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Bill Ayers' speech turns Saint Mary's into protest central

A Saint Mary's student—and Diablo intern—reflects on how her usually quiet campus became ground zero Wednesday night for a raucous protest on a Vietnam-era militant.

Angry protestors, picketing posters, and marches of opposition are nothing new to the Bay Area, and are even commonplace in places like Berkeley or San Francisco. But Moraga?

Trouble has been brewing at the tiny college tucked back in the hills for sometime as controversial figure Bill Ayers—current professor of education at the University of Illinois but former co-founder of Weather Underground—prepared to visit Saint Mary’s College and deliver his lecture “Trudging towards Freedom,” about his work in education reform.

Ayers was invited to Saint Mary's College as the concluding speaker of the 2009 January Term event series. January Term is a unique month-long intensive semester wherein students take one course based on an annual theme. Classes usually have nothing to do with a student’s major and are an opportunity to explore foreign territory, challenge his/her perceptions, and try to learn something new and out-of-the-box. This year the theme is “Against the Grain,” and Bill Ayers was invited to elaborate on his work in education, which calls for a radical “reframing” of current educational systems, and is therefore considered against the grain.

The pristine peace of the Saint Mary's campus was broken last evening when hoards of angry protestors rallied outside the Soda Center to protest Ayers. I haven’t really been to many protests before—and by many, I mean any. My main objective was just to take it all in—be a fly on the wall and see what people were protesting, how they were doing it, and try my best to get both sides of the story.

As I left my dorm around 5:30 p.m. and headed to where the action was brewing, I spotted my first trotting American flag and picket posters slung over shoulders like militia rifles. I followed to the epicenter of the protest, where former KSFO radio host Melanie Morgan fearlessly assembled the mob and led them into a frenzy with posters proclaiming: “Bill Ayers—Education Reformer as Jeffrey Dahmer—hopeless romantic,” “To Billy, entice minds, not riots,” and “What next, 'Terrorism 101?'” 

As I said before, I was trying to get input from both sides, sans my own biases. I spoke with alumni, local community members, current students, people who have served in the armed forces, Marine moms and wives—all people who feel deeply assaulted by this man on a very personal level. And who am I to refute the validity of their anger? I, who until quite recently knew nothing about this man, and who still has a cursory understanding of all his involvements?

At the same time though, paradoxes were everywhere. As much as the crowd condemned this man for perpetrating physical violence, they delivered in their own belligerent jeers and shouts of “cop killer,” as well as engaging in verbal altercations with students or supporters of Ayers. Morgan proclaimed: “We will follow him to the gates of hell!” only to a few moments later remark, “We pray for you,” and eventually launch into a sung version of The Lord’s Prayer.

I did talk to a few mild-mannered people. One woman has lived in the community for years, went to Stanford University, and is a self-proclaimed conservative. And yet she was leery about this method of protesting—saying that all it really accomplished was sparking rampant anger and convoluting or distorting the whole point of the protest. She said that while she opposes Ayers, she believes people should be educated by both sides in order to draw informed conclusions. The protesters were not doing a good job of “educating” potentially ignorant students, or those sitting on the fence. Rather I think it did more to orient them more towards Ayers with his even-tempered speech, invitation for conversation, and polished rhetoric.

Speaking of swaying the student body: For many current Gaels, this was history in the making. Campus only gets this rowdy in the wake of basketball games or the debauchery of a Friday night. This energy felt new and exciting. And in an era of “change we can believe in,” of course students want to rally behind a cause or a person being held down by “the man.” The conservative opposition equals the man while the controversial figure inside, who is “trudging towards freedom” in educational reform, embodies that all-encompassing change. Many students were previously unfamiliar with Ayers and his past, but also his current lifework. Yet suddenly they were prepared to stand by him in solidarity despite the protesters' ardent attempt to shame Saint Mary’s College, its administration, and the caliber of student body.

The speech was scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but all of the above-mentioned activity took place well before. There was so much hype, the introduction was so frequently interrupted with boos and jeers that the visibly perspiring emcee had to repeatedly say, “Now stop it—this is for the students…”

But was it? It felt like nobody in the room, including some of the students, even remembered what this guy was supposed to be talking about in the first place. So many people had hijacked the event and pushed their own agenda—liberal and conservative alike. When it became apparent that this was not going to be a slash-fest or a free-for-all of verbal hand grenades, and that we were actually going to talk about social justice in education, many people stood up and left. Some tried to get in the last word though, such as the woman who was escorted out by security for repeatedly saying, “You can kiss my ass.” It was like in a hockey game when players and fans really want there to be a good fight, but it never comes. Just like sport, it seemed like many were in attendance for the spectacle.

So did Ayers “brainwash” me like so many of the protestors were afraid of? No. He said some valuable and intriguing things, but nothing remarkably new or revolutionary. He became a little long-winded and redundant in the question-and-answer period, and sometimes I think he circumvented answers altogether. Probably what I learned most I learned from the other people attending and the high-stress interface between the protesters and their cause.