Wednesday, February 19, 2014

People of This Generation

The cool people just keep dropping by Jackson Ward.

Tonight's was Bill Ayers, educator, agitator, activist and generally fascinating guy and author of his second book, "Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident."

When I got to Black Iris Gallery, the place was already buzzing with people checking out the new exhibit, "Public Eye: A Civil Rights Case Study," looking at mug shots and film footage from '60s and '70s-era protests.

The man about town was the first to greet me - with a compliment no less - followed by the couple I've been seeing around town a lot lately ("What amazing event will we see you at next?"), who introduced me to the UR professor, saying that the gamelan orchestra was his ("Let me know if you want to borrow it").

Interesting people abounded.

While we were chatting about Sun Studios (because of the Elvis bio I'm reading), the evening's speaker Bill joined our little group to chat, telling us about his recently replaced knee, how he was the oldest one in the room and about his plans to go to Charlottesville tomorrow to see Monticello.

Then we all took seats, mine in a second row seat to listen to a man who helped shape history by putting his beliefs on the line and protesting what he felt was wrong or unjust.

The evening was part reading, part talk, part answering questions and all fascination.

He began by talking about the importance of independent spaces like Black Iris, places where people can meet and share ideas. To illustrate that, he told us his first book, "Fugitive days: A Memoir" had been reviewed by the New York Times on September 11, 2001.

When the world as we knew it ended that day, his planned book tour began to fall apart as many universities canceled his appearance for fear of protests and issues about his dissident past.

"Not a single independent book store canceled on me," he said. And that's why we need them.

We listened as he read the prologue from his new book about the 2008 controversy when during the Presidential debates, his name had been brought up as someone with whom Obama was in contact.

In an odd twist, he'd had a bunch of graduate students at his house that night and when someone turned on the debate, it was the students' first inkling of his past with SDS and the Weather Underground.

It wasn't all serious business, though, and he joked that for a change, no one had organized a picket of tonight's event. "Maybe someone should go outside and protest," he suggested.

In the middle of the talk, a phone went off, funny mainly because it was his.

I found it particularly profound when he began talking about the notion of different generations. Quoting his SDS card, he said that, "We are people of this generation. Get over the generation idea. Get over the idea that there was one perfect moment."

He spoke to the young people in the room, telling them that their impression of the '60s as the best time - the best music, the best scene, the best sex - was mistaken.

We heard about his first arrest for a sit-in at a local draft board that got him ten days in the clink. "You see the world differently after you've been arrested," he said. Likewise going door to door as a community organizer against the Vietnam war affected him deeply.

During the Q & A, he would not only answer people's questions but share other thoughts and issues that had occurred to him as he was listening to the questions.

He was especially compelling on the subject of child rearing, a topic that took up much of his book, and surveillance, the fact that technological society has outstripped ethical society.

Once he'd given a class an assignment to bring in or photograph things that were watching them. When two women tried to film the security cameras at a mall, security men told them to stop because "watching us watch you" wasn't allowed.


When asked about his age (70) and bad knee (upcoming surgery on the other one) keeping him from his life's work speaking out against what he felt was wrong, he dismissed the thought. "I'll be on the barricades in my walker."

Listening to his passion and his past, there was no reason not to believe him.

Entreating the people in the room to follow their beliefs to make a difference, he concluded, "You're living in history. History is not over."

Right on. Witness how it was being made in Jackson Ward tonight as the many listened to a man who's still fighting the good fight.

Hopefulness is a politics, he told us. I like the sound of that.

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