Transcript of Guest Interview with Bernardine Dohrn (BD) & Bill Ayers (BA) January 27, 2021

NOTE: To request an audio file of this guest interview, please email actionridge2017@gmail.com.

Guest Interview 

Bernardine Dohrn (BD) 

  • Impressed with Action Ridge’s organization and commitment to social justice. 
  • Went to Washington four years ago to protest Hillary Clinton’s policies as presumed winner of the 2016 presidential election. Ended up as counter demonstrators to a Trump rally. 
  • Women’s March the following day – serious, silly, inventive, jubilant. Came back invigorated and inspired to talk with neighbors. Left leaflets on block to invite people to brunch to talk about what to do next. Learned that neighbors they had known for years were active in many different efforts to improve the world. 

Bill Ayers (BA) 

  • Admires Action Ridge’s efforts to build a beloved community. Part of democracy is talking to others and inviting people in to dialogue.  
  • There is the saying “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention.” But if all you are is angry, you can’t build the kind of networks and community to move forward.  
  • Cycle of effective activism: 
  • Open your eyes…to what exists in the world beyond your own experience. 
  • Be astonished… by beauty and suffering. 
  • Do something. 
  • Rethink…the actions you took and the circumstances that now exist. 
  • “Open your eyes” is something that has to be done continually, not just once. Don’t be smug and assume you know the path. Knowing comes with a burden. 
  • “Be astonished” means don’t normalize injustice. Don’t take for granted that we see homeless kids; respond to the horror of it. 
  • “Rethink” – begin process again. Believes that they failed in their youth to rethink. 
  • Progressive people get caught up in thinking that politics is about elections. Believes in voting, but we spend too much time looking at sites of power we don’t have access to (government) and ignoring the sites of power we do have access to (religious institutions, universities, community centers.) 
  • Change comes not from hearts on top, but from fire below.  Obama, Roosevelt and Lincoln all changed positions because of pressure bubbling up from grassroots sources. 

AR: How have conditions for social justice change changed in the past several decades? 

BD 

  • Movements have coalesced in Chicago for the past thirty years. Immigration rights, Women’s march, BLM, coalitions that Barbara Ransby put together. Chicago has been a hotbed of activism and thoughtfully intersectional. 

BA 

  • Bill and Bernardine are not nostalgic, but he still holds his membership card from Students for a Democratic Society.  They are of the present. Learn from young people.  
  • R3 is 36 organizations that meet and hammer out common interests. Struggle for black freedom – upsurge is bigger than they have ever seen. 
  • Now is what matters. Looking forward is what matters. Link arms in solidarity – not in service or charity. James Baldwin taught that white people will be freed when Black liberation is realized — freed from privilege. 
  • When Occupy movement happened, it accomplished a lot. Raised the question of the 1%. No one had presented it like that. Movements are places of public education. Creating a public square is necessary. Learning together and making mistakes together. 

BD:  

  • Wouldn’t have imagined the emboldened and out front white supremacist activity three years ago; seeing a new power of neo-facism and white supremacy.  

AR: How do you stay motivated and energized to continue the work of social justice? 

BA 

  • Movements have created changes, like the end of death penalty.  
  • They weren’t active in the movement but were disgusted by celebratory environment around John Wayne Gacy’s impending execution. Went to Statesville prison and found very few people there of like minds. Bill had never felt more marginalized. A few years later, George Ryan cleared death row. BA’s mindset wasn’t winning the issue, it was about preserving our humanity. 

BD:  

  • Larry Marshall wanted to have conference of people who were exonerated from death row. Another Kind of Innocence effort was around juvenile justice. Launched effort to end juvenile death penalty (having committed crime under 18) but didn’t want to redirect efforts to abolish death penalty. Stayed away from states that were on the way to do that. 

BA 

  • Reframed the idea of juvenile life without parole – “Sentenced to die in prison.” 

AR: What is the legacy you hope to leave and value most highly? 

BA 

  • Family – sons, grandchildren, and each other. 
  • After controversy during the Obama campaign, wrote for therapy and published “Public Enemy”, which is really a book about parenting. 

BD 

  • After kids left, they cared for their parents.  

AR: Are there practical tools you use to keep yourself motivated and inspiring youth? 

BA 

  • Youth inspire THEM. 
  • They are personally happy and the world is broken. Necessary to put yourself proximate to the suffering you see.  
  • Their work is challenging the dominant narrative – white superiority and Black inferiority. 
  • Have to stay hopeful, not optimistic, because that implies you know what outcome will be. The day before the revolution, it is unthinkable. Looking back, it is inevitable. 
  • When Jon Burge was convicted of torturing Black men into convictions is sparked a movement for reparations.  BLM took it over the top. City apologized and paid reparations. Amazing accomplishment happened because many movements came together. 

AR: White people are trapped in history we don’t understand. What is the danger of being too passive or too active?  

BD 

  • Reminder that we as white people need to check in with others on a regular basis.  
  • Benefits of white supremacy requires us to use the steps Bill articulated. 
  • There is peril in not getting buy-in from everyone who is a stakeholder to an issue, but is not a reason for inaction.  
  • Going back and evaluating consequences of actions is important. 

BA 

  • The 1619 Project is essential. Trump responded by forming the 1776 commission, report released on MLK day. Has his students read them side by side.  
  • You don’t have to do everything – can you do something? Connect to other somethings. Join with other like-minded people.  

BD 

  • If you are a single issue person, you are vulnerable and weaker.  
  • When two big issues come together you are stronger. Intersectionality – consider how issues are connected. 

BA 

  • Value in reframing the issue 

BD 

  • Corporate interests and military are counter to just society — need to take back everything that makes US a world power to make the country better. Take pentagon budget and put into climate and education. Need to build grass roots power and be wary of corporate power. 

BA 

  • Need to be willing to engage in dialogue 
  • Thinks he is in the majority of the country on the top 10 issues. 
  • Example of speech at the University of Georgia. Hell’s angels took places in the front row to intimidate him. Reframing of issue led to an interesting and substantive conversation.  They went to lunch together to continue the discussion. 

BD 

  • Expect the unexpected. Elimination of cash bail in Illinois – setting agenda for the country. Be ready for opportunities. 

AR: What are the best ways to leverage social media? 

BA 

  • Ask a 10 year old. They are not proficient at using social media 

AR: What advice do you have about how to forward an Affordable Housing agenda after all the actions AR has taken? 

BA 

  • Movement building – research, thinking, engaging others. Rahm Emanual closed schools but proposed cop academy. Young people in Garfield Park asked a different question – what would you do with $95M? Reframe the issue.  

BD 

  • Sports, music, theater – conscious efforts to reach out beyond the obvious and comfort zone can make a difference what you are building and where support comes from. 
  • Witness what youth poets are doing in Chicago at Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival – amazing community building fueling movements. 

BA 

  • If Biden is going to champion progressive initiatives it will be due to popular fire from below. Environmental justice advocates got the administration appointments they wanted. Obama was against gay marriage at first;  advocates kept on working and changed the narrative.  

AR: What are resources to teach children about social justice? 

BA 

  • Alison Bechdel published Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel test for whether media is anti-sexist – two woman characters that have names and talk to each other about something other than men. 
  • Black Lives Matter in Schools and An Indigenous Peoples History  of the United States for children 
  • (On engaging with people with different world views) Don’t see having a civil conversation with people who want to overthrow the government. Hells Angels experience – usually a way to reframe the issue.  

BD 

  • Humor is also an excellent way to break the ice. 

BA 

  • Lecture is didactic; humor is inclusive. 

BD 

  • Mothers of people on death row were instrumental to overturning death penalty. Humanized the people on death row. 
  • The Feminist on Cellblock Y is a film that humanizes the incarcerated.  

BA 

  • Often accused of being an idealist. He wants to have an ideal that he is looking toward. He is not naïve, wants to learn and see more. 
  • Utopia always moves away as you step towards it. What good is walking toward it? Keeps you walking. Need to love the world enough to keep working to change it. 

Nan thanked Bill and Bernardine and the participants in the discussion. 

She acknowledged Melvin Lars who wrote Just an Ordinary Joe’George and is a host for Civic Dinners.  Sign up on-line for Bridging the Racial Divide. 

Meeting ended at 8:55pm 

Meeting minutes submitted by Alissa Goldwasser and Nan Parson 

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