[sixties-l] Rebels with a Cause

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Mar 05 2001 - 16:30:16 EST

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        Date: Mon, 05 Mar 2001
        From: portsideMod@netscape.net
    Subject: Rebels with a Cause

      [Max Elbaum, former member of SDS and activist today, is the author
      of Revolution in the Air, a history of the late-1960's radical movements
      (forthcoming from Verso in 2001); Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, a leading
      figure in the women's liberation movement and author of Red Dirt and a
      forthcoming 1960's memoir, Outlaw Woman, teaches Ethnic Studies and
      Women's Studies at California State University Hayward; Elizabeth Martinez,
      a Z columnist who has published six books on social movements, worked on
      SNCC staff and in the Chicano liberation movement in the 1960s; she now
      heads the Institute for MultiRacial Justice.]

    Rebels with a Cause:
    A Documentary on SDS
    By Max Elbaum, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, and Elizabeth Martinez

      Get together 28 articulate, socially committed veterans of the largest
      radical student organization of the 1960s. Get them to talk about their
      experience in that tumultuous decade's battles for social justice. Remind
      people of the brutalities of the Vietnam War and naked Jim-Crow
      racism. Do it all with a passion for social justice combined with solid
      film technique. Manage those things - as does Helen Garvey in Rebels
      with a Cause - and you can make an engaging, often moving film about
      the value of fighting for a better world and defying established authority,
      as well as showing how individuals can act to make a difference.

      But keep things on the level of values, social commitment, and
      fascinating individuals. Avoid the tough questions. In particular, gloss
      over the outpouring of strategic and ideological debate that characterized
      the late 1960s. You end up with a piece that offers only a truncated
      picture of what happens when liberal-minded activists become
      radicalized, that offers little in the way of strategic or intellectual

      Rebels doesn't address questions being asked by those most interested in
      the 1960s, the new generation of activists who are battling globalization,
      prisons vs. schools, the death penalty, sweatshops, sexism, and white
      supremacy. The film is useful and positive in that it beats back today's
      demonization of the 1960s. But we need more than that.

      Rebels tells the story of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Most
      of the film consists of individual veterans recounting their experiences
      on camera. Context is provided by documentary footage with voice-over
      narration showing battles of the 1960s: civil rights protesters attacked by
      Birmingham police water-cannon, Stop the Draft Week in 1967 in
      Oakland, and the 1967 antiwar Pentagon March. (The absence of
      student and youth revolts all over the world, particularly in France and
      Mexico, is inexplicable.)

      The film begins with the Civil Rights movement and highlights its
      influence on the birth and development of SDS. From that movement
      SDS drew its initial vision of "participatory democracy," meaning a
      society or social grouping in which individuals are involved in making
      the decisions that affect their lives. The impact of escalating war in
      Vietnam appropriately dominates the narrative for the 1965-1968 period
      of SDS.

      There is a reasonably serious effort to deal with Black Power and its
      impact on developing a multiracial organization. But the actual character
      of SDS as an overwhelmingly white organization is never explicitly
      addressed. Of the 28 interviewees, two are African American and one
      Latino; this accurately reflects SDS's composition so it was a reasonable
      selection. However, the larger movement of the 1960s was not just more
      multiracial; in many cases it was led by people of color. This point is
      never adequately explored.

      In general, the film's structure of going back and forth between SDS
      specifics and the broader contours of 1960's movements leaves a
      certain unclarity. While acknowledging the foundation stone of the
      Civil Rights movement, the film sometimes gives SDS too much
      credit for actions that had various sponsors. Even within the strictly
      SDS framework, the film gives superficial attention to the effects of
      the women's liberation movement on SDS.

      Probably it is asking too much for a two-hour film to fill all those gaps.
      But a fundamental political problem remains: the film's final section,
      its treatment of the post- 1968 period. That pivotal year began with the
      Vietnamese Tet offensive that brought witness to the lie of U.S.
      triumphalism; saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and
      avowed antiwar presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy; the police
      riot at Chicago's Democratic convention; the work- er-student alliance
      that nearly toppled the French government; the Columbia University
      and Mexican student revolt; and the election of Richard Nixon.

      That was the year when profound radicalization occurred. Thousands
      of activists abandoned the idea of reforming the system and began
      discussing the nature of capitalism, the ideas of Marxism, the role of
      the working class in social change, the links between racism and
      capitalism/imperialism, and the relationship of male supremacy and
      (in 1969) homophobia to capitalism, imperialism, and militarism. That
      was also the period when discussion increased about the repression of
      women and gays within radical movements.

      In 1968 and 1969, still more North American self-determination
      movements exploded^Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian
      American. Radical projects, such as the Venceremos Brigade and the
      National Congress on Latin America (NACLA) were established by SDS
      activists and survive to the present (unlike SDS as an organization). Marxist
      parties or groups and new magazines like Radical America were initiated,
      largely by former SDS members.

      Nineteen sixty-eight was the key time for the film to broaden its brush
      and capture the period in all its complexity, explaining what happened to
      SDS in that context. But exactly at that point the film narrows to the
      issue of the Vietnam war; the only political debate alluded to is about
      violence and how or whether to employ it. The words "capitalism" and
      "imperialism" are never mentioned; Marxism is mentioned only twice
      and only in reference to SDS being infiltrated by Marxist Leninist groups,
      "as it was similarly infiltrated by the FBI."

      The only SDS faction discussed is the Weathermen, which turned to
      bombing and armed propaganda. Even with this focus on those who went
      underground, there is no mention of the SDS figures who joined the
      Black Liberation Army and are now political prisoners: Kathy Boudin,
      Dave Gilbert, Linda Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and Marilyn Buck. We
      never learn at all about the outlook or practical work of the thousands of
      SDS members who neither turned to small-group armed actions or
      dropped out of politics - the ones who threw themselves into community
      and workplace organizing, built the 1970s international solidarity
      movements, and played leading roles in the multi-front resistance to the
    1970s rise of the New Right.

      Sadly, this failure to adequately analyze the post-1968 period is a
      common affliction in treatments of the 1960s. It's the rock
      on which the documentaries Berkeley in the Sixties and Making Sense
      of the Sixties also crashed. All these films take the easy road. The early
      1960s is a deceptively easy and inspirational story to tell, and that is the
      road the films take. So there were hundreds of middle-class white
      people dedicated to peace and equality battling arch reactionaries and
      liars. Good guys and bad guys were clear, with the good guys having
      the moral high ground and remaining untouched by difficult matters of

      But as of 1968 (if not earlier) that vision was no longer sufficient. SDS
      couldn't just say that activists were betrayed by a government that didn't
      live up to its democratic ideals; in reality the entire origin story of U.S.
      democracy was a lie. At the same time, developments in movements of
      peoples of color had made organizing against racism more complex for
      white activists. Unfortunately, these films do not deal with those

      In the case of Rebels with a Cause that limited perspective is linked to a
      generational one. The interviewees and director Garvey all joined SDS
      before 1967, most of them in the early 1960s. No SDS member whose
      main experience was the late 1960s appears on screen. Surely the 1968
      generation would have offered a different view. So the principal message
      of Rebels with a Cause remains "we were the good guys, we acted to
      save the soul of America; we went a little nuts at the end, but have come
      back to our senses and as older folks look back at that period fondly and
      are still doing what we can to advance the cause of justice."

      The radical left in general has not yet developed or united around an in-
      depth evaluation of that difficult post-1968 period. Yet probing that
      period is essential to learning lessons for rebuilding a radical,
      anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist left. Failing to do so surrenders the
    field to a
      sanitized, liberal evaluation of the crucial 1960s.

      A new generation is struggling with how to combat capitalist globalization,
      the links between the prison-industrial complex and corporate power, the
      interconnections between class, race, gender and sexuality. It is also
      struggling with internal weaknesses and organizational questions, from
      sexism to sectarianism.

      Pa'lante, Siempre, Pa'lante is a model documentary concerning the Young
      Lords Party, which spearheaded the early 1970s Puerto Rican radical
      youth movement (SDS leader Juan Gonzales, who also appears in Rebels,
      was a founder of the Young Lords). That film sacrifices nothing in terms
      of the spirit, flavor, the moral high ground, and the drama of the
      movement, but it delves into strategic and ideological questions that
      the Young Lords confronted. By doing so, it sets an example of
      courageously tackling questions that confront organizers and activists
      whether 1960's veterans or younger folks today.

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