Historical review of SDS

Posted by: | April 15, 2008 | 24 Comments

A historical polemic by UBC alum Mike Thike

Do you know who the man in this picture is? If not, you probably lack a lot of knowledge that would be helpful in understanding the current activist climate at UBC. With Trek Park, the “Lougheed Affair”, and the recent Knoll Aid 2.0 RCMP confrontation, tension within the AMS has risen beyond reason. I think much of this tension is due to radically different perceptions of politics, history, and the role of student activists in society. While I can’t expect to convince SDS-UBC and The Knoll’s most strident critics of their value, I do hope that history can help us to find some common understanding and lead to more constructive dialogue.

The man in the above picture is Mario Savio, the most prominent student leader at UC Berkeley (and in America) during the 1960s. He is standing on a police car. Inside the police car is Jack Weinberg, an activist and former Berkeley graduate student. In September 1964 the Berkeley administration had decreed that students on campus would not be allowed to promote political or civil rights causes through fundraising, passing out pamphlets, tabling, or other means. At the beginning of October, Weinberg was tabling for a civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equity. The police asked him for I.D., he refused, and they arrested him. A host of sympathetic students then surrounded the police car with Weinberg inside it, and did not move for over a day, at one point repelling an attempt by police to reach the vehicle. By the following evening, the students had negotiated with the university administration an accommodation for political activity on a portion of the campus, and the waiving of charges against Weinberg.

This incident sparked the birth of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and propelled Mario Savio onto the national stage. His is now one of Berkeley’s most honored alumni.

How about this picture? This is a community garden being planted in Berkeley’s People’s Park in 1969. People’s Park was built on land owned by the university originally intended for student housing but left to deteriorate after development plans changed. In April 1969 a number of community members began constructing a park on the land, without the university’s blessing. The park lasted for a month before police moved in to dismantle it under the direction of newly elected governor Ronald Reagan. The ensuing conflict resulted in the death of James Rector, shot by police while sitting on the roof of a nearby cinema. Today People’s Park is a Berkeley landmark.

The parallels with recent history at UBC are obvious, and these iconic moments of the 60s are close to the hearts of SDS-UBC’s founders. Students for a Democratic Society was, after all, the largest student organization of its time. The Port Huron Statement, written in 1962, was the founding document of the SDS. It is a comprehensive manifesto, spurred by continuing racial inequity, social inequity, the wealth disparity between the United States and much of the world, the threat of nuclear holocaust, and the Vietnam War. The document called for a renewed participatory democracy and a redirection for universities. Some paragraphs from the section on students are worth quoting:

If student movements for change are rarities still on the campus scene, what is commonplace there? The real campus, the familiar campus, is a place of private people, engaged in their notorious “inner emigration.” It is a place of commitment to business-as-usual, getting ahead, playing it cool. It is a place of mass affirmation of the Twist, but mass reluctance toward the controversial public stance. Rules are accepted as “inevitable”, bureaucracy as “just circumstances”, irrelevance as “scholarship”, selflessness as “martyrdom”, politics as “just another way to make people, and an unprofitable one, too.”….

Tragically, the university could serve as a significant source of social criticism and an initiator of new modes and molders of attitudes. But the actual intellectual effect of the college experience is hardly distinguishable from that of any other communications channel — say, a television set — passing on the stock truths of the day. Students leave college somewhat more “tolerant” than when they arrived, but basically unchallenged in their values and political orientations. With administrators ordering the institutions, and faculty the curriculum, the student learns by his isolation to accept elite rule within the university, which prepares him to accept later forms of minority control. The real function of the educational system — as opposed to its more rhetorical function of “searching for truth” — is to impart the key information and styles that will help the student get by, modestly but comfortably, in the big society beyond.

These are paragraphs that I feel are even more apt today (maybe substituting “Guitar Hero” for “the Twist”) than they were fifty years ago.

It would be easy to look at the current SDS movement as playacting at activism, blindly aping its predecessors, but that would be doing a great injustice to the students who have devoted great portions of their lives to causes they see as vitally important. While the 60s is a source of inspiration for activists today, and a source of ideas on how to build a movement, there are many reasons to believe that the political situation today calls for a renewed student movement.
As the Vietnam was a catalyst for many far-ranging social changes in the 60s, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have given new life to activist movements around the world. Students across the US have formed the “new SDS”, declaring

As Students for a Democratic Society, we want to remake a movement – a young left where our struggles can build and sustain a society of justice-making, solidarity, equality, peace and freedom. This demands a broad-based, deep-rooted, and revolutionary transformation of our society. It demands that we build on movements that have come before, and alongside other people’s struggles and movements for liberation.

Together, we affirm that another world is possible: A world beyond oppression, beyond domination, beyond war and empire. A world where people have power over their own lives. We believe we stand on the cusp of something new in our generation. We have the potential to take action, organize, and relate to other movements in ways that many of us have never seen before. Something new is also happening in our society: the organized Left, after decades of decline and crisis, is reinventing itself. People in many places and communities are building movements committed to long-haul, revolutionary change.

SDS-UBC was formed out of discussions last year about how to recover from the bitter decline of the Social Justice Centre. We felt that a new direction under a new banner was necessary, and the resurgent SDS offered both an inspiring legacy and strong allies. Members of SDS-UBC traveled this spring to an SDS conference in Washington State.

The Knoll is older than SDS-UBC, but it has and continues to be the platform for activists at UBC to communicate and discuss current and core issues. Although never perfect, The Knoll has, I think, given substance to the activist work on campus, attempting to explain and justify our actions, among its other functions. In as much as this is successful, it demonstrates the intellectual autonomy of its authors. Nobody is blindly acting out a script from Berkeley in the 60s.
So what are
we to make of the events at Knoll Aid 2.0? On the one hand, the activities around the bonfire seem more reminiscent of Lord of the Flies than a Berkeley student rally, and the attitude displayed by many towards the police and fire department seems at least disturbing. On the other, SDS-UBC is claiming police misconduct. Many claim that the attempt by students to negotiate with police was without merit. When the police instruct you to do something, you do it, especially if moments before you had been breaking the law by setting a huge bonfire in a parking lot. We can see two reasons for this group of students attempting to negotiate, however. First, it appeared to have been successful in the case of Stef Ratjen. Second, perhaps subconsciously, there was that Berkeley precedent.
It also needs to be stressed that the police invoke a different set of associations for activists than for much of society. While many would associate “to serve and protect” with the police, when many activists think police, they think “police state”. Police were the immediate antagonists in both of the Berkeley tales I related. Police and protestors regularly clash, with the police often protecting the politically powerful, not society as a while. The RCMP famously pepper sprayed activists at the 1997 APEC protests. Vancouver’s Anti Poverty Committee and the Downtown Residents’ Coalition have both had numerous encounters with police, and the Vancouver Police Department has had more than one case of brutality towards Vancouver’s homeless. The French chant, “Police partout, justice nulle part,” resonates strongly with many of us.
The actions of some students at Knoll Aid 2.0 are perhaps not to be admired or imitated, but they are also not incomprehensible and not reason to denounce the state of campus activism, or those who found themselves in conflict with the authorities. Lighting a bonfire was probably not a wise decision, and I’d be surprised if a lot of alcohol had not been consumed by many of those involved, but that does not excuse the actions of the police if SDS’s allegations are true. I hope people can step back from these recent events and grant a little sympathy to those involved.


24 Comments so far

  1. David on April 16, 2008 12:53 am

    Sweet baby Jesus, this is not the 60’s, despite how the SDS dress, and these recent events have NO correlation with the incidents at UC Berkeley.

    This is absolutely ridiculous.

  2. Steven Klein on April 16, 2008 1:06 am

    Fantastic article, Mike! I do hope it leads to better understanding and dialog on campus. There is always a risk of looking like you are vainly trying to repeat past glories, and it was one I was aware of when we were discussing adopting the SDS name, but there is also a very important role for drawing fundamental inspiration from past political movements (the Sandanistas, the Zapatistas, and the idea of a Bolivarian revolution all come to mind). I feel that we have been a very successful movement – sometimes noisy for no reason, sometimes a bit obnoxious, and now needing to rebuild some bridges – but we have had some remarkable victories and we’ve quickly grown to the point where our political opponents somehow think we can mobilize 500 voters in AMS elections. I hope that the good energy continues even after I graduate and even with the ongoing legal proceedings.

  3. Eden Hart on April 16, 2008 1:15 am

    Learning about the Berkeley SDS in the 1960’s to gain insight into the current political activism at UBC is like learning about WWII to understand the War in Afghanistan. It just doesn’t work beyond the superficial similarities.

    Take a look at that picture again. Do you see any furious scowls? How about smiling faces?Does anyone appear like they would be chanting “Fuck the pigs”? The political activism of today does not attempt to reach out to people, but rather repel them with the anger and rampant extremism. The people have left the “people’s protest” because they no longer feel comfortable and that’s a shame.

  4. Anonymous on April 16, 2008 1:19 am

    While I (and many other students, I would suspect) find it easy to sympathize with many of the concerns the UBC-SDS has about the way things are going on campus (ie 40mil for a bus loop when there’s not enough student housing or daycare), I find it sad that they continue to alienate and drive away large portions of the student body. Their inability to capitalize on a fairly liberal student population is perplexing at best and just plain idiotic at worst. I mean, it shouldn’t be that hard to unite a students against an administration that squanders money on all sorts of beautification projects while ignorning the needs of the majority of students. But for some reason, the SDS has a bit of a radicalism fetish and they can’t seem to do anything without turning it into some sort of pseudo-revolutionary, us vs the man fight. It seems like for the most part, they would rather gain attention for themselves (ie paint their faces, hold up signs, start bonfires and have confrontations with the police) than do something constructive that appeals to the general student population.

  5. MitchRite on April 16, 2008 1:29 am

    I agree with Anonymous quite a bit. I’ve always been very left-leaning and think that a lot of what the University has opted to do with it’s money is deplorable. There shouldn’t be a wait list for housing on campus that forces people who reside great distances from campus during the summer to try and find suitable alternatives for living space during the school year. Having lived in the United States for quite a few years (but I am NOT American, I always seem to have to stress that), I lived near a lot of schools where housing is a non-issue. It seems as though all students manage to get University housing that is more affordable than the surrounding region, and there is no reason why UBC shouldn’t be the same way.

    I find myself agreeing with the SDS politically on a lot of fronts, and of the SDS members that I have met, I find them to be genuinely nice people that I can relate to. Yet as a group their actions seem too radical to me, like some of the Knoll Aid incidents, etc. Apparently I am even hated by quite a few of them now due to my voting behaviour in AMS Council, etc. It’s unfortunate that the leftists on campus seem to be becoming more and more divided recently.

    Well that’s just what I think. Feel free to hate me more for it, but I hope you don’t.

  6. Anonymous on April 16, 2008 1:43 am

    I’ve heard too many people trying to relate what they have done at the knoll to the civil rights movement of the 60s. Its probably one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever seen. Stop trying to make yourselves look like heroes.

    There are a lot of people rolling in their graves right now I’m sure.

  7. Mike Thicke on April 16, 2008 1:54 am

    It is indeed perplexing why activists have trouble connecting with a large portion of the “liberal” student population at UBC.

    One thing to note from the start is that for many years the SJC was a pretty low-key organization, with its most visible regular activity being weekly lunchtime movies in the SUB. The number of students engaged with SDS is an order of magnitude larger than the SJC connected with. The price of that seems to be a particularly strong reaction from many.

    If you agree broadly with the SDS’s politics, you probably think that there is something very wrong with the operation of UBC and universities across Canada. You probably think there is something very wrong with how the government and our society operates. You probably think that society is facing many very important questions that it is not well-structured to answer.

    If you agree with all of that, I have to ask why you are spending so much time in violent opposition to the SDS’s methods, and so little in trying to solve these common problems. There is surely room for many approaches to solving these pressing issues, and no need for there to be only one “right way” to proceed. If SDS is successful in brining attention to important issues, and some other organization is able to build on that awareness to increase its own membership and activities, then SDS has been successful, period. What is the point over bickering about whether one particular method is the best?

    If you think the SDS should change tactics, why don’t you go to some SDS meetings and propose activities that you think would work better? I’d be extremely surprised if you didn’t find many SDSers enthusiastic to give your ideas a try.

  8. Anonymous on April 16, 2008 2:39 am

    In response to what you said Mike, the reason I choose to attack the SDS’s methods is because I genuinely believe that they are hurting their cause with their overly radical approach. They complain about a lack of representation at UBC, yet their views are so radical, they would be quashed in any democratic society. I also tend to disagree that anything that draws attention to an issue is a good thing. There is such a thing as negative publicity. Knoll Aid 2.0 certainly has proven that.

    I actually have been to a number of SDS meetings this year. Overall, it really is a great group of well-intentioned people (I can’t stress this enough), but the attention-seeking radicalism of a few more establised members tends to overpower a lot of more constructive ideas. I could provide specific examples, but I think it should be obvious to those who were at the meetings. I guess the solution is for me to be more assertive with my opinons, but it’s a little hard when certain people seem so intent such radical approaches…I’ll try.

  9. Steven Klein on April 16, 2008 5:09 am

    There’s always going to be some radicals on campus, and the difficulty with a group like the SDS has always been balancing the diversity of viewpoints in it without sacrificing anyone’s individual voice. I think we could have been far better at that this year, but we’ll never be perfect. Anonymous, I totally feel where you are coming from. I’ve usually tried to act as a more moderate voice in the group and it does make a difference. You just have to compromise on some things, which is the reality of political life.

    Criticism is only fair. But I really wonder if the SDS is driving off that many allies. We have grown pretty phenomenally this year, more than any group I’ve been involved in and far beyond the number of students who have been involved in student activism for the last several years. Are we pushing away droves of students who would otherwise be allies on our issues? We’ve collected thousands of signatures on various petitions, spent hours and hours talking to students about the issues while tabling and pamphleting, had probably several hundred students attend the various talks during our conference, and have injected so much more political life into UBC than there has been during my four years here.

    Mistakes were made, not the least of all was the fire at KnollAid. But I haven’t really been able to evaluate the true impact of that for political activism at UBC and for the SDS. No doubt it will no doubt turn off some students, and I really think that is unfortunate. But I still think the SDS has a future on campus as a valuable political voice. I can tell you that a lot faculty and staff I’ve talked to who have been here for a while are just happy to see politically active students again. They know they will often be way too radical and make stupid tactical decisions. But

  10. Steven Klein on April 16, 2008 5:10 am

    it’s better than the complacent nothingness that has been the norm here for so long.

  11. Commodore Cuddles on April 16, 2008 5:15 am

    I had a friend from Berkeley visit a couple weeks ago and we had a lengthy conversation about protest tactics.

    Basically, the consensus we reached was that contemporary leftists, whether at Cal or UBC, like to engage in attention grabbing antics. Being arrested is seen as a badge of honor (yeah, I’m American. Take that Mitch!) more than that, things like climbing trees and throwing feces at police (Cal) or lighting fires and blocking firefighters (UBC) are viewed as extreme by the majority of students. This creates a wedge between the majority of students, the activist students, and the real issues.

    I think the most important lessons we can take from the free speech movement is that it existed because it was not a radical movement. The majority of students at Berkeley and residents of the surrounding community were in support. But things have changed in 40 years. There is no such support for the Knoll. If all this kerfuffel is about campus development, then the more vocal elements on campus have a choice to make. Either realize that the majority of students like the idea of development and work with them to ensure the university does it in a responsible way, or continue to make noise and hurt everyone by portraying UBC students as radicals who are out of touch with reality.

    -Aaron Palm

  12. Steven Klein on April 16, 2008 5:15 am

    Oh, and if you don’t mind, I wonder if you could clarify on this:

    “They complain about a lack of representation at UBC, yet their views are so radical, they would be quashed in any democratic society.”

    I’m not sure what views you are referring to. I think the SDS could be better at articulating some basic demands, like an elected majority on the BoG, a new development regime, a more active AMS, recognition of the Musqeuem, etc., but I don’t see any of these views as that radical. There are definitely some people who have pretty strong views about capitalism or the war in afghanistan, but I do find that a bit of a presumptuous statement both about the SDS’s views and about how popular they may be.

  13. Anonymous on April 16, 2008 5:31 am

    Well, for example, I tend to think that the majority of UBC students don’t really want to “resist the university” that they pay thousands of dollars to attend. Stuff like that really only appeals to a pretty small group of students…I feel like SDS might be better of doing things that appeals to the average student. I’m really not trying to be overly critical of SDS, I just hate to see good opportunities be squandered, bridges burned, etc…

  14. Steven Klein on April 16, 2008 5:37 am

    Haha…yeah..resisting the university. I actually suggested that name as a bit of a joke and I could never get rid of it. Oh well…it just meant spending time thinking of ways to interpret it so it made sense to the “average student”. But again, I think that is a relatively small point considering the amount of energy the conference generated.

  15. Laura Rodgers on April 16, 2008 6:56 am

    First off, this is the most articulate pro-UBC SDS article I’ve ever read, and that impresses me mightily. I don’t think the deluge of anti-activist sentiment we’ve seen in the past months has anything to do with a ‘silent majority’ that desperately wants a bus loop. If anything, a lot of the vocal critics just wanted to sit back and feel superior to those they derided. I’ll admit to being one of those people initially, but driving the wedge in deeper between the moderate and ‘radical’ left isn’t going to help either group.

    I really wish there was some sort of wider-reaching group, coalition or club that would get behind the petitiony and pamphlety side of fighting for student interest, but not the illegal bonfire-y side. I don’t think it’s all that likely. “Unite the Left” doesn’t even rhyme.

  16. Anonymous on April 16, 2008 7:48 am

    Much of this criticism has been significantly more constructive than original comments made shortly after the Knoll-Aid events and I greatly appreciate that for the sake of UBC’s left and the broader student community.
    The SDS is an open, non-hierarchical organization. In my opinion, its most important function is to increase student involvement within the university and in a broader social context and in that respect is open to anyone and everyone. I don’t feel that it should be considered a small elitist group of dedicated radicals. However, those most vocal critics of the SDS’s current state of affairs should consider acting on their ideas either within the organization or in collaboration with it, especially those that indicate a general agreement with the groups political stances.

  17. MitchRite on April 16, 2008 3:08 pm


    “De-Cleft the Left”??

  18. Alison Brown on April 17, 2008 1:06 am

    I also appreciate this article, and thought it was very interesting. However,

    “Are we pushing away droves of students who would otherwise be allies on our issues?”

    Yes! I’m one of these potential allies. I signed the petitions; I read The Knoll; I voted for Stefanie Ratjen. I wasn’t actively involved but I absolutely supported some of what SDS wanted and I gave the group my backing on my ballot and with my signature. And now I’m absolutely turned off.

    I really wish those vocal within SDS would strongly condemn the actions of certain people during Knoll Aid 2, and say it doesn’t represent the whole group. So I’m really glad that you said “The actions of some students at Knoll Aid 2.0 are perhaps not to be admired or imitated”. I think SDS has to separate itself from chants of “fuck the pigs” etc. if it wants to regain its legitimacy.

    Again though, great article, and certainly the most articulate defense of SDS I’ve heard in a long time.

  19. Mike Thicke on April 17, 2008 5:12 am

    Thanks for the compliments! I’m optimistic this can be a learning experience for everyone involved.

    I condemn slavery. I don’t like disrespectful language. Condemn gets thrown about a lot in politics—it’s a word that I think just polarizes situations even more.

    A long time ago when I lived in Vanier a group of us got drunk one night, went into the computer science building after hours and made asses of ourselves– stuff like throwing newspaper racks down the stairs. We then had some fun running away from campus security. I expect you to tell me that was really stupid and unacceptable behavior. It was! But I hope you won’t condemn me.

    Both Tristan and Steven have said on this blog that behavior got out of hand. I think that’s all that needs to be said and all that should be said. It seems like it should be obvious that that behavior doesn’t represent the group, or even represent the individuals that were responsible for it. Are you represented by the last stupid thing you did?

  20. Steven Klein on April 17, 2008 7:44 am

    On the condemnation and apology issue-

    Its unclear how responsible the SDS should be for the actions of everyone involved in the group or who are at events associated with its political projects. The KnollAid concert wasn’t an official SDS event, but obviously it is very close to what the SDS is up to, and the press releases about the arrests were sent out by the SDS. Leftist groups and actions seem to always be portrayed on the basis of what plays as the most irresponsible, radical, or stupid. For example, all the media focused on during the Seattle WTO protests was the anarchists who smashed some shop windows. Suddenly, everyone who was there was complicit in property damage.

    Its tricky to know how to respond to that. The SDS will remain a radical organization that does things a lot of students are probably going to see as too in-their-face. But we do have to be are of having SOME legitimacy and credibility. However, I don’t think that will be gained through condemnations and apologies, as if the SDS could really apologize for students spontaneous decisions, but through future actions.

  21. Anonymous on April 18, 2008 8:51 pm

    Readers of this blog will note that those who are claiming the largest ‘divides’ in UBC student politics are those who are no longer students of UBC… notably Mike Thicke, Tim L-G and Gina Eom.

    At least we’re not at SFU, where the where rapist is thrown around at whim (irresponsibly referring to the SFSS president).

  22. Anonymous on April 20, 2008 6:11 am

    If apologies are going to be handed out, it’s about time the SDS stood up for the poor “research” and give one to just about every single professor in the political science department for “being on the payroll of the Canadian military”.

    Do your research, and always double check your sources.

  23. Orla Adams on April 22, 2008 4:41 pm

    i love this article. the “huron statement” you quote pretty much sums up what i’ve been thinking for the last 4 years at UBC, but haven’t had the clarity of mind to articulate. although not a card-carrying member of SDS and not supportive of some of its more extreme measures, i truly admire the group’s courage to address important issues facing UBC and the world at large. thanks for taking the time to clarify SDS’s mission, and for providing the historical and ideological context that was sorely missing from the ignorant, immature, prejudice-laden dialogue surrounding SDS and the events of knoll aid 2.0.

  24. Geoff on April 24, 2008 11:49 pm

    Fantastic article. I sure did learn a lot there.
    I think a prime difference between then and now is the general social climate and the difference between SDS UCB and SDS UBC.

    The 60s were a time of massive social upheaval and change. While the actions might have been similar to today’s events, those that occurred at Knoll Aid v2 were much more of a smack in the face simply because there wasn’t a widespread feeling of antagonism towards society or ‘the man’ now as there was then. Many of the social changes that occurred in this time came from students and groups like the SDS deserve much credit for this. Unfortunately the 60s also gave birth to the hippie so its a double edged blade.

    I think that although the name of the groups are the same, there is a significant difference between UCB SDS and UBC SDS. During civil rights movement there were hotly contested issues that were on the front pages of newspaper and black and white TVs. The SDS gave a voice to the concerns of students at the time, most of them being pro-integration. The SDS at UBC seems to only give voice to those people who are on the fringe left of our student culture. I say seems because I don’t know if this is what their aims are, simply as they come off. If it isn’t Trek Park, its freeing communist Cuban political prisoners. Again, this is how I (and I’m sure a lot of students) see them. If they really believed in an open, free speech society, why have they not had a Free Mark Steyn/Maclean’s rally. Despite being possibly the most controversial human rights case in Canada at the moment I haven’t heard them mention it once. The reason: Mark Steyn (and his fellow ‘prisoner’ Ezra Levant) are two of the biggest right wing critics in the country, who don’t agree with those people who run the SDS.

    I think SDS needs to take another look at what they stand for and try to better emphasize their goals. Doing so would better them in the eyes of most student who wouldn’t then see a group calling for a ‘democratic society’ also calling Canada a police state. It still confuses me.

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