East Lansing, MI – December 6, 2007. Former members of MSU SDS, present day members of MDS and organizers from Ignite, the new MSU SDS chapter all came together for a counter-recruitment protest and later, a moving MSU SDS reunion. Friday, November 30, 2007 was a bitter cold day in East Lansing. A spirited demo outside a Marine Corps recruiting center, on busy Grand River Avenue, opposite the MSU campus, was abbreviated due to the frigid temperatures. But later in the day, an SDS reunion held in MSU’s South Kedzie Hall, warmed hearts and fired up the activists – young and old. Bob Meola, an MSU SDS alumnus, emceed the affair which featured speeches by Cole Smith of Ignite, Alan Haber, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and the man of the hour – Bert Garskof who had been the faculty advisor to the original MSU SDS chapter. Garskof, fired by MSU for his devotion to his students and the Movement, was described by Ayers as “a mentor, an inspiration”.
The event was part hope, part history and part humor – master of ceremonies Bob Meola commented on some early controversy: “There were some who said that we, meaning in 1969, were a divided chapter and they wanted to know: ‘by whose authority is this being organized?’ We didn’t look to invite a particular faction. We invited everybody…like somebody said…the same people who wanted to put us all away then would want to put us all away now and they’d put us all in the same camp together…yeah..it’s silly, we’re beyond those disputes. Welcome to all factions!”
Cole Smith of Ignite, the new MSU SDS chapter spoke briefly about how his chapter could learn from the experiences of the original chapter, arguing that “the nature of oppression and war are the same as they’ve always been.” He urged those assembled to get active: “We need to start igniting ourselves, igniting our communities, igniting for change.”
Helpful in jumpstarting a new MSU chapter, Detroit SDS sent several reps to the reunion. Carmen Mendoza-King spoke about the Save Wayne State campaign – combatting “tuitionitis” by calling for a 3 year freeze on tuition – and dressing in scrubs to do some street theatre, highlighting the poor health of the university. Aric Miller offered a report back on the last Iraq Moratorium in the Motor City: Detroit SDSers took part in an intergenerational march. Betsy Palazzola made an appeal for cash for the very busy but cash strapped Detroit chapter.
Following the local Michigan chapter reports, Tom Price and Andy Pyle of MSU SDS offered a memorial tribute to fallen SDS comrade Jeffrey Glen Miller who was martyred at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
Tom Price provided a personal view of Jeff Miller – “the opposite of a true believer” – who was always questioning everything, including his own beliefs. Price related how on one occasion Jeff talked a group of frat boys out of beating up some SDSers at a local watering hole – providing a concrete example of how to open a dialogue with people who don’t agree with or even understand activists. This was also a leitmotiv of the evening – reaching out to others who are not engaged with the ailing US democracy or the activists attempting to treat it. Price’s comments were passionate, articulate, moving – and humorous. At one point Price quipped that he also belonged to a frat: Sigma Delta Sigma.
Andy Pyle spoke softly as he held aloft the famous John Filo photo showing Mary Ann Vecchio screaming as she knelt over the prone body of Jeff Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State. Pyle, who had been present at Kent, related how none of the students dispersed after the massacre – instead more and more arrived, essentially forcing the school to shut down. “I guess the lesson is just carry it on,” Pyle said.
Introduced by Meola as “the first president of SDS and actively organizing in Movement for a Democratic Society”, Al Haber was clearly moved by the assembly of activists, old and new. “This gathering to my heart is so beautiful…there is such power in this room,” he said. His concern for the wounded democracy we call the United States was obvious: “we are in a fascist situation,” he cautioned. But again he drew upon history, citing the Wobblies 1905 congress as an example of an approach that made him hopeful for the future. “We can create a campaign [for change]…what we have together is One Big Union”, a union of humanity,” he said. “If we actually used our poetry and art” to reflect people’s feelings back to them we would see that we can build a “community of transformation”. This theme – that art and poetry could help heal the Americas – would be echoed by several speakers: Haber, Dohrn and Ayers. Wearing his trademark kufi, his large font sds badge and a twinkle in his eye, Al Haber seemed comfortable in his role as elder statesmen of the New Left.
“This is a Movement for a Democratic Society that is international, interracial, intergenerational, interesting – and we are all a part of it.”
– Alan Haber, East Lansing, 30 Nov 2007
Noting that “the Sixties have been commodified…nostalgia for the Sixties is like a wet blanket for young people,” Bill Ayers also remarked that coming together to celebrate the spirit of resistance is important in a time when we are seeing: “empire resurrected and unapologetic; white supremacy, changing its form but essentially intact; growing surveillance in every sphere of our lives; attacks on women and girls”, and; “targeting of gay and lesbian people” as a form of scapegoating. According to Ayers, in the Sixties “we had a view that we could change things”…today, he argued, activists need to “imagine another world and put it in moral terms”. “We have to speak in a language that is large and encompassing,” he said. Discussing how to challenge an ‘almost unthinkable authoritarianism’, Ayers noted that “it’s the idea that we can tolerate these intolerable things…it’s what they count on” [to maintain control]. The solution lies in part with raising moral questions he added. “I think this is a moment of unprecedented opportunity for Movement building”, Ayers said, but he added that we need to make connections, “to talk to one another” across social justice movements. This notion, the need to talk with people with whom we might disagree – to initiate a dialogue – was a recurrent theme in the remarks of several of the longtime members of Sigma Delta Sigma present at the Reunion.
I don’t think we can wait, I think we need to develop a courageous conversation across organizations, across movements. Looking for that common ground, that common strand that brings us together.”
- Bill Ayers, East Lansing, 30 Nov 2007
Bernardine Dohrn, known simply as “BD” to many in SDS and MDS, opened her remarks by commenting on how singular the sacrifice of Bert Garskof was during the Sixties: “You don’t even need your toes…to count the number of people who were academics and teachers who risked everything in that ten year period – to side against the war, to side for justice and to join, throw their lot in with the students.”
BD went on to argue for a multi issue approach to organizing, and to Movement building: “the idea is…what the Zapatistas call points of convergence…how can we get out of the box of single issue organizing which really drives us towards reforms that almost always get turned into their opposites? How do we get to the nexus that shows us what the system of oppression is? I think it’s by pushing issues together…” Her talk, titled ‘When Hope and History Rhyme’ focused on what she termed building the “humanizing project.” Resisting the cultural domination of the United States, especially consumerism…by focusing on arts and culture, on using “other than didactic tools.” This is one effective way, she argued, to approach the “question of hope”. Ending on an upbeat tone she offered that: “It may happen that hope and history will rhyme again, as they did in the Sixties.”
Keynote speaker Bert Garskof opened his remarks with a smile and a joke, observing that: “It’s a little strange knowing that in 1969 I was the older generation mentoring the younger generation. I can’t figure that one out…” An appreciative audience erupted in laughter and applause.
Garskof’s comments indicated that he hasn’t lost a step in terms of his analysis. He talked about 1968/1969, the time period in which he was sacked by MSU for his radicalism saying that, “…In ’68 these two rigid systems: socialism – sensible in theory but corrupt in practice, and capitalism – corrupt in theory and practice…In ’68 these were confronted by a worldwide contentious conglomerate of liberational spirit. And speaking sentimentally, it was grand, it was grand.” The former faculty advisor of MSU SDS noted that: “SDS included people who wanted to end the war. to provide for the poor to end racial discrimination, to end sexism in all of its manifestations. SDS also included people who were grounded in the struggle for socialism. Moreover, there were some like me who came to the ideas of socialism and then anarchism through personal change.” This underlying contradiction, the reform versus revolutionary change issue, was something that could not be easily resolved, Garskok noted. It led, in his view, to the end of SDS in 1969. But Garskof did not see this as other than it should be. He spoke about a “natural end of SDS”, after it had gone about as far as it could go. But he noted that “the reemergence of SDS on today’s campuses…that’s a good thing!” Filled with hope – and armed with an impressive knowledge of history – Garskof also rejected the notion that the Movement did not help end the US war on Viet Nam: “We controlled the streets” which helped end the war, he argued. Looking to the future Garskof argued that resistance will come again and will again surprise the pundits: “the Sixties were a surprise”…renewed activism will likewise take society by surprise, he argued. Garskof spoke of his own transformation during the Sixties: “I was once a liberal professor, ugh…I went to a party…met Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton and my life was changed forever.” Ever self effacing, Garskof thanked Bill and Bernardine for all their support and all they taught him. He joked about his dismissal from MSU – the clear result of supporting his students. One day, he said, the local newspaper headline read “Garskof put on fulltime research.” “A dream of most people in my department,” he quipped.
Garskof also spoke of the forms of struggle he would like to see, he advocated the building of parallel structures, building a new society in the shell of the old: arguing that we need to be “creating a movement culture” because “as we fight the old we have to build the new”. Garskof argued for a counterculture based on “liberty, equality…and community” that would embrace people and help them stay a part of the Movement. He encapsulated the libertarian socialist leitmotiv of the evening in his remark “what we are now is what we will become later” – a succinct expression of the prefigurative politics that characterized the New Left in its brightest Moments. Convinced that change will come, Garskof nonetheless rejected the role of prophet stating: “What will happen, will happen. When it will happen, I don’t know.” He left the stage to sustained applause, his fist raised.