In an interview that took place days before Trump was elected President, Bill Ayers discusses what needs to be done as we head into a ”form of friendly-looking and familiar fascism or some other form of extreme social disintegration”. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced November 13, 2016, with Paul Jay.
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network. I’m continuing my discussion with social activist, author, educator, Bill Ayers who’s most recent book, and that’s what we’re going to talk about in this segment, is Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto. Thanks for joining us again Bill.
BILL AYERS: Thank you Paul.
JAY: So in your book, you have a picture of the world. Here’s a little bit of it. Bill writes: “Here, then, is a partial diagram of the known world, a rough sketch of what is but certainly not a picture of what could or should be: An empire unapologetically resurrected and a cauldron of deliberately constructed fear in the name of renewed patriotic nationalism. Unprecedented military expansion, a state of permanent war and the creation of a war culture. A militarized police force acting as an aggressive occupying armies in poor communities. The identification of opaque and ill-defined enemies- “illegal: immigrants, Muslims, border violators, all as a unifying cause. A panopticon-like existence in which we are all aware of being under constant surveillance. Ritual searches, ID checks, and pat downs. The eclipse of the public, the frantic pace of privatization and the fire sale of the public square. Galloping disparities between the haves and the have-nots. A steady drum beat of ‘public secrets’ – obvious lies issued by the powerful like, ‘We don’t torture’ or ‘We don’t spy on Americans’. Disdain for the arts, for intellectual life. Cataclysmic human-made climate change.” He ends by saying “The US juggernaut is headed for catastrophe, either a new and sophisticated – dare we say it? – form of friendly looking and familiar fascism or some other form of extreme social disintegration”.
AYERS: Wow. That’s depressing.
JAY: Yea that ain’t either Leave It to Beaver or any current kind of bubble we could live in.
AYERS: You know it’s interesting that you started there because that is early in the book but the book – in many ways the purpose of the book is to note that progressive people and people who are paying attention, have a good critique of what is. But what we need as well as a critique is we need a sense of what we could be, what could happen. In many ways the book is written, the whole notion of be realistic, demand the impossible which is a graffiti plastered all over the walls of Paris in 68. The idea of it is that this stuff isn’t actually impossible. It’s well within our reach but we have to believe it and we have to have the confidence that we can move toward it. So, I often think, you see this bumper sticker that says if you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention, which I think is good. But you have to add to that. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. If you’re motivated only by being pissed off and not by love and generosity, you’re not going to get there.
JAY: Or you could end up with Trump.
AYERS: Exactly. Or you could end up with some of the cataclysms that we’ve lived through. So my argument is that we need to posit a more utopian vision. Partly so that we know where we’re going and partly, not exactly – not precisely, but that we have a sense of what the parameters of our struggle are because this is where we want to end and partly because we need to motivate ourselves to keep going. That there is another world possible. That it’s not determined that what we’re living in now will always be. Even a brief glance of history shows you that we can do better and that history has surprised us before and with any luck and we can be the agents of this, history will surprise us again.
JAY: Yea I don’t think there’s much doubt that there isn’t division to fight for, there’s only so far fighting against can go. You see it in Baltimore where we’re based. You don’t need to persuade anyone or most people in Baltimore that it’s screwed up.
AYERS: What’s wrong?
JAY: In fact if anything people have heard enough of that.
AYERS: We need to know what we’re fighting for. So, for example, take Baltimore. In terms of police reform. It’s worth noting if Freddie Gray was tortured it’s worth noting that Mike Brown was shot by a pistol. It’s worth noting that Eric Garner was strangled to death. These were not militarized police forces. So, when we focus on getting rid of militarized police forces, maybe we’re focused on the wrong goal. Maybe we need to go deeper and ask what does safety look like a free society. You know this notion of utopia, several years ago, 30 years ago Albie Sachs, the great South African freedom fighter and later, constitutional jurist had as conversation in our living room with the great Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi. The conversation was really about this question of what are we fighting for. Albie said that they took their fighters aside for retreats, one day, two days, a weekend to discuss what they were fighting for and he argued very persuasively that that helped guide the dimensions of the struggle that we were involved in. It kept motivation up, but it also kept mistakes to a more of a minimum than they would’ve been.
JAY: Well let’s talk a bit about that issue because you have a chapter about how to have a safer city and what police reform might look like is a very big topic obviously in Baltimore but also right across the country. Before we get into what a safer city looks like in some of the police reform suggestions you have, let’s talk about another piece of the book that relates to it. You talk about the black matter moment. What’s the significance of that?
AYERS: What I think we’re living through and I think it’s often hard to see when you’re in the middle of living through something, what it is but I think if you periscope back a little bit. You’ll notice that we are in the black lives matter moment and that it’s a moment of upsurge of reinvigoration in the centuries old black freedom movement and the black freedom movement is what has moved this country forward again and again. It’s what’s driven us to be the better angles of ourselves when it’s asserted itself. And I see what’s happening now and I see it in Chicago so vividly that these young people that are leading this movement are actually pointing us to a new kind of society, a different kind of world which isn’t just kind of criminal. It’s beyond punitive justice. It’s beyond restorative justice. It’s transformative justice. So, if you read the black lives matter program right now, what you’re looking at is again, I’m looking in Chicago. You’re looking at a demand for decent schools in a city that has 40% of its budget goes to the police. Where they close 54 public schools in black neighborhoods two years ago and laid off another thousand teachers two months ago and hired a thousand cops two weeks ago. I mean this is a recipe for social suicide and the black lives matter movement has nailed that. We want schools. We want meaningful work to do. Not just jobs as black jack dealers or hamburger flippers, we want real work to do to restore our dying cities. We want mental health clinics reopened which you’ve closed under the myth of austerity. You know these are things that this – it reminds me of nothing so much as the ten point program of the Black Panther Party reinvigorated for today’s world. Much more sophisticated.
JAY: The memory or the cultural memory of the Panthers is just a guy standing out in front of a place with shotguns. But they in fact were socialists with a whole socialist proposal.
AYERS: Well but I dare say that young people in Chicago and I know that some of them nationally but I know the folks in Chicago pretty well. They’re not only mindful of that, they’ve read Asada Shakur’s biography. They read the works of Huey Newton and Bobby Seal and they’ve read Martin Luther King and they’ve read Frantz Fanon and they’re not naïve. They’re very sophisticated in what they’re looking for and what they’re organizing around and the other good news is they’re organizers. So, when I hear, I was at a meeting a year or so ago and somebody was saying why aren’t there more young people at this boring old person’s meeting and it was actually a former SNICK member said to the guy that had asked the question, do you go to the young people’s meetings? Of course, the old guy said that they have meetings? Yes, they have meetings and you don’t know about it because you’re stuck in some other paradigm. Open your eyes, pay attention, be astonished at what’s going on, dive in, do something, and then doubt. This is maybe the part of that rhythm that the Weather Underground got wrong for a period of time. You have to open your eyes to be an activist, to be a moral citizen. Open your eyes to pay attention, be astonished by both the beauty and the ecstasy as well as the pain and the suffering. Then do something and then doubt. Repeat for a lifetime. That to me is the rhythm of activism. That’s what I see being enacted on the streets of Chicago. I couldn’t be more excited.
JAY: Speaking of Chicago and speaking of Black lives, something we should talk about and I think there is a connection here too, many of the young people that are involved in black lives matter, not all but many were rather excited with the election of President Obama – first black president. To some extent the disillusionment with a lack of any accomplishments by Obama on behalf of black communities and some people could say in terms of how the financialist crisis was handled, worse than lack of accomplishments. Even more wealth was shifted to the one percent during the Obama administration. The number that gets thrown around a lot. But I think we should stop throwing it around. 90% of the post 08 crises increase in incomes, 90% of that increase went to 1% of the population. But you knew Obama and we can’t not finish this interview without talking a little bit about that whole incident because we are going to pick this up again and continue discussing the book and some of the other issues. But in terms of Obama we know he was asked about you during the election and we’ll just quickly run that clip again.
JAY: Tell us a little bit about what was your experience with him? And we’ll get to kind of what you think of what his years in office were.
AYERS: Yea I may be the only radical revolutionary in America who was disillusioned with Obama’s presidency. The reason I wasn’t is because I knew him and I believed him when he said I’m a moderate middle of the road pragmatic democrat. That’s what he said. The right wing looked at him and said no, no, no, he’s a raving black nationalist who pals around with terrorists and has socialists inclinations. That was all false.
JAY: Just read his speeches and you knew that.
AYERS: Read his speeches, look at his legislative record in Illinois. The left looked at him and said he’s winking at me. I don’t believe that he’s a moderate but the fact is he was a moderate, middle of the road democrat. There are two things to note about him. One is, it was actually an accomplishment in this country to elect a black man to be President of the United States. It was a blow against white supremacy. It wasn’t a decisive blow. It wasn’t a fatal blow. But it was important and I don’t think that people should mock that at all. But if anyone expected him to bring a revolutionary program or a mildly socialist program in the office, they were dreaming.
JAY: Or even a New Deal-ish program.
AYERS: Or even a New Deal. They were delusional in the way that Noam Chomsky talks about him. So that’s all true. The other thing though about President Obama is that African Americans, I think correctly have a knee jerk response to defending him. The reason they do is because white supremacy is all around them. It’s the name of the game. When Obama gets pushed on by this disgusting racist backwards society and you see people like Mitch McConnell a political leader in this country saying, my whole goal is to make sure this guy doesn’t get re-elected, I think African Americans correctly say, I’m not going to let him be out there all by himself. I’m going to stand with him for that. I don’t think people are that delusional about what else he’s going to do. So that I would say, that Obama has done pretty much what you would expect. If you look at the longer history in the United States, I mentioned before, we don’t pay enough attention to the sites of power that we have access to. Because what’s really changed the world is when masses of people stand up and demand that justice is not automatic. So, Lyndon Johnson passed the most far reaching civil rights legislation since reconstruction. He was not part of the black freedom movement. He was responding to fire from below. FDR responding to fire from below. And you think Abraham Lincoln who not only didn’t belong to an abolitionist party but you read his first inaugural address. It’s a law and order speech. Then you read John Brown on the gallows. Then you read Lincoln’s second inaugural address and you say may, John Brown could’ve written that. I mean things change but they change because of fire from below. Not because of the good of – I often think that when you hear people say or textbooks say, the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown versus Board of Education unleashed decades of activism. They get it just backwards. Decades of activism led to the Brown. So, it is with Obama. The people who made some progress during the last 7 years were the people who didn’t shut up. Who didn’t get into the closet. So, you know you think about him running for president in 2008 and saying as a Christian, I of course stand against same sex marriage. 2008. Four years later, big mouth Joe Biden comes out in favor of it, followed by Ernie Duncan, followed by a movement that never went away and Obama’s for same sex marriage. What an amazing shift right in front of our eyes.
JAY: How much interaction did you and other lefties have with him? He heard all the arguments. He debated or not? Did he live in a kind of a bubble himself or was he hearing us?
AYERS: I think he was a community organizer and frankly I think that he was a community organizer of the Alinksy type which is a kind of a moderate liberal community organizer and in many ways he was and is not only a compassionate human being but the smartest guy in almost any room you go into. But that doesn’t make him a leftist. Right? I mean he’s very very very smart, very well informed, and because he was a community organizer he actually has in his grasp experiences that a president of this country ought to have. Now did it allow him to do things to move the country in ways that he might have? Not really. But I still think it’s worth noting that when he says things like trying to channeling Franklin Roosevelt and he says if you want universal healthcare, make me do it. You know that’s a community organizer speaking.
JAY: Yea except that was very convenient but there’s choices he made that made sure for example that you hand the senate committee over to [Baucus] and you don’t have one person there that supports universal healthcare.
AYERS: Without a doubt. He made choices.
JAY: You choose Goldman Sachs as your finance team. There wasn’t even like liberally New Deal-ishy social democratic-y stuff going on there, it was Clinton corporatism.
AYERS: You’re absolutely right and that’s party of why incidentally, the people who feel the kind of soft spot for Obama are absolutely-
JAY: Can I mitigate one thing?
JAY: As critical as one could be about Obama, wait for what’s coming.
AYERS: Well I suppose but I do think that our attention is drawn in the wrong direction. In other words, I think we spend too much time thinking about elections, even third parties.
JAY: But I’m trying to get the inner workings of his head because someone who’s as smart as he is obviously he is, I mean to be honest with you I’m left that his driving force is just his own careerism because if you don’t so embrace imperialism, so embrace it even if he’s a little more mitigating than maybe some of the other choices would be on Syria and some other things.
AYERS: I think you’re right. But I think that once he ran for president and once he sat in the thrown of empire and commanded its violent legions, that’s exactly what would expect. I don’t see what else we could expect.
JAY: I never expected more. I’m just trying to get a sense of him.
AYERS: But what we can expect and I think this is worth noting. So I mentioned that we’re living in the black lives matter era. We’re also living in the post Bernie Sanders campaign. We’re also living in the occupy moment. We’re also living in the undocumented and unafraid moment. You know the young people. We’re living in the queer, I’m here, here I’m queer moment. These things are coming together in ways that are miraculous and phenomenal.
JAY: We don’t have to much time so I want to ask you, it’s kind of a final question but I’m sure it won’t be quick. So the Sanders moment opened up a kind of a rip, a shred in mainstream politics. I don’t think anyone that constructed the modern democratic policy or republican but in this case democratic party, ever imagined that any candidate that was progressive and would really challenge and use words like the oligarchy and the billionaire class and all that could ever raise so much bloody money. And now that because of that, you had a real horse race here and whether it was rigged in the final analysis or not, whatever. I think that isn’t the primary reason Sanders lost. Just things that were weaknesses in the campaign and why wouldn’t there be. I’m sure Sanders was more surprised than anyone that it ever became competitive.
JAY: But if one and I do, think of the republican and democratic parties as actually part of the state, it’s not like there’s a government and parties run over here and somebody gets elected to the government. They’re actually part of the state apparatus that Sanders campaign was a fracture, a tear in a big important piece of the state. On the other hand, that movement that was all behind Sanders kind of the air, to a larger extent, has gone out. A lot of people are wondering what’s next. There’s talk about focus on down ballot races and so on. What do you make of that moment and what do you think comes next and what should people be doing next?
AYERS: Were you disappointed that Sanders didn’t run as an independent?
JAY: No. You’re personally asking me? No, I think it was clear that he never would. You have to think he would and to be disappointed I don’t actually think in fact he should have. I do think, giving a personal opinion here, I don’t think he had to give such full throated endorsement. I think he could’ve been just anti-Trump and said look Hillary and I have disagreements but we got to stop Trump. But the fact that he talked so positively creates illusions and I don’t agree with that.
AYERS: You know people on the left who say Occupy was a failure, they miss a lot of things. They miss the fact that the 1%, the 99% was invented at Occupy. They miss the fact that Occupy linked up with black lives matter around the execution of Troy Davis and that became a whole energy about where is Obama? Where are we in this country? The fact that the climate change activists are blockading Standing Rock and other places. These things are all part of what made the Sanders moment possible. So, I don’t think you would’ve had the Sanders moment without Occupy, without mass movement on the ground. It was what it was but I think it created as you say, a break in the kind of establishment narrative and I think more importantly, it introduced masses of young people the idea that socialism was worth exploring. This happened also in 2008 incidentally. There were polls taken because Obama was called a socialist by everyone on the right for months. So, I could picture some kid in Iowa Googling socialism and from each according to their ability to each according to their needs, hell it sounds biblical, you know and I think that socialism got a big boost then too.
JAY: Even Obama said that in the last week of the campaign when McCain was trashing him for being a socialist and he says well my bible teaches I should be my brother’s keeper. It’s the only really line I liked in the whole campaign.
AYERS: But the fact is that its deeper than that. There’s a real crisis in this country and this is what animated the Sander campaign. It was a mass movement but the mass movement is based on a real crisis, on real oppression, and I think that the political class and the 1% have no answers for the crisis we’re in. In fact, if I were to name the political moment simply, I would say, what’s politically possible in mainstream realpolitik is up against what’s urgently necessary if we’re going to survive. I think that contradiction is going to be acted out in a thousand ways. Standing Rock, the Native American seizure of the land and the water is one iteration of that. But it’s going to escalate and there’s nothing that Obama or Hillary Clinton or the political class can do about it. So we are in a position where we can dive into that contradiction in a way that’s hopeful and confident. Not optimistic because we don’t know what’s going to happen. But we should dive into it with full force to make sure that we’re heard and that we’re understood in the public square. Again, I don’t know how to predict. I’m not a predictor of what’s coming but its very clear that the crisis in the democratic party is deep and abiding and it’s very clear that the crisis in the republican party is deeper and more dividing. The danger that we face, there’s many dangers that we face. A war mongering country run amok with very little standing in the world except for military power and with a decreasing power in every other dimension but military power ascended. That’s a treacherous dangerous situation.
JAY: And throw climate change in there.
AYERS: Climate change is – that’s when I say – you look at Paris. Paris is a perfect contradiction. It’s the best we can hope for and it’s completely inadequate.
JAY: 6 of the leading climate scientists in the world came out few weeks ago and said that if every country that fulfills every pledge made at Paris, we’re still hitting 2 degrees warming by 2050.
AYERS: Exactly. So what we’ve got is they went to Paris. We got a better agreement than has ever been imagined and yet they agree to do half of what is necessary to actually solve the problem. So cataclysmic climate change, imperialism in crisis and decline. Militarism on the go. And here’s the other danger. The other danger in my mind is that the Trump campaign became a vehicle where all the white supremacists and nativists forces which always existed as a material basis, saw each other, found each other, articulated a common program. That fascist base is there. So that’s not going away. So that crisis, the crisis in the democratic party, the growth of an understanding that capitalism can’t solve the basic problems that we’re facing as a nation or as a world, these things are coming to a head and that means we ought to all be absolutely ready, get your running shoes on and pick up your fist and get ready.
JAY: Get organized. Yea it’s not a lot of time.
AYERS: Not a lot of time. I think the crisis, the contradictions are very very real.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us and we’ll pick this up again.
AYERS: Paul, thanks very much. Pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.