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(en) US, Alt. Media, Return of the campus radicals

Date Fri, 30 Nov 2007 09:33:55 +0200

On a quiet Sunday, Nov. 18, a 19-year-old drummer played a slow requiem march in front of 100 protesters filing from the State Capitol to nearby Dart Auditorium. The marchers, some carrying “stop the war” signs, gathered to remember Ben Miller, a 27-year-old Iraq veteran from Charlotte who took his own life in 2006 after a traumatic term of military duty. ---- The drummer was Dustin Fulton, an MSU sophomore from Laingsburg. Fulton, in addition to being a part-time rock and roller, is also a founding member of the revived Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS*, at MSU, now all of 15 members strong. --- SDS, the student activist organization that swept the nation’s campuses before imploding in factionalism and violence in 1969, re-formed on Martin Luther King Day, 2006, largely in response to the Iraq War, and held its second national conference in Detroit last July.

The fledgling group springs from a deep tangle of roots. On Friday, Nov. 30, the old tree will visit the acorn, as SDS founders and old members gather in East Lansing for some old-fashioned activism (a demonstration in front of the Marine Recruitment Office), speeches, reminiscences and plans for renewal.

As history folds back onto itself, fresh anger will liven up old war stories, white beards and weathered faces. Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, SDS radicals who spent years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, will be there. Bert Garskof, the MSU prof who was once too cool for school, will be there. At least one SDS radical-turned-MSU-trustee will be there. Even Suzy Creamcheese will be there. The reunion is a reminder that SDS, long associated with Ann Arbor, has a thick history with MSU as well.

Pizza and politics
Alan Haber, the first president of SDS and one of Friday’s speakers, is now an Ann Arbor woodworker and self-styled “freelance radical intellectual.” His low-key humor belies the revolutionary sourpuss stereotype. Haber joked that for him, SDS may just as well stand for Survivors (or Seniors) for a Democratic Society. (He gave his woodworking company the tongue-in-cheek name “The Splinter Group.”)

Haber has high hopes that college campuses can re-invigorate the spirit of the 1960s. He talks of “re-membering” SDS — with a hyphen — rather than merely “remembering.”

Haber, still stumping for revolution, said he will bring a message of hope to Friday’s reunion. “I have a winning plan,” he said. “It will show how working people can get a fair chance to create a new government in America.”

Haber saved the specifics for his public remarks, but has repeatedly written that campuses are still crucial incubators of social change.

He speaks from experience. In June 1962, Haber joined fellow activist Tom Hayden and 60 others to author SDS’s founding document, the Port Huron Statement.

The early leadership of SDS was heavily shaded with maize and blue, but something was also afoot down the road, at a school many still considered a “cow college.”

Today, MSU librarian Randy Scott oversees a world-class collection of materials on radicalism. Forty years ago, he was living the life. Scott, from rural Hubbard Lake, was an MSU freshman in 1965. He was one of about 200 high-achieving students then-president John Hannah wooed with a $1,000-a-year scholarship as part of a push to shore up MSU’s academic reputation.

The majority of these students followed the approved track to advanced degrees as professors, researchers, lawyers, journalists and doctors. But a core group bit the hand that fed them and become leaders and activists in burgeoning counterculture organizations such as SDS.

Most of these scholars were housed in the same dormitories, including whole floors in Abbott-Mason and Snyder-Phillips halls.

It was an academic Petri dish. It wasn’t unusual to see Kentucky hill people across the hall from a crown prince of Kuwait. All-night gab sessions fueled by pizza were punctuated with names and terms most students had never heard: Trotsky, Mao, and Lenin.

Hannah and the administration fertilized the budding radicalism by linking the university with the unpopular Vietnam War. Hannah drew upon connections he made with President Eisenhower as assistant secretary of defense to forge a shady relationship with the CIA to deliver services and supplies to the fledgling U.S.-backed regime in Vietnam. MSU also trained security police as part of the MSU Vietnam Project, led by MSU official Wesley Fishel. (Fishel would later be commemorated with his own song, “Superfish-el Man,” written by campus activists to the tune of “Secret Agent Man.”)

A series of campus incidents fueled the flame of protest. In the fall of 1965, MSU graduate student Paul Schiff was refused re-admittance to MSU due to his avowed Communist activities. Advocates of free speech and academic freedom were infuriated.

(The incident also had an unintended outcome. In a dispute over how to handle the Schiff story, four editors left The State News and started The Paper, which would become the house organ for groups such as SDS.)

On April 21, 1965, The New York Times ran a front-page story on MSU’s involvement with the CIA. The article was a response to Robert Scheer’s largely accurate piece in the radical magazine Ramparts, which featured Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of South Vietnam’s bachelor President Ngo Dinh Diem and “first lady” of the U.S.-backed regime, in an MSU cheerleader outfit.

Orange Horse
Scott said most of the radical issues at the time didn’t resonate with him until in the fall of 1966 when his American Thought and Language professor came under fire for his association with a controversial literary publication called Zeitgeist.

Three ATL professors — Kenneth Lawless, Gary Groat and Robert Fogarty —were active in Zeitgeist, which freely printed four-letter words and sexually explicit language. When the profs were fired in 1966 over Zeitgeist’s content, an organization called United Students conducted a “sit-in-sleep-in” in the lobby of Bessey Hall.

The event was named “Orange Horse,” after a poem Lawless wrote for Zeitgeist. It was MSU students’ first taste of activism, and a living billboard to thousands of students streaming in and out of Bessey.

At the same time, a flamboyant and popular assistant professor of psychology named Bert Garskof also ran afoul of the administration. Garskof’s Introduction to Psychology was always over-enrolled, perhaps due to his practice of letting students self-grade. The likeable professor brought issues many students had never considered into the classroom, often using an open mic to discuss racism, sexual liberation and other volatile topics. He was also the faculty adviser for a new organization on campus: SDS.

Garskof, now a professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, will join Haber on the speaker’s podium at Friday’s SDS reunion. Garskof is also a board member of The Foundation for a Democratic Society and a member of The Movement for a Democratic Society.

During his first two years at MSU, Garskof continued to live in Ann Arbor, where he attended University of Michigan.

“I was running in the streets with the SDS,” he said. Prior to time that he had been involved in liberal Democratic politics.

A 4.0 in the Garskof class helped many a student to keep a student draft deferment, increasingly coveted as the war in Vietnam escalated.

Suzy Creamcheese
Issue by issue, The Paper grew more radical (or “trippy,” as one SDS activist put it) and critical of the administration. In 1967, The Paper hosted the campus’ first psychedelic concert. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played at the MSU Union to a backdrop of throbbing light blobs and a haze of marijuana.

At most concerts, Zappa asked a woman to climb on stage to embody the title character of his famous song, “Suzy Creamcheese.” That’s how MSU student and SDS activist Susan Taylor got the nickname that sticks with her to this day. Taylor, now a writer, will be there this weekend.

“I was formed by that time,” she said. When she arrived at MSU in the fall of 1966 she said she had no anti-war sentiment “at all.”

“I found a general malaise on campus,” she said. “I began hanging out with kids from The Paper — they were more interesting.”

By 1968, she was a leader in SDS and also would come to the attention of the authorities.

“We could express our outrage,” she said. “We were one of the forces that helped end the war.”
Taylor was one of the few MSU activists to serve time after being arrested for disorderly conduct at a demonstration.

Zappa’s lyrics about Suzy (“I hear the heat knows where you are” ) took on new meaning when Taylor spent 10 days in jail.

She was not the only one to build a rap sheet résumé.

Hundreds of anti-war demonstrators were arrested during the era, most receiving minor fines. Scott was arrested nine times for varying offenses relating to his radical activities. He once missed a court hearing while on a 28-day road trip to the Panama Canal on a Honda 50 dirt bike.

By spring 1967, staffers of The Paper and other anti-war activists became police targets and many were arrested for possession of drugs. The targets made it easy by sharing lodging in clearly marked houses. One house, called Tuna House after the tuna that hung over the door, made for particularly easy fishing.

Maggie Hackett, an SDS leader and the last editor of The Paper, lived there. She said it was “the best and worst of times.”

“I met so many fabulous people. I met a lot of people I love,” she said.

She said she also saw a lot of pain — suicides, mental illness, imprisonment and violence.
“I don’t think most kids had ever seen people getting bashed in the head,” she said. “It was an eye opener, and it bonded people together.”

When MSU officials dropped an early-‘60s drive to keep controversial speakers off campus, the school became a virtual swinging door of radical speakers. Free, or for a buck or two, students could hear Timothy Leary, Alan Ginsberg, George Lincoln Rockwell or Paul Krassner.

SDS members did not have to reach far for issues to rev them up in 1968, beginning with daily TV doses of the carnage in Vietnam. Most “members” estimate the group was several hundred strong at its peak, although there are no figures, and membership was informal, as was leadership structure.

Drug busts at the end of the fall term 1968 led to a demonstration at the Administration Building. State troopers moved in, arresting 17 students and leaving others with the first taste of their own blood.

Prairie radicals
In summer 1968, MSU hosted the annual SDS convention. Already, cracks were showing in the group’s solidarity. A more ideological group led by former U-M student Bill Ayers and glam radical Bernardine Dorhn moved the SDS leadership to a more violent path. The MSU convention also would be the first appearance of the “Motherfuckers,” anarchists who advocated violent overthrow of the government.

Ayers, who will also speak at Friday’s reunion, admits the radical approach didn’t set well in East Lansing. “MSU-SDS was a young group of prairie radicals – not ocean radicals,” he said.

“They were the children of shop owners, auto workers and farmers. They did not come leading with ideology, but were trying to make sense of a world gone wrong. It made them feel, in a thousand ways, more grounded and real. They were much more rooted in experience.”

Hackett and Taylor are still both a little upset with Ayers. They both believe strongly that Ayers and Dohrn, who are married and are both professors in the Chicago area, were partially responsible for the end of the movement.

“The majority of the SDS were from working class families,” Taylor said. “It’s not fair to history to identify them with bomb throwing, dope-smoking hippies.”

Taylor said Ayers and Dohrn accomplished what the police couldn’t. “I still remember Dorhn’s photograph showing her support of Charles Manson,” she said.

By fall 1968, a larger student member base allowed the SDS to organize more anti-war rallies. It wasn’t unusual for them to show up on the steps of the Student Services Building one day and at the Union the next. They built up cash to for the rallies by running on-campus movies.

In spring 1969, Garskof was fired, triggering further demonstrations and riots. More than 500 students demonstrated at the Administration Building. New MSU President Walter Adams won over the less radical students by leading a march on the State Capitol to protest the war in November 1969.

Many student activists and leaders believe the draft was the primary fuel for the anti-war movement, and blame the relative dearth of interest in the war in Iraq on the absence of one.

Taylor said it wasn’t only the draft that excited students in the 1960s.

“I am a woman —I didn’t have to go,” she said. She blames current apathy on hard-won gains in civil rights, sexual freedom and freedom of speech.

“They have less to fight for,” she said.

Garskof agreed that the draft alone cannot account for the level of student activism seen in the '60s

“It doesn’t account for Paris or any of the other movements across the world,” he said.

Ayers also thinks the draft was crucial in building the counterculture, but he wants to leverage the power of universal service in a different direction: He advocates a compulsory service in areas like education and health care.

“It makes for a more robust and vivid discussion which we could all use,” he said.

The inside woman
By 1970, SDS had all but ceased to exist, replaced by the more violent Weathermen, led by Ayers and Dohrn. After an explosion in New York City in March 1970, at what the media called a bomb-making factory, the Weathermen became the Weather Underground. East Lansing was a common stop; Ayers, Dorhn and other members stayed at safe houses scattered across the city.

The era of big demonstrations at MSU soon passed, but in another sense, SDS is still occupying the Administration Building.

“I’m not embarrassed about my role in MSU-SDS,” MSU Trustee Colleen McNamara said.
McNamara said she keeps a copy of the Ramparts expose with her at trustee meetings as a reminder “that it’s easy to lose track.”

McNamara is going to the reunion, although she will have to work it in with her daughter’s soccer practice.

Reunion organizers are hoping for high attendance, but nobody expects tear gas and FBI informers to complete the picture.

“I hope not,” said reunion organizer and former MSU-SDS activist Bob Meola. “I don’t want to be arrested again.”

Dustin Fulton of the new MSU-SDS plans to hit up the participants for pointers and soak up the seasoned optimism of vets like Garskof, who is still sanguine about the prospects for change.
“I keep thinking there is a lock and if I could find the right key,” he said, “I could turn it and open it, and the answer would be there.”

Reunion Events
Demonstration in front of Marine Officers Recruitment Center, 507 E. Grand River Ave., East Lansing-
2-4 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30
Teach-in at 107 S. Kedzie Hall
Speakers: Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Bert Garskof, Alan Haber and Bob Meola, emcee
7-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30

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