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.

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