You may regard Bill Ayers as a hero or a terrorist. It all depends which side of the political trench you stand on. Either way, the infamous Ayers will be at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Thursday, speaking and signing copies of his newest book, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident.
Ayers’ first memoir, Fugitive Days, recounted his past as an influential member of the Weather Underground, the radical left organization that protested the Vietnam war by bombing empty government buildings. Though all charges against Ayers were dropped, many saw Fugitive Days as a kind of unrepentant confession, and its tone was ill received when its publication date inadvertently coincided with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When a New York Times article quoted Ayers as having said, of the Weather Underground, “we didn’t do enough,” Ayers was labeled as morally insensitive at best and, at worst, a domestic terrorist, even though Ayers argued he was referring only to the Weather Underground’s opposition to the Vietnam war, not the bombings.
In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, Ayers and Barack Obama served together briefly as directors of the Woods Fund Chicago, and both were asked to participate in a conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago. These connections served as fodder for the right-wing demonization of Ayers—and of Obama.
In Public Enemy, Ayers is concerned more with his present, and the chaos that ensued after George Stephanopoulos asked Obama to explain his association with Ayers during a debate, implying that such an association was reprehensible for a presidential candidate. Obama dismissed the question, referring to Ayers as simply “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”
To minimize his role in the unfolding drama, Ayers kept deliberately silent as McCain running-mate Sarah Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” even though Ayers was the “terrorist” in question. It didn’t matter that Ayers at that point had long been known for his commitment to education reform, or that he and Obama were little more than acquaintances. With Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 re-election long past, Public Enemy is Ayers’ response to the accusations, and the story of what happens when a person is turned into a symbol against his will.
Whether or not Bill Ayers is a dangerous radical, a dedicated educator, or perhaps just a human being who doesn’t fit easily or fully into either mold, Public Enemy is a tale of triumph. As Jake Austen of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Despite challenging power structures for decades, no force has successfully conspired to ruin Ayers.”