Old School Student Protest Returns

Anti-war demonstrators march in Washington D.C. in protest of the fourth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. CBS

This column was written by Christopher Phelps.
Twenty-year-old Will Klatt, wearing a green knit hat, baggy jeans and black jacket pulled over a hoodie, stands before a Civil War monument at the center of Ohio University's main campus in Athens. Although a February snow is falling steadily, more than a hundred students have turned out for this rally called by a new organization with a very familiar name: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

"Many of us at Ohio University have taken classes on the principles of democracy, on justice, on ethics," says Klatt, "and with the presumption that we will use this knowledge, acquired in our classes, to become more informed citizens. Yet this knowledge we acquire is nothing if we do not put it into practice."

The students, including frat boys and jocks, clap and whistle. They are here in protest against new fees, elimination of four varsity sports programs and increased administrative bonus pay. Each decision, organizers say, reflects a lack of student power on campus — as do "free-speech zones" confining student protest to irrelevant corners of campus. "We are talking," says Klatt, "about the corporatization of our university."

Angry at the Iraq debacle, emboldened by the Bush-Cheney tailspin, a new student radicalism is emerging whose concerns include immigrants' rights, global warming and the uncertainties facing debt-ridden graduates. Such considerations distinguish the new SDS from its historical namesake, which took shape in a very different context of economic affluence and establishment liberalism.

The original SDS, formed in 1960, sought "a participatory democracy," the involvement of all in running society from the bottom up, as elaborated in the Port Huron Statement of 1962. Frustrated with conventional liberalism, inspired by the civil rights movement and sustained by opposition to the Vietnam War, SDS grew to perhaps 100,000 members before disintegrating in a shower of fratricidal sparks in 1969.

The notion of re-creating SDS was the brainchild of Jessica Rapchik and Pat Korte, high school students in North Carolina and Connecticut, respectively, who met on an antiwar phone hookup in the fall of 2005. Upon discovering their mutual dissatisfaction with the existing left, they hit upon the notion of reviving SDS.

One of the original SDSers they first contacted was Alan Haber, president of SDS from 1960 to 1962, now a woodworker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had independently suggested "re-membering" SDS at a historians' conference in 2003. Once the call to relaunch SDS went public in January 2006 with a new Web site, campus chapters began popping up, from Florida to Colorado. Today, there are more than 100 college chapters and dozens more in high schools.

By laying claim to an old name, contemporary students risked that 1960s veterans might disapprove of new wine being made in their bottle. Sociologist Todd Gitlin, SDS president from 1963 to 1964, is one such skeptic. "What was often brilliant about SDS," he says, "was that it was attuned to its moment. It didn't recycle the Old Left. It was the New Left." Maurice Isserman, who joined SDS at Reed College in 1968, recently published a sharply critical piece about the new SDS in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In an interview, he said of the group's revival, "As a historian, I found it a little offensive. It's like, could I be in the Sons of Liberty tomorrow if I started it, claimed lineal descent from Sam Adams?"

The new SDSers have few such qualms. They seek continuity with radical history but value the name Students for a Democratic Society as much for the future it projects as for its fabled past. They find it a compelling name for an inclusive, multi-issue student group seeking social transformation. Emerging from a post-Seattle, direct-action culture defined by negation — "anticapitalist," "antiwar" — they value its forthright, positive aim of democracy. The new SDSers admit, however, that the name does not always evoke the associations they intend. "Oh," said a friend to Yale University senior Micah Landau, 21, "so you want me to join the guerrillas?"

What most links the new SDS to the old is the principle of participatory democracy. SDSers consider that ideal, both as a social aim and a guide to present-day practice, to be the quintessence of their project. They seek to combine the expansive vision of liberation from oppression, empire and capitalism characteristic of SDS in the late 1960s with the commitment to participatory democracy typical of the movement in the early '60s. The tone at meetings is honest, searching, respectful. Although the group has informal leaders, no one is a "heavy."

The belief systems of SDSers range tremendously. Variations on anarchism and socialism are commonplace, but each chapter has a distinct character. At Choate Rosemary Hall, the Connecticut prep school, Paul Gault, 18, says "a lot of students wanted just an outlet for their voice," making the chapter "by SDS standards not too radical."

But since the new SDS has spread most rapidly on regional campuses and at community colleges, not elite institutions, a more typical chapter — both demographically and ideologically — might be Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, Calif. There the four SDS members identify themselves as Marxist-libertarian, libertarian socialist, anarcho-syndicalist and communal anarchist, the differences between them being "zilch," they report.

Ohio's Klatt says that many people in SDS are "anarcho-something-or-other, but they feel like anarchist organizations are so unorganized that they haven't been effective in creating systemic change." At the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, however, the ten core SDSers are all liberals, while at the University of North Alabama the thirteen to fifteen core SDSers are mostly liberals, with a sprinkling of socialists. "Anarchy isn't really our deal," says Andrew Walker, 23, a journalism major.

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