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CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL! First National Convergence of the Movement for a Democratic Society

by T. Smith Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 at 6:07 PM

It was a hectic week for activists in Chicago. There was the Select Media Festival, a Teaching for Social Justice Conference, a SNCC commemoration, the Humanities festival, a National Convention to End the Death Penalty, and Bob Brown’s law-suit against the corporations. Not least, the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) held its first national convergence at Loyola University, from November 8 through 11 with the participation of the newly inspired SDS, Students for a Democratic Society.

Loyola University provided fine meeting rooms in a maze-like setting on beautiful Lake Michigan. On Thursday night some eighty-plus people attended Manning Marable’s superb talk on South Africa, its increasing impoverishment and stratification caused by the demands of U.S. interests and investments. Marable spoke of the prison industry and observed that 1 in every 5 persons in the U.S. has a prison record. This has led to a mass disenfrachizment of black voters, especially in the south.


Friday night SDSers from the 60s greeted old friends and out-of-town guests at Heartland Café, founded by Michael James & Katy Hogan.


Saturday morning was devoted to workshops and discussions. David Roediger discussed the Miserablist character of the University system, its conformism, its corporate character, its total integration into the repressive system, its total inability to function as a place that can expand the idea of freedom. Franklin Rosemont spoke of Surrealism, and its oppositional character, how it arose from the ruins of France after the First World war and was inspired by Jacques Vaché a fellow soldier and close friend of André Breton.


Kate Khatib drew on the creative side of surrealism. Amanda Armstrong who had organized a show of Exquisite Corpse drawings at heartland café attended. The show was accompanied by a pamphlet that discussed the effects of crisis of capitalism on the human imagination. Paul Buhle talked about the current evolution of the book from the days of the underground comics to today’s graphic novels. Buhle is expecting any day the arrival of copies of his graphic novel on SDS.


The discussion was fortunate to have present Thorne Dreyer from Austin, Texas who edited the Underground newspaper the Rag for 14 years; Thorne also edited Up Against the Wall, a wall poster/newspaper that SDS published during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.


Peter Linebaugh searched for the roots of our ideas of freedom in the Magna Carta and discussed the basis for his forthcoming book. Our ideas of community and also mutual responsibility come from that historic document. Linebaugh gives it a fresh perspective.


Muhammad Ahmad who had earlier in the day been interviewed by Michael James for Heartland radio did a workshop which centered on the experiences of the Black Movement in the 60s. In 1968 Ahmad then Max Stanford was in jail facing serious charges. He stayed in jail for a year before his attorney was able to get the charges dismissed. Michael Klonsky, Mark Rudd, Bruce Rubenstein, and Penelope Rosemont discussed th implications for the movement of the persecution of black radicals with Ahmed.


Paige Phillips showed a film clip that could be imagined to come from Saturday Night Live Comedy of a real news report on so called lesbian girl gangs terrorizing Memphis teens. It fed the fears of parents but was utterly unbelievable to any thoughtful person. An example of antigay bigotry in the bible belt. Andy Thayer, dynamic spokesman for the Chicago gay community urged solidarity and support for each others concerns and active support of demonstrations. He noted that the demonstrations by the black community against police brutality especially needed our support.


Thomas Good, Bill Ayers, Elaine Brower, Alan Haber, David Hamilton, Devra Morice and others representing New York, Chicago, Austin, Ann Arbor, etc. discussed current forms of popular resistence against the war and then joined by others began a necessary and long needed discussion of the future of MDS.


Tom Good from NY MDS and editor of Next Left Notes in his fine talk related how NY MDSers used humor to subvert the dominant paradigm. They held a “Support Endless War Rally” in Times Square. Tom dress as the Grim Reaper and carrying a sign “Enlist Now, Pay Later.” Others dressed as “Pro-war Corporate Zombies.” Infuriating all the right people1


David Hamilton proposed the following founding principles for discussion and consideration.

Formed in Chicago in August 2006, MDS affirms the Founding Principles:

—the expansion of egalitarian and participatory democracy in politics, economics, and culture.

—the restoration and preservation of the earth’s robust ecological health.

—the extension of human rights to include universal healthcare, decent housing, lifelong education, fortifying nutrition, reproductive freedom, and meaningful work.

—the eradication of systems of dominant power and privilege based on identity, including but not limited to race gender, nationality, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability or religion.

—the growth and development of the commons, the resources that belong to society as a whole.

—the public control of corporate power to meet human needs and the expansion of workers’ authority and rights, including the equitable distribution of wealth.

—the rejection of militarism and war and the enhancement of power and authority of international institutions capable of resolving conflict between nations.

—In working for the achievement of these special changes, MDS believes in working in coalition with like-minded others to create an interracial, interethnic, intergenerational and international mass movement.




During mid day, Loyola provided a lavish buffet, coffee and free parking to the convergence attendees. Many visiting parents were offered the Spartacist newspaper and the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company catalog. Campus tours got to enjoy the book tables of New World Resource Center and Charles H. Kerr. The Loyola Phoenix ran a large ad for the MDS/SDS Convergence, a story on the eight people killed in El Salvador in 1989 “defending the defenseless” and an expose of Loyola investments. We would not be surprised if new students chose Loyola because the Convergence made it seem like a lively place.


The afternoon session was held in another building. A bright casual room was filled to capacity and some late comers were turned away because of no seats. An estimate of the audience would probably be 100 plus. The panel on Peace chaired by Kate Khatib and Katy Hogan began with Kathy Kelly recounting her experiences in an Irish Court when arrested for Peace activities. After talking of the many innocent victims of war especially children, she pointedly asked the audience “What will it take to make you stop the war?”


Carl Davidson explained the political means of ending the war by cutting the funding to the war budget and urged voting for peace candidates. He also noted there was plenty of room for work on Civil Disobedience, GI resistence, and that a popular upsurge of sentiment against the war was necessary. Muhammad Ahmed who currently has a book published by Kerr Co. We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975 spoke about the effects of war and poverty on the black community.


The 1968 Confidential Panel was chaired by Beau Golwitzer. Michael James spoke on the Berkeley Revolt, his early work with JOIN and community organizing. Michael Klonsky recounted the first days of his arrival in Chicago as National Secretary of SDS as the West side erupted in flames and fury after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He mentioned that none of us expected to live to see 30. Klonsky has a forthcoming book on those days.


Franklin Rosemont spoke of his meeting with André Breton and how that inspired him to begin a surrealist group in Chicago. Rosemont spent time in the streets and helping at the SDS National office during the days of the Democratic Convention. Bob Brown of SNCC recounted some of the national and international dimensions of those years. The contacts with the Zengakuran, German SDS, and French groups. Penelope Rosemont who worked in the SDS office in 1968 speculated on the importance of history, that remembering our history will effect what happens in the future; that we must examine those days, what we did, how we organized to be able to develop new strategies and avoid old mistakes; support a movement with a large left spectrum; support young anarchists in their efforts and not abandon our utopian visions.


In the audience were many who had played a significant role in 1968–Mark Rudd, Thorne Dreyer, David Hamilton, James Retherfort, Wayne Heimbach, etc. After a short period of questions the discussion moved to the Red Line Tap to continue in a more casual atmosphere. Mark Rudd mentioned that there are indications that an attempt at recouperation of 1968 and the rebels of ‘68 is just around the corner as Universities and Museums plan their commemorations. This sort of recouperation happened in Amsterdam quite a while ago as exProvos unexpectedly ended up with state power. It is indeed a concern of ours. We want ours struggles and the story of our struggles preserved, but we do not want them contained, sanitized, consigned to the permanent irrelevancy of something from another time, another place. We had only just begun to formulate and imagine what needed to be done in the urgency of those years. There have been stunning technological revolutions since the 60s, but the social revolution that we envisioned, the vision of equality and freedom is in many ways is further away now then it was then. What is to be done?


The Session on Sunday began at 10am. Amy Partridge began with perhaps the most thoughtful and theoretical document on the concerns of the conference, it considered the attitudes toward themselves and to power that College students and young people have developed in recent times. She argued that most students think that the powers-that-be will recognize and redress their grievances without much effort on their part. Further that they already identify themselves as activists because they donate to or march for AIDS or breast cancer. They do not identify themselves with the struggles of the oppressed, they do not see themselves as oppressed. Partridge argued that we are seeing the end of identity politics and that if we can somehow find and address the concerns of young people today, enable them to understand their situation, a new movement has real possibilities. This summary does not do justice to that paper or the discussion that followed.


Bruce Rubenstein discussed unknown slave revolts in the US before the civil war and the legal evolution of rights for blacks and people of color. Kate Khatib talked of building a community around Red Emmas Bookstore in Baltimore where social services of the city are failing the needs of the people. Tamara Smith spoke about organizing another gathering. Gale Ahrens reported on the vast investment in the prison industry which constitutes the reinstitution of slavery. Penny Pixler of the IWW spoke about some parallels between today and the 1960s.


Young SDSers from Columbia College, Art Institute, University of Chicago spoke about what they were doing, what their concerns were and how the new, I can only call it hyper-repression, effects the high schools. When asked why they identified themselves with SDS, one of them quipped “It’s got fucking great name recognition!” And I must say we should be proud of that; that SDS has come after 40 years to mean a fighting organization; an organization of resistence; one that never sold out.


The situation at Morton West H.S. in Berwyn was discussed. Students there who had protested against the war were threatened with expulsion even though their protest had been a non-violent and peaceful sit-in


Alan Haber, a founder of the original SDS was there, listened and contributed his passion for peace and justice to the discussion. Someone expressed how exhilarating it was to be a room full of people who were really serious about social change. And it was! About 50 people were present. Everyone participated. Penelope Rosemont added “if you kept doing exactly what you are doing now, we are going to have a movement!” We called it quits about 2pm as everyone was hungry. Most of us walked from Loyola to Heartland Café where we again dined on some good and healthful food and parted ways. All in all thinking that some bridges had been built, some good thinking had been done, and that we had an outstanding core of people.

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