MR
08/09/06
The Rebirth of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
by Alexander Knight

SDS Convention

A small kitten scampers up the steps of ivy-laden Cobb Hall at the University of Chicago.  Nearby, a mohawked student attempts to spear a stale, "dumpstered," bagel mid-air with a PVC pipe.  He's surrounded by dozens of other young radicals mingling in the school's immaculate green courtyard, chatting about music, activism, and revolution.  Just inside the hall, a complicated and exasperating argument rages over national organization and the delicate challenges surrounding differences in race, sex, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity.  Welcome to the 1st National Convention of the reborn Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The New and the Old

Held August 4th-7th and attended by an estimated 200 students and activists from as far away as Washington State, Vermont, and Arizona, the convention was the first national event held by SDS since its re-inception just 7 months ago on Martin Luther King Day.  The original SDS of the 1960s, before it collapsed into various competing factions (the final, disastrous convention in 1969 was also held in Chicago), is remembered as part of a powerful movement that funneled thousands of young students Southward to the front lines of the struggle for Civil Rights, and as one of the first and steadiest voices demanding the unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from a place called Vietnam.  40 years later, while the nation is embroiled in a conflict over the civil rights of immigrants, and the American military is trapped in yet another foreign quagmire, a sentiment of disinterested cynicism, even hopelessness, has thus far maintained a firm grip on much of America's youth.  Meanwhile, the national organizations leading the fight against the rising tide of imperialism have been a regrettable combination of internet-based lobby groups soliciting funding from wealthy donors, along with sectarian groups stuck in the mid-60s strategy of massing bodies to clog city streets for one afternoon.

Pat Korte, one of the founders of the new SDS, says it was his experience with these "inherently undemocratic" organizations that dominate the American Left that pushed him and other students to talk about restarting SDS last fall, while Pat was still in high school.  "We wanted a multi-issue organization in which the membership would have power over defining the organization, in which youth and students especially would be encouraged to have input, and which would build bridges between students and non-students in a democratic framework."

SDS, especially the ideals embodied in the 1962 Port Huron Statement, presented an option for a different kind of organizing, "based on participatory democracy."  So Pat went about finding and contacting former members of the original SDS and received their permission to give the organization another try.

One person contacted early on who proved to be instrumental to the group's success was Tom Good, a gray-haired Wobbly who had been too young to join the original SDS.  When Tom got on board with the new SDS, he set about creating a website (newsds.org), listserv, and other networking tools to bring together SDSers from around the country.  The internet proved itself as a "terrific organizing tool," and the group's membership exploded.  Within six months over 1,000 members had joined SDS via the website, representing 150 chapters around the country.  Many of those who initially joined were former members of the original group during the Sixties, while most others were inspired by the group's history from the Sixties.  As Tom put it, "the name recognition [of SDS] is huge."

Yet, the history of SDS is a troubled story, and inheriting that legacy means resuscitating old challenges, along with some new ones.  Would the new SDS be able to avoid making the mistakes of its predecessor, for example, white leadership and male dominance?  Is the internet the best tool for organizing students located on campuses around the country, who had no previous face-to-face connection, and how could this be done in a "democratic," "non-hierarchical" manner?  Finally, could the new SDS manage to be a powerful voice for radical change without falling victim to factionalism, government infiltration, and a narrow, anti-war focus?

It was exactly this intriguing mix of hope and doubt which drew me halfway across the country to observe this convention and find out whether the new SDS is the "Real Deal."

I journeyed to Chicago in a carpool with students I had contacted via the helpful Ride Board set up on the SDS website, and slept at a welcoming co-op house which I found on the equally helpful Housing Board.  But when I arrived at the convention Friday afternoon, an hour before registration was scheduled to begin, there were no signs indicating where to go, and the only information I had was from the incomplete "Tentative Schedule" that was still posted on the website, the first indications that the weekend's event had been organized in a hasty fashion.  While hanging around and waiting for someone informed to arrive, I met Bruce Rubenstein, who kept me entertained with stories of his days in the Weathermen, who turned to property destruction when they believed nonviolent protest had failed to end the Vietnam War.

Across the Age Barrier

One of the first, most unique features that one notices about the new SDS is its intergenerational character.  In every SDS gathering, amidst the students and youth you will find a healthy representation of "first-generation SDSers," friendly people who insist they are not trying to guide or lead the new organization, but are present to provide help and experience whenever necessary.  In fact, SDS is organized into two distinct components, the student and youth component, Students for a Democratic Society, and MDS, or Movement for a Democratic Society, which is a vehicle for original SDS members and other non-students.  The two groups appear to coexist harmoniously, as the older folks, while providing much-needed financial aid and some lengthy motivational speeches, seemed content to spend most of the convention manning tables and occasionally leading panel discussions, while largely allowing the younger members to be the loudest and most decisive voices.  Save a few examples, most members, young and old alike, viewed the intergenerational nature of SDS as a strength.

Al Haber, founder of the original SDS and drafter of the Port Huron Statement, headlined the "Opening Plenary" Friday night and received the most thunderous applause of the evening (and a standing ovation).  According to Al, at age 70, he's now "officially done with the 60s."

Strengths and Weaknesses

On Saturday the workshops began, with such diverse topics as "New Orleans: Organizing to Rebuild," "Class Privilege: A Burden or a Tool?" "Building the Palestine Solidarity Movement," "The Modern Sex Workers' Rights Movement," and "Creating and Sustaining an Anarchist Revolution."

The best workshop I attended was entitled "Direct Action on Campus," in which everyone participated in a mock confrontation between students and administrators (I was selected to play a bewildered police officer).  Not only were theoretical and strategic considerations reviewed, but the participants were given a hands-on application of their newly-learned skills.

Not all of the convention ran so smoothly.  The schedule as drafted allotted time for caucuses to meet, including a "Queer/Trans Caucus," a "People of Color Caucus," a "Feminist Caucus," an "Environmental Caucus," and both "Anarchist" and "Marxian" Caucuses as well, but they were all scheduled for the same time.  Therefore people who self-identify as, for example, a person of color and queer, would have to choose which caucus to attend and which identity to represent.

Upon noticing this oversight, several students hastily organized a re-scheduling of the caucuses, spreading them out over the weekend, but some caucuses met with low attendance because they were pushed back to Monday, and the Anarchist and Marxian Caucuses still gathered at conflicting schedules, on opposite sides of the hallway.  Meanwhile, the People of Color Caucus was scheduled to meet Sunday during breakfast, but when they arrived at Cobb Hall they found the building's doors locked and were forced to wait until lunchtime (concurrently with the Anarchist and Marxian caucuses -- ensuring a white audience for the ideological gatherings).

But it was Sunday afternoon whensome of the inherent contradictions facing the new group became painfully evident.  Clearly the most important workshop of the convention, called "National Structure Discussion," had been slotted just one and a half hours' time and located in a room capable of handling no more than 35 people.   Of course, over 70 showed up, and the three facilitators found themselves completely unable to manage and focus the conversation on topic.  Instead, what began as a calm brainstorming session on the relative merits and dangers of creating a national structure quickly devolved into a frustratingly disorganized and strident argument, such that reinstating a functional meeting structure itself became the focus of debate, complicated by subtle fears that if any individual was given excess authority over the running of the meeting it might lead to the creation of an authoritarian structure for SDS itself.  Therefore a desperate chaos ruled, and the shouting soon silenced all non-male voices . . . something that was eventually pointed out by a woman.

Just when worry of repeating the original SDS's sexism hit everyone in the face, the knockout blow walked right into the room.  Through the doorway emerged the People of Color Caucus, wearing sullen faces and armed with a devastating statement.  By this point, the Structure meeting had been going on for over an hour and a half, yet the 15 members of the POC Caucus had not been present the entire time, and in fact had been meeting next door for the last 3-4 hours, to apparently no one's recognition.  When ashamed and confused murmuring in the white audience subsided, the People of Color delivered their statement.  "As People of Color, we have witnessed that being at this conference was an alienating experience. . . ."  They were discouraged by the convention's white-dominated atmosphere and expressed the worry that SDS was making the same mistakes which have divided and crippled the progressive Left of the U.S. for the past 40 years.  They demanded to know whether SDS would be yet another white radical organization, or if it would actively strive to be multiracial and all-inclusive, not only sensitive of racial lines, but gender and sexual orientation lines as well.

There could be no adequate response.  Beyond applause, each member of the white-dominated audience struggled and squirmed to find some way to reassure the People of Color of their good intentions while admitting their failures and mistakes.  In truth, the kind of conscious, sensitive, and reflective discussion that the white members of SDS need to do around this difficult issue simply could not occur immediately following the statement, especially after such a demoralizing set of events.  No one knew what to do next.

At this point the panelists whose scheduled workshops were now more than one hour past their starting times demanded that the next session begin immediately, because they had to travel home before Monday.  The room buzzed with confusion and people began to file out the door en masse, while some still shouted desperately that no decisions on national structure had been made.

The convention gasped and nearly choked; all feared the new SDS was stillborn.

Solidarity Building

Yet, walking around the campus, it was clear that life was slowly breathing back in, simply through relaxed and friendly discussions that united the scattered students.  Whatever animosity had existed in that room dissipated as the young radicals casually hung out together in Chicago.

This points to what was undoubtedly the most positive thing to come out of the convention: all the personal connections made.  For the students to meet one another and share their experiences of how they've struggled in their own communities and campuses, trying to tackle problems which face all of us, was not only self-affirming but points to the real possibility that a national organization can affect change simply by bringing people together.

On Monday, the final day of the convention, with only 60 of the original estimated 200 attendees still around, the convention ended positively.  In the first plenary of the day, entitled "Resisting Empire from Within: SDS and the Antiwar Movement," SDSers brainstormed plans for a week of action this coming Fall semester called "Iraq Week," hoping to spur the campuses to once again become hotbeds of militant resistance to what currently appears to be an endless war in Iraq and the Middle East.  According to the panelists, this would be accomplished through "direct actions on campus and beyond [that] boldly illustrate the connections between educational institutions, war profiteers, and political elites within the imperialist establishment."

Finally, the "Closing Plenary" functioned as a concluding and unifying discussion, in which, with the help of clearly designated facilitator, note-taker, and stack-keeper, along with rules decided upon at the outset, some clear decisions could be made by consensus.  Perhaps most important among the resolutions passed was an answer to the previous day's drama, an affirmation that SDS will strive to "ensure that people of color, women, LGBTQ, and all other oppressed groups have a direct role in decision-making," such that not only is the leadership of SDS representative, but that the atmosphere is welcoming to everyone.

It was also decided that SDS will be a national network tying together chapters, but that real power lies at the grassroots level in local campuses and communities.  The next SDS conventions will be regional rather than national, so that people can meet one another without traveling across the country.  It was suggested that each area should hold two regional conferences within the next year, with the second being focused on determining goals for a potential SDS constitution.  Decisions regarding that constitution will then be confirmed at the 2nd National Convention, to be held next summer, location TBD. 

When the discussion ended with unanimous agreement, there was a little applause and a very big sense of relief.

High Expectations

Looking forward, conventioneers that I talked to felt that the weekend, with all its ups and downs, had been a success.

A female student named Iwi pointed out: "It's not likely for a first national convention to run very smoothly. . . . Anyway we should be able to argue and have dissent, that's what ultimately makes an organization stronger."

Another young member calling himself Scribbler pointed out that "we are just beginning to stand up again" and noted that it will take more than one weekend to "build a unified radical student Left in this country."

It should be expected that an organization assigning itself such an audacious goal as shutting down imperial ambitions, and inheriting such a difficult legacy as SDS, should suffer a few birth pangs upon its first meeting.  After all, these are difficult and strained times, and as Al Haber pointed out, "We haven't had a national interracial movement since the mid-60s."  But many members I talked to felt that SDS is re-emerging at just the right time, to help a new generation of American radicals find their voice, and strengthen what thus far has been a fragmented and ineffective movement for peace and justice in America.

On Monday afternoon, with the convention ended and people beginning the long trips back to all parts of the country, one got the feeling that what Pat Korte called "an experiment in participatory democracy" has an awful lot of potential, but to fulfill that potential will require a lot of patience, understanding, and determined effort in order to achieve the ambitious goal of creating a more democratic society.


Alexander Knight is a recent graduate of Lehigh University, where he achieved a Master's degree in Political Science.  He is currently working on writing and activism around the issue of "peak oil" and will soon be traveling and working in Venezuela for the next six months.  He can be reached at <activistalex at gmail.com>.
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