A Long Historical Note for the Organizers of the #OccupyBoston Student Summit
The winter has led to many new developments for the Occupy movement - some good, some bad. One positive thing is the fire the movement has lit under left-wing student organizing. And one interesting result of that new fire has been the call for an Occupy Boston Student Summit this weekend. Which looks like it could potentially result in the formation of a significant network of radical students with chapters all over the Northeast.
As it happens, I have some experience with significant networks of radical students with chapters all over the Northeast. From 1988-1989, I was a field organizer for the Northeast Student Action Network - one of the two large scale efforts to form a multi-campus, multi-issue, left-wing student organization to emerge out of the ashes of the National Student Convention ‘88, a 1000-student confab in February 1988 that had basically aimed to restart the 1960s Students for a Democratic Society. The other was the Student Action Union. It was no accident that two organizations emerged from the convention since the organizations themselves emerged from the two major factions that led the convention organizing.
The first faction, led by Rutgers University students, were largely independent socialists with strong connections to the New York City left - and to former Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. They called the convention, and did the bulk of the work on the ground to make it happen.
The second faction, led by MIT students and … well … me (having been expelled from Boston University for anti-apartheid organizing a year previous), were largely anarchists and other anti-authoritarians with connections to the Boston left - including the former independent SDS leader George Katsiaficas (still in the area and teaching at Wentworth Institute) who had just written a book called “The Imagination of the New Left” that had a big influence on us.
We organized the Northeast for the convention effort and ultimately attracted students from dozens of colleges around this region (and nationally through connections in anarchist circles). Almost half the convention attendees were brought in through our work. I was a field organizer for that effort as well and did my share of the far-flung campus outreach. Travelling the country speaking personally at campus after campus after campus after campus - though my primary focus was the Northeast region.
The clash of these two factions, starting three months before the convention and exacerbated by maneuvering from other factions - including the Progressive Student Network from the Midwest (which ran left-wing student organizing at most major Midwestern schools and was led by post-Maoists from the group that became the Freedom Road Socialist Party in that period), the DC Student Committee Against Apartheid and Racism (a black led student group with a Civil Rights Movement orientation with chapters on a dozen campuses throughout the Washington, DC area), and the Love and Rage Federation (a continental anarchist network with a stronghold and significant youth and student base in the Twin Cities) - led to the event’s rather spectacular and public failure.
One wag, reporting in The Nation, said that the convention relived the entire 1960s “from the Port Huron Statement to the 1969 SDS Convention in three days”.
However, both major factions formed new regionally based radical student networks within a couple of months of the convention's failure.
For the purposes of my offering a modicum of advice to the Occupy Boston Student Summit, the experience of the Northeast Student Action Network is the most relevant - since I was one of its main organizers, and since its anti-authoritarian politics are the direct antecedent of the Occupy movement.
NSAN held three major “gatherings” after its Spring 1988 formation: April 1988 at MIT, October 1988 at the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT, and April 1989 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. A gathering was exactly the same thing as today’s general assembly, incidentally.
The first gathering drew about 400 students from over a dozen colleges. The second drew about 250 students from 35 colleges and high schools (smaller numbers but many more campus representatives). The third drew only about 75 students from about a dozen colleges. By Fall 1989, NSAN was basically defunct - although many of its leaders, myself included, threw ourselves into an attempt to form a youth wing of the then-new US branch of the Green Party called the Youth Greens. Which also failed and was subsumed into the more successful (and more reformist) Student Environmental Action Coalition.
Now I’m writing this editorial to make one point. Which I will lead into with a single question, and here it is: Why did NSAN contract from 35 college and high school chapters around New England representing over 2000 left-wing student activists in October 1988 to only around a dozen chapters by the following April and dissolve completely by 1990?
After all the very hard work of pulling together a big organizing crew up in Burlington, VT to run a significant conference on a shoestring budget and get functioning organizing operations up at dozens of colleges in the era just before email was commonly available and widely used by even most students - and the web was still a few years away - how did everything collapse so quickly?
Well there are two answers to that question - beyond the rather facile truism that maybe “conditions weren’t right for the success of our organization”. The first is the fact that we ran all our meetings by consensus process. The second was the fact that we tried to create a complicated internal structure for NSAN before we had really done much political work together and built trust.
Now the whole debate about consensus process is too thorny to address in a single editorial; so let’s just stick a pin in that one for the time being.
But let’s take a look at our bureaucratic impulse and how it ripped the heart out of the Northeast Student Action Network before it ever really got off the ground.
The main manifestation of our “little organizational problem” was the system of Oppressed Group and Oppressor Group Caucuses that we adopted for use at our Fall 1988 gathering from other radical student organizations - a decision based in large part on my observation of that caucus system at a major Progressive Student Network conference at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in the summer of 1987 during the run-up to the National Student Convention ‘88.
The idea behind these caucuses was to ensure that our nascent radical student network was not dominated by white straight male organizers - as had been the case for … gee, I dunno, nearly every political organization of pretty much every stripe throughout all of American history up to the 1960s or so. And that was a worthy goal, which is one of the reasons why I suggested using PSN’s caucus model when my colleagues and I were planning the Fall 1988 NSAN Gathering.
Regular Open Media Boston viewers may smirk at this point at the obvious truth that I - a white straight male organizer - should be a prime mover in implementing such a caucus system into a major conference I was organizing that would diminish the possibility that white straight males like myself would have a lot of power at said conference and in the organization it was trying to build. But I was indeed doing so. And I was completely in earnest.
You have to understand that this was the 1980s. The Age of Postmodernism. Everything was being deconstructed, questioned and scrutinized. Especially political systems, and most especially political systems in erstwhile liberatory movements like the one I was involved with - which were, after all, much easier to change than governments and multinational corporations.
Also, young activists in that period were being trained by the people that had led the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and what we then knew as the Gay Rights Movement (which would soon become known as the LGBT Movement, or the Queer Liberation Movement).
So white straight male or not, I did what I had been trained to do and what the zeitgeist within the American left of my period said was the right thing to do, and I pushed for the caucus system.
And what was this system, you might ask?
Well the idea was that we would have a number of caucus meetings broken down by the major oppressions of race, sex and gender. Meaning, a People of Color Caucus. A Women’s Caucus. And a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Caucus (the various flavors of transsexuals and genderqueers not quite being on the movement’s radar yet at that point). These Oppressed Group caucuses were mandated to discuss the position of their identity groups in NSAN, and devise ways to ensure they had equal access to the reins of power in the organization - including mandatory quotas on all working groups and committees. They would also lead external organizing efforts aimed at members of their identity group, and liaise with local, regional and national organizations of their identity group as needed.
While those caucuses (or “caucii” as we jokingly called them) were meeting at the gathering, the Oppressor Group caucuses would also meet. Meaning, a White Caucus. A Men’s Caucus. And a Straight Caucus. These groups were essentially meant to do Maoist style (literally, since the idea for this kind of caucus structure came out of a Maoist-influenced student group) “crit/self-crit” sessions and root out their own assumed bad behavior in NSAN and in their daily lives. Beyond that function, they didn’t have any mandate - because who the hell would want something like a "White Guy Caucus" holding organizational power in a left-wing organization? It just didn’t seem appropriate to have people that weren’t in Oppressed Group Caucuses do nothing, or alternatively, do political work in the absence of everyone else.
Now this system, obvious warts and all, might have been less of a disaster in practice, had we not made one major error … putting the caucuses at the top of the conference agenda.
We did that for a number of reasons - largely to show our commitment to building a political organization that reflected our society, and to cultivating people from traditionally marginalized groups for leadership. And, yes, we recognized the need for a certain kind of visionary leadership even though we were anarchists … although that was a big topic of debate.
But in practice, putting the caucuses first sealed the fate of the Fall 1988 NSAN Gathering, and ultimately killed the organization entirely.
Think about it for a minute before reading on. How do you think things went down?
If you’re a person of reasonable intelligence, the problem of putting the caucuses first should be obvious.
Hundreds of student activists arrived on the ultra-beautiful campus of the University of Vermont, all excited to build a revolutionary student movement and get the Reagan era well behind us.
And then - before any unity was established, before any esprit de corps was instilled, before any common program was agreed upon, before any of these many student activists even did a single action of any kind together - we had everybody split up into groups by identity, and encouraged them to think about the many misdeeds they had experienced at the hands of oppressors or (one supposes) committed as oppressors.
How could that possibly have been a good idea? Especially when class - the 900 pound gorilla of an oppression faced by at least 99 percent of the population - was never brought up even once. In what was supposed to be a left-wing organization.
And there were three sessions of these caucuses, as I said. One for each ("official") major oppression. Race, sex, and gender. This went on for most of the first day of the weekend conference.
While the Oppressed Group caucuses ran on, the three Oppressor Group caucuses drew pretty much the same white straight males three times in a row. By the middle of the Male Caucus, most of us had nothing more to say. Like, ok, we suck. Now what?
Some guys - including a couple of key NSAN organizers - were so frustrated by the process that they left the conference at that point. Presaging the general exodus during the final disastrous plenary session the next day when some Oppressed Caucus leaders - egged on by members of an off-campus group that weren’t students, shouldn’t have been there, and didn’t give a damn about the success or failure of NSAN - basically put a bullet in the head of the organization and left it for dead.
The specific nature of the bullet is not really germane to this discussion. Suffice to say that the Oppressed Caucus leaders felt the entire effort was so terminally shot through with racism, sexism, and heterosexism that it should be strangled in its proverbial cradle.
Many of us disagreed. But the very strict consensus process that we saddled ourselves with ensured that there was no possible way to overcome the blocks that stopped us from even moving past the reportbacks from the Oppressed Caucuses. The working groups tasked with coming up with a preliminary organizational program for the coming year never even got to speak. Person after person, delegation after delegation, got up and left the hours long final plenary. Until there were just a dozen of us left on the floor of a basement corridor in the UVM student union that convened ourselves as the “Panarchy Caucus” and committed ourselves to hitting each and every attendee in the final plenary - including ourselves - upside the head with cast iron frying pans. And that, as they say, was that.
So that’s a bit of history from almost a quarter century ago. In that time - aside from the aforementioned Student Action Union, and the militant wing of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, another attempt to restart Students for a Democratic Society (original name and all), and the student front groups of various Marxist-Leninist organizations - no major multi-issue left-wing student organization has emerged on the regional or national scene. Certainly not an independent one.
Now we arrive at the present day. The Occupy movement came strong out of the gate last fall. Students got active in numbers at many US campuses, and here in Boston - a major university town - I see the call for the Occupy Boston Student Summit on Facebook.
Great. I’m thrilled. And doubly thrilled that one item on the agenda is to start learning the history of past student movements. I’ve got a lot of information to impart on that score for anyone that’s interested to listen - if that wasn’t clear from all of the verbiage above - and lots of friends with even more potentially useful information. And amusingly, I’m back in grad school; so I’m actually a student again. I could even attend the student summit as a student, though I am hesitant to do so in any formal capacity for several good reasons.
But when I read the Facebook page for the summit in detail, what is the first issue I see listed for discussion?
“Confronting systemic oppression within the Occupy movement.”
And I’m like “where have I heard this before?”
That one statement is worrying to me. Both because the issue in question is the first one mentioned, and because it tells me that summit organizers could inadvertently be preparing the same kind of circular firing squad that so effectively killed a number of major left-wing organizing efforts that I’ve participated in.
And I worry that they’re forgetting a key point.
That the job of the Occupy movement is to spread word of the big problems with capitalism, and the need to address massive inequalities that economic system has created in our society. Before our environment is so destroyed that there is no longer any possibility of a political solution to humanity’s problems.
The job of the Occupy movement is not to focus on building complicated organizations with lots of caucuses and committees scrapping over tiny bits of power, rampant process junkieism, and an inward-looking focus. It needs to build streamlined outward-looking network organizations that push the ideas above at the speed of thought, and inspire people to take action wherever they are.
So what do I think an Occupy student summit needs to focus on? Spreading the word about the Occupy movement to fellow students on every campus in its region. Getting people excited about making social change and pulling them into the movement at large.
And putting class - the one system of oppression that was generally never discussed in radical student organizations between the 1970s and last fall - front and center.
If things go well with that program, then maybe Occupy students can gradually build long-lasting radical student organizations in the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity that will ensure their survival.
If this weekend’s summit starts off with a focus on Occupy’s big ticket items, and goes light on the process stuff, I think that will all happen naturally.
But if the summit starts off by dividing attendees up into identity categories, sidelining class, and starting to hunt for bad behavior within its own ranks before anybody really does anything, then the whole effort might collapse as quickly as NSAN did all those years ago.
And that would be a real shame.
Here’s hoping that today’s student radicals learn from my generation’s mistakes.
Good luck to all. If you need to reach me, you can drop me a line - as ever - at info [at] openmediaboston [dot] org.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston