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Students for a Democratic Society national convention held at University of Illinois Chicago: “Students defend education, unions strike back!”

By Shaine Carrol-Frey

SDS national convention held in Chicago. | Fight Back! News/staff

Chicago, IL – On October 14 and 15, roughly 180 members and affiliates of the New Students for a Democratic Society(SDS) from over 20 campuses met for their annual National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

The students came from all over the U.S. to unite under the slogan of “Students Defend Education, Unions Strike Back!” to highlight both the attacks of education, especially ethnic studies such as Black studies and American Indian studies, and the increased level of union activity in 2023. Attendees listened to panels and gave workshops over a variety of topics, sharing strategy and tactics with SDS chapters from across the country.

One highlight came from the Student-Labor solidarity panel, from Dr. Scott Heath, an advisor to Loyola New Orleans NAACP and an advocate for an African American Studies program at Loyola University. Heath was also the only Black tenure-track English professor at the university. Heath read out loud to a transfixed crowd a letter he'd written to students that detailed how he was effectively fired from Loyola University without due process and on racist grounds.

“By fueling a culture of distraction and obstruction, the administration there is threatening my livelihood and reputation in a way that is stigmatizing and humiliating,” Heath remarked. Just after Dr. Heath got the notice that his contract with Loyola University would not be renewed, SDS members at Loyola University jumped into action to organize a protest to demand his retention.

On the same panel, Dr. Aaron Krall, president of UIC United Faculty, Local 6456 shared his views on the labor movement and student-labor solidarity. In response to questions of what students can do, Krall said, “We need workers to band together, and we need all of you and all of your student colleagues to help us fight for the things we need.”

On the “Fight for Ethnic Studies and Defend Diversity” panel, student organizers from across the country shared their experiences fighting against the increased attacks on ethnic studies and diversity programs Panelists highlighted that these programs were fought for and won by a previous generation of student activists, and that students today must fight to defend them.

“It's easy to say I would have fought against discrimination and segregation back in the days of Jim Crow. But let's not just talk about it: let's be about it! History isn't over!” said Angel Naranjo of UIC SDS.

The final panel of the day, “Drop the Charges on the Tampa 5, Defend the Right to Protest” included Gia Davila of the Tampa 5. The Tampa 5 are students and workers who were brutalized by campus police at the University of South Florida on March 6. The police violence was in response to a student protest to demand that USF’s president take stand against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s egregious attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). All five are facing felony charges and between five and ten years in prison. Since March 6, a nationwide defense campaign has been launched to demand that all charges on the Tampa 5 be dropped.

Davila spoke of the case and emphasized the need for students to continue to fight against political repression and in defense of diversity: “We continue to fight on campus. We continue to demand that our university take a stand for diversity, equity and inclusion, to protect Black history on our campus!”

The theme of fighting back against political repression and attacks on the First Amendment right to free speech was especially poignant given the recent upsurge in the Palestinian liberation movement starting October 7, when the Palestinian resistance launched operation al-Aqsa Flood. SDS reaffirmed its support for Palestinian liberation and raised up energetic chants of, “End U.S. aid to Israel! From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free! Free, free Palestine!”

On day two of the convention, students gathered to discuss and pass 18 resolutions covering topics from fighting against police brutality, to the fight for reproductive rights, and demanding an end to U.S. intervention in the Ukraine. SDS unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Palestinian resistance and calling for an end of all US aid to Israel.

After resolutions were passed, attendees marched to the University of Illinois administration building for a protest against the administration’s repression against student activists. In the lead up to the convention, UIC administration blocked the attempts by SDS to reserve rooms and other amenities every step along the way. Finally, students had to reserve a venue off-campus.

Students left the weekend energized to take what they had learned at the convention back home to their respective campuses to continue to build the student movement.

#ChicagoIL #SDS #Tampa5 #DEI #DeSantis #Palestine