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We Only Move Forward When We Demand the Impossible: An Interview With Bill Ayers

History shows that progress only happens when we refuse to limit ourselves to the art of the possible, says Bill Ayers.

History shows that progress only happens when we refuse to limit ourselves to the art of the possible, says Bill Ayers. (Photo: Courtesy of Bill Ayers)

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Attention all movement-makers! The time is ripe for radical social change and the new book from educator and activist Bill Ayers is sure to inspire you. Demand the Impossible! explores alternatives to today’s endless war, environmental destruction and economic crisis, and suggests strategies for building a more peaceful world. Click here to order this book from Truthout today!

Bill Ayers’ Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto urges a re-imagining of society as we know it. An insurgent educator and an activist for 50 years, Ayers says that staying within the boundaries of what is considered politically realistic limits our thinking. At a time when police violence and mass incarceration, war and environmental destruction, economic crisis and corrupt political systems are wreaking havoc on our lives, somebody has to step up and demand the impossible. And that is exactly what Ayers does in this book, a decidedly accessible text that insists that human beings have the capacity to remake a world with more peace, more justice, more transparency and more democracy.

Ayers critiques the world we live in — from the prison industrial complex to the health care system — to help us better understand the world in which we live. But more than that, he pushes his readers to unleash their radical imaginations so that we can fundamentally transform it.

Alice Kim: Let’s start with the title of your book. What does it mean to “Demand the Impossible”?

Bill Ayers: The epigram is from Che Guevara. The full phrase is, “Be realistic: Demand the impossible.” Or another way of saying it is, “We know what we’re fighting against, but what are we fighting for?” I wanted to lay out in simple popular language the goals that we’re fighting for. The title resonates with me because when we talk about politics as the art of the possible, it implies not only opportunism and a tendency to compromise on principle, but it’s a conservative way of thinking.

We wouldn’t be anywhere in our human evolution or social development if we only stuck to the art of the possible. Somebody has to think about what’s impossible. If you think about the history of this country, it’s when people demanded the impossible that things moved forward. The abolitionists, right up until the last minute, were the utopians who had an unrealistic project. They weren’t dealing with the “possible,” they were dealing with ideals worth fighting for.

Is there something about this political moment that compelled you to write this book now?

This moment demands all of us to spend more time thinking about where we’re headed and how we can make a movement that is coherent, unifying and capable of winning.

I try to name the political moment early in the book: An unapologetic reassertion of empire, unprecedented military expansions, an unparalleled surveillance state watching all of us at all times. So these things are going on at the same time that Occupy rises up, Black Lives Matter rises up, Fight for 15, Undocumented and Unafraid. These movements find themselves cohering in certain places like Chicago. For example, last year, we saw a demonstration organized by [The University of Illinois at Chicago] students against Donald Trump, and what was remarkable about it was that he didn’t show up. He didn’t show up because organizers got half the tickets. A fascist, nativist rally requires an adoring crowd, and since the student organizers had denied him an adoring crowd, he just didn’t show. But more remarkable was to be at the rally and to see the Muslim students calling out in solidarity to the queer students and the queer students calling out in solidarity with the immigrant rights students.

You said you’ve been an activist for 50 years …

I was first arrested in 1965 at a draft board protest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opposing the war in Vietnam. Because of the re-writing of the Vietnam period, it’s often thought that it was a popular thing to do or an easy thing to do. It became popular, but it wasn’t in the beginning.

Colin Kaepernick took a knee before the NFL game with the [San Francisco] 49ers. There were no guarantees that anyone would support him. It’s a good example of the fact that an individual act of courage can have a social meaning. He took that risk all by himself, and now it’s spread like wildfire.

I didn’t know that the third stanza [of “The Star-Spangled Banner”] was about killing freed slaves. I had to Google it, and oh my god, I knew that Francis Scott Key was a slave-owner, that he was a racist, but I had no idea that the third stanza is an absolute celebration of murdering freed slaves. Kaepernick did that, and he did it in the face of a howling mob.

Can you share the beginnings of your political journey, what was it that politicized you?

The civil rights movement was defining the moral territory of the whole country, and I was drawn to it. I went to University of Michigan and I was seeking something. I was coming out of this cushy safe suburban environment and suddenly I was looking around at a world in flames and I was trying to figure out who am I in the midst of this.

I went to a meeting. It was all in a language that was over my head. But I didn’t have to know much to see that I opposed my government’s war in Vietnam. So we had a teach-in. Did you know the first teach-in ever was in Ann Arbor?

Nobody had ever heard of the term “teach-in”; it was invented in Ann Arbor in 1965. It was the first one. A group of young socialists had put out a fact sheet on Vietnam, called something like “100 Facts about Vietnam.” These students tried to get the faculty to go on strike about the war. The faculty senate met. They decided they shouldn’t strike because they would be withholding their teaching from their students. They agreed that instead of striking, one day in October they would spend all their time teaching Vietnam. Whether it was English or history or whatever, they would teach Vietnam. That was the beginning of what we call the teach-in.

Then a moment of truth came. A group of people said, “We’re going to go to the draft board to sit-in and commit civil disobedience.” We were obviously borrowing and copying the tactics from the civil rights movement. I had decided to get arrested. So 300 of us rallied on campus, 150 of us marched to the draft board, and 39 of us went in and started wrecking files and we sat in.

When we were later taken to trial, Ernie Goodman, a legendary Lawyers Guild attorney, convinced us that we should defend ourselves by saying that there’s an emergency going on, and that we broke a little law in the interest of stopping a bigger law from being broken. The judge was furious. I stood up when I was being sentenced and said something like, as Shakespeare says, “Action is eloquence.” Ridiculous!

The logic of the judge was that we who were undergrads got 10 days in jail, graduate students got 15 and professors got 25. Why was that? We broke the same law. Because the professors were “leading us astray.” We laughed like hell because we were actually leading the professors astray! So that’s how I got involved in that.

In the chapter on abolition, you tell a story about a talk that you gave where you advocated for prison abolition. You said this was the thing that stirred the most controversy. Prison abolition is certainly often thought of as an unrealistic impossibility, so it’s perfect for this book. Can you talk about why you’re a prison abolitionist?

Prison abolition is one example, but the whole book is an attempt to say the conversation we’re having is the wrong conversation. I don’t want to talk about Obamacare vs. the health industry unchained. I want to talk about free health care. I don’t want to talk about green capitalism. I want to talk about the ways in which capitalism necessarily destroys the Earth. I want to change the frame. So with prison, that’s exactly it. [Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1970-1994] Harry Blackmun said, when he came out fully as a death penalty abolitionist, “I no longer want to tinker with the machinery of death.” I feel the same way around the whole notion of prisons.

The story that you mention is when I was speaking to a group of college students, and I suggested that we abolish the prisons. When we got to the Q and A, somebody said, “You’re kidding right?” The guy gave me a long catalog of some serial killer, I think it was John Wayne Gacy.

We went back and forth, but what it led to was a discussion I’ve had many times since. I call it “a thousand alternatives to incarceration.” What are a thousand alternatives to incarceration? Decriminalize drugs. Get guns out of the communities. Have drug treatment programs and generously supported community mental health. Create jobs, support decent schools in every community. You can come up with 20 or 30 or 50 things you could do before you put someone in prison.

What if we didn’t have a punitive culture? What if it were my sister or my brother or somebody I recognize as part of my human family who made a mistake or committed a crime? We have to change the whole notion of who we are as a human family. We have to look at our humanity and examine the kind of world we want to live in.

In the book, when you’re describing how you envision the human family, you reference a basic socialist principle: From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Would you say that this book is a socialist manifesto?

Absolutely. I think capitalism has reached the end of its capacity. Capitalism can’t resolve the crisis that we’re talking about.

What you’re referring to is in a chapter called “Shoulders to the Wheel,” and it’s about thinking of labor not as something that’s a nasty bit of business in which anyone who wants to get ahead has to exploit others, or people have to compete with one another for the basics of life. I end that chapter by thinking of a family. Think of your family where you have a sister who has different needs than you. Think of my birth family of five children. Everyone is different. I think about the family I raised. I had three sons. Each one was different. Each one didn’t need to get in bed in the middle of the night because they were terrified, but one did. To each according to their needs.

What are the “impossible things” that you’ve seen that you never thought could happen?

So many things. One of the things that jumps at me immediately: It was inconceivable that gay people could get married in our culture. If I go back 50 years to when I was in college, the idea of gay marriage was off the charts, even five years ago. That’s a shift in thinking that’s breathtaking.

The fact that this country, with its deep and abiding history of white supremacy, could elect an African-American man to be the president was a blow against white supremacy. It wasn’t a definitive blow, and in many ways, it was a contradictory blow, but it was a blow against white supremacy nonetheless.

So yes, things change, but it’s also true that the forces of white supremacy change their stripes and they remain very vicious. We live in a society that not only cages massive numbers of African-American, Latino and poor people, we’re a country that’s at constant war. We have a trillion-dollar war budget. Our economy is completely entangled in that. And yet history has surprised us and will surely surprise us again.

This book starts with a conversation I had with a Greek anarchist, an extraordinary historical figure known throughout Europe. Manolis Glezos became famous because at the age of 14, he took the Nazi flag off the Acropolis when the Germans were occupying Greece. I met him when he was 90, and he said the thing we lack, the thing we must convince people of, is to have the confidence to run our own affairs, that we can actually rule ourselves. He said we have to develop the confidence in ourselves as a force of history.

We have to believe that if we do act, things will change. I think the Dream Act kids embody that. The Occupy people embody that. Black Lives Matter embodies that. So I’m very excited to be living in this political moment.

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Bill Ayers - Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto

Imagine a world beyond what the system would have us believe is possible.

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To name this political moment in another dimension, the danger of the Donald Trump candidacy is not just Donald Trump. He has allowed a nativist white supremacist movement — which was scattered — to cohere around him. The ideology of white supremacy has always existed in this country, but there are moments when it comes together and finds a vehicle by which people can identify one another and become stronger. It’s not just a question of defeating Trump in November, it’s a question of creating the kind of anti-fascist, pro-humanity movement that can defeat Trumpism in the long run.

On the other side, Hillary Clinton has been pushed — partly by the Bernie Sanders campaign — but more abidingly by the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy, the Fight for 15. If Clinton is inaugurated on January 20, I don’t think she’s going to have one day of honeymoon. On January 21, we have the capacity to cohere a movement in the streets to demand a minimum wage, to demand reparations for African Americans, to demand peace, and much more.

Earlier you said, this is a hopeful book, and you end with this quote from Gwendolyn Brooks: “I — who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin by some of my brainwashed brothers and sisters to a surprised queenhood in the new Black sun — am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress. I have hopes for myself….”

I love that. I often use the phrase, trudge toward freedom. We can become too romantic in our flight toward freedom, but freedom is not something that’s given to you without struggle, it’s not something with a path covered with rose petals, everything laid out clearly. Freedom is a journey, an aspiration, an achievement—and yes, a slog.

I’m particularly taken with Brooks’ line “I have hopes for myself” and want to ask you, what are your hopes for yourself and for all of us?

I’m 72 now and you think at 72 you’re kind of looking back and you’re not looking forward, but I find just the opposite. I find that I’m less interested in combing through the details of my past. I’m much more interested in seeing what’s next. I have hopes for myself.

My mentor, Maxine Green, at the age of 94 used to say, “I still have things to do.” Her phrase was, “I am what I am not yet, I have things to do.”

So my hope for myself is that the next time hope and history rhyme, I’ll be locking arms with young people and we’ll be arcing toward a future that could be but is not yet. We used to say revolution in our lifetime. I still want that. I want us to build the beloved community right here, right now.

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