>Opinionated Ruminations Prompted by the SLATE Reunion.
>Mike Miller. May, 2000
>In Fall, 1957, at the University of California at Berkeley, five students
>ran on a common platform for student government office. They called
>themselves "a slate of candidates" and they wanted an "end to sand-box
>politics" in the Associated Students of the University of California. The
>slate doubled the electorate, and its best known candidate almost won. In
>Winter of that year, the candidates and activists who supported them gathered
>to form a permanent student organization which took the form of a campus
>political party. Because "the slate" had become so well known, they called
>the organization "SLATE," but it wasn't an acronym. The next year, when
>Chancellor Clark Kerr threw the organization off campus (it was subsequently
>reinstated), a humorous acronym emerged: "Student League Accused of Trying
>to Exist." SLATE indeed did exist--until 1965. It was the first clear break
>from the silent generation and the impact of McCarthyism on college campuses.
>Its action precipitated the formation of similar organizations on campuses
>across the country. SLATE held a reunion in 1984, and a recent reunion in
>May, 2000. Mike Miller organized the first slate of candidates and was the
>organization's founding chairman.
>What We Did.
> These are some thoughts about what I think we did right in the period
>1957 - 1964, and what ultimately went wrong, beginning in late 1964/early
>1965, punctuated by the 1968 and 1972 elections of Richard Nixon and
>culminating in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. I'll leave the telling of
>what we did wrong for another time.
> Though there were deep moral commitments underlying everything we
> did, we
>were not simply about moral witness. We were political. We cared about
>effectiveness, about how to get from where we were to where we wanted to be.
>We measured the consequences of our actions, and made calculations
>accordingly. We understood that freedom, equality and justice without power
>didn't have much of a chance.
> We developed a broadly-based agenda which was expressed in the phrase
>"lowest significant common denominator." While we argued about issues, we
>sought to maintain a fragile unity that encompassed traditional liberals,
>students just awakening to the connection between morality and politics and
>people from various strands of the left. We had both an "issues orientation"
>and a core set of democratic values.
> We believed that fundamental to our task was making a break from "the
>silent generation" that preceded us. We wanted to make politics legitimate.
> We resisted efforts to de-legitimize the politics we were
> pursuing. Such
>efforts were undertaken by the University Administration -- and every time
>they tried to weaken us they ended up making us stronger. Similar efforts
>were made by cold-war liberals, specifically in the formation of the campus
>Americans for Democratic Action -- and they were defeated there when Bob Bell
>was elected its president. Those on the left who wanted to impose
>anti-Communist litmus tests for participation in "legitimate" politics were
>rebuffed as well.
>Among the things we did right.
> We sought to win the support of majorities on the campus which was our
>base. We wed intimate knowledge of student government and the day-to-day
>concerns of students with expressions of commitment on the great issues of
>the day. We ran candidates for student government office, vastly increased
>the electorate, challenged the political hegemony of our "ruling class"--the
>fraternity/sorority crowd--and won elections.
> We were multi-issue in character. We could appeal to different
>constituencies because our platform reflected the priority concerns of
>different segments of the student body. We built a base among independents,
>commuters, graduate students, the coops, university dorms, the campus
>religious foundations (the "Y's," Hillel, Newman, Westminister, Wesley,
>Plymouth and others), and even in some fraternities and sororities.
> We were the incubator for numerous single-issue groups and campaigns.
>SLATE trained people who provided leadership in other groups and,
>reciprocally, these single issue groups served to bring students into the
>wider politics of the student movement. It was largely through these groups
>that SLATE people made forays off campus into farm labor, capital punishment,
>war and peace, civil rights, civil liberties and other issues.
> Our action stimulated action by larger social groupings who had also
>silenced by the cold-war consensus and remnants of the McCarthy era. While
>we were not as successful in this regard as we may have hoped, we made a
>difference in this area.
> We were an ally of newly emerging social movements, union organizing,
>community organizing and issue politics. The Berkeley student movement was
>an early supporter of: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, farm
>worker union organizing efforts by the AFL-CIO, Packinghouse Workers and
>Cesar Chavez' National Farm Workers Association, community organizing in San
>Francisco, Oakland and Richmond, the campaign against capital punishment, vari
>ous manifestations of the peace movement including opposition to American
>ventures in Cuba and Chile, and more.
> While rejecting Cold War politics and the anti-Stalinist Stalinism of
>some of our cohorts, we spoke up for justice and democracy wherever struggles
>were undertaken in their behalf--Po Prusto in Poland and the Hungarian
>Revolution being examples -- and we opposed A- and H-bomb testing by both
>blocs in the Cold War. When issues like the World Youth Festival threatened
>to divide us we found a way to keep principles intact and ourselves together.
> We made imaginative use of tactics, but didn't fall into the trap of
>guerrilla theater which measures its success by whether or not it makes the
>evening TV news or by how much it disrupts buisness as usual, whatever the
>policy results or the effect on public opinion.
> We built a sense of community among us, bonds attested to by our
>in being together 40 years later, and by the friendships among us.
> It should be noted that the two major strands of the student movement,
>expressed in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as "direct
>action" and " community organizing," also made their appearance at Berkeley.
>Beginning in 1960, if not even before, the student movement included some
>who wanted to speak truth to power and others who thought truth needed to be
>combined with power to speak to power. Until late 1964/early 1965, these
>activities were synergistic; they strengthened one another. Mel's sit-ins
>contributed to the defeat of Harold Dobbs, owner of Mel's and Republican candi
>date for Mayor of San Francisco. The Sheraton-Palace sit-ins brought the
>(African American) Baptist Ministers Union and Longshore/Warehouse Union into
>support of militant direct action. Mississippi Summer Project volunteers
>became core leaders of the Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio among them.
>Action supporting farm workers exposed the university's agriculture
>department as a servant of agribusiness. Black and white sociology, city
>planning and political science students from UC were deeply involved in
>efforts to stop urban renewal in San Francisco and their experience led them
>to raise questions about how these subjects were taught. Blocking that gates
>at San Quentin to protest the Caryl Chessman execution recruited volunteers
>who sought to build majority support in the state to eliminate capital
>punishment. Students would drop out for a year-or-so of "off campus"
>activity, then return to UC. We related these issues to what we thought the
>university ought to be, a center for independent and moral thinking, and
>counterposed that to Clark Kerr's vision of the un iversity as handmaiden
>of corporate capitalism.
> We were unable to prevent or undo five things:
> first, the cold-war liberal foreign policy consensus;
> second, the social democrat welfare state with its attendant paternalism
>and categorical division of social problems so they fit distantly determined
>and bureaucratically designed social programs;
> third, the limitation of domestic reform to whatever was acceptable to
> fourth, a misunderstanding of democracy that emphasized the dangers of
>popular participation and the importance of elites, and;
> fifth, the selection of movement leaders by media and foundations
>resulting in media stars, niche organizations and fragmented action rather
>than accountabillity to democratically constituted, multi-issue,
> In foreign policy, these failures were demonstrated by our inability to
>stop, among other things, CIA sponsored coups, intervention in Cuba,
>destabilization of governments that didn't fit cold war policy aims and the
>continuing build-up of the War in Vietnam.
> Domestically, urban renewal, red-lining of inner cities, destruction of
>urban mass transit systems and their replacement with highways and
>automobiles, defeat of the Freedom Democratic Party's challenge to unseat the
>racist Democrats from Mississippi, failure of the McGovern campaign in 1972,
>job training programs for jobs that didn't exist, the fate of full employment
>legislation--passed by Congress, signed by the President and never enforced,
>seduction of many student movement veterans by various government sponsored
>citizen participation and community control programs (as if power could be
>given rather than asserted and claimed), and we could name more.
> In communities across the country, broadly-based organizing efforts were
>weakened and undone by so-called "community based nonprofits." Worthy of
>much more discussion, I'll limit myself here to noting that most "NGOs" on
>the international scene and domestic "community-based organizations" share
>the following characteristics: self-perpetuating boards of directors,
>dependency on foundation, government and/or corporate money, the narrowest of
>agendas and generally no membership that can democratically affect the policy
>or program of the organization.
> Suspicion of participatory democracy or the active engagement of
>in politics led many sociologists and pundits to conclude that declining
>voter participation was a sign of political health rather than social
>alienation. The argument was that in stable times when people are satisfied
>they don't become politically engaged . The high degree of politicization
>that preceded Nazi power in Germany was used to demonstrate the point.
> Self-anointed "leaders" learned to use media-attracting tactics to
>the smoke and mirrors illusion that they represented somebody. And the
>media, especially TV, sought the most outrageous 30 second sound-bite to
>dramatize stories for the evening news. Organizations that really
>represented somebody were relegagted to public interest announcements and
>letters to the editor.
> In each of these we ultimatedly manifested our weakness rather than
>strength. We, along with our allies, were never able to build serious
>institutional power that could negotiate with and transform dominant power.
> Contrary to Chairman Mao, we were dealing with no mere paper
> tiger. That
>we were unable to undo the most powerful corporate and state apparatus ever
>to be seen in history is not something for which we should blame ourselves.
>Perhaps there was nothing that could have been done to change the course of
>events. But we should examine and seek to understand what the student
>movement, and those activities into which we went from the student movement,
>might have done differently.
>The Opportunity That Was There.
> It should be noted that a great deal of off campus activity was bubbling
>beneath the surface of the cold-war liberal, welfare state, democracy-as-the-c
>ompetition of elites, corporate capitalism consensus.
> There were liberal Democrats who took exception to this consensus, built
>a grass-roots movement and won local, state and Congressional elections.
>They, along with the portion of the student movement that took an electoral
>turn, were later the core of the 1972 McGovern nomination.
> While the Washington DC-based Civil Rights Leadership Conference was
>generally in the pocket of Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey Democrats, there were
>four voices on it that were regularly in dissent: the Student Nonviolent
>coordinating Committee (SNCC) was most vigorous among them, but it was often
>joined by the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) , Dr. Martin Luther King and
>the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Council
>of Churches (NCC). Across the country in African-American and Latino
>communities, grass roots organizations, as well as NAACP branches, worked
>outside the Leadership Conference's Washington beltway civil rights framework.
> While George Meany and Lane Kirkland presided over the American
>Federation of Labor/Congress on Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), there were
>industrial unions within it, independents on the outside, state and local
>labor councils and hundreds if not thousands of locals across the country
>that were deep critics of the consensus.
> Community organizing against corporate sponsored reform popped up
>wherever local communities were being destroyed by something called
>"progress," which generally took the form of urban renewal, public
>underwriting of downtown convention centers and sports arenas, highway
>construction, and other activities which undermined central cities and
>created metropolitan sprawl. Reflecting on the impoverishment and
>destruction of urban neighborhoods and cities, as well as their recognition
>of racism as a central social problem, Catholic and Mainline Protestant
>churches, at local, judicatory and denominational levels, became substantial
>financial sponsors of the work of Saul Alinsky and other community organizers.
> By many accounts, beginning in 1973 the real income of most Americans
>began to decline. Hidden by two and three jobs in a single household, the
>reality was even worse than the income data suggested. Growing disparity in
>income and wealth made the U.S. one of the most economically inequitable
>societies of the world.
> During this period distrust of major American institutions grew to
>extraordinary proportions. Electoral participation rates continued to
>decline. Trust in American political and economic elites plummeted. Of our
>politicians, it was widely believed that they were in it for their own
>aggrandizement. Of our corporate executives, it was widely believed that the
>only thing guiding their decisions was the desire to make a buck. Public
>opinion polls indicated that close to a majority of Americans supported
>worker ownership. The end of the Cold War, defeat in Vietnam and increasing
>exposure of the CIA led more and more Americans to question our foreign policy
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