Bill Ayers is the human wormhole linking those mythical dirty, un-American hippies of the 1960s to the Obama administration to the also-dirty socialists of the rising #occupy movement. On October 13th, the conservative blog American Thinker giddily entertained the hypothetical of an Occupy Wall Street movement that would “morph into something resembling the radical factions of the late 1960s and 1970s”—when “it will not be just Ayers and [spouse Bernardine] Dohrn with blood on their hands. It will be their young protégé in the White House as well.”
For some, the stretch to make the 60s connection is done out of ignorance. For others it is a way to unload on a new generation the purported sins of the old. The whole mess came together on a recent windy Saturday in Milwaukee, when both the #occupy movement and the Tea Party picked up protest signs and took to the streets. Bill Ayers was in town.
* * *
“Smelly.”—Erick Erickson, CNN Contributor and editor-in-chief of RedState.com.
“Before I arrived, I could smell the stench of their unwashed bodies.”—Scott Brooks, 2010 candidate for Minnesota state legislature.
“These days a ‘progressive’ is someone who believes indoor plumbing is a tool of oppression.”—James Taranto, Wall Street Journal writer
“Who knew pubic lice would be so down with protesting the banksters, too?!”—Andrew Breitbart, founder of BigGovernment.com
What all of these conservative activists and thought leaders have in common, besides a future at the Laugh Factory, is that they were far too young to have experienced the 1960s protest stereotypes they parrot. Taranto was born in 1966, Breitbart in 1969 and Erickson in 1975. The “dirty hippie” narrative of protesters is one they have picked up through the Hollywood myth-making machine (whose cultural influence they often decry). Just how not new is this narrative? This weekend saw reports of U.S. service members in Boston being spit on by #occupy protesters. Spitting on returning Vietnam troops was, of course, maybe the most lasting legacy of the 1960s protesters—a legacy comprehensively debunked a few years ago.
As Jerry Lembcke wrote in 2005 in The Boston Globe: “I found nothing. No news reports or even claims that someone was being spat on. What I did find is that around 1980, scores of Vietnam-generation men were saying they were greeted by spitters when they came home from Vietnam.” The proliferation of this urban legend, Lembcke argued, “intimidates a new generation of activists now finding the courage to resist Vietnam-type ventures in the 21st century.”
Not that the left isn’t also making this tragic comparison to the past. “Is #OWS The Revolution The Beatles Were Singing About? We think so,” fawned Democracy inaction group MoveOn.org.
So while plugging analysis of the new #occupy movement into the rubric of the 1960s is the only way conservatives seem to have of explaining what’s going on, it’s not just them. Proving that few pundits can think beyond the paint-by-number, ad-man Donny Deutsch went on MSNBC and predicted that what “will happen” in the #occupy movement is some Kent State “imagery.” (Deutsch was 12 on May 4, 1970, the day the National Guard opened fire on protesters at the Ohio campus, killing four.)
And nowhere does the right’s spite for the dirty hippies of the 60s marry into its contempt for the modern left better than with Chicago education professor William “Bill” Ayers.
Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute (a conservative propaganda organization dolled up to look like a conventional news service) called Ayers visit to Milwaukee on the same day as the Occupy Milwaukee event “a moment of synchronicity.” After linking Ayers to Obama to the #occupy movement, and noting that “The left in Wisconsin has a lot in common with Ayers and others who practice terrorism,” MacIver reporter James Wigderson wrote, “So much of the current activism on the political left is nostalgia for the 1960s without remembering what really happened.”
“What really happened” is exactly what landed me at the “Protest Ayers” event in Milwaukee.
“Professor Terror!” yelled one of the 40-odd conservatives gathered to protest the appearance of Bill Ayers at the Stonefly Brewery in Milwaukee’s slowly gentrifying Riverwest neighborhood. Five bike police relaxed and flanked the scene. But around the corner, out of sight, were six or seven more officers with a paddywagon.
Organizer Sara Conrad told me she is “a writer for AOL-Patch” and that she organized the event because “We don’t agree with bringing a terrorist to Milwaukee.” When asked what specifically Ayers did that was so horrible, Conrad said, “He was the founder of the Weather Underground and was involved in killing police officers. He was as much an anarchist as he was a Marxist.” But what really upsets Conrad the most is that “He’s not repentant. He has not disavowed the organization and has even said he may have to use bombs again.”
(“Of course I did my due diligence before I organized this event,” she said.)
“Jane Fonda loves you!” yelled someone from the Protest Ayers group at the 30 or so people loitering around outside the Brewery.
It would be an understandable mistake to think Fox News or The Heritage Foundation or even anti-terrorism Sharia watchdog Pamela Geller had been dogging Ayers since 2001 and immediately exposed his connection to Obama when the Illinois Senator announced his candidacy. But no, it was an early February 2008 London Daily Mail piece by Hitchens.
No, the other one.
The right never gave two twigs about Bill Ayers. His importance as a terrorist was marginal—until Christopher Hitchens’ brother Peter came across the loose connection, asking, in his coverage of the Obama campaign, “Can this possibly be the same William Ayers… who used to plant bombs in the Seventies?” Peter answered himself: “It wouldn’t be surprising. Those (like me) who know the left-wing codes notice things about Obama that he is far more radical than he would like us to know.” (The story was such an outrage that it took Ben Smith at Politico two more weeks to write about it.)
But it gained steam. On April 16th, the “Ayers question” was put before Obama at a Democratic candidate debate.
Overnight, the right’s narrative changed. Bill Ayers became the man who pulled the strings to launch Obama’s political career from his and his wife’s living room—a cozy Chicago living room in which Ayers and his Weathermen (Weatherperson?) spouse spent their down-time sipping tea, plotting to kill police officers and turn schoolchildren into Communists.
Rightwing activists who had ignored years of opportunity to vilify Ayers became experts in Weathermen history. Ayers’ admittance of setting bombs became an admittance to setting particular bombs. (Ayers maintains that none of the bombs he ever set did anything more than destroy property.) The bomb conspiracy and rioting charges were dropped due to questionable evidence-gathering methods. Though he was never even charged with it, it’s now commonly accepted by the right that the conviction he avoided was for murder. (Never mentioned is that prosecutors also dropped charges for fear of revealing CIA secrets at trial.)
“He’s guilty as hell. He’s out on a technicality,” said Vince Schmuki, who identified himself as part of Wisconsin Interests Now. He was dressed in a Halloween costume that was half cop, half jailbird and with a “Ayers, B” nametag. (Wisconsin Interests Now led an effort in 2009 to recall Democratic Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.)
Schmuki brought a boombox with him and was playing, rewinding, and replaying tapes of himself reading various communist and terrorist quotes and beliefs of Bill Ayers. Schmuki pointed to those across the street: “They think that terrorism is laughable.”
When it comes to terrorism, Schmuki sees a lot of it. In August, Schmuki was at the Tea Party Express Wisconsin recall bus tour where he compared the state’s recall campaigns to terrorism. Schmuki told Politico, “This is ground zero. You remember what the term ground zero means? We have been attacked.”
Asked what he thinks of the comparisons between the Tea Party and #occupy movements, Schmuki jumped. “That’s absolutely false,” he said. The #occupy protests “are anarchists and communists.” For Schmuki, the primary difference is that the #occupy protesters “are paid to be there” while “the Tea Party, from the inception, never had paid members. We’ve never had people who were paid to be at events.”
Schmuki then mentioned the Coast Guard member in Boston being spit upon. “Hippies recycled,” he said.
A particular regional curiosity about this “Protest Ayers” event came when I noticed a note on its Facebook page. Event organizer Sara Conrad had written that Ayers “founded and led an organization that took credit for bombings that killed people…among those a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison who had the misfortune of being in Sterling Hall when the Weather Underground’s bomb went off.”
A day before Protest Ayers, Conrad went on local conservative talk radio and explained to host Mark Belling why she had organized the event to protest Ayers coming to Wisconsin, “a place where his beloved organization set a bomb that murdered somebody.” Belling said nothing.
At 3:43 am on August 24, 1970, a Ford Econoline filled with 2,000 pounds of fuel oil and ammonium nitrate exploded outside Sterling Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The bomb injured several and caused millions of dollars in damage. Found in the rubble, lying face down in twelve inches of water, was 33-year-old postdoctorate researcher and father of three, Robert Fassnacht. The bomb targeted the military-funded Army Mathematics Research Center (which after closing for just one day, resumed work).
The four bombers are well known. All UW students, they included Karleton Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. Three served three to seven years on prison. Burt remains in hiding to this day. They called themselves the “New Year’s Gang.” And as far as anyone knows, Ayers never met any of them.
So when I asked Conrad about her claims, on Facebook and on the radio, that Ayers was responsible for the Sterling Hall bombing, she told me, “You would have to ask him about that.”
“Are you going to ask him the hard questions too?” asked Gail Chicks, standing behind me.
Chicks, a member of the Tea Party Wisconsin 9/12 Project, had come to protest Ayers as well. Recently, Chicks modeled a pink dress (worn by a man who poured a beer on a Republican state legislator) when the dress was auctioned on eBay to raise funds for the GOP.
Of Ayers’ connection to the Sterling Hall bomb, Chicks said, “His group was. I don’t know if he specifically was. It slays me because he is killing Americans.”
Though Ayers connection to Sterling Hall is surely advanced by the wishful ignorance of a large conservative group desperate to believe Ayers’ unaccounted for years in the 1970s were spent smuggling Obama into the United States from Kenya, liberal Hollywood actually hasn’t helped. The 1988 Sidney Lumet film Running on Empty melts the on-the-run lives of Ayers and his wife with a crime based on the Sterling Hall bombing.
I found Wisconsin State Treasurer Kurt Schuller holding a sign that had the quote “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we did not do enough” along with a picture of Ayers. Schuller pointed out the photo was “of him standing on an American flag.” Conrad reported that local business AmeriSign & Graphics donated 55 full color signs, including the ones with Ayers’ photo, which originally ran in a 2001 Chicago Magazine profile.
“Ayers is no different than Osama bin Laden. He was the leader of a terrorist organization. Bill Ayers sent out his minions to kill people for his cause. And bin Laden sent out his minions to kill people for his cause. Sadly, bin Laden was just more effective,” said Schuller.
A long pause ensued as I thought of a follow-up question more professional than, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaa?”
Schuller looked over the protesters on both sides, and said, “I lived the history these people were never taught.”
“That’s a good one,” said a nearby protester.
Born in 1955, Schuller was 14 in 1969.
Schuller, who openly identifies as a member of the Tea Party, also bristled at any comparisons between Tea Partiers and the #occupy movement. “That’s no movement,” he said. “It’s a bunch of people getting together with no aim, no cohesion. There is no comparison. It’s laughable.”
What’s more, Schuller does not understand what the protesters are upset about. “Wall Street is one of Obama’s biggest fundraisers. Wall Street doesn’t reach into people’s pocket and take the money,” he said.
Schuller points me to Dan Sebring, a candidate for Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional seat.
Sebring, who also came out to protest “an unrepentant, admitted terrorist,” he said, is part of the Tea Party. When I asked Sebring how he feels about the Sterling Hall bombing being wrongly associated with Ayers, the candidate said, “I don’t know that’s true.” After a pause, he added, “It’s accepted knowledge that he’s admitted involvement.”
During the entire afternoon I did not speak with one member of the 50 or so Protest Ayers group who admitted that Ayers was known not to be involved with Sterling Hall.
“Cop killer!” is a favorite taunt of the protesters anytime the energy gets low. Ayers’ involvement in the February, 1970 bombing of a San Francisco police precinct, which killed an officer, is a favorite focus of conservatives. After Obama’s election, the group America’s Survival launched a high profile push for Ayers’ indictment. (The outfit’s most recent allegation? “How George Soros got Glenn Beck fired from Fox News.”) No even remotely solid evidence exists connecting Ayers to that bombing.
Just because crackpots are sure Ayers did it doesn’t mean he didn’t. Ayers has admitted to bombing Chicago’s Haymarket Police Statue in anticipation of the Days of Rage protest, which Ayers also helped lead. And there is evidence that suggests his wife, at the very least, knew about the bombing.
And just because the Tea Party despises him doesn’t make defending Ayers easy, or even necessary. By all accounts, the professor did illegal and stupid, stupid things. That he never served any jail time seems, from a practical 2000s standpoint, unjust. It also doesn’t help that Ayers himself regularly comes across like a gigantic prick.
Finally, one in the Protest Ayers group, looking for something new that would resonate, yelled: “Bill Ayers is part of the one percent!”
* * *
Around the demonstration, a local named Jeremy estimated that at least half of the “counter-protesters” were just people from the neighborhood who came out to see what the hubbub was all about. “It’s exciting to have this energy here,” he said. Jeremy said he did not know much about Ayers, adding, “But in Riverwest open minds are welcome. Freedom of speech and all that.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this terrorist who killed everyone. And is still trying to kill everyone. Name’s Bill Ayers. He’s Obama’s best friend. Maybe you’ve heard of him,” said a man wearing a “Xav” nametag. It’s the epitome of the sarcasm sincere activists on the left bemoan. But Xav, who lives in the neighborhood and said he was at the #occupy Milwaukee protest earlier in the day, is a sincere fellow: Xav Leplae held a hunger protest during the Madison labor protests earlier in the year.
Another Wisconsinite who joined Milwaukee’s #occupy march, Ben Foldy, agreed many have a cynical hesitancy about the movement. “Milwaukee is clearly on the periphery of the movement,” Foldy said, but he’s heartened by the diversity, “which for an event in Milwaukee was noteworthy.”
Xav is encouraged by the Milwaukee’s wing of the movement, but he’s not yet confident it has the kind of energy needed.
* * *
In any event, if these Wisconsin protesters were genuinely interested in “remembering what really happened,” they would turn their attention to Wisconsin’s own unrepentant murdering terrorist. After serving seven years of a 23-year sentence, Karleton Armstrong returned to Madison to open various food shops, including a juice cart on the UW’s Library Mall. Today he can be found, usually daily, just blocks from Sterling Hall. Like Ayers, even years after the bombings, he has expressed less than remorse.
But then, Armstrong has never been in the same room as Barack Obama (as far as we know).
A day after the event, one of the attendees would post on the Protest Ayers Facebook page [all sic]: “I was there protesting Ayers and when U got there and saw the pro-Scott Walker and ‘Liberalism is a disease’ signs I wonder, what was the point of people bringing those? We were there protesting Ayers not liberals or anti Walker people… I’m pretty sure not all liberals think Ayers is a swell guy… to go into peoples neighborhoods and insult them probably isn’t the best method of trying to get a message across..”
William Jenkins responded: “Not convinced you are playing with a full deck. That liberal neighborhood shares political ideology in line with Bill Ayers and you’re smoking crack if you think they would be against violence in the name of that same brand of politics.”
The thread was soon deleted.
Driving home from the Ayers protest, I got the day’s last, sad dose of the reanimated “dirty hippy” narrative. During his October 15th radio broadcast (otherwise focused on Fannie Mae’s role in the recession), CNBC host Larry Kudlow quipped of the #occupy protesters: “They have the wrong narrative and the wrong sanitary conditions.”
Born in 1947, Kudlow might actually know what he’s talking about. Especially since he was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1969, The New Yorker even profiled Kudlow as a standout SDS protest organizer. One of the leaders of the SDS at that time? Terrorist Bill Ayers.