Throwback Thursday: Joining the Students for a Democratic Society

Losing Our Way

“Having no destination, I am never lost.” This from Ikkyū, the Japanese Zen priest and poet — Crazy Cloud, as he was called back in the day. Vietnam as a destination proved our undoing many times over. We lost our way. And then, when we found our way, we lost the way. Again and again. War after war. When will we ever learn? There are no destinations.

Owl

I met Owl my freshman year. This was in 1967. He lived in the same dorm as I did, and we became friends. During Freshman Week we were supposed to wear beanies denoting our status in the university as lowlifes. I threw mine away the first day I got there and immediately repaired to bed, where I stayed the whole week during freshman orientation reading and smoking fat ones. Owl, wearing his beanie, would come to visit me, and he couldn’t believe my ennui. I was already an outsider, inside and out.

Joining In and Out

Owl would change some of those outsider tendencies in me. I would always be out on the side. You couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Still, he showed me I could go and join those on the inside — when I wanted. Become part of the strength of numbers. He got me involved in the matters of humanity’s problems. Join in, he said, and occasionally I did. Still, I hovered around the outer edges, physically and internally, never fitting in. I had no destination, so most of the time I felt I was never lost, although I was always trying to find myself. Holding on, just holding on. Joining and unjoining.

Peace Cell

Owl became a radical before I knew what a radical was, although in my own way, since I’d been living out on the side, away from the crowd, I, too, was perceived as a radical. Owl eventually became the Students for a Democratic Society leader, and when he did I joined the organization. He became a mentor in all things versus authority. He helped and was instrumental in setting up our first chapter, if you can call it that. It was more like a cell, a peace cell. Of course, we didn’t have cells in those days. We were a loose group, spilling over the edge. Everyone in the group had a say, and everyone worked hard to promote the agenda. Really, it was just one more agenda in a host of others. You always hoped to rise to the top, and SDS rose prominently in the ‘60s along with other radical groups organized to fight the state, some peacefully (SDS), some violently (The Weathermen). SDS only lasted from 1960 to 1969, then disbanded. Still, I went on to march in many other protests over my time, the Port Huron Statementalways guiding me. Then, as now. So what was SDS?

Tom Hayden

In 1962, 60 students got together at a lakeside camp on Lake Michigan called Port Huron. SDS cobbled together their manifesto, The Port Huron Statement. It was here where SDS really began to gel into a national force to reform the democratic party. The manifesto was primarily authored by Tom Hayden, a student at the University of Michigan who later became a force in the politics of the ‘60s as an anti-war civil rights intellectual. He was married to Jane Fonda for 17 years and held seats in the California Assembly and later the Senate.

The Beast that Roars

But I knew little about Hayden at the time. Owl was my contact into SDS. I was a foot soldier in the ranks. I believed in the Statement wholeheartedly. I deplored, as I do today, the inequality and power that is held over all of us by the fortunate ones, who get richer as the rest get poorer. Still, whenever I could, I still removed myself from the fray. I stepped back, aghast sometimes at the sheer numbers of people protesting, wondering if most of them knew what it was they were actually protesting.

At times, in moments of illumination, it reminded me of the Leni Riefenstahl’s films portraying the Nazi state. The camera would pan over huge crowds sieg-heiling in thrall of the man of the master race. I remember being astounded at the size of the crowds bowing down to Hitler. I couldn’t help but see a parallel. Movements are like this. They can get out of hand. When you are caught up in the frenzy of the crowd, you become one with it — it becomes a river, and you are carried along in its froth and frenzy until you have lost all individuality. You are part of the beast that roars. You are not yourself. Not until you come out of it and stand back on the riverbank and have a look at the raging waters streaming by you. Still, it can achieve great results. There is strength in numbers. I believed in the cause, the SDS cause, and so I joined and worked hard for it. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t conflicted. Soldier on, I told myself. See where it leads.

My First Protest

During my first SDS-organized protest, I was chased around the streets of Denver, the cops and National Guard close on my heels. The Kent State shooting, which left four students dead, pushed us all into hysteria. Nationwide protests sprang up. We, in turn, helped occupy the university. We built a shanty town on the village green. The cops came and bulldozed it to the ground. Then, we moved on to another green and occupied that as well. The National Guard was called in. All hell broke loose. I was fortunate not to have been caught as they pursued me through streets and back alleyways. But some of my friends landed in jail. We bailed them out the next day.

That fueled the fires in the belly of my mind, and so I participated in numerous protests over the years. Mostly protesting the Vietnam War and the democratic war policies of Lyndon Johnson. Later, we assaulted the Nixon presidencyand I believe ultimately changed the course of the war, prompting a pullout after decades of occupying Southeast Asia.

Destination Vietnam

I have walked alongside Vietnam vets, walked alongside the hippies, walked for the whales and civil rights, cut down billboards, smoked joints in front of a line of cops, lived as an outsider and an insider, been a loyal member of SDS. All in good stead, and with good intentions. But there are those who say the antiwar protests sullied all the soldiers that gave up their lives to make us free. Of course, I feel for those taken. The Vietnam War, though, was concocted by the powers that be, predicated on the false premise that if we didn’t interfere, communism would overtake Southeast Asia and then the world. It had nothing to do with making us free. We weren’t defending freedom. Far from it. Robert McNamara, the architect of the war, later regretted his role in shaping the conflict. The corruption of power and the use of soldiers as pawns is a universal policy of those who rule. Nothing much has changed over time and history. Destination Vietnam. Destination War. Destination Lost. Thing of it is, there are no destinations. Only the way.

 

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