The MDS Convergence

Report on the MDS Chicago Convergence

The MDS Chicago Convergence took place at Loyola University last weekend, Nov 11-12. The following are some impressions of David Hamilton, Jim Retherford and Thorne Dreyer who attended together representing Austin MDS. Tim Mahoney met us there and also attended part of the event.

Positives. It was a great opportunity to network with veteran movement activists. In various workshops we heard from Carl Davidson, Kathy Kelly (Voices for Creative Non-Violence), Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Paul Buhle, Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, Mike James, Al Haber, Bob Brown (ex-SNCC) and several others. Most of the above were major figures in sixties SDS. Haber was the co-author of The Port Huron Statement. There was also lots of unstructured time for hanging out at Mike James’s Heartland Cafe with many of these folks plus an impressive group of SDS attendees, mostly from the Chicago area, with whom we had some productive dialogue. These interactions were inspirational and informative. They sparked several new ideas for possible activities and directions to pursue in Austin. Example: Chicago antiwar activists got a resolution on the city ballot to support immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the cut off of funding. It won with over 800,000 votes.

The reputation of Austin MDS as a most exemplary chapter, along with NYS-Staten Island, was enhanced. (The Rag also received substantial attention, once being referred to as that “famous” underground paper from Austin.) We had the most active chapter representation. There were more people from Chicago, but most of them were activists who are working in different areas of the movement, rather than in a formal MDS chapter. An evolved MDS likely would be a combination of such folk, with major involvement on other movement fronts, with activists whose primary commitment is to MDS building.

In addition, we (David, Jim and Thorne) had the opportunity to work closely together – in some cases, altogether too closely given that our cheap hotel room had only two queen beds and Jim sleeps with a machine. The trip gave us the opportunity to kick around a lot of ideas at length. We’ll share some of those ideas in an upcoming email.

On the down side, there were only about 100 people total participating, mainly from Chicago, but also from NYC, Austin, Baltimore, Florida and a few other places, including several local SDS folks. This reflects organizational infancy. We’re not yet a national organization. That means, like SDS of old, the action will be local and the national affiliation will be largely symbolic, but useful for such purposes as the positives listed above.

The famed MDS “Board” (Chomsky, et al) is very largely window dressing. Four of them (out of about 50) were there and three of those have full plates in other movement activities that seem to take precedence over building MDS. We can’t say if the board luminaries lack commitment or if MDS hasn’t found appropriate ways to utilize them. If MDS is to develop into an important element in the US left, it will be from the ground up, not from the top down. This is really not a negative so much as a realization, but more national structure and direction should clearly be a goal.

Although this is controversial some felt there was too much “nostalgia”, analyzing what happened in 1968 instead of thinking about what we are going to be doing in 2008. Certainly we learned things in the sixties that can contribute to our current work, and that can be shared with others, but we must do so in a manner that is not condescending and focus mainly on the future.

There was talk already of another “convergence” in NYC as soon as January. But we were such an impressive bunch, some began to talk about a “convergence” in Austin in the spring – like the weekend of SXSW just in case folks have a little spare time. We may have oversold the place. A conference in Austin might be a lot of work, but it could be a good way to get new people involved and to reach out to people around the state, thus creating a regional network.

The Chicago Three: David, Jim and Thorne

David Hamilton

I’m sending this from Penelope Rosemont as a supplement to our report on the Chicago MDS Convergence. It gives a lot more information about what actually went on at the meetings. Note to Ragstaff: there’s substantial mention of The Rag.


In a hectic week for activists in Chicago that included Select Media Festival, Teaching for Social Justice Conference, SNCC commemoration, the Humanities festival, Natl Convention to End the Death Penalty, Commemoration of SOA martyrs, Bob Brown’s law suit against the corporations, etc., the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) held its national convergence at Loyola University, from November 8 through 11.

Loyola provided fine meeting rooms in a maze-like setting on beautiful Lake Michigan. Thursday night eighty plus people attended Manning Marable’s superb talk on South Africa, its increasing impoverishment and stratification caused by the demands of U.S. interests and investments. Marable spoke of the prison industry in the U.S. and observed that 1 in every 5 persons has a prison record. This has led to a mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the south.

Friday night SDSers from the 60s greeted old friends and out-of-town guests at Heartland Café.

Saturday morning was devoted to workshops and discussions. David Roediger discussed the Miserablist character of the University system, its conformism, its corporate character, its total integration into the repressive system, its total inability to function as a place that can expand the idea of freedom. Franklin Rosemont spoke of Surrealism, and its oppositional character, how it arose from the ruins of France after the First World war inspired by Jacques Vache a fellow soldier and close friend of Andre Breton. Kate Khatib drew on the creative side of surrealism. Amanda Armstrong who had organized a show of Exquisite Corpse drawings at heartland café attended. The show was accompanied by a pamphlet that discussed the effects of crisis of capitalism on the human imagination. Paul Buhle talked about the current evolution of the book from the days of the underground comics to today’s graphic novels. Buhle is expecting any day the arrival of copies of his graphic novel on SDS. The discussion was fortunate to have present Thorne Dreyer from Austin, Texas who edited the Underground newspaper the Rag for 14 years; Thorne also edited Up Against the Wall, a wall poster/newspaper that SDS published during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Peter Linebaugh searched for the roots of our ideas of freedom in the Magna Carta and discussed the basis for his forthcoming book. Our ideas of community and also mutual responsibility come from that historic document. Linebaugh gives it a fresh perspective.

Muhammad Ahmad who had earlier in the day been interviewed by Michael James for Heartland radio did a workshop which centered on the experiences of the Black Movement in the 60s. In 1968 Ahmad then Max Stanford was in jail facing serious charges. He stayed in jail for a year before his attorney was able to get the charges dismissed. Michael Klonsky, Mark Rudd, Bruce Rubenstein, and Penelope Rosemont discussed the implications for the movement of the persecution of black radicals with Ahmed.

Paige Phillips showed a film clip that could be imagined to come from Saturday Night Live Comedy of a real news report on so called lesbian girl gangs terrorizing Memphis teens. It fed the fears of parents but was utterly unbelievable to any thoughtful person. An example of antigay bigotry in the bible belt. Andy Thayer, dynamic spokesman for the Chicago gay community urged solidarity and support for each others concerns and active support of demonstrations. He noted that the demonstrations by the black community against police brutality especially needed our support.

Thomas Good, Bill Ayers, Elaine Brower, Alan Haber, David Hamilton, Devra Morice and others representing New York, Chicago, Austin, Ann Arbor, etc. discussed current forms of popular resistance against the war and then joined by others began a necessary and long needed discussion of the future of MDS. David Hamilton proposed the following founding principles for discussion and consideration.

Formed in Chicago in August 2006, MDS affirmed the Founding Principles:

—the expansion of egalitarian and participatory democracy in politics, economics, and culture.

—the restoration and preservation of the earth’s robust ecological health.

—the extension of human rights to include universal healthcare, decent housing, lifelong education, fortifying nutrition, reproductive freedom, and meaningful work.

—the eradication of systems of dominant power and privilege based on identity, including but not limited to race gender, nationality, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability or religion.

—the growth and development of the commons, the resources that belong to society as a whole.

—the public control of corporate power to meet human needs and the expansion of workers’ authority and rights, including the equitable distribution of wealth.

—the rejection of militarism and war and the enhancement of power and authority of international institutions capable of resolving conflict between nations.

—In working for the achievement of these special changes, MDS believes in working in coalition with like-minded others to create an interracial, interethnic, intergenerational and international mass movement.

During mid day, Loyola provided a lavish buffet, coffeee and free parking to the convergence attendees. Many visiting parents were offered the Spartacist newspaper and the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company catalog. Campus tours got to enjoy the book tables of New World Resource Center and Charles H. Kerr. The Loyola Phoenix ran an ad for the Convergence and an expose of Loyola investments. We would not be surprised if new students chose Loyola because the Convergence made it seem like a lively place.

The afternoon session was held in another building. A bright casual room was filled to capacity and some late comers were turned away because of no seats. An estimate of the audience would probably be 100 plus. The panel on Peace chaired by Kate Khatib and Katy Hogan began with Kathy Kelly recounting her experiences in an Irish Court when arrested for Peace activities. After talking of the many innocent victims of war especially children, she pointedly asked the audience “What will it take to make you stop the war?”

Carl Davidson explained the political means of ending the war by cutting the funding to the war budget and urged voting for peace candidates. He also noted there was plenty of room for work on Civil Disobedience, GI resistance, and that a popular upsurge of sentiment against the war was necessary. Ahmed who currently has a book published by Kerr Co., We Will Return in the Whirlwind, spoke about the effects of war and poverty on the black community.

The 1968 Confidential Panel was chaired by Beau Golwitzer. Michael James spoke on the Berkeley Revolt, his early work with JOIN and community organizing. Michael Klonsky recounted the first days of his arrival in Chicago as National Secretary of SDS as the West side erupted in flames and fury after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He mentioned that none of us expected to live to see 30. Klonsky has a forthcoming book on those days.

Franklin Rosemont spoke of his meeting with Andre Breton and how that inspired him to begin a surrealist group in Chicago. Rosemont spent time in the streets and helping at the SDS National office during the days of the Democratic Convention. Bob Brown of SNCC recounted some of the national and international dimensions of those years. The contacts with the Zegakuran, German SDS, and French groups. Penelope Rosemont who worked in the SDS office in 1968 speculated on the importance of history, that remembering our history will effect what happens in the future; that we must examine those days, what we did, how we organized to be able to develop new strategies and avoid old mistakes; support a movement with a large left spectrum; support young anarchists in their efforts and not abandon our utopian visions. In the audience were many who had played a significant role in 1968–Mark Rudd, Thorne Dreyer, David Hamilton, Wayne Heimback, etc. After a short period of questions the discussion moved to the Red Line Tap to continue in a more casual atmosphere. Mark Rudd mentioned that there are significant indications that an attempt at recouperation of 1968 and the rebels of ’68 is just around the corner as Universities and Museums plan their commemorations. This sort of recouperation happened in Amsterdam quite a while ago as exProvos unexpectedly ended up with state power. It is indeed a concern of ours. We want ours struggles and the story of our struggles preserved, but we do not want it contained, sanitized, consigned to the permanent irrelevancy of something from another time, another place. We had only just begun to formulate and imagine what needed to be done in the urgency of those years. There have been stunning technological revolutions since the 60s, but the social revolution that we envisioned, the vision of equality and freedom is in many ways is further away now than it was then. What is to be done?

The Session on Sunday began at 10am. Amy Partridge began with perhaps the most thoughtful and theoretical document on the concerns of the conference, it considered the attitudes toward themselves and to power that College students and young people have developed in recent times. She argued that most students think that the powers-that-be will recognize and redress their grievances without much effort on their part. Further that they already identify themselves as activists because they donate to or march for AIDS or breast cancer. They do not identify themselves with the struggles of the oppressed, they do not see themselves as oppressed. Partridge argued that we are seeing the end of identity politics and that if we can somehow find and address the concerns of young people today a new movement has real possibilities. This summary does not do justice to the paper or the discussion that followed. Bruce Rubenstein discussed unknown slave revolts in the US before the civil war and the legal evolution of rights for blacks and people of color. Kate Khatib talked of building a community around Red Emmas Bookstore in Baltimore where social services of the city are failing the needs of the people. Tamara Smith spoke about organizing another gathering. Gale Ahrens reported on the vast investment in the prison industry which constitutes the reinstitution of slavery. Penny Pixler of the IWW spoke about some parallels between today and the 1960s. Young SDSers from Columbia College, Art Institute, University of Chicago spoke about what they were doing, what their concerns were and how the new, I can only call it hyper-repression, effects the high schools. When asked why they identified themselves with SDS, one of them quipped “It’s got great name recognition!” And I must say we should be proud of that; that SDS has come after 40 years to mean a fighting organization; an organization of resistance; one that never sold out. Alan Haber, a founder of the original SDS was there, listened and contributed his passion for peace and justice to the discussion. Someone expressed how exhilarating it was to be a room full of people who were really serious about social change. And it was! Everyone participated. Penelope Rosemont added “if you kept doing what you are doing, we are going to have a movement!” We called it quits about 2pm as everyone was hungry. Most of us walked from Loyola to Heartland Café where we again dined on some good and healthful food and parted ways. All in all thinking that some bridges had been built, some good thinking had been done, and that we had a fine core of people.

Penelope Rosemont

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