As he spoke Wednesday on the importance of activism, Bill Ayers quoted a wide range of intellectuals: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Luxemburg, José Saramago, and of course, the British comedy group Monty Python.
Ayers quoted a scene in which a prophet tells his followers that they have minds of their own, only to hear those words parroted back at him. The reference, which garnered a few laughs from the audience, was not out of context at “Peaceful Progress: A Discourse on Affecting Change,” presented by the Muslim cultural Students Association at Cahn Auditorium at 7 p.m. Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former member of the Weather Underground, used the scene to emphasize the night’s theme of encouraging individual thought and activism. He shared the stage with Northwestern law professor and former Weather Underground member Bernadine Dohrn and Muslim activist Rami Nashashibi, and the three conducted a panel discussion after speaking individually about the importance of affecting change.
The evening began with a recitation from the Qur’an as well as introductions by Tedd Vanadilok, Director of Asian-American Student Affairs; For Members Only President and Communication senior Zachary Parker (who congratulated McSA on behalf of the Coalition of Colors); and McSA President Weinberg senior Dana Shabeeb. Associate Professor of African-American Studies Martha Biondi introduced the night’s speakers, acknowledging their work as Chicago activists and community leaders.
“We are here to discuss progress,” Shabeeb said, in her opening remarks. “Dogma should never prevent us from learning from one another.”
Dohrn spoke first, explaining her background in racial justice and her experiences with Ayers in trying to understand racism and its ties to “justice, empire and war in American life.” She explained two key cultural developments in recent decades: the demonization and criminalization of minority youth; and the development of the idea of the “terrorist,” both which result from racial profiling and discriminate severely against certain segments of the population. Giving historical examples as well as current ones — including an article from Wednesday’s New York Times that showed only 9 percent of those arrested as “suspected terrorists” were actually fugitives — Dohrn explained the severe racial inequalities in the justice system that exist today, despite the “significant milestone” achieved by electing President Barack Obama.
Against that backdrop, Dohrn advocated “challenging the dishonest narratives” that persist today, and making sure that the activist momentum built during the Obama campaign continues to affect change.
“I’m urging you to think big,” Dohrn said, “And to make sure that our dreams of a more just and a more democratic society are possible.”
Ayers stressed a different side of activism. He began with a question — “How good are we?” — then explained that while we may see ourselves to be moral people, we often are not aware of injustice around us and do not take action against it. He used many literary and artistic references, such as the Brazillian film Central Station, José Cerramago’s Blindness and the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, to caution against ignorance and “blindness.”
“[It's about] challenging ourselves to say, ‘Really, what do I know about the world?’” Ayers said, emphasizing the need for action beyond simply acknowledging injustice. “What have I seen, and what am I missing?”
Ayers reiterated the importance of turning knowledge into action. Like the characters in the literary works he referenced, overcoming ignorance was the first step. Ayers acknowledged that there are many injustices to focus on — a complaint even his own students have expressed — but picking just one is enough to make a difference.
“You don’t have to do everything,” Ayers said. “But you have to do something.”
Nashashibi spoke after, beginning by calling McSA “courageous” for hosting the event. He went on to quote the same speech from Dr. King that Dohrn had spoke about, and read excerpts from a letter by Rabbi Robert Marx, who marched with Dr. King. In both, the men write about taking unpopular stances in their own communities. Nashashibi similarly emphasized challenging members of the Muslim community to recognize racial injustice as their own responsibility, regardless of which ethnic group is the target. He also explained that activism is rooted in the Qur’an, which stresses self-accountability and social justice.
“I believe our voice, not unlike the voices of King and Marx, can be one that is grounded in a very spiritual center,” Nashashibi said.
The three speakers then sat down for a brief panel discussion, fielding questions about the Gaza War, Ayers’s experience during the Obama campaign, the failure of the “War on Drugs,” and Ayers and Dohrn’s latest book, Race Course Against White Supremacy.
“We addressed the goals we were trying to achieve tonight,” said McSA co-president and Weinberg junior Mustafa Rahman, who felt the night was a success. “[We] challenged Northwestern students to affect change.”