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The Port Huron Statement: Still Radical at 50 (cont’d)

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Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History

From Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History which was produced for the Port Huron Statement Fiftieth Anniversary event at New York University. Text by Paul Buhle, 67, a retired historian living in Madison, Wis., who was spokesperson for the University of Illinois’ SDS chapter in 1966. Art by Gary Dumm, 62, a Cleveland artist and frequent collaborator with the late Harvey Pekar.

Sady Doyle: “A Girl or Two, and Marriage”

“’Students don’t even give a damn about the apathy,’ one has said. Apathy toward apathy begets a privately-constructed universe, a place of systematic study schedules, two nights each week for beer, a girl or two, and early marriage; a framework infused with personality, warmth, and under control, no matter how unsatisfying otherwise.”

When women are mentioned in The Port Huron Statement it’s often in the context of how they relate to men: “two nights each week for beer, a girl or two, and early marriage.” Elsewhere, it mentions the “teachers, housewives, secretaries” and “middle-class women” who comprise substantial parts of the peace movement.

You’ll want to pay attention to those middle-class housewives, however. The silent parties in those early marriages, the female dwellers in the privately-constructed universes of men, are about to get very interesting.

There is an accepted narrative of feminism: First, we were all secretaries and housewives. Then, in 1963, The Feminine Mystique happened. Then a sexual revolution, then Gloria Steinem, and now, here we are. The facts of the matter, of feminism’s slow accumulation from several sources – not least the frustration of women within the student and peace movements, acknowledged to exist, and then written off as someone’s “girl” – are harder to mythologize.

Yet The Port Huron Statement speaks volumes about the world those women lived in, and why it was inevitable that they would stage their own revolutions. The Port Huron Statement is a call for young people to radically interrogate everything they believe about how politics works, about who has value in the social arrangement, about the shape of the world. The “people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort … looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit” were half female. And if you listen, if you look between the lines of The Port Huron Statement, to those half-invisible girls at reception desks and in kitchens and in classrooms, you can sense them looking out at the world, beginning to ask for something new.

Sady Doyle, 29, is an In These Times staff writer and the founder of the anti-sexist blog Tiger Beatdown.

James Thindwa: “Two Words Scare Them to Death”

“Within existing arrangements, the American business community cannot be said to encourage a democratic process nationally. Economic minorities not responsible to a public in any democratic fashion make decisions of a more profound importance than even those made by Congress. “

The genius of the American (and global) business community has been its masterful but devastatingly deceitful conflation of “free enterprise” with democracy. In reality, real democracy imposes constraints, and under optimum conditions threatens the kind of unbridled capitalism imagined by business elites. Hence the attack on labor unions, and environmental, public healthcare and consumer rights advocates, which are seen not as indispensable components to a healthy democracy, but as a subversive force bent on destroying “the American way of life.”

But to maintain their legitimacy, business elites pay lip service to “freedom and democracy” even as those two words scare them to death. For there is no democracy where citizens cannot organize to petition their government to fix the environment, honor human rights, defend civil and voting rights, safeguard women’s self-determination, and protect consumers from harmful commercial products.

Which begs the question: Why is big business bent on destroying the foundation of stability in the United States? Do the business elites really want an America that looks like one of the world’s too many dysfunctional societies, rife with chaos and violence in large part because of a frayed and marginal civil society? How is that in the interest of business, or the country?

James Thindwa, 56, is a labor organizer in Chicago and a member of In These Times’ board of directors.

Micah Uetricht: “Help Unions Overcome”

“Today labor remains the most liberal “mainstream” institution—but often its liberalism represents vestigial commitments self-interestedness, unradicalism. In some measure labor has succumbed to institutionalization, its social idealism waning under the tendencies of bureaucracy, materialism, business ethics. The successes of the last generation perhaps have braked, rather than accelerated labor’s zeal for change.”

The Port Huron Statement’s simultaneous praise and critique of America’s labor movement applies almost word-for-word to the country’s unions 50 years later. Fewer Americans are in unions today, but labor’s legacy of gains for working people should still be celebrated. Unfortunately, organized labor’s tendencies toward “institutionalization” and centralized hierarchical leadership continue to characterize it today.

But while the statement identifies labor’s contemporary problems, it voices an unwillingness to give up on labor despite its structural shortcomings. It recognizes that student radicals can provide a vision for a better society, but organizations like unions are crucial to implementing that vision.

During the past six months, Occupiers have cautiously begun to interact with unions. For many, disillusionment with some unions’ decisions – like their nearly-universal endorsement of President Obama for re-election or the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s lack of support for attempted West Coast blockades in December – has come quickly.

Labor will continue to let Occupiers down, as it disappointed The Port Huron Statement’s authors. But the budding movement shouldn’t ignore the grassroots power of unions’ members – a power exercised last year in Wisconsin, where a union-busting governor now faces a recall election. Instead, Occupiers should help unions overcome what the statement calls “the tendencies of bureaucracy,” and reconnect to labor’s core “social idealism,” which has never truly waned.

Today’s activists must not let frustration turn to cynicism. Occupy can nudge the “most liberal ‘mainstream’ institution” to the left, as long as engagement is seen as a given.

Micah Uetricht, 24, a writer and former In These Times intern, helped organize a union at his first job after college. He is currently an organizer with Arise Chicago Worker Center.

Mickey Flacks: “From the Old to the New Left”

“An unreasoning anti-communism has become a major social problem for those who want to construct a more democratic America. McCarthyism and other forms of exaggerated and conservative anti-communism seriously weaken democratic institutions and spawn movements contrary to the interests of basic freedoms and peace. In such an atmosphere even the most intelligent of Americans fear to join political organizations, sign petitions, speak out on serious issues. Militaristic policies are easily “sold” to a public fearful of a democratic enemy. Political debate is restricted, thought is standardized, action is inhibited by the demands of “unity” and “oneness” in the face of the declared danger. “

When I arrived at the UAW Camp in Port Huron, Mich., I was struck by a few things.

The SDSers spoke a language that was not redolent of the Germanic phrases of classical Marxism, but more like the cadences of the U.S. Constitution.

I was stunned to see Steve Max, whom I knew from my days in the teenage section of the Labor Youth League (LYL – the Communist Party’s youth organization), and had last seen when we spent the summer of 1956 (post-Khruschev’s speech, and for us, post-high school) plotting the dismantling of the teenage section of the LYL. As I thought about it, I realized his – like mine – was a natural progression from those days to this, from the Old to the New Left.

Both Steve and I were “red diaper babies,” and had accepted a Communist Party USA perspective with our mothers’ milk. The events of the mid-1950s drove us from the CP orbit, leaving us a bit high and dry, politically. Many socialist or liberal organizations required their members to sign a non-communist oath, and we certainly did not feel welcomed there. We were non-communists, but weren’t ready to be anti-communists. That road, we believed, led to what later became known as neo-conservativism, and we wanted no part of it, nor of any organization that insisted on its members’ signing an oath. Although SDS, when it was essentially the Socialist Party’s Student League for Industrial Democracy, had had such an oath, part of Port Huron’s task was to eliminate it, and to define its anti anti-communism. Only SDS and Women Strike for Peace had dared to articulate such a position.

I believe that to be one of the New Left’s major historic contributions. Today, should someone in Zucotti Park propose an Occupy Wall Street loyalty oath, they would be met by a displeased sea of downward wagging fingers.

Mickey Flacks, 72, a community activist in Santa Barbara, Calif., attended the SDS meeting in Port Huron, Mich.

Brittany Gault: “The New Plantation”

“Horatio Alger Americans typically believe that the “nonwhites” are being “accepted” and “rising” gradually. They see more Negroes on television and so assume that Negroes are “better off.” They hear the President talking about Negroes and so assume they are politically represented. They are aware of black peoples in the United Nations and so assume that the world is generally moving toward integration. They don’t drive through the South, or through the slum areas of the big cities, so they assume that squalor and naked exploitation are disappearing.”

Our non-white predecessors desired fellowship with white America. To just be acknowledged as human was a “success” that African-Americans struggled to attain. Today, African-Americans are recognized legally as humans; however, institutional discrimination is the new plantation. Even our first African-American president, whose story emulates the “rags to riches” tales of Horatio Alger’s characters, has his authority openly rejected by militant white conservatives.

The myth of “The American Dream” suggests that hard work and sweat equity position all Americans for fame and fortune. It bamboozles all who struggle to participate in this quest for success.

True racial justice occurs when people stand together to reveal and redress the injustices that have allowed the epidemic of mental, social and physical poverty to consume our America. The Occupy movement has provided the space to unmask these inequalities, but we must ensure that it breaks away from “colorblind” ideologies and the myth of a post-racial America. Occupy the Hood Chicago is dedicated to bringing the Occupy message to the 99% in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and to placing them at the center of this new youth-led movement for justice.

Brittney Gault, 26, works with Occupy the Hood Chicago, which fights for social, cultural and economic development in Chicago neighborhoods.

Maria Elena Sifuentes: “We Can Take Power”

“Racial-xenophobia is reflected in the admission of various racial stocks to the country. From the nineteenth century Oriental Exclusion Acts to the most recent up-dating of the Walter-McCarren Immigration Acts the nation has shown a continuous contemptuous regard for ‘nonwhites.’ “

The Port Huron Statement speaks powerfully to how racism permeates American life. As an organizer in one of the most segregated cities in the country, I know that racism is still very much a part of our daily experience. People of color in Chicago – particularly youth – experience racism every day. Yet those of us fighting for social change must remember that oppression is broader and more systemic than a conflict between us and ignorant whites. Racial prejudice is a piece of the puzzle, but the prejudice of the rich against the poor can be seen in emergency rooms and foreclosed homes and underfunded classrooms across the country. Rich sick people are not denied medical care. Rich families are not getting evicted by banks. Rich youth are not struggling to prepare for college.

We the people of color need to join forces. We need to organize and create strategies that help us unite low-income people in our city and across the country so we can take power.

Maria Elena Sifuentes, 48, is a board member of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, in Chicago.

Bill Ayers: “Peril and Possibility

“As students, for a democratic society, we are committed to stimulating this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program is campus and community across the country. If we appear to seek the unattainable, it has been said, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”

My battered but surviving SDS membership card is emblazoned with the lovely opening line from The Port Huron Statement: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort … looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Port Huron can be read in a thousand ways. Its continuing vitality lies in its self-description – “an agenda for a generation” – taking “generation” at its most altruistic: production and reproduction, development and genesis. More call-to-arms than manifesto, more provocation and opening than program or point of arrival, it remains an invitation to create.

“The ’60s” have been commodified and sold back to us as myth and symbol: peak activism, unequaled music, the best sex. Of course it was never as brilliant and ecstatic as some would have it, nor was it the devil’s own workshop, as others insist. Whatever it was, it remains prelude to the necessary changes and fundamental upheavals just ahead. The self-appointed board members of “The ’60s Incorporated,” looking nostalgically at a ship that’s already left the shore, are mostly missing the point. We’re still living, still of this generation, now facing unprecedented challenges. Enter Occupy!

Once again more labor than delivery, here is a movement-in-the-making, shifting the frame and connecting the issues, expanding the public square, and defining a moment. Like every movement before it, Occupy was impossible before it happened, and inevitable the day after. Power responded in familiar fashion. First dismissing, then mocking, scolding and co-opting, and finally beating the shit out of participants – repeating as necessary.

Revolution is still possible, but barbarism is possible as well. In this time of peril and possibility, rising expectations and new beginnings, when hope and history once again rhyme, it’s absolutely urgent that we embrace the spirit embodied in the final words of The Port Huron Statement: “If we appear to seek the unattainable … we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” Occupy the future!

Bill Ayers, 67, a retired education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a founder and former leader of the Weather Underground.

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