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Ayers talk draws big crowd, tough questions
By Ira Smolensky
For the Review Atlas
MONMOUTH- Thursday morning, William (Bill) Ayers, former member of the notorious "Weather Underground" and currently Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, spoke to a near-capacity crowd at the Monmouth College auditorium. Upon arriving, audience members were greeted by a small group of protesters who passed out sheets referring to Ayers as "Distinguished terrorism professor of U of I." The protestors also solicited signatures for a campus "anti-terrorism act" petition.
The presence of such opposition had no apparent effect on Ayers, who, at one point, invited questions specifically from his detractors in the audience. In his talk, entitled "My Heart is Not Weary: Reflections of a Life on the Run," he urged his audience, made up of Monmouth College students and faculty as well as a fair numbewr of local residents, to avoid "the toxic habit of labeling" because "every one of us is more than our label."
Ayers went on to recount how, from a background of comfortable suburban privilege, he became deeply concerned about social injustice, first with regard to the civil rights movement, and later as an impassioned opponent of the Vietnam War. He shared his memory of elation when, in 1968, Persident Lyndon Baines Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election. Ayers, along with others, thought that Johnson's departure meant an end to the war. Instead, newly elected President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, set in motion a plan that spread the war into neighboring Cambodia. It was at that juncture, according to Ayers, that he and other Weather Underground members decided that peaceful protest was insufficient to end the war.
At this point, Ayers cut off his narrative, choosing instead to answer questions from the audience, including one on his assessment of parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. According to Ayers, the war in Vietnam differed from the current one in Iraq in that it (Vietnam) involved a "popular peasant revolution" as opposed to the thuggish insurgency in Iraq. On the other hand,Ayers continued, in both wars, the administration in power made ample user of "the big lie" to sway public opinion, and both wars demonstrate that the American public has "no stomach for conquest." A second question asked Ayers for his opinion of the controversy between Carl Davidson, and unreconstructed critic of American institutions, and Tom Haydn, [sic] one of the founders of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), from which the Weather Underground group splintered. Unlike Davidson, Haydn left his radical roots behind to become a long-time California congressman. For this, he has drawn Davidson's ire. In his answer, Ayers expressed dismay at Davidson's "barbs," and warned his audience about the temptations of sinking into "orthodoxy." He encouraged audience members to open their minds and "reach out across barriers."
This ended the scheduled talk, but, with Ayers' encouragement, about sixty audience members remained to ask further questions. Among other things, Ayers was asked if he thought Iraq was better off now that Saddam Hussein had been removed from power. Ayers responded that Iraq was worse off now because the presence of the United States itself "is a destabilizing influence." He also said that Saddam could have been removed in other ways, short of war, predicted civil war would mar the future of Iraq, and insisted that any calculation of whether Iraq, and the U.S., were better off must include consideration of all those who have died or lost loved ones.
At a little past noon, the session ended, sort of. About fifteen members of the audience surrounded Ayers in front of the stage, with one finally asking Ayers to explain his decision to engage in violent protest. With 2000 people a day dying in the Vietnam War, Ayers said, he considered the violence of the country to be "huge", while that of the Weather Underground was esentially "restrained." He did not think that his anti-war activity, at any stage, constituted terrorism. He said he would never consider bombing an inhabited building, and that he considered assault against property to be "a form of protest" that, though "not legal," was definitely "legitimate"given the circumstances.
The issue was still being discussed as Ayers was whisked off to lunch with his entourage of avid supporters and critics.
Post scriptum note: The majority of the students in attendance were freshman class, required to be there as part of the core curriculum featuring "Exemplary Lives". -rk
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