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Hunting Season on Immigrants

Bill Ayers, an all too Public Enemy

When Bill Ayers appeared recently on Morning Joe to talk about his new book Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, which went on sale last week, it wasn't surprising that the conversation moved quickly to his time as a founding member of the Weather Underground, the militant offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society responsible for numerous arsons, bombings, and other violent antiwar protests in the late 60s and 70s. It was, in a way, the continuation of a pattern that's repeated over the years since the Weathermen disbanded and he rebuilt his life as an educator and education reform advocate.

Public Enemy by Bill Ayers

Public Enemy tells the story of Ayers's return to public life after having spent years in the radical underground.

It is also the story of how that past returned in a huge way during the 2008 presidential election, when Ayers found himself at the center of the various guilt-by-association attacks lobbied at Barack Obama first by the Hillary Clinton campaign and later by Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right as a way to destabilize Obama's candidacy. In the book's opening, Ayers recounts the scene of watching the Democratic primary debate with his graduate seminar, when his name was first dropped into the presidential campaign: 

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 reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.”

He had us at “he’s a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” 


Through the course of the book, Ayers takes the reader on a journey through the defamation and death threats he's endured over the years, and shows us the inner-workings of the Tea Party's misinformation machine that insisted, for example, that he was the true author of Obama's Dreams from My Father. In passages as philosophical as they are sharply political, Ayers also reveals his longstanding passion as an activist, as a community organizer fighting for social justice and reform, and as a citizen, all while staying true to what he articulates as the vitality—and necessity—of dissidence as an American political discourse.

Public Enemy is now available wherever books are sold. Read the full prologue here. Hear more from Ayers on his website, Facebook, and Twitter

About the Author

Bill 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.