In his remarks, the self-described radical reminded people that Obama’s election was significant, but that activism is still important in order for Obama to implement change.
Ayers became a controversial figure during the presidential election last year when some Republicans zeroed in on Obama’s relationship with Ayers, whose group was implicated in several bombings decades ago. According to Ayers, the bombings were not intended to target people, but some died in attacks attributed to the group. An investigation into the relationship by The New York Times last October found that, while Obama “played down his contacts” with Ayers, the two were not “close,” nor was Ayers a significant influence on Obama.
Obama distanced himself from Ayers during the campaign, calling Ayers’s actions “detestable,” even as his opponent, Sen. John McCain, raised doubts about the relationship.
But on Monday, Ayers sought to keep most of the focus on the future.
“We have the first African-American president,” said Ayers. “It was a significant blow to white supremacy.”
Ayers encouraged students to take an active role in bettering society and said that there are three components to an activist approach.
“First of all, you can’t be an activist unless you are willing to open your eyes to the world as it is,” said Ayers. “Second, you need to do something about an issue. Third, you need to re-think about your actions and criticize yourself. Oftentimes, we like to smooth things over. We can’t do that.”
Ayers warned students who view Obama’s election as the answer to political issues.
“The world that we are living in is not finished,” said Ayers. “The beauty of privilege is that it anesthetizes you to the world. For Obama, he is a moderate, a smart guy, and a decent guy. However, when people are acting as if Obama can save us, the answer is no. The answer is that we can save Obama. If we can mobilize and organize, change will happen.”
While Ayers garnered a warm reception from most of the crowd, there was a small but vocal protest led by the Claremont Republicans, a student organization at Claremont McKenna College. Prior to the talk, students handed out fliers that included quotes by Ayers, such as “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”
A current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ayers was an activist during the Vietnam War in the Weather Underground, which bombed the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings to protest the war.
A Vietnam War veteran in the audience vocalized his anger during the question-and-answer session when he asked Ayers, “I ask this question on behalf of thousands of patriotic Americans: Since you willfully exploded bombs on your country, do you not feel guilt for the citizens of this great nation who died in combat?”
Ayers responded, “First of all, I make a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. A patriot is one who lives up to human rights, even when there country is wrong. A nationalist is one who agrees with their country regardless of the decision. I stand in opposition to nationalism. I have never defended my actions. In my own family, we all made different choices on how to protest the war. That does not mean I am defending what I did but when 6,000 people are being murdered by our government, I knew that we had to do something.”
The talk was held by Dining with Democracy, a student group at Pitzer.