Bill Ayers first achieved notoriety as a leading voice in 1960s radical-left groups such as Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. (You may remember his name from a brief 2008 controversy in which he was rumored to be acquainted with then-candidate Barack Obama.) Now 72, he's spent his life involved in activism, particularly eduction reform, while teaching at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He's also written several books. He'll present his latest, Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto, at Octavia Books March 9. In advance of his appearance, he spoke briefly with Gambit by phone about the book and the future of social justice activism. A condensed and edited version of that conversation appears below.
[jump] Your new book calls for activists to "demand the impossible." Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
One example, which is in the news all the time, is this question of health care. Is universal health care impossible? It’s absolutely not impossible; it’s practiced in many, many places in the world. But when we end up in a debate about Obamacare or Trumpcare or reverting to predatory capitalism at its worst, [progressives] lose the discussion. And I don’t want to lose that discussion or any other.
The eight issues that I end up writing about - things like health care, education, prisons, war and peace - each one of these is something that’s absolutely within our reach, absolutely possible. But we have to step outside the debates as they’re on offer.
After last year's presidential election, it seems like a lot of people are getting involved in activism who previously weren't interested in it, or who don't have any experience doing that kind of work. Do you have any advice for them?
[Well], I’m 72 years old [and] I feel like I’m like a kindergartener learning at the feet of Black Lives Matter, learning at the feet of [the] Standing Rock [movement], learning at the feet of the Women’s March. I don’t think that any of those movements need to try to look to the elders to understand what’s going on. I think we need to look to [activist movements] to discover new avenues of courage and commitment and intersectionality, which is a term I didn’t know a couple years ago that I now know. It was taught to me by young people, dammit.
My whole life I’ve felt like the so-called '60s is mostly myth and symbol. Part of the problem with the myth of the '60s is that it acts as a wet blanket on activists today. Anybody who says “I wish I lived in the '60s” is missing the point. We’re living now, and I’m living now. … We are here, and we are together. … Let’s join up and work together.
The activists aren’t just starting from scratch on November 9th or 10th or even January 21st. Activism has been with us. ... There’s a thousands points to enter and become part of that. No one should feel left out, no one should feel that they can’t find their way in. Everybody in, nobody out, and that’s how we’re going to move forward.
Even in the face of massive demonstrations, it seems as though some politicians are attempting to discredit any kind of activism happening right now as somehow fraudulent. How should people respond to that?
The rhythm of power discrediting activism and opposition is always the same. I think Ghandi was one of the first to name the rhythm of that discrediting. ... [He] said it very beautifully. He said "They ignore [us], they ridicule [us], they beat us up, and then we we win."
Now, it’s not quite that easy, but it is true that the way we maintain a sense of the importance of what we’re doing is in part to have a vision of where we’re going [and] in part to rely on each other. Not to see the standard of what we’re doing reflected in The New York Times or on NPR or anywhere else. It has to be closer than that.
A very important question about activism is a pedagogical question - did we teach anyone anything by what we just did? Did we learn anything? If we taught and we learned the action was likely a good thing, regardless of what [people in] power say about it. If we didn’t learn and we didn’t teach, and all we did was rely on how we looked on the news, that’s a terrible standard for judging our activism or our ability to build a movement.
Given everything that's happening, politically, how are you feeling about the future? Are you optimistic?
I don’t think we can predict the future. One of the ways that some people say it is, we should be optimists of the heart and pessimists of the head. In other words, I’m not stupid. So I can look at the world and see that the forces of reaction and the forces of xenophobia and war and racism and white supremacy are, in many ways, on the rise.
[But] optimists, like pessimists, think they know what’s happening or what’s coming. I have no fucking idea what’s coming. And because I have no idea, I choose to get up every morning with hope, and that gives me energy.
The day before Rosa Parks sat in on the bus, nobody knew that was coming. Anyone who thinks they did is fooling themselves. There was an activist movement in the South that had gone on for decades. But nobody knew that would be the spark that would start that prairie fire, but it was.