From the MDS Conference in NYC – D. Hamilton

Movement for a Democratic Society Conference. (2/17/07) What happened?

What didn’t happen.

Before the conference, a small group of dissidents complained via the MDS list-serve about national office staff domination by an illegitimate cabal who were controlling the conference and marginalizing Al Haber who was advocating greater internal democracy. My own initial evaluation of this was to advocate that all parties quit quibbling and get on with the important work to be done. I was told that I didn’t understand the issues involved. Then the dissident Haber supporters put out a highly verbose call for support that included a threat of physical violence at the conference if their demands were not addressed.

This was a terminal turn off for me. On arrival at the conference, we met Bruce Rubinstein, Paul Buhle and other alleged cabal members. They seemed entirely reasonable and businesslike. They also had a convincing story in regards to Haber’s actions that was not flattering.

The Haber dissidents did show up and immediately made a nuisance of themselves, disrupting the schedule of speakers at the very first opportunity. But it was also immediately obvious that their pre-conference efforts had gained them no recruits. They remained 5 people at most out of almost 200. They were eventually quelled and the proceedings continued. After all the speeches had been given and the business part of the program began, they renewed their onslaught. It failed utterly. Haber, however, did nothing to control their aggressiveness or distance himself from them. As a result, when it came to electing 3 vice chairs of the MDS Board, a position to which he was nominated, he came in last. Haber definitely suffered from his association with these unruly disruptors. I tend to feel that he’s a good man who got used by some not so good people with suspicious agendas.

I cannot help but wonder where these guys came from. It was immediately obvious that they were a tiny minority and their complaints had no traction. Yet, they persisted, at times in a rude and disorderly manner. Such actions cause me to suspect sinister motives. Their harshest and most telling critics were the young SDS speakers who denounced their activities with undiluted scorn. And these students, representing SDS, which is considered to be the main show, had clout. In sum, this group of dissidents were a disruption that was managed and marginalized with no effect other than to be a mild bummer during an otherwise uplifting event.

What did happen.

This was a coming out party, much of it for show, with a little business, although important business, tacked on to the end. The show included a series of speakers, all interesting, some inspiring. It kicked off with Tom Good, SDS/MDS organizer from NYC giving a review of SDS and MDS growth since its refounding almost a year ago. It was basically a description of accelerating growth and militancy coast to coast, but not centered in the elite universities that were the strongholds of the old SDS.

Good was followed by Mark Rudd, ex-leader of the famed 1968 Columbia student strike and subsequently of the Weather Underground. He basically denounced many of the decisions of his past, especially “the insane decision made unilaterally” by the Weather leaders who controlled the national office of SDS after the 1969 Chicago convention, to “kill off” SDS for not being sufficiently revolutionary. He actually said that although they were not, the Weather leaders should have been paid by the FBI for doing its work for it. He then moved on to denounce violence as a tactic, or even its discussion. Besides the moral arguments, violence inevitably led to isolation and invited repression from a government which has more weapons for such now in era of the “War on Terrorism” than it did back then. Rudd closed by pointing out that the earlier SDS surged from a minor organization to a major one when it took the lead of the student movement against the war in Vietnam. The new SDS should do the same in relation to the student movement against the war in Iraq. In this vein, he advocated counter recruitment, support of GI resisters and outreach through militancy. He also advocated SDS autonomy, not yoked to MDS.

Rudd was followed by Columbia Black history professor, Manning Marable, who gave the most riveting speech of the day. It was a sweeping analysis of the nature of the problem we face, globalized capitalism supported by American imperialism. A principal manifestation of this is “globalized aparteid”, the racialized domination by the primarily white developed world over billions of non-white poor. This system is a manifestation of the ideology of neo-liberalism, which he characterized domestically by the evisceration of the public sector by privatization and the elimination of government regulation and services. The war in Iraq is not an aberration foisted upon us by radical neo-conservatives. Debt growth and declining profits from domestic enterprises have forced US capitalists to export capital in search of lower waged labor and lack of environmental regulation, leading to a more aggressive foreign policy. In brief, neo-liberalism fosters more aggressive imperialism, leading to US troops currently being stationed in 59 different countries. Neo-liberalism also leads to “new racial domain of the 21st century” that includes mass unemployment in non-white communities (in reality 40-50%) and the mass incarceration of excess non-white workers (“warehousing redundant labor”) and their consequent disenfranchisement, over a million citizens including a third of all adult black males in Mississippi. A related manifestation is the prison-industrial complex with 2.3 million now behind bars in the US, the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world. Add those on parole or probation and the figure reaches 6 million. Most new prisons are located in Republican congressional districts where non-voting prisoners are counted as residents, resulting in those districts receiving more government money and increased representation. What is to be done? Opposition to imperialism in foreign policy and defense and expansion of the public sphere domestically. Marable’s analysis was comprehensive and his presentation dramatic. He rocked.

Marable was followed by a panel of New York area SDS members. They denounced the “egotistical” bickering among MDS members and listed their needs from MDS: mentorship, money, professional skills (e.g., lawyers) and networking. These four young representatives spoke with confidence and authority.

After lunch, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke, primarily about her new book, “Dancing in the Streets.” This concerned the evolution of the “carnivalization” of demonstrations, involving masking, music, theater, costuming, etc. These festive elements enhance solidarity, foster individual creativity and help us visualize a better world. This was an interesting point, but I would have liked hearing a broader perspective and something about her hopes for MDS. Ehrenreich was followed by Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater and the day’s last speaker. Not surprisingly, her presentation was poetic, spontaneous, flamboyantly dramatic and charmingly brilliant, reading a wonderful poem written for the occasion. She urged the incorporation of the arts in our struggle.

At this point, we proceeded to the business part of the conference. This included the approval of the members of the MDS Board. Probably 20 of the 50 were on hand. Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and others had sent messages of solidarity. Those on hand spoke of their qualifications and desire to participate. All were approved. In addition, Al Haber was added to the Board. Then Board members present voted on their chairperson and 3 vice-chairs. Manning Marable and Al Haber were nominated for chairperson with Marable winning by near acclamation.

There were 5 nominations for Vice Chairpersons. The winners were Boston historian Paul Buhle, radical hip hop artist, the 30ish Jessie Zurel, and Judith Malina. Haber was nominated for this position too, but came in last. He had been seriously damaged by his dissident supporters. Having Manning Marable assume this role was a huge rush. This man is brilliant, dynamic and African-American. SDS never had non-white leadership. I spoke with him afterwards about opposition to the “war on drugs” being an obvious component of his analysis. He emphatically agreed, greeted me as “comrade” and inspired me with his genuineness, warmth and energy.

Later, I asked Bruce Rubenstein, a Connecticut product liability lawyer who was once in the Weather Underground, about the level of commitment of the absent Board members. He said all were committed but the level varied. Some would speak to us and for us if given enough advance notice, for example Chomsky, who is generally booked up to 2 years in advance. Others would do committee work as well. He also pointed out that none of them, Zinn, Davis, Ferlingetti, et al, would be willing to join any other political organization.

In sum, I may have wished for better attendance – some, including Gavan Duffy, couldn’t make it because of miserable weather throughout the Northeast. And the dissidents didn’t exactly enhance the vibe. But at the end of the day I felt elated.

Alice Embree, Sally and I then left with Mark and Marla Rudd, Tom Good, Starhawk and others for dinner at the famous and funky Katz’s New York deli. Later, we walked over to a “party” at the Yippie center on Bleeker Street that turned out to be an over extended rap on some new drug made from an African root they were advocating as a cure for hard drug addiction. That was followed by a deafening punk rock band. We left. But Haber was there and bridges seemed to be being repaired.

What can MDS become? What you make it. Shortly, I’ll give you my take on what that could be.

David Hamilton

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