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Students for a Democratic Society 16th Annual Convention say, ‘Not another step back!’

By Chrisley Carpio

Participants in the Kent, Ohio SDS convention.

Kent, OH – On October 15 and 16, members of the New Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) from across the United States gathered for their annual national convention at Kent State, Ohio.

Roughly 90 students from SDS chapters and affiliates listened to speakers and gave workshops, summing up their victories and losses over the past year. The convention was united under the slogan of, “Not Another Step Back!” in reference to the year-long fight to keep rights such as the right to an abortion, but also to win even more. They featured national SDS’ commitments to, “Fight for Black lives, defend Roe v. Wade, and stop homophobic and transphobic attacks.”

The location was particularly poignant to New SDS, as local students and faculty membered the four students who were killed on campus by the National Guard in 1970 for protesting the Vietnam War. Just a week later, two Black students were killed by police at the historically Black university, Jackson State University, for protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After the first day’s workshops and panels, students toured Kent State’s campus and saw the sites that marked where the students died.

Since New SDS’s last convention in 2021, SDS chapters have led various campaigns and secured numerous victories. They fought for abortion access, women’s rights and reproductive rights; they built campaigns to defund and demilitarize campus police. They joined the picket lines of striking teachers and organized labor and protested to demand no war with Russia and to get the U.S. and NATO out of Ukraine. They succeeded in ending a university partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency at one campus, the University of Illinois Chicago. The convention was a time for SDS chapters and members to share invaluable lessons on organizing to their fellow chapters in the plenaries and workshops.

The panels sparked a fighting spirit. One highlight was the discussion of what it means to organize in solidarity with fighting workers and labor organizers, and how students can contribute. The keynote speaker of this panel was none other than Sara Nelson, the prominent labor leader and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO. Sara Nelson shared her story of when she led flight attendants to the picket line in 2018, and effectively ended Donald Trump's government shutdown, forcing the government to concede to unionized flight attendants. She credited students for showing up for striking workers and invited students to join labor and flight attendant unions, and to get involved with the fight for unions and workers when they graduate.

When asked what the best tactic was, Nelson said, “The strike is our tactic. Solidarity is our power.” Students gave her a standing ovation and joined in as Nelson began to sing the pro-union song, Solidarity Forever.

On the same panel, speaking of student solidarity with unions and striking workers, Gillian Rath from the University of Minnesota SDS stated, “Big universities such as the University of Minnesota are run like corporations. They claim to support workers’ rights and workplace equality, but they don’t. So in academia, we are not taught these values. They tell us to aspire to be a boss, to make lots of money, to climb the corporate ladder. But the reality is that most of us are going to be members of the working class. And that is a great thing. It’s the working class that wants to fight back and has the most to win.” The next day, a resolution for Student Labor Solidarity passed unanimously to thunderous cheers and applause.

An important conference panel delt with the fight for reproductive rights, women’s rights, and to fight back against homophobic and transphobic legislation. Panelists spoke in detail about either organizing record-breaking pro-abortion protests on the eve of the release of the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling or fighting the anti-abortion legislation passed in their own states.

Trenece Robertson traveled from Tallahassee to represent Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Generation Action, a youth organization that works closely with Planned Parenthood, who said that they are now on a lifelong trajectory to fight for reproductive justice.

“If you’re planning on getting involved with reproductive rights organizing,” Robertson said, “you need to be involved with groups like Planned Parenthood and Students for a Democratic Society, and all groups fighting for the right to a safe and legal abortion, wherever you are. Just ask yourself, hey, what can I do? Whatever you do as an activist is just as important if not more important than any politician.”

Despite the passage of anti-abortion bills in both Texas and Florida, students told tales of protests, from 1000 to 10,000 people, who all marched for reproductive rights. The time is right, they said, for a fight to defend our rights won through protests and struggle, of which Roe v. Wade is just the beginning. This is especially true entering the midterm elections with more reactionary candidates running for office on similar platforms. The next day, they passed a resolution to join the Coalition to March on the Republican National Convention in Wisconsin, 2024, and to oppose their reactionary agenda to attack women’s and reproductive rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, and all attacks on the people.

The convention also hosted speakers for two more panels, one to talk about continuing the long-term fight against police crimes and another about continuing the long-term fight against U.S. wars and intervention. Raymond Greene, Jr., from the Freedom Black Led Organizing Collaborative, spoke about his experiences organizing for Justice for Jayland Walker, a young Black man who was killed by Akron police.

“The police don’t protect people, they protect property,” Greene said. “We are promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By pursuit of happiness, we actually mean universal healthcare, food, childcare, and housing. But before you can have happiness, you have to be alive.”

Speaking for National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Omar Flores of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, added the necessity of organizing to win justice. “We don’t want racism to die out, we want to stomp it out. Like Raymond said, we wouldn’t want the police to protect a Walmart, we need them to protect us from racists. But it’s up to us to win community control of the police to make that happen.”

Students then ended the day with a reaffirmation of SDS’ positions against U.S. wars and intervention, new and old. Kent State SDS member Lucas Fratianne connected the history of Kent State University, where four antiwar student protesters were killed by the National Guard, with the present-day struggle of students to continue to oppose U.S. wars. He reiterated SDS’ year-long commitment to stand in the way of a new U.S. war on Russia. “The U.S. has taken steps to take NATO and its wars to Russia’s doorstep. And we can’t let that happen.”

University of Illinois Chicago SDS member Liz Rathburn was more than happy to bring the floor news of a hard-won victory that is yet another strike against the U.S. government’s designs to create chaos in the Middle East and in Asia: the SDS chapter forced the university to cancel a new contract that allows the CIA access to recruit Arabic- and Chinese-speaking students directly from campus.

“If you can’t find collaborators in places like Syria, then why not make them on campus?” Rathburn said. “But the problem for them was, we were on our campus.”

All in all, both days of the convention saw students jump to their feet to celebrate their wins or ask several earnest questions about furthering the struggle on their campuses. They passed several resolutions, including resolutions to free political prisoners, such as the kidnapped Venezuelan diplomat, Alex Saab, and the renowned Colombian peace negotiator, Simon Trinidad. Folks commended Kent State SDS for their excellent hosting, which brought tears to the organizers’ eyes.

“It was incredibly uplifting,” Marlo Crosby from the University of North Florida SDS said, “to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who are trying, just like I am, to engender progressive change within our society.”

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