The outbreak of student revolts at the University of Missouri and Yale this fall reflect a mounting sense of anxiety among young people. It’s getting increasingly hard, it seems, for young Americans to evade the moral challenges posed by crises involving racism, income inequality and the global war system. At the same time, it is quite clear that our political leadership is incapable of taking action to solve even one of these crises, much less all of them. No wonder so few young people vote.
I’m 68 now, so I was a teenager in 1965, during another moral crisis. The civil rights movement peaked that year, having effectively shaken white America’s sense of moral superiority. Like millions of other kids, I had spent my growing-up years watching the civil rights movement expand and flourish. In the spring of 1965 the U.S. attacked a small and very poor Asian country. At first I tried to ignore it, dutifully going down to my draft board on my eighteenth birthday in June to register for the draft. My father had served in World War II and my brother was already in the Army. It’s just what everybody did.
When I got to Columbia University as a freshman in September of that year, I found a significant number of older students who—outraged that this war was being carried out in their names—were already studying and protesting it, and teaching others. Their moral gravity and idealism attracted me, as did the urgency of their cause. I wanted to be in this gang of super-cool world changers who were taking care of business.
Unlike me, many of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members at Columbia were “red-diaper babies,” meaning they had grown up in socialist or communist families. As children their parents had taken them to civil rights marches, ban-the-bomb demonstrations and union-strike picket lines. These SDS anti-war kids had a common underlying goal: to “build the movement.” They had inherited this strategy from the labor and the civil rights movements of their youth. So we spent endless meetings discussing how to involve more people: debating, for example, which issues would be more attractive to students (should we target Naval ROTC’s presence at Columbia or should we oppose the sending of class rank to students’ home draft boards?) and which protests we should put our efforts into supporting (e.g. local on-campus war-related issues vs. recruiting for big mobilizations in D.C.). We called ourselves “organizers,” the same name used by the red-diaper babies’ parents. The underlying purpose was always to grow the mass movement, of which we, the students, were a part.
Here’s the amazing thing: this tight focus on “building the movement” worked! We knocked on dorm doors, recruiting new students to our ranks (that’s how I had been recruited); we held “teach-ins” about the nature of the war; we read and studied and marched. And by the spring of 1968, after three years of organizing, the combined crises caused by the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which exposed the lie that the U.S. was “winning the war,” and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., prompted thousands of students at Columbia to rise up en masse against the university’s involvement with the war as well as its institutional racism. Importantly, the predominantly white students of SDS had formed a coalition with the few black students on campus, represented by the Students’ African-American Society, who in turn worked closely with the neighboring community members of Harlem, the largest black ghetto in the U.S. at the time. We occupied five buildings for a week until university administrators sent in the police, who viciously beat up hundreds and arrested many more, resulting in a campus-wide strike. This would become the biggest student uprising in U.S. history, galvanizing national and international attention and becoming a model for student protest for years to come.
In involving so many people and in creating a replicable model for student anti-war and anti-racism protest, we helped to build the larger movement. SDS as a national organization mushroomed in membership, with chapters popping up around the country. In the spring of 1970, when the U.S. widened the war by illegally invading Cambodia, hundreds of thousands rose up in protest; then four students were shot at Kent State in Ohio and two at Jackson State in Mississippi, and students on hundreds of campuses around the country went out on strike. Returning Vietnam vets threw their medals over the Capitol fence and even within the military itself many active-duty soldiers organized anti-war protests.
The mass movement undermined popular support for the war, which eventually caused the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam. In September 1977, I was lucky enough to attend an unforgettable event at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan in which the Vietnamese delegation to the United Nations formally thanked the U.S. anti-war movement for ending American military aggression in Vietnam. I saw it with my own tear-filled eyes.
For me, the years since have been a perpetual attempt to reignite mass movements. Over the decades, I’ve thought I’ve seen it coming several times, only to realize I was mistaken. Right now I do feel like I’m seeing the first and minimum condition for the emergence of a mass movement: lots of people are recognizing the existence of great moral wrongs that need to be rectified. Why this is happening now—and not two or five or fifteen years ago—I have no idea. But much more besides is needed. Permit me to go back to my own story.
The history of the anti-war movement I just related is in very broad strokes. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything about my own role as an organizer after Columbia 1968. That’s because at that point I took a disastrous turn away from the mass anti-war movement, having concluded that it wasn’t “radical” enough. My friends and I at Columbia and in other SDS chapters had decided that it wasn’t enough to be anti-war; we had to oppose the whole system that gave us the war. I helped organize a “revolutionary” faction of SDS that was Marxist and pro-“armed struggle.” We thought violent revolution was the order of the day, led by the people of the Third World in revolt against U.S. imperialism—abroad in Vietnam, Cuba, China and beyond, and also within this country in the revolt of African-American people, exemplified by the Black Panthers. We thought that to just stand on the sidelines and applaud while this revolt took place would be racist; we had to “take up the gun” ourselves, right here in this country, within the belly of the beast.
We assumed that millions of young people would join us in this revolutionary movement, as they had done previously with the anti-war movement. Throughout 1969 our revolutionary faction, “Weatherman,” tried to push SDS to be more aggressive and confrontational toward university administrators and police. The main result was that students turned away from SDS; many chapters were subsequently smashed by police and university administrations, or simply atrophied and died. We organized what we thought would be mass confrontations to fight the police, as had happened spontaneously at the Democratic Convention in Chicago the year before, but few people showed up. Ignoring the obvious signs that our strategy wasn’t working, we pushed on, a group of no more than two hundred, and turned ourselves into what became the Weather Underground Organization. We were morally right, we were certain, and no contrary evidence about our effectiveness could convince us otherwise. Fundamentalism and arrogance seem to be intimately linked.
Wanted by police and the FBI, from 1970 to 1976 we carried out bombings that we thought of as “armed propaganda.” Miraculously, we never hurt anyone else besides three of our own comrades, who tragically died in a bomb-making accident in March 1970.
I dropped out of the organization at the end of 1970, having lost faith in the strategy, but I remained a fugitive until 1977, when I turned myself in.
My friends and I in Weather Underground had abandoned the old organizing strategy of talking with people, developing friendships and relationships of trust in order to convince people that taking action was worthwhile. In our strangely idealistic way we had convinced ourselves that the country was ready for revolution, that all people needed was our example of courageous struggle to convince themselves to join in. But armed struggle as a strategy was doomed: it yielded the moral high ground to the government, who could call us violent terrorists, and thus could only end in isolation and defeat. That’s not how movements are built.
We forgot what we had learned about the power of organizing, substituting self-expression in the form of bombs for the hard work of gaining trust and building alliances. It was a case study in the perils of idealism.
Fortunately, many people from that era did learn the right lessons. In the decades that followed numerous effective movements arose on the left—the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the disability rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the Native-American and Latino movements, the movement in solidarity with Central America in the Eighties. None of these happened spontaneously; they were all built by self-conscious organizers who figured out how to grow their movements in numbers and power, using traditional organizing methods.
For the most part, however, that left has refrained from electoral politics, as indicated by the small size and influence of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, despite the fact that large majorities of the public, if not the electorate, support progressive solutions to this country’s problems and are against foreign military adventures. There seems to be an allergy on the part of many lefties to gaining and wielding power. Undoubtedly people feel that power is inherently ugly.
This has not, unfortunately, been the case with the far right. Economic and social conservatives have always kept power as their goal. First they seized the presidency with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, then they consolidated their power by uniting ideological free-market conservatives with a mass base of socially conservative evangelical Christians. These are the people who put George W. Bush in office. Following a very quick rise in 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party anti-government faction now controls the House of Representatives, much of the Senate and a large number of state governments.
Any new mass movement will have to make decisions about its relationship to political power. I often meet young people who have never heard the word “organizing” as I use it. They think it means mostly the work of, for example, making arrangements for events. If they think about mass movements at all, they assume that they happen spontaneously, as if, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and somehow people just gathered behind him. Much of the hard work that goes into strategizing and building coalitions, which was so crucial to the civil rights movement in the Sixties, has been forgotten.
Still, there’s plenty of organizing happening now. Occupy Wall Street, which began in 2011 with public sit-ins opposing income inequality, is now organizing what may become a mass movement to resist and end student debt. Black Lives Matter, through its decentralized social-network organizing, shows signs of becoming a mass movement that will tackle police violence as well as other forms of institutional racism in this country. Thousands of people around the world are organizing—through 350.org and Sierra Club divestment campaigns, demonstrations and civil disobedience—to stop global warming. The women’s movement continues to organize around sex slavery and sexual assaults on campuses. The gender-equality movement is still growing.
Whether new organizing methods involving social networks can create the trust necessary to build strong mass movements still remains to be seen. Experiments with Facebook, Twitter and other platforms are underway. In the meantime, however, we should retain the methods that have created successful mass movements going all the way back to the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. The story of the classic civil rights movement, for example, is rich with lessons about leadership, education, coalition building, and how to align goals and tactics.
The human mind is infinitely creative. If we all put our minds to the problems of organizing—goals, strategy, tactics, we can solve our problems, as we have in the past. Have you ever heard the old battle cry attributed to the martyred Wobbly Joe Hill? Don’t mourn, organize!
Image credits: Gerald S. Adler, Columbia