Saturday, August 04, 2007

Dare to Struggle: SDS National Convention in Detroit
July 27-30th, 2007
Mural: Detroit Industry or Man and Machine, 1932-33 by Diego Rivera

Welcome to the "D"

It seemed only right that longtime civil rights veteran Grace Lee Boggs was asked to open up the 2nd annual national convention for the newly reformed Students for a Democratic Society [SDS], which took place in Detroit over this past weekend.

Grace Lee Boggs, although rarely receiving the same kind of attention as some of her male counterparts in the movement, is truly a living testament to what a life-long commitment to revolutionary organizing looks like. Many of the 150 students in attendance seemed aware that they were witnessing something special, as they battled through some tough audio difficulties to listen to Grace's talk.

Grace painted an eloquent historical backdrop for the convention, as she described the rebellions that shook Detroit in the summer of 1967, nearly 40 years ago to the day. She talked about how although the media had called described the uprising as 'unruly riots', but that to many militant black workers it signified the start of something much more hopeful, "a time when anything seemed possible".

Although many have argued that the cities crisis far pre-dated 1967, Detroit over the last few decades has become the poster child as Boggs put it for the "false promises of industrial Capitalism," with vacant lots, burned down buildings, and extreme poverty and high school drop out rates. Boggs argues however, that this combination of extremely harsh circumstances, has simultaneously had the effect of making Detroit a new kind of "laboratory of resistance," as the community, still highly invested in the future of the city, figures out how to fill those huge social gaps vacated by both the state as well as the corporations who have left the city. A large network of community gardens and discussions around starting up some ambitious alternative schooling options (most statistics show that Detroit city public school drop out rates are well over 70%) are some of the small but hopefully very real foundations for turning things around in the motor city.

Only being in Detroit for five days, it was difficult to get a sense of how real the hopefulness was, in contrast to the abandoned streets that I walked down every morning on the way to Wayne State University. Either way it was an eye opening experience just to visit the city and to hear some of the remarkable histories of working class struggle that had taken place there over the years.

One of my goals for the trip was to finally finish the classic book "Detroit: I Do Mind Dying," which as the publishers put it was a "Study in Urban Revolution," following groups like DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) and the League of Revolutionaries Black Workers. Unfortunately due to a combination of my extremely slow reading skills and the long intense days that were the SDS convention, I barely got through a few chapters.

Detroit: I Do Mind Driving

After doing the 20 hour bus trip each way to Atlanta for the US Social Forum, I told myself that was going to be it on the road trips for a while but just a few weeks later there we were heading off to Detroit for the first of two 12 hour stretches. Without making the usual condescending statements about "red states" and "middle America," I have to admit that every time we stopped at one of those gas/convenience stores on the way and looked around at all of the NASCAR paraphenalia, I got a little more depressed. The only bright side to the long ride over was having some time to look over the impressive 70 or so proposals written up for consideration at the convention.

I was very anxious to see what this convention was going to be looking like and how many people would actually make it all the way to Detroit after so many months of planning. My personal responsibilities within SDS, besides some general help with logistical coordination, was helping to grassroots fundraise $10,000 through individual donors (which we achieved!) in order to be able to pay not only for the convention costs but also for the 4-day "Action Camp" that will be taking place Aug 13-16 in Lancaster, PA. The purpose of the Action Camp is to provide a space for 40-50 active SDS'ers (mostly between the ages of 16-21) to come together and build up some of their organizing skills before heading back into their respective high-schools and universities for the fall semester. The planning specifically for the Action Camp has been very exciting and really gives me the sense that SDS is coming together and moving off of the internet and into the "real world" as the organization continues to grow. The last thing I will say about the Action Camp is that it will be facilitated by our friends at The Catalyst Project who will help lead all the participants through the three main themes; social movement history, anti-oppression, and organizing skills.

We arrived in Detroit on Thursday evening and pulled right up in front of the local church which was housing many of the SDS'ers. The final orientation meeting was already in progress with around 30 people in attendance and we sat down quietly, looking around at so many of the faces that up until this point we had only none through email chat and late night conference calls. There was Carmen, Aaron, Michael, Sicily, Arick and the rest of the Wayne State SDS crew who had worked so hard to make this all a reality. There was Lisa from Texas, Matt from New York, and Nile from the Bay Area who made up the core outside facilitation team (something some of us had to push for on the convention planning calls and am so glad we did!). There was Jenna, Beth and Zach from the Drew University Chapter. There was Babken, Dave, and Samantha from UCLA SDS. And of course my fellow New Yorkers Pat, Meaghan, Madeline, Brian, John, Kaz and the rest of the crew. Although it was only a small sampling of who would arrive the next morning, it felt good to be around friends.

Convention day I (or voting on how to vote...)

Having been tasked last minute with pulling together the "white ally caucus" taking place Saturday morning, I spent the first part of Friday going over some ideas and meeting with some of my co-facilitators. Although I had never personally organized an anti-racism training or discussion, I had had a lot of (mostly negative) experiences with these kinds of things and I wanted to make sure that our group did not replicate some of those dynamics, leading often to feelings of intense guilt and defensiveness.

People were starting to flow onto the Wayne State campus by mid-afternoon. After running around making extra copies of the proposal packets and hand-outs for our caucus, I stopped into a room of 50 people where two (recent) friends of mine Shea Howell and Angela Jones (an amazing poet if you ever get a chance to see her) were conducting what seemed to be a lively discussion on some basic anti-oppression principles. It was encouraging to see such a large number of SDS'ers participating in the discussion, especially because it was well before the official convention was starting up.

After the afternoon workshops and Grace Lee Boggs' talk, there was a quick dinner break before the real work started. Unlike most conferences and conventions, because of the amount of decisions that had to be made at this convention (ie. how is an 'SDS member' defined, what constitutes an SDS chapter, what is the overall vision of the organization, what kind of national structure do we need for increased chapter coordination etc), the scheduling team put out a meeting agenda that started around 9:00am and often lasted until 9 or 10pm at night, including various time extensions for further discussion. Personally I was very anxious about the decision to meet so deep into the evening but maybe at 27 it was just my old age talking.

The first, and most frustrating step of the evening was to "vote on how we would be voting during the convention." The first roadblock that came up was that there was a huge contingent of over 20 people from the University of Central Florida (UCF) who had somehow gotten their school to subsidize their travel expenses. I think it is fair to say, that broadly speaking, UCF together with a few chapters from the Northwest (Tacoma, Olympia) represented a tendency within SDS that was very concerned with local chapter autonomy, highlighted by the at times outright hostility shown to compromising on some sort of national structure.

To their credit, UCF pointed out early on how their large numbers might sway certain vote counts and so we proceeded to come up with a procedure that would take this into consideration. The problem in the end was not the number of votes that the anti-organizational tendency (for lack of a better word) had but the way in which they at times dragged on conversations and debates needlessly by abusing modified consensus process. It was frustrating for me to watch initially as you could see the facilitators, who were really put into an impossible situation, struggle with finding a way to reach some clarity on some of these major initial decisions among a body of 150 young folks, many of whom had very different ideas of how SDS as an organization might function.
  • Final Convention Decision Making Process:
  • Present Proposal (all of which were included in the packets ahead of time)
  • Clarifications/Questions
  • Pro/Con Speakers [1-2 on each side]
  • Amendments [friendly/unfriendly]
  • Test for Consensus
  • If No Concensus, Chapters Caucus
  • Final Vote on the Floor (Has to get 2/3 to pass)
Although at least a process was voted on, we did not get much more done that initial evening, and it laid the foundation for what would be a tense few days, as many SDS'ers who traveled long ways to actually make some decisions wondered if they would even get to some of the many proposals that were on the table. The facilitators were frustrated. I was tired. Tomorrow would be a better day.

Convention day II (to caucus or not to caucus...)

Although I had been pretty involved in the organizing leading up to the convention, I did not realize until I saw the drafts of the 4-day schedule that people had decided on what amounted to a full day (6 hours) of caucusing on Saturday. There were five or six hour-long caucus sessions back to back on; people of color/white allies, LGBTQ/straight allies, working class/class privileged, women & trans caucus/male allies, high school caucus/older allies. On the one hand it was good to see SDS take seriously the need for oppressed groups within the organization to self organize their own spaces. This convention would set an important precedent for the future and it was clear that caucusing would play an integral role in future gatherings. On the other hand however, after making arguments for the need to have so many caucuses--especially back to back on the first full day of the convention--there were very few people who followed up and actually organized a facilitated group discussion during these times slots. This particular attempt at trying to address oppression within the organization came across to me as more symbolic then real. In the end though, I think this is a very difficult process to navigate and hearing about how the caucusing went down during the first convention last year in Chicago, it seemed like it was a big step forward. In the future my concrete (humble) suggestions would be:
  • Spread the caucusing out a bit more over the course of the weekend so that young folks, many of whom have not been in these kinds of spaces before do not get hit with this emotionally charged material all at once.
  • Figure out if some of the caucuses really need to happen and have an honest conversation with some of the members of that would be caucus beforehand to figure out what the needs are. I believe in Detroit that the high-school caucus for example had about 3 participants in it with the remaining 150+ people supposedly getting together in the room next door.
  • Perhaps focus in on a few of the main "organizational weaknesses" and have slightly longer caucus times for fewer total caucuses (People of color & Womyns caucuses would stand out within SDS as two of the most important ones for example).
My main responsibility as mentioned earlier was helping to facilitate the white ally caucus which I think went quite well. Being on such a tight time schedule, we really only had about 45 minutes to plan for both a presentation as well as an interactive discussion component but I think we did about as well as could be expected given such limitations. The feedback was generally all very positive, but i would be curious to hear any suggestions for things that could have gone better from folks who were in the room. Our basic outline included:
  1. Introductions of facilitators and asking permission to lead everyone through this 45 minute discussion. Clarifying that none of us were experts on the subject and that we know many people often have negative associations with anti-racism workshops.
  2. Defining a few terms, specifically the concept of "intersectionality" and the way that although everyone in the room benefits from white privilege in some way, that we all benefit in very different ways depending on other variables like class, gender, sexual orientation, place we live, level of education etc.
  3. Some historical and current day examples of white supremacy, including Bacon's Rebellion and the current case of the Jena Six.
  4. Small break-out group exercise discussing the quote: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Followed by some group report backs.
  5. Tools for moving forward: passing out some copies of a Catalyst Project handout on strategies around anti-racist organizing.
  6. Commitments & check out: having everyone take a few minutes to think about what specific commitment(s) they would like to make around anti-racist practice heading into the fall semester and in the context of SDS chapter organizing.
My initial misgivings about the intense amount of caucus times were partially confirmed when I went to the next one after our workshop and we waited around for 15 minutes until finally realizing that there was no one who had stepped up to facilitate the meeting. I decided to leave and walk over to get some food before taking an afternoon nap. I knew we would all need our energy for the evening plenaries (side-note: unlike the US Social Forum, plenaries in Detroit were focused around debate & decision making on the various proposals--something which next year might be nice to mix up a bit and also have some analysis/strategy discussion & debate).

The Saturday evening plenary was probably the most challenging part of the entire weekend. It was here that the discussion turned to the "vision" of SDS as an organization, something for which twelve separate proposals had been written up and submitted ahead of time, many of them quite lengthy and unnecessarily wordy. The number and length of the proposals were perhaps signs of strength and as as weaknesses within SDS. A strength because they signified both the enthusiasm and the intellectual commitment to writing some very thought out visions proposals, but weakness because many of the proposals (11 out of the 12 were either authored or co-authored by white men) did not seem realistic to get passed at a convention with so many things to work through without some sort of synthesizing before they hit the convention floor. With the help of the facilitation team, this process of bringing together authors and coming up with more concise collective proposals would mark much of the rest of the weekend.

Convention day III (A question of structure)

The truth was that one of the reasons why the vision discussion on Saturday night (which flowed over into Sunday) became so tense, was because of the conflicting ideas within SDS around the nature of national structure. The word "national" itself seemed to be a scary concept to some, again specifically those from the Southeast and the Northwest parts of the country. A few weeks prior to the convention I had received an email from one of the local Northwest SDS organizers saying:

"How is it that SDS has a national organizer (someone that organizes from the top-down) when SDS is supposed to be a bottom-up organization?."

I replied that I felt like this was perhaps a misunderstanding of the idea of national organizers and suggested:

"when i say national organizer, or whenever anyone in SDS says national organizer, i think all that really means is that you work with SDS on the national level. In my case im helping to coordinate and bottom line parts of the summer Action Camp as well as parts of the national convention in Detroit. "

Although i never heard back from that particular person, the brief email exchange symbolized for me the deep mistrust of any kind of nationally structured organization. Another central concern on the part of the Northwest/Southeast contingents--And I should be clear that there were various positions and voices within each of these groups of course, but these seemed to be in the minority most of the time)--was the problem of "informal leadership" which was indeed a real phenomenon within SDS.

The issue of informal leadership is something that comes up all the time, specifically in so called "decentralized" or "horizontally structured" organizations (for some good background reading to this check out the classic pamphlet "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman. It stems from an unwillingness to confront the fact that power dynamics and issues of leadership will always exists whether we talk about them honestly or choose to avoid them. In the case of SDS, many of the folks who were considered part of this informal leadership (made up mostly of a network of SDS'ers located in the Northeast and Midwest who had been in contact regularly over the past year and had the privilege of organizing several face to face meetings over that time), were trying to articulate that the way to actually combat informal leaderships was in fact to decide on a democratic national structure proposal, and not put it off for another year.

When this position was clearly articulated in small group break-out sessions (during the more heated debates I almost got up the nerve to grab the mic and shout it from the overhead balcony) it seemed like people were on the same page. Once the proposals were put out on the floor however, there was just an endless amount of process nit-picking and manipulation of the concept of consensus, where some people would make counter proposals from the floor knowing that 80% of the room was not in favor of them but taking up another 15 minutes all the same.

By Sunday evening we had manage to pass several of the consolidated vision proposals including an edited version of the impressive "Who We Are, What We Are Doing" document that will be going back to the local chapters for official ratification. Still, the question of structure hung in the balance, and with it the success (or lack thereof) of this all important 2nd national convention.

Convention Day IV (All is well that ends well...)

Although initially the group (with at its high point nearly 200 people in attendance, and an average of about 125 in the main auditorium at the same time) voted to not make any serious decisions on Monday, it quickly became obvious that this might need to be re-thought. On Sunday the question was posed again and over 100 people said they would still be around and a large majority of the remaining attendees agreed that it would be important to have Monday morning as an option to attempt to come to some last minute compromises on a structure proposal.

Even with the extended time on Monday morning, it seemed unlikely that we would be able to reach any kind of agreement. We voted to go until 11:00am and by 10:15am the facilitators were making us break into small groups one last time to try and work out some of our differences. We would then one final time with the structure proposal sponsors (which by this time included at least three different groupings who had synthesized their proposal into one) and if we did not come to compromise we would take that long ride home without a national structure.

Im not exactly sure how it happened, but it finally seemed to dawn on everyone that we needed to come out of Detroit with something. The facilitators brought the final proposal to one last vote on the floor... and it passed. The final vote was 89 for, 9 opposed, with 16 stand asides. A nationally federated chapter structure and a series of working groups would fill the void for now. Although the final wording for the structure document is still being worked on, Matt Wasserman a member of Reed SDS commented: "Decision-making power will rest in the hands of local chapters, who must approve proposals by a super-majority, while a council of chapter delegates will be tasked with supervising the working groups that will actually carry out decisions and campaigns on the national level."

After a loud round of applause, we moved to vote on several "action proposals" which unfortunately got left to the very end, although I am not sure how else we would have done it any other way. The two main proposals that passed and seemed to garner the most excitement were the Iraq Moratorium initiative, as well as the major "No War, No Warming" mobilization taking place in DC, Oct 21-23rd. Michael Albert, co-founder of Z Magazine & ZNET gave a rousing closing talk and we got ready for the (suddenly less hard) 12 hour ride back to New York.

It had been an intense, long, and at times very difficult five days in Detroit. In the historic city, with such an incredible history of militant social movements, SDS as an organization and the anti-war movement more generally took a big step forward.

Max Uhlenbeck is an editor with Left Turn Magazine living and working in New York City. He would like to dedicate this article to all of the wonderful people organizing in Detroit including Mike and Jenny who work on the annual Allied Media Conference. Shea Howell, Grace Lee Boggs and the rest of the folks at the Boggs Center. And finally the whole Detroit Summer crew who just released a really dope CD called "Chronicles of a dropout" which you can buy on their website.