One of the continuing challenges of comprehending the relationship between former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers and Presidential candidate Barack Obama has been the assumption by most that Ayers is an extreme left wing activist.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Let me repeat that, nothing could be further from the truth.
No matter what the right may think today or what some on the left may think it is very important for people to understand that Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn and his friends like Mike Klonsky represent and have always represented a reactionary and authoritarian form of politics that is opposed to genuinely democratic institutions like representative electoral politics or trade unionism.
This was clear AS A BELL to many in the anti war movement when Ayers, Dohrn, and Klonsky did their utmost to tear apart the left in the late 60s and then turned to terrorist violence in the 1970s through the early 1980s.
(Despite the claim of some that the word terrorism is only being introduced now to describe the Weather Underground is absurd. The word terrorism was widely in use then, in the 1970s, and it was being applied to the Weather Underground. I was actually part of a research team at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1976 studying “terrorism” including domestic US terrorism.)
(It is also a bit of a canard for Obama to maintain that Ayers and Dohrn were engaged in terrorism only when he was 8 years old. In fact, their violent tactics began when he was 8 and continued until at least 1980, when he was already 19 and active politically at Occidental College in the anti-apartheid movement. Occidental was a member at the time of Campuses United Against Apartheid, which I was also a member of as an activist in Berkeley. And believe me everyone knew who the Weather Underground and SDS was. In 1981, in fact, an offshoot of Weather Underground took part in a murderous bank robbery where two police officers and one bank security guard were killed. This robbery was apparently only one of a string of robberies carried out by the group, according to the FBI. Bernardine Dohrn was suspected of assisting those involved by using identification cards obtained from customers in a store where Dohrn worked. She went to jail for six months rather than testify to a grand jury about the matter in 1982. Only because her lawyer was able to convince the judge that Dohrn’s “fanaticism” meant she would never testify was she released.)
Ayers carried his authoritarian approach to politics from the late 60s into his work in education starting in the mid 1980s. He joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1987 and became part of the citywide school reform effort there. The major group that emerged was the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, or ABCs, which Ayers later headed up. Another member of the ABCs was the Developing Communities Project headed up by Barack Obama.
The ABCs big players, though, were white business leaders, the hispanic United Neighborhood Organization led by Daniel Solis and Chicago United, a multiracial business lobbying group that had been founded by Thomas Ayers, Bill Ayers’ father and a prominent and powerful Chicago business executive. ABCs primary goal, its raison d’etre, was not a progressive or democratic goal. It was set up to attack the Chicago Teachers Union which had led an unpopular strike in 1987. It also wanted to rein in the power of the Chicago school administration which it considered a bureaucratic barrier to reform.
The primary reform that ABCs lobbied for was the creation of what were called Local School Councils, or LSCs. A huge lobbying effort in 1988 led to the Chicago School Reform Act passing the legislature in 1988. The LSCs would be set up on a school by school basis and would be made up of parents, teachers and principals, but controlled largely by parents. They were able to fire principals and control school curriculum.
Over the next several years something like 20% or more of school principals were dismissed. Principals were stripped of the protection of tenure.
Now, who opposed the LSC power grab by the ABCs coalition? Much of black Chicago! Operation PUSH opposed it, as did The Woodlawn Organization, and many black leaders saw the LSCs reform as the result of white elites manipulating hispanic parents who had been greatly inconvenienced during the strike in order to attack black teachers and school administrators.
One black leader said: “It was a very successful coalition of white people. There were some blacks there, but they were part of white organizations…window dressing. Black institutional interests were not there. Why? Because blacks decided that the white business communithy was going to have what it wanted, so they retreated.”
A white analyst of the school reform at the time cynically called this “the standard Chicago explanation: jobs and power.” As if “jobs and power” were something blacks had been born with.
Ironically, hispanic principals were among the first victims of the LSCs.
And who supported the LSC power grab?
Well, one of the few black organizations was Barack Obama’s DCP. And then there was Bill Ayers, of course. Ayers wrote an op ed in the Chicago papers celebrating the anti-bureaucratic intent of the bill – meaning of course the Teachers Union and the administration. This attack on “bureaucracy” is a favorite theme of Ayers and if it sounds familiar to some it should: it was a maoist concept – the idea that what gets in the way of social progress is “bureaucracy” which needs to be smashed. Of course, any representative democratic institution like a teachers’ union or school board often gets swept into such a broad concept.
And, sure enough, it may not surprise readers to learn that among the supporters of the LSC power grab was the Heritage Foundation which gave the reform favorable coverage in its Education Newsletter.
And as readers of Global Labor well know the central purpose of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge conceived of by Bill Ayers in 1993 was to bolster the LSCs which were then waning in power due to demoralization and some dissent in the business community. So it should not surprise anyone to learn that Ayers was able to recruit elite Chicagoans in his continuing attack on teachers and principals. One union activist at the time called the efforts of Ayers and Klonsky “teacher bashing.” No wonder union support for the CAC was lukewarm at best and no union representative was found on the CAC board.
For Ayers the CAC money to back the LSCs harked back to the local control battle that the New Left had joined with the Black Panthers to support in 1968 in New York City’s Ocean Hill Brownsville school district. That effort led to a disastrous confrontation with the almost all white teachers union. But 25 years later in Chicago Ayers and Obama went on the attack against black teachers!
Ayers’ concept paper for the Annenberg grant proposal is filled with 60s new left style rhetoric about breaking up the “command-style central control of schools” and “free[ing] principals and teachers from the constraints of the factory-model hierarchy.” No wonder Ayers and Obama had friends at the Heritage Foundation and in the business elite of Chicago. They were laying the intellectual groundwork for vouchers, charter schools and choice – all of the right wing free market forms of attack on the nation’s teachers (and their unions) and students that are now so in vogue.