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The New-Look

The Baltimore Sun

YORK, Pa. -- At York College's student center, seven students sit in a large room, quietly planning ways to challenge school policies. They have all the trappings of modern-day hippies: shaggy hair and piercings, new cell phones and old clothes. Ignoring loud music from a rock concert in the room next door, they focus on their to-do list, which includes changing the college's investment strategies and expanding its employment policy to protect gay workers.

But what these students - the campus chapter of Students for a Democratic Society - really want is to spark a political awakening.

The turbulent '60s are long gone, but SDS, an activist movement with thousands of members at its peak, is making a comeback. And though some goals remain the same, the organization has changed signficantly since it was last heard from.

Back then, the Vietnam War was on everyone's mind, especially college students subject to the draft. Anti-war protests got the SDS national headlines - as well as attention from the FBI. In the late '60s, some members created a splinter group that called for violent revolution and bombed buildings, including the Capitol in Washington.

Today, opposition to the Iraq war is little more than a rallying cry for the SDS. Members do participate in protests; to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, the Washington chapter organized events including "Funk the War 3," a mobile dance party staged in front of government buildings. But they are disillusioned with how little power they have to affect national policy, so ending the war is not a top priority.

"A lot of the stuff in D.C. doesn't really do anything; it builds momentum," said Kathryn Hollender-Kidder, a York freshman and SDS member. "But those little victories [like marches and protests] really do help build community and morale ... and it helps people want to stay involved."

Students are more focused on having a say in school policies - on issues such as employment practices, investment strategy and fair trade.

"One of the big tenets of Students for a Democratic Society is that we have participatory democracy, so we're all in this together," said Bob Hayes, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We're all trying to make decisions about how our lives are going to be run and how decisions are made."

The SDS grew slowly; the College Park chapter formed in 1964 but did not attract much media attention until 1967. At first, activists were happy if 80 to 100 people turned out for big protests, students said at the time.

But hundreds showed up for teach-ins later in the decade, and the SDS grew into the biggest student movement of the time, surpassing activist groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

At College Park, SDS protests drew crowds, though not as large as at the University of California, Berkeley or the University of Wisconsin. Maryland's group fought segregation at the college and surrounding area, and held teach-ins about Vietnam.

Campus protests continued even after the national group splintered. In May 1970, after President Richard M. Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, students invaded the College Park ROTC offices and shut down most classes with the help of faculty. The National Guard was called to the campus for two weeks that spring; it also came to the campus in 1971 and 1972.

Mark Rudd, 60, a leader of Columbia University's SDS chapter in the 1960s, sees a different approach in today's organization.

"They say they chose the name because it describes precisely who they are," Rudd, who now teaches at a community college in New Mexico, wrote in an e-mail. "They also appear to be using the historical resonance to gain attention, which isn't a bad thing. Judging by the types of discussions I've had with several individuals and whole chapters of the new SDS, they seem to want to mine the old history to find useful ideas.

"They're much less ideological and more practical than we were in the last stage of SDS, 1968-1969, when we killed the organization with absurd Marxist ideological infighting, a civil war, actually. They're not falling for that."

SDS members still talk about nationwide change, but the group, revived over the past few years, has no national leadership, no headquarters and no dues. All a chapter needs to start is a single name on the organization's online listserv. According to Legba Carrefour, an SDS leader in Washington, the group has about 2,000 members nationally.

The SDS Web site lists more than 70 active chapters, including those at College Park, York College and Tuscarora High School in Frederick. Forty-nine other chapters are listed as inactive, and 30 are just starting, including one at Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda.

The College Park chapter has about a dozen members. York's has eight members.

"We may not be the largest activist organization on campus, but everyone is really involved," says Malcolm Harris, 19, a freshman at College Park.

With no central leadership and few organization-wide policies, SDS chapters can focus on issues important to them. Getting students involved is the first battle.

"If you go ask people on campus, 'What do you think about this?' you're going to get an answer of 'I don't care' or 'They're not going to do what we say anyway so what's the point?' So I think it's our job to combat that feeling of alienation and apathy," Harris said.

SDS chapters collaborate with other campus groups to raise awareness about issues. As in the '60s and '70s, SDS members spend lots of time talking about civil rights, especially women's and gay rights.

They also focus on other issues. They want fair trade coffee on campus. They want clothing sold on campus to be made under fair labor conditions. And they want endowment investments made in "socially just" companies, rather than those that are, for example, making money from the Iraq war or environmental damage.

Eventually, the College Park chapter's aims might go as far as creating a student-run university. For now, they want student representatives on administrative boards, and input on hiring new professors and crafting policy.

Students at York recently fought a college plan to build a brick and iron fence around the campus. Believing it would alienate the college from the community, they held open forums, distributed information and got 300 signatures on a petition. They were defeated.

Though disappointed, they have not lost heart.

"Part of what we were pushing and part of what we'll continue to push is a more expansive vision of the word 'democracy' and what it means because that's something that the school doesn't really have a grasp on, from my perspective at least," says Michael Mangels, a York senior who is from Baltimore and is a founder of the school's SDS chapter.

The reviving organization's relative anonymity nationwide is not a bad thing, according to Rudd.

"The press is poised to kill it with irrelevant comparisons to the old SDS," he wrote. "SDS has to spend the next years figuring out how to organize, experiment, make lots of mistakes, without being subject to media exposure. Media attention can and probably will murder the baby in the cradle."

Former members tend to keep their distance, content to let students take the lead. Some have joined the Movement for a Democratic Society, an SDS affiliate for former members from the '60s and other adults.

Rudd, a founder of the Weathermen, a militant group that sought revolution to further the goals of the SDS, is not one of them. He believes the new organization must make its own decisions.

The SDS' progressive ideas come with a great deal of baggage, of which the Weathermen is only one heavy suitcase. After its "declaration of war," members, including Rudd, went underground only to re-emerge in the late '70s or early '80s. At least one of the Weathermen is still in prison for his actions.

That violent history is not one of the organization's attractions, students say. "We're not the Weathermen - underline that three times," Hayes said. "We're not going to blow anything up, we promise."

Still, current SDS members are not afraid of the SDS' history.

"There's a general feeling, at least for me and the people I've spoken to, of owning and recognizing the history of SDS and using that very strongly as something to learn from," said Jenna Brager, 19, a sophomore at College Park. "We have this whole amazing model to build on and to improve upon, which is what I love about SDS. We're not starting from scratch."

The resurrected organization has a long way to go before becoming a mass student movement. For now, members are focused on internal discussion and reaching out to other students. And they're willing to be patient.

Jon Berger, a College Park freshman, said, "A big part of this is education, it's hosting speakers and showing movies and having discussions. ... Because we don't have all the answers and we don't pretend to have all the answers.

"The answers - good answers - will only come about through a whole lot of people thinking about it and talking about it and trying stuff. And that's what participatory democracy is about."

A photo caption in Sunday's Ideas section accompanying an article about Students for a Democratic Society incorrectly identified Carter Thomas. The student pictured at a chalkboard is Jon Berger.The Sun regrets the errors.
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