It was three weeks ago when I first heard rumblings that Barack Obama was being labeled a terrorist supporter. John McCain and his fellow conservatives were giving him that label for his friendship withBill Ayers
, the former Weather Underground member and current professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Well, if simply calling Ayers a friend makes a person a terrorist supporter, then I should stand accused as well.
Back in the winter of 2004, I spent a weekend crashing at Ayers’ house. I ate his food, used his bathrooms, and visited his classroom. At night, I slept in his attic along with several friends, fully unaware that, just four years later, my heinous act would make me a terrorist sympathizer. It’s a label I’m willing to accept, because I had such a good time earning it. Truth be told, Ayers and his wife, former fugitive and Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn, are great hosts and swell company to hang with for a few days.
Five of us drove that weekend from Detroit to the Ayers household in the South Side of Chicago. We were a motley crew of activists and recent University of Michigan college grads who were traveling with 88-year-old Asian-American community advocate Grace Lee Boggs. She had a speaking engagement in town. I had no idea who Bill Ayers was, but I’ll never forget the welcoming smile on his face. Boggs headed straight for the kitchen. Ayers offered her a beer, and she gulped it down -- to our surprise. Then we were ensconced in talks about Ayers’ community resistance.
Ayers wanted to know how youth in Detroit were dealing with issues like joblessness and one of the worst public school systems in the country. We talked of walkouts by students fed up with lackluster schools. We talked of boycotts, old comrades, and community gardens that were springing up in abandoned lots across the city. That afternoon, we delved into topics real and utopian that didn’t feel radical at all.
Ayers and Dohrn were especially keen to discuss education – they’re both educators (Dohrn is a professor of law at Northwestern University) and notably, they were much more interested in listening to us than talking. At the time, I had no idea they’d both bombed various federal institutions, including the U.S. Capitol building, the Pentagon, and a New York police headquarters -- but they also didn’t flaunt it. My only tipoff to Ayers and Dohrn’s past life was that they have their mug shots framed in the living room.
Boggs, who is constantly traveling and speaking about racism and discrimination, was giving a speech that night on the importance of activists’ building community among people with disabilities. That whole weekend was dedicated to organizing with the disability rights groups Ayers worked with. I remember Ayers introduced her that night to a crowd of a couple of hundred people. Grace gave a rousing speech on how people with disabilities were often overlooked in the fight against discrimination.
In my naiveté, during a question-and-answer segment toward the end of Boggs’ speech, I stood up proudly and talked about the need to champion the rights of the handicapped. Hell, overlooking issues of the handicapped as a person of color was irresponsible, as they are often more discriminated against than anyone. “A community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all,” I quoted, then added, “and that definitely applies to the handicapped.”
I was happy with what I said. That was, until I a woman in the audience stood up and gave me a serious tongue-lashing for repeatedly using the word “handicapped.” And the crowd applauded as the woman tore into me on how people with disabilities are often forced to beg to make a living -- hand-to-cap -- which is where the word comes from. Ayers and I shared a laugh about it at dinner afterward, but boy, was it embarrassing!
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The whole weekend was a political awakening for me, and I began to understand just exactly whose house I was staying in. Ayers drove us all over Chicago — he showed us the statue in Haymarket Square that he bombed in 1969. The city rebuilt the statue in May 1970, and he bombed it again six months later. The statue was dedicated to fallen police officers who were killed during a clash with labor supporters during the 1886 Haymarket riot. Ayers was more on the side of the day laborers who suffered under deplorable conditions and were simply rising up for their own equality. He showed no remorse for those bombings or any others, but by no means was he bragadocius either. He did show us various escape routes that were used during those times, and he had a rare, natural leadership quality to him such that, when he talked, you hung on his every word.
We spent two more days together crisscrossing the city, and we spent an afternoon at the Center for Independent Living, where Ayers put me in the same room as a hip-hop group from Chicago’s South Side. The group was unique not just because they had poignant topics in their lyrics but rather, all three of the rappers had cerebral palsy and were in motorized wheelchairs. Ayers didn’t say much that afternoon; I remember he just sat in the back of the room and listened. He didn’t want the spotlight. That’s the Bill Ayers whom I got to know — one who continuously sought to make the world better and put himself in unthinkable positions to do so.
I reached out to Ayers for the purpose of this article, but he declined comment, most likely out of respect for Obama’s campaign. He hasn’t granted an interview since this whole guilt-by-association strategy by the Republicans started, and I can respect that. Just a week and a half ago, Colin Powell, who served under the Bush administration and is a lifelong Republican, announced that he was voting for Obama. One of the reasons Powell gave for his venture toward the Democrats is that he was disgusted at how Republicans kept bringing up Ayers’ name out of desperation. After knowing Ayers myself, I felt the same way. – Jonathan Cunningham
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