In early 2006, former members of Students for
a Democratic Society and current student activists began a national
effort to revive the once-defunct SDS. In August, the first national
SDS convention since 1969 was held at the University of Chicago.
In September, a chapter was launched at Reed, with the renaming of
the former Reed Student Peace Action Network (RSPAN) in order to
join the national SDS movement. So far, approximately a dozen students
have become involved in SDS at Reed, but that number—like SDS’s
200 new regional chapters—is growing.
Johanna Droubay ’04 spoke with current SDS members
Matt Wasserman ’07 and Robin Blanc ’07 about activism,
apathy, and “The Man.”
Why revive SDS, with its history of infighting and schism? Why
not start with a clean slate?
Wasserman: The mission of the original
SDS—particularly the concept of participatory democracy—is
an unfinished project, and it’s one that’s still really
relevant. More generally, the period of time that we’re encountering
has some marked resemblances to the period of time when SDS was originally
created. And it’s a way to kind of create historical continuity
of struggle by taking up the name of this previous organization.
Is SDS still primarily concerned with civil rights and anti-war
Wasserman:Most local chapters work on anti-war
issues primarily. At Reed we’ve been working a little more
on trade justice issues.
Blanc: The structure of the organization
is such that at this point there are no specifically national projects.
It’s really left up to the individual chapters to focus on
what’s important in their communities.
Does SDS touch on environmental issues?
Wasserman:I think these
issues are all interconnected. For example, we’re working against
the free trade agreement [negotiations] in Peru. That’s going
to have really devastating effects on the Amazonian rain forests
and biodiversity there. But we’re not specifically focused
on environmental issues.
Current SDS members Matt Wasserman ’07 and Robin Blanc ’07
How is Reed’s SDS chapter involved on campus and around
Blanc:On a campus level one of our biggest
projects right now is to get a campus-wide Coca-Cola boycott as a
protest of their human rights violations.
Wasserman: On a slightly larger scale we’re
working with the Portland Sweatfree Campaign to get Portland City
Council to pass a sweat-free purchasing law.
Blanc: And we’re working with a lot
of Portland organizations to bring speakers to Reed so that it’s
not just the people who are active in SDS here that are hearing about
Are Reed students politically active?
Wasserman: I think students are really
politically aware. That doesn’t always translate into action.
There’s a lot of talk about the current college generation’s
apathy. Do you agree with that characterization?
Blanc:There are people at Reed who are
really, really into getting as much as they can out of a Reed education
and so aren’t as involved in the activism side of things. But
there are also many, many people who are really seriously committed
to these issues.
Wasserman: My experience with people is
not so much that they don’t care about issues, it’s that
they don’t necessarily see ways to work on issues, ways to
move forward. I’m not sure I would define that as apathy.
Do you think students who were at Reed during the Vietnam War
saw more avenues for political activism?
Wasserman:There were a lot of very large
and vocal movements that were asking for change at the time. In particular
I’m thinking of the civil rights movement.
Blanc: I think a lot of the people who
were involved in SDS in the college chapters had already been involved
in the civil rights movement and in the freedom summer and so there
was a cycle of movement and activity.
What went wrong in 1969 and how will the new SDS avoid similar
Wasserman:There was a group, the Progressive
Labor Party, that infiltrated SDS and made a concerted effort to
take over SDS. That’s something that people are very aware
Blanc: [We’re] trying to focus more
on what we’re doing and what we can do rather than on specific
nuances in ideology.
Is SDS being reformed or revived?
Wasserman: It’s a different generation
and a different group of people in a different historical situation
with different priorities. So it’s not just about trying to
play dress-up with this old organization. It’s about taking
what was really good about that organization and applying it to what
we want to do and where we are now.
So, who is “The Man” today?
Wasserman: The first target you have to
talk about is imperialism—imperialism understood as a set of
policies that is put in action by the United States. But imperialism
doesn’t only encompass, say, the war with Iraq. It encompasses
the way over two million people are put in prison in this country,
predominantly African American males. Imperialism is a system of
domination that is present both abroad and at home.
Do you see SDS developing into a mass movement?
Wasserman: There’s been really rapid
growth with SDS. I think there’s a lot of frustration with
the war and the administration that hasn’t been converted into
action. And people have been really groping for organizational forms
that will allow them to take the struggle to a new level. We had
15 million people come out in the streets in 2003 against the war.
The initial anti-war protests dwarfed anything that happened before
the very late ‘60s if not the early ‘70s. In 1964, you
had 10,000 demonstrating in Washington, which is a comparable period
to 2003. But while you had steady growth of war protests in the Vietnam
era, we haven’t seen that happen today. We’ve seen public
opinion polls change but that hasn’t been reflected in any
mass movement against the war. And so given that a majority of the
country is now very clearly against the war, the question is how
do you turn that into a mass movement that can stop the war?
How does the internet play into all this?
Blanc:It seems like it really has the potential
to create networking abilities and to create the growth of a mass
movement, but it also allows more of a separation between people,
people not actually going out on the street.
Wasserman: There are definitely some really
radically democratic possibilities in the internet as a form, but
it kind of worries me how it de-connects people. If you look at something
like what happened with Howard Dean, he had this really rabid base
of internet supporters and that just did not translate to any on-the-ground
organizing. There was a real disconnect between the real world and