May 20, 2011

The original radical group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in late 1959 and came to the forefront of the 1960s counter-cultural movement known collectively as the New Left. It was a radical organization that aspired to overthrow America's democratic institutions, remake its government in a Marxist image, and help America's enemies defeat her sons on the battlefield in Vietnam. The group developed from the Student League for Industrial Democracy, the youth branch of the socialist League for Industrial Democracy.

SDS was established 1959 by Aryeh Neier, who would later spend fifteen years working for the American Civil Liberties Union (including eight years as its national executive director), and twelve years as executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) -- an organization he founded in 1978. After leaving HRW, Neier was appointed in 1993 by George Soros to serve as president of the Open Society Institute and the entire Soros Foundation Network.

SDS held its first meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1960. Its first President was Alan Haber, and its first impress on the political landscape was the Port Huron Statement of 1962, drafted principally by Tom Hayden, a former editor of the University of Michigan's student newspaper. The Port Huron Statement adopted the position of "anti-anti-Communism," refusing to support the West in the Cold War. The statement denounced bigotry in the United States, world hunger and American abundance, materialism, personal alienation, industrialization, the threat of nuclear war, military spending, and the Cold War. Its prescribed solution to Cold War tensions reads as follows:

"Universal controlled disarmament must replace deterrence and arms control as the [American] national defense goal. ... It is necessary that America make disarmament, not nuclear deterrence, 'credible' to the Soviets and to the world. That is, disarmament should be continually avowed as a national goal; concrete plans should be presented at conference tables."

Calling for "participatory democracy," the Port Huron Statement continued: "[The] allocation of resources must be based on social needs. A truly 'public sector' must be established, and its nature debated and planned. At present the majority of America's 'public sector,' the largest part of our public spending, is for the military. When great social needs are so pressing, our concept of 'government spending' is wrapped up in the 'permanent war economy.'"  The Statement promoted the politicization of the University, a call that was answered in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement of 1964, which permanently altered the political atmosphere on college campuses.

SDS's initial efforts at the promotion of civil rights, voting rights, and urban reform were gradually overshadowed by its focus on the Vietnam War. In April 1965, SDS advertised its opposition to the War by participating in the March on Washington.

Many key SDS members were "red-diaper babies," children of parents who were Communist Party members or Communist activists in the 1930s. In 1966, when President Lyndon Johnson abolished student draft deferments, some 300 new SDS chapters were formed. Among the organization's activities were: disrupting ROTC classes, staging draft card burnings, and harassing campus recruiters for the CIA and for firms that conducted research tied in some way to national defense. SDS also occupied buildings at universities such as Columbia and destroyed draft records. 

At the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, SDS protestors, organized by Tom Hayden, created a riot in order to destroy the electoral chances of the pro-war liberal Hubert Humphrey, and thereby set the stage for a confrontation with the Nixon Administration over the Vietnam War. Hayden and his cohorts -- including Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale -- were arrested and indicted for crossing state lines to incite a riot. They became known as The Chicago Seven. In a celebrated trial (whose guilty verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality), they were given token sentences. 

In 1969 SDS began imploding into factions. One of them, a group calling itself Weatherman, was elected to SDS leadership and proclaimed that the time had come to launch a race war on behalf of the Third World and against the United States. The new entity dissolved SDS and formed a terrorist cult in its place, which was given the name Weather Underground.

In January, 2006, the “new” Students for a Democratic Society  (SDS) derives its name, inspiration, and mission from the original SDS of the 1960s. The new SDS consists of more than 150 chapters based in high schools, colleges, universities, and cities across the United States.

Describing itself as “a radical, multi-issue student and youth organization,” SDS’s goal is to initiate “a broad-based, deep-rooted, and revolutionary transformation” of an American society that currently “depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival.” Among those systems, according to SDS, are: “racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism.” Asserting that “another world is possible,” SDS aims to “amplif[y] the voices of oppressed communities and their allies,” and to turn America into a “society of justice-making, solidarity, equality, peace and freedom … a world beyond oppression, beyond domination, beyond war and empire.”

To achieve these objectives, SDS seeks to overhaul school curricula at every level of the education system -- and to thereby radically transform the worldview and character of America's younger generations. Toward this end, the organization “affirm[s] the necessity of Ethnic, Women’s, Queer, and African/a studies departments as correctives to the historical bias of academia.”

Asserting that “[a]ccess to education and higher education … are not privileges but rights,” SDS’s Student Power for Accessible Education campaign advocates “reparations [i.e., affirmative action] for bias in admissions owing to [longstanding] systems of oppression.” According to SDS, every American student should have access to “universal, free, equitably-funded schools at all levels.” As SDS sees things, schools should not be places “of merely getting skills and training for future jobs,” but should provide students with opportunities to engage in activist projects where they “can participate in making our society better.”

Unlike its ideological forebears of the 1960s, the new SDS eschews a militant approach to advancing its revolutionary aims. Rather than engage in unruly street confrontations replete with images of counterculture defiance, SDS members have elected, in the tradition of Saul Alinsky, to “present ourselves and our ideas in a way that captivates the political mainstream, instead of alienating it and marginalizing ourselves.” They view such an approach as the “tactic” or “strategic action” that will best facilitate their quest to “build a million student movement.”

The idea to re-create SDS originated with two high-school students -- Jessica Rapchik of North Carolina and Pat Korte of Connecticut -- who first met on an antiwar phone hookup in the autumn of 2005. Korte solicited the help of some older activists, including several members of the original SDS, to provide logistical support for the new group. The first original SDSers to answer the call were Alan Haber (who served as president of the group from 1960-62), Thomas Good (who was also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW), and Paul Buhle (a labor historian co-edited a history of the IWW). On January 16, 2006, Korte, Good, and Buhle announced the creation of the new SDS in a press release that quoted Good saying: “It seemed appropriate to make this announcement today, on the observed Martin Luther King day. We have an anti-war movement that is addressing the issue of stopping the bloodletting in Iraq but the civil rights issue remains unaddressed.”

The new SDS is “entirely student- and youth-led,” with the vast majority of its members being under the age of 30. Some members are older than that, but they are permitted only to “vote on the chapter level” and “cannot be considered for any positions in SDS other than at [that] level.”

In April 2006, former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn was invited to speak at the first new SDS conference (held in Providence, Rhode Island), where she received a rousing ovation. Four months later, the first SDS national convention (in Chicago) opened its proceedings with a written greeting from Dohrn.

SDS’s Anti-War Working Group (AWWG) has organized and participated in numerous actions against the Iraq War, against the possibility of a U.S. military strike in Iran, and against military recruitment efforts. By means of leaflet/flyer campaigns and campus demonstrations, AWWG works “against the violent tactics used by the United States government to repress and exploit people around the world.” In a number of its efforts, SDS has worked collaboratively with International ANSWER.

SDS also has set up a number of caucuses and auxiliary groups that work, on behalf of designated victim groups, against “institutional oppression in our society.” Among these entities are the People of Color Caucus, the White Privilege Working Group, the Womyn’s Caucus, the Queer Caucus, the Trans/Genderqueer Caucus, Hetero Allies, the Working Class Caucus, and the Class Privilege Working Group. Moreover, SDS works in favor of expanded rights and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

In August 2007, SDS launched its first National Action Camps in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. These camps featured workshops in such disciplines as: “anti-oppression/collective liberation,” “media skills,” “meeting facilitation,” “direct action,” “organizing basics,” and “campaign strategy.”

SDS receives tactical guidance and financial support from the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). Through its MDS connection, SDS is closely tied to such high-profile radicals as Paul Buhle, Noam Chomsky, Carl Davidson, Angela Davis, Bernardine Dohrn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tom Hayden, Jeff Jones, Marilyn Katz, Michael Klonsky, Manning Marable, Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West, and Howard Zinn.