Ayers at RB gets mixed reviews

Some parents outraged '60s radical invited

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Last week, casually sitting on the edge of the stage of the Riverside-Brookfield High School Little Theater, was a man who a few months ago had emerged as a minor issue in 2008 presidential campaign.

Bill Ayers, who has long been one of the more controversial members of his generation, sat in front of a crowd of about 130 students, faculty and a few community members talking about the campaign, his past and his views on current issues.

Some call Ayers, now a professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago, an unrepentant former terrorist.

Ayers still manages to seem youthful at age 64. He wore a T-shirt featuring the Boondocks cartoon character; on his shirt was a button featuring an image of the abolitionist John Brown. A fleece vest, faded jeans and two small gold hoop earrings completed his appearance.

Invited to speak to students by faculty member Jan Goldberg, Ayers wasn't welcomed with open arms by some parents, who expressed outrage over his appearance.

"It is appalling that they would let someone like that speak to young, impressionable, pretty open minds," said Jack Lazzara, a parent who passed out copies of articles about Ayers after the event.

"This is an atrocity. It's unbelievable that something like this would be done in a public school. He is a master at twisting the English language to turn it to the way he wants it."

Lazzara, and some other parents, also were angry that they had not been informed of Ayers's visit to RB. They were also upset that the event was originally only going to be open to RB students, faculty and staff; parents would not be allowed in.

Parents said that they did not become aware of Ayers visit until less than 48 hours before he came to RB.

"They kept everything hush, hush," Lazzara said. "They were hiding it, in my opinion."

Ayers's appearance was sponsored by the Forum Club, a club founded by Goldberg, a veteran RB history and government teacher.

"The purpose is to discuss current events," Goldberg said. "I'll discuss any current event that a student brings to me as long as it's appropriate."

The public doesn't typically attend Forum Club events, Goldberg said.

"I didn't want to open it to the general public and the administration didn't either, because it's a club and I wanted the kids to ask the questions." Goldberg said.

The event was not heavily publicized at RB. On Monday, three days before Ayers' appearance, government students, mostly seniors, received a newspaper story about Ayers handed out in class. Students were told that Ayers would be at RB after school on Thursday.

"We thought he would mostly appeal to older students," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said the event was included in the daily announcements at RB on Wednesday.

By Wednesday, a few parents had learned of Ayers appearance from their children. The Landmark, tipped off by a half dozen parents and other community members, also learned of the Ayers's visit less than 48 hours before the event.

When the Landmark requested to cover Ayers's visit Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann and Assistant Principal Tim Scanlon said Ayers' appearance was not open to the press, parents or the general public.

They said that club meetings are not normally open to the public and said that they didn't want parents or the press to attend because they were concerned that their presence would inhibit students from asking questions and interacting freely with Ayers.

As late as Thursday morning a parent was told by Baldermann that she would not be able to get in to see Ayers. School board member Jim Marciniak, who said he only learned of Ayers's invitation on the day of the appearance, called the school Thursday morning and urged administrators to allow parents in.

The administration changed course and ultimately decided to allow anyone in to see Ayers. The same parent who was told earlier in the day that she couldn't come received a call from Baldermann inviting her to attend.

Ayers, who co-founded the violent Weather Underground group in 1969, didn't come with a prepared speech. Instead he took questions in groups of five and weaved his answers together in long responses that got his points across.

In response to a series of aggressive questions from Lazzara, Ayers admitted that the group planted bombs in 12 government buildings.

"The idea was to bring the war home," said Ayers who said that the violence of the Weathermen was minuscule compared to the violence the United States government was committing in Vietnam. "We carried out a series of bombings against government buildings. It was weird time and it was a weird thing. We crossed lines of legality. We crossed grounds of common sense. All that stuff happened 40 years ago."

While he encouraged RB students to be politically active, he advised them against violence.

"I would not encourage you to break the law or damage property," Ayers said. "I am not a violent person."

Students in the audience were generally impressed, and some were surprised.

"I thought he was incredibly eloquent, said Wolfie Foulkes, an RB sophomore. "He has a way of speaking to people that really gets his point across. You can tell he's just kind of a normal person just like any one of us and not the demon that the media has turned him into."

Tracy Nawara agreed.

"I thought he would be a lot more violent, I guess, because of what I heard about the bombings and the group he was involved in," said Nawara, a senior. "He was a lot sweeter than I thought he would be."

Others said that although they were impressed, they noticed that Ayers sometimes did not directly answer tough questions put to him about his past.

"Some of the questions he kind of avoided," said sophomore Elliot Louthen. "He was answering them by talking about something else, which I thought was a little frustrating."

Despite that frustration Louthen, who said that he heard about Ayers' appearance from a friend as school was letting out on Thursday, was glad that he stopped by to hear Ayers.

"I thought he was an interesting speaker whether you agreed with him or not," Louthen said.

Goldberg said that she plans to invite a Republican guest to RB soon to provide balance and another perspective. She mentioned Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, former state representative Bill O'Connor or Republican activist Chris Robling as possibilities.

But Lazzara said these mainstream figures would not be comparable to Ayers. Lazzara said that RB had an obligation to invite a right wing ideologue to the school to balance out Ayers.

"I want somebody who is as far right as this guy is left," Lazzara said. "In fact I demand it."

Bill Ayers was one of the most well known radicals of the 1960s and 1970s and now has made a name for himself as a professor of education at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

Ayers grew up in Glen Ellyn. His father, Thomas Ayers, was the chief executive officer of Commonwealth Edison. While a student at the University of Michigan, Ayers became a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS,) a radical group. In 1969 Ayers was a co-founder of the Weather Underground, a violent offshoot of SDS that the FBI labeled a "domestic terrorist group."

The Weather Underground, commonly known as the Weathermen, placed small bombs at the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other government buildings. These bombs were typically set to go off at night and usually resulted in only damage to property.

Three members of the Weather Underground, including Ayers' former girlfriend, died in a New York City townhouse in 1970 when a bomb they were believed to be working on exploded prematurely.

Ayers was indicted and charged with violating the federal riot act relating to the Days of Rage protest and riot organized by the Weathermen in Chicago in 1969, and he was also charged with conspiracy charges relating to bombings.

But Ayers and his future wife, Bernadine Dohrn, had already gone underground. They evaded capture for 10 years before turning surrendering in 1980. In 1981, after Ayers had turned himself in, two police officers and a security guard were killed when a couple of former members of the Weather Underground were participated in the armed robbery of a Brinks truck.

Charges against Ayers were ultimately dropped because of government misconduct involving illegal wiretaps, break-ins and mail intercepts by federal law enforcement authorities.

Later, Ayers went to graduate school and has taught at UIC for 22 years, where he is now a distinguished professor of education and university scholar. His teaching and research emphasizes reaching out to inner-city and at-risk youth.

Ayers and Barack Obama both lived in Hyde Park. When Obama first ran for the state legislature in the mid 1990's Ayers's home was the site of a fundraiser for Obama.

The two also served together on the board of the not-for-profit Woods Fund of Chicago and served on separate boards of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform group. In 2001, Ayers donated $200 to an Obama campaign fund.

At a presidential campaign debate in April 2008 Obama referred to Ayers as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood".

In a new afterward to his 2001 book Fugitive Days, Ayers describes Obama as a "family friend."

In a story about Ayers published in the Sept. 11, 2001 New York Times quoted Ayers as saying "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."

The story was written before the attack on the World Trade Center, but appeared on the day of the attack.

In his new afterward, published after the 2008 presidential election, Ayers claims that he was misquoted by the New York Times. He writes "I never said that I 'set bombs' nor that I wished there were "more bombs.'"

Three days after the Sept. 11 attacks Ayers said "My memoir is, from start to finish, a condemnation of terrorism."

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