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Former '60s Radical Weathers Post-Sept. 11 Critical Storm

RESPONSE TO TERROR

Politics: Bill Ayers' book chronicling the often violent methods of his underground group comes under fire in wake of terrorist attacks.

September 30, 2001|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ayers' conversion began at the University of Michigan, where he joined the SDS and became a fixture at civil rights marches and antiwar rallies. "Our watchword was action," he writes. "Go further, we said. Push the limits."

And they did.

The fresh faces that had stared from school yearbooks only years earlier suddenly peered out of FBI wanted posters on post office walls across the nation. Ayers ripped them down any chance he could.

Once underground, Ayers and Dohrn quickly assumed aliases. He became Joe Brown; she was Rose Bridges. They lived in anonymous, sometimes seedy, places, avoiding radical havens such as San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury.

In his first year, Ayers writes, he collected eight sets of fake IDs, met 28 times with above-ground friends and was recognized a dozen times by people who kept silent.

Ayers had no contact with his parents during those years. In December 1980, when he and Dohrn surrendered, they already were the parents of two young sons. By then, the federal riot conspiracy charges that Ayers faced had been dropped because of improper government surveillance.

Thomas Ayers embraced the return of his "prodigal son" without recrimination.

"Bill was no way-out freak," the 86-year-old Ayers says. "He just thought they were being lied to. I would tell him, 'I don't disagree with what you're saying. But I disagree with how you're going about it.' "

These days, the silver-flecked hair and beard are neatly trimmed. The huge, round glasses have given way to bifocal wire frames. He no longer walks around with Ho Chi Minh poetry in his pocket. But a '60s aura lingers.

Dohrn says her husband's book, although not a history, puts that era in perspective.

"The '60s is a commodity," she says. "It's clothes and music, a set of things you can own. You see a lot of stuff that's written where you wouldn't think there's a backdrop of body bags and killing of civilians and carpet bombings."

Joining the Other Side

Ayers is now mainstream--an educator with distinguished professor status. He has written three books about education and has advised Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley on the subject of school reform.

Dohrn, a University of Chicago Law School graduate, is director of the Legal Clinic's Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.

They are the parents of Zayd, 24, named after a Black Panther, and Malik, 21, named for Malcolm X.

Ayers says he knows he was lucky he didn't wind up in prison, lucky his life turned out so well. And he is not without remorse.

"I regret that we weren't smarter," he says. "I regret that we didn't see the world in more complicated terms. But then again . . . you always have to act in an imperfect world, and we did and would again."

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