After a nearly 40-year absence from Ann Arbor, Students for a Democratic Society marked its return to the University last week. With its protests of the draft and the Vietnam War, SDS was once at the head of the New Left movement and the catalyst for social change. This new edition of SDS has a long and storied reputation to live up to, and it remains to be seen if the group has fully committed itself to it, or if it will simply fall into irrelevance like so many other supposedly activist student groups.
Founded in Ann Arbor in 1960, the original SDS operated until 1969 under its manifesto, the Port Huron Statement. Dealing in inspiring rhetoric and aggressive political protest, it preached the agenda that came to define a generation. It united an entire nation of college students in the cause for establishing the New Left and did so by being vocal and being everywhere. As of now, however, SDS is back in name only. It must accomplish some tangible goals where other student groups have failed to do so.
It is crucial for SDS to return to the ideals it held 40 years ago. The potential to enact social and political change and further participatory democracy cannot be ignored if SDS is to have a profound impact on campus. The group’s members must recognize that the name Students for a Democratic Society means something special at this University, and that it cannot go about its goals in a half-hearted manner.
To be a group of action, SDS must clearly define its goals. A starting point of advocating temporary workers’ rights and denouncing the war in Iraq is just that – a start. Before too long, the group needs to consider other issues of significance to this specific campus. In that vein, the issues to be dealt with today may vary from what SDS focused on in the past, and the organization must be flexible enough to act accordingly.
The University became the seat of influence for social change in the 1960s and could certainly be again. Times have changed since then and the new SDS will have far more resources to establish itself and make a difference quickly. Gaining support and visibility on campus needs to be the first priority, because an SDS that makes its presence known right away is far more powerful than one that languishes for years without students even knowing of its existence.
Viable grassroots activism has long been absent from university campuses, and it should be the charge of SDS to rekindle that flame, not just to add to the litany of meetings, sponsorships and events that are the epitome of empty student activism. SDS’s greatest achievement could be the revival of one of the nation’s sleeping giants of progressive social change. It will tarnish the work of its predecessors should it aim for anything less.