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Ayers' appearance in Elgin draws protest
By Harry Hitzeman | Daily Herald Staff

University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers speaks at the Hickory Stick Bar and Grill in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Kimberly Rowe and Michael LaCoste of Aurora listen as University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers speaks about the public education system in America at the Hickory Stick Bar and Grill in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Protesters hold signs urging people to boycott the appearance of University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Professor William Ayers speaks at the Hickory Stick Bar and Grill in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series. He spoke mostly about the education crisis in America but talked about his days in the Weather Underground.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers speaks at the Hickory Stick Bar and Grill in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Joe Miller of Carpentersville and others protest the appearance of University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

Pete Anderson of Elgin listens to University of Illinois-Chicago professor William Ayers speak at the Hickory Stick Bar and Grill in Elgin Tuesday as part of the Kiwanis Club speaker series.

 

Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/12/2009 12:57 PM | Updated: 5/12/2009 5:08 PM

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Controversial professor Bill Ayers said Tuesday at an Elgin luncheon that he was sorry for violent acts committed during the 1960s and 1970s but that he doesn't regret speaking out against the Vietnam War.

"Am I sorry about that? Absolutely," Ayers told some 120 people at the Highlands of Elgin golf course clubhouse. "However, I find it hard to imagine who had it right in 1968."

Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been a lightning rod for controversy with recent speech bookings.

About 15 people protested Ayers' appearance outside the venue, characterizing him as an unrepentant terrorist. But buy all accounts, it was a peaceful protest.

Ayers only spoke for about 20 minutes about the need for education reform and for the populace to be engaged and involved before opening the floor up to questions.

Naturally, one of the first questions dealt with Ayers' past as an anti-war activist who founded the Weather Underground, which was responsible for the bombings of several public buildings in the 1960s and 70s.

Ayers said the group had a "sordid history" and became "highly dogmatic."

Today, instead of preaching civil disobedience, he urges people to: open their eyes, act or speak up, and rethink what they've been told. Ayers said what is right isn't always immediately evident.

For example, he said, audience members oppose slavery and support a woman's right to vote. But in 1830 and 1900, respectively, those views would go against most segments of society.

"We have the responsibility to act or speak up," he said, adding "opening your eyes is a little more difficult than it sounds. Because what we take to be common sense isn't necessarily good, moral, Democratic or fair. It's just how it is."

On education, Ayers said it can't be viewed as some type of business venture where measurable progress is considered firing people to control costs.

He said President Obama was on the right track by appointing Arne Duncan as the next Secretary of Education.

Protesters set up along busy McLean Boulevard near the entrance to Elgin Community College. Protesters waived flags and held signs. Some motorists honked as they drove by.

"There's cops with nails in them because of his actions. That's why I'm out here," said Jim Bayne, an Aurora resident and former Marine who fought in Vietnam. Bayne videotaped the protest before Ayers' speech.

"James (Bayne) and I both fought for our country," said protester Clyde Larsen, an Elgin resident and Army veteran. "To have someone standing on the symbol of our country (an American flag) there is no words to explain my disgust for the man. It's incredible the Kiwanis would let him speak here and promote his agenda."

Elgin Deputy Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said there were no incidents involving the protesters.

Ron Razowsky, past Kiwanis president and program chairman, said the group has invited speakers from all over the political spectrum to stimulate debate and discussion.

"The controversy doesn't bother us. Some members didn't come to the meeting. It's their loss," Razowsky said. "(Ayers) is not afraid to answer the appropriate questions, and he has a reasoned approach."

Darren Barr, a Kiwanis member from South Elgin, said Ayers' appearance was intriguing and stayed on education for the most part.

"We still have a free society," Barr said. "While I don't think he was going to change my mind about anything, I wanted to hear what he had to say."