WASHINGTON - In the newspaper photographs, they are frozen in time confronting police, taking to the streets, staging teach-ins and leading university-wide strikes. Now gray-haired, these members of the original Students for a Democratic Society are teachers, artists and activists. As they look at a new generation of student activists, they see changed circumstances but a similar struggle.
Forty-five years ago, students gathered in Port Huron, Mich., to draft a statement of principles around which the SDS would organize. This past weekend, the new SDS’s four-day national convention opened in Detroit.
Tom Hayden, who wrote the Port Huron statement and is the author of a new book, “Ending The War In Iraq,” said the most obvious differences between then and now are the absence of a military draft and that, until 1971, the voting age was 21. That meant that 18- to 20-year-old men could be sent to fight in Vietnam but could not voice their opinions at the ballot box.
“You can’t imagine what it is like to feel like everyone on your campus was going to be drafted and here was a war that didn’t make any sense,” Hayden recalled of the campus protests four decades ago. With an all-volunteer military force, there have been few `60s-style street protests even as polls show that a majority of Americans has turned against the Iraq war.
Hayden said he gets e-mails almost every week from students who are writing papers about the Port Huron statement as a historic document. But former SDS members said that doesn’t mean that the anti-war sentiment animating the SDS has receded into history, just that today’s circumstances are markedly different.
He said that as the `60s activists grew old enough to vote, they saw many of the politicians and public figures killed that they believed would have brought changes in American policy. “We gradually overcame our disenfranchisement as young people only to be disenfranchised as the top leaders who could have been elected were killed,” he said.
President John F. Kennedy, who Hayden said might have ended the war, was assassinated in 1963, as were Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Students involved in today’s SDS are certainly opposed to American involvement in Iraq, but, like their SDS elders, are also focused on broad societal change.
The new SDS, announced in 2006, says it has 265 registered chapters. Beth Blum, who recently graduated from Drew University in New Jersey, said she joined out of a desire for a network of like-minded people who were more focused and less frustrated than the anti-war movement.
“People get frustrated with the anti-war movement because there is no visible change,” she said.
Blum and others also cited the new SDS’ broad agenda. Pat Korte, one of the founders and a student at The New School in New York, said he hopes to create “a long-term vision of what a better society could look like,” and he ticked off a list of problems he sees: capitalism, racism, sexism, patriarchy.
“We wanted to put forth a vision that would replace the institution that would keep producing these horrors,” he said.
Mark Tribe, an artist who teaches at Brown University, organized a re-enactment last Thursday on the National Mall of a 1965 speech by then-SDS President Paul Potter. The re-enactment was part of an art project that came out of Tribe’s surprise over the lack of anti-war protests on the Brown campus. “In the middle of a war that my students say they oppose, the campus was quiet,” he said.
His project, he said, is not aimed at increasing activism but at finding a way to express his own reaction to the Iraq war and to the differences between now and the protests of the 1960s and early `70s, which he vaguely remembers attending with his parents. The re-enactment attracted about 30 people, but Tribe said he thought it was effective in echoing the frustration felt by 1960s activists before the anti-war movement evolved into national protests.
That sense of frustration is remembered well by some of the original members of SDS.
“As was too brutally clear from history, it did not matter that we won the debate,” Alan Haber, a founding SDS member, recalled about a debate he organized in Michigan with Department of Defense advisers. “We weren’t in a democracy about this war, so people looked for other methods than arguing with the government about its policy.”
The political system’s lack of responsiveness led to larger protests and eventually greater violence, Haber said, adding that he stands “in awe” of the new generation of SDS members who are waging an uphill battle to end the war and for whom he serves as a mentor.
Bob Pardun, who remembers staging protests where he was the only participant before SDS gained momentum, still participates in anti-war demonstrations, but is no longer active as an organizer. The stress, he said, makes him physically sick. But he sees the frustration that SDS felt in the 1960s repeating itself today.
“People have gotten the idea that it doesn’t really make a difference what you do,” he said, but he thinks change will come, albeit in small increments.
Davidson, who works with an organization that provides technical training to youths in Chicago and is one of the leaders of an anti-war group in the city, said that when the Vietnam War broke out, “it seemed completely un-American to us, and we were outraged because of it.” But now, for current college students, the idea of America in a war they don’t agree with is not new or shocking, he said.
Some of them said they look at their elders as mentors, but not as someone to define their goals.
“In taking on the name of SDS we are accepting the baggage ... but it’s more about creating institutional memory,” Blum said. “We live in very different times.”