The Sense of Powerlessness Is Profound Right Now

One Generation Got Old, One Generation Got Soul
By RACHEL AVIV, Published: January 6, 2008

SIXTEEN students sat around a table in the Manhattan cafeteria of the New School discussing where commas should go. They were rewriting, for the third time, a mission statement for their chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the activist group that had been dormant for nearly 40 years. They wanted the document to be collectively produced, but after more than three weeks of communal drafting, no one seemed particularly content with the results.

One student thought the phrase “we accept all persons” should be broadened to cover animals. Another worried that the word “delineation” was alienating because “it means drawing lines, and don’t we object to lines?” The only sentence everyone seemed to support wholeheartedly was the final one: “Power to the People!”

The subject was a sensitive one, because the revived group has yet to produce a document as compelling as the S.D.S. manifesto, the Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, long before any of them were born. Although members of the original movement serve as mentors, the young S.D.S. is eager to prove that its interest in social change extends beyond nostalgia.

“One of our strengths is having a clear understanding of what went wrong in the ’60s,” says Pat Korte, a 19-year-old sophomore at the New School, in Greenwich Village. Mr. Korte was a co-founder of the born-again organization in 2006, as a senior at Stonington High School, in Connecticut. S.D.S. now has around 120 active chapters and 3,000 registered members.

“We know the drive for revolutionary change is correct,” Mr. Korte says, “but blowing up buildings is not going to get us anywhere. Nor is joining the Democratic Party.”

According to a provisional statement, drafted at the national convention last summer at Wayne State University in Detroit, the group aims to combat “racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism.” Chapters focus on any issue that falls under the rubric of “oppression.” In the past year, members have occupied military recruiting centers, participated in hunger strikes to raise wages for university workers and demonstrated in front of companies that invest in nuclear power plants.

The group’s growth has surprised everyone involved, particularly former members who wondered why students would want to model themselves on an organization that ultimately self-destructed. The original S.D.S. became a major force in the opposition to the Vietnam War and grew to nearly 100,000 members before collapsing in 1969 into radicalized factions. It never quite overcame the perceived homogeneity of its leaders. Most were white, male and upper middle class.

The new S.D.S. is painstakingly self-conscious about its image and inherited failures. Men refrain from speaking for the group; if one interrupts a woman or finishes her sentence, he may be politely reminded of what he has done. There is no national hierarchy, and members coordinate through conference calls — up to 30 people on the line. (There’s a roll call at the start of each conversation.)

A significant number of chapters are not at prestigious universities, which already have a glut of political groups, but at commuter schools, community colleges and high schools, many of which had existed in a political vacuum. Members cite three events — 9/11, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina — in describing what brought them to S.D.S.

The chapter at Queens College has 140 people on its mailing list, a quarter of them Latino. “At a working-class school, we have jobs to go home to at night, so the problems in the government more directly affect the quality of our lives,” says Rachel Haut, a 19-year-old junior. And while most young people view the war in Iraq via remote, on commuter campuses like Queens the military recruits heavily. Ms. Haut’s chapter sets up a table every other week to distribute literature aiming to discourage students from enlisting.

Although the student movements of the ’60s have often been viewed through a veil of mythical romance, their legacy has become particularly relevant in the midst of another unpopular war. Forty years after the events of 1968 — the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the Democratic convention in Chicago — the decade is back on the cover of news magazines.

Three books written or edited by former S.D.S. members are coming out this month and next: “Ravens in the Storm: A Personal History of the 1960s Anti-War Movement,” by Carl Oglesby; “A Hard Rain Fell: S.D.S. and Why It Failed,” by David Barber; and “Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History,” edited by Paul Buhle.

“I think the sense of powerlessness is so profound right now that to know there was a movement of young people that changed history offers leverage, a sense of confidence,” says Dr. Buhle, a lecturer in American civilization at Brown.

The graphic history, which comes out this week, is written by the comic book author Harvey Pekar. It traces the rise and fall of the first S.D.S. and includes a six-page epilogue, “S.D.S. Revived.”

“While few seemed to be watching,” it begins, “the demography of American youth had shifted dramatically and a new generation of students, more insecure, much more often the children of immigrants, had arrived.” The first panel features a couple kissing on a grassy hill. The second panel, representing the new S.D.S., shows an airplane flying into the World Trade Center while New York City is engulfed in flames.

The epilogue also includes a drawing of Pat Korte, with shaggy hair and big, alarmed eyes. Jessica Rapchik, 19, was the S.D.S. co-founder with Mr. Korte. She says she was surprised that her role goes unmentioned in the book. The omission, she says, points to “larger problems in our society — men being sought out as voices of authority.”

MR. KORTE and Ms. Rapchik, of Chapel Hill, N.C., met on a conference call. Both were active members of an antiwar group in high school. They wanted to be part of an organization that would tackle more enduring issues.

“These problems won’t go away unless you change the entire power structure,” says Ms. Rapchik, now a sophomore at Antioch College. She blames the “dominant hegemonic system.”

Ms. Rapchik’s parents were so opposed to her involvement in a radical organization that they threatened not to help pay for college if she attended the first convention, so she stayed home. Mr. Korte says his father voted for Nixon. “My parents didn’t even know the ’60s happened,” he says.

In search of mentors, the students reached out to the first president of S.D.S., Alan Haber, who is now a woodworker. He and other original members met with the students and offered their old pamphlets and letters. The “old folks,” a k a the “veterans,” attend meetings and marches, help coordinate conferences and provide moral support. When students are arrested, veterans sometimes wait outside the jail with sandwiches.

But some chapters have distanced themselves from the ’60s generation. To Ms. Haut, at Queens College, it is not “productive” to work with “a lot of old white guys arguing about what they should have done.” As it is, the new group devotes a good deal of intellectual energy to self-analysis.

At the second national convention, attended by about 200 members, the students spent a day discussing how not to oppress one another. They split into caucuses based on gender, class, race and sexual orientation.

Nick Kreitman, a junior at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, participated in meetings about “Class Privilege,” “White Privilege” and “Hetero-Privilege,” in which, he says, members talked about the danger of coming off as the “liberal savior who is going to instantly solve all their problems.”

Because the ultimate goal is to become a mass movement, S.D.S. members make an effort to appeal to students who wouldn’t necessarily cast themselves as left-wing political activists. One proposal at the convention that was later adopted advocated using “the language of the mainstream” and avoiding “intimidating word choice” — an unintimidating euphemism for leftist buzzwords like “anti-authoritarianism” and “syndicalism.”

Aaron Petcoff, a founding member of the Wayne State chapter, worries about the group becoming a clique. “We can’t just go to the punk places and tell people it’s cool to join S.D.S.,” he says. He consciously recruits for diversity, and his chapter has one Hispanic, two African-American, two Iraqi-American and six white members.

Nationally, membership is predominantly white, and Mr. Petcoff describes himself as fitting “the stereotype of the white, left, activist guy.” He first learned about the group two years ago, when, he recalls, a roommate’s friend told him, “You look like you got drop-kicked out of S.D.S.” He was dressed in “these bell-bottom kind of pants and an olive green army jacket with a big peace sign.” He didn’t know what S.D.S. was, he says. “So I went to the computer and did an image search, which was how I found out the group was being revived.” Soon after, he joined.

AFTER shelving the syntactical problems of the mission statement, the huddle at the New School cafeteria moved on to planning action at the Manhattan office of a New School trustee whose company has military contracts. The students debated whether to demonstrate on the company’s property with a marching band, but the conversation soon digressed into the risk of using e-mail. Some worried that the authorities would read what they wrote. When one student offered that “the federal agencies probably don’t care,” the group ignored him.

Mr. Korte, who lives with three other members on Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn, frequently reminds the group that it is trying to start a movement that will “last for decades,” not just a semester. He asked if anyone felt it was worth it to be arrested at a coming antiwar demonstration. Almost everyone raised a hand.

In the past two years, well over 100 S.D.S. members have been arrested for civil disobedience, including blocking ports in Washington from which military equipment was being shipped to Iraq and demonstrating in front of car dealerships in favor of higher fuel efficiency standards. This fall, the group began participating in the Iraq Moratorium, a series of monthly national antiwar demonstrations modeled after the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium.

Today’s organization has yet to depart significantly from the protest models of the past. Many members say they resent being overshadowed by the S.D.S. of 1968 and argue that their opposition will manifest itself in a way unique to their own generation. Beyond having a new organizing tool in the Internet, it’s unclear what this will look like. Students elegantly critique what’s wrong with the country but struggle to find new ways to channel their disgust.

“They’re blogging against the war, they’re not burning draft cards,” says Tom Hayden, the primary author of the Port Huron Statement, who went on to serve in the California State Senate. A former president of S.D.S., he has met many new members but held back from giving guidance. “The war in Iraq vividly demonstrates that the issues of the ’60s have not gone away,” he says. “But this generation has an identity crisis that it will have to resolve on its own.”

Rachel Aviv teaches freshman writing at Columbia.


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