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Steppin’ It Up: The New SDS

Doug Viehmeyer
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

In 2006, youth and student movements around the world showed signs of life that have inspired and sharpened the focus of radical student organizers in the US. Despite the continued US imperial onslaught in the Middle East—demonstrated by the ongoing occupation of Iraq, US support for Israel’s wars against Lebanon and the Palestinians, and the deteriorating occupation of Afghanistan—students rose up globally against the neoliberal economic policies that are the foundation of US empire.

In France, students sparked a nationwide movement against the neoliberal CPE employment plan, which succeeded in virtually shutting down the entire nation and culminated in a General Strike which forced the government to back down from passing the law. In Chile, high school and university students shut down the educational system in protest of similar “reforms.” The same happened in Greece early this past summer, with the majority of universities being occupied by students for weeks.

In the US, a refreshing development in the student left has emerged. Responding to the need for a nationwide, coordinated, decentralized radical student organization, young organizers from campuses and high schools across the US have begun building a new, revitalized Students for a Democratic Society. The effort to rebuild SDS has been treated with enthusiasm by many, and with skepticism by others; how could these young kids have the audacity to claim the name of SDS for the new generation?

SDS has gone forward, with 250 chapters springing up nationwide (and internationally). The most surprising aspect of the growth of SDS has been the number of chapters established at high schools and community colleges. When compared with the initial years after the founding of the original SDS, we are ahead of the curve.

The spring and summer of 2006 was the incubation period for SDS, with the initial chapters getting off the ground and spreading via word of mouth and the web, participating in joint actions with other groups, and beginning the slow development of organizational vision and strategy. SDS chapters and members quickly engaged with various struggles for social justice and against imperialism:

  • Pace University SDSers inadvertently sparked a free speech struggle when members were repressed and interrogated by the Secret Service following a protest against former President Bill Clinton’s record of imperialist crimes and atrocities. Pace SDS has been greeted with a systematic policy of repression aimed at eliminating key organizers, which culminated in the targeted arrests of Brian Kelly, Lauren Giaccone, and John Cronan during a protest at Pace’s Lower Manhattan campus in November 2006.
  • 6 NYC SDSers were arrested during civil disobedience with members of the War Resisters League at the Times Square recruiting center on March 19th.
  • In late April, the Olympia, WA, SDS chapter came together during the organizing of one of the most energizing direct actions against the war to date: the blockades against the Port of Washington deployment of the Stryker Brigade to Iraq. The “Port Militarization Resistance” was an experiment in local direct democracy and succeeded in gaining national exposure. Incidentally, the Port of Washington direct action occurred just before Lt. Ehren Watada emerged as a leading war resister within the military at nearby Fort Lewis. SDS chapters in the Northwest have continued to support Lt. Watada as he approached his court martial date.
  • The Northeast Regional Conference at Brown University in April voted unanimously to support the May Day national actions for immigrant rights. SDSers marched with immigrants across the nation, including NYC where SDSers witnessed racist police brutality against middle aged Chicano women attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • After Israel invaded Lebanon and Gaza in the summer, SDS in NYC joined several of the large mobilizations to call for an end to the US-Israeli aggression.
  • On January 27, 2007, at the DC anti-war mobilization, SDSers and radical youth from two separate contingents nonviolently charged the steps of the Capitol building to express the urgency of ending the war. It was not the “Days of Rage” redux that some have characterized it as. We confronted the police blocking our path and engaged them, chanting “who do you serve.”

The spring momentum carried through to the national convention in Chicago this past August, a return to where SDS tore itself apart in 1969 at the height of its prominence and imploded as a national entity. Two hundred members converged on the University of Chicago to lay the foundation for a national radical movement. Because the membership far exceeded the actual physical attendance at the convention by SDS members, the question of the development of organizational structure was left as the primary regional and national agenda item for the 2006-7 school year leading up to this summer’s SDS Constitutional Convention. In Chicago, we built relationships with each other and discussed the most pressing issues facing the radical left.

SDS Chapter registration exploded in the fall semester. The word was out. There was something new happening in the student movement. A radical student formation was in the works, with its sights set on really organizing thousands of students into a crucial component of an anti-systemic movement. Chapters that were established last spring solidified themselves on campus, while new chapters sprung up on other colleges around the country.

As of the time of writing, the Northwest and Midwest have held regional conventions that developed regional structure and focused on anti-oppression training and internal education. Conventions are scheduled for the late winter and spring in the Southeast at the University of Central Florida, Middle Atlantic at William & Mary College, and a Northeast regional on February 16-18, 2007 in NYC at the New School University.

The current phase of organizational development in SDS could be characterized as “radical base-building” on campus, as well as the formulation period for ideas about national structure that will ensure participatory democracy from the chapter to the national level. These questions continue to dominate strategic discussion on the left and SDS is determined to build a new model of national organization that incorporates the vision of participatory democracy with the lessons of the left since the 60’s. We also hope to draw lessons from the experience of the post-Seattle global justice movement and build relationships with organizers of that generation.

Intergenerational dialogue

One key factor that has helped SDS grow has been the commitment of young SDSers, as well as former SDSers and activists from the 60’s and 70’s, to building a dialogue about the lessons of that period for our current organizing. Former SDSers representing every period in SDS’s history, from the Port Huron era “Old Guard” and the post-65 “Prairie Power,” to the post-68 revolutionaries and Weatherpeople, have made themselves available to the new radicals.

SDSers look to our predecessors for their collective wisdom and their knowledge of left history and strategy. We hope that the Movement for a Democratic Society advisory board in formation becomes not merely a fundraising body full of left luminaries, but an active support body for SDS/MDS’s national organizing efforts. Older radicals have a rare opportunity to build a speaker’s bureau to speak at campus teach-ins and forums organized by SDSers that are already asking the hard, strategic questions facing the movement. The idea of a SDS/MDS “sustainers’ program” could be a way to build and maintain an active fundraising effort without bestowing undue authority upon board members.

We can also envision in the near future the formation of an FDS (Faculty for a Democratic Society) to help support SDS efforts to radically democratize the educational system and bring together the fragmented academic left. Of course, such efforts would also have to include support for the struggles of staff, workers, adjunct faculty, and graduate assistants on campus. As the old slogan goes, towards a “Free University in a Free Society.”

Radical organization

Among the major problems SDS is faced with as it builds itself from below is that of organizational structure. SDS needs to repudiate both the centralism of vanguard parties, as well as the anti-organizational (and anti-mass) excesses exhibited by some “anarchists and anti-authoritarians.” We don’t want a steering committee to dictate national policy, but we also need to step back and examine the concept of “total autonomy” in the context of a nationwide radical organization. If chapters of SDS were totally autonomous, one chapter could initiate an action that might have severe consequences for the entire national SDS, bringing down state repression on chapters doing the hard work of movement building on campuses.

The “network model” of left organizing strategy has both positives and very clear shortcomings. There is very little accountability in loosely based networks; while they have been very effective in bringing people together for mobilizations and direct actions, they have not been able to build a model for organizing that has exerted a considerable influence on the trajectory of the left in the US. SDS needs to look to decentralized mass movements that have successfully challenged the status quo around the world and draw lessons from their experiences.

While it is important to take the approach of “Resist State Power/Build Dual Power” and build counter-institutions from below, student radicals would be mistaken to adopt the more problematic anti-mass ideas of some sub-cultural sectors of the left. From Paris in 1968 to the 1st Palestinian Intifada and beyond, it is clear that successful radical movements are mass movements, movements of millions mobilized for change.

SDS has the chance to become a truly mass phenomenon if its members build a structure that will ensure internal democracy and allow for the facilitation of coordinated nationwide actions. If this is solidified in the coming months, SDS will be able to absorb growing numbers and chapters that are immediately plugged into the organization and receive active support and solidarity. During the summer of 2007, SDS is planning to hold a series of “action/organizer” camps in different regions to build organizing skills and strategic vision.

Student power

Young students are crucial to the stability of the power structure; the “system” relies upon the university and educational system to indoctrinate young people and channel them into positions which support the functioning of the neoliberal political-economic order. The routines and social status competition in many colleges and universities reinforces ideological domination to serve elite interests. Through everyday activity in a university setting, the individual is conditioned to accept the ideas and social patterns that support the status quo as “common sense.”

Of course, due to the general atmosphere of “intellectual pluralism,” a small minority of radical faculty members remain and encourage their students to challenge the prevailing ideology and take action for social change. That is the reason David Horowitz and the organized neoconservative right wing foundations—like Campus Watch and the hard-line Zionist David Project—have attacked dissenting professors, like David Graeber at Yale and Joseph Massad at Columbia. Their goal is nothing short of wiping out the remaining radical left academy.

This state of affairs isn’t surprising. The modern university is a corporation; its major product is educated white-collar professionals, mid-level and ideological managers in the society at large. Through its connections with the corporations and the military industrial complex, the university also plays a key role in providing research and academic justifications for US imperialism and the class warfare being waged against people here at home. Schools provide free space to recruiters from the military, intelligence agencies, and other corporations.

The anti-war movement and campus organization against the war have not yet reached the levels that will cause a decisive split in the elite pro-war consensus that was achieved during the Vietnam War movement. A campus explosion akin to the nationwide student strike after Kent State, Jackson State, and the invasion of Cambodia would be needed to make the government reevaluate its commitment to occupying Iraq. This would also have to occur alongside a community-based nationwide, decentralized mobilization, perhaps based on the models of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium and the Chicano Moratorium.

Another important aspect of anti-war organizing that should become a central issue for campus activists is building student support for the growing resistance within the military and among veterans. A GI coffee house has been established near Fort Drum, NY. Over 1000 active duty military personnel have initiated a call for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq, under the banner of an “Appeal for Redress.” Iraq Veterans Against the War continues to grow; SDSers and campus organizers should continue to build relationships of solidarity and cooperation with IVAW members in the coming months.

The occupation of Iraq will end when three key elements of resistance coalesce and exploit the “cracks and fissures” in the elite consensus.

    1.The campuses, streets, and workplaces of the nation must become ungovernable, raising the domestic cost of continuing the war to the point where the ruling class and state apparatus is faced with the possibility of significant social unrest over a long period.

    2.Resistance to the war among active duty personnel, veterans, and military family members must exponentially increase, connecting the occupation to rising economic and social costs the war effort is incurring at home. For instance, homeless and wounded vets being abandoned by the US imperial warfare state.

    3.The institutions of government and key economic players must begin to actively oppose the war effort and exert their influence over the decision making apparatus at the highest levels of State. The “liberal” wing of the Democratic Party is beginning to show signs of life, with presidential contenders Obama and John Edwards carefully playing the field as “anti-war” alternatives to the “Hillary Machine.” The grassroots impeachment movement has failed to generate significant momentum to affect Congress. The level of growing congressional activity against the war will closely correspond to the escalation of grassroots anti-war mobilization and growing militancy among key sectors of the anti-war movement. When the level of “civil disorder” at home causes a decisive split and “crisis of legitimation” among the ruling class and high level bureaucrats, we can expect a cutoff of funding for the war to follow shortly. It all depends upon the level of activity that the grassroots anti-war movement is able to mobilize and escalate in the coming months.

The anti-war movement, the student movement, and SDS are faced with a key strategic challenge. We have a “passive anti-war majority” and a “militant anti-war minority” that actually participates in demonstrations and active organizing against the war. Our overriding goal should be to increase the mass scale of the movement, while further radicalizing growing numbers of people in an anti-systemic direction. The level of direct action and resistance against key pillars supporting the war will need to grow, including war profiteers, military recruiters, pro-war and fake anti-war politicians.

Dissent will have to spill over into every institution of American society. The “long march through the system” has begun; anti-war forces need to articulate a strategic vision to exploit growing anti-war discontent and mobilize the millions of people that it will take to end the occupation. The idea of an Iraq Moratorium should be seriously explored as the next major strategic mobilization for the movement in 2007. It would be a major organizing effort, increasing the participation of the grassroots movement in developing local actions on a set date when the people say “NO MORE.”

SDS is emerging as a major force to organize students behind a radical, anti-systemic platform. Students and youth will no longer tolerate the attacks on free speech, academic freedom, the total corporatization of the university, the national debt and student loan regime that will ruin our lives and dreams, the assault on the public sphere by the hegemonic media. We will not stand by and acquiesce to the expansion of US empire, the attacks on basic civil liberties, the mass incarceration of young people of color, the increase of government surveillance and repression of our movements, and the growing erosion of democratic culture within US society.

Hopefully SDS can articulate an inspiring strategy of resistance and a vision of a world without war, exploitation, and oppression that will appeal to a growing generation of youth and students unwilling to accept the tyranny of our system and its global machinations. Join us.

    Doug Viehmeyer is a radical anti-Zionist Jew who graduated Hartwick College in 2005. He worked on anti-war, Palestine Solidarity, and feminist issues as an undergrad and currently is a worker in the "hospitality industry."