Monday, November 18, 2013

Review of Public Enemy by Bill Ayers

Review of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident
Bill Ayers
(Beacon, 2013)

Bill Ayers and the Radical ‘Spark’ – Past and Present

“They just don’t get it.”  Yes, the phrase is overused, yet, all too appropriate when addressing the continuing critiques, from both the left and the right, of Bill Ayers. The recent publication of the second phase of his memoir, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, was followed on the “SDS and ‘60s Leftists” page of Facebook by an un-thoughtful conversation on Ayers, his comrade and wife Bernardine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground (WO).  Facilitated by George Fish and responding to a negative book review by Jon Wiener, 43 comments followed Fish’s post.  Mostly sour, bitter, and ahistorical in tone, the comments provide the antithesis of Ayers’ book and life, that of learning from the past and continuing, in a human and life affirming way, the ongoing struggle that began for Ayers in the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, Students for A Democratic Society, and then the Weather Underground.

When confronted by a radio interviewer who referred to the sub-title as snide, Ayers softly replied that the entire title was chosen for its irony.  Missing both the breadth and depth of Public Enemy, the interviewer as well as Wiener and other critics fail to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and energy that Ayers brings to struggle, both past and present.  In this particular book, we alternate between the author’s recollections of first, his experience in the 2008 attempt to demonize Barack Obama because he “palled around with terrorists,” and, second, the years after he surfaced from underground beginning in 1980 from where Ayers left-off in his previous book, Fugitive Days.  There are both multiple and complex events, issues, and ideas presented in Public Enemy.  A sampling will be discussed in this review.

Recently, South African anti-apartheid struggle leader and Constitutional Court Justice (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court) Albie Sachs spoke at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Talking about his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Sachs emphasized the importance of acknowledgement for both personal and political healing.  Acknowledgement causes me to return to the radio interviewer’s portrayal of Confessions of An American Dissident as snide. In fact, irony aside, Ayers responded by talking about acknowledging one particular flaw during his time in WO.  He asserted that neither he nor his comrades ever doubted their positions and that by not being skeptical they were arrogant and without reflection.  Doubt is discussed in Public Enemy and Ayers also talks about apologetics within a conceptual framework of an American Truth Commission.  In both the book and current media interviews, Ayers has continually repeated that neither he nor the WO ever killed anyone in the bombings of buildings.

Not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either.  We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.

The correct term for Weather Underground bombings, in correspondence to the armed struggle in South Africa, is “armed propaganda.”  And like Umkhonto We Sizwe underground soldiers in South Africa, Ayers would welcome the opportunity to answer queries about his WO activities at an American TRC.  In Public Enemy Ayers writes:

America, it seemed to me, was in urgent need of some kind of truth and reconciliation process… We needed a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility of a more balanced future… Everyone together would have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering, and the victimizers would be asked why and how they created that misery.  Society would have the opportunity to witness all of it in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us and moving forward.  In that setting and standing with Kissinger and McCain, McNamara and Kerry, Bush and Cheney, I’d be happy to say exactly what I did, take full responsibility, and bow deeply.  But without any chain of culpability whatsoever, I’ll stand on the record, or just stand aside.

While five chapters in Public Enemy present the threats and black listing Bill Ayers experienced during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, I will address the topic with brevity as it has already been explored in other reviews.  An in-depth description and analysis is portrayed in Maya Schwenwar’s Truthout review, “Bill Ayers Weighs in on Democracy, Selfhood, and His ‘Unrepentant Terrorist’ Alter-Ego.”  Besides endless email threats and having someone actually come to his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ayers was banned from talking on college campuses throughout the country.  At the time my colleague at the University of South Carolina, Craig Kridel, the Curator of the Museum of Education, posted a page titled “The Bill Ayers Problem” on the Museum webpage.  The page title, like Public Enemy, is ironic and at the time I wrote:

The inequality, unfairness, violence, and global greed are what Bill Ayers has fought against for many years. The fight is every bit as important today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War. And while some people might call me insensitive because I refuse to enter a debate on Bill Ayers as a terrorist, I choose not to speak back to the cries of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Colmes and their nameless comrades because the work Bill Ayers is doing does not need defenders but, rather, supporters and allies that fight for a more just world. Finally, as an academic who works with teachers who fought against apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but think that the same people who define Bill Ayers as a terrorist would have given that label to Nelson Mandela and his less known comrades during the struggle against the apartheid regime. We know now what history says about that – we can only hope that Bill Ayers and many other people continue their work as progressive educators and activists.

But Bill Ayers does not rail against his detractors in his writing.  Rather, while he is critical in a political/personal way of their harassment and silencing and analyzes their actions, his emphasis is a celebration of people who continue the struggle.  While the story of the cancellation of his talk at the University of Wyoming is politically important, from Ayers we learn more about the woman who fought for his right to speak.  More accurately, she fought for her own free speech.

‘I’m going to sue the university in federal court,’ she told me during our first conversation.  ‘And I’m claiming that it’s my free speech that’s been violated – I have the right to speak to anyone I want to, and right now I want to speak to you.’  She was young and unafraid, smart and sassy, her dreams being rapidly made and used – no fear, no regret.  I liked her immediately.  Meg’s approach struck me as quite brilliant – students (and not I) were indeed the injured party.

The University of Wyoming student won the case and Bill Ayers spoke on democracy and education with over 1,000 people at the University.  In discussing the event, he also honors his sister’s father-in-law, a retired United Church of Christ minister who drove a couple of hours to Laramie for the talk and told Bill: “‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways,’ he said with a wink and a smile gesturing with his Bible.  ‘If any of the crazy Christians get out of hand, he wants me to set them straight.’”

Ayers writes of other cancellations at places throughout the country.  The University of Nebraska stands out but only because he was in Tapai at the time and was woken with the news from a dean at three in the morning.  In contrast to Nebraska, there are brave academics at Millersville University and Georgia Southern University where Ayers was welcomed.  At Millersville administrators explained that it was their “duty and honor” to have him speak.  “It’s not about you personally, it’s about the mission and the meaning of the university.”

Honoring people throughout Bill Ayers’ journey is the stuff of Public Enemy.  One of the funniest yet potent tales is the reaction of Ayers’ comrade and friend, Michael Klonsky, when he was invited to give an education conference keynote address.  The organization told Klonsky that they had intended to invite Bill Ayers but that he was “too controversial and too radical.”  Klonsky scolded the inviter saying: “How dare you ask me to scab on Bill Ayers?”  When Ayers thanked him, he replied: “Defending you?  I wasn’t defending you, I was defending myself – I was deeply and personally offended when they said that your were too radical, and by implication that I wasn’t too radical.  I’m as radical as you are, motherfucker.”

Bill Ayers’ book is about issues, ideas, actions, and people – it is not solely about Bill Ayers.  Epsie Reyes was a colleague at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  She supported Hillary, not Barack, in the 2008 democratic primaries, and she was one of many people who consoled Bill Ayers after Hillary Clinton first demonized him in a primary presidential debate.  Reyes sent strong emails to both Clinton and the Democratic National Committee “detailing how much money she’d donated and how many weekends she’d devoted to organizing on her behalf, explaining who I really was in her ‘humble opinion,’ and encouraging, then demanding that the campaign apologize to me personally and denounce the smears – or else she would have to rethink her commitments.”

Close friends and colleagues, of course, also came through in both 2001 and 2008.  Mona and Rashid Khalidi were both supportive and insightful as were dozens of others.  In 2008 there was a surprise call from Edward Said: “Of course it’s painful for you personally, but cringing and going quiet is the worst thing you could do at this moment.  Your kids are watching you and your students too and a lot of others.  Don’t let them down.”

Said’s message corresponds to the entirety of Public Enemy.  Ayers celebrates political struggle and the people who try to sustain the fight.  Two quotes come to mind, the first from a speech by Paul Potter referred to in the book. “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.”  Margaret Meade’s words correspond to Potter’s connecting the personal to the collective.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  In addition to the 2001, 2008, and more recent stories, Public Enemy includes portraits from the time Bernardine and Bill came up from underground in 1980.  Ayers writes admiringly about his childrens’ pre-school teacher at the time, BJ, whom he refers to as “an inspired early childhood educator.”  “She was one of a kind, and everyone knew it.”  Ayers’ portrait of BJ brought a response in Ron Jacobs’
 Counterpunch article, “Get Bill Ayers,” “Indeed, the truest hero in the book is the family’s New York child care provider, BJ.”

On Bill’s journey we meet Bernardine’s lawyers Eleanora Kennedy and Michael Kennedy and various other people including Ellie and Robby Meeropol who were Bill’s friends at the University of Michigan.  Robby was the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and he was three years old when his parents were executed.  Bernardine and Bill had just adopted Chesa Boudin whose parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had been sentenced for murder in the Brinks Robbery in Nyack, New York.  Robby explained that there was no road map and that times would be rough for Chesa – honest responses are very much a part of the many vignettes that Ayers presents throughout Public Enemy.

The real heart of the book, however, within the context of continuing struggle, is the authentic portrayal of the Dohrn/Ayers family – Bernardine Dohrn and their sons Chesa, Malik, and Zayd.  The book depicts seriousness and humor and mostly respect and admiration.  There is a story from the early above ground days that I must include in this review.

Leaving swim class one day, we were swept up into a raucous women-led march heading from Broadway and Fifty-ninth Street toward Times Square.  ‘No more porn!  No more porn! No more porn!” we chanted ecstatically, fists pumping and voices rising as we entered the pornography district.  It was a feisty and colorful crowd, our attendance just a happy accident, but with Zayd cheerfully perched on my shoulders we were in high spirits and quite pleased to be in cahoots.  Soon we spotted a pizza stand along the route, and Zayd was famished from swimming and ready for a slice, so we settled into a booth.  Zayd reflected on the parade we’d just left: ‘That was fun,’ he said.  ‘Why don’t we want more corn?’

Ayers tells the story of all three sons advising him during 2008 and the respect appears to go both ways.  Pages 129 to 131 serve as an illustration as Malik, Zayd, and Chesa join Bernardine in coaxing Bill not to speak with the media – a disposition alien to his being.  Malik warns him of ambush and it recalls Mailer’s self-admonitions of never talk to the press – they control the story.

The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away.  No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response.  ‘Be completely quiet,’ they said, ‘and stay calm.’  ‘It’s harder then it sounds,’ Zayd added, looking right at me, ‘especially for you.’  True, too true: I tend to have a lot on my mind – who doesn’t? – and I’m genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment.  My default position, no matter what, is to say something… ‘You’ll get flattened,’ they now said in unison.’

Bill Ayers remained silent through 2008, but of course, “palling around with terrorists” quietly lives on.  There is an ethos throughout Public Enemy, consistently present in the ideas, issues, actions, and people portrayed in the book, amidst everything else – this book is homage to Bernardine Dohrn.  Her strength, thoughtfulness, commitment, and humanity is the spirit of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident.  Whether it is gently chiding Bill with their children or being warmly welcomed back by the judge in Chicago when she surfaced from underground – her humanity is ever present.  Political commitment is obvious in Dohrn’s first above ground statement: “This is no surrender.  The fight against racism and war continues, and I will spend my energy organizing to defeat the American empire.”  Ayers writes of her actions and dispositions when she was imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York for refusing to give Grand Jury testimony on the Brinks Robbery.  The emotion of being away from her kids but at the same time focused political commitment.  There is also a great story of her mother passing on contraband when she visited the prison – a chocolate chip cookie!

There is much more to Public Enemy than the samples that I present.  Bill Ayers critiques the Weather Underground and provides much more breadth to the ideas, issues, actions, people, and events he portrays.  He also pushes his story to the present and therein lies the further message.  Ayers, Dohrn, and many of their WO (and beyond) comrades continue to work for the same issues they have pursued beginning in the sixties.  For Ayers it is education and more and the latter includes working with young activists who continue the fight for the end of racism, class disparity, and imperialism.  First in the civil rights movement, then SDS and WO, Ayers was part of the “spark” for a just world.  His book is a partial story of continuing to keep that “spark” alive today.

Alan Wieder

Alan Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Retro-Review - Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer - Eric Mann (Beacon Press, 2011)

Eric Mann's Playbook for Progressives is two books in one.  The book wouldn't work any other way.  Mann is true to his title and introduction, presentings a 74-page section on the roles of an organizer.  Included in this section are 12 specific yet overlapping responsibilities that are representative of political organizers -- foot soldier, evangelist, recruiter, group builder, strategist, tactician, communicator, political educator, agitator, fundraiser, comrade & confidante, and cadre.  The second section of the book,"16 Qualities of a Successful Organizer, takes the roles of the first section further by building on the earlier descriptions with substantive portraits of strategy and tactics that are crucial for successful radical, political, organizing.

Playbook for Progressives is not two books because it includes distinct sections, but rather because Mann combines theory and action, with biography and autobiography, to bring alive, through real lives, what radical organizing means in the struggle against racism and class disparity in the United States and throughout the world. 

Eric Mann one of the founders the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) in 1989, has been the organization's Director since its inception.  His earlier political work included being a Field Secretary for The Congress of Racial Equality, an aboveground member of Weatherman, and a radical, activist/organizer in automobile and airplane production plants throughout the country.  Many of the examples of radical organizing in the book are the stories of Mann and other organizers at LCSC.  Mann explains in the introduction of Playbook for Progressives that the organization was launched as "an experiment to reassert the powerful, positive impact of progressive ideology and transformative organizing." As an aspect of the rationale for the Center, Mann writes about 'activists' wanting seats at the tables of power -- an issue that might be even more problematic at the present time.

Labor and community organizers began talking about 'empowerment' rather than power, 'a seat at the table' rather than concrete demands and political independence, and 'public-private partnerships' rather that a challenge to the profit motive and corporate power.

Throughout the book there are also stories of many other organizers, some whose names we know and others that we don't, but all examples of people fighting class disparity and racism -- locally, nationally, and globally.  LCSC's largest undertaking is the Bus Rider's Union (BRU).  Founded in 1992, BRU's membership comprises mostly black people and Latina people who have organized to fight against the two-tiered discriminatory system of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and BRU's success is legendary beginning with a 1994 suit against the MTA that concluded with the court rescinding raised fares and bus passes.  The successes remain to this day -- of course the need for continuing this particular struggle illustrates the necessity of ongoing activism and organization.  Much more can be read about the BRU in Eric Mann's book.  While LCSC has various initiatives, the other one that I will highlight is the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline.  Briefly, LCSC is part of a coalition that has fought to de-criminalize truancy in Los Angeles -- again more of the story in Playbook for Progressives.

Mann is clear on the hard work, discipline, human warmth, and expertise necessary for progressive organizing.  He is very detailed describing and analyzing the theory and dispositions of radical activism.  "In the United States in particular, and among organizers in general, there is a pragmatic, antitheoretical tendency... The problem is that theory is an overview that gives you a map as to where you are going." Mann's detail is important, but the people's lives that he portrays wed the details to human actions.  I want people to read and re-read Playbook for Progressives.  Thus, until I come to this review's conclusion, I will provide brief portraits of Eric and a small sample of the other organizers he brings to his book.

As a young man in the mid-sixties, Mann worked with the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP) going door-to-door asking people to become involved in meetings and protests against racism and oppression.  There were sobering moments that might still occur in 2013.  Mann writes about one of the people he met:

She wanted to offer me food, but her refrigerator was almost bare.  She would bring me hot coffee, and we would sit and talk.  Once, perhaps influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.'s metaphor, I asked her if she had a dream of what her life could be like.  She told me, "My dream is that I am able to walk in front of a car and leave this life and God will not punish me for abandoning my children.

This is the "exceptional" United States of America.

And of course, the above quote speaks to the importance of Playbook for Progressives. While talking of the successes of the BRU, Mann speaks of four key elements for radical organizing.  Before citing the list Manns caveat is the Cabral quote, Tell no lies and claim no easy victories."

1.    Listen very carefully and let the person talk
2.    Show a deep concern about very specific conditions people face
3.    Present very concrete demands
4.    Frame the conversation within an up-front worldview of those fights as part of a larger social transformation

The process is exemplified in Eric's meeting and continuing work with Eduardo Fuentes in Wilmington, California where the toxic emissions of the oil companies was causing serious and sometimes fatal health conditions for the Latina (o) population.  LCSC's project was called Watchdog.  Eduardo approached Eric at a meeting and told him that his local organization, Parents Against Pollution, shared the values of Watchdog.  As Eric attempted to build a coalition of the two groups he learned that Eduardo was the group.  "I asked him how many parents were in the group and he said, 'One. Me.'"  More importantly, Eduardo was reticent about joining Watchdog.  Eric had written a book on the topic and the values and actions of LCSC on the issue clearly corresponded to those of Eduardo Fuentes -- yet he was leery.  As the two men met Eduardo asked about the action part of Watchdog -- picketing, sit-ins.  He then explained that in his native Guatemala "the government, with the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, kidnap and kill indigenous peoples, union leaders, and revolutionaries." Eduardo was also concerned about the anti-immigrant movement in the United States.  But Eric Mann had followed all four of the key elements of radical organizing cited above and spoke about the safeguards for the 'undocumented' in Watchdog actions.  Not only did Eduardo Fuentes join the project, he became a local leader in Wilmington.

Mann writes of strategy and provides more real life examples.  An illustration is the work of Manuel Criollo, who directs the organizing at LCSC.  There are stories from the Bus Riders Union and that of Deloros Huerta, the legendary United Farmworkers leader.  The third chapter of Section Two has the great title, Sings with the Choir but Finds Her Own Voice, the perfect mantra for organizing and a peoples socialism.  Another chapter, Generosity of Spirit: Take Good Care of Others, tells the early 1960s organizing story of The Newark Community Union Project, but also extends the camaraderie to the present as group organizers, living throughout the country, fight for the housing rights of Terry Jefferson, one of their comrades, now 87 years old.  Mann tells the tale of his activist work with Mark Masaoka at the Van Nuys General Motors plant in the 1980s.  And finally, not really as there are additional personal/political vignettes, Mann tells the story of the coalition of New York Domestic Workers and Shalom Bayit Jews for Racial and Economic Justice that culminated in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Corresponding to the peoples stories, Mann connects theory and practice and the many intricacies and complexities that they include.  The importance of the individual and the group is connected to conversation and reflection.

At the Strategy Center, I am fortunate to have close comrades who will take me aside, which I appreciate in itself, and explain to me things I have done that were arrogant, chauvinist, insensitive.  They will point out ways I have been inconsistent and even vacillatory changing my mind and contradicting something I said only a few days ago without realizing it.  They show me instances when I did not listen to or respect the ideas of others and assumed I was right, when in fact they understood the situation far better than I did.

Mann suggests that commitment and hard work needs to be connected to expertise with both national and global examples:
Organizers who are ill-informed about their issues can speak only the general truths of the revolution and are outmatched by the scientists and expert witnesses marshaled by their opponents.  They are usually unpersuasive, unable to effect actual change, and are used as caricatures by the system to discredit the movement.

After writing of expertise, and using more biographical and autobiographical examples, Mann explores militancy, bravery, and courage as necessary elements of radical organizing.  After telling the story of Maria Guardado: Salvadorian saint, Mann explains: The courageous example of individuals is critical, but courage must be found in a collective context.

Finally, Playbook for Progressives portrays the deeds of more well-known struggle leaders such as Audre Lorde.  Mann quotes Margaret Meade as a connector of organizing and revolutionary theory and practice and the comrades whom he portrays.

Never doubut that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, its the only thing that ever has.