By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The 1960s and ’70s leftists who bombed government buildings and killed Americans were less damaging than the partial federal government shutdown – so said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, introducing Vietnam War-era domestic terrorist Bill Ayers at a speaking engagement Thursday in Madison.
What Republicans did in legally shutting down a small portion of the federal government for a few weeks was far more painful “to the American people than anything that any of us were capable of doing in the late 1960s and ‘70s,” said Soglin, himself a 1960s radical turned political insider.
“The ramifications to our economy, the world economy, the consequences in terms of everything from nutrition to education, from the well-being in terms of health to employment is being calculated in the billions of dollars, the consequences of this act,” he said.
“And what are we going to do about it now? We’re going to revisit it in three months,” Soglin said, referring to a congressional budget deal reached Wednesday.
Soglin led peaceful protests in Madison during the war, where he was beaten by police.
Ayers is the former leader of the Weather Underground Organization terrorist group that bombed buildings to make political points.
He was catapulted back into the public limelight during Barack Obama‘s 2008 campaign for president.
Ayers was in Madison to plug his new book “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident.” He recounted the link between him and President Obama that was brought up on a nationally televised primetime primary debate by ABC News broadcaster George Stephanopoulos that had been “percolating in the fever swamps of right-wing blogs for months” in 2008.
He was charming, disarming and even funny.
“I had my students over for a seminar in our living room (when a student turned on the debate) … I sat down and a student turned to me and said, ‘Oh my God that guy has the same name as yours,’” Ayers said to a roomful of laughter.
“Bernardine and I had hosted the initial fundraiser for Obama and uncharacteristically donated a little money to his campaign,” Ayers read from his book. “We lived a few blocks apart and sat on a couple nonprofit boards together. So what? Who could have predicted it would blow up like this?”
Interesting word choice.
In the early 1970s, the Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen, set off bombs at the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol and New York City Police Headquarters to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Six-thousand people a week were dying in war, he explained.
Deceased FBI informant Larry Grathwohl, who infiltrated the Weather Underground, said the group discussed “eliminating 25 million” Americans that couldn’t be re-educated to love communism after the communist organization overthrew the government.
He testified that Weather Underground planned its attacks so not to injure people, except for a planned bombing on Detroit police headquarters where Grathwohl said Ayers intended to kill police officers. That bomb did not go off.
Ayers has dismissed Grathwohl as a “paid dishonest person.”
Still, former members of the Weather Underground robbed a Brinks armored car in 1981, killing a Brinks guard and two police officers, including Waverly Brown, the first black police officer on the Nyack, N.Y., police force.
Ayers went on the lam for a decade after three Weathermen died after a bomb exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse. All charges against Ayers eventually were dismissed due to improper government surveillance.
He later became an early-education professor at the University of Illinois – Chicago.
Ayers, now 68 and retired, lives in Chicago with his wife Bernardine Dohrn, also a leader in the Weather Underground. He takes home a pubic retirement pension of $86,000 a year — estimated lifetime payout of $2 million — plus taxpayer funded health care, according to Taxpayers United of America.
His days of plotting bomb attacks behind him, Ayers and his wife, who once said “revolutionary violence is the only way”, agreed the 2011 protests at the Wisconsin Capitol rejuvenated their spirits.
“I think that the occupation of the Capitol, the resistance to the austerity and anti-democratic measures of your governor really sparked a tremendous spirit of resistance and excitement around the country,” said Dohrn. “We came up here a couple times during that period of time. Surely, we saw this echo in Occupy, in the teacher’s strike in Chicago.”
Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites, and others bused in from out of state, descended on the Capitol in February 2011 to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which limited collective bargaining for government employees to salary increases to the rate of inflation. Act 10 also required government employees to contribute to their pensions and contribute more to their health care costs. Prior to that, taxpayers, for the most part, were picking up the tab. The law has saved taxpayers billions of dollars since it passed in 2011.
A federal appeals court has upheld Act 10 in its entirety and the state Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the law in November.
As Judge William M. Conley explained in the federal court challenge to Act 10, government labor unions don’t have an inherent right to collective bargaining. That is a state-granted privilege. And the measure was arguably democracy in action: The elected representatives in Wisconsin passed a law that was re-affirmed by the people of the state in the 2012 recall election in which Walker, a Republican, beat back a challenge from Democrat Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Still, Ayers said he tries to reach out to tea party supporters, especially when he’s picketed at speaking engagements.
“A section in the book is called ‘Talking to the Tea Party,’” he said. “I definitely have a lot to talk to the libertarians about. I feel very close to a lot of them.”
Ayers and the tea party, for example, share common ground on the Common Core State Standards for education.
“I have never been in favor of it. I think it’s a catastrophe,” he said. “On the right-wing blogs they say the Common Core was my invention but it’s not true. I did not ghostwrite Barack Obama’s book. I am not in favor of the Common Core.”
Instead, he said all students should have the education that children of “the privileged” are afforded. Ayers, for example, sent his children to the private, exclusive University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
“They have a curriculum based in part on kids pursuing their own interests, and art and music,” Ayers said. “That’s what all kids deserve, that’s what the privileged have.”
He said education is not a product, but a fundamental human right. It’s not one-size-fits-all, but different students have different needs.
It’s some of the same language used by ‘voucher in every backpack’ advocates, though Ayers disparages the “privatization” of education.
“Are you a right-wing blogger?” Ayers asked Wisconsin Reporter. “I often ask that because I was stopped in the Washington airport by a woman who … broke the story that I ghost wrote Barack Obama’s book. And I said to her if you can help me prove that, I’ll split the royalties with you.”
“But guess who ghostwrote this book?” he asked. “It’s a scoop.”
“Was it President Obama?” Wisconsin Reporter asked.
“Ah, you know, amazing. I’m not going to confirm or deny,” Ayers said.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected] or find him on Twitter @Nockian.