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Ayers' talk kept quiet at Pitt

| Saturday, March 27, 2010

Perhaps the parents and prospective students touring the University of Pittsburgh's student union Friday afternoon didn't notice the police standing guard at the entrance, where about 150 students gathered for a spring conference.

They were there waiting to hear 1960s leftist radical William Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, a group that bombed banks and government buildings and Pittsburgh's Gulf Tower, Downtown. The Council of Graduate Students of Education invited Ayers to be its keynote speaker, but closed the event in the William Pitt Union ballroom to the public.

University officials tried to downplay the speech by refusing to disclose its location or even the time.

"It could be anywhere, anytime," spokesman John Fedele said. A program for the event said Ayers would speak between 4:15 and 5:30 p.m.

"It's a bold move on Pitt's part," said Lucy Rankin, 20, of Erie, a film and religious studies major.

Many students weren't aware of the speech.

"That would be interesting. Probably a lot of students missed it," said Mike Sayers, a psychology grad student from Redondo Beach, Calif.

Ayers, 65, was the second member of the Weather Underground to speak at Pitt this month. Mark Rudd, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and Weather Underground, spoke March 3 in the Public Health Auditorium at the invitation of Pitt's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS.

The Weather Underground, sometimes known as The Weathermen, formed in 1969 as an offshoot of SDS and issued a "Declaration of a State of War" against the government in 1970. The group carried out more than a dozen bombings between 1970 and 1974, one of which killed a policeman.

"We thought we who lived in the metropolis of empire had a special duty to oppose our own imperialism and to resist our own government's imperial dreams," Ayers wrote this month in his blog.

About 100 students attended Rudd's speech, along with others "from the far left to moderate Democrats," said Jordan Romanus, the Pitt SDS chapter president.

He was surprised to learn about Ayers' talk. "That's news to me. That's news to everybody in my group," he said. "There's no fliers ... nothing on campus."

Romanus, 22, of Waynesburg doesn't believe there's a fascination on campus with aging '60s radicals.

"I can't speak for the other organization but we brought him in to talk about student organizing. We don't advocate bombing or killing anybody," said Romanus. "Shutting down Columbia (University) for four days was effective."

The SDS virtually shut down Columbia University in New York from April 23 -27, 1968, during an anti-war protest.

Asked whether his group planned to try any such thing at Pitt, Romanus said: "No, I want to graduate."

Ayers spoke in December at Penn State Altoona. His appearance there drew complaints from people in the largely Republican area, said Marissa Carney, a university spokeswoman.

"The college did receive several e-mails and phone calls over the fact that we were hosting William Ayers," she said. "There were some protests ... but we proceeded, and there were no problems."

Pitt received calls of concern about yesterday's speech, Fedele said. No protesters appeared.

Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, acknowledged in his memoirs that he participated in bombings of the New York City police headquarters in 1970, the U.S. Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. He was indicted on charges of conspiring to bomb police stations and government buildings. Those charges were dropped in 1974 because of illegal surveillance.

The Weather Underground took credit for the June 13, 1974, bombing of the Gulf Tower. The bomb exploded at 9:41 p.m., 18 minutes after a caller identifying himself as a member of the organization called the Gulf switchboard and warned a bomb would explode.

The blast caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the building's 29th floor. Although seven men, including a Pittsburgh fire captain investigating the bomb threat, were trapped in an elevator for about 40 minutes after the explosion, no one was injured. No arrests were made.

In a letter to The Associated Press, the Weather Underground accused Gulf Oil Corp. of committing "enormous crimes" by drilling oil in Angola and paying royalties to the Portuguese government, which controlled the then-colony.

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