Fugitive Days: A Memoir
by Bill Ayers
Beacon Press. 293 pp. $24.00
This Memoir by Bill Ayers, an active terrorist in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, is, he admits, “not exactly” the truth, although he adds that “it feels entirely honest to me.” Well, however it may “feel” to Ayers, it is both untrue and thoroughly dishonest.
Born in 1945, reared in an affluent Chicago suburb as the son of a successful business executive, Ayers dropped out of the University of Michigan after only a few months to travel south to New Orleans, ostensibly to become involved in the burgeoning civil-rights movement of the early 1960’s. Instead, he joined the Merchant Marine and for a while seemed even to be thinking of volunteering to serve in Vietnam. But within a very brief period he returned to Ann Arbor, and there, for reasons he does not clearly explain, he was drawn into the anti-war movement, joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and was promptly arrested for occupying a local draft board.
The next few years found Ayers teaching at an alternative school for children, moving to Cleveland to join an SDS effort at building a community organization among blacks, and then, back in Ann Arbor once more, eagerly participating in every anti-war demonstration, getting himself arrested frequently, and, together with his small “affinity group,” beginning to think about bombs and revolution.
SDS started to splinter apart in 1968, and it disintegrated the following year. All of the warring factions proclaimed themselves to be revolutionary Communists; none of them exhibited much of a grip on reality. Thus, the Progressive Labor group, denouncing such “bourgeois indulgences” as drugs and long hair, argued for a wildly improbable alliance of university students and blue-collar workers. The Revolutionary Youth movement focused more narrowly on convincing working-class young people to become the vanguard of revolution. And then there were the Weathermen, later renamed the Weather Underground, who took their name from a line in a song by Bob Dylan (“you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) and dedicated themselves to “armed struggle” on behalf of American blacks.
The Weathermen had a coming-out party in Chicago in October 1969 when some 600 demonstrators rampaged in the streets in what became known as the “days of rage.” Soon afterward, 400 participants at a “war council” in Flint, Michigan made plans to go underground and initiate the revolution. A Weatherman collective located in New York and headed by Terry Robbins, who was Ayers’s best friend, quickly staged an unsuccessful firebombing at the home of a judge presiding over the trial of several black radicals accused of plotting to destroy New York landmarks.
In March 1970, another very powerful bomb being prepared by this same group exploded prematurely in a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing Robbins and two others, including Diana Oughton, Ayers’s former lover. (In line with the Weathermen’s declared determination to “smash monogamy,” both had also had numerous other partners.) One of the two survivors of the blast was Kathy Boudin, today serving a twenty-year-to-life prison sentence for her part in a 1982 robbery in Nyack, New York that left two policemen and a Brinks security guard dead.
At the time, the loss of their comrades precipitated few second thoughts among the Weathermen. Under the leadership of Bernardine Dohrn, they continued to insist that “revolutionary violence was the only way.” In the early 1970’s the Weather Underground carried out a series of bombings, its targets ranging from the home offices of American corporations to the headquarters of the New York City police, the Presidio Army base in San Francisco, the Capitol in Washington (where Dohrn and Boudin planted a device in a woman’s restroom), and the Pentagon.
But the Weather Underground’s extremism was also beginning to alienate even its most dedicated supporters on the Left, and soon a fierce factional struggle broke out within the ranks. Ayers, Dohrn, and several others were subjected to a purge trial and forced to make abject confessions of guilt for such sins as white chauvinism and counter-revolutionism before being expelled. By 1977, the Weather Underground’s new leader, Clayton Van Lydegraf, had been arrested along with four other members on charges of plotting to bomb the office of a California state senator. Ayers and Dohrn, now married to each other, finally surfaced in 1980, were duly investigated by the FBI, and were essentially let off, although Dohrn was given three years’ probation.
Fugitive Days is remarkably vague about many of the key events in the life of the Weathermen. Ayers himself admits to “a blurring of details” in order to protect others who broke the law. In discussing the townhouse explosion, for example, he does not even name Kathy Boudin, no doubt because at the time he was writing his book she was seeking parole from prison (since denied). He also employs pseudonyms for several of his fellow bombers, including Dohrn, and disguises the identity of others for no evident reason. (One of them, a Weather Underground leader named John Jacobs, died in October 1997 in Vancouver where he had lived for years under the name Wayne Curry, supporting himself as a smalltime dealer in marijuana.)
More significantly, Ayers simply omits a number of events and personalities altogether. Thus, there is no mention of the 1969 war council where Dohrn called for “armed struggle” and Jacobs vowed to “loot and burn and destroy.” There is not a word about Van Lydegraf, or about Ayers’s ordeal of self-abasement; a reader of Fugitive Days with no independent knowledge of the purge would conclude that he and Dohrn simply meandered out of the Weather Underground. Ayers does indicate, correctly, that all of the charges against them were subsequently dropped due to government misconduct, and it is certainly true that he himself got off scot-free, proclaiming afterward: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird-it’s a great country.” But he neglects to mention Dohrn’s probation, which was for crimes committed during the 1969 “days of rage” when the Weathermen indiscriminately attacked police, trashed stores, and vandalized cars and property in Chicago. He also fails to record that Dohrn served seven months in prison for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating the Brinks holdup. The police had evidence linking her to the false identifications used to rent the getaway cars.
Even when recounting events more or less accurately, Ayers eschews any responsibility for the violence or destruction he and his comrades wrought. Describing the “days of rage,” he complains about the police, whose “violence,” he writes, “crescendoed.” Missing is the name of Richard Elrod, a Chicago city official who was left permanently disabled from a clash with a Weatherman. To commemorate this heroic achievement, the group wrote a lyric to be sung to the tune of Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay.” It went: “Stay, Elrod, stay, stay in your iron lung / Play, Elrod, play, play with your toes for a while.”
Picturing the Weathermen as dewy-eyed idealists, Ayers grudgingly admits that their commitment to a primitive Marxism-Leninism betrayed a certain “inflexibility.” About their glorification of violence, he simply lies, here and elsewhere. Nowhere in this memoir does he mention his wife’s infamous 1969 paean to the Charles Manson gang for its murder of the actress Sharon Tate and others. (“Dig it!” Dohrn exulted, “Manson killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”) In interviews, Ayers has insouciantly brushed off his 1970 appeal to young people to “kill your parents” and “kill all the rich people” as a “joke about the distribution of wealth.”
Which brings us to September 11, 2001, the day of the worst terrorist attack in American history. On that very morning, by a horrible irony, the New York Times had seen fit to publish a fawning interview with Bill Ayers in connection with the publication of this book. Embellished with a large color photograph of Ayers and Dohrn, the article showcased his frank avowal that even today “I don’t regret setting bombs . . . I feel we didn’t do enough,” while also noting that he “still has the ebullient, ingratiating manner, the apparently intense interest in other people, that made him a charismatic figure in the radical student movement.”
A few days later, the Times Sunday Magazine, which had likewise gone to press before the September 11 attack, offered up still another adoring account of Ayers, this one by a reporter, Hope Reeves, whose parents had both been Weathermen. In it, he lamented the absence of a “mass uprising” last year to protest the outcome of the presidential election.
Nor was the Times alone in its nostalgia for the madcap legacy of the Weathermen. In its own profile, the Chicago Tribune lauded the “charming, compassionate, and funny” Ayers as “a whiz with children, a pleasure for adults to be around.” The Chronicle of Higher Education printed an excerpt from his book—it was the section describing the bombing of the Pentagon, no less—while in the New York Observer Ron Rosenbaum wrote of his admiration for “the way so many of [the Weathermen] have emerged from the underground without betraying their principles-or each other.”
To be sure, the deaths of thousands of people, and in buildings once regarded by the Weathermen as legitimate targets of terrorist activity, rapidly sent Ayers into damage-control mode. In letters to the Times and the Chronicle, he protested that his book was intended not as a celebration but “a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms.”
Helpfully, he also drew a distinction between “real” terrorism and what he and his comrades did, explaining that they were careful to issue telephone warnings before their bombs went off and that they did not attempt to kill “innocent human beings.”
No? Although it is true that the only people killed in Weathermen bombings (as distinct from hold-ups and other violent activities) were Weathermen themselves, Ayers writes in his memoir that the bomb being manufactured in the New York townhouse was “huge, many, many sticks of dynamite . . . packed with screws and nails that would do some serious work beyond the blast, tearing through windows and walls, and yes, people, too.” As David Collier and Peter Horowitz established more than a decade ago on the basis of interviews with both Ayers and other former Weathermen, the bomb, an antipersonnel device, was meant to be detonated at a dance on the U.S. army base at Fort Dix, where it would have killed hundreds of soldiers and their dates. Ayers now likes to speculate that Diana Oughton, his former lover, had developed moral qualms about the planned action and may have set the bomb off deliberately. Unfortunately for this dreamy conceit, what prevented mass slaughter was not altruism but incompetence.
As for the “condemnation of terrorism in all its forms,” here is Ayers’s description in Fugitive Days of the bombing of the Pentagon: “the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.” And, while “I can’t quite imagine putting a bomb in a building today . . . I can’t imagine entirely dismissing the possibility, either.” Not without justification was the New York Times story headlined, “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.”
Bill Ayers currently serves as distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. There, he co-directs the Small Schools Workshop with Mike Klonsky, another former SDS activist who moved on to found and lead still another radical faction, the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (CPML), which held the “official” Chinese Communist franchise in the United States before collapsing in 1982. Klonsky’s wife Susan, another CPML activist, is also on the staff, and so too is Carl Davidson, another SDS and CPML veteran who later migrated into the League for Revolutionary Struggle. Thus does American society reward those who despise it.
As it turns out, indeed, the University of Illinois takes special pride in Ayers’s criminal exploits. A 1996 news release, still posted on the university’s website, trumpets the fact that he was “among 300 helmeted radicals in 1969 who injured dozens of cops and destroyed cars and storefronts,” and duly notes that he has taken personal credit for a number of bombings.
Queried about all this, the school’s chancellor, Sylvia Manning, invokes the usual shibboleths about free speech: Ayers’s “personal expression,” she says, is “unrelated to his duties at UIC.” But Ayers himself sees those same academic duties as direct extensions of his radical beliefs and actions. The evils against which he struggled, he is quoted as saying in the release-the evils, that is, of “racism, imperialism, materialism”—still exist today, and what his students need to do is “to turn [their] disgust into the drive for revolution.”
In its own way, his university would seem to agree: “Bombs, Then Books: Ayers is Out to Shake Up Society” is the headline on its in-house newspaper about its distinguished professor of education. Would Ayers’s apologists be crowing quite so loudly if the objects of his terrorist attentions had been, let us say, abortion clinics?