by Jason M. Breslow
Oct 23, 2008
WASHINGTON Student activist Malcolm Harris is no William Ayers, but
he is plenty familiar with the attacks on Barack Obama for his
connections to the onetime radical. So Harris expected a question or
two about his own activism and Ayers' was bound to come up. If he was
offended, it barely showed. More than anything, Harris was puzzled.
"We're less connected than Barack Obama to Bill Ayers and that's not
very connected at all," Harris said. "He has no part in our organization."
Harris belongs to the University of Maryland at College Park chapter
of Students for a Democratic Society, the activist group that
unraveled late in the 1960s when a fraction of members, including
Ayers, split off to start a more radical group known as Weatherman,
and later the Weather Underground. The group gained notoriety for its
violent approach to protesting the Vietnam War; Weather announced a
"declaration of war" on the United States and claimed responsibility
for several domestic bombings.
More than three decades later SDS is alive again, drawing a new
generation of youth both dismayed by the current state of American
politics and attracted to the original organization's commitment to
the concept of "participatory democracy."
In the two years since the new SDS was launched, approximately 2000
students have joined the more than 100 chapters that have sprung up
on college campuses.
There are chapters at old bastions of student activism, such as
Columbia University and the University of Chicago, and less obvious
spots, such as the University of North Dakota. And while members of
the old guard helped the new SDS get established, they have minimal
influence on the group.
"We are our own generation with our own needs and our own desires,
and SDS in the 60s has some really good lessons for us, but they're
not, you know, they're not that relevant," said Jon Berger, a
government and politics student and SDS member at Maryland.
"Their on their own, as they should be, and making their own
decisions, as they should be," said Paul Buhle, a member of the
original SDS and senior lecturer in history and American civilization
at Brown University.
One of the biggest lessons learned from the old organization was the
pointlessness of violence.
"I would say that bombing a building is even a less radical action
than organizing a student strike because bombing a building doesn't
address the root causes of problems that we're seeing," said Berger.
"We don't blow stuff up. We promise," said Harris.
Nor should they, warned Mark Rudd, a former Weather Underground
leader. Rudd, who describes himself these days as a "progressive
Democrat," said the more radical activists become, the more they risk
"I'm not going to give them advice, except for whatever they do, aim
for a mass movement," Rudd advised. "Don't isolate yourselves and
become merely a subculture," he added.
Another lesson new SDSers took away from their predecessors was to be
more inclusive of the views of all members, as opposed to just those
of white males. Multiple caucuses have formed within the new SDS,
such as the "Queer Caucus," the "Womyn's Caucus," and the "Persons of
"We all have different ideas, different political beliefs, but we
organize around the causes we have in common," said Jevonne Bowman,
who in early September founded the SDS chapter at Howard University.
Partly due to this emphasis on inclusiveness, the new SDS is more of
a multi-issue organization than the original, which focused primarily
on racism and ending the Vietnam War. And while the war in Iraq is
certainly a top concern for SDS, it does not always take precedence.
The 15 or so members at Howard, for example, are seeking to
strengthen their university's commitment to the environment and
sustainability. At the larger U. of Maryland chapter, members have
made student debt and the cost of tuition their top priorities.
The scattered focus of the new SDS is also the consequence of a much
less centralized power structure than the one that held sway under
the original group, which was founded in 1962. There is no national
office, nor are their national elected officials. Instead, members
across the nation mainly organize over the Web through multiple
listservs, blogs, and social networking sites such as Facebook.
SDS is "clearly trying to respect that local autonomy," said Edward
P. Morgan, a professor of political science at Lehigh University and
author of "The 60s Experience: Hard lessons about Modern America."
"At some level that's going to muddy the message," according to Morgan.
SDS has thus far sought to take more creative approaches to getting
out its message. To mark the anniversary of the war in Iraq, for
instance, Washington area SDS members held a "Funk the War" dance
party at the offices of companies the organization sees as profiting
"We dance, we throw glitter. It's a really good time," said Bob
Hayes, a mechanical engineering student at Maryland, who along with
Harris helped found the chapter there.
"At the same time we send the message that students are no longer
accepting this war and that war based on empire, or war in general,
is not something we can tolerate," Hayes said.
Hayes said he and Harris started an SDS chapter because they wanted
to belong to a group that approached issues "from a different
direction than other groups that existed already."
Similarly, Jevonne Bowman at Howard, said she was inspired to start
an SDS chapter because she wanted more of a voice in campus matters.
"Just because someone is older doesn't mean that they're wiser … We
are taking our power back," Bowman said.
Despite her desire for more of a say, Bowman is still not sold on the
power of voting and said she is unsure whether she will vote on Nov. 4.
Malcolm Harris expanded on Bowman's concerns. Within SDS, he said,
"there are people who think voting is counterproductive and there are
people who think voting is a necessary half measure that's not going
to get you everything you want but it's part of playing the game."
And although he described his political views as in line with
"leftist strategic essentialism," Harris said he intends to vote for
Obama. Berger and Hayes said they both plan to vote for a third-party
candidate, but only because their home state of Maryland is already