Saturday, January 31, 2009

Crowd's emotions on display as Ayers visits Saint Mary's

MORAGA — The much-anticipated speech by militant-turned-college-professor Bill Ayers at Saint Mary's College attracted nearly 600 people, many of them very clearly in diametrically opposite political camps.

Another 200 people loudly protested Ayers' appearance Wednesday evening outside the packed Soda Center auditorium in an unparalleled level of interest in an academic lecture at the rural, private Catholic college.

Inside, Ayers' 90-minute presentation drew jeers, boos and an emotional outburst from a woman who swore at him and left. He also received plenty of laughs and applause and a few standing ovations from the half of the crowd that liked him.

Critics had called for the college to disinvite Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois who was thrust into the national limelight during President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign when it was revealed that the two men had served on several boards together and run in the same liberal circles in Chicago.

Ayers' opponents call him an anti-American terrorist who helped found the Weather Underground in the 1970s, a militant group that bombed several public buildings including the Pentagon.

Yet, Ayers' speech lacked the kind of fire-breathing, radical language that some might have expected from a militant who once thought blowing up a Pentagon restroom could change the course of the Vietnam War. (Ayers admitted in an interview before his speech that the bombings Advertisementdid not stop the war.)

Today, the 60ish college professor is slightly thick about the middle. He wore two earrings, worn bluejeans and an oversize casual jacket.

The unapologetic liberal and socialist earnestly encouraged audience members to open their eyes and act when they learn about injustice in the world.

He praised Obama and the president's community organizer background.

He called for the nation to stop treating education like a commodity that can be manufactured like a Chevrolet and instead advocated opening numerous, small schools where students are known by their teachers.

He advised students to reject dogma and challenge conventional wisdom, noting that slavery and women's inability to vote were at one time accepted legal and social norms.

And he embraced the rights of the protesters in the room and outside, although he objected to their suggestion that he would "warp (students') impressionable minds."

"Really, are there books they shouldn't be allowed to read, too?" he asked.

Ayers biggest radical moment of the night may have been when he said — at a Catholic college — that he supports a woman's right to have an abortion.

His most insightful statement, though, came early in his speech when he remarked that had it not been for the intense publicity around his ties to Obama, his appearance at Saint Mary's would very likely have drawn a far smaller crowd.

Despite promises from Saint Mary's officials that residents would be allowed to ask questions of Ayers during the question-and-answer period, the college permitted students to ask questions first and the clock ran out before local folks had their chance at the microphone.

"I wanted to offer some balance to some of the points Mr. Ayers made and I am disappointed that I was not allowed to speak," said Becky Kolberg, echoing the argument of others who say the college is obligated to offer its students other points of view.

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