Stumbling into the wars resisters office, I found Josh Russell and Madeline Gardner wearing headsets and pacing. It was a week before the convention and they were having yet another discussion as to whether or not the planning committee had the authority to decide whether or not they had the right to make any decisions. In the words of Lisa Fithian, we were processing ourselves to death.
The new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) seem to take their namesake seriously. Ideals put forth in the Port Huron statement such as participatory democracy are not only discussed, but are executed throughout the organization. Members are encouraged to step up if they don’t normally speak and step back if they’re monopolizing the decisionmaking process. In planning for the convention, this approach presented a number a problems. Going into the event, SDS had no vision, no structure, and no way of holding members accountable. Those who held positions on the planning committee were self-motivated volunteers acting without oversight. Knowing that this model wasn’t all that democratic, the committee stressed that the convention would help to change the dynamic. In fact, so much emphasis was placed on the convention, that it became a catch all for any problem in the organization. If it were broken, then the convention would fix it.
I arrived in Detroit unsure of what would actually be accomplished. Members and affiliates from across the country came in anticipation of what had been termed the Constitutional Convention. From the East Coast came council structure proposals, from the Midwest a secretarial approach, and from the Salish Sea came less structured, direct- democracy proposals. It was a make or break moment for the organization, everything was on the table.
In the halls of Wayne State University we gathered together, unsure of one another’s motives. Feeling out the competition, we looked for ideological underpinnings. In the middle of a discussion on vision, the auditorium erupted into song as one side began singing Solidarity Forever while the other, holding little red books, changed the tune. After the first round of discussions, it seemed unlikely that we would be able to compromise. We feared that the organization could not withstand sectarian divides. Slowly, it became evident that these concerns were shared. Regardless of where we were coming from, everyone seemed to agree that SDS was greater than the sum of its parts. Members began deliberating on the true meaning of democracy. What did it mean to have a say in the decisions that affect our lives? What did it mean to participate? How would we go about creating a structure? These questions plagued us as we grappled with the task at hand.
Conversations ran late and sleepless nights ensued, yet I had never felt so awake. These were not apathetic individuals, but a group of committed revolutionaries. By the end of the weekend we were working together on proposals, debating, and making compromises. This resulted in two major milestones. A vision proposal put forth a provisional document to be re-worked over the course of the next year, where we would clarify who we were as an organization. This would then be finalized at the next convention. Also, and most importantly, we came to a compromise on the structure of the organization. The less structured proposals and council proposals were merged and re-submitted as a final document. When Monday morning approached the vote was cast. SDS had a structure! For a moment the infighting had subsided, we had put the organization before ourselves. The process had actually worked in our favor. The seemingly endless conference calls and discussions had allowed for us to listen to one another.
Michael Albert had been present throughout the convention, observing the mini dramas, conclusions, and breakthroughs. In a closing reflection he addressed the new SDS. He stated, “The answer isn’t war,” the audience chuckled, “but it also isn’t ignoring that these divisions exist. You should know each other’s views.”
He seemed genuinely impressed by what had taken place, and couldn’t help but compare the current movement to that of his youth. He continued, “Somehow, you have imbibed, from somewhere, a degree of insight that we lacked at the end of our activism, forget the beginning. That’s quite an accomplishment.”