NEW YORK – Bill Ayers, the former colleague of President Obama who co-founded the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground, acknowledged in a radio interview the revolutionary ideology driving the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I have been very energetic in my support of Black Lives Matter,” Ayers told host Eugene Puryear of the online radio show “Liberation Radio,” produced by an activist group called the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
The interview with Ayers, a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, took place Friday. In a September interview with the Yale campus paper, Ayers boast of his influence on the 2008 election of Obama and described himself as “a First Amendment fundamentalist that is also a socialist, anarchist and communist.”
In the interview Friday, he said Black Lives Matter is “one of the most hopeful signs in the last several decades of folks coming together and building a movement for fundamental change.”
At the beginning of the interview, Ayers placed the movement in the context of socialist revolutionary methodology.
“There’s a lot of mythology behind Black Lives Matter, assuming the only reason this is happening is because of social media and because of the use of cameras,” Ayers said. “That is fundamentally false. What is exciting is that the Black Lives Matter moment comes after decades and centuries of the serial assassination of black people.”
Ayers said the “driving force of Black Lives Matter is organized young people who have been mobilizing for years around a lot of issues.”
“Black Lives Matter’s focus is state violence against black people. Its focus is also decent education, ‘stop closing our schools,’ jobs for everybody, health care, mental health, drug programs.”
He called Black Lives Matters “a comprehensive movement” and said “the folks involved in it in Chicago are long-time organizers.”
“There is no single issue or single struggle that amounts to the social upheaval we need,” Ayers explained. “What we need is a social movement that engages and mobilizes masses of people, and frankly Black Lives Matter is at this moment a pretty good beginning example of that.”
Ayers expanded on the theme, explaining how mobilizing masses of people on the theme of Black Lives Matter played into the power dynamics needed to propel a revolutionary movement to achieve social change.
“We have to see where all the issues are connected – that one thing is not the only thing that is going on,” he distinguished.
“So, you have to be aware in any movement that the response of power is always the same,” he said. “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they try to co-opt you with a few little reforms, then – if nothing else works – they beat the heck out of you. So, this is what is happening with Black Lives Matter, the attempt to co-opt it, the attempt to patronize it – by power, is what I mean.”
In this context, Ayers explained how he sees the role played by FBI Director James Comey in the Obama administration as that of a reactionary attempting to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement from its true revolutionary goals.
“So, you have on the one hand, the reactionaries, the people like FBI Director Comey, who comes out and says, ‘Crime is up and the police are afraid because they have been targeted, that the scrutiny on police officers is causing problems in the community,’” Ayers said.
“What universe is he living in that he imagines policing in a free or democratic society involves saying to the cops, ‘Hey, do your dirty work and we won’t watch,’” Ayers asked rhetorically. “That’s ridiculous.
“In any free society, the police are under the control of the sovereign – that’s us, the people,” Ayers continued. “That’s not how Comey sees it. He literally says, ‘The police need more confidence, they need more force, they need good old fashioned go-up-to-a-group-of-guys-on-the-street-corner and say, ‘What are you doing here at 1 in the morning?’
“My response to that is to get out your camera and say to the cops, ‘Hey, what are you doing there at that corner at 1 o’clock in the morning?’” Ayers retorted. “How dare Comey say we don’t have the right to stand on a corner at 1 o’clock in the morning because the police are looking out for the safety of the community? That’s nuts.
“They’re going to turn off your water”
In the next part of the interview, Ayers said Black Lives Matter as a revolutionary movement can spearhead widespread social change.
“It’s never a single or a simple issue,” he insisted.
“So what we have to do is connect militarized police and the militarized occupation of some communities,” Ayers explained, expounding on revolutionary methodology.
“We have to link that with the fact there are no jobs in those communities, that the mental health facilities in Chicago have all been closed in those communities, the hospitals have been stripped of their resources in those communities, and 50 public schools in Chicago were closed,” he continued. “And just this morning, the Chicago City Council just raised everybody’s taxes and for the first time in history charged a fee for garbage pickup.
“Now, I want to show you how crazy it is, just for one second,” Ayers interjected.
“Not only are they going to charge a fee for garbage pickup for the first time, the Chicago City Council is going to tie it to your water bill, which means if you don’t pay your garbage pickup fee, they are going to turn off your water,” he said.
“Where are we? What land are we living in?” he asked. “It really does feel in some communities – and that’s not even across America, so that we always understand that when we say, ‘The schools are in crisis,’ we don’t mean the schools in the wealthy communities or for the wealthy people.
“So, when we say that, some communities feel as if they’re occupied and they have the blue-light cameras going off and the police are confronting people on silly, petty things that they would never confront anyone on in a rich community,” he said.
“My heart is just bleeding for that young woman in South Carolina in the video with the cop dragging her from her desk,” he continued. “What did she do? Sitting in her classroom, she didn’t do anything, and yet violence against black children is just assumed to be OK.
“But that’s what we have to see,” he stressed, underlining what he believes is a major theme motivating the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Police in the schools in some communities, not all, but police attacking students in schools in some communities – this is commonplace in schools for the poor,” he said.
“The real issue is that we live in a society in which not only do you have the 1 percent and the 99 percent, we have a history of oppression and history based on race,” Ayers concluded.
“And it’s at the very center of the American story, not some side story, but it’s at the very center of our story since the beginning of this country until now,” he insisted. “And we need to see the way in which it expresses itself through unequal education, through unequal job opportunities, through taxation, and redlining and mass incarceration.”
Ayers trashes Teach for America
Given his career as a socialist educator, Ayers was asked to contrast Black Lives Matter with Teach for America, a non-profit program with annual revenue exceeding $300 million tasked with placing college graduates with a two-year commitment to teach in inner-city minority public schools. It’s a program many movement radicals like Ayers have castigated as a “classic liberal fraud.”
“We have to make a distinction, too, with Teach for America in that the folks who are drawn to Teach for America, the young people themselves, get involved for ideological reasons,” Ayers acknowledged.
“They want to give back, to be helpful, and they don’t see other vehicles to make a difference,” he continued. “That’s different than the structure of Teach for America and the political thrust of it. Teach for America is part of the market-driven idea that what is wrong with the schools isn’t about funding, it isn’t about curriculum, it isn’t about a kind of colonial education or an ignorance-based education.”
Ayers criticized Teach for America as a “liberal fix” derived from what he considers the erroneous idea that the problem in minority public schools centers around poor test scores, not decades of racism and oppression.
‘Teach for America is part of the move to privatize public schools, eviscerate teachers unions and to reduce teaching to a simple mechanical set of activities that lead to rising test scores, rising metrics on standardized tests,” he said dismissively.
“That is fundamentally backward and wrong,” he stressed, referencing a YouTube video from Mad TV called “Nice White Lady” that Ayers believes typifies the problem with Teach for America.
“It’s a funny, funny bit, just a few minutes long, with a camera zooming over an urban landscape, and the voice-over saying, ‘The American urban high school, there’s no where more dangerous,’” Ayers explained.
“Then the camera zooms into an urban classroom,” he continued.
“And the voice-over says, ‘Out of control classrooms,’ and you see these students sitting in their desks cleaning their pistols and sharpening their knives,” Ayers related. “‘Parents who don’t give a damn and lazy, incompetent teachers.’ And then the door to the classroom opens and this young, well-scrubbed woman looks in and says, ‘Hi, I’m Amy Little.’ And the voice-over says, ‘What could possibly save them?’
“They all growl at her with maximum urban attitude,” he continued.
“And one girl goes up in her face and says, ‘What do you know about me?’ And the girl tells the horrible litany of her life. And this Amy Little is taken aback and then she reaches for a pen and hands it to the student, and says, ‘Write that down,’” Ayers went on.
“Soon, everybody’s winning Pulitzer Prizes and giving up their pistols for pens,” he summed up. “In the end, they’re all dancing in the hallway, and the voice-over says, ‘How to save the schools? You don’t need more funding. You don’t need better curriculum, better physical plants. All you need is a few nice, white ladies.’”
He said the reason the satire works “is because that’s exactly what Teach for America represents.”
“Teach for America represents the idea that a few well-intentioned people with some idealism and some hopefulness, and a liberal arts education from Princeton or Harvard or Michigan can somehow change the fate of schools that are underfunded, overcrowded – too many kids, too little time, too few resources, a disrespecting teaching staff,” he said.
“Those are the things that should be addressed, and those are the things that Teach for America does not care about,” Ayers concluded. =“Again, let me make the distinction. Not the young people themselves, but the structure of Teach for America is completely cynical and completely backwards.”
Ayers contrasted that to his own experience working for decades to reshape public school education in a radical revolutionary direction.
“My work for the last two or three decades has been schools,” he began.
“We have to understand and make explicit that struggling for decent schools for the children of formerly enslaved people, and the children of immigrants from poor nations, and the children from the nation’s first people – that struggle is linked to the struggle for decent health care and opportunities for jobs,” he emphasized. “[We must learn] to act not as occupiers, but as public servants who are under citizen control, under citizen surveillance.
“We don’t live in that society,” he concluded. “That’s the society we have to build a massive movement in order to create.”
‘I plan to be there, even in a wheelchair’
Ayers showed how the revolutionary goals of Black Lives Matter are consistent with the revolutionary goals he has pursued in his career as a radical activist and socialist educator.
“I don’t really have advice for you or the activists [in Black Lives Matter],” Ayers said, answering a question posed by the moderator.
“I want to take advice from you,” he continued, referencing the Black Lives Matters activists. “I want to learn from you.”
He contrasted BLM with his disdain for Teach for America.
“I have been involved in a lot of movements,” he noted. “But frankly, I don’t think where you are going to look and find the real movement is from folks fighting battles 30 or 50 years ago.”
Ayers pledged his continuing commitment to revolutionary political activism.
“In my own activism, when the real big barricades are put up, I plan to be there, even if I am in a wheelchair,” he insisted.
“But the truth is that every social movement, it’s about being more than social activists, it’s about being good citizens and moral persons,” he explained.
“There is a rhythm that you have to follow – and we all know this,” he continued. “There’s an old saying that you have to open your eyes and see the world as it really is. And that’s not something you do once or twice and then put it on automatic pilot. The world is too dynamic and it’s too vast. You have to open your eyes every day and try to make sense out of what you’re seeing.
“The second step is that you have to be astonished at everything you see in front of you – astonished at the joy, the ecstasy, the love that’s taking place on hard surfaces, the beauty of people loving each other,” he said. “And you have to be astonished at the cruelty that human beings visit upon one another.
“And then the third step is that you have to act,” he continued. “You act imperfectly. You don’t know what you’re doing. Of course, you can’t see everything. You don’t know the consequences completely. But you must act. And then after you act, you must doubt.”
Ayers continued to elaborate on his revolutionary methodology.
“You must think and you must reconsider,” he said. “In that doubting, there’s an important standard. And the standard is: Did I educate and did I learn? Did I teach and did I learn? If I taught people something by the sacrifice I made or by the action I took, then that’s good. If I learned something from it, that’s also good.
“But if the only thing that happened from my action was that I looked good on TV, or I loved my pose as I hurled the block through the window, no, that’s not the standard that you’re trying to achieve as an organizer, as a activist, as a revolutionary,” he said.
He elaborated on the role a radical revolutionary must play as an educator, tying together his socialist ideology with his life experience.
“The goal is mass education,” Ayers stressed. “The goal is learning everyday, more about yourself, more about your capacity, more about your comrades, more about your movement.
“So, that’s where I start, as kind of a framework for thinking,” he concluded. “It doesn’t answer anything. It only tells you to keep open your eyes, keep being astonished. When I said to keep being astonished, what I mean is don’t become cynical. You know, ‘they have to tap our phones.’ No, No, No. If they tap our phones, that outrages me.
“So, I don’t want to be complacent, I don’t want to be cynical,” he insisted. “I want to be amazed at how beautiful we are and also how long the road is. And so, that’s my basic rhythm of activism.”
How Black Lives Matters extends 1960s revolution
In the concluding part of the interview, Ayers explained how he views Black Lives Matters as an extension of the civil rights movements that drove revolutionary activism of the 1960s.
“Now, let’s talk one minute about cooptation,” he began.
“Every movement, it’s not Black Lives Matter per se, it’s every movement ever in history, somebody moved in to try to contain it and co-opt it,” he said.
“Just look at the machinations and complexities – some of which were overcome, some of which we couldn’t – involved in the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s,” he continued.
“That was a movement that threatened the very foundations of this country, ultimately,” Ayers stressed.
“Noteworthy is that Lyndon Johnson, who passed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since reconstruction, was not part of the black freedom movement,” Ayers noted. “He was a cracker from Texas who responded to fire from below.
“Our job is to create the fire from below and to not allow ourselves to be used,” he said. “So note, Lyndon Johnson asked Martin Luther King to meet with him. King did not beg LBJ for a meeting. LBJ was trying to contain the revolution. So that’s the different in the relationship.
“Cooptation is as natural as rain,” he continued. “It just happens and our job is to keep our eye on the deeper issues we care about. So what do we care about in Black Lives Matter? We’re not fighting for cameras on police vests, anymore than we were fighting for buses to bus people to schools in 1964 and 1965. We were fighting for justice. We were fighting to end racism.
“And remembering that means we might take buses, but that’s not the end of the struggle,” he concluded. “That’s only a tactic. That’s only a concession. There’s more to do.”
“And getting deeper and going further, that’s always our job,” he stressed.
“Opening our eyes, educating people about what the real terms are, connecting the issues; and war and warming, racism and homophobia, these things are always connected and we have to fight them by connecting them all,” he said in closing. “But we start where we are and dive into the contradiction as forcefully as you can.”