SDS refounds itself in Chicago

September 8, 2006

Chicago–Student organizers representing dozens of chapters around the country gathered here for the first national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society since 1969. The legendary student group was founded in 1960, and by the late 60’s its name became synonymous with the student movement and the New Left. That ‘first iteration SDS,’ as SDS northeast regional organizer Thomas Good called it, split and scattered in 1969. Local chapters continued to be active for a couple more years.

In 2006, 150 students from University of Central Florida in Orlando, Pace University in New York, Howard Community College near Baltimore, Loyola in Chicago, and many others from Washington State, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut and elsewhere spent three days, August 4-7, telling each other about their organizing and strategizing about where to go with a national radical student group.

The call for a national SDS meeting came in January from several chapters of student radicals that had formed under the name “SDS” more or less independently. Pat Korte, a high school student, noted in the January 16th announcement that “several fellow activists from across the country and myself decided to form a national SDS movement, only to discover that chapters already exist! Because of this we decided to hold a national conference.”

Why SDS in particular? Many students felt there needed to be a multi-issue radical student group that was about student power, there was a need on their campuses, and there was a need in the country. Korte said, “Although I have been an active participant in the anti-war and student activist movement, I have become frustrated with the groups collective inability to unify enough people under a common goal/vision to address the overall problems in our society. Historically, SDS was able to address many of these issues pertinent at the time through Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement.”

Good, who is a tweener—no longer a student but too young to have been involved during the first SDS—explained that initially responses to the call came from first iteration SDSers. But by July, SDS had enrolled over 1,000 members nationally, with 150 chapters declaring themselves SDS. (Non-students can join MDS, Movement for a Democratic Society.) Chapters which had sprung up independently in Santa Ana, California and at Reigs University in Denver also signed up with the national group.

The organization now includes 85 college and university chapters, 24 high school chapters, and 53 community chapters (combined MDS/SDS) as well as several state and regional organizations. Preliminary regional conventions were suggested for Memorial Day weekend, and the Northeast region held a conference at Brown University in Rhode Island.

The electronic infrastructure includes the New Left Cafe listserve (recently afflicted by a flame war) and the second iteration of New Left Notes, called Next Left Notes, edited by Good. The Next Left Notes website features new articles and photos, as well as many archival documents from the 60’s SDS and the Weather Underground. (The websites are www.newsds.org and www.nextleftnotes.net)

The National Convention was held at the otherwise deserted University of Chicago (the space was procured by the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists) and students mostly crashed at the First Unitarian Church. The conference was definitely a shoestring operation, with a 1-page photocopied program and lots of dumpster-dived food procured for lunches.

Chapters reported on their work at the opening plenary. Most chapters were working against the war, in particular against military recruitment. Students at Connecticut College reported picketing a recruitment center every Monday. The college is a private school in New London, which has an oppressed urban core where young people are successfully targeted by military recruiters, according to Sarah Trapido and Daniel Meltzer. Recruiters make 200% of their quota in New London, the organizers said. Their chapter is a pre-existing radical student group, CC Left, which became CC Left-SDS after SDS re-formed.

Another SDS chapter came out of the famous battle this summer at the Port of Olympia, Washington, a direct action effort to keep war materiel from being shipped—specifically vehicles for a Striker brigade which was being redeployed to Iraq. Police made forty arrests of people blockading keep the materiel from being loaded onto the ship. The actions spurred the founding of a chapter, according to Brendan Dunn.

A student from Asheville, North Carolina reported that his chapter had surrounded recruiters, leading to a 3-hour standoff, after which the military representatives were escorted off campus. Students also conducted an anti-war walkout, in which 150 students participated.

University of Central Florida SDS in Orlando has been the most active chapter in the South, conducting a 20-person standing protest during a speech by Governor Jeb Bush, a 35-person march to a recruiting office (they tried to deliver 3 cakes, one for each year of the war, but recruiters locked the doors to keep them out). They also held a talk-in about Iran, during which SDSers held signs like “Let’s talk about Iran” and “No Iran War.” The university didn’t appreciate their educational efforts and they became embroiled in a free speech battle, which continues. In addition, Food Not Bombs in Orlando has been experiencing a legal clampdown—the city is attempting to make their activities illegal by banning food sharing in public. SDSers have been fighting the law under which it is legal to starve someone but illegal to share food with them.

SDS chapters were also uncovering lasting effects of earlier student militancy. In Columbus, Ohio, workers demolishing buildings were sickened by the effects of tear gas deployed against protesters 36 years earlier. Adam Sanchez of Portland SDS noted that their university’s student center had been designed with lots of doors to avert student takeovers and blockades. (The Portland students didn’t rule out a takeover, despite the doors.) Another chapter leader noted that one tactic used by universities was to place Women’s Studies and/or Black Studies departments in the same building as the ROTC to keep the ROTC building from getting burned down.

It was impossible to get a full picture of the organizing represented at the conference, since simultaneous workshops on everything from Venezuela to ‘Resisting Empire from Within’ filled the weekend, along with at least 2 small rallies commemorating Hiroshima and one protest march against gentrification, not officially sanctioned by SDS and questioned by some of the Chicago-based organizers since it wasn’t, they warned, coordinated with the local community fighting the gentrification.

A Sunday afternoon discussion of structure bogged down for lack of operating rules, but the content showed that participants had thought hard about what they wanted and didn’t want their national organization to be like—they wanted to defend it from sectarians who might want to use the organization for recruiting or building other groups; they wanted to make sure that those not able to attend this and future conferences could have a say; many did not want to run the organization by consensus, and were skeptical that consensus provided more than superficial, least-common-denominator agreement; they liked the fact that in striving for consensus ideas could be fully discussed rather than shut down by a vote; they thought any staff should be paid decently so as to not limit jobs to rich kids. Debates ahead include the role of leadership—is it just a way to block members power or is it a necessary (and difficult) role someone needs to take up to get things done? Without a publicly accountable leadership, how to you avoid what one person called “volunteerist tyranny”? Shouldn’t the people who do the most work get the most say? What if women are in a minority, and a decision is being made that affects women? Shouldn’t the women’s caucus be able to veto in that case? What constitutes a ‘member’ for purposes of a national structure—a chapter or an individual? A later planning discussion, with provisional operating rules, yielded a little more direction.

Seniors for a Democratic Society
Pat Korte said the goal is to have a youth-led organization while working with the older generation. There was a light sprinkling of first iteration SDSers in attendance, including the founder of SDS, Al Haber, who lives in Ann Arbor. Haber announced that he’d recently had a birthday, so he was finally out of the 60’s. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t talking about “turning tables on the ruling class” and democratic modes of action to deal with their “total fascist disregard for humanity.” He reflected that this is “an endeavor of the long haul.” He also told the plenary to listen to the women in the group. “Women for the most part are not stakeholders in the culture of patriarchy and domination,” Haber said.

Good was asked by a journalist, What qualifies a person or a student group to join SDS? “If they’re down with the Port Huron Statement and they’re willing to be active, they’re SDS.” He also emphasized building a movement instead of primarily an organization.

The words that most closely defined unity at the conference were ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘direct action.’ Participatory Democracy comes via the Port Huron Statement, which was initially drafted in 1962 by Tom Hayden, with help from Dick Flacks and then reworked at an SDS meeting in Port Huron, Michigan. Writing a reflection on the statement 40 years later, Hayden and Flacks said that the idea came to them from a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, Arnold Kaufman, who extracted it from the ideas of John Dewey. C. Wright Mills was also influential, arguing that what we have in the U.S. is not a competing, balanced ferment of interest groups but a power elite. “Quoting Henry David Thoreau, movement activists said: Vote not with a strip of paper alone, but with your whole life.” (“The Port Huron Statement at 40,” The Nation, August 5, 2002.) Dewey was one of the founders of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) which hired Al Haber to start a student branch. LID’s anticommunism made them fire him—twice!—scared he might be letting reds into the group, and in general SDS gained its independence mostly through being ejected by LID.

“Direct Action” seems to come from the Industrial Workers of the World, either via SDS or directly, as in the Wobbly slogan “Direct Action Gets the Goods.” Carl Davidson recalled Berkeley Free Speech Movement veteran and SDSer Steve Weissman telling him that that SDS was following the roots of American radicalism. Davidson said, you mean LID? Weissman said, no, not LID: John Brown (the anti-slavery pioneer), and the Industrial Workers of the World.

Mark Rudd was the last National Secretary of SDS, elected in 1969, in Chicago, at the infamous last convention. Reflecting on those days, Rudd wrote in the Heartland Journal that he had not until recently understood what made him, and others, do things that Rudd now thinks were “a huge fuck-up,” letting SDS fly apart and forming the Weather Underground. A recent Weather Underground documentary made him think about them, though, as he’s had to defend his position against those who loved what the WU did. Looking at old footage in the movie, he writes, “I saw shots of myself as a 21 year-old, grief written all over my face. That was what I had forgotten in the intervening 35 years, grief! The grief that came with the knowledge of what our country was doing in our name … the easiest reaction to grief is anger and violence, both justified back then in the theories of armed revolution.”

At an evening event dedicated to first iteration SDSers, Carl Davidson characterized his generation as ‘the last generation that believed in America.’ He said that after he attended an SDS-called demonstration in DC with 25,000 people that he was sure Johnson would end the war. That was 1965.

Lowered expectations of what can be done within the confines of U.S. ‘democracy’ can cause despair and its defense mechanism, cynicism. But cynicism seemed to be in short supply at the convention.

Bernardine Dohrn sent greetings, but did not attend (she spoke at the Northeast regional conference). Dohrn is a first iteration SDSer and lawyer who is perhaps best known for her role in the Weather Underground, her evasion of capture until the 80s when she turned herself in, followed by a relatively brief prison sentence, and a fight to be allowed to practice law again. She wrote:
“Although I cannot be there in Chicago, we have your back. May you stay clear about the challenges of movement-building: strengthening and connecting the widespread organizing work already underway, reaching out to engage new forces, and contending with principle and unity. As the great Chicago poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks said, “Live and have your blooming in the eye of the whirlwind.”

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