The scion of a wealthy and influential Chicago family, Ayers and later wife Bernadine Dohrn were two of the leaders of the Weather Underground. Operating in the late 60s, the group carried out a series of bombings against targets they deemed were key cogs in the capitalist machine. Things went awry in the early 70s, when a bomb accidentally exploded at a house in Greenwich Village, killing three members, including Ayers’ girlfriend at the time.
Todd Gitlin, a fellow SDS member who disapproved of the violence, wrote about this and many other events in his summary history of the 1960s’, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Combining his journalism training and personal experience, Gitlin gives a comprehensive if somewhat brief look at the decade’s major events, with an understandable slant toward those in which he was personally involved.
Ayers and Dohrn appear briefly as parents in Ron Suskind’s A Hope In The Unseen, a book that grew out of Suskind’s Pulitzer Prize winning series about Washington, DC student Cedric Jennings’ efforts to gain acceptance to, and then survive in, Brown University. Zayd Dohrn, the couple’s son, and Jennings struck up a friendship during their freshman year, and Ayers and Dohrn meet Jennings’ mother in an awkward encounter during that year.
Ayers also appeared as a more significant character in The Weather Underground, a 2002 documentary film about the group. In the film, Ayers approaches, but does not express contrition for, the loss of life to which his actions contributed. At one point, he talks about talking to a younger version of himself and wishing on some level that things did not work out the way they did, but this is hardly the stuff of direct and heartfelt remorse.
Ayers and his actions became an issue briefly during the 2008 presidential election, when his ties with then-candidate Barack Obama came under scrutiny. After Obama’s victory, Ayers wrote an opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times and included the following:
We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war. … The responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long. The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam. And therein lies cause for real regret.
As one can read, there is hardly any apology, sincere or otherwise, in this statement. To me, this is unfortunate, as other radicals like Nelson Mandela found it within themselves to reach out to the people they harmed and express sorrow for the damage they caused to people on their side and their opponents.
That moment may yet come from Ayers, but I am betting that his retirement and the rest of his life will come and go without such an expression from this controversial and contributory former revolutionary turned education professor.