Twenty-year-old Will Klatt, wearing a green knit hat, baggy jeans and black jacket pulled over a hoodie, stands before a Civil War monument at the center of Ohio University’s main campus in Athens. Although a February snow is falling steadily, more than a hundred students have turned out for this rally called by a new organization with a very familiar name: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
“Many of us at Ohio University have taken classes on the principles of democracy, on justice, on ethics,” says Klatt, “and with the presumption that we will use this knowledge, acquired in our classes, to become more informed citizens. Yet this knowledge we acquire is nothing if we do not put it into practice.”
The students, including frat boys and jocks, clap and whistle. They are here in protest against new fees, elimination of four varsity sports programs and increased administrative bonus pay. Each decision, organizers say, reflects a lack of student power on campus–as do “free-speech zones” confining student protest to irrelevant corners of campus. “We are talking,” says Klatt, “about the corporatization of our university.”
Angry at the Iraq debacle, emboldened by the Bush-Cheney tailspin, a new student radicalism is emerging whose concerns include immigrants’ rights, global warming and the uncertainties facing debt-ridden graduates. Such considerations distinguish the new SDS from its historical namesake, which took shape in a very different context of economic affluence and establishment liberalism.
The original SDS, formed in 1960, sought “a participatory democracy,” the involvement of all in running society from the bottom up, as elaborated in the Port Huron Statement of 1962. Frustrated with conventional liberalism, inspired by the civil rights movement and sustained by opposition to the Vietnam War, SDS grew to perhaps 100,000 members before disintegrating in a shower of fratricidal sparks in 1969.
The notion of re-creating SDS was the brainchild of Jessica Rapchik and Pat Korte, high school students in North Carolina and Connecticut, respectively, who met on an antiwar phone hookup in the fall of 2005. Upon discovering their mutual dissatisfaction with the existing left, they hit upon the notion of reviving SDS. One of the original SDSers they first contacted was Alan Haber, president of SDS from 1960 to 1962, now a woodworker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had independently suggested “re-membering” SDS at a historians’ conference in 2003. Once the call to relaunch SDS went public in January 2006 with a new website, campus chapters began popping up, from Florida to Colorado. Today, there are more than 100 college chapters and dozens more in high schools.
By laying claim to an old name, contemporary students risked that 1960s veterans might disapprove of new wine being made in their bottle. Sociologist Todd Gitlin, SDS president from 1963 to 1964, is one such skeptic. “What was often brilliant about SDS,” he says, “was that it was attuned to its moment. It didn’t recycle the Old Left. It was the New Left.” Maurice Isserman, who joined SDS at Reed College in 1968, recently published a sharply critical piece about the new SDS in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In an interview, he said of the group’s revival, “As a historian, I found it a little offensive. It’s like, could I be in the Sons of Liberty tomorrow if I started it, claimed lineal descent from Sam Adams?”