Jessica Rapchik

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Jessica Rapchik is a Program Associate Center for Democratic Studies, Sheffield United Kingdom.

New SDS

Sixteen students sat around a table in the Manhattan cafeteria of the New School discussing where commas should go. They were rewriting, for the third time, a mission statement for their chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the activist group that had been dormant for nearly 40 years. They wanted the document to be collectively produced, but after more than three weeks of communal drafting, no one seemed particularly content with the results.

“One of our strengths is having a clear understanding of what went wrong in the ’60s,” says Pat Korte, a 19-year-old sophomore at the New School, in Greenwich Village. Mr. Korte was a co-founder of the born-again organization in 2006, as a senior at Stonington High School, in Connecticut. S.D.S. now has around 120 active chapters and 3,000 registered members.

“We know the drive for revolutionary change is correct,” Mr. Korte says, “but blowing up buildings is not going to get us anywhere. Nor is joining the Democratic Party.”

The chapter at Queens College has 140 people on its mailing list, a quarter of them Latino. “At a working-class school, we have jobs to go home to at night, so the problems in the government more directly affect the quality of our lives,” says Rachel Haut, a 19-year-old junior. And while most young people view the war in Iraq via remote, on commuter campuses like Queens the military recruits heavily. Ms. Haut’s chapter sets up a table every other week to distribute literature aiming to discourage students from enlisting.

Jessica Rapchik, 19, was the S.D.S. co-founder with Mr. Korte. She says she was surprised that her role goes unmentioned in the book. The omission, she says, points to “larger problems in our society men being sought out as voices of authority.”

MR. KORTE and Ms. Rapchik, of Chapel Hill, N.C., met on a conference call. Both were active members of an antiwar group in high school. They wanted to be part of an organization that would tackle more enduring issues.

“These problems won’t go away unless you change the entire power structure,” says Ms. Rapchik, now a sophomore at Antioch College. She blames the “dominant hegemonic system.”

Ms. Rapchik’s parents were so opposed to her involvement in a radical organization that they threatened not to help pay for college if she attended the first convention, so she stayed home. Mr. Korte says his father voted for Nixon. “My parents didn’t even know the ’60s happened,” he says.

In search of mentors, the students reached out to the first president of S.D.S., Al Haber, who is now a woodworker. He and other original members met with the students and offered their old pamphlets and letters. The “old folks,” a k a the “veterans,” attend meetings and marches, help coordinate conferences and provide moral support. When students are arrested, veterans sometimes wait outside the jail with sandwiches.

But some chapters have distanced themselves from the ’60s generation. To Ms. Haut, at Queens College, it is not “productive” to work with “a lot of old white guys arguing about what they should have done.” As it is, the new group devotes a good deal of intellectual energy to self-analysis.

At the second national convention, attended by about 200 members, the students spent a day discussing how not to oppress one another. They split into caucuses based on gender, class, race and sexual orientation.

Nick Kreitman, a junior at Elmhurst College in suburban Chicago, participated in meetings about “Class Privilege,” “White Privilege” and “Hetero-Privilege,” in which, he says, members talked about the danger of coming off as the “liberal savior who is going to instantly solve all their problems.”

Aaron Petcoff, a founding member of the Wayne State chapter, worries about the group becoming a clique. “We can’t just go to the punk places and tell people it’s cool to join S.D.S.,” he says. He consciously recruits for diversity, and his chapter has one Hispanic, two African-American, two Iraqi-American and six white members.

Nationally, membership is predominantly white, and Mr. Petcoff describes himself as fitting “the stereotype of the white, left, activist guy.” He first learned about the group two years ago, when, he recalls, a roommate’s friend told him, “You look like you got drop-kicked out of S.D.S.” He was dressed in “these bell-bottom kind of pants and an olive green army jacket with a big peace sign.” He didn’t know what S.D.S. was, he says. “So I went to the computer and did an image search, which was how I found out the group was being revived.” Soon after, he joined.

Mr. Korte, who lives with three other members on Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn, frequently reminds the group that it is trying to start a movement that will “last for decades,” not just a semester. He asked if anyone felt it was worth it to be arrested at a coming antiwar demonstration. Almost everyone raised a hand.

In the past two years, well over 100 S.D.S. members have been arrested for civil disobedience, including blocking ports in Washington from which military equipment was being shipped to Iraq and demonstrating in front of car dealerships in favor of higher fuel efficiency standards. This fall, the group began participating in the Iraq Moratorium, a series of monthly national antiwar demonstrations modeled after the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium.[1]

References

  1. New York Times One Generation Got Old, One Generation Got Soul By Rachel Aviv Jan. 6, 2008]