CONVERSATIONS WITH PEOPLE I FIND INTERESTING: Bill Ayers
Each issue of CALEXIT includes interviews with people who are doing constructive and inspiring things IRL. The conversations tend to go on longer than we can fit in the paper comics, so we’ll be running the complete interviews here on the website.
I had the privilege of speaking with Bill Ayers, an educator and activist whose work goes back to the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and The Weather Underground. Here is the complete transcript of our conversation, which was excerpted in issue 1 of CALEXIT.
His most recent book Demand The Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto is available now.
You can follow Bill on Twitter @WilliamAyers
Pizzolo: So I guess the best way to start is if you can introduce yourself, that way I don’t fuck up and totally butcher your bio.
Bill Ayers: OK. My name is Bill Ayers, I’m a retired professor of Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I’m a longtime peace and justice activist and currently I’m on a book tour with a book called Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto.
MP: And what is the radical manifesto?
BA: The idea of it is very simple; I started by thinking I wanted to write a pamphlet and what was in my mind was that progressives, radicals, revolutionaries, are pretty good at naming and critiquing the system as it is, but we’re not always as good about saying what we want or what we’re fighting for and frankly I think that our struggles go off the track and also lose momentum unless we have an evolving vision of what it is we want or what it is we’re trying to achieve.
And so I set out to write a pamphlet and I was very taken with the kind of contradiction in this phrase that appeared all over the walls of Paris in 1968 and the phrase was, “Be realistic: demand the impossible.” It seems to me that as long as we’re staying inside the boundaries of the possible, we’re being dictated to and we can have all kinds of spirited debate that gives us the illusion of free thinking, but as long as the frame of that debate is as narrow as, for example, between Obamacare and the Republican Health Care Plan… or, on another issue, if the debate is between invading and occupying countries as opposed to strangling them economically… those aren’t the debates I want to have. I want to change the frame.
And so this is a book that attempts to make an argument that we unleash our most radical imaginations, rethink what’s possible on the big issues of the day, and try to build and forge a social movement that has energy and creativity at its heart–that’s what “demand the impossible” is.
MP: It seems like, coming out of the 2016 election, for better and for worse in some ways, people have been more inspired to be doing that–to be taking social action. What’s your takeaway from 2016, from the whole thing, but I guess particularly, what Bernie was able to inspire and what Trump has also been able to inspire?
BA: Yeah, the book was published in August 2016 so it was well underway before Trump. Michael Moore’s movie Where To Invade Next preceded Trump, Naomi Klein’s recent book No Is Not Enough preceded Trump. So it’s not Trump per se, but what the Trump election does is it gives energy to this idea that the choice before us is not just between fascism or neoliberalism with all of its austerity and permanent war and mass incarceration. We have to find another alternative, we have to create the possibility.
When I look at the election there are two things I take away; one is, to look at Bernie for a minute- I mean, I think what’s admirable is that he’s an honest person who has an honest vision of what we could do, he’s basically an FDR social democrat, which is pretty good given the context that we live in, and he’s a man of honesty and integrity, and in our fraught and backward politics, someone with honesty and integrity stands out, so I have a lot of admiration for him. I don’t think what he was putting forward was a revolutionary program, I don’t even think it was socialism, but I think it was an admirable effort and I think he appealed to people and he said, ‘you know what, I don’t want to choose between the status quo and fascism.’
I think what Donald Trump did was to run an explicitly fascist campaign. I don’t buy the idea that the Bernie people and the Trump people are the same disillusioned people. What I think is true about the Trump campaign, and I’m not talking about his voters I’m talking about the campaign that he ran: it was explicitly fascist. He appealed to white supremacy and national chauvinism–there’s always a base for that in this country, there always has been a base. For the last 40 years that base has been disorganized and incoherent… up until Trump came along. It found coherence in that campaign.
Trump ran on criminalizing entire communities, scapegoating entire peoples–the most vulnerable people among us, promoting a business-military-political unity, that is the core of fascism. So, I think we should name it for what it is. It’s fascism. And we should oppose it.
MP: When you’re talking about Trump in the terms of being a fascist leader, that term gets thrown around a lot but it seems like you are really dialing in on him being literally a fascist leader. Are you using ‘fascism’ as a kind of catch-all phrase or do you really think he’s on the level of a Mussolini or a Hitler type historical fascist figure? I’m curious because those can often feel like really cartoonish comparisons, maybe because they’re usually used for shock-effect, but shock doesn’t seem to be your intent.
BA: It’s not yet at that scale, but I was in Portugal last week and I saw film footage of Salazar when he first assumed the dictatorship of Portugal. And the language that he used was absolutely familiar and absolutely chilling–he had scapegoats, he had enemies, he was aggrieved, he was defensive, he was paranoid, but the language he used were things like, ‘No one is allowed to question history, our history is great.’ ‘No one is allowed to question our right to be in Africa.’ ‘No one is allowed to question the role of the family and the exalted place of women’ (by which he meant the oppression of women). And he kept saying it over and over, ‘You can’t question me on these things.’
When we look back at Hitler we think ‘oh, yeah the Holocaust’ and this and that, but that’s not how it started: it started with him being elected. And it’s important for us to remember that. An opportunity knocked–the Reichstag fire was part of that knocking, other things were part of it–but people collapsed in the face of Hitler and that allowed Hitler to become Hitler.
Mussolini paved the way. And remember these guys were national socialists, they were “for the workers,” they were willing to give concessions to the workers but they believed in authoritarianism, they believed in ‘the great man,’ they believed in the autocrat. When Trump says ‘fake news,’ don’t confuse that he means what we mean by it–when we say ‘fake news’ we mean Judith Miller marching us into Iraq from the New York Times, when he says that he’s saying ‘Only I have the truth and it’s in my Twitter account,’ that’s a terrifying and frightening kind of stance to take.
So when I say ‘fascist’ I mean half a dozen things; I mean the criminalization of communities; I mean the scapegoating of entire peoples, especially the most vulnerable; I mean the combination of corporate, political and military power in a way that you can’t put a butter knife between those things; and a kind of a nationalism that sees no other way than to build up the national project, so that is fascism, that’s the program he ran on.
Will he be able to consolidate it? My money says he won’t, but only if we resist. And frankly, I think that we have enough energy from below that I think we can resist it effectively, but if we resist it by saying ‘let’s go back to neoliberalism, let’s go back to austerity, let’s go back to Obamacare,’ we will lose and so I think that we have to be in the system developing a program and organizing people and mobilizing people.
Now, Trump doesn’t come out of nowhere, and this is part of why we’re in a unique situation, because the Democrats–the leaders of the Democratic Party–are struggling to try to keep up with the spontaneous resistance that’s on the ground. They’re trying to claim that they are the resistance, but that’s not true. For 40 years it’s been a bipartisan effort that’s gotten us into a place of permanent war, mass incarceration, the destruction of the public space including public education, and a health care system that is riddled with predatory capitalism all over it, and the destruction of the environment. That’s all bipartisan.
We have to find a third way, we have to find a way out of that and in many ways that’s what my book is trying to do, it’s trying to say “let’s reframe every issue: not ‘Obamacare versus the Republican Health Care Plan’ but ‘universal health care for all;’ not ‘should we bomb and invade countries or should we strangle them’ but ‘let’s put an end to war;’ ‘let’s abolish the prisons;’ ‘let’s tax the filthy extractors until it hurts;’ and ‘let’s create an environment that we can live in;’” and on and on.
MP: Right, and a lot of this goes back to your history in The Weather Underground, or—it was originally called The Weathermen and then it changed?
BA: Well, what happened is we were leaders of Students for a Democratic Society and when we were thrashing around trying to figure out the way forward, a faction of us wrote a paper–it was a dense, complicated political argument, frankly I still agree with most of it, but it was so dense and so complicated that we decided to give it a whimsical title, so we took a line from Bob Dylan and it was called, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
And what we meant by that was the third world revolution is so apparent, it’s so in your face that you don’t need us to tell you all this, it’s happening and you can join or you can resist. We were then called the Weathermen Faction of SDS, taken from that line from Dylan. That name is awfully sexist, and so when we went underground we called ourselves The Weather Underground.
MP: We’re in a very intense political climate right now but probably not as contentious as it was in the 60s, how do you feel it’s different or similar between then and now?
BA: I think most of the comparisons between the 60’s and now are inaccurate, wildly inaccurate, for a couple of reasons; one is, because there was no such thing as the 60s. Nobody of my generation looked at their watch on December 31st, 1969 and said ‘oh shit, it’s almost over let’s go get laid or get high’ nobody did that, nobody lives by decades.
If you think about it, in the period since World War II, the black GI’s coming home led to the early Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement led to the Black Power Movement, Malcolm X is a product of all that, and on and on and on. So it’s hard to say. Was The 60s Rosa Parks? Well that was 1956 but yeah, that’s part of The 60s in the mythmaking. So I think a lot of The 60s is myth and symbol.
Second thing, I think what was unique at that time was the Black Freedom Movement, that iteration of the Black Freedom Movement, was defining the moral compass of the nation. And the United States plunged into an aggressive imperialist war in Vietnam that united so many progressive elements, and so we had a movement that came together around furthering the agenda of the Black Freedom Movement and around opposing American military recklessness in Vietnam and genocide. That was a unique moment.
And one of the things that made it unique for people like us is that we actually believed that we were going to win. It wasn’t like we were doing it simply as an exercise in self-righteousness or something, we actually thought that the days of the empire were numbered.
Now, we were wildly mistaken, but I think what’s exciting about now is that the Black Freedom Movement has another iteration–a modern iteration–that is as compelling and as sweeping and as comprehensive as anything I’ve ever seen and that’s the Black Lives Matter group, which is not a group exactly but it’s a sentiment all over the country and it’s finding ways to organize itself into a movement.
We also have today not only the Queer Movement, which has been remarkably successful, and the Women’s Movement, which continues to find new ways to define a way forward for equality, but we have Undocumented And Unafraid, we have Standing Rock, and these things are on the ground and happening.
So, to the extent that we can find a way to unite, and we can build a program of unity that we take to the people as an alternative to Trump or Clinton, or as an alternative to fascism and neoliberalism, I think that we’re in a very strong position. And I’m more excited than I’ve been in a long long time to think that the impossible is becoming possible.
MP: I’m curious in your long history of being part of movements, tactically what have you seen–either done yourself or seen first-hand–to be some of the more effective tactics?
BA: Well, I’m really not a tactician. I think tactics flow from strategy and strategy flows from principle and principle flows from having an ethical stance. And so what I think is remarkable, and I think it’s more remarkable today than ever, is the ways in which the arts and activism come together to create something new.
Here we are in a situation where The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are the main commentators on the political scene today. That’s both remarkable and kind of wonderful because humor and art is generous in a way that didactics is never generous, and so–I’m not funny and I’m not particularly artistic, but I hang out with young poets and young artists and some of them graffiti artists but many of them playwrights and novelists and painters and I think that what we’re seeing is an absolute explosion of art on the street, on the ground, in the schools, that’s redefining what’s possible.
I don’t know if you participated in the Women’s March anywhere on January 21st, but I was in DC and I had the most remarkable several days in DC but it culminated with the Women’s March. And to see the creativity, the genuine inventiveness and the generosity of spirit that brought people into the streets in costume, with different banners and slogans, representing different things, coming together intersectionally, it was breathtaking. And it didn’t happen with the national leadership or a national organization, it happened because people were pissed off and they found each other… but they weren’t just pissed off, and this is another theme incidentally from my book, there’s a bumper sticker I love that says, “if you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention,” and that draws our attention to the fact that you have to open your eyes in order to understand the state of the world. But I always want to put a bumper sticker next to that that says, “if you’re only pissed off, you’re not going to stay in the struggle and you’re not going to get where we need to go,” you have to kind of combine being pissed off with generosity, creativity, imagination and love.
And it seems to me that that’s what I’m seeing right now in Chicago on the ground, these Black Lives Matter activists are not only in the streets protesting police violence and police occupation, but they’ve got a plan to rebuild communities, to rebuild schools, and they do it a lot through the arts and through poetry and through song and through music. So, I’m not making a comparison with the 60s, but I’m saying we’re in an upsurge right now that everyone should embrace and dive into with a smile on your face and a song in your heart because this is it.
MP: Yeah I was at the Women’s March in LA with my family, it was three generations so that was special and it was incredibly inspiring and I think that one of the concerns that people have, especially when they have a smaller frame of reference in terms of protest movements over time, is how to sustain something like that where you have this tremendous protest nationwide and around the world, a peaceful protest… and from there, what is your observation of what people can be doing if they want to take action locally, if they want to… maybe they’ve not done this before, but they want to be part of something constructive?
BA: A kid that went to high school with my kids is an opera singer in New York. He put up a big sign and stood in front of the Trump Hotel–he’s a Muslim kid, he’s a dark-skinned Indian kid–he put a blindfold on while holding this big sign that said “I am a Muslim. I do not want to be afraid. I want you to stand next to me. I want you to embrace me. Will you help me?” And he stood there singing opera on a corner in New York. Wow. And it galvanized a moment that was just unbelievable.
We’re talking about ‘sanctuary,’ right? All over the country people are talking about sanctuary. Sanctuary can’t be left in the hands of governors and mayors, so what does it mean? It means ‘churches,’ yes but what does it mean on my block? So we called together the people on our block, people we don’t know except to say ‘hello’ in the morning and maybe we know their dogs better than we know them–and 30 people came and talked about what we could do to make 50th Street a safe street. For us, for activists, for people without papers, what an exciting thing.
A guy in Chicago who runs an independent film archive decided after the election that he would have a series of films–of anti-authoritarian films–followed by a teach-in at each showing. So he showed 1984, A Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and he’s had a series of teach-ins.
We have an independent bookstore here that has just started a series of contemporary events called In the dark times Will there be singing?, based on that quote from Bertolt Brecht, and so there’s a monthly meeting where artists and writers are coming together to talk about the current events and what is to be done–those are just tiny examples, I could go on forever.
Those are tactics I wouldn’t think of necessarily, but they come from people who are in the position they’re in, and so my advice to people is to spend less time staring at the sites of power we have no access to like the Presidency or the Congress or the Pentagon or Wall Street, and spend more time looking at the sites of power we have absolute access to–the street, the community, the classroom, the neighborhood, the school, the workplace–this is where we have access, this is where power comes from. So I think we all need to talk to strangers and try to define what we mean by things like ‘sanctuary’ and things like ‘resistance’.
MP: I was talking to Amanda Weaver who is an organizer with Reclaim Chicago, and it was really fascinating; she was talking about everything from knocking on doors to participating in a Political Action Committee, and what was interesting to me was she was talking about it on multiple levels: electoral campaigns and also direct action. And, not to dwell on this, but I think that you would have a really unique perspective. I’m curious what you think about direct action at protests, specifically anti-fascist groups and there was the whole thing about Richard Spencer getting punched and more broadly about the perception that peaceful protests are ruined when property is destroyed.
BA: Yeah. Let me let me say two things to back up on Amanda’s point: I think in order to make real change and in order to bring about fundamental progressive change, you need to never lose sight of the fact that masses of people, workers, ordinary people have to constantly be mobilized–you can never let go of that aspect of it, there has to be independent mobilization of masses of people.
And yes, occasionally, well not occasionally–but there has to be some turning toward regular politics. The problem we have in this country is what we call ‘regular politics,’ elections become such a dark hole in space, they suck all the energy out of the movement and we then end up with a false narrative which is, ‘if we would just elect the right person, our problems will be solved.’ But that’s not true, even a brief glance at history shows you that Lyndon Johnson passed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and he was not part of the Black Freedom Movement. Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t part of the Labor Movement and Lincoln wasn’t part of the Abolitionist Movement, it’s fire from below that changes something and that’s where we should spend most of our energy, collectively, in building that kind of fire.
And in terms of the ethical question, in my view, if I’m asked by the young anarchists, and I often am asked, ‘what should we do tactically?’ My answer is very simple, which is: you should act, and then you should doubt. And the measure of your evaluation of what your action did should always be, ‘did I educate people and did I educate myself?’
It’s not a question of, ‘did I look good with that bandana around my face, throwing that Molotov cocktail?’ Who gives a shit how good you looked? That’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is did you educate people.
Now a lot of people will say breaking windows doesn’t educate people, I disagree. I’ve seen breaking windows educate people a lot in all directions, so I am loath to lecture people on what they should and shouldn’t do. When I look at the demonstrations, for example, recently in Berkeley, some bank windows were broken but meanwhile thousands of people were being murdered by our government all over the world, I can’t make a comparison.
But I want activists to be in the business of educating and mobilizing and organizing, I don’t want to be in the business of posing and posturing and performing, that’s not the important part. But I think a lot of lecturing of the anarchists is wasted energy, and I think it serves the status quo.
So what happened during Occupy–listen, this is true my whole life incidentally, everything I’ve ever done, from sit-ins to being arrested at demonstrations to the Weather Underground–there’s always a scold standing in the sideline saying, ‘that’s not the right way to do it.’ Well then you come and do it the right way, you show me the right way. So I was told that I shouldn’t sit-in at the draft board because that would turn people off, it turns out that scold was wrong; we turned people on, we showed people what commitment looked like. I was told that we shouldn’t go to Washington and rampage through the streets, turns out we were right to do it and we educated people there too. So I don’t buy that.
And then you see something more recent like Occupy, the response of power to Occupy is a classic: the first thing they do is they make fun of you, the second thing they do is they try to co-opt you, the third thing they do is beat the shit out of you and then they repeat. So here’s Bill Clinton telling the Occupy people how they ought to dress, what the fuck are you talking about? Get out of here! If you want to tell us how to be, join the movement and then you can have a voice like everybody else, but if you’re going to stand above us and outside of us and tell us how to act we’re not buying it.
That’s why I said earlier that I’m not a tactician. I’m not really in the business to say the tactic of breaking windows is never right or the tactic of doing this is always right, I don’t agree. I think sometimes different things are required. What was required when the Germans were rounding up the Jews in Austria? What was required when the troops were moving on Native Americans? What was required during slavery; was it okay that Harriet Tubman carried a pistol? I think it was okay. Was it okay that John Brown raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry? Yes it was. And so I don’t think we should get stuck in tactics, we should always be talking about larger strategy, we should also always base that strategy in a moral framework.
MP: What’s your point of view on the relative effectiveness of The Tea Party as opposed to the effectiveness of Occupy?
BA: There’s a false equivalency that the Tea Party and Occupy were both spontaneous movements and that’s not true.
The Tea Party was funded by the Koch brothers and it wasn’t spontaneous, it was mobilized by the right wing of the Republican Party and they’ve been effective in getting people elected, they’ve been effective at setting agenda, they’ve been effective at gerrymandering congressional districts, they’ve been effective at raising money.
But there’s no way that Occupy could possibly raise the kind of resources and money that the Tea Party did, because they’re not backed by big business, right?
So we have to look in a different direction to ask ourselves what is effectiveness. In my view, without any resources, without any real organization to speak of, Occupy changed the frame of a discussion and they did it so quickly that it almost is not seen. The reason that Mitt Romney’s taxes mattered, the reason that people are interested in Donald Trump’s taxes, the reason that we’re now kind of looking at an alternative to austerity, it’s because of Occupy. So I can’t kind of criticize them for not making a revolution.
And if they called me the day before they pitched tents in Wall Street and said, ‘Hey Bill, we’re thinking of pitching tents in Wall Street, what do you think?’ I would say ‘What the fuck are you going to do that for? Why?’ And of course, the day after they did it, I was right there. I was there because I saw what they had done was so remarkable… but the day before any revolution it’s impossible, the day after it’s inevitable.
And I think people who spend their time kind of nitpicking on what Occupy didn’t do miss the point that they did so much with so little. And the goal was never to overthrow capitalism, I mean that was an unreasonable kind of aspiration, but in terms of changing the terms of the discussion, so that now income inequality and universal health care are actually on the agenda, in fact I think that Occupy created the conditions for Bernie Sanders. And I think that you can’t sell them short, I think you have to love them for what they did.
MP: And looking at that view of Occupy setting the stage for Bernie… what are you optimistic about, what do you feel that maybe all this, for good and for bad, has set up the stage for what might come next?
BA: Well, we don’t get to pick our historical moment and we don’t get to pick the conditions within which we’re going to organize. If I were to pick my moment, I would not have Trump be the president. If I were to pick my moment, I would have had Bernie win, but I didn’t get to pick. So now I have to decide what to do in the light of the fact that a man who ran a fascist campaign has been elected and is trying to consolidate a fascist government. We have to live with that.
So I should say I’m not optimistic but nor am I pessimistic because optimists and pessimists share a sense of determinism; that is, they know what’s coming–I have no fucking idea what’s coming. And because I have no idea, I’m a hopeful person. Because I choose to be hopeful. I choose to wake up in the morning saying maybe today we’ll be able to move this thing a notch forward or maybe even overthrow capitalism, maybe today. And then I go to bed every night disappointed at what we didn’t do, but that doesn’t diminish the possibility that we could do it tomorrow. As long as we’re living and breathing, as long as human beings are here, we have the possibility of coming to our senses and remaking the world in a way that’s sustainable, survivable, peaceful, just, filled with joy and justice, we can do that.
And I’ll tell you another thing, existentially, that makes me hopeful, and it’s always made me hopeful, is if you put a pillow over a person’s head and you try to suffocate them, that person will fight back. And that’s in our nature, that’s in our biological makeup. And so the fact that a pillow’s being put over our head should not completely discourage us because we know we’re gonna fight back.