Giving Form to a Stampede

28 08 2008

Last Spring Brian Kelly and I wrote an essay for Upping The Anti about the first two years of the new SDS. It was later recirculated on Znet, but I realized that I had not put it up here. This is likely only interesting to radicals who are trying to build mass-organization or folks interested in dissecting the influence of youth subculture on social movements. Not for the layreader.

Giving Form to a Stampede:
The First Two Years of the New Students for a Democratic Society

By Brian Kelly and Joshua Kahn Russell

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” – Sun Tzu


At a party recently, one of us was introduced as an organizer trying to launch the “new” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The person raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know anything about the new SDS,” she said, “but it makes me think of a Beatles reunion tour with none of the original members. Why would I want to see that?”

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The Party Crashers

22 08 2008

I’m in Minneapolis, shortly before the 2009 Republican National Convention…and the gigantic protest spectacle here to greet it. But I don’t think I’m even going this year. Not to dis all the good folks who will be pouring into town in the coming week to express their dissatisfaction with that last 8 years of the Bush regime, or the hard working organizers who are coordinating it all, I’m just not sure what my role would be beyond feeling some catharsis in screaming my politics real loud.

4 Years ago I was in New York City gearing up to protest the same convention. The logic of our message was compelling: the Republicans were trying to exploit the memory of 9/11 by holding a convention in NYC, and we were going to expose their fearmongering. New Yorkers overwhelmingly wanted them as far away from their city as possible. It was a great narrative to tell the U.S. public.

Within hours I ended up in handcuffs on a curb, baking in the hot sun. My crime? Riding my bike. Legally. The officer explicitly told me “you’re being arrested for exercising rights you thought you had, but I guess you didn’t have em, didja?” I guess not. They took hundreds of us to a toxic, chemical-oozing bus depot called Pier 57 and held us in detention. I left with my body covered in a rash. I still have a pending lawsuit against the NYPD. At that moment I was more disillusioned with symbolic mass mobilizations than I had ever been – mostly because it just seemed like a scripted game. I saw my fellow arrestees wearing their day-in-jail as a ‘badge of honor’ – like some kind of protest cred. I kept reminding people that getting captured, in most cultures, is seen as a bad thing. It was embarrassing. Even with a clear message and vibrant participation, I wasn’t sure what the point of expressive protest was anymore.

I have since softened up, and I do admit that my heart sings when I see large diverse groups of people demonstrating their power using public space, even if it has no instrumental or concrete goal.

In The Nation yesterday, Michael Gould-Wartofsky wrote an article called The Party Crashers. Its a well written survey piece, getting a pulse of the youth movement protesting the RNC and the DNC. I’m quoted. What I was trying to express was the basic intention of organizing being relevant to society, rather than simply antagonistic. Symbolic protest can have meaning, but only if it engages our political moment. Unfortunately, it seems like much of the convention protests this year are approaching this election like all the others. The article’s tagline asks “In the age of Obama, is street protest still relevant?” My answer is that it can be, if we think differently than we have been. While dissent in the streets is healthy for any democracy, savvy dissent can help move whole society forward. Even though in The Nation article I talk about the role of activists engaging the current progressive wave and “pulling it to the left”, I may have confused readers with my use of the word “left” – all I mean is that community-based organizers, who have their feet rooted on the ground and dirt under their fingernails, have a crucial role to play in grounding our new progressive majority in the needs of oppressed communities from Appalachia to New Orleans, in orienting a politics that is accountable to people and creates long-lasting change. Anyway, check out the article below.

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on megacamps and imaginal cells.

20 08 2008

I just got back from seven days that reminded me why youth are gonna save the world. I had the privilege of helping train and learn from 200 brilliant young organizers in Minneapolis Minnesota at the Energy Action Coalition Power Vote camp.

It was the most fluid and well organized training I had ever been a part of. More striking than the hard organizing skills, the web2.0 tech saavy, the smart message, strategic approach or visionary ideas, was the overwhelming sense of being called to duty.

Over and over again I heard college students telling stories about how something deep inside of them is telling us that our planet – our ecosystems, our economic, and social systems – is on the brink of collapse, and that it’s our generational challenge to steer our society and world back to sanity.

One of the most enduring metaphors of the week was shared by a young organizer: when a caterpillar is about to encase itself in a cocoon it becomes over-consumptive. It eats more than its share of leaves on the tree and grows fat and sluggish. At the moment of its developmental excess, a group of specialized cells called “imaginal cells” gravitate toward one another and find each other. Even though they are in the minority, they flow through the “nutritive soup” that has become of the rest of the caterpillar, and then they steer the caterpillar’s development until it eventually breaks through its cocoon as a butterfly.

I had heard activists of various kinds share this metaphor before. But never had I seen it catch with such resonance as this week. It struck a deep chord with participants, who were grounded in their knowledge that this is our moment and our movement. These young folks are helping usher in a new era of civic engagement with revolutionary ideas like climate justice, clean energy, sustainable communities, economies, and self determination.

The current call-to-action is called Power Vote. The idea is to build a youth voice to hold our leaders accountable by getting 1 million young people to pledge making climate a priority in the presidential election AND afterwards…

That in itself would be a remarkable feat. But we’re not stopping there. With our ‘organizer hats’ on, we see these elections as an opportunity: right now everyone in our country is talking politics. We view the elections not as an end in of themselves, but as a chance to build connections between young progressives across the country to join the youth climate movement and engage in work long after the elections. We’re leveraging our political moment to build lasting power from the ground up, strengthening local organizing across the country where it matters: in our communities.

Many students told me that for the first time, they genuinely feel a part of a movement. The energy was infectious and boundless. Trainers from Wellstone Action!, Energy Action Coalition, EAC Partners (like me!), and the Georgetown Day School Diversity Coordinators, helped set the stage for something beautiful. In particular if you ever get the chance to experience Wellstone Action, it may just change your life. I know it did for so many young visionaries this week.