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Ex-radical Ayers speaks out -- briefly

The professor, saying he hopes to avoid feeding his 'cartoon' media image, won't discuss Obama.

April 24, 2008|Steve Schmadeke | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — William Ayers, a former radical leader turned academic and school reformer, has never been hesitant to speak his mind.

Although there has been no public response from him since his ties to Barack Obama -- the two neighbors served on a charity board together for three years -- were referenced during last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia, Ayers said Wednesday that he has a good reason.

He doesn't want to feed the flawed "narrative" out in the media, he said, one that has commentators on Ayers' own blog wondering why someone hasn't shot him dead yet.

"It's a cartoon" that people are reacting to, said Ayers, a professor of education, in a brief chat at his University of Illinois at Chicago office.

Ayers also took exception to the notion that he's been muzzled since his name surfaced during the April 16 debate.

"I'm still outspoken," he said. "I'm still out speaking at college campuses. You can follow me if you want." Some of what he calls his "episodic notoriety" has even followed there. Conservative student groups asked the University of North Dakota to withdraw its invitation for him to speak there last month. It did not.

Born to wealth in the upscale Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ayers, like thousands of other young Americans at the time, was moved to political action by the Vietnam War. He and wife Bernardine Dohrn, now a Northwestern University law professor, were founding members of the Weatherman, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society that claimed responsibility for about a dozen bombings. The group also organized violent antiwar demonstrations in Chicago in 1969 that became known as the Days of Rage.

Ayers writes on his blog that he has never escaped his past. Nor has he ever explicitly apologized for it, saying the times and his actions need a more nuanced rendering.

Ayers wonders if his account of those years will ever really be heard. He writes in a passage that may also hit home with the Obama campaign: "It's all part of the endlessly repeating official account, the echo that grows and grows as it bounces off the walls.

"How can it ever be effectively denied?"

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