Politics Beyond Protest: Forty years later, Students for a Democratic Society returns to Chicago

Students for a Democratic Society, courtesy of SDSStudents for a Democratic Society, courtesy of SDS

Forty years ago, Chicago played host to the Democratic National Convention. It was to be a tumultuous affair. In a situation with loose parallels to this year’s presidential campaign, the Democratic nomination was a toss-up between the youth favorite, anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who would eventually secure the nod despite largely eschewing the primaries, relying instead on the support of party bigwigs for delegate votes. The year was 1968. The Democratic Party was split in its loyalties and beliefs. The country found itself mired in the horrors of the Vietnam War. Students were upset, and they protested the Convention. It was rather chaotic: city officials sent the police out in force, students got arrested, party members were disgruntled. It’s all widely chronicled; it was a notable time in our nation’s history.

Among the student protesters, one particular group involved is perhaps best remembered today as an embodiment of the student involvement and radical protests that marked the late 1960s. The group was Students for a Democratic Society–SDS for short–an organization that would soon become a household name, thanks to its campus takeovers, prominent protests and, eventually, its offshoot the Weather Underground, which would take student protests to an unprecedented and violent new level. SDS, however, merely set the stage for these latter escalations; more or less dismantled in 1969 over a lack of concrete national structure and infighting between different factions–at its national convention in Chicago, no less–SDS in its prime served as a catalyst for theretofore unseen levels of student political interest and participation, giving students a reason to believe change was possible and that action on their parts might actually lead to visible, concrete results.

Now, four decades later, that spirit is starting to return. The evidence is nearly blinding; for anyone who hasn’t turned on the news for the past six months, students have been coming out to the Democratic primaries in record numbers, going door-to-door with grassroots campaigns and getting directly involved with the political process in ways not seen since, well, the 1960s. And, lo and behold, in a fitting reflection of–or attempt to further rekindle–that blossoming spirit of involvement, SDS has once again returned to the campus scene. Re-ignited in 2006 by high school students Pat Korte and Jessica Rapchik, the organization held its first new national convention that year at the University of Chicago.

Interestingly, however, the University of Chicago–discounting a brief start-up that year among grad students that fizzled out quickly after the convention–only started its own chapter of SDS about two months ago. Fourth-year undergrad Ben Shepard, after meeting with members of other local SDS chapters through public forums sponsored by the leftist Platypus Affiliated Society, decided the time was right to start a branch of the new SDS organization–which, much like the original, aims to affect progressive political change–at his own university. Chapters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and DePaul followed shortly, joining the Columbia College SDS group, an SDS chapter at Elmhurst College in the suburbs, and a number of high school branches to further expand the Chicagoland SDS base. (There is also a specific “Chicago SDS” group, comprised of older non-student participants from the city at large, which, however, is largely defunct.)

But to speak of the organization as a citywide whole is somewhat misleading–at least for the time being. Much as a lack of structure plagued the original SDS, interrelations on a national or even citywide scale are only beginning to emerge as members aren’t particularly eager to embrace any sort of established hierarchy just yet. Second-year University of Chicago student Luis Brennan, who has been involved in SDS since its UofC debut and participated in a high school chapter before arriving here, maintains that the organization’s relatively loose structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “There’s nothing like it on campus–every [other] group has its own [particular] issue,” he explains. “All that stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else–we can cover that…SDS is so ill-formed right now that it can become whatever we want it to be.”

It’s an odd statement to make, but one that actually sums the situation up nicely. To create a chapter, Brennan explains, “basically you joined online [and] got sent a bag of buttons and a box of membership cards, and that’s all it meant.” Chapters tend to lack established positions, and a proposal to solidify a nationwide structure at this year’s national convention was largely rejected. But where the structure (or lack thereof) may have caused problems with the original incarnation of the group, the same situation seems to be a liberating factor that may just allow SDS v.2.0 to succeed where its predecessor had failed. Chapters choose their own goals to pursue and their own means of pursuing them; a group can announce its intention to do something and other groups may choose to endorse or participate in the event, or they can choose not to. “The old group split because [the members] felt they had to act as a group, and it’s not like that now,” Brennan claims. Thus, the Columbia College chapter has chosen to forego the usual anti-war platform of traditional SDS branches to focus largely on poverty issues, and while some groups are currently planning potential protests against the Republican National Convention to be held in the Twin Cities later this year, others are planning on sitting out on the action–the beauty of the new organization is that, either way, it’s okay.

This does raise a few inevitable questions, however, that can hardly be ignored–least of all by the group members themselves. Namely, with so little national structure, a reluctance to adopt specific platforms, goals, or ideologies, and a kind of DIY method of group interaction and events coordination, why even have a national organization at all? And why–to acknowledge the pink elephant in the room–organize under the resuscitated SDS moniker, with all its controversial and potentially off-putting baggage? Why not just start a new organization altogether?

The definitive answer lies with Korte and Rapchik, but it’s not difficult to get at the reasoning’s general direction. Members are quick to assert the benefits of associating with the ‘60s and the SDS, an organization that actually achieved results in an era when students actually cared about politics. And “even though there’s no national network, we identify with each other as SDS students,” points out third-year member Greg Gabrellas.

The new SDS, however, is markedly different from the original organization in a number of ways. Members maintain that the days of angry protests and massive civil unrest are more or less over, and the group’s strategies have consequently shifted in an attempt to act more appropriately to the age. Unifying behind the slogan “Politics Beyond Protest,” the UofC chapter holds biweekly movie screenings with the aim of educating students about the political climate the original group was spawned from, and how that differs from that of today. “We want people to be aware that historically, now, we’re not in the same situation,” explains member Prerna Nadathur. What the motto means–and what those more appropriate means may be–is another question altogether. There’s a lot of promising language: Nadathur explains how the group wants to act as a “hub,” coordinating with other activists as a “space in which there’d be communication between these [different activist] groups,” for example, but the members themselves acknowledge the ambiguity of the statement. “Students [in the recent past] have never really asked, ‘What kind of power do we have as students?’” Gabrellas intones, positing SDS as a space to figure that question out.

One way the group does aim to exercise its power is through the University’s Student Government elections. The group hopes to run an “SDS candidate” for as many offices as possible in order to better promulgate its ideas and, hopefully, put itself in a position to see those ideas translated into action. The candidates aren’t all necessarily SDS members, but all are running on a common platform of progressive principles. Whether the student body agrees with these principles, however, will become apparent in the weeks to come.

The UofC chapter’s scope isn’t just limited to campus issues, though. Despite the recent rejection of a nationwide structure, the Chicago chapters are busy communicating among themselves, attempting to set up a citywide structure to help better achieve results. “Right now there’s a big push to get all the networks in the city under one structure,” member Ian Morrison proclaims. And for good reason: the local chapters are working together to foster participation in the May Day protests occurring next month to bring attention to immigration and labor issues. Then, the Chicagoland SDS organizations hope to bond further with other Midwest organizations to create a bloc at the national convention through which they can propose a “teach-in/walk-out” to take place on Election Day. “[We want to] organize a strong Chicago/Midwest network, so when we go into the convention we’ll have a strong voice and not be a minority,” Nadathur explains. “[The teach-in] will look different on different campuses, but it’s the first event that [all the different SDS chapters] will hopefully do.” To turn these visions into reality, SDS members collaborate in “working groups,” or small groups of members within a local chapter, across local chapters, or even across the nation, the latter of which communicate by conference calls and emails to work to plan the national convention and maintain the official website. Each group is responsible for accomplishing its own tasks; and from these groups, members maintain, natural leaders will emerge. “There’s no reason now to delegate [leaders] because we’ll find out who comes out and starts doing it,” reasons Morrison.

To be sure, the UofC SDS members are quite apt at expressing lofty ideas in elegant language, but the verdict is not yet out as to whether the organization will achieve the level of passion and involvement–and visible results–its 1960s predecessor invoked. “SDS has yet to be tested at how good it is at being an organization,” Morrison admits. But the group is anxious to get the ball rolling and start setting the movement in motion. “The point is to foster a community of students,” member Kara Elliot-Ortega proclaims. “Politics shouldn’t be just riding the election wave, there should be involvement after.” Gabrellas agrees, stressing the importance of taking advantage of the current levels of student interest and active participation in the country’s political arena. “I don’t think it’s an accident we joined when we did,” he comments. “There’s definitely an upsurge in the movement, at least here in Chicago.” What, exactly, that movement produces, however, is anybody’s guess–it’s up to the students to define themselves as a meaningful force in today’s political atmosphere, and that’s exactly what the current SDS members plan to achieve.