town house--a Weatherman safe house--taking the lives of three people, including Diana Oughton, of Dwight, Ill., his girlfriend at the time. 

After that, while the group continued with such destructive activities as bombing the Pentagon in 1972 (warning officials beforehand so they could clear the building), the main body veered away from schemes that would involve hurting people. 

"We simply didn't have it in us to harm people," Ayers writes. 

Ayers does a remarkable job of re-creating not just the grass-roots political events of the 1960s and '70s but also the developments and feelings, the sense of urgency, that brought participants, many like him young and affluent, to pit themselves in a visceral struggle against their government. 

He gives us, too, a fascinating look at the "underground," ordinary places in American cities where, as a fugitive, he lived and worked under false identities for more than a decade, hidden in plain sight. 

His description of this underground life evokes nothing as much as the alternate world inhabited by Harry Potter and the other wizards in the books by J.K. Rowling. Indeed, Ayers calls being underground "as close to magic as I would ever come." 

Underground, he fell in love with the iconic Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn, a University of Chicago Law School graduate. Still underground, he and Dohrn had two children, Zayd, now 24, and Malik, 21. 

In 1980, they turned themselves in. Most charges against them were dropped, though Dohrn served seven months in prison for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury. 

In his book, Ayers has conjured "the feeling of the times, the sense of possibility, the sense that we felt we had an obligation as citizens to make the world a better place," says Dohrn, 59, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School and an assistant clinical professor there. 

Of his life with Dohrn, Ayers says, "We are really lucky in 1,000 different ways. We have found a way to live out our commitment, and I am blessed to have someone as wonderful as Bernardine to make me laugh and to hang with me. We are just a couple of aging hippies, trying to keep one foot in front of the other like everybody else." 

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'Memoir' is more fiction than reality 


Fugitive Days: A Memoir 

By Bill Ayers 

Beacon, $24 

In November of 1969, Bill Ayers and three other members of the Weathermen dropped in on the Washington, D.C., office of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. Ayers and his cohorts demanded $20,000 in cash as payment for abstaining from violence during a peace march scheduled for the next day. 

Their demand was summarily rejected. A member of the Moratorium group asked Ayers what he really wanted. 

"To kill all rich people," Ayers replied. When another peace activist noted that Ayers came from a wealthy family, Ayers responded with a slogan: "Bring the war home. Kill your parents.'' 

In his memoir of this era, Ayers doesn't mention this strange encounter. "There is . . . a necessary incompleteness here, a covering over of facts and a blurring of details," Ayers writes in his preface. "Most names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away. 

Is this, then, the truth? Not exactly." 

Not by a long shot. 

Ayers, who gained notoriety as a member of a political fringe group known as the Weathermen, is still living in the past but has chosen to tell only part of the story. By his own admission, this "memoir" is partly fiction. Ayers, who is still reinventing himself, is so detached from reality that it is difficult to take this book seriously. 

There were many heroes in the anti-war movement, including Allard Lowenstein, the Rev. Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Dave Dellinger, Tom Hayden and Eugene J. McCarthy. Ayers was a crackpot whose senseless tactics hurt the anti-war cause. 

"The serpent of rage was loosed in the wide world, and it sank its passionate fangs deep into our inflamed hearts, power and corruption lying in the tall grass side by side along the pathway of wrath," Ayers writes in his memoir. 

In seeking to justify the use of terrorist violence, Ayers could be making the same case for Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski. "I can't quite imagine putting a bomb in a building today--all of that seems so distinctly a part of then," he writes. "But I can't imagine entirely dismissing the possibility, either." 

Ayers bombed the U.S. Capitol, a bathroom in the Pentagon, and cased out the White House. Three of his fellow Weathermen blew themselves up while playing with bombs in a Greenwich Village town house. 

According to Ayers, these bombs, which were filled with roofing nails, were made to be used at a nearby Army base. But according to other sources, the bombs were to have been used at Columbia University. To Ayers and his motley crew, the ends justified the means. 

As an organizer, Ayers was a zero. In the fall of 1969, the Weathermen hoped to attract 20,000 kids to an anti-war rally in Lincoln Park. Only a few hundred showed. They trashed small shops, lower-middle-class housing, and lower-priced cars. It was a pathetic failure. 

His wife, Bernardine Dohrn, was his partner in this folly. "She had earned her role as the voice and the leader of the militants through practice, but she was also a stunning and seductive symbol of the Revolutionary Woman," Ayers writes. ". . . I would have followed her anywhere." 

Ayers doesn't mention in this book that Dohrn celebrated Charles Manson's 1969 massacre of actress Sharon Tate and four other people. "Dig it: first they killed those pigs," Dohrn said of the mass murder, "then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into pig Tate's stomach! Wild!" 

It is troubling that Ayers doesn't disclose how he and Dohrn used his wealthy family's clout to fight their legal battles. After a decade on the run from federal charges, they surrendered to the FBI. 

Most of these charges were dropped because of "extreme governmental misconduct." The influence of the Ayers family also helped. 

But Ayers is less than candid throughout this "memoir." There is a shelf of fine literature about the New Left, including Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS (1973); Allen J. Matusow's The Unraveling of America (1984); Todd Gitlin's The Sixties (1987), and Tom Wells' The War Within (1994). This self-indulgent fantasy isn't in the same league.