The New-Look

New Left

Favoring small results over big talk, a retooled SDS is back on campus, striving for students' attention

April 13, 2008|By Lauren Shull | Lauren Shull,Special to The Sun

YORK, Pa. -- At York College's student center, seven students sit in a large room, quietly planning ways to challenge school policies. They have all the trappings of modern-day hippies: shaggy hair and piercings, new cell phones and old clothes. Ignoring loud music from a rock concert in the room next door, they focus on their to-do list, which includes changing the college's investment strategies and expanding its employment policy to protect gay workers.

But what these students - the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society - really want is to spark a political awakening.

The turbulent '60s are long gone, but SDS, an activist movement with thousands of members at its peak, is making a comeback. And though some goals remain the same, the organization has changed signficantly since it was last heard from.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Sunday's Ideas section accompanying an article about Students for a Democratic Society incorrectly identified Carter Thomas. The student pictured at a chalkboard is Jon Berger.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Back then, the Vietnam War was on everyone's mind, especially college students subject to the draft. Anti-war protests got the SDS national headlines - as well as attention from the FBI. In the late '60s, some members created a splinter group that called for violent revolution and bombed buildings, including the Capitol in Washington.

Today, opposition to the Iraq war is little more than a rallying cry for the SDS. Members do participate in protests; to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, the Washington chapter organized events including "Funk the War 3," a mobile dance party staged in front of government buildings. But they are disillusioned with how little power they have to affect national policy, so ending the war is not a top priority.

"A lot of the stuff in D.C. doesn't really do anything; it builds momentum," said Kathryn Hollender-Kidder, a York freshman and SDS member. "But those little victories [like marches and protests] really do help build community and morale ... and it helps people want to stay involved."

Students are more focused on having a say in school policies - on issues such as employment practices, investment strategy and fair trade.

"One of the big tenets of Students for a Democratic Society is that we have participatory democracy, so we're all in this together," said Bob Hayes, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We're all trying to make decisions about how our lives are going to be run and how decisions are made."

The SDS grew slowly; the College Park chapter formed in 1964 but did not attract much media attention until 1967. At first, activists were happy if 80 to 100 people turned out for big protests, students said at the time.

But hundreds showed up for teach-ins later in the decade, and the SDS grew into the biggest student movement of the time, surpassing activist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

At College Park, SDS protests drew crowds, though not as large as at the University of California, Berkeley or the University of Wisconsin. Maryland's group fought segregation at the college and surrounding area, and held teach-ins about Vietnam.

Campus protests continued even after the national group splintered. In May 1970, after President Richard M. Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, students invaded the College Park ROTC offices and shut down most classes with the help of faculty. The National Guard was called to the campus for two weeks that spring; it also came to the campus in 1971 and 1972.

Mark Rudd, 60, a leader of Columbia University's SDS chapter in the 1960s, sees a different approach in today's organization.

"They say they chose the name because it describes precisely who they are," Rudd, who now teaches at a community college in New Mexico, wrote in an e-mail. "They also appear to be using the historical resonance to gain attention, which isn't a bad thing. Judging by the types of discussions I've had with several individuals and whole chapters of the new SDS, they seem to want to mine the old history to find useful ideas.

"They're much less ideological and more practical than we were in the last stage of SDS, 1968-1969, when we killed the organization with absurd Marxist ideological infighting, a civil war, actually. They're not falling for that."

SDS members still talk about nationwide change, but the group, revived over the past few years, has no national leadership, no headquarters and no dues. All a chapter needs to start is a single name on the organization's online listserv. According to Legba Carrefour, an SDS leader in Washington, the group has about 2,000 members nationally.

The SDS Web site lists more than 70 active chapters, including those at College Park, York College and Tuscarora High School in Frederick. Forty-nine other chapters are listed as inactive, and 30 are just starting, including one at Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda.

The College Park chapter has about a dozen members. York's has eight members.

"We may not be the largest activist organization on campus, but everyone is really involved," says Malcolm Harris, 19, a freshman at College Park.

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