SDS revived: 1960s group wraps up active year

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From distributing a “Disorientation Guide” to staging a die-in in front of the Textron headquarters this spring, the left-wing activist group Students for a Democratic Society has been a forceful presence on campus this year. Dormant since its collapse in 1969, chapters of the group – including Brown’s – have been re-emerging since January 2006.

The University’s chapter of SDS is a successor of the 1960s incarnation, a radical group that sought to unite diverse student organizations under the common goal of participatory democracy. Specific issues included domestic poverty, the Vietnam War and racial diversity on campus. But the group did not last long.

“It came and went,” said Paul Buhle, senior lecturer in American civilization and an active SDS member in the 1960s, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

In the short time since it was re-founded last year, SDS has gained a foothold at Brown. Not only did Brown host the first regional SDS New England conference last year, but the John Nicholas Brown Center now houses the exhibition “The SDS Comic Show,” a graphic history of SDS including pages and panels from the forthcoming book “Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History,” written by cartoonist Harvey Pekar and edited by Buhle.

The exhibition traces the history of SDS from the drafting of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 to its resistance to the Vietnam War and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It also describes the cultural and political legacy of SDS, including acknowledgments of its overwhelming success at organizing a mass student movement and producing real social change in the 1960s.

Despite initial success, SDS collapsed across the country in 1969 due to internal clashes in philosophy, interests and protest tactics.

National reformation

But in 2006, two high school students called for a revival of SDS. With the help of Alan Haber, president of SDS from 1960 to 1962, they launched a Web site calling for new groups to form under the old name, and chapters quickly proliferated. The group now claims 2,000 members nationwide, with over 100 college chapters and dozens more in high schools, according to Christopher Phelps’ April 2007 article “The New SDS” in the Nation.

The meetings of Brown’s SDS chapter now regularly draw 25 to 30 people, including local high school students, community members and college students from other chapters, said SDS member William Lambek ’09. Though SDS has no official group leaders, some members assume leadership roles within SDS, said member Bucky Rogers ’07.

Members take pride in their diversity within the groups and across chapters, but they try to remember the dangers of fragmentation and factionalism that destroyed the old SDS in the late 1960s, Rogers said. “We are knowledgeable of the history,” he said. “We try to be as respectful as possible.”

Issues on campus

Though the goals, issues and tactics of SDS chapters vary widely, they share an interest in promoting social justice, government accountability and democratic participation at all levels of society, according to Phelps.

Lambek said members of the Brown chapter have diverse backgrounds and activist interests. Problems of militarism, imperialism and environmental destruction are of particular concern among students here, he said.

SDS has taken a particularly active role in protesting the Iraq war. Rogers cited increasing anti-war sentiment as a cause for the group’s recent growth and the eagerness with which students have mobilized.

“There has been a resurgence in the anti-war group,” he said. “There is more infrastructure now.”

On April 7, at least 16 SDS members protested inside Sayles Hall over defense contractor Raytheon’s presence at the Career Fair. A Brown SDS member was arrested downtown at another rally in front of the headquarters of Textron Inc., a corporation the U.S. military contracts with for helicopters, armored vehicles and munitions.

Lambek said he thought students were sympathetic to the message of these protests and – in the case of the Raytheon incident – with what SDS sees as the University’s tacit support for “war profiteers.”

“(The protest) really showed the possibility that student power can hold,” he said.

Planning for the future

The next challenges for SDS, Lambek said, lie in strengthening activist culture, building links among issue-based groups and “organizing the organizers.”

Though SDS now operates at a local and regional level, Lambek said he sees the formation of a national structure as a possibility.

“I don’t see there being a central committee making decisions,” he said, adding that he envisioned only a solidified structure that might allow chapters to communicate and mobilize.

Meanwhile, SDS members anticipate that the group will expand and continue to agitate for meaningful reform in the coming years. “The current freshman and sophomore classes are passionate and knowledgeable,” Rogers said.

SDS’s future activities are uncertain but will continue to reflect the interests and concerns of group members rather than being dictated by a certain prescribed set of issues, Lambek said.

Molly McLaughlin ’10 said she anticipates that the debate over whether ROTC should return to campus will be one issue to engage SDS’s attention in the near future.

For McLaughlin, groups like SDS were part of the reason she came to Brown in the first place. She joined SDS because she has long had “the desire to learn about things and the desire to do something about them.”

Mael Vizcarra ’09 said that she was involved with activism in high school, but she stopped once she came to the University – until she found SDS. “I thought the organizations here were just talk,” she said. “But I found a group that represented my philosophy.”

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