There’s a reason why Donald Trump is barely mentioned in Bill Ayers’s new book, Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto, which calls for a social movement that opposes the neoliberal agenda of the rich and powerful that run our political system. When he was writing it last year, he generally assumed that Hillary Clinton would become the next president of the United States.
But for the 72-year-old activist and retired professor, there’s a silver lining to Trump’s ascension: the radical ideas in Ayers’s pro-revolution manifesto now seem, well, less impossible. “If Secretary Clinton had taken the presidency, it would have been normal. And normal’s not good enough,” Ayers said in a recent interview. “I’m horrified by the election, but also I think that it’s demanded of us to rethink what’s going on in this country.”
Ayers is no stranger to resistance and rebellion. He openly called for it at the dawn of Richard Nixon’s administration nearly five decades ago as a cofounder of an organization of young activists called the Weathermen. The group’s opposition to the Vietnam war and American imperialism escalated in 1969 with the Days of Rage, a raucous four-day protest and violent clash with Chicago police in the streets of Lincoln Park that led to 70 arrests and two dozen injured Weathermen.
In 1970, a homemade bomb that the Weathermen were assembling to detonate at the Fort Dix U.S. military base in New Jersey prematurely exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three of the group’s members. Prompted by that incident, as well as federal charges against two Weathermen, Ayers and his fellow fugitives—including his co-conspirator and now wife, Bernardine Dohrn—went underground. In the early 70s, the Weather Underground took credit for a campaign of bombings that targeted symbolic governmental targets ranging from Chicago Police Department squad cars to military bases to the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon. (“Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon,” wrote Ayers in his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days. “The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.”)
The storm calmed for the Weather Underground as the draft and the Vietnam War ended. By the time Ayers and Dohrn stopped using fake identities and came out of hiding in 1980 to turn themselves in, the group had been dormant for several years. It didn’t take long for the pair to be freed; nearly all charges against the Weather Underground were dropped due to illegal wiretaps and other misconduct by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Ayers has since lived a quieter life as a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (he retired in 2010), and a public-school reformer in the 90s. His last bout of national infamy was during Barack Obama’s presidential run in 2008, when the GOP used Ayers as a leftist boogeyman. John McCain’s campaign played up the young senator from Illinois’s alleged ties to his former Hyde Park neighbor. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, famously quipped that “Obama is palling around with terrorists.”
Over the phone from a book-tour stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ayers spoke about how leftists should resist the Trump administration from outside the Democratic Party and how he “may be the only person on the left who wasn’t disappointed” with the Obama presidency.
Your book lays out different areas of American life and politics that we should focus on totally rethinking: environmental policy, education, institutional racism, income inequality, student debt, and more. Which of these areas is particularly under threat from the Trump administration?
I think they all are, actually. When I wrote Demand the Impossible!, Trump was on the rise but no one was predicting that he would be president in 2017. It’s been a bipartisan effort over the last 30 or 40 years that got us to this state of permanent war, mass incarceration, the environment on the edge of catastrophe, the elimination of public education.
But the catastrophe we’re facing has accelerated in qualitative ways. Take public education. Both political parties, the mainstream media, the foundations, big money—they’ve all been pushing an agenda of corporate school reform for 30 or 40 years, but parents and communities have resisted because we want a public education system. With the appointment of Betsy DeVos and her intention of creating a $2 billion voucher strategy, however, the catastrophe facing public schools has intensified qualitatively. I think the Democratic Party is in a poor position to represent an opposition to that because they have colluded and coauthored the catastrophe that we’re in. I think we have an opposition to DeVos, but I don’t think we can look to the Democratic Party longingly and wonder if they will represent an opposition—they probably won’t.
What opportunities are there to build an opposition if it’s outside the Democratic Party?
The fundamental social changes we’ve seen in this country have always come from below. They’ve never come from the opposition party. Think about how Lyndon Johnson authored the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction—but he was responding to the Black Freedom Movement. It was fire from below that pushed him to do the right thing when it mattered. The same goes for Franklin Roosevelt and the labor movement—it didn’t come from his mind alone. Or Lincoln and abolition. If you read Lincoln’s first inaugural address, it’s a law and order speech. And then you read John Brown and hear Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and you know the abolition movement was driving from below. You read Lincoln’s second inaugural address and you say, “Shit! That could’ve been written by an abolitionist. That’s really powerful stuff.”
My point is, I don’t really have a blueprint, or even a plan, for resistance. But there are a lot of things we can do, some of which are already happening. I’ve seen this again on the streets for the past several years: Black Lives Matter, Undocumented and Unafraid, Occupy, Standing Rock—there are so many things that we can point to that are little glimmers of what a social movement could look like. What’s required of us today is to think much more urgently in terms of how do we unite with the forces that are already in motion, how we gather people together and have conversations that try to name this unique political moment and figure out what we’re gonna do. I’m very hopeful. Everything from the cast of Hamilton addressing Vice President-elect Pence to Meryl Streep in a beautiful speech at the Golden Globes. These are artists, these are people who are acting out of their own conscience. But these are exciting things, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
What do you recommend for those who feel powerless against Trump and who aren’t really clear what resistance to his administration even looks like? Protest on the streets, call lawmakers, donate to organizations that Trump threatens to damage?
All of the above. Cynicism and passivity and despair are all weapons of the strong. They’re all weapons of the status quo, and they’ve always been deployed that way. The feeling of powerlessness is not unique to this moment. It’s a common feeling, but it’s one we need to fight.
We’re also wasting time when we think about the best possible thing to do. The best thing you can do in a world out of balance is what’s required of you, and doing something is what’s required. Not doing everything. So that means that Meryl Streep is doing something. The cast of Hamilton did something. The demonstrations in front of Trump’s hotel. Those who spontaneously protests in the streets. Those who wrote letters. That’s the nature of a social movement. I don’t think people should waste their time asking themselves, “What’s the best thing I could do?”
We can call a meeting on our blocks, in our houses of worship, in our workplaces, in our schools. We can say, “Let’s get together. Let’s talk about this moment and think about what we can do.” What I’m also advocating is that we expand the notion of sanctuary and make it a metaphor. Chicago should be a sanctuary city. And also you can meet with your neighbors in this political moment and say, “We’re going to be a sanctuary block in a sanctuary city.” You can say, “We’re not going to allow a Muslim registry. And if there is a Muslim registry, we’re all Muslims.” Those are things that anyone can do.
There have been a lot of parallels drawn between Nixon and Trump. Do you see some of those same parallels?
No. Well, Nixon was a classic business-run conservative. He did not run as a fascist and Donald Trump did. Yes, Nixon was a right-winger. Yes, it was a dire time in America. But this is qualitatively different because Trump explicitly ran as a fascist and the people he’s putting in place, from Steve Bannon to Jeff Sessions, are themselves white supremacists, organized white supremacist forces. Yes, Nixon had the southern strategy and the dog whistles. The difference is that Trump has said explicitly: We’re going to have a Muslim registry. We’re going to build a wall. The Central Park Five should be executed. If you burn the American flag you should lose your citizenship. Now you can say he can’t do all these things, and that’s probably true. But you’re overrating the democratic institutions if you think he can’t get away with any of it.
All the months leading up to the election when we were sure Trump was gonna lose, there was a great feeling among many people that even if Trump lost, we’d have to deal with what people were calling Trumpism—the cohering of a white supremacist base that has always been in this country. But now it’s sitting in the West Wing of the White House, so I think that we are in a world of trouble.
Trump’s got the worst kind of right-wing cabinet—the toxic interrelationship of business and government, and he’s gonna push this through Congress with no objections. There may be an objection, but no one is going to stop it. And not only are vulnerable people being targeted (immigrants, Muslims, black people, queer people, etc.), but we’ll see the constraining, the disappearance of the public square. Try to get a permit to demonstrate in Washington and you’re gonna find yourself in a cage in a place called “a free-speech zone.” That’s not freedom, that’s not civil liberty, but that’s what we’re getting. So, no, I don’t see the parallels with Nixon.
Do you think that some of the resistance to Trump could be informed by the Weathermen and some of the radical movements you were a part of in the Nixon era?
I do think the tradition of radical politics in this country, of progressive and revolutionary politics, is certainly something to draw on. But I also don’t think that we’re living in the 60s and I don’t think that we should be looking nostalgically to the past. Black Lives Matter is the latest iteration in a centuries-old struggle toward black freedom. I see these very sophisticated young people in the streets confronting power even though they’re being attacked from every angle by power. They continue to have a very clear vision of what it means to solve the racial divide in a place like Chicago and create a just and decent and peaceful society. They continue to have a very clear vision of what it means in a place like Chicago to solve the racial divide and create a just and decent and peaceful society.
I want to follow them as well as what I’ve seen on the ground in Standing Rock, in the immigration rights struggle coming out of Chicago, in Occupy, in Code Pink. All of them are encouraging examples of resistance to this right-wing push from Trump.
There’s a popular narrative—especially among Fox News types—that the radical left groups in the 60s and 70s were counterproductive and helped push America towards the conservative backlash of Nixon and Reagan.
To me that’s a fairly simple-minded and narrow way of looking at history. Of course the upsurge of people driving toward freedom will awaken a white-supremacist backlash. So does that mean we shouldn’t have done it? Should the abolitionists have just chilled out and waited for slavery to resolve itself? That’s what people said at the time. The abolitionists—who are my model of the great American movement that brought about great and fundamental changes to society—they were a tiny, tiny minority for a long, long time. And Abraham Lincoln and others condemned them roundly and continuously until he didn’t. Until he had to respond to them.
So the idea that the left creates the right strikes me as weird. In one sense it’s obviously true, but it’s so simple and linear and it doesn’t give us any guidance for what we should do. It says, here we are living in a series of unthinkable circumstances, so maybe we should do nothing. Because if we do something, it will excite somebody to oppose us. Let’s take the example of public schools again. Maybe we should just calm down and let Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos create a voucher program and just say goodbye to public schools because if we fight for them, we’re just gonna piss them off. I don’t buy it. I think it’s a foolish way to think about both history and your responsibilities today.
I look today at Black Lives Matter, I look at Standing Rock, I look at William Barber in North Carolina and the NAACP, and I get nothing but energy and inspiration from the moral stance that these folks take. You could argue that the North Carolina voter suppression was caused by William Barber. Why would you? It’s too simple. Of course he should resist. He should inspire the rest of us to resist and get busy, too.
You could argue that the politics of the mainstream Democratic Party of Rahm Emanuel and the Clintons are also reactions to that narrative. That they’re scared to go too far left, so they go just to the left of the Republicans so they can win elections.
I think Saturday Night Live got it right when the actress who played Hillary Clinton said, “You can vote for the crazy guy or you can vote for the Republican—me.” Hillary Clinton ran as a Republican, of course. Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats” and that whole group were the alternative to a Democratic Party grounded in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. So the Clintons, the Gores, the mainstream Democratic Party, they brought us neoliberalism. For three decades or four decades, they’ve been in cahoots in an agenda around austerity, hollowing out the economy, privatization, crushing trade unions, permanent war. Permanent war is a bipartisan policy. Mass incarceration is a bipartisan policy.
And so the Democratic Party is obviously facing a big choice—should we go back to Clintonism? In Illinois, it looks perfectly like that’s what they’re going to do, doesn’t it? It looks to me like they’re planning to oppose Bruce Rauner with a billionaire, an austerity, anti-union person like [Christopher] Kennedy or [J.B.] Pritzker. What a fucking disaster! What they ought to do is organize themselves as a party of labor, as a party of progress, as a party of civil rights. It doesn’t appear to me that’s what they’re going to do. I don’t think they’re equipped to be the opposition because they are implicated in getting us to where we are.
There’s a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party going on right now, an internal fight about whether we should go back to the Third Way Democrats or whether it becomes the party of Bernie Sanders.
I think there is going to be that struggle, but it’s not my struggle. I think that progressive people spend too much time staring at the seats of power that we have no access to. That includes the White House, the medieval auction block we call Congress, the two major political parties—we worry about it way too much and we deny ourselves the energy that could be gained by building power in the seats that we absolutely could have access to. That means the streets, the neighborhood, the workplace, the schools, the houses of worship. This is where change comes from.
Again, I point to the Black Freedom Movement of the 60s and 70s, I point to the labor movement of the 30s, I point to the Abolitionist Movement of the 1850s. These movements changed history but they came from below. An example of how muddled our thinking gets is when you read a textbook about the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. It will say something like: “Brown v. Board of Education unleashed decades of action against racist segregation.” What that ought to read is that decades of activism led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. How could anyone imagine that nine white men sitting up in their exalted hall figured this out themselves? It just didn’t happen! The pressure from below demanded that it happen. Yet we spend a lot of time heroizing Brown v. Board of Education.
We spend a lot of time saying how great the civil rights movement was. But what did we fight for in the civil rights movement? We fought for voting rights and integrated schools. Where are we on voting rights and integrated schools? Where do we stand today as a country, 50 years later? Frankly, those gains have been largely eviscerated. That’s not a surprise to me, I mean, it’s a disappointment, it’s a horror—but it’s not a surprise. What it says to me is that we have to get busy and redouble our efforts. It says to somebody who says the left creates the right, “Just calm down. It’ll get better eventually.” No! It’s never happened that way. The only thing that’s gotten us better has been mass movements from below. That’s where I choose to spend my energy and my time.
Do you see a possibility of a modern version of the Weather Underground emerging in 2017?
No. The Weathermen emerged an anti-war movement that was massive and ferocious at a moment when our government was killing 6,000 people a week in a war the majority of the people in this country and the overwhelming majority of the world opposed. Our government continued to kill 6,000 people a week with no end in sight. At the point when everything else had been tried, there were groups of people willing to not only break the law, but destroy property. That includes not just the Weathermen, but the Catholic Left, and a lot of other people—including some G.I.s themselves. That was a moment, and it came, but I don’t see that moment happening here and now. If you’re saying, “Is there ever a role for illegal activity?” Of course there is.
You’ve briefly mentioned Obama. What do you think his legacy will be?
Ah, gee, I have no idea. I think it’s too soon to tell. I think that it’s even too soon to tell what the legacy of the 60s will be. We like to have instant analyses, but the fact that he’s not even gone and we’re talking about his legacy—we shall see. History is always understood way, way down the line.
So you try not to judge him too harshly? I’m surprised because critics look at his background as a community organizer and his supposed radicalism and note that once he took power, he was all too interested in managing the status quo—in preserving the current system.
I don’t buy that. I think that Barack Obama in 2008 said exactly who he was and anyone who knew him in Illinois would agree with his own self-assessment. “I’m a middle of the road, pragmatic politician”—that’s how he described himself. The right-wing looked at him and said, “No. He’s a secret Muslim with socialist tendencies and a black nationalist spirit who pals around with terrorists.” That was a lie. The left looked at him and said, “I think he’s winking in my direction.” He wasn’t winking at them. His record in Illinois is exactly parallel to his record as president. Barack Obama was probably one of the smartest presidents ever. He’s a very compassionate person, a loving father, a decent human being, and he was also sitting on the throne of an empire.
I may be the only person on the left who wasn’t disappointed with him because he did exactly what he said he was going to do. Remember, it’s also important to remember, he’s not a king. Again, I think we get caught up in staring at these seats of power and think, Well, Obama should be this and Obama should be that. But he is who he said he was, number one. And number two, big oil, big pharma, big energy, big military—these guys are the real power and we should be organizing from below to oppose that power with popular power.
He also refers to that kind of power in speeches sometimes. He actually tells us that what makes change isn’t me or Congress, it’s the American people that speak out and organize to create change.
That’s because his background as a community organizer gives him that insight. Let’s look at the eight years of Obama. Who made progress? Queer people made progress. And guess what They didn’t shut up and they didn’t go into the closet. They kept driving forward. I think if we would have had a bigger universal health-care movement, we would’ve driven that forward and he would’ve signed it.
You walk towards progress—towards socialism—on two legs. One is the mobilization of people and the other is the actors in the political realm who respond to you. So I think Obama would’ve responded to a free health care, single-payer movement on the ground. I think he would’ve responded favorably had there been more of a peace movement. He did respond, for example, to the queer movement. And I don’t think that any of us could’ve imagined four years before Obama came into office that we would’ve seen the progress that we saw. It was breathtaking. If you remember at the end of his first term, he said—I think disingenuously—that he couldn’t support same-sex marriage because he’s a Christian, right? Then at the end of his term, big-mouthed Joe Biden came out for same-sex marriage. Then Arne Duncan came out for it. And then—I’ll be damned—next thing you know the president comes out for same-sex marriage. That didn’t come from nowhere. That came from pressure from below.
So, my theme is that our only choice is to build pressure from below. We have to learn to talk to one another, we have to learn to unite issues like war and global warming. We need to stand with the most oppressed, with indigenous peoples, with African-Americans in the cities, and we need to build a unified movement that demands social justice and peace.
Would you say that’s part of the problem for Democrats and liberals? That they got complacent and treated electoral politics as the only kind of politics and weren’t able to organize on their own?
I think that’s part of it. But I also think that what you call the “New Democrats,” the Clinton Democrats, the Democrats of the last four decades—on issues of real importance they just sort of [pass the buck]. You have the Republicans who are overtly white-supremacist in their current iteration. You’ve got Steve Bannon, a bigot in fact and in policy. What do the Democrats offer up as an alternative? The concept of diversity! Diversity is optics. Diversity is not justice. And, so, those of us who really care about issues of justice, both racial justice and public justice, have to raise these issues and not be deflected by the calls for diversity or a kind of mild multiculturalism. We want justice in the city. We don’t want a black face here or there. We want justice, and that means something quite different than the optics of diversity.
The Democratic Party pulls one on us when they substitute justice with diversity. I absolutely don’t think there’s any way to make progress and build unity in this country except by embracing black liberation. What’s interesting to me is that the Democratic Party was unable to utter the term “working class” for decades. It can’t cross their lips. Then, the day after the election, they discovered something that they call the white working class. What the hell is the white working class? The idea that there’s such a thing as the white working class is a white supremacist concept. So when they say, “Oh, we made a mistake—the white working class in Pennsylvania is suffering,” what does that mean? That the black working class is living high on the hog? It’s nuts!
Now that Obama isn’t president, are you guys going to go back to being best friends like the conservatives and conspiracy theorists always said you were?
Yeah, but they’ll be bored with us. We’ll be meeting up and having milkshakes. You know, a single milkshake with two straws. We’re gonna be besties again. [Laughs.] v