Te-Ping Chen

January 29, 2008

In the middle of a soliloquy on the challenges of student organizing, Mark Rudd, former national secretary for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)–a radical student organization that in the 1960s boasted a membership of about 100,000–surprised me. “Have you ever been in love?” he asked abruptly. Startled, I hesitantly responded, “Yes.” “Me too,” he told me. “Only I was in love with a country.”

According to Rudd, that emotion pushed him to do crazy things. Though SDS was founded in 1962 as a nonviolent organization, with race riots brewing in America’s major cities in 1969 Rudd and several other SDS leaders began agitating for militant action. They formed a militant faction, the Weathermen, which eventually renounced SDS and emerged as the radical guerilla organization the Weather Underground.

The Weather Underground set its sights on the revolutionary overthrow of the United States government. Its members preached sacrifice of privilege and solidarity with anti-racist struggles from Vietnam to America’s ghettos. As one of its leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, said, “White youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.” During the 1970s, the Weather Underground staged over a dozen bombings at sites ranging from the New York police department to the Pentagon. Aside from one accidental detonation that killed three Weathermen, the group did not inflict any casualties.

Today, Rudd is unsparing in his critique of the organization he helped found. “It was juvenile, it was less than juvenile,” Rudd said. Though the Weather Underground gained rapid notoriety for its views, the group, Rudd argues, helped pave the way for the unmaking of the student left. By discarding SDS and pursuing militancy, says Rudd, the Weather Underground abandoned the basic principle of any strong political movement: a commitment to organizing. According to Rudd, this is a legacy that persists in contemporary student movements. Failure to do the hard work of organizing, Rudd said, is what continues to hold progressive students back today, even as they try to piece together new methods of political engagement.

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Though Rudd is cynical about much of his tenure as a student leader, one period of time for him remains untarnished: his years at Columbia University from 1965-1968.

Growing up in New Jersey as the grandson of Jewish immigrants who believed America could do no wrong, it was a shock for Rudd when he crossed the Hudson River and came in contact with his peers’ anti-racist, anti-imperialist critique of America. Rudd watched student uprisings taking place from France to Mexico to China–the world seemed poised on the brink of global revolution, and Rudd wanted to join in.

At the time, Rudd said, SDS–including members who would become part of the Weather Underground–was defined by its commitment to base-building. Dorm-storming, canvassing and teach-ins were staples of the organization’s constant education and recruitment. “We had circles of hundreds and hundreds [of supporters], and the circles grew and grew,” said Rudd, who became Columbia’s chapter chair in 1968. “That was the essence of what we were always doing: growth.”

When the Tet Offensive and assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. shocked the nation, SDS had a broad and ready base. That April, Rudd led hundreds of students in the seizure of several university buildings in the legendary 1968 Columbia strike, which eventually drew the overwhelming support of the university’s students and faculty. The strike–which lasted the rest of the academic year–ignited headlines nationwide and gave rise to other campus protests under the Che Guevara-inspired slogan, “One, two, many Columbias!” (Meanwhile, other young activists were protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an effort chronicled in the new film “Chicago 10,” which Campus Progress screened at recent events in Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C.)

After the strike, Rudd was expelled. He began traveling across the country as an SDS organizer, and became increasingly convinced of the need for further militant action. At the SDS convention the following year, Rudd and 10 other SDS members presented a paper advocating armed struggle, entitled “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows.” They argued that it was the responsibility of white, middle-class youth to sacrifice their privileged positions and unite in the “Third World”‘s struggle by bringing the anti-imperialist, anti-racist war to the United States.

“We thought the bolder we were, the more people would want to join us,” Rudd said.

They were wrong. In 1969, the Weathermen called for “working-class, revolutionary” youth to “fight the pigs” in Chicago on the second anniversary of Guevara’s death, an event the press expectantly dubbed the “Days of Rage.” Though Rudd and his compatriots hoped an angry mob of thousands would converge in Chicago, only several hundred showed up. The band worked diligently to create chaos, smashing windows and assaulting police officers, but the event fell far short of the apocalyptic tide of violence the Weathermen anticipated.

“That would’ve been the moment to say, hey, this isn’t working,” said Rudd, who lived for seven and a half years as a federal fugitive during his time with the Weather Underground, working menial jobs from New Mexico to New York and living under an assumed name. “Anyone logical would’ve realized. But we were idealists, and we rationalized it.” From their first radio-broadcast declaration of war to the series of ponderous communiques the group subsequently authored, the Weather Underground continued to prefer self-expression to political action. “Our idea of organizing,” said Rudd waspishly, “was running down the street waving an NLF [Nationalist Liberation Front] flag.”

“People only get won over through person-to-person engagement, not through spectacle,” Rudd said. “But self-expression is not the same as organizing. The problem is very few people today know this simple truth.” Though the Weather Underground’s leaders’ flair for theatrics made for tantalizing media headlines (and the riveting, though conspicuously indulgent 2002 documentary The Weather Underground), their political posturing did little more than alienate the anti-war movement and give the Nixon administration further leeway to impugn the student left. And while the group tried to take on a mantle of sacrifice for America’s racially oppressed, the Black Panther Party’s Fred Hampton characterized the Weathermen as “opportunistic, individualistic, anarchistic, and Custer-istic.”

Worse still, Rudd said, their actions undermined the strength of the leftist student movement he and others had worked so hard to build. In the wake of the 1969 convention, the SDS imploded in a paroxysm of factionalism. “I’m not at all proud of that,” said Rudd, who today lives as a retired community college teacher in New Mexico. His federal charges were dropped after he surfaced in 1978–the government had used too many illegal tactics trying to track him down to successfully prosecute him.

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Fast forward 40 years and the student left has yet to reclaim the power that was scattered with SDS’s demise, according to Rudd. While his generation grew up learning from the Civil Rights Movement and the labor movement, today’s youth, Rudd argues, lack instruction on how to do the hard work of person-to-person organizing. Instead, contemporary youth are left with the iconographic photos of protests from the sixties–and little understanding of the work that inspired such protests in the first place.

After all, the images of protests that arouse such nostalgia today do not reflect the realities of organizing in the 1960s, Rudd agrued. Though civil disobedience, sit-ins, and strikes received publicity, such actions were only the face of the substantive education and recruitment happening beneath the surface. At Columbia, for example, the milling masses of protestors “really only came out of four years of hard organizing,” Rudd said. “People today still don’t understand that.”

When I brought up Thomas Friedman’s “Generation Q” article–which lambasted my generation as a too-quiet political force content to voice our politics through mouse clicks–Rudd immediately latched onto the topic. With the rise of the Internet, communication tools for the contemporary generation are more accessible than ever, yet with a lack of models to turn to, the real cornerstones of movement-building are missing, Rudd argued.

So who or what should students today turn to? Read Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Rudd said. Read about Ella Baker and how she inspired people by teaching them about their own power. The key to action, Rudd argued, is organizing.

Today, high school and college students across the nation are taking that message in hand, reviving SDS and kick-starting its legacy for the twenty-first century. Since the group was officially re-launched in January 2006, SDS has expanded to over 100 college campuses and dozens of high schools.

Though the new SDS pays homage to its predecessor of the 1960s in name, the groups’ similarities end there. While the old SDS was structured along strict hierarchical lines, the new SDS operates as a decentralized network united by a boots-on-the-ground attitude that emphasizes local action and chapter autonomy. Chapters share an anti-war focus but remain committed to diverse campaigns, tackling a variety of issues from student fees to immigrant rights.

As an organization, members say, SDS remains committed to building a broad coalition of progressive students and avoiding the internal power struggles that haunted its previous incarnation. At Lewis and Clark College, 20-year-old member Guy Dobbs said, the chapter rotates meeting facilitators and has a strict commitment to sharing authority. Above all, building a strong base of activists is key. “[The old SDS] leaders lost faith in the ability of mass movements and turned inward on themselves,” said Dobbs. “My hope is that the new SDS will continue to grow and reach out.”

But achieving these goals isn’t easy. “It’s pretty hard to get people to engage in this kind of [organizing] work,” said Elena Blanc, a member of Reed College’s SDS. “It seems ideas about what it means to build a movement and to build power through popular support have been forgotten.” Because much of the work in recent years has been focused on single issues–like environmentalism or women’s rights–it’s easy for students to feel disconnected, Blanc said. In particular, the ubiquity of online activism has contributed to a sense of powerlessness, she argued, “because it hasn’t really engaged people, they have no control or investment in it, and it’s not helping them developing their own leadership skills.”

Meanwhile, Rudd argues, the rise of the Internet and a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry have simultaneously encouraged youth to define themselves by their consumer choices, not their politics. Today’s youth are “just stuck in their countercultural niches,” Rudd said: “I’m hardcore punk, I’m west-coast hip-hop, I’m nouveau punk, and so on.” Rudd argues that clinging to such identities–what he calls, quoting Freud, the “narcissism of small differences”–keeps youth voices trapped in the entertainment world and invisible in the political realm.

“The students today are barely starting [to organize] and they need models,” Rudd said. “The advantage at Columbia was, we were red-diaper babies and many of us had been involved in the civil rights movement.”

If students had a better sense of their own power, it would be possible to restart another broad-based student movement like SDS, Blanc argues. “Students do care, and they know what’s going on,” she said, cautioning against mistaking lack of action for apathy. From her experience in college, though, “they don’t really see any way that they can impact [the system], and so they stop engaging and don’t act, because otherwise it’s just too frustrating.”

But fear of failure, Rudd believes, isn’t license to look away. “This country is like a giant aircraft carrier, and you’re trying to change the direction, and it’ll take generations, but you’ve got to start!” he said. “[It’s] nearly impossible, but…has to be done.”

Looking back after 40 years, Rudd said that they only thing he is “really proud” about “is having been a part of the anti-war movement, in which millions were involved.” He added: “To the extent that anything I did worked against the student left, or destroyed SDS–those are some of my biggest shames.”

But Rudd acknowledges that his generation’s time is over. These days, Rudd said, he’s a liberal Democrat, not a radical. “I think being a radical’s a lot better than being liberal,” he told me. “I just don’t have the energy anymore.”

“I had my heart broken by this country,” he said, “and so could you.”

Te-Ping Chen is a senior at Brown University.