Alan Haber on the origins of SDS, similarities to the Occupy movement, Ann Arbor at the height of McCarthyism, and why he never built that second bomb

    I spent yesterday morning with my friend Jeff, at the home of Alan Haber, the first president of Students for Democratic Society (SDS). We talked about Ann Arbor at the height of McCarthyism, the circumstances which gave rise to SDS, the drafting of the Port Huron Statement 50 years ago, and the opportunity that may exist today to bridge the gap between the SDS and Occupy. Following are several videos, each of which is preceded by my rambling, stream of consciousness notes concerning what’s covered.

    VIDEO ONE: Ann Arbor in the 1950s, McCarthyism, and the creation of the U-M Political Issues Club

    Haber talks of moving to Ann Arbor from East Lansing at six weeks old, entering U-M in 1954, and turning to activism his freshman year, in the wake of U-M’s firing of three faculty members (Chandler Davis, Mark Nickerson, and Clement Markert) who refused to cooperate with the House Unamerican Activities Committee. As he states, “McCarthyism ruled” at the time, and the left was underground. At the behest of older students, he formed a political discussion group on campus, called the Political Issues Club (PIC). (Philosophy professor Arnold Kaufman was the group’s faculty advisor. He taught the course “Communism, Fascism and Democracy,” and was the person responsible, according to Haber, for SDS’s promotion of “participatory democracy” as a central tenent.) PIC would eventually evolved into the U-M chapter of SDS in 1959. [note: We also chat about a far right professor from that period who I happen to have studied with, by the name of Stephen Tonsor.] The PIC’s offices were next to those of the Inter-Cooperative Council, and that’s where, according to Haber, he learned how to operate a mimeograph machine, and build a sustainable organization. Surprisingly, Haber mentions that he wasn’t harassed by University officials. They left him alone, he says, as he was local, and his father was a well respected Economics professor at the University. He says that he had, “lots of cover.” Haber’s father, who would eventually become the Dean of LSA at U-M, worked in the FDR White House, and helped draft the Social Security Act. (Haber’s father also, as the Director of Welfare in Michigan, in the mid-30′s, made the decision to provide welfare payments to the families of the individuals involved in the historic Flint Sit-Down Strike, allowing the strike to continue, when it otherwise would have been starved out of existence.) Haber’s father, while supportive of his son’s activities, felt as though change could be made within the system, and encouraged his son to work within the existing power structure… At this point, the discussion turns to militance, the effectiveness of violence, and his eventual turn away from SDS, due to what he perceived as the organization’s lack of strategic long-term planning. By ’69, he said, “the movement was not interested in long-term thinking.” They weren’t interested in community development, poverty, and education, he said. They wanted immediate action. And that’s when he decided to become a woodworker, forming a collective called The Splinter Group in Berkley, California.

    VIDEO TWO: On bomb-building, and the launching of SDS

    By the end of the 60′s it was lunacy, according to Haber. No one knew how to act. People felt as though they had to do something. They couldn’t just sit by and do nothing, with the insanity of the Vietnam war becoming more and more apparent. Some people got militant… Haber, when he first went to college, studied chemistry. And, at some point, he experimented with bomb-making. He went to Barton Hills golf corse, at midnight, one night, and set off a pipe bomb in an oak tree. (He was testing a 20-minute fuse that he’d developed.) According to Haber, he looked at the tree, which he’d blown to pieces, and decided that it wasn’t a direction in which he was willing to go. He says that he was moved by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and their focus on “Soul power.” We also discuss armed self-defense. He says that he had guns, but sent them off to Cuba or somewhere, when he decided that he didn’t want to have them anymore. Violence has no role, in his opinion. I ask if MLK would have been as successful without Malcolm X,who preached armed self-defense, and he reminds me that Malcolm never blew anything up, and that, later in life, the two were actually converging… We discuss the black bloc. He acknowledges the need to ventilate rage, but feels that it’s dysfunctional in a tactical sense. We need to make friends, he says, and you can’t do that when you break a window, and someone else has to come in and clean it up. On the other hand, he says, he appreciates Derrick Jensen. “Revolution without executions,” he says, is his philosophy… We discuss the Weather Underground. He says some of it appeals to his “Yippie sensibilities.” We discuss Abbie Hoffman, and the necessity of humor. It’s good to shame our opponents. Mooning them is part of the game, he says. We need to get the spectators to smile. “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” He says he’s got a cup that says that in the other room, and we laugh… Was SDS successful? Were there missed opportunities? Are there lessons that could be applied toward the Occupy movement? “We didn’t study enough,” he says. We could have done better, Haber says of SDS, but we’re in the cultural memory of the world, and that’s no small task. We got “participatory democracy” into the vernacular. And we modeled standing up to the machine… It would have happened anyhow, though, he says… We then talk about his getting fired from League for Industrial Democracy (LID). LID had hired him to be their Student Field Secretary, after he’d worked successfully with them to pull off an event in Ann Arbor on discrimination in the North. The event brought together labor, church groups, SNCC, SDS and others in 1960… LID wanted to incorporate the Political Issues Club into their student group – the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). Haber says, however, that he and others didn’t like the idea. Instead, SDS was born, with LID as the primary sponsor. He dropped out of school and went to New York, when he worked for LID. At the same time, he was elected as the first president of SDS. “I worked for the boss, and I was president of the people.” LID ended up firing him twice. They didn’t like that he opened SDS up to everyone, including the Stalinists, and wasn’t terribly interested in collecting dues. Their model, he says, was one of a traditional trade union, whereas he was more interested in mobilizing community. This led to conflicts. He got fired, but stayed in his office, refusing to leave… “If there were dues, I’d eat,” he said. (He’d open the organization’s mail, while he was living in the office.)

    VIDEO THREE: Manifestos, speaker bans at U-M, etc…

    I ask how palpable the feeling was on U-M’s campus in the late-50′s that they were living in a time of historic change. Most people, he said, were oblivious to it, just living their lives. There were some, though, in the class of ’59, who came to college “ready to go.” They gravitated toward the PIC and the conference on discrimination in the North that he was planning… At this same time, he ran for Student Government Council at U-M, with a platform that, among other things, challenged the University’s ban on unapproved speakers. (Speakers had to be pre-approved by a committee.) He had tried to get Paul Robeson to sing on campus, for instance, and the University wouldn’t approve it. Finally, he got Robeson a show at a Baptist church in Detroit. In the process of trying to get him a venue in Ann Arbor, Haber received a letter on Nazi stationary, warning him about bringing a “nigger commie” into the City. It was signed by the German American Bund of Ann Arbor… We discuss the New SDS, which launched in 2006, and the young people of today. Is there reason to be optimistic? Is there empathy among today’s students? EMU is more receptive, he says. The median family income of U-M students is $180,000, he notes. “These are rich kids.” But, consciousness is wider now. Even if people are robot-like, just in college to climb the corporate ladder, they know what’s going on. They know that the cherry crops are dying, and polar bears are drowning. If there was a chance for a change, they’d go for it. We’re connected and diverse, and that presents an opportunity. There’s a “capacity of consciousness” but, until there’s a vision, people will follow the “existing opportunity structure”… I ask about Occupy, noting that, unlike SDS, the movement doesn’t have visible leaders, and, thus far, has resisted codifying their beliefs. Haber corrects me. SDS took three years to get to the point where they could draft the Port Huron Statement, he says. Their second year, they had a conference, and the third year they were putting pen to paper. “Occupy is in its infancy.” They’re having a meeting in Philadelphia at the end of June, though. They could be following the same trajectory. And, we could do the same thing here, in Ypsi/Arbor. We could start asking the questions. What do we believe? What’s the new paradigm that’s arising? We have global communications now, and, for the first time ever, four generations of activists, working together. There is a lot of opportunity…

    There’s more, but it will have to wait until tomorrow. These videos are taking several hours each to download… Here’s a teaser, though. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the possibility of a local gathering to draft a manifesto for our generation, in the spirit of the Port Huron Statement.

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