Interviews: Mark Rudd

From 1965 to 1968, Mark Rudd was a student activist and organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Columbia University.  In the Spring of 1968, he was one of the leaders of the student occupation of five buildings in protest of the university’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and its racism toward African American residents in a nearby neighborhood.  He went on to become a full time organizer for SDS and helped to found the militant Weatherman faction that formed the Weather Underground.  This movement had as its goal “the violent overthrow of the government of the United States in solidarity with the struggle of the people of the world.”  From 1970 to 1977, Rudd was a fugitive from the federal government for alleged bombing and conspiracy.  Eventually, the charges against him were dropped and he emerged from the underground to become a community organizer on issues of Native American land rights, environmental justice, and the US military industrial complex.  He can be reached at his website:


What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?

In answering this question I’ll also add in a couple twists to the story:  not only how I discovered organizing, but also what turned me away from organizing and then how I came back to it.

When I was 18, a freshman at Columbia University in 1965, I fell in with a group of radical students which later coalesced into the SDS chapter.  Many of these kids (my point of view fifty years later) were “red diaper babies,” meaning children of communists, socialists, or labor organizers, which I was not.  They had grown up in the civil rights or labor movements, so they knew that the job was to grow the movement.  Every single one of our meetings, for years on end, every discussion, was about how best to “build the movement,” ie., to make it grow in numbers and understanding.

During this period, from 1965 to 1968,  the war in Vietnam escalated and also Black Power became dominant in what had formerly been called the Civil Rights Movement.  In trying to understand the war, we became anti-imperialist, meaning that we saw the underlying system of which the war was a manifestation; we also wanted to support, as white people who understood Black Power, the black radicals’ demands for self-determination and freedom.  So we “organized,” meaning we tried to figure out strategies to help our movement grow.  Our main strategy was to attack the administration of Columbia as being part of the war system and institutionally racist.  We thought this would create a personal connection to the issues for other students.  Our tactics were educational activities like teach-ins, setting up information tables, debates, talking with other students informally, petitions, demonstrations, confrontations, ultimately sit-ins and building occupations.  I’ve told this story in detail in the first part of my book, “Underground:  My Life in SDS and Weatherman.”


Here’s the amazing part:  it worked!  By 1968, responding to the murder of Martin Luther King and to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the entire university became embroiled in a strike and rebellion, April-May, 1968.  It was the largest student action up to that point and became a model for campus rebellions.

Out of this success, however, came the seeds of defeat.  Those of us who had been pushing for Columbia SDS to be more aggressive and confrontational concluded that that was the key to our success.  We conveniently forgot about the years of organizing that went into the April rebellion.  Many of us were adherents of the cult of Che Guevara, in which exemplary action was valued way above the hard work of organizing.  At one point I told people “Organizing is another word for going slow.”

I became one of the founders of the Weatherman faction in SDS and subsequently the Weather Underground.  Both of these developments were utter failures from the standpoint of building the movement.  In fact, by December, 1969, SDS was dead, a victim of our own arrogance in thinking that the time was right for armed struggle.  Years later I analyzed the problem as substituting self-expression for strategic organizing.  Bombs and fighting cops may show how much people believe in the rightness of the cause (self-expression) but they do not cause people to join the movement and become participants themselves.  Self-expression as a tactic in a given struggle, such as committing civil disobedience and going to jail, may in fact be useful, but it can’t substitute for a strategy to achieve goals.

After seven and a half years as a federal fugitive, I turned myself in in 1977, eager to rejoin the above-ground mass movement.  I became active in opposing uranium mining and nuclear waste dumping in New Mexico.  In the ensuing decades I worked in the movement for nuclear disarmament, the Central American solidarity movement, the environmental and union movements, and now the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  But it was only in 2003, after the Weather Underground documentary appeared, that I hit on an analysis of my old bad choices–that I had substituted self-expression for movement building.  It’s that insight that I’ve been trying to communicate since then.  That and the need for absolute nonviolence.


Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?


The first hero who comes to mind is Miss Ella Jo Baker, Executive Director of Martin Luther King’s organization, SCLC and founding mother of SNCC.  For the last few years I’ve pursued a personal study project to learn about the history of the civil rights movement, especially SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Mississippi, 1961-1965.  It was Miss Baker who both laid a basis for and guided the successful organizing in Mississippi, the most racist and terroristic place in the whole deep South.  She introduced the students of SNCC to the principles of horizontal organizing, the development of leadership from below, the growth of a radical democratic vision.

I would refer people to two books for starters:  one is Charles M. Payne’s “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle,” which tells the story of HOW SNCC pulled off its successful organizing in Mississippi.  The book reads like a manual for how to organize.  The second is a biography of Miss Baker, Barbara Ransby’s “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement:  A Radical Democratic Vision.”

One more set of heroes:  All the soldiers who organized against the Vietnam War within the military.  They made the war machine unusable.  It took great courage.


What gives you hope for the future?

Probably the fact that I’ve lived through successful mass movements–the anti-Vietnam War movement; the women’s movement; the gay rights movement; the anti-nuclear movement; currently the movement to stop global warming and for global climate justice.  Mass movements happen; they change society if not politics.


What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

The one that comes immediately to mind is how deeply depoliticized young people have become.  Perhaps for good reason:  Who in their right mind would want to be a politician or join the ugly Democratic Party? Yet if we’re going to deal with public or government policy, which is everywhere affecting the people and the planet, we’ve therefore got to deal with politics.  There’s no way around this.

I always find it upsetting to hear people say “Nothing anyone does can make a difference.”  Fifty years ago no one ever said that.  We had the example of the civil rights movement, which everyone could see was making a difference.  Then the anti-war movement actually helped end the war.  The problem, as I see it, is that people don’t know about the mass movements of the 20th century plus don’t know about the organizing tradition that built these movements.  They did NOT happen spontaneously.

Perhaps if people studied history more, they might see a way out.

Of course the times changed over the last five decades, and with them technology and people’s outlooks.  All of these present challenges, but the really great thing is that there are thousands of people working on how to organize now.  It just hasn’t coalesced into mass movements yet.  Stay tuned.


In your view, was the Occupy movement an important moment in the struggle for social justice?

How could this be denied?  The Occupy movement succeeded in doing what the union movement had been unable to do for decades:  raise the question of income and political inequality to the level of mainstream discussion.  I still think it was some sort of miracle that took place in those few weeks in October 2011.  I can’t explain why it happened.

Most of the liberal-progressive-left, however, were hoping that Occupy would spark a left-wing Tea Party movement, which would go toward power.  That was out of the question, primarily because the dominant ideology of Occupy was anarchism, and anarchists don’t participate in elections.  They want power to dissolve.  (I’m not an anarchist, you might deduce).

Also, most of the Occupy people I’ve spoken with had no strategic goals other than raising the discussion.  Perhaps that was enough, and they did accomplish their goal.  Very few people I talked with considered a mass movement involving millions as a goal or even asked the question of power.  I’m not sure how they thought public policy was going to change, outside of some sort of magic.  It was a classic case of substituting a tactic for strategy.  So when the tactic of sleeping in public spaces was destroyed by brutal police attack, that was mostly the end.  A few elements of Occupy have continued to organize, such as Occupy Sandy in NYC, the Rolling Jubilee anti-foreclosure movement, and the movement against student debt, recognizing the need for building a movement. 


What do you think might be a way for younger generations to work in solidarity with organizers of your generation?

The question can also be reversed:  what can organizers of my generation do to work in solidarity with younger organizers?  We old people need to stop lecturing and saying, in effect, “We tried that and it didn’t work.”  I’m guilty of this a lot, in my impatience to help younger organizers avoid the mistakes we fell for.  Such as armed struggle and self-expression politics.  The more we can just offer ourselves as allies to people organizing, the more we can build relationships and learn from each other.

A relationship between generations of organizers has to include constant discussion of the differences and similarities between fifty years ago and now.  I suspect that deep down most young people feel that the technology and culture of this country have changed so drastically that nothing from the past is relevant.  Sort of the way I felt looking at World War I while I was growing up.  But that can’t be true.  Conversely, the technology and the conditions of life have changed enormously.  For example, student debt didn’t exist 50 years ago.  The cost of higher education, especially at the state schools, but including private universities, was nothing as compared to now.  And the means of communication and therefore organizing, are totally different.

But some lessons still carry over.


What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?

Along with the two I mentioned above, I’d also recommend Tom Hayden’s 2009 memoir, “The Long Sixties.”  In it he lays out a theory of how mass movements grow, become victorious, and decline, then uses his 50 years experience as an organizer to explicate the theory.  And Jonathan Schell’s “The Unconquerable World,” which shows that force, coercive power, is ultimately weaker than the people’s consensual power.  This is the reason why so many nonviolent movements have triumphed in the latter part of the 20th century.  Schell’s book is a history of those movements but takes us into the 21st century by advocating for international law as an alternative to the war system which rules the planet.


Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?

Along with “The Weather Underground.” a 2004 documentary in which I’m featured, I always recommend that people view “Sir, No Sir!,” the story of the anti-war movement within the military during Vietnam.  Most people have no idea of how widespread the movement was among soldiers and how they organized.  Hundreds of thousands were involved.

A more recent movie that I recommend is “How to Survive a Plague,” which is the story of NY ACT-UP in the 80’s, when people were fighting for AIDS treatment.  It shows actual footage of meetings and debates.

Anything from two PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize,” about the Civil Rights Movement, and “A Force More Powerful,” a history of nonviolent strategy in the 20th century.

Interviews: Leah Bolger

leah-bolger-570x350Leah Bolger joined the U.S. Navy in 1980 and received her commission as an Ensign from Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI. Her duty stations included such disparate locations as Iceland, Bermuda, Japan and Tunisia, as well as stateside tours in Texas, Rhode Island and Virginia. She received her master’s degree in national security and strategic affairs from the Naval War College, and served as a Military Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Strategic Studies Program. She retired from active duty service in July 2000 at the rank of Commander.  She went on to form the Veterans for Peace Linus Pauling Chapter in Corvallis, Oregon, and served as its President before she went on to become the national president of Veterans for Peace.  She currently serves as the Secretary of Defense for the Green Party Shadow Cabinet, the Chair of the Coordinating Committee and the Outreach Committee of World Beyond War, is the Chair of the Veterans For Peace working group on Drones, and is the Coordinator for the Drones Quilt Project

What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?

Organizing for me has been a natural outgrowth of being an activist.  Most people find themselves drawn into activism gradually, however I had a pivotal experience which turned me from “concerned citizen” into “activist.”  I went to Eugene, Oregon to see an exhibit created by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) called “Eyes Wide Open.”  The exhibit consisted of rows and rows of army boots, lined up as if in formation, or as tombstones at Arlington.  Attached to the boots were dog tags with the name of a solider who had died in Iraq.  Sometimes there were other items like photos, notes, or other mementos with the boots.  In another part of the exhibit there were piles of civilian shoes…women’s shoes, men’s sandals, small children’s shoes–meant to represent the Iraqis who had been killed.  This exhibit had a real impact on me.  I had a visceral reaction to it, like a punch in the gut, and I felt compelled to start doing something about the Iraq war.  That’s when I became an activist.  I formed a chapter of Veterans For Peace, and took off from there–networking with other peace activists, working on different campaigns and issues, lobbying, attending conferences, protesting, committing acts of civil resistance, speaking, traveling, and connecting with others.  I think that 20 years of being a military officer may have something to do with my tendency towards leadership and management.  “Organizing” just seems to fit in my comfort zone, though I usually identify myself as an “activist” rather than an “organizer.

How do you distinguish between activism and organizing, then?

I would say that all organizing  is activism, but the reverse is not true.  There are many forms of activism:  writing letters, speaking, demonstrating, lobbying, Civil Resistance…but they are not necessarily organizing.  An individual can write a letter to the editor and call that an action of activism, however an organizer would coordinate many people writing letters at the same time.  Organizing is about getting others on the same page acting in coordination.  Organizers coalesce the power and potential of the activists.

Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?

I would like to mention three women who are not only heroes to me, but who I would also consider as mentors:  Kathy Kelly, Medea Benjamin and Ann Wright.

Kathy Kelly has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, has deliberately lived below the poverty line in order to resist paying war taxes, and traveled extensively to Iraq in defiance of U.S. sanctions.  She has been arrested dozens of times and served jail time as a result of her actions in opposition  to war and social injustice.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of Global Exchange and Code Pink.  Through creative, gutsy and media-savvy actions, she has brought attention to countless social justice issues, and Code Pink has become a recognized force to be reckoned in D.C.  She has also traveled extensively, building relationships with women all over the world, working in collaboration to resist war and oppression.

Ann Wright retired from the U.S. Army, then went on to serve 16 years as a Foreign Service Officer before she resigned from the State Department in protest just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Today Ann continuously travels the world speaking, protesting, and organizing against war, militarism and injustice.  She was a passenger on the Challenger I, part of the Gaza Flotilla which was attacked by the Israeli Defense Force, resulting in the deaths of 10 unarmed civilians.  What these three women have in common is selfless devotion to justice and peace, and a real commitment to the difficult work they have chosen.


What gives you hope for the future?

Sadly, I frequently feel very pessimistic about the future.  The problems we face are so big and numerous, and it is difficult to see where we are making any significant progress.   However, we have to continue trying, and I am heartened to realize how many others are out there working as hard or harder than I am.


What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

The biggest problem in my mind, is the disparity between the rich and everyone else that has led to a government which could be described as an oligarchy or plutocracy.  Money controls and drives everything.  This is why you have children going to bed hungry, but weapons contractors making record profits.


What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?

A People’s History of the U.S., by Howard Zinn, Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, many Chomsky books.


Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?

I highly recommend “A Force More Powerful,” which chronicles the history of strategic nonviolent conflict throughout the world; also “Inequality for All,” a recent film featuring Robert Reich.  Non-documentaries would include “Gandhi,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Dead Man Walking,” and “Erin Brockovich.”


Remembering the Love of Occupy

Documents in the New York Times have now revealed extensive surveillance of the Occupy movement using resource networks that were originally created by Homeland Security for preventing terrorist attacks.  Local authorities in several major cities were regularly sharing information on individual activists and speculating about the nature of demonstrations and protests.

Seems like a good time to remember some of the inspiration that brought thousands of people all across the nation to participate in Occupy events.  Bill Ritchey from Occupy Portland was one of the Anarres Project’s first speakers and he has shared with us his talk.  In it, he notes the frustrations that fed into the creation of Occupy and the love that kept it going before it was repressed (probably using information gathered in these networks).

Bill Ritchey

“Thinking outside the tent.” Bill Ritchey

Greeting sisters and brothers, and thanks for inviting me to speak. My name is Bill Ritchey , I’m from Occupy Portland.
Occupy is vast, it contains a huge amount of social and political ideas and expressions. I’m only going to speak from my experience about what I think we did that had the most important.

Everything that occupy did was amplified greatly by the spectacle of many brave people who were physically occupying public space. This was our first creative act. Because of the spectacle many people learned new ideas and are still learning.

Occupy showed Love, that was the 1st thing that it did. We led with Love. That was New, Bold and Creative. And Occupy offered Hope, in a time when Hope was the disappointing taste from a broken campaign promise.

Occupy began making history not by demanding but by defining the ideas of the left and the right. We spoke to peoples’ problems as Leftists in a country that was in an economic depression designed by the Right. Occupy spoke of left ideas like sharing, medicare, public transportation, the right to safe housing, socialism, anarchism, democracy, basic universal rights , food stamps, student debt reduction and so on as GOOD things. And Occupy spoke of right wing ideas such as privatization of public property, bank bail outs, wars for resource stealing, austerity, lowering taxes on the wealthy, private health insurance, cutting social services for everyone and so on as BAD ideas. Occupy spoke with a Class Consciousness and related it to specific ideas which immediately undid some of the ruling class’s lies about economy and gave more people an ethical framework paired to political ideas, we gave people a political vocabulary. We attracted the widest range of people by speaking this way, the young to the old, political activists to people who have never thought about politics, from the homeless to the rich.

Occupy flipped the story about the economic depression being the cause of a liberal president to it being the design of corporations & government corrupted by money and capitalism.

Its important to remember the political and economic world that Occupy was born into. The Designed economic decline of 30 years had reached to the middle class- suddenly this group was hurting-they couldn’t get jobs, they were losing their homes, often due to medical bills, they had student loans they couldn’t pay, their pensions vanished in a planned market crash. the list goes on…private charities and food panties were running out of funds, sick veterans were returning from two wars of imperialism, states were running out of food stamp funds, soup kitchens were even being overwhelmed with college educated people out of work, homelessness was on the rise, more families were living in cars, the whole country felt bleak. Poverty had spread from the bottom up to the educated middle class just as it had done during the great depression of the 20’s and 30’s. This was the USA that Occupy was born into and arguably it was these economic conditions that caused Occupy to be born in the first place.

Prior to Occupy there was little vocal challenge to the ruling class’ explanation of the rapidly deteriorating lifestyle of most people in the USA. As the economy became worse more middle class began to suffer and began to wonder why. It didn’t seem that they’d done anything wrong, they had played by the rules as seen on tv and magazines, they didn’t feel like they were to blame for their troubles. The corporate media, began to supply answers- its the fault of liberal school teachers, of liberal elites, of postal workers, of bus drivers, of people with public pensions, people who borrowed too much and people on food stamps.

The ruling class used the Tea Party to further shift the cause from capitalism. Its important to remember how the Tea Party only repeated the message of the ruling class. Occupy was also populist but it blamed the ruling class and capitalism for the problems.

The presence of a group like the Tea Party is predictable during a depression. During the 1930’s during that depression which was also planned and also global, Back then the RCA radio corporation had a right wing religious- radio show on several times a week which promoted rightwing solutions to the economic depression and cautioned against left wing solutions such as government job stimulation. Governmental job stimulation worked so well in the 30’s that we built the economy and infrastructure of the country w/ it until the 1980’s. How it worked is simple, some level of government agrees to buy something like a public school or repair a road and capitalists hire people and buy materials and do it. The jobs stimulate the economy and the government eventually gets back the cost of the project in taxes.

So the historical context of Occupy leads from one depression to the next. The country that most of us grew up in is a product of the response to the depression of the 1930’s. It is currently the leftwing gains made since then that is keeping the current depression from being worse. We still have some of the safety net such as unemployment insurance, minimum wage, overtime pay, social security, job related health insurance, medicaid and medicare, and pensions. These things didn’t exist before the left fought and won them since the 1930’s and and many people are not living on the street now, are still alive. because of these things. It is also this social safety net, that the ruling class wants to take from us now under the name of austerity.

. The fact that the ruling class is presently using the legal means of the corrupt government is using to shut down many portions of our public services is a signal that the economic situation isn’t on the verge of changing for the better, were it so the government would be undertaking a massive jobs stimulation program like building nation- wide solar and wind energy capabilities or dispensing w/ the fight over healthcare reform and just convert the medicaid- medicare system to full healthcare for all. Notice that during this current government shutdown the army isnt shut, the irs isn’t shut- the government entire state didn’t go away like in the libertarian dream of small government, we just now have more of a government by and for the rich.
Given facts like these its clear Occupy had the correct analysis about who is to blame. But that Occupy wasn’t the magic wand that would instantly reverse the situation.

Occupy held open meetings in public places, to practice democracy one has to practice democracy.
We invited everyone to come into the public parks to decide together what their local problems were and how to solve them. We modeled a democracy for everyone right outside their own front door. This was probably the most creative thing that we did and the least understood by people who didn’t see it up close. Occupy took over public spaces and rather then make demands which would have excluded people who didn’t agree with certain points, we held public meetings. This is traditional anarchist practice, using the affinity group as a basis for democracy but with Occupy doing it in more than 500 cities at the same time, most of it available live on the internet it was the biggest real time example of the networked affinity method of democracy that the world has ever seen. . The fact that we did this proved that people can meet democratically across wide areas at once. For most Occupiers it was the fact of a General assembly that made an Occupy, not the fact of occupying public space.

Occupy modeled a community that was self governing and that could provide social services to the most needy and with little resources. Our camps had everything a community needed, media, counseling,food, security, first aide, entertainment libraries, massage, art spaces, child care sanitation… we had all of that, in most Occupies the people who desperately needed social services overwhelmed the resources of the camps which were also under siege by the police. They were in fact disasters but they showed that people could build communities on their own which under better circumstances would have continued to function and they unfortunately demonstrated how many people in our society don’t receive enough love and material attention which is further proof that the capitalist system of resource distribution isn’t humane.

Occupy demonstrated solidarity by working with other groups and other occupies. In actions and issues such as public transportation, school board and postal cut backs and blocking the ports, solidarity always produced better results than what would have been expected by small groups working alone. Again, the concept of solidarity isn’t new but Occupy demonstrated its effectiveness to many people who had never experienced it. Occupy’s power came from its physical solidarity.

Occupy asked the question: is consumerism the problem? whether capitalist, reformist or socialist, isn’t our 1st world lifestyle unsustainable and unfair to the rest of the world? This question wasn’t something that the media picked up on. But it was a constant debate within Occupy.

occupy showed love
we clarified the ideas of the left and right in ethical terms
we switched the blame for our many problems back to capitalism
we showed people how they could have direct democracy wherever they are
and we taught a more democratic way of deciding things.
we modeled diy city planning and social services
solidarity works.
is the 1st world lifestyle sustainable and ethical.?

But what next?
Many people who dream of radical social change study the history of John Brown.
In 1859, the anti- slavery proponent, John Brown lead an unsuccessful raid on a military base hoping it would cause a massive armed slave revolt. He was captured and tried. The mass uprising didn’t happen. But the Civil War began and slavery was ended, but John Brown didn’t know because he had been executed six years before.

Is it worth it to sit in parks and try to build a model for a new democracy?
history happens whether you pay attention to it or not, whether you try to influence it or not. Everything that is good in this world was made by people learning and struggling. Even if you do try to make the world a better place you will probably not know precisely or even if your actions have any effect whatsoever. But everything that is good in this world was created by people just like us, people who took the time from their lives to try to make things better. Nothing was given to us, it took work and it was the only thing that has been proven to work.

Thank You.

The Future of Sex Work

Is sex work a legitimate form of employment or is it inherently a form of oppression?    What is involved in extending human rights protection to sex workers?

On May 28th at 4pm in Milam 319, we will explore these questions.   Our panel discussion seeks to examine sex work through the lens of social justice and discuss the intersection of feminist critique with the growing global sex worker’s rights movement.