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“A Guy Around the Neighborhood”: On Becoming a Public Enemy

By Bill Ayers

Labeled a “domestic terrorist” by the McCain campaign in 2008 and used by the radical right in an attempt to castigate Obama for “pallin’ around with terrorists,” Bill Ayers is in fact a dedicated teacher, father, and social justice advocate with a sharp memory and even sharper wit. Public Enemy, now available in paperback, tells his story from the moment Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, emerged from years on the run and rebuilt their lives as public figures, often celebrated for their community work and much hated by the radical right. In the following excerpt from the book’s prologue, Ayers tells the story of how he came to play an unlikely yet prominent role in the 2008 presidential election.

Spring 2008, Chicago

It was a mid-April evening, the sweet smells of springtime upon us and the last light reluctantly giving way outside the front window, when my graduate seminar ended and everyone pitched in to clean up. A dozen of my students were spread out in our living room, cups and dishes scattered everywhere, small piles of books and papers marking specific territory. Until a moment before, all of us had focused intensely on the work at hand: thesis development, the art of the personal essay, and the formal demands of oral history research. As a professor for two decades, my favorite teaching moments often popped up during these customary potluck seminars at our home—something about sharing food in a more intimate personal setting, perhaps, or disrupting the assumed hierarchy of teacher authority, or simply being freed from the windowless, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers that passed for classrooms at my university. But the seminar was done for this evening, and as students began to gather their things, a self-described “political junkie” clicked on the TV and flipped to the presidential primary debate, well under way by now, between Hillary Clinton and the young upstart from Chicago, Barack Obama.

Public Enemy by Bill AyersABC was broadcasting the debate to a record-setting audience, and the debate moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos seemed to be doing their best to make a mess of things, avoiding anything of substance in favor of a kind of weird political cage fighting—bloody performance art—throwing up little bits of trivia and gossip and “gotchas,” inviting snarls and cuts without any serious illumination or thoughtful reflection. I wandered in and out from the kitchen, muttering that no one watching would be the wiser for the time spent, but my students didn’t pay me any mind. The only explicit response I got was from one of the youngest, who glanced at me impatiently as she emphatically shushed me. Everyone, it seemed, was captured by the theater riot beaming from the screen, political junkies all, fascinated by what was being framed by the big brains of punditry as a “historic contest.” I stood near the back of the room.
Stephanopoulos, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, turned to Senator Obama and said, “On this . . . general theme of patriotism in your relationships . . .” The general theme in question was becoming central to the dramatic narrative spun by everyone now running against Obama, and Stephanopoulos was about to press him about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose most impassioned statements about racism, war, and the American government (“God damn America!”) had been widely disseminated and discussed.
“But do you believe he’s as patriotic as you are?” he asked. Obama replied, “This is somebody who’s a former Marine. So I believe that he loves this country. But I also believe that he’s somebody who, because of the experiences he’s had over the course of a lifetime, is also angry about the injustices he’s had.”
Now Stephanopoulos was bearing down on the “general theme of patriotism in your relationships.” “A gentleman named William Ayers,” Stephanopoulos began. “He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. . . . An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are ‘friendly.’ Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
I thought Obama looked slightly stricken, temporarily off-balance, and uncharacteristically tongue-tied. I was probably projecting, because I felt suddenly dizzy, off-balance, and tongue-tied myself. But I know for sure my students were thunderstruck. Their heads snapped in my direction and a few literally dropped to the floor, one with both hands over her mouth. Obama replied: “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. . . . The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts forty years ago, when I was eight years old, somehow refl ects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.”
He had us at “he’s a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”
An explosion of laughter ricocheted around the room. Some were genuinely amused, some disbelieving and a bit horrified; everyone clamored to make sense of the bombshell that had just dropped into our little seminar, and by extension, reverberated around the country and the world. I sat down, and the student who had shushed me a moment ago turned to me and said, “Oh my God, that guy has the same name as yours.” Another explained to her excitedly that that’s because we were indeed the same guy: “Bill’s the guy, and we’re in the neighborhood George is talking about!”
No one in our living room really heard Hillary Clinton raise the stakes. She was concerned about Obama’s association with someone who, she pointed out, said in an interview published in the New York Times on
September 11, 2001, that he didn’t regret bombing government buildings even though, Clinton claimed, “in some instances people died,” and “he was just sorry they hadn’t done more,” and that the relationship continued after 9/11. No one heard Obama match her poke for poke: Your husband, he charged, “pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with somebody.” Neither candidate really knew what they were talking about, and each seemed simply to be following fact-free scripts written by pollsters or aides assigned the dirt detail. Clearly, both camps had done some shabby opposition research, and each was busy, busy, busy spinning its particular phony narrative. Each candidate threw a few more chips on the fire before moving on, and no one listening or watching learned anything substantive from the exchange.
My students were amazed to see me cast on TV as some kind of public enemy, and even though I knew the connection was a story that had been percolating in the fever swamps of the right-wing blogs for months, I was amazed too. My partner, Bernardine Dohrn, and I had hosted the initial fund-raiser for Obama and uncharacteristically donated a little money to his campaign for the Illinois senate; we lived a few blocks apart, and he and I had sat on a couple of nonprofit boards together. So? Who could have predicted it would blow up like this?
“A guy around the neighborhood”—as funny as it sounded, I thought he got it exactly right.


Bill Ayers, credit Ismail KhalidiBill Ayers is the author of the acclaimed and controversial memoir Fugitive Days and many books on education, including To Teach, Teaching Toward Freedom, and A Kind and Just Parent. He is the founder of the Small Schools Workshop and was, until his retirement, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He lives in Hyde Park, Chicago.