In 1972, the year I entered 1st grade, the U.S. was still fully engaged in the Vietnam war. The movement to end the war was going strong, as well, and our society was searching for stability in the wake of the necessary upheaval created by the struggle for civil rights. The hippie counter-culture was in full bloom.
All this barely existed for me then, at six years old. No adults in my life talked about civil rights or the war or hippies in front of me that I remember. Certainly, none of my teachers talked about these things or discussed them in class. Everything about these events was shrouded and unspeakable, yet phrases and images punctured the veil: body count, free love, acid, red menace, Ho Chi Minh, Woodstock, Black Panthers, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, a young girl running naked down a Vietnamese highway—all these were part of the mythology, the background, however dark and incomprehensible.
The lack of information added to the mystery for me, made me curious. I wanted to know what was going on and, since it was clear that the adults in my life didn’t want to talk about it, I simply recorded the emotions and feelings and images and words that I could see and feel around me. That is to say, I remained mostly ignorant of history, of a time in our nation’s and our world’s history that I see now shapes much of our current world, especially the generation between my parents and me, people who are currently 55 to 65.
I’ve been meeting and talking to people from those days. They lived and struggled, believing in the portentousness of their era and the potential for changing the world. They felt that revolution was upon them, that the world might be fundamentally different next year or next month or next week or maybe tomorrow.
During the last several years I’ve begun doing social justice work within the educational system. I consider this work a continuation of the movement and ideas from the 1960s and 1970s and I’ve been trying to learn from their triumphs and failures how best to make my work effective. (Further, I think we as a nation and a world need to learn from those times—considering our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan an Iraq, I’m afraid we aren’t.) I’ve been trying to learn about middle and upper class white people (people like myself) and how they tried to work in alliance (or not) with working class folks, poor people, and people of color. They saw the fight against the war as tied up with the civil rights movement and also with rejection of the dominant culture. With hindsight some of their work and perspective was self-serving and did not overturn the system as they hoped. They were, as we all are, trapped in the systems in which we live; destroying those systems is, while a good goal at times, perhaps not always realistic or even entirely positive.
It was in this context that I began to read Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers memoir about coming to the anti-war movement and the progression toward building and planting bombs in buildings, claiming credit for them, and publishing manifestos proclaiming the injustice of the war, calling attention to the genocide propagated in Vietnam, and demanding its end. I was looking for insight, for understanding of how and why someone comes to decide that blowing things up seems like the right choice. I wanted to know how he felt about it now. Did he feel that their actions helped achieve their goals?
I found some of what I hoped for, though not enough to be satisfied. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations. It may be too much to ask Ayers for profound wisdom and help with my own strategic decisions; the events may still be too close, too personal, too raw. Whatever the case, a lot of the book feels unfocused, rambling, jumbled, even confused. To its credit the book feels very real, real enough to be uncomfortable for me, who clings tightly to my rationality and the idea that I always have options. I want to stay connected to the worlds I know.
For me that is the real lesson. Ayers paints a world in which blowing things up became the only option, a reasonable response to unreasonable circumstances. He and his cadre of friends and allies disappeared down the rabbit hole, putting themselves in a world where there were no other alternatives if they were to remain true to their principles. That is a very difficult place to be.
I never read a memoir without feeling the sense of self-indulgence and solipsism. This one in no exception and, in particular, it is a little like a trip through temporary insanity; only when Ayers begins to emerge from it, toward the end of the book, do I start to feel comfortable. He pulls back at the last and I get a little of the perspective for which I hoped. Along the way, I also got a lot of stories about living in those times, about fighting the police, about arguments on campuses and in basement rooms, about the sexism and racism and classism that still challenge our movements and society. It is not a great book, but I’m glad to have read it. May we all learn a little from it.