A Fire Survivor’s Review of Bill Ayers’ Radical Manifesto

An inferno, painting the skies red and filling the air with acrid smoke, raged down on my neighborhood in the early hours of October 5th. Awakened by my son, we had only a few minutes to consider what to take – a picture album, cell phones,
several changes of underwear, toothbrushes, my favorite winter boots, my laptop, a Kamaka pineapple ukelele coveted by my youngest grandson – our cars joining the painfully slow river of evacuees trying to leave the area. The fire was not slow; it jumped around us, lit up a palm tree, leapt over a freeway; our route changed  abruptly several times as the sheriffs, gesturing desperately, shouted “Go! Go! Go!”, directing us away from the crosshairs of the blaze.

We reached safety within the hour and by the next day we were sheltered with family and friends, waiting to hear about our home. The ground had shifted under us and, shaken to the core, we imagined what would have seemed impossible the
day before – that we might lose it all, the tangible memories, the hours spent working in the garden, the books and CDs, our safe place, stripped down to the clothes on our backs, our dog, and each other.

By the middle of the week we learned that the wind had shifted and spared our immediate neighborhood. Our cat had been found and fed by a neighbor who came  back to his house via the nearby creek. He fed our chickens, too. Life would soon
return to normal and on the surface, it did. We ran the air purifier 24/7, planted a cover crop and mulched the vegetable garden, raked up leaves, and each evening I read chapters from Bill Ayers’ Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto to my husband.

I read Ayers’ book last summer and was so impressed that I bought three more copies, one for each of my sons. Now, raw from my trial by fire and touched to the core by the suffering and losses in my community, wondering how we can influence the recovery process towards a new vision, one that takes into consideration the looming threat of climate change in its various guises – flood, drought and fire – I turned again to this manifesto, reading it out loud and savoring with Roland its spirit of hopeful resilience in the face of daunting challenge.

Ayers looks unflinchingly at the facts: the unprecedented number of incarcerated Americans, the trillions being poured into the bottomless pit of an aggressive military empire, the militarization of police, the vast financial discrepancy between the power elite and the rest of us, the privatization for profit of our commons, the resulting crises in health, education, infrastructure and general well- being and, looming over everything, the existential threat of global warming to our biosphere. He brings home that this has happened largely on our watch and that pulling the covers over our heads or allowing ourselves to be distracted by the latest scandals promoted by the corporate media are not satisfactory responses. Instead he calls on us to imagine a different world – a world in which our resources are shared to provide for the basic needs of all people, a world that recovers our humanity from the soul-destroying grip of greed and allows us all to find a role in building a better, more just and hopeful world for our children. He describes education as “powered by a precious and fragile ideal: Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value. . . each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral and creative force, each deserving a dedicated place in a community of solidarity”. (pg.161) Ayers exhorts us to “love the world enough to put your shoulder on history’s great wheel” (pg.199) and begin here in our communities, in our daily lives, to throw off the delusion of powerlessness and begin to do the real, messy, engaging work of social democracy – building a healthier, more inclusive, just and sustainable world together.

I love this small book. It sits on my bedside table to remind me of my task as I make the bed each morning. It directs me to look unflinchingly at the ruins and to see them as opportunity as well as tragedy – a chance to do things better through building community and educating each other and sharing our creative talents. It helps me at bedtime when I take a breath after the slog of meetings, conversations and well laid plans gone awry, to remember that, “in our pursuit of a world powered by love and reaching toward joy and justice, imagination is our most formidable and unyielding ally…there is no power on Earth stronger than the imagination unleashed and the collective human soul on fire.”(pg. 196) I think then of my beautiful grandchildren, “each a being of infinite and incalculable value”.

They and all children are carrying the seeds of the future in their souls. I want these seeds to be able to blossom after I am gone. This is not a rational process; my skepticism dissolves as an inner voice whispers that the moment of choice is always now. We can be socially isolated victims of the fire, preyed on by disaster capitalists, or we can be agents of change that rise from the ashes with regenerative vision and strengthened community, defying those who would marginalize or divide us by joining hands, standing together and proving that the changes we envision are not impossible after all.

By Anne Cummings Jacopetti, retired educator and teacher, environmental activist with 350 Sonoma and author of What Are We Going to Learn Today? How All Children Can Become Enthusiastic Lifelong Learners. Contact Anne at www.howchildrenlearn.org

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