A note on the 50th Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society:
As the American-made catastrophe in Viet Nam was reaching full ignition in the mid 60’s, I was arrested with thirty-seven other students and one marvelous professor for occupying the Ann Arbor draft board in a militant, non-violent sit-in. Earlier I’d returned to school from the Merchant Marines and attended the first-ever teach-in against the war; I’d Paul Potter, then president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), end a talk on the necessity of agitation by issuing a challenge that echoes in my head to this day: “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.” I was twenty years old, and I signed up on the spot.
I still have my battered membership card emblazoned with the lovely opening line from the Port Huron Statement: We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. That, too, still seems entirely relevant to me.
Fifty years on, Port Huron can be read in a thousand ways, but for me its vitality lies in its self-description—“an agenda for a generation”—taking “generation” at its broadest and most generous: production and reproduction, development and genesis. In that sense it’s much more a call-to-arms than a manifesto, more provocation than program, more opening than point of arrival. The Port Huron Statement is an invitation to create.
I had it in my pocket when I entered the draft board, my first defiant act of civil disobedience. The draft board was an ordinary office with files and clerks and standard procedures, but to us it was an odious and available target: the placid accomplice to war, issuing its toxic warrants to kill and to die in plain manila envelopes, bit by bit and day by day.
I’d grown up in a place of prosperity and privilege —at least modest comfort—sleeping the deep American sleep of denial, a kind of willful, anesthetized ignorance about anything that might exist beyond our neatly trimmed hedges. But I was housed now at the University of Michigan, the Black Freedom Movement was beckoning, war was looming, and the Port Huron Statement was providing necessary insight and analysis. I blinked my eyes open, and awakened to a world in flames.
The war clarified everything: the US stood on the wrong side of an exploding world revolution; the hopes and dreams of people everywhere—for independence and self-determination, for dignity and justice—were being contested in every corner of every continent, and the US was the command center of the counter-revolution.
“Which side are you on?” began a traditional freedom song. I joined the Movement—I wanted to end a war, and in time the system that made war and racism so inevitable.
When I was arrested that first time, the war was broadly accepted and supported—sampling strategy and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement, we’d raised the banner of refusal, noisily urging all within our reach to join in, and we had the active support of hundreds of other students. But we had opposition from many more: 70% of Americans supported the US invasion then, and even on campus we were massively outnumbered.
So we got busy and invented a thousand different ways to organize and educate. Being arrested and jailed became a commonplace, demonstrations and theatre, but there was more: “Vietnam Summer,” was a concerted effort to knock on every door in working-class neighborhoods across America and meet people face-to-face and engage them in a dialogue about peace. I was in Detroit for two summers, these front door encounters the most difficult and exhilarating thing I’d ever done; the more I tried to teach others, the more I learned—about Viet Nam and white supremacy, about the consequences of war and empire, about politics and possibility, and about myself. By 1968 a majority of the American people had come to oppose the war, and we were certain that our efforts and our sacrifices had paid off.
Another key to the altered reality was the impact of the Freedom Movement: SNCC had issued a statement saying that “No Black man should go 10,000 miles away and fight for a so-called freedom he doesn’t enjoy in Mississippi,” and Muhammad Ali had resisted the draft, proclaiming, “I won’t fight in the white man’s army.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. deplored the war as illegal and immoral, and with some anguish denounced the government and called on America to get on the right side of the world revolution, the country shook to its core.
The decisive last straw was veterans returning home and telling the plain, unvarnished and recognizable truth about all they had seen and been asked to do, exposing the reality of aggression and officially sanctioned terror. They joined the peace movement in droves, bringing renewed urgency and militancy. When veterans lined up and threw their medals down the Capitol steps, it seemed certain the war would end. The US had been defeated militarily, and the government found itself isolated in the world and in profound conflict with its own people.
President Johnson stepped aside at the end of March, 1968, and we went ecstatic: The war is over! A million deaths, true and terrible, but at last it would end.
We didn’t stay happy for long: five days after Johnson’s announcement, Martin Luther King was assassinated; a couple of months later, Robert Kennedy was murdered; and a few months further along the new administration expanded and extended the war indefinitely. (At an organizing meeting recently for the NATO/G8 protests in Chicago, an older comrade cautioned, “Let’s not make the mistakes of 1968…Remember Tom Hayden and Company got Nixon elected.” Far-fetched, of course, but that easy belief—agitation is the generator of all reaction—is never without friends.)
And so the war did not end: every week six thousand people were murdered in Southeast Asia, and we could not find a way to end it. Every week—six thousand lives wasted. We had tried everything, nothing was adequate, and there was no end in sight. The political class had no answers to the wide expression of popular will, and we could not stop the war—the crisis of democracy was a disaster for the peace movement as well. The anti-war forces splintered—some people (including one of my brothers) joined the Democratic Party in order to build a peace wing within it; others took off to Europe or Africa; one of my brothers deserted the army and fled; some built rural communes to escape the madness, and others went into the factories in the industrial heartland to build a workers’ party to. I and a few others created a clandestine force that would, we hoped, survive the impending —we were sure—American fascism, and that could fight the war-makers by other means. None of us can claim much, for none of us ended the war; each choice carried its own contradictions.
Steven Colbert, the faux right wing commentator from Comedy Central, announced during the 2008 presidential race that the “Word” for the evening would be “The Sixties.” The bit began with a clip of Barack Obama at a press conference saying “Can’t we just get over the 60s?” Cut to Colbert scolding angrily, “No Senator, we can’t just get over the 60s. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
“The 60’s,” thoroughly commodified and sold back to us as myth and symbol, has been till now a brake on activists. But no one actually lives by decades—no one said on December 31, 1969, “Oh, shit, it’s almost over!” It was neither as brilliant and ecstatic as some would have it, nor the devil’s own workshop as others insist, and whatever it was, it remains prelude to the necessary changes and fundamental upheavals just ahead. We’re still living, still of this generation, and all the self-appointed Board Members of “The Sixties Inc.” looking nostalgically at a ship that’s already left the shore are missing the point.
Occupy, once again more invitation and opening than point of arrival, is a search for the new by actors becoming self-conscious subjects in history. More than a single campaign, Occupy is a movement-in-the-making. And like every movement before it, Occupy was impossible before it happened, and inevitable the day after it occurred. The response of power followed a well-worn pattern: they ignored it and then mocked it, they tried to co-opt it and they beat the shit out of it—repeating as necessary.
But Occupy has already won: it’s shifted the frame and connected the issues, opened a space and defined a moment, expanded the public square and created new hope based in a simple self-evident truth: the future is unknown and entirely unknowable. History is always in the making, and we are—each of us—works-in-progress acting largely in the dark with our limited consciousness and our contingent capacities. We may not be able to will a movement into being, but neither can we sit idly by waiting for the movement to spring full-blown, as from the head of Zeus. Occupy agitates for democracy and egalitarianism now, presses for human rights, creates peace and learns to build a new society through self-transformations and limited everyday struggles. No one can predict with any certainty what will come, but surely what we are able to do now matters.
Revolution is possible, democracy and socialism, possible, but barbarism is possible as well. We live leaning forward, pessimists of the head, optimists of the heart; the tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent thrust—and the rhythm of activism is the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the world as we find it; we are astonished by the beauty and the suffering all around us; we dive into the wreckage and struggle toward a distant and indistinct shore; we doubt that our efforts make enough difference, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more. If we never doubt we get lost in self-righteousness and political narcissism—been there. If we only doubt we are lost in cynicism and despair.
In this time of rising expectations and new beginnings it is even more pressing that we live out the urgency embodied in the closing words of the Port Huron Statement: If we appear to seek the unattainable…we do so to avoid the unimaginable.