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Notes from Underground 

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn on North Coast living

click to enlarge Bernardine Dohrin and Bill Ayers at the North Coast Co-op in Arcata. Photo by Heidi Walters
  • Bernardine Dohrin and Bill Ayers at the North Coast Co-op in Arcata. Photo by Heidi Walters

A couple of Saturdays ago, my friend Ken Malcomson and I had just sat down to interview Bernardine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers, at the Arcata Co-op, where they'd just purchased a cartful of groceries to take into the mountains. A young stranger came up to the table.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," she said, "but I just wanted to say how much I admire you both, and what you do."

A lot of people know about Ayers and Dohrn. Leaders of the radical left group Weather Underground in the late '60s and the '70s. One-time fugitives. Recent lightning rods — especially Ayers — for criticism aimed at discrediting Barack Obama, with whom they've rubbed elbows in Chicago.

But, also, many might know of Dohrn's and Ayers' work over the past 40 years as professionals, lecturers and authors. Dohrn is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University. She also runs the Children and Family Law Justice Center, work for which she won a national award this year. Ayers is a Distinguished Professor of education at the University of Illinois Chicago and has written several books about teaching.

This Friday, Aug. 14, in the morning, Ayers will be at Humboldt State University talking to secondary education students. Later, at 7 p.m. at Northtown Books in Arcata, Dohrn and Ayers will talk about their new book, Race Course: Against White Supremacy, which is part memoir.

And now, the interview — during which, we note, there was one more interruption. Ayers and Dohrn were talking about how there could be farms within the city of Chicago — like compatriots of theirs are doing in Detroit — when an older woman approached the table and said, "Excuse me, I couldn't help but overhearing. Have you heard about the Guerrilla Gardens in Chicago?"

"No!" said Dohrn, excitedly, and said she'd like to hear more about it after the interview.

(Excerpts of this interview appeared in the print edition of the Journal.)

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Walters: Why are you here? What's your connection to Humboldt County and the North Coast?

Bernardine Dohrn: We come every summer. We've been coming here for 32 years. We had friends up in Siskiyou ... who were part of the commune movement in the late '60s, both here and in Oregon, and we stayed with them for years. We have a cabin, and when our children were young, they came and brought their friends. And now they still come and bring their friends, and our grandchildren.

Walters: In a book of essays by former residents of the Black Bear Ranch commune [Free Land: Free Love: Tales of a Wilderness Commune], you write about why you never went to Black Bear.

Dohrn: Well, Black Bear of course is a famous and infamous radical commune from the late '60s and many of our friends went there. It still exists, and young people are there today. A very remote, gorgeous piece of land. And so we — [she laughs] — always imagined what it was like, but we never went there because we were pretty confident, and it turned out to be true, that the FBI went there several times looking for us and, you know, tried to pay people to give information about us.

Walters: You stayed on a nearby piece of land.

Dohrn: Right.

Walters: What did coming to this part of the country mean to you?

Dohrn: Well we had many friends up the coast, and down the coast. I mean, we considered the commune movement part of the political upheaval of the '60s, really very much a part of challenging the institutions and their purposes and what they were turning people into. You know, many of these communal things not only were back-to-the-land things — and really an early form of the environmental movement today — but also were kind of taking a left turn off the course that we were on to become cogs in the wheel of the imperialist system. And so people learned how to grow food, learned how to milk cows, learned how to start a free clinic, learned how to start a co-op for school, learned how to do work co-ops and planting trees and so forth.

Malcomson: All part of re-education.

Dohrn: That's right.

Bill Ayers: Well, in a way, it's a precursor to what's so relevant today. People have to figure out how to build movements that are self-transforming. That is, you can't simply make an angry demand on the state. You have to also find ways to become new men and new women. The idea that we're going to disrupt this juggernaut and stay exactly as we are is nonsense. And so I think a lot of what we admire the most in the incipient political movements today are people who are very clear about the fact that we have to transform ourselves, transform our relationship to the earth, transform our relationship to work, transform our relationship to the state —

Dohrn: To food, water ...

Walters: So how do you transform those things?

Ayers: There's a group we admire in Detroit. Well, in Detroit — which is a devastated industrial wasteland; had a half a million people in the 1900s, has a half million people today, but in between had the gold rush. So what are they doing in Detroit? Their [The group Detroit City of Hope's] slogan is, "Detroit's the future." And what they're doing is they're farming. They're not just gardening, they're farming in the city. We have 20,000 acres in Chicago that we could farm — actual abandoned lots. And, somehow, we're going to have to not wait around for the co-op to get it right or for the government to get right — but to do it ourselves.

Walters: What do you expect from an individual today?

Dohrn: Well, we don't have the answer to that. We don't know. I mean, we found ways over the years of raising our kids where, even though we were living in intense urban environments in New York and Chicago, we had a semi-communal relationship with a couple of other families. We ate together regularly, we bought food together, we shared a lot of child care. ... Obviously, for our aging Baby Boom generation, it's now a question again of how do we live. In big, empty houses? Or bringing people into our houses? We had our parents live with us the last eight years: my mom for five years — my Alzheimer's mom — and then Bill's dad. And that was a whole new learning experience for us, how to make a home.

Ayers: We are agnostic about social change. Certainly we're not locked in any kind of orthodox view. But we're absolutely certain that the need for revolutionary transformation of ourselves and of society and the world has never been greater. We are in a catastrophe that's long-lasting and it's serious and it's probably an environmental catastrophe, probably a question of the U.S. ruling the world. Can 4.6 percent of the world's population actually consume 25 percent of the world's energy forever? I don't think so. And I think that we have to come to grips with that. And that's going to require a lot of rethinking, a lot of reorienting. Yet, when we look around today, not only do we look back on the '60s not as a kind of a triumphant moment when everything was perfect — we don't have any nostalgia for it at all — we're looking over it to a world where the '60s will simply be thought of as a prelude for much more serious transformations, shocks, awareness, awakenings.

Walters: Do you find that our fixation with The Sixties can be an impediment to their being a prelude to change?

Ayers: I do.

Dohrn: It's both too good and too bad. Yeah, it's romanticized by young activists too often, or turned into a caricature, you know, and labeled as "foolish" or "drug-induced" or "terrorist" or whatever labels people want to put on it. So I think in that way it's an impediment.

But of course it also is an inspiration. And I think it's a reminder that of course it can happen here — you know, a profound peace movement that really recognizes the way in which our entire society is organized around permanent war; from our education system to our health-care system, we are in a state of permanent war. We are spending 50 percent of our budget on war and then we look around and say, there's no money for health care or for elder care or for teaching all of our children. So we act as if we aren't the richest country in human history.

So, in order to do those things, Bill's right — we feel very agnostic about how it's going to look this time. It won't look like The Sixties, that's for sure. But we do think that real change comes from below, and so it does come from people acting together. And it's why we're told over and over again that what we do won't make a difference — because that is actually the biggest secret of all. What we do could make a difference. It could change history. So the notion of cynicism and despair — to privatizing yourself and just staying home with your gadgets, you know, and not being engaged in the world — is a very deep alternative to fundamental social change.

Malcomson: For people who grew up in the '50s, what a titanic psychic load it must have been to deal with the fact that humanity's reached the point where we could destroy the world — right on the coattails of one of the most horrific acts in human history.

Ayers: That's right. If you look at the writing of Martin Luther King — the last three years, go look at his whole trajectory. I think you're absolutely right: World War II, for all its horrificness, was a war fought between the forces of fascism ... and the idea of liberation. That's why in Africa, Asia and Latin America liberation movements sprang up in the wake of WWII. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which remains one of the most important documents ever written, comes in 1948. And then you have soldiers coming back to the U.S. and saying, you know what, I was just in France and I just fought for this country — you think I'm going to sit in the back of the bus? Forget it. ... and then you have Emmett Till. And then you have Rosa Parks, a hundred days after Emmett Till's murder, doing her thing. And what's King's message? We have to love each other or we're going to destroy each other. That's it.

Malcomson: Now we've gone from a culture that was worried about the atom bomb, to a culture that's atomizing — we're all off serving ourselves in our little personal lives, watching our video games...

Ayers: King talked about the three evils of militarism, racism and materialism. And partly what he meant by materialism was consumerism. We are drunk on consumerism. Absolutely drunk. And that is coming to an end. And it's coming to an end in a very dramatic way.

Dohrn: I'm not so worried about atomization. I think it is a problem, but we are social people. We are social animals and we're thrown together in social circumstances, at work and school and in the public square. And we spend a lot of our time fighting for the notion of "the public." It's why we do talks ... and we are part of a group in Chicago called "The Public Square" — kind of a contemporary version of the "teach in," where you actually take an issue like the arrest of Skip Gates — and, in Chicago, we're going to coffee shops and barbershops around town. We take a subject and give a couple of readings. And I think that having these discussions, where you're not looking for an answer and you're not driving for a political correctness, but you're urging people to talk to each other in a regular way about the complexity of the world as we know it — that is fighting against that atomization.

Ayers: And the other piece of that is, we've been involved for years in what we call movement-building or movement-making activity, and it's premised on the idea that while you can't will a movement to happen, you also can't sit idly by and pretend that it will spring into full bloom. So part of what you have to do is you have to challenge the dominant frames, or the dominant controlling metaphor which restricts us. For example, health care. Is health care an individual responsibility, where you have to take care of yourself and your family? We'd mostly say, yep. And what if somebody got hit in the parking lot? Would we run out and help them? Of course. Everybody in here would run out there and help them.

So which metaphor dominates? And we're watching that metaphoric debate right now. And it's kind of an exciting, teachable moment, because what is it? Are we taking care of each other? Or are you individually responsible? Look at our lifetime: The "gay question" moved from "homosexuality is like a man having sex with a squirrel," and it was illegal in this country — in every state in 1968, but in several states until the late '70s and early '80s. Look at how the metaphor shifted, we watched it shift from perversion to human love. ...

But look, we're under the thrall of a metaphor about public safety that says lock people up. It's a false metaphor, but it's working — it kills us, it's hurting us. Or the metaphor for safety in the world, that we have a huge military. It's wrong, but ...

The public conversation is to challenge and shift these metaphors. Public safety does not depend on incarceration, national security does not depend on war. Just the opposite. So how do you challenge those things? So that's part of what we've been doing.

Dohrn: And making the invisible visible. Until three years ago when the first immigration march happened that May Day in Chicago — there's half a million Mexicans marching down from the west side of Chicago, past Haymarket Square where shit happened 120 years before, down through the canyons of downtown Chicago to the lake — we knew there was a large Mexican population in Chicago, we knew there was a large Mexican population in the United States, but it was an example of people standing up. It was one of the most thrilling things I've ever seen. Young people, people walking for five miles carrying babies in their arms. It was an example of people standing up and making what was invisible, visible. It's in every restaurant, every airport, every person's lawn, every hospital — it's right there. But you don't see it unless you decide to see it.

Ayers: The thing about that example is, you couldn't have predicted it the day it happened. And now it seems part of natural common sense. Well, the same with Rosa Parks. She tried to fit in three times before she finally sparked that shit. She was arrested before other people were.

Dohrn: Another example of a changed metaphor in our lifetime is the disabled, right? Most of the world, you have a disabled child, that child stays home, it's kept in the house, doesn't go to school, doesn't learn to read. And, you know, again, it's the disabled people and their parents in the United States who really said, Enough, we are part of the public, we belong in public, you can see us, you can learn to look at us, you can learn to recognize our humanity and our intelligence. So, who knows what we're not seeing today, that's right under our nose as well?

Walters: What motivates people to change?

Dohrn: I think two things do. One is a sense that actually it is possible. In the '60s, I was the head of SDS from '68 to '69, so I spoke at a different campus every day for a year. Always the questions were not, "Are you right about Vietnam? Are you right about women and racism and social change?" But were, "Are humans fundamentally competitive, violent and corrupt? Can we make a difference? They were foundational questions, not questions about right or wrong. So I think the germinal question around social activism is, "Can you see that acting together makes a difference? Can you be effective? Can you actually make a difference?"

Ayers: Another example of that is the civil rights movement. There was activity in the south all the way from the Civil War until the '60s — resistance and attempts to stand up for your humanity. What changed, that people in Mississippi would in large numbers say, "It's worth risking my life to register to vote?" They knew they were mistreated, they knew this was wrong — so what lead to people all of a sudden saying, "I'm going to register to vote"?

Dohrn: And I think there's a second question, particularly for the United States. You know, we have been the über power for 20 years and really a dominant power for most of the century. And that's over — not today, but it's going down the slide in terms of overall economic, cultural, political power in the world. There are going to be other major powers. So, how do we recognize that, make room, adjust? I think that's a very basic challenge, because we've seen other declining powers who have very powerful militaries — that's a dangerous formula. That's a formula for invading and occupying other countries, that's the formula that clings to power through the military. And hopefully we won't go that way. That's why I think the peace movement, in a way, is the crux of what we need right now.

Walters: Do we have a peace movement, to speak of?

Dohrn: Well, yes and no.

Ayers: Even with three years of jingoistic, patriotic nationalism, even with that, American people turned against the war in Iraq in three years. We have a huge peace sentiment and desire in this country. We don't have it mobilized and we've never been able to be particularly effective, even in Vietnam. I mean, in Vietnam we limited the options but we didn't win. We didn't stop the war.

Dohrn: We've been working with some of the Iraq and Afghan vets coming back, and I think, as in Vietnam, the people who see war and experience war, who participate and murder have a reflection when they come home. I think that young people come back with enormous needs — physical and psychological — but also with powerful narratives and stories to tell, and insights where they put together what happened. And I don't think they're fooled that this time around, everybody loves the troops and everybody was nice. To them, we're sitting here in our comfort, and they're over there slogging it out. And the gap between us and them is enormous. So I look to them as a major force for the next peace movement.

Ayers: They see that it's a lot of lies — that we're there fighting for freedom, for democracy. Nobody sees it more clearly than a front-line soldier. And they don't know whether to embrace the lie, or to try to live within it, or expose it.

Dohrn: They see the equation: We're fighting terrorism — we're creating terrorism. That notion: What is an occupying force in a country? The United States, after the Civil War, has never really known an occupying force. And we have to try to imagine what it would mean to have to go through checkpoints, to have to show your ID in your own country, to have the kind of massive ethnic divide created that we've created in Iraq. ...

Malcomson: Are we a young culture — a well-meaning but hotheaded adolescent — that we have to be shown how to cool off and be mature and look at the bigger picture in the world?

Ayers: I wish.

Dohrn: We are young, compared to Iraq and Iran — ancient cultures, with thousands of years of traditions and literature and art and music and science...

Ayers: The arrogance of invasion and occupation — I heard this soldier being commissioned out of Iraq, on NPR, saying, "We didn't accomplish all that we wanted to and we did some good, but it's important to know that when we got here there was nothing." Nothing? In the cradle of civilization there was nothing?

But, the reason I recoil from the notion of being adolescent is, one of the narratives of Vietnam that the liberals put forward that we objected to profoundly was the narrative of the quagmire. "We took our innocent step and it just kind of sucked us in." The "exotic jungle" thing. Well, actually, you walked in there with your arrogance blinding you to certain things. And it's not innocence, it's arrogance. ... You read something like The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, and what's the story? It was written before Vietnam. And the idea of the story is, oh those French don't know how to do it and the Communists of course are evil, but we, with our great intentions and our broad smile and our Iowa teeth, yeah, we'll know how to do it and we'll do it right. And the arrogance of it is just staggering.

Dohrn: And I think what the United States said — and it isn't just the Bush Administration, obviously the Bush Administration is kind of a caricature of this — but what they said going into Iraq is just what the British said a century before: We are going to bring civilization, we are restoring the best of their culture, we are going to bring peace and democracy, we have totally good intentions.

And, I think the fact that individual people have good intentions is a little bit beside the point. You can have good intentions and be a rapist. You know, when you have a clear light on these things, the women's movement is going to say, I don't care what your intentions were, I don't care what you thought I was saying, that was a non-consensual, violent act, right? It doesn't matter how you were raised and what you thought. Rape is rape. And I think invasion and occupation is that way. OK — maybe there was one good one in history that we can think of. Maybe.

Malcomson: You mean Germany.

Dohrn: Yeah.

Ayers: Maybe. But the thing that goes with that, the arrogance is that all privilege is anesthetizing and the women's example is such a good one. Because, you have to accept the fact that when you're in the privileged class, there are things you're blind to. So who do you look to for enlightenment? You look to people who are not in that privileged class. So, Americans are privileged. White people are privileged. Men are privileged. Straight people are privileged. And it's that privilege that anesthetizes you to the experience of others. And that's part of what it means to become a new person, is to open yourself to learning, to these teachable moments, from those who suffered the abuse.

Malcomson: I really agree with that. But I wonder, how do you answer for people ... who start believing in their own victimhood so deeply they end up blinding themselves?

Ayers: I agree with that. I think victimology is immoral. I don't think you can build a moral frame from portraying yourself as a victim.

Malcomson: The thing that bothered me about the Skip Gates situation — I can understand that his first reaction would be, oh here it comes. But it worries me that maybe he was steeped in that kneekjerk victimology.

Ayers: We missed all that — we've been on vacation.

Dohrn: No, I read about it. ... The thing is, to be a black man in America is to be constantly aware that you can be stopped by the police for no good reason, and humiliated. And it is an experience that the president has had, it's an experience that the attorney general has had. It doesn't matter how prestigious you are, or how wealthy you are, you can't get a cab to stop for you. You can get thrown up against the side of the car. You can show your ID and it shows you're, whatever, a professor of here a professor of there — whatever ... Probably nobody was a saint in this situation. But, the chances of it happening to a white man in that situation are much smaller. That's just a fact. That's why the response, including by the President, was so visceral.

Ayers: It is a teachable moment.

Walters: Can we talk about Race Course? What do you hope readers will get out of it?

Dohrn: We were asked to write it by the poet Haki Madhubuti, who lives in our neighborhood and is a friend and a contemporary of ours. And the fact that Third World Press [founded and headed by Madhubuti], which is the largest and longest-lasting independent black book publishing company in the United States, asked us to write it meant that we said yes right away. He wanted us to write something that was part memoir — so, using the question of being parents and taking care of our parents and our work and life around children and justice, and children and education — to answer the question why, for four decades, we've been kind of fixated on the role of white supremacy and racism in American life, as white people. So that's what the book is an effort to address.

Walters: Did you learn anything about yourselves while writing this book, come to any new conclusions?

Dohrn: We learned how difficult it is to write a book together! [she laughs]

Ayers: There've been two things that actually have centered our politics from the beginning, two or three things. One is, we have thought from a very young age that the great catastrophe at the heart of the American experience has been the catastrophe of race and the creation of "race." The inability to untangle from the legacy of slavery.

I think one of the things that I've learned is, I don't think I've studied it quite like this. We went back and really looked at some of the founding documents of the United States, and it confirmed but also deepened the sense that the country is founded on white supremacy, and that it's not a matter of resolving one or two tactical things, or one or two policy problems or even one or two political problems.

The problem is that at the core of the American experience is race. It appears, and reappears. White supremacy has survived a revolution, an abolitionist movement, a civil rights movement — and it's still standing. That's astonishing. And certainly we think that Obama's election to the presidency was a blow against white supremacy — but not a fatal blow. And the Skip Gates thing is just an interesting conversation about the war that's still happening.

But you can't understand how black incarceration rates, or poverty rate, or the schools they're allowed to go to — you can't understand these things without understanding the tenacity of white supremacy or institutionalized racism in the core of the American experience.

Another thing we talked about earlier is the role of America in the world, and that is its dominant, imperial position that's now threatened.

Dohrn: In this part of the world, it tends to play out more with Native Americans than any other group. We've learned a lot in the time that we've spent here, by coming here over the years and watching the struggle with the timber industry, the struggle with decommissioning the dams, the struggle around salmon, and over appropriate ways to fight the fires. I don't feel like we're experts at all. But, I just wanted to say, it isn't always an urban movement.

Walters: You work with juveniles, and you write about the criminalization of youth in the book — can you talk about that?

Dohrn: We work in the juvenile court of Cook County, which was the first juvenile court in the world, right? It was founded in 1899, 110 years ago, by the women of Hull House and spread like a prairie fire across the world: Of course children shouldn't be incarcerated with adults and shouldn't be in adult poor houses; there should be a separate court and a separate system for youth because they're different than adults.

But if you go into the juvenile court of Cook County every day, as lawyers and law students representing young people, you will find that 94 percent of the kids coming into that court system for all of the greater Chicago area of Cook County are African-American and Latino. So you would think that white kids don't break the law, if you looked there.

I talk about this in this book, but I write about it all the time. Our three boys, growing up on the south side of Chicago, luckily didn't get arrested. But they did get stopped by the police, and they did get their information put into the computer system. And their friends got arrested. And over the course of the 15 years that we had boys dominating our world, their friends got arrested for pretty much everything except murder: sexual assault, larceny, graffiti, serious fighting, drugs, battery, auto theft... . And none of them — they got arrested, they got taken to their parents' house, they got dropped off with their parents — and none of them, if their parents had resources, went to juvenile court or adult criminal court.

So what happens? Well, it turns out there's a private system of justice if your parents live in a certain zip code, basically. What is it? Well, if it's drugs you're going to go into a drug treatment program or a hospital until the insurance runs out. If it's assault, you're going to pay the victim and their family, make restitution, and put your kid in some kind of treatment facility. You're going to send them to a parochial school, you're going to send them to a military school, you're going to send them out of state to live with Grandma or an aunt. In other words, you're going to take them out of the situation that got them into trouble, and you're going to keep them out of the system. They will not have a record. They won't have a juvenile record, they won't have a criminal record. And you're going to hope they grow out of it. And guess what? They do grow out of it. Ninety-nine percent of them grow out of it.

Walters: And the kids you deal with don't have that privilege. What do you do for them?

Dohrn: Well, we give them the best legal representation that you could possibly have. We have lawyers and law students and social work students and we fight for them to make sure they are not incarcerated.

Ayers: Just to take one example. Mayor [Richard] Daley [of Chicago], his son, who went to school with our son, was arrested for assault. He had a baseball bat and he was angry with a kid over a girl and he smacked the kid — and never went to juvenile court and never went to face law enforcement. He had the alternative. And the alternative, if it's good enough for Mayor Daley's kids — and I'm glad Mayor Daley intervened on behalf of his kid, of course he should — but if he recognized that his kid's life would be degraded by going into this system, how can he allow other kids to go into the system?

Dohrn: If you get thrown into these systems, these systems are meant to crush you. And they prevent you from going back to school now, and they prevent you from moving forward. And so the entire premise of the juvenile court, which was intended to give kids a second chance, has now been betrayed. And I think we don't really quite realize what we're doing with young people when we lock them up in the name of "for their own good." It's really quite terrifying.

Walters: Or maybe people think they're keeping them from hurting other people...

Dohrn: Sure. Shakespeare has a famous quote — something like, if we could only put them to sleep, people between the ages of 2 and 20. Of course, many times we want adolescents to disappear. But we also have to remind ourselves that adolescents are also the engine of social change everywhere in the world. How did the civil rights movements come into being in Birmingham? It was a school walkout of young children. And in Soweto. And in Tiananmen. And in Tehran. These are the young people. So the very things that scare us about adolescents are also the very things that allow them to take risks. ...

So, yes, of course, some kids have to be restrained and taken out of their environment. But locked up? You have to visit one of these facilities where kids are locked up — they are terrifying. So I think it's a blight. ... It's just so unfair. When you go and sit in one of these courts or look in a detention center, and you see it's all kids of color, don't you think they notice who's not there? They notice who's not there. And the fundamental question of justice is, Is it fair? That's something kids start asking all the time, starting at age 2.

So, we have two choices here. We can either not have a system based on race and give everybody what the privileged kids have; or, we can start arresting more white kids. And everybody laughs, because obviously we're not going to arrest more white kids. ... Arrest and incarceration is not a path to doing something. It's really a path to life in prison, or an early death.

Walters: I want to ask you a question about President Obama. What was your first impression of him, when you first met him?

Ayers: Our sense of Barack Obama, going way back, was that he was the most intelligent person in any room he ever walked into. Very, very smart person. Decent, compassionate, kind and an ambitious politician. I used to say about him, I think he wants to be mayor of Chicago. Which was the limit of my imaginative capacity.

The wonderful thing about Obama's election is it's a blow and an important step against white supremacy. The fact that he could get 43 percent of the white electorate to vote for him — that's impressive. But I also think it's significant that there was this generational shift and that it's time to get the old people off the stage, and it's time for a new generation to take over and stop fighting the kind of endless battles about what this meant or that meant four years ago.

More important than that is the fact that Obama was a community organizer — you can't think of another American president in history who would be comfortable knocking on the door of a public housing project and going in and having coffee and listening to the concerns of a single black mother. This guy did that for years. ... You can read Dreams From My Father and see lots of examples of a sensitivity that you do not find — it is a literary memoir that is unlike anything cranked out by a politician.

When Obama was asked during the election, "Who would Martin Luther King support?" his response was, he wouldn't support any of us. He'd be in the streets, building a movement for justice. And we take that as a community organizer's answer, No. 1. But, No. 2, something we ought to listen to because he's telling us what our job is. We live in a democracy, not a monarchy. We're not supposed to sit outside the palace and wonder what the king will do for us now. We're the ones who have to build the political will, the political intelligence and the political movement that can actually get things done.

If you look at history, LBJ, the most effective politician of his generation, was not part of the Black civil rights movement; FDR wasn't part of the labor movement; and Lincoln never belonged to an abolitionist party. So these three great presidents responded to something, and it's that something that's in our hands. And here's a guy who understands that while power certainly exists in the White House, power also exists in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the factories, in the workshops. So that's where we ought to pay attention.

Walters: When you say "white supremacy," I imagine there are a lot of white people who will think you mean something very specific that doesn't apply to them. Or, they might focus on the "white" part, feel defensive, and stop listening.

Dohrn: What we mean by white supremacy is a system, a structure. It is a term of art, and we used it partly because we thought that "racism" has also become a word that nobody can get over. This is an issue that is such a live-wire issue for everybody.

We also spend a lot of time in this book describing how race is a fiction. It's a construct. There is no such thing, really, as "race." These are broad categories, but they've defined thousands of years of history and so they take on a life and they get embodied in teaching. And so I think the only way out of it is to listen to each other and to think about it without being defensive. There were intensely confrontational and bitter times in the Civil Rights movement and the Black Freedom movement, you know, where whites were thrown out of organizations by comrades with whom they'd worked for years. So nothing about this is simple.

On the other hand, if we fail to look at where we've come from and where we are now, we can't move forward. South Africa certainly has had this experience with trying to grapple with this immediate past — not to solve it, because that'll take centuries, but have a common understanding. To say, well, we don't agree about all this but here's the core of our common narrative that we understand. And we think that we've failed to do that in the United States with the legacy of slavery. We failed to actually establish that common narrative.

Malcomson: We're talking truth and reconciliation.

Dohrn: That's right. Truth and reconciliation.

Ayers: But Obama said, in a speech in front of Turkish Parliament, "You have got to come to terms with the events of of 1915 — "

Dohrn: Referring to the Armenian genocide without using the words "Armenian genocide."

Ayers: He said, all people have catastrophes in their history. The only way forward is to come to terms with it honestly. ... People hear the word "racism," and they think you're talking about prejudice. So we're not saying it's your individual prejudice, or my prejudice. We're saying, there's a system. So the question I would put to all of us is, in a system where black kids in the Chicago area have thousands and thousands of dollars less spent on their education per year than white kids, how should we remedy it? If we can remedy that, that's remedying a system of white supremacy.

Walters: You might think this is a cheesy question, but, what do you love about America?

Dohrn: Oh it's not a cheesy question, it's a great question. You know, when you leave the United States you realize, in my opinion, how fundamentally you are American. It's so obvious to everyone else. And you feel it. You feel that way when you run into other Americans, and you feel that way in the face of the others. So — we both grew up in the Midwest, we're absolutely homegrown native radicals. We didn't come from radical backgrounds, families, at all. There's a long strain in American political life of dissidence and radicals and upstarts and people making a ruckus, and it's the part of American life that we identify most with.

Ayers: There's that history. And then, contemporarily, not only do I love the country itself — the mountains, the rivers and all of that — but the people. If you talk to ordinary people, there is a kind of goodness in us ... . A deep kindness, a deep concern, a deep compassion.

Dohrn: I used to laugh when people would say [in the '60s], "Go back to Russia!" We're like, "Russia?!"


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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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