Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (v)

There had been some pressure put on the University of Kentucky Administration by the local newspaper and local power structure not to let university facilities be used for an “anti-American” and “communist” meeting like the SDS National Council. But the University of Kentucky Administration hadn’t bowed to this pressure.

In the cafeteria of the student union building, I noticed Mark and other people from Columbia SDS. Mark laughed when he noticed me there and said: “Bob! When did you arrive here?”

“I just hitched down from Cincinnati,” I replied.

Jeff Gordon of PL was also there with his loyal band of PL followers and it appeared that the usual round of PL vs. New Left faction-fighting would take place. In the cafeteria, the PL people sat in the corner by themselves, while all the New Left people from the rest of the country socialized with each other.

There were about 400 white delegates walking in and out of the main mass meetings that weekend in Lexington. It seemed like SDS membership around the country was increasing. Chapters from as far south as Texas were represented and white radicalism in the United States, as a result of the prolonged war in Viet Nam and the draft, no longer just seemed a New York Jewish radical or a Berkeley bohemian phenomenon. There were literature tables with printed material from National SDS’s Radical Education Project [REP] and literature tables staffed by white Southern student radical organizations.

On the Friday evening before the Council meeting officially opened, New Left SDS people relaxed with each other in small groups on a hilly campus lawn of the University of Kentucky and conversed. I can recall noticing Carl and Karen Davidson walking arm-in-arm and Jeff and his woman friend, Phoebe, also touching each other in affectionate ways.

The Columbia SDS men who were unattached were driven by local anti-war religious activists from Lexington, along with other unattached SDS men from around the U.S., to some church on the outskirts of town, on the Friday night after the first session of the Council meeting. We all ended up sleeping cramped next to each other in sleeping bags on the floor of a fairly modern church, after spending a few hours in informal, interesting political discussion with each other. The SDS men and women who formed part of couples ended up crashing in friendly off-campus houses adjacent to the University of Kentucky campus.

I can only recall a few moments from the Council debate itself that seemed significant. Columbia SDS appeared to have the politically strongest and most active SDS chapter in the U.S. by this time. We had sent the most student activists to this meeting and our people usually made the most arguments during the various debates. JJ—although he had by now dropped out of Columbia, did no day-to-day organizing for Columbia SDS and only appeared on campus when demonstrations or SDS general assembly meetings were being held—loved these National Council debates. He would often speak for 10 minutes in a rambling, left-sectarian monotone, in support of some obscure ideological position, until people no longer understood what he was talking about—or even cared. His essential point still was that doing anything other than immediately kicking ROTC and recruiters off U.S. campuses everywhere and immediately trashing university military research labs, in support of the Vietnamese, was bull-shit. But he still didn’t know how to use political argument to persuade anybody that his super-militancy was politically correct—or that his call for SDS people to prepare for campus brawls with those few students he felt would actually fight us if we disrupted campus life, was a good strategy for radicalizing liberal students.

There were again debates over whether to support, at the expense of local campus organizing, national anti-war marches in Washington, D.C. that were being organized and controlled by Socialist Workers Party [SWP] people. Again, National SDS people argued that organizing for national anti-war marches was a waste of time, in terms of building an on-going multi-issue radical movement.

One of the most dramatic moments of the Council meeting occurred on Saturday afternoon when, after long months of study, solitude, thought and non-activism, a former National SDS president—Carl Oglesby—now clean-shaven, came down from the mountain to present his latest political analysis of the U.S. Oglesby was in his mid-30s at this time. He had worked as some kind of white-collar professional at Bendix in Ann Arbor in the early 1960s, before being radicalized by the war in Viet Nam and then discovering that U.S. foreign policy since World War II had been anti-democratic and hypocritical in its Cold War anti-communist hysteria.

“There’s a fight going on in the Establishment between what I call `The Yankees’ and `The Cowboys,’” said Oglesby. “The `Yankees’ are members of the old Eastern Establishment and they’re being represented by Bobby Kennedy. They had power until the Kennedy Assassination and now they want power again, in order to end the war in Viet Nam. `The Cowboys’ are the Southwestern and Western, newly-rich, military-industrial complex-linked members of the Establishment, with Texas and California-based wealth. They’re represented by Lyndon Johnson. They want to continue to escalate the war in Viet Nam until it is won. They’ve held power since the Kennedy Assassination and they want to keep holding power.”

Oglesby then continued his speech, while SDS people listened very attentively. “For the last few years we’ve been saying that the main issue in America is the war in Viet Nam. But the recent Democratic primary results in opposition to Johnson make it look like the `Yankees’ and Kennedy are going to regain the Presidency again and end the war in Viet Nam.

“Now being `radical’ means taking up issues that the liberals are afraid to take up. And no longer will the war in Viet Nam be the main issue in the United States. The main issue is now racism.

“Because of racism, more Black urban uprisings are inevitable. SDS must now prepare for these ghetto uprisings. We must prepare to donate arms to Black activists who need to defend their communities from racism and police brutality.”

At this point in Oglesby’s speech, Ben of the Motherfuckers suddenly stood up in the back of the hall, went into a tantrum and began to shout, as he approached Oglesby in a menacing way: “Donate arms! And let Black people do all the fighting and bleeding while SDS sits securely in the classrooms! White radicals have to fight too, you honky! They may be either Yankees or Cowboys, but we’re the Indians!”

Ben then started shouting incoherently about “white collar radicals” and preparing for guerrilla warfare for a few more seconds, while people laughed at his comment about us being the Indians. Then other SDS people cooled Ben down, finally.

Oglesby next resumed his speech by saying: “Before we can change anything, we have to be sure we’re psychologically together ourselves.” He then stated that the main issue SDS had to now decide was whether or not to support Kennedy in the 1968 election and how to prepare to donate arms to the Black community.

Oglesby’s speech did not go over well because most SDS people were not that certain the liberal “Yankees” were less dangerous than the right-wing “Cowboys” or that it was inevitable that the “Yankees” would end the war so quickly or really alter the foreign policy of U.S. imperialism. People also felt that to respond to Black ghetto uprisings by just donating arms, instead of initiating simultaneous struggle against the common oppressor for radical democratic goals, was too white liberal and passive an approach to responding to racism in 1968.

People were also turned off to the idea of even considering working for the “liberal opportunist” Robert Kennedy, instead of working to build a New Left Movement that radically changed more than who sat in the White House or which country abroad U.S. troops occupied. By this time in National SDS circles, Oglesby was seen as too “apolitical” in his political thinking and not Marxist or neo-Marxist enough in his way of analyzing events. Within SDS rank-and-file circles, the only presidential candidate who had any kind of credibility at this time was Eugene McCarthy because, unlike Bobby Kennedy, he had been willing to run as an anti-war candidate before it became apparent that LBJ could be defeated electorally in the Democratic primaries because of his war’s unpopularity.

In the evening following this Saturday debate a number of parties were held at various locations. I ended up at a party in which people like Ben and the other Motherfuckers and JJ smoked a lot of pot and mingled with local University of Kentucky anti-war movement women. I can recall getting stoned myself and walking around while high with other leftist students and leftist hippies, through car less Lexington streets around the campus. Inside the house, ten to fifteen of us, while stoned or tripping, spent a few hours pounding loudly on steel cooking pots, as if they were drums, at the same time rock music was blaring. Everyone stayed up stoned until mid-morning, turning on again and again, until we each dropped down somewhere and fell asleep either with a leftist or hippie woman in our arms or alone.

On Sunday afternoon, after enough SDS people had recovered from the Saturday night parties, the National Council passed resolutions and tried to raise money, by stirring up friendly chapter rivalry and ridiculing each of the most prominent National SDS “heavies”. Then it wrapped up its business. It was agreed that in late April 1968 SDS chapters would try to simultaneously carry out anti-war and anti-complicity actions on as many campuses as possible, as part of a “10 days against the empire” campaign which would “put SDS on the map.” Although Columbia SDS seemed to have the strongest chapter and Mark’s action-oriented, confrontational leadership appeared to be dynamic, nobody at the Council meeting foresaw how big the spring confrontation at Columbia actually would become.

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