They adopted the old name, but Students for a Democratic Society forge their own path | North Carolina | Indy Week
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By taking the name SDS, the new generation of activists have refreshingly reinvigorated the radical spirit of their '60s counterparts. Yet, the SDS and its 240 chapters are also inheriting their predecessors' baggage: the ultimate failure to meet their goals.

They adopted the old name, but Students for a Democratic Society forge their own path 

Shock of the new

Click for larger image • Hundreds of UNC students marched to protest the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • Hundreds of UNC students marched to protest the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The man in the dark sunglasses snapping photographs at last week's anti-war demonstration at UNC-Chapel Hill was working for the state-sponsored surveillance squad, ISAAC. And through his viewfinder, this dutiful employee of Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which operates out of the N.C. Attorney General's office and the state's Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, could watch entertaining, impassioned street theater: Ten-foot papier-mache puppets towering over an Iraq War veteran delivering an emotional speech; Radical Cheerleaders leaping into the air while chanting catchy anti-war slogans; and a woman flying an Iraqi flag, which fluttered near the Students for a Democratic Society banner. And there was drumming, lots of drumming.

Click for larger image • Linda Gomaa, a UNC junior, leads the march through campus. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The protest, sponsored by the UNC Coalition Against the War and spearheaded by SDS, was one of 90 nationwide demonstrations held at college campuses and high schools. While many students scurried into the nearby Lenoir Dining Hall or watched passively from the Pit's perimeter, the 400 or so demonstrators who marched from campus through downtown Chapel Hill symbolized a victory for the local SDS chapter, arguably the most organized and outspoken anti-war group at UNC.

By taking the name SDS, the new generation of activists have refreshingly reinvigorated the radical spirit of their '60s counterparts. Yet, the SDS and its 240 chapters are also inheriting their predecessors' baggage: the ultimate failure to meet their goals. By the end of the 1960s, the original SDS had imploded due to infighting among its leadership. And its two pillars of protest, the Vietnam War and racism, continued—the former until 1975; the latter lingers into the 21st century.

"It's useful to look at the old SDS as one of the best student organizations in the country," says Ben Carroll, a UNC sophomore. "The spirit and the energy of the old SDS carries a great history, but we need to create a movement for today's times rather than trying to recreate something from the past."

The 21st-century SDS operates in a different era, against a different war, in a country with a different mindset. Unlike the Vietnam War, in which the supposed enemy was clear and, conveniently, distant, the Bush administration has framed the war in Iraq as "the global war on terror," painting the opponent as an amorphous shape-shifter oozing through U.S. borders.

Without a draft to ignite national outrage, SDS is battling political complacency and nascence. In 2008, a significant portion of Americans still believes Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. And the idea of mobilizing around a common cause means camping in front of Wal-Mart for a post-Thanksgiving sale.

"People don't have as direct of a stake in what's going on," says UNC junior Clint Johnson. "There is no draft, and that's why we had the draft card demonstration."

Video of March 19 SDS walk out on UNC campus
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In late February, SDS organized a mock recruiting station in the Pit, at which an Iraqi war veteran spoke about his combat experiences and protesters burned fake draft cards. Many onlookers seemed puzzled, as if a draft card were as quaint as a ration booklet from World War II.

"We're all drafted in the sense that we're responsible for what's going on; it's a de facto acceptance on the part of the public," Johnson says. "Not having a draft hurts, in that people don't have a real incentive. That puts the current movement on a different plane of morality; people are protesting despite the fact they're not facing the draft themselves."

Kostas Harlan remains an SDS member, even though he has graduated. "It wasn't like, 'Well, I'm done with that,'" he says. "I feel a sense of responsibility for what's taking place in Iraq."

Dick Reavis, a former member of the original SDS, now teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He was the adviser to that school's SDS chapter, but it collapsed due to lack of interest. "I like it that a group of students came together to oppose the Iraq war and called themselves SDS, but I don't think it has much other relevance," Reavis says. "I think the kids are facing a harder situation. The '60s were confrontational. The whole style of politics is now more indirect, ironic, reflective—not confrontational. Last week, there was leafleting on campus; people were either hostile or indifferent. We did encounter hostility. But we never encountered indifference."

The UNC-Chapel Hill chapter launched in September 2006, shortly before former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's speech on campus. Since then, the group, which has about two dozen members, has led rallies and demonstrations at UNC and at Chapel Hill's military recruiting station, and occupied the local office of U.S. Rep. David Price, who voted against the war but has not called for the troops' immediate withdrawal. (A Price staff member called police, who arrested the protesters. Local civil rights attorney Al McSurely represented SDS members in court; trespassing charges were dropped.)

The protest at Price's headquarters points to a larger disagreement between SDS and the Democratic Party. Just as Tom Hayden noted in his 1962 Port Huron Statement—considered the founding document of the SDS—the Democratic Party, particularly Dixiecrats, "tolerates the perverse unity of liberalism and racism, prevents the social change wanted by Negroes, peace protesters, labor unions, reform Democrats and other liberals."

This division continues today, as the national SDS weighs whether to support the Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Barack Obama, even though he has consistently opposed the war. Many SDSers see little difference between Republicans and Democrats, contending the two-party system has stymied the American political system and discourse. "Some chapters are boycotting the election," Carroll says. "Other chapters are running voter registration drives. This summer at the national convention, we'll decide."

The UNC Young Democrats were among the 14 groups that united for last week's anti-war demonstration. "It made us a little uncomfortable," Tamara Tal, a graduate student and SDS member, says. "We don't endorse candidates or do voter registration. I see our role as to educate people about the real limitations of what the candidates stand for and why the two-party system isn't working. The war isn't going to end if Obama or Clinton is elected."

Reavis is like the radical Forrest Gump of the last 40 years: Pinpoint a pivotal political moment, and he was likely in the middle of it. A Texan by birth, Reavis joined SDS after spending the Freedom Summer of 1965 as a civil rights worker registering black voters in Alabama. But even the SDS's confrontational tactics initially frightened him.

"SDS scared me," Reavis recalls. "A day or two after I joined, I saw a picture of some bearded guys in front of an airplane at ROTC holding a sign saying 'The sole purpose of this machine is the destruction of human flesh.' I thought, How over the top! What strange-looking characters. I was very hesitant, but with time, my views changed."

Longtime SDS tactics—street theater, passive resistance, civil disobedience—can unnerve those unaccustomed to such outspokenness. In November, at a demonstration at the Chapel Hill military recruiting station, SDS members defied police orders to stay on the sidewalk; no one was arrested. About a dozen members of the Gathering of Eagles—hawkish, self-appointed defenders of freedom (and national monuments)—confronted SDS with air horns and megaphones. "SDS is a Communist-based organization," the Eagles yelled, inching closer to demonstrators.

"They say, 'Get back,'" chanted SDS members, undaunted. "We say, 'Fight back.'"

As the protest headed downtown, the Eagles dispersed.

Both incarnations of SDS have faced critics questioning the effectiveness of demonstrations, noting the membership is primarily white, and painting their outrage as collegiate folly that can't end the war.

Hannah Simmons, a senior, was among those skeptical about public protests, until she attended an anti-war demonstration last spring in Washington, D.C. "I used to think it was just people chanting and making themselves feel better. But then I realized that the power of feeling like you're doing something with like-minded people and the strength that you get. It can be a stimulus to get more information and become more involved. It can be a very powerful thing."

As for SDS's racial mix, Tal acknowledges it is primarily, but not solely, white, and notes that the group often works with Latino and black student organizations on issues ranging from the war to collective bargaining to environmental justice.

"The same system that supports the war is the one that oppresses minorities," Tal says. "We're also struggling against oppression and whatever that means for minorities, we're in solidarity with them."

The original SDS didn't end the war it protested; nor will the new SDS, alone.

"While SDS did some good, what made the Vietnam War unpopular is that we were losing," Reavis recalls. "When veterans began to come home and told people what Vietnam was like, they did far more than we could to give that war a bad name. We did not end the war and they didn't end the war. The Vietnamese did."

"I don't think it will be any one group that ends the war," Simmons says. "That would be arrogant to say. But I all these parts add up and the SDS plays an important role."

See related story "Harvey Pekar and Gary Dumm puncture the myths of SDS."

Editor's Correction (March 26, 2008): In print, this story erroneously stated that U.S. Rep. David Price voted for the war; he voted against it. (Congressman Price from Georgia voted for it.) David Price has voted against supplemental funding for the war and asked President Bush to set a timeline for troop withdrawal, although it is not an immediate withdrawal. I regret the error.

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