This book is intended to serve as a guide and as an inspiration. It is comprised of my experiences and the reflections and thoughts derived from them. At Montclair State University in 2011-2013, Students for a Democratic Society did some extraordinary things. And if not extraordinary, really cool. And if not really cool, then necessary.
But some of what we did was unnecessary, and some of what we left undone turned out, in retrospect, to have been necessary.
I know full well this book could also be titled, “What we would do differently.” We were a young organization at MSU, and quite young ourselves. We’d never led a mass-oriented student movement, or a large organization. We fell victim, time and again, to many of the same hazards and missteps that have dogged countless radical student groups large and small since time immemorial. Some we overcame, and some we did not.
College is a vast and inspiring world, full of contradictions: as befuddling as it is informative, as analytical to your character (in the sense that it breaks it apart) as much as it synthesizes (or puts together) a “new you.” A college does not stand still or remain simplified; it changes like an organism with a hundred million processes in place, all interacting for the supposed benefit of the whole.
Nor is college isolated. The “ivory towers” from which both our finest and worst professors pontificate are actually very much connected to the high-rise buildings in the downtown area of any given college town, or to the crumbling public housing projects in the “bad part of town,” or to city hall, or to the local correctional facility. Where one population is informed—whether with facts or lies—another is kept ignorant; where one is allowed to flourish, another suffers. Both are part of a seemingly interdependent whole that constitutes the institutions of our society, upon whose perpetuation, in their current form, that society most completely depends.
In many ways, colleges and universities constitute one of these “institutions,” specifically an economic one, in which a tremendous amount of money, resources, and values are concentrated. The students provide and sustain that value, in turn bringing value to the surrounding geographic area and, theoretically, economic value to the society as a whole.
It is in the economic interests of this society, then, that the institution of college remains generally the same, along with the institutions of finance, military might, the criminal justice system, and others. In large part, one of the chief functions of colleges and universities is to train students to apply their minds to the task of either reinforcing those institutions, or having no effect on them whatsoever.
But what if colleges and universities were used primarily to train students to alter, shake up, resist, or even destroy those institutions of society that they viewed as unjust and unacceptable? Being that students are the lifeblood of a huge economic force—the colleges and universities themselves—the potential absolutely exists.
That is why it is spurious to deny or in some way condescend to the power that students possess to not only shake things up but to change them, to not only ride the wave of the college experience but to actually shape that experience and extend it beyond the college halls and walls.
The student movement is also condescended to because it has been fragmented for many years, with only the “glorious” 1960s and 70s to serve as a point of comparison. At that time, there was a heinously destructive and murderous war being fought in which tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were being killed. Nowadays, antiwar ardor has cooled, leaving no single unifying point from which to mount a successful attack, while the U.S. Government protects us from “terror” and drones are used to “keep our men and women in uniform out of harm’s way.”
At that time, there was also the semblance of a fighting labor movement. Social issues, such as abortion rights and marijuana legalization, and identity-based civil rights issues such as gay rights, the need for affirmative action, and immigrant justice have taken center stage, not without good reason, but only as the main things that divide nine-tenths of the populace between “liberal/Democrat” and “conservative/Republican.” Meanwhile, the labor movement is in as bad a shambles as the student movement if not much worse, with the lowest membership levels in a generation, in part due to the destruction of America’s manufacturing base and the dominance of the service industry and so-called “gig economy.” Additionally, while some unions are still doing invaluable work, labor failures on various levels—whether in the form of the Teamsters giving up various protections for workers at UPS, or the AFL-CIO in supporting Hillary Clinton for president—contribute to an overall image of irrelevance and corruption, which has done very little to convince the average American that organized labor is the key to a brighter future.
I mentioned Hillary Clinton, and speaking of presidents, the Millennial generation of which I am just barely (but thankfully) a part, is the most politically alienated generation. Never has there been less representation of the values of young voters among the soon-to-be-collecting-Medicare, mostly-white, white-haired men and women running for or occupying public office. These run-of-the-mill, tie-wearing, TV-news appearing, soundbyte-sloganeering, earpiece-dependent animatronic mannequins inspire us to be politically involved about as much as being told to jump from a plane without a parachute. Their monolithic control of nearly everything can make struggle seem pointless.
And the would-be pundits of the prior generation complain that ours is not politically engaged, that we’re the “Me Generation.” Well, look what you left in place for us to engage with: an economic recession, a weak jobs market, $1 trillion in student debt on our backs, scarce social services, political deadlock, bankers getting away with economic murder, rampant police brutality, a new mass shooting every week, endless and undeclared wars abroad and more on the way, and political parties that block our preferred candidates from being nominated while other candidates become president despite losing the popular vote. It is almost as if you wanted us to be politically disengaged…
These are not stochastic occurrences, meaning they do not appear at random or by accident. They may constitute “the way things are” currently but that doesn’t mean they arose of their own volition. They arose because the current social and economic forces benefit from them and the vast majority of Americans do and say nothing to stop them, whether they approve of killer cops, prison slave labor, civilian bombing in Syria, Yemen, Gaza, or not, or whether they don’t know such things exist. They do nothing, they say nothing, they are complicit, and whether they like it or not, a large percentage of them benefit from the fruits of U.S. world domination, while our working class and poor are lowered to similar (or at least proportional) levels as its victims abroad.
And so do the students. Benefit from it, I mean. What I said regarding the college’s place in a community applies to the community within society. Each institution is interconnected and mostly controlled by the same forces, political or corporate, that prefer society and its institutions remain as they are now. It is not that the students aren’t benefitting economically from violent U.S. domestic and foreign policy in terms of bigger college campuses, more buildings, or maybe a privatized Dunkin Donuts or Chick Fil-A on campus (but why are college textbooks still so expensive?) It is rather that the preservation of those so-called benefits is dependent on maintaining an element of political and ethical detachment from the conditions that create our own trillion-dollar debt, lack of jobs, and political instability. It is this detachment that we know contributes both to our own alienation and sense of powerlessness and, in its own way, to the totally unnecessary and unacceptable level of misery enveloping the earth.
The folks in power are banking on this detachment. They hope that we will choose to remain powerless and divided, and view our “freedom” to remain unaware and un-responsible as a privilege in exchange for allowing various bosses to mercilessly exploit us for 40 years and placing our various dreams and “ideals” by the infinite wayside. Americans indeed have a privilege that much of the rest of the world envies and with good reason. At the same time, the image that they envy—the American dream—is being built on our shoulders, with our futures, and at the expense of our conscience.
Any country where it is impossible to live according to one’s conscience is not free.
These phenomena—war, prison, alienation, exploitation, mass ignorance and fear, freedom, resistance, and liberation—should fall into the purview of any radical student movement. While demonstrating for longer library hours or water-bottle refilling stations is important, valuable, and useful, these larger-scale conditions of injustice are our long-term target. As I discuss the means by which to connect them to your own student movement, I will speak from experience whenever possible. When impossible, I will speak from what I believe would have worked better. I am not an exhaustive expert on student activism; I just know what I have seen and what I have learned from those experiences. If these reflections inspire you, or help you avoid at least one pratfall of being a student activist, I will feel pretty radical about it.