“It would be criminal to overlook the serious flaws and inadequacies in our institutions, or to fail to utilize the substantial degree of freedom that most of us enjoy, within the framework of these flawed institutions, to modify them or even replace them by a better social order,” Noam Chomsky wrote in 1969. “One who pays some attention to history will not be surprised if those who cry most loudly that we must smash and destroy are later found among the administrators of some new system of repression.”
Such was the fate of Students for a Democratic Society, the infamous student activism group formed by manifesto in 1960 and destroyed by violence and hubris nine years later.
But what a nine years it was. At its height, SDS was a potent enemy of the state that managed to strike fear in the heart of the establishment by organizing and inspiring the young. It was the most recognized voice of civil dissent and war resistance on campuses the nation over.
“We were preoccupied with questions of strategy and tactics,” said former SDS member Mark Rudd in a recent speech at Drew University. “Should we build a campaign against the universities sending student class rank to draft boards? Should we take up the presence of ROTC on campus? Should we raise the issue of CIA and military and Dow Chemical recruitment? Should we petition or demonstrate or hold a referendum or commit civil disobedience or conduct educational campaigns? Over the course of years, we did it all.”
And now, for the first time, SDS is in Orlando, in the form of a chapter at the University of Central Florida. In the spring semester of 2006, UCF students decided it was time to get in a little participatory democracy. Given the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, Bush and Nixon, UCF and the military, it just might catch on.
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” wrote SDS president Tom Hayden in the organization-defining “Port Huron Statement” of 1960.
The statement was adopted as the official manifesto at the first national SDS convention in that Michigan city in 1962. Hayden continued, “In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox: We ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that American will ‘muddle through,’ beneath the stagnations of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are not alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well.”
“Basically, it was very idealistic and liberal in 1962 with the Port Huron Statement,” says Neil Jumonville, history department chair at Florida State University, a campus where the SDS was particularly strong in the late ’60s. (“In fact FSU was once called the Berkeley of the South, and it certainly had nothing to do with the cultural amenities around here,” Jumonville says.) “If you read that, it’s very idealistic in the sense that they don’t want people to have to work in jobs that are not fulfilling, and they’re asking for things like economic democracy, and in the political realm, participatory democracy. But there’s no evidence that they really know what that means back then. In fact, it would be hard for anybody to imagine what that would mean, economic democracy and so forth.”
From the early years, SDS had trouble defining what it wanted to be. Jumonville points to the Economic Research and Action Project — young students infiltrating rural communities — as one of the strongest ideas the SDS had. The juxtaposition of the affluent college kid dropped in the middle of the have-nots, while suspect, touched an idealistic nerve.
But that was an outreach, and in some ways it splintered from the campus-oriented origins of the SDS. By the time of the 1964 convention, the confusion was growing.
“Many of the people who would join a group like that would have strong political opinions, so it’s very difficult,” says Jumonville. “If you think of the model of unanimity — the jury system is one — you know how hard it is to get 12 people to come to the same opinion, let alone 20 or 30.”
On Oct. 1, 1964, at University of California at Berkeley, 3,000 student activists, many of them SDS, surrounded a campus police car carrying away socialist activist Jack Weinberg, who had been arrested for setting up an information table on the campus. For 36 hours, students sat around the car, taking turns standing on top of it and turning it into a makeshift pulpit for free speech. The university was virtually shut down. It was an early glimpse of a new, and ultimately ruinous, direction for SDS.
With the escalation of the Vietnam war in 1965, the SDS was forced out of its proactive free-speech role and into the front line of protests against the draft and the war. The group was becoming an all-inclusive populist shock show in which marijuana Easy Riders shared a stage with the work shirts of the New Left and the Afros and “pussy power” of the Black Panthers. The feds planted spies on campuses, and the situation was getting volatile. The government went as far as to assemble a “Truth Team” that traveled to campuses to debate the SDS face-to-face. But the government always lost.
By 1967, SDS was all about resistance and disrupting the war machine. They assembled 1,000 supporters in an effort to force Dow Chemicals off the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where the company actively recruited. The cops responded with clubs, crashing through windows to get to students and cracking heads.
“The second the cops started clubbing heads, the entire situation changed dramatically,” wrote Ronald Fraser in 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. “Suddenly, fraternity boys, athletes, all sorts of normal people who were just going to classes, people who were a little ambivalent about the war but who would never go to a demonstration, were unbelievably outraged and were eager to wade into the crowd and sock the jaw of a cop.”
The violence may have been cathartic, but it was also the beginning of the end, notes Jumonville. “As it became more violent, then a lot of the original SDS people pulled out of things, and it left in some ways the least intelligent and least committed people who were not into any kind of democratic reformation, like the Port Huron Statement and the idealism of the early New Left, early SDS. It left just people who were willing to do the most outrageous things.”
By 1969, at the final SDS convention in Chicago, the wounds were irreparable. Warring factions tore the group apart from the inside. The Black Panthers, the PL Worker Student Alliance, the Revolutionary Youth Movement all butted heads over whose agenda was more pressing. The SDS fizzled out over the following three years, presumably never to be heard from again.
A few dead civilians
“I’m not an asshole,” 21-year-old Patrick DeCarlo says from behind his dark sunglasses, indoors. “They’re prescription.”
At the front of a growing line leading up to the guarded entrance of the Pegasus Ballroom in UCF’s student union Oct. 26, about 15 disheveled students have gathered early for a speech from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, part of the school’s Global Perspectives lecture series. Most of the students are wearing some variation of pro-Palestinian rhetoric on their homemade T-shirts, many of which also sport the SDS logo.
The Global Perspectives organizers, many of student age themselves, look a little worried. The idea that everything will go smoothly today is out the window with the arrival of police backup.
But what’s there to worry about? These SDS kids aren’t a bellicose bunch; just the opposite, actually. Most are quietly reading books, some are engaging in the sort of “Is poetry dead?” conversations found in English departments. Dog-eared Noam Chomsky paperbacks and wrinkled copies of Elizabeth Bishop poems do not an arsenal make, especially during wartime.
“If they’re going to silence us, I would rather silence myself before they can,” says DeCarlo, pointing to the bandanna knotted around his neck, another part of the shared uniform. They’re calling it a “gag-in,” largely in response to the fact that during previous question-and-answer platforms — there is one scheduled at the end of today’s speech — the SDS have been overlooked. The plan is to stand up, pull their bandannas over their mouths and walk out. (They do have one suited plant, however, with a statement to read should he get the chance after the walkout.)
SDS’ faculty advisor, Jay Jurie, arrives in full colonial hunting garb, sporting a wide-brimmed hat and pants tucked into his boots. “Shouldn’t they call it ‘right-wing perspectives’?” he jokes from behind gray hair and glasses, offering no explanation for his odd get-up.
For two nerve-wracking hours, attendees are searched and wanded by metal detectors to gain entrance. It’s nearly 4 p.m. before the scheduled 3 p.m. event starts, and the SDS, with about 30 members in attendance, has filled up more than one seating row.
“What are you guys planning on doing?” a kid DeCarlo identifies as a member of UCF’s College Republicans asks.
“Being here,” answers SDSer Eric Eingold.
“Oh,” says the Republican. “I was going to take your seat when you leave.”
After a warning to “refrain from protests or waving signs; if you have a protest, take it outside” from a nervous school official, Barak takes the stage to detail his coordination of a hijacking rescue effort on an Air France aircraft in 1976, and another anti-terrorist action in Beirut that found him dressing in drag and forgetting to tell his wife when he got home and passed out in bed. “The funny thing is, she was going to San Francisco the next day!” Laughs all around.
But it’s during Barak’s hard-line opinions on Iraq and terrorism that DeCarlo starts to come undone. Barak makes a statement suggesting that a few civilian casualties are nothing compared to the sanctity of a free world. Just then, DeCarlo and 30 or so of his closest friends stand up, throw peace signs into the air, cover their mouths with their bandannas and exit single-file to the sound of booming applause, an excitement that treads a thin line between anger and approval.
“After hearing him say, ‘What’s a few civilian lives?’” DeCarlo says outside the hall, “I’m happy with what we did.”
Mistakes of the past
On Jan. 16 of this year, Martin Luther King Day, a nationally distributed press release materialized, declaring that the Students for a Democratic Society were relaunching, with their sights set on a national convention in the summer of 2006.
Two months earlier, Pat Korte, a Connecticut high-school student at the time, found former SDS activist Tom Good’s name on an SDS message board. Korte was disillusioned with the “old-guard” trappings of the current war resistance movement and was hoping to link up nascent chapters of the SDS in the northeast and to try it all over again. Good — a member of the pseudo-communist Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” a group partially blamed for the breakup of the SDS, and also the editor of NextLeftNotes.org, the newsletter for Members for a Democratic Society — was still in contact with old-school SDS luminaries like Paul Buhle and Alan Haber, one of the original founders and president from 1960-1962. Good took Korte up on his offer. He got to work on a new website, www.studentsforademocraticsociety.org, and a new plan of action. But he insists this isn’t just an Internet venture.
“The Internet’s a tool like the telephone or typewriter,” he says. “As a programmer, I find it interesting that I have to remind people all the time that chatting on the Internet all the time is not a viable surrogate for being on the streets.”
In just a few months Good and a gaggle of his contacts, including Korte, Haber and Buhle, have assembled a national organization of some 224 registered chapters, including high schools, universities and regional associations. Good acts as a “virtual national secretary for SDS,” advising students, building websites, etc. He insists the organization is more about individual chapters than a national identity.
“We feel that the more decentralized, the better, the more democratic, and the less likelihood that factional struggle will be a problem,” he says. “We think that the, whatever you call it — radical democratic, anarchist, anarcho-syndicalist — approach to a nationwide organization is the way to go.”
One purpose of the organization — now augmented by the post-graduate component, Members for a Democratic Society — is the collection of bail money. Activists in Olympia, Wash., were recently thrown in the slammer. So was Good.
“Myself, Pat Korte and four of our other SDSers were arrested, and not on a university, but on the grounds of Times Square,” he says. “[We were] blocking traffic, refusing to move. We did a lockdown in front of the recruiting center.”
The SDS has launched yet another acronym, RIP (Radicals in Professions), to insure that even students who graduate remain involved, distributing radical literature and infiltrating where appropriate.
By all accounts, the SDS seems more equipped to deal with its own growth this time around, thanks to those who’ve been through it before. Good insists that this isn’t a nostalgic exercise. Even Tom Hayden isn’t all that romantic anymore.
“He’s much more radical than he has been in years,” Good says of Hayden, whom he saw speaking on the Port Huron Statement a couple of months back. “And he described his 18 years in the state assembly in California as an interlude, and he actually stated that you cannot be a movement person and a politician simultaneously; it doesn’t work and he’s glad to be back in the movement.”
“Somebody said to him, ‘If the war doesn’t stop, would you support actions like what happened in Chicago in ’68?’ And I was waiting for some kind of equivocation. Instead he looked up and said ‘Yes!’ emphatically.”
But are today’s kids going to be that fired up, especially without the personal threat of a draft? Does today’s political climate justify a new SDS?
Yes, says Good.
“Youth and students were not in the streets, because they didn’t have a voice. They always had to be playing second fiddle to some other mass organization, so we have that. But I also think that Bush is even worse than Nixon, which is hard for me to say, because I grew up during the Nixon period and demonstrated against the guy and hated him. He’s much more evil than Nixon,” he says. “I mean, these kids have guts, and a lot of left-wing academics forget what it’s like to have the courage to act on your convictions. I mean it’s great to write books, but you have to take that into the streets. And we have a lot of lefty academics who are just afraid to speak out, or whatever it might be, and I’m hoping the kids will inspire them too.”
Jumonville thinks it might be a good idea to temper ambition with a dose of history, to move forward with caution.
“My advice to students would be don’t make the mistake of the New Left by not reading about what happened radically before you,” he says. “I mean, they had this Emersonian feeling that they wanted a brand-new experience and so they didn’t even want to be tainted by the knowledge of the mistakes and the battles that the generation of the Left before them had.”
The UCF SDS chapter formed in the spring of last year when a group of friends — several of whom have now graduated and moved on to assist the movement in New York — grew tired of sitting on the sidelines.
“I’m in a class where I’m learning about SDS and I’m thinking, ‘Oh wow, these kids really had something great to do, and I’m not doing anything!’” says DeCarlo.
It sprang out of boredom as much as political opposition, though the fact that UCF was doing research on a plasma-burning “pain gun” helped crystallize things.
“Some of us were here for the first two years and sat on our asses and watched TV. Then we heard about the pain gun, and we were like, ‘Fuck this, I’m bored, let’s go have fun,’” says Eingold.
“I was raised on the implication that I was going to go to the university, learn the tools that I needed so that I could go back to my community and make it better,” DeCarlo adds. “Well, I’ve had a rude awakening that the university system doesn’t work like that.”
The Barak “gag-in” was the latest in a series of direct actions the SDS at UCF have put on in the name of civil disobedience. The first wasn’t so much an action as it was an inspiration.
During 2006 spring break, the week of March 13, the UCF Board of Trustees convened to unanimously approve a hike in health, transportation and equipment-access fees. A few of the SDS members showed up to speak their side, but were shut out. The elected Student Council representatives were off on vacation.
The next week, on March 20, approximately 35 students participated in what would be SDS’ first real action: a march on the Armed Forces Recruitment Center in a shopping center across from the Alafaya Trail entrance of UCF. After being harassed by school officials for gathering outside of “free speech zones,” the demonstrators trekked to the recruiting site carrying signs, banners, a “Corporate America”–logo flag and three freshly baked cakes, one for each year of the Iraq war.
On March 28, when the university welcomed Jeb Bush for a speech on government, about 20 SDSers showed up in “students not soldiers” shirts and held up signs reading “Peace is possible” and “Books not bombs.” When they asked Bush about UCF military research involvement and the development of pain guns for the Harris Corporation — a huge bone of contention for the students — Bush said he knew nothing about it.
By April 19, the UCF SDS was gaining momentum. They staged a “talk-in” at the John T. Washington Center breezeway opposing a potential pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran’s nuclear development plants. Members were threatened with arrests for protesting outside the school’s “free-speech zones.” One student, DeCarlo, claims he was harassed by authorities.
With the new semester in full swing, the SDS decided to hold a follow-up “talk-in” at the same breezeway on Sept. 7, this time with local ACLU chapter president George Crossley on hand as a witness. Authorities steered clear. UCF spokesman Tom Evelyn responded to the event. “The university has free speech everywhere,” Evelyn says. “There are no restrictions on free speech at the university.”
On Oct. 5, roughly 50 students near the student union, some just passers-by encouraged by SDSers, painted their hands red for the “blood on our hands” action, carrying a letter of concern for the university’s corporate and military ties directly to the office of UCF president John Hitt.
Representatives Tom Feeney and Ric Keller — both Republican — were invited Oct. 9 by the university’s Global Perspectives program to a symposium on immigration. SDS members responded by carrying tattered gloves up to the stage in a show of the worth of immigrants to the farming economy.
In deference to their efforts, the law offices of Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters honored the SDS with their First Annual Freedom of Speech Activism Award Oct. 19 on the steps of the Federal Courthouse downtown. The event coincided with National Freedom of Speech Week and netted the SDS a gift of $500.
The SDS has yet to be granted official recognition by the university. A series of bureaucratic foibles, chiefly one involving the name of their website, now correctly titled www.sdsatucf.com, held them back.
“What we do is we like to attack that principle and attack the institution that’s closest to us: the university system,” says DeCarlo. “We’re all students, so of course we’re all involved in the university system. How is it that the university makes decisions that are imposed upon us? How do they not present our voice in proportion to how much we’re affected?”
“At the trustees meeting, the president, John C. Hitt, actually referred to the students as customers,” adds Eingold. “And I don’t even think that was a slip; they were talking about class size, and he just said, ‘Well if the customers want this, we’ve got to give them that.’ We try to go to those things just to pressure them, just so we can know what’s going on.”
They contend that by acting microcosmically, focusing on what they can change, they can affect the bigger picture.
About 35 people attend each SDS meeting, though they boast a membership of approximately 300. They have seven members involved in the student government — SDS’ candidate for student government president got 20 percent of the vote — and are attempting to use their pull to affect school policies. They’ve aroused interest from the ACLU on the free-speech zones issue, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a potent national collective of civil-rights leaders, sent a “deeply concerned” letter to the school’s president Nov. 1 regarding the constitutionality of UCF’s policies.
“You’ve got to understand the amount of ammunition they’ve given us,” says DeCarlo of his school. “They’ve shut down two events that we tried to do that had war character, they didn’t shut down an event that we had to do that had to be about free expression. That’s a content neutrality sort of thing. It’s a problem with legal definitions. It’s an illegal thing to do.”
The SDS also works with Food Not Bombs, fighting for the rights to feed the homeless in public spaces throughout Orlando.
“It’s what the SDS historically has focused on; coordinating in the community, stepping off the campus, getting outside help, getting people to come to the campus and getting students to go out in the community,” says Eingold. “And that’s what’s going on nationally now at SDS.”
“It is fun, too,” DeCarlo says. “As stressful as all of this stuff is, it’s still fun to me. It’s still fun to feel like you’re a part of something, and it’s fun to just make spectacles that are actually intelligent, not spectacles for the sake of spectacles. We’re meeting people we wouldn’t normally meet. We’re forcing ourselves on people, and people like what we have to say sometimes, and we get to hang out with them and be friends with them.”
“What could be better?” adds Eingold.
Just how big of a thorn in the side is SDS to UCF at this point? “Growing every day,” laughs DeCarlo.