reed magazine logowinter2007

1968 and all that - radicals, hippies and SDS at Reed

SDS Reborn Students for a Democratic Society

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 issues?
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

Current SDS members Matt Wasserman ’07 and Robin Blanc ’07


How is Reed’s SDS chapter involved on campus and around Portland?
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 these issues.

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 mistakes?
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 of happening.
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 the internet.