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: markrudd.com.
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.