Educator, author and
Vietnam-era activist Bill Ayers is scheduled to give a talk at the seventh
annual Midwest Peace & Justice Summit on March 26. He'll deliver the
keynote address, titled "Organizing for Social Justice in Troubled Times."
Ayers is a retired distinguished professor of education and senior
university scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago and founder of both
the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society. He's authored
15 books on teaching and children's rights, as well as Fugitive Days, a memoir of his time in the Weather Underground. He
spoke with NUVO from his Chicago-area home.
NUVO: From the Middle
East to the Midwest, we've seen tremendous grassroots protests. Media coverage
of Egypt called them "Days of Rage." Were you having flashbacks to Chicago in
It wasn't just the media. The Egyptians and the Tunisians and the Yemenis all
called their demonstrations "days of rage." Ironic and funny, wasn't it?
There are two natural
responses to the kind of imbalances and injustices that we see around the
world. One is to be outraged. Like the bumper sticker says, "If you're not
outraged, you're not paying attention."
But the other response
that I think struggles with that is the idea that we could do better, that this
is not the best we could do — we could build [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] beloved community. There's a kind of tension between
being outraged and then imagining a different, better world. Saying, "Yes,
another world is possible," stands in direct opposition to Margaret Thatcher's
deathless phrase, "There is no alternative."
Of course there's an alternative, and it's critical that
people who are standing for peace and justice make a big point in their lives
of saying that whatever is the case, whatever the world looks like as such,
standing right next to that is the world that could be but is not yet. That's
the world we have to work toward.
So yes, rage is part of it, anger
is part of it, but that anger has to be tempered by a love of humanity. It has
to be tempered by a sense of justice and a hope for peace.
NUVO: Despite all our
efforts over the years, the war machine keeps on rolling. Beyond hope, what is
the actual work of peacemaking?
We should all note that the week before the Egyptian uprising, not one of us
was paying attention to it. Not one of us thought that it was coming. Not one
of us predicted it. This is the nature of rough and complex social change. Just
because we have an analysis of the injustice and general oppression of the
situation and we know that it has the potential to blow up, we can't predict
when or how or toward what end. The fact is that every revolution is impossible
until it happens, and then looking backwards, every revolution appears
inevitable. That's just in the nature of it.
So, one reaction I
have is not to despair that the war-makers continue against all common sense,
against all popular opinion, to have their way but to actually realize that
hope and investing in hope is itself a politics. I'm not optimistic because I
don't know where the world is headed, but I'm not pessimistic precisely because
I don't know where we're going. And no one can predict. Just because we can't predict what
pebble dropped into what lake will eddy out and make what change doesn't mean
we can't act. That's why sometimes when we don't know what else to do, we bear
witness. That's not only an important thing to do — it's essential,
because it changes us.
I do get up every
morning hoping that we can do better, and I think that's a political choice. I
think we would be ineffective if we didn't posit hope as an important element
in whatever we do.
NUVO: How has the growth
of the right-wing echo chamber to counter the so-called liberal media
influenced efforts to create a culture of peace?
It is troubling to hear all of the right-wing propaganda and see the way it
feeds on itself, and also the way The New
York Times does the bidding of the war-makers. The Times has been an absolutely appalling institution in terms of
marching us into Iraq, in terms of holding back information — most
recently about CIA agent Raymond Davis in Pakistan. Everybody else in the world
knew that this guy was a CIA agent. The only people who didn't know was us
because we didn't get the news from The New
But looking on the
other side of it, don't you think it's interesting that it took the American
people three years after the invasion of Iraq to come to a majority opinion
against the war? Remember, that was in the face of a barrage of propaganda and
jingoistic thinking and demonization of Arabs. Still, we are not stupid. We
couldn't stop the war, but we came to our senses overwhelmingly.
NUVO: In your graphic novel, To Teach,you wrote that you want to create "a permanent readiness for the
marvelous." That's very poetic, coming from a former Weatherman. What's
different about your current activism?
Ayers:I've written several memoirs, and I've
certainly written about the years of the Weather Underground, and nothing in
what I've written tries to valorize or heroize or even defend what we did. I do
attempt to explain how a boy like this got into a place like that. But one of
the things that does surprise people is that I was a direct-action, nonviolent
activist long before the Weather Underground, and I've been one ever since.
I believed in the
power of direct action, and I think that it's our responsibility as dissenters
from the juggernaut to present a moral alternative. I don't think the Weather
Underground always did that, but I don't think we never did it either. I think
we can look at that period and see it as unique and deeply troubled and
troubling, but I also think there's no roadmap moving forward. Often, when I
hear the discussion of nonviolence, I get a little worried because nonviolence
doesn't mean sitting on your couch. It means nonviolent direct action.
cannot be preached by Hillary Clinton. When you look at every gas bomb
and every tank in Tahrir Square made in the U.S., the U.S. has no standing to
preach nonviolence. But those of us who engage in nonviolent direct action have
every reason to stand up and make it a real moral alternative.