photo by SG

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

SDS Midwest Convention Reportback

Brendan Rogers and Nick Huelster


The weekend of January 12-13 in Milwaukee a well spent mix of sharing our stories and learning from others experiences. The Midwest region showed that we were doing serious work on a variety of pressing local and national issues, more than meeting the challenge of the high bar set by the so-called face of SDS, the better publicized chapters on the coasts. The convention had a non-deliberative role, which meant that the work done was skill sharing, reports of chapter-level work, communication building, and caucusing.


On Friday afternoon we drove through Wisconsin and, after a few stops along the way, ended up in Milwaukee. We were put up by the amazing Jay and Molly of Milwaukee-SDS who are some of the nicest people we’ve ever met. We started sharing about our chapters right away together, losing track of time and showing up to an SDS party just as it ended. We went out to a busy, greasy pizza joint, then hit the hay in preparation of the next day’s events.

Saturday Morning

When we arrived at the University of Milwaukee, we did a quick round of introductions. Chapters attended included: Milwaukee, Chicago, Macalester, U of Minnesota, U of N. Dakota/Grand Forks, Grand Rapids MI, Madison, and Detroit.

After intros we had an extended conversation that roughly centered on the topic of movement building, which was to be one of the themes of the weekend. Our talk was facilitated by Bill Ayers of old SDS and Weather Underground fame, who barely introduced himself for who he has been, only mentioning his past a few times. (When Nick got him to sign a copy of his memoir, he told Bill that he was only halfway through it. Bill said, "Then you haven’t gotten to the good part!" and Nick laughed, nervously.) He brought great vision and energy in facilitating our discussion. This talk reinforced the fundamental idea of SDS as an organization of chapters in federation: while we all were there for the same purpose and in solidarity with one another, our problems varied wildly. Some chapters had a difficult time getting new members, others retaining members, others had experienced the problem of rapid growth without the infrastructure to accommodate their new size. What was apparent, however, was that even the smallest of groups have had successful campaigns.

Saturday Afternoon

After lunch, when some members went to a benefit for a local alderperson who has been imprisoned on dubious grounds, we began chapter reportbacks. (The notes from the convention, including what was shared during chapter reportbacks, are being put together and distributed by members of Milwaukee and Detroit SDS, and will be mailed out to attendees and the Midwest list within two weeks). Suffice it to say that this was one of the most inspiring parts of the convention. Others were impressed with our strike, especially the structure of the mass meeting and our street takeover, as well as our tradition of the effigy-burning. One of the best moments was when the mild-mannered Grand Rapids chapter told of their march to their congressperson’s house, where they taped a giant proclamation saying he would no longer support war funding to his door, asking for him to sign it, despite a tremendous police presence. Their actions received press, and forced the congressperson to come clean about his war record. Inspiring and hilarious are two words that were used to describe SDSers frequently this weekend.

After chapter reports, we held a short presentation on gender by Sicily of Detroit SDS. We discussed how gender is constructed, cultural stereotypes about gender, and in what ways we can build struggles around gender. Sicily also introduced us to another metaphor, which would come up over and over throughout the convention: her "knitting" analogy for anti-oppression work. Like knitters, who must practice their craft until the day they die or begin to lose it, people practicing anti-oppression work are involved in a constant process and are never free of oppressive tendencies.

Sunday Morning

Sunday morning was caucus/auxiliary time. The caucus/auxiliary pairs were women/men, people of color/white, working class/class privilege. These conversations people a space to discuss oppression broadly, raise consciousness about it within SDS, and take back tips to their home chapters. Macalester SDS's "vibe-check" go-around at the end of every meeting proved a popular suggestion. There was a bit of tension when a group of men from one chapter did not attend any of the caucuses. We believe the issues raised in the caucuses are challenges that all privileged and oppressed people in SDS need to confront. We must assume "good faith" in SDS, which means that people should assume that criticisms made by their comrades are done not to hurt them or anger them, but out of desire for a stronger organization. This is especially important in the context of anti-oppression work, when tensions can run high for both the oppressed and privileged groups. Out of these talks, a strong message we meditated on was the concept that "You know that you need the movement when the movement doesn’t need you." This means that you’re speaking when you need to speak, not dominating leadership roles but sharing them with all group members and doing invisible roles as well.

Sunday Afternoon

We ended the convention with a series of break-out groups to discuss topics that had been brought up over the course of the weekend as requiring the attention of Midwest chapters. These included: movement-building/chapter alliances/Midwest communication, March 20 protests, RNC protests, counter-recruitment, and building non-hierarchical leadership. The notes from these conversations will come out with the official notes from the convention. Of immediate importance, however, is the creation of an internal Midwest SDS blog at, in order to better share information, speakers, and materials created by chapters across the Midwest.

Before concluding, we reaffirmed our need for more Midwest communication, another Midwest convention in 2008, and, as a convention, signed the SDS M20 call. Closing thoughts were altogether positive, and it was hard to drive back home and leave behind all our newfound friends and comrades.

Comments on SDS (Brendan)

While we at Macalester may get frustrated with our internal structure, it was received quite well by other chapters. This, like so many other things at convention, reminds me of Sicily from Detroit SDS's words about the "knitting" analogy: Where we have struggled, and continue to struggle, with issues of oppression in the past, it has made us stronger. Our formal rotating division of tasks would be impossible if we had not discussed and implemented changes about issues of (for instance) patriarchy in semesters past. Anti-oppression work is indeed a continual process, and because we have worked hard on some of those issues, we are able to come up with solutions for problems that other chapters have been unable to even begin dealing with. I couldn’t be more proud of how our chapter has worked on these issues.

I think that the continual growth of SDS is incredible, and the people I met at convention were incredible as well. Our decision-making processes, our work on sharing, and our actions have been inspiring. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I truly believe that we are one of the few activist groups who are modeling the kind of "participatory" society that we are seeking to create.

My one concern with opinions I heard voiced at the convention was the speed with which SDSers agreed to work to get politicians elected. Even as folks loudly declared their independence from the Democratic Party, they allowed themselves to be drawn into the discourse of state power as a goal of revolutionaries. Organizers stated that they wanted to force candidates to "come to us" as representatives of an authentic Left, and that we should only endorse them if they met all our criteria (anti-war, pro-universal healthcare, etc). To borrow the language of Hillary Clinton, SDSers sought to become the MLK to the Democrat's LBJ. This ignores a history of betrayal by politicians, from the U.S. to Russia and beyond, and an understanding of how the American Empire functions. If SDSers assert that power "comes from below," many are suspiciously quick to endorse the "power from above" of the politicians. A particularly astute comment came from one comrade about the "march to the right" of U.S. presidential elections, which begin with leftists supporting candidates like Nader or Kucinich and end with them supporting the likes of the incredibly pro-war John Kerry.


Today is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Why is this important? Because it provides an example of oppressed people taking their lives into their own hands and resisting with violence.

I am sick and tired with the played out Gandhisms on the Left, particularly where nonviolence is concerned. Let's not forget that Gandhi suggested that the Jews commit mass suicide to protest the Nazi occupation. This kind of mystical thinking is exactly the type which pervades the fundamentalist pacifists today.

And while I'm trashing people, it is exactly the type of mystical thinking which pervades their tactical opposites, the fundamentalist black bloc-ers, who believe that any and every action taken against the State must be manifested in the maximum amount of violence possible. Both sides miss the nuances of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Where I'm From

I just noticed that Will tagged me with the question: What motivated you to start looking into Anarchist/Libertarian thought?

I was raised by two Democrats, my mom rather moderate and my dad pretty left-wing. In '03, I helped organize a walk-out in my small town on the day the bombs started dropping on Iraq. (I've since consistently encouraged radicals to do organizing work in conservative rural areas. It was the best training for people disagreeing/hating/threatening you that I've ever encountered.) I volunteered for Russ Feingold and John Kerry in '04, that summer reading a biography of Clarence Darrow. The Darrow book mentioned, with some negativity, those "anarchists," incorrectly calling Bill "Comintern" Haywood one of them. That was my first touch with anarchism and with the IWW, the former which I promptly dismissed, with the predictable democratic socialist response of "it's totally unworkable!"

Humorously, I remember walking the hallways of my high school on the day after Kerry conceded the election to Bush in 2004, totally disgusted. I had twisted my principles tremendously just to support his run and even he had given up rather than fight. That was the last time I ever supported a candidate. I started doing more research on anarchism, particularly the summer before my senior year. By that fall, I was comfortable enough with the word and subsequently spent my last year in high school ruining the reputation of a "good boy" that I'd earned, working on a campaign to keep Wal-Mart out of town, spearheading an extremely unpopular campaign against Coca-Cola in our school (for which it was made clear to me that my mother could lose her job) and even entertaining such blasphemy as trying to get the recruiters and youth pastors out of school. My brother informs me that I am to this day pointed out by teachers as the "token radical" in town.

Meet me in the dollar bin

Personal log:

The problem with getting more involved with organizing in the past couple of months is that I've had less time to reflect and find new sources of inspiration. These past two weeks of no school have been a nice time to sit back and recharge. I've been reading a lot more, as well as just wasting beautiful time on the computer. Which, while it sounds lame, is a great luxury to have.

This past weekend I went to the SDS Midwest Regional Convention. I'll post my "official" reportback to my chapter here when my comrade finishes editing it up. In the meantime, here's my current reading list:

1. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America by Daniel Taussig. An amazing reflection and analysis on anthropology, Marxism, politics, and semiotics (that's the first time I've ever been able to say, without being a pretentious Macalester student, that I vaguely understand something about semiotics). It's really redeemed the dialectic a bit for me, as it portrays the tension between precapitalist and capitalist forms of value in South America as constant and interwoven.
2. Spaces of Capital by David Harvey. I'm just starting this, but everyone tells me this cat is the foremost Marxist geographer, which is groovy. I've been thinking a lot more about urbanism, particularly in the context of post-Situationist explorations. I find myself still identifying strongly as a country boy, but the cityscape is growing on me.
3. Italy: Autonomia ed. semiotext(e). This shit is fucking sweet. Early Negri, Tronti, Debord, Guattari, Virno and a million other cool cats. How come nobody ever told me about Sergio Bologna? It's thick as hell with Marxist language, but I'm getting a lot from it. I find myself constantly evaluating relations between people in the language of the autonomists nowadays.
4. The Early Novels of Raymond Chandler. His language doesn't always jive with my serious commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism, but Chandler is master of prose. And let's face it, who doesn't wanna be mysterious, drink a shit-ton of whiskey and periodically beat the shit out of bad guys?

Yikes, three books by Marxists and one by a former oil exec? If I'm not careful, Will will steal my anarchy club card while I'm sleeping!

Monday, January 14, 2008

The New Sectarianism

I've always tried to avoid being sectarian, but I know that it's impossible. What I've discovered though, is that the ways in which I write people off for their beliefs are not based on who they follow, but what they do.

I frequently work with people from all over the spectrum of "the movement". From individualists and market anarchists to old school Leninists, the groups that I'm involved with, particularly SDS and the IWW, invite anyone who can work with us. We discourage the old sectarianism, where one cannot even consider someone else's beliefs as valid. In SDS, people often talk of "assuming good faith," that even if you think that those Maoists/anti-organizationalists/whatever have stupid politics, you should assume that they are here because they actually care about the group. Obviously, there are exceptions to this guideline, particularly old sectarian groups who seek to either co-opt something new or destroy it. But the vast majority of participants in these activist groups sincerely care more about the world and the organization than they do about getting their way all the time.

The new sectarianism, the good sectarianism, is one based on method rather than ideology. It divides up those who empower and those who control. Those who build democracy and autonomy and those who create hierarchies and party bosses. I encourage more people to practice this type of sectarianism, or more properly, methodism.

This may not sound like something new, but I think its important to distinguish between the two types of discrimination. The old sectarianism inevitably leads to tiny groups who fight each other more than the bosses. See the Sparts for proof.

However, the new sectarianism leads us to divide up the organizations which will do our movement well, even if our lines may differ, from those who will destroy it, even unintentionally.

For this reason, I may grumble when working with a Trot who talks slavishly of the "centralized economy" or roll my eyes when some crusty anarchist prattles on about veganism, but I will not for a moment let politics interfere with liberation. Likewise, if somebody warms me up a tale of "autonomous working class struggle," then goes back to secretly report minutes of our conversation to the central committee that puts them in a box somewhere (I'm looking at you here, Freedom Road) I will dismiss them as reactionary.

We must not be afraid to make decisions about what is the direction that our movement should move in. But we must be conscious that the decisions we make reflect what is best for the path of revolution, about which we may not know all the answers, impossible as it might seem to us at the time.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


I know that I'm supposed to blindly support everything which gets done in the name of "the movement," but I have to draw the line somewhere.

Blowing up buildings to stop military research? Okay, likely to get caught, but power to ya if you can get away with it.
Blowing up buildings to stop "genetic engineering of plants"? (as a suspected ELFer facing jail time is alleged to have done in 2001) Ridiculous! Indefensible! Misanthropic!

Okay, if she didn't do it, than she's another in a long line of political prisoners. But that seems unlikely to me.

I've noticed that primmies speak out of both sides of their mouths about the destruction of science. On one hand, they'll claim this woman is innocent. Which she could very well be. Let's face it, the State doesn't exactly have a good track record for treating radicals fairly. But while the defenders of the Green Scare arrestees are ranting and raving about how those cute white kids with a weird affinity for nature and firebombs have never done anything wrong in their lives, they let little smirks go by when you ask if they thought it was a good idea.

I can understand a response like that in public. It's pretty standard radical procedure to pretend that an imprisoned radical is a harmless liberal when soliciting money from rich liberals. Everybody pretended Rosa Parks was just a tired old lady, even though of course she was strategic and had a plan. But everybody in the Birmingham NAACP knew who she was and exactly what she was doing.

I mean, come on guys, everybody knows what you're doing. The FBI knows, Homeland Security knows, we know. You're trying to drag humanity back into the mystical past and aren't afraid to use firebombs to prove it. So why are you surprised when you get locked up? Because you didn't think that middle class white people could get nabbed? As to the innocent ones: maybe if your politics weren't centered around basically making lots of people die, you wouldn't get confused with your friends, err, one of those dirty terrorists.

Is this the same as rightwingers telling a rape victim that she should have expected it because she was wearing "provocative" clothing? I don't know. What do you think?