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Last Sunday on The Newsroom Aaron Sorkin’s anchor-hero Will McAvoy offered up a whirlwind tour of the history of Students for Democratic Society, the Yippies, and the Vietnam antiwar movement that managed to get pretty much everything completely wrong in the service of an analogy that made no sense. Here’s my take, because when else am I going to get a chance like this?

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“Back in 1968 when Rennie Davis and Hayden and their guys organized the SDS,

SDS was put together in 1960, not 1968. Its organizational roots stretch back as far as 1905. And although Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden would both become important figures in the group in the early sixties and after, neither participated in its founding meetings.

 it was specifically to end the Vietnam war

Nope. SDS was a broad-based, multi-issue organization from the beginning. It addressed itself to concerns ranging from nuclear testing to civil rights to campus parietal rules. The 1962 Port Huron Statement, SDS’s immensely influential (and just plain immense) manifesto, mentions Vietnam just once, in the context of a discussion of the membership policies of the United Nations.

but that movement got eaten by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.

Again, no. The collapse of SDS had almost nothing to do with the rise of the Yippies, and everything to do with government repression, sectarian infighting, and revolutionary overreach. And though SDS died with the sixties, the American seventies would see the ascendancy of other transformative social movements around issues like feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, Native American rights, and so on. Many of those movements had direct links to the New Left.

It’s also worth noting that Tom Hayden and the Yippies were allies for a big chunk of the period under discussion, as demonstrated by this film footage of Hayden speaking alongside Hoffman at a Yippie press conference.

It was impossible to define what the Yippies were protesting.

Ridiculous. The Yippies staged plenty of specific, targeted actions, and participated in plenty more, as we’ll see in a moment. Yes, they were a sprawling, inchoate group. Yes, they offered a vague, unformed vision of the revolution they were trying to achieve. But they also organized focused campaigns.

They were about giving the finger to anyone over thirty,

Abbie Hoffman was well past thirty by 1968. And when Jerry Rubin turned thirty that summer, he wrote that he “was reborn in Berkeley in 1964 in the Free Speech movement. When we say ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30,’ we’re talking about the second birth. … When people 40 years old come up to me and say, ‘Well, I guess I can’t be part of your movement,’ I say, ‘What do you mean? You could have been born yesterday. Age exists in your head.’ Bertrand Russell is our leader. He’s 90 years old.”

generically hating the American establishment,

Sure, the Yippies hated the American establishment. You know why? For starters, the American establishment was trying to put them (and Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis) in prison.

dropping out, getting high.

There was a lot of that going around in those days, or so I’ve heard. Still is, in some circles.

That’s how the progressive movement would be painted for the next forty years.

Attacks on left activists as dirty hippies didn’t begin with Abbie Hoffman. In 1966 Ronald Reagan used hippie-bashing to win the governorship of California, and he wasn’t remotely the only politician beating that gong. The 1960s saw a huge generational cultural upheaval that was inextricably bound up with a youth activist movement in the public mind — neither the Yippies nor anyone else had the power to change that, even if they’d wanted to.

People passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.

Funny you should mention that. Because the attempt to levitate the Pentagon occurred at a 1967 demonstration against the war, an action that Tom Hayden has described as one of the most potent of the Vietnam War era. Yes, Jerry Rubin was the point person on that demo, but he was recruited for the position by David Dellinger, who was hardly a Yippie. (And if you think this photo actually harmed the antiwar movement, well God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.)

The Pentagon’s a really big building. You can’t levitate it.

This part is true.

The sixties radicals and the Tea Party are roughly the same, with one big exception. Even at the height of 1968 the Democrats wouldn’t have nominated Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin for any office, and no candidate would have sought their endorsement. 

Okay, a few things. First, 1968 wasn’t “the height” of anything in terms of Democratic Party radicalism. That year the Dems nominated their sitting vice president at a convention that saw epidemic police violence against protesters, violence that was essentially ignored by the conventioneers. The party’s presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, never came out against the war in Vietnam, and only called for a ceasefire weeks before the general election.

So no, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin weren’t getting any love from the Democratic Party that year. But neither were Hayden and Davis, or any other figures in the New Left. (By the eighties, however, both Hoffman and Hayden were involved in mainstream left-liberal political activity.)

Can you imagine Humphrey or Kennedy standing for a photo op with Bernardine Dohrn or Allen Ginsberg?”

No, but I can’t quite figure out why we’re talking about them, either.

Bernardine Dohrn wasn’t a Yippie, she was an SDSer. Specifically, she was a member of the Weatherman faction, an advocate of violent revolution in the United States. She wasn’t about “giving the finger to anyone over thirty, generically hating the American establishment, dropping out, getting high,” she was about blowing things up and killing people. Ginsberg I can kind of understand the mention of, since he at least participated in the 1967 Pentagon action, but he did so as a middle-aged gay poet, not a young activist.

Lumping in Ginsberg with Hoffman and Rubin makes a kind of weird sense. But lumping those three gleeful pranksters in with Dohrn is just absurd.

And all this quibbling over details may be beside the point anyway, since Sorkin’s underlying argument is so wrong-headed. His claim is that the New Left and the Tea Party both began as reasonable interventions into party politics, that both were hijacked by bizarre radicals, and differ only in that one was absorbed into the GOP while the other was properly shunned by the Democrats.

And that’s about the least useful analysis of either movement that I’ve ever heard.

July 16 Update | Jesse Walker of Reason has put up a fascinating, illuminating post on the Yippies and the 1972 Democratic National Convention which carries the debunk one step further.

Update | Much more about Derrick Bell.

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Video has surfaced from a speech President Obama gave at a campus rally in 1990, the first of a series of videos that conservative activist Andrew Breitbart claimed would reveal the president’s true radicalism to the American people.

Only a little over a minute of the speech has appeared so far, but Breitbart’s website promises “additional footage that has been hidden by Obama’s allies in the mainstream media and academia” is yet to come.

In today’s video, Obama — then a 29-year-old Harvard law student — is seen introducing Harvard professor Derrick Bell, who had taken an unpaid leave from the law school to protest the absence of women of color from its tenured faculty ranks. Bell, who had been a prominent civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, was the school’s first black tenured professor and a prominent scholar in the field of critical race theory.

Here’s the clip, followed by a transcript and a bit more background.


Obama:

“And I remember that the black law students had organized an orientation for the first year students. And one of the persons who spoke at that orientation was Professor Bell. And I remember him sauntering up to the front, and not giving us a lecture but engaging us in a conversation. And speaking the truth, and telling us that he [cut] to learn of this place that I’ve carried with me ever since. Now how did this one man do all this? How has he accomplished all this? He hasn’t done it simply by his good looks and easy charm, although he has both in ample measure. He hasn’t done it simply because of the excellence of his scholarship, although his scholarship has opened up new vistas and new horizons, and changed the standards of what legal writing is about. [cut] Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of Professor Derrick Bell.”

In a February 9 speech Breitbart, who died unexpectedly on March 1, said that he was going to “vet” the president with videos “from his college days to show you why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008. The videos are going to come out, the narrative is going to come out.”

After alluding to Obama’s relationship with “silver ponytails” like former Weather Underground leaders Bernardine Dorhn and Bill Ayers, Breitbart said that when Obama was at Harvard “he was advocating for the worst of the worst to join the faculty. Radicals. Radicals at Beiruit on the Charles.” (If Breitbart’s “worst of the worst” reference was to Professor Bell, he was taking some liberties with the timeline — Bell was hired by Harvard in 1969, when Obama was seven years old. He was tenured there in 1971, left in 1980, and returned in 1986, two years before Obama enrolled.)

All should be revealed soon, however, as the Breitbart people say they’ll play the “full tape” on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show tonight. I’ll be watching, and I’ll update this post if anything interesting turns up.

Update | PBS’s Frontline website has posted what it says is the “full archived tape” of the speech as recorded and edited by local affiliate WBGH in 1990. Though no additional portions of Obama’s speech appear on that tape, which consists of 4-minute report on Bell’s withdrawal from teaching and an additional seven minutes of raw clips from the protest, Frontline says “no other footage of the event exists at WGBH.” Excerpts from the tape appeared in a Frontline documentary on Obama in 2008, and have been available online ever since.

Second Update | The Breitbart site has posted its first purported evidence of what they call Bell’s “radical … bizarre … racialist, antisemitic” views, a short story he wrote called “Space Traders.” (You can read that story and judge it for yourself here.) Unfortunately for their attempt to tar Obama with the contents of that story, however, it was published in October 1993, some three years after Obama’s Harvard speech.

Third Update | One amusing moment from the WBGH tape: Professor Bell is seen at 8:52 noting that while he himself relied on a written outline for his address, “the student” — future president Obama — “delivered a mighty address without notes.” Given Breitbart’s fondness for making teleprompter jokes at Obama’s expense, that one’s got to sting a little.

Fourth Update | Unsurprisingly, the Breitbart gloss on Bell’s short story, “Space Traders,” as antisemitic is unwarranted. In the story, a sci-fi allegory which imagines space aliens offering the United States untold wealth in exchange for its black citizenry, a group of Jews object to the trade. The Breitbart site quotes an op-ed by a federal judge as saying that in the story, the Jews are motivated not by “empathy from another group that has suffered oppression” but “instead” by fear “that ‘in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats.'”

But this is a tendentious misreading of Bell, who describes the Jewish leaders as denouncing “America’s version of the Final Solution to its race problem” and promising to disrupt it by ” all possible nonviolent means” if necessary, including by hiding black families in their own homes “until the nation returns to its senses.” Jewish concern that they could become scapegoats should blacks disappear is offered by Bell as an additional fear, not as a true, duplicitous motivation, and it is a fear that Bell presents as justified in “a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations for societal disabilities about which they are unwilling to confront their leaders.”

Great writing? Maybe not. Subtle writing? Probably not. But antisemitic? Not that either.

Fifth Update | Okay, I watched Hannity. They found a two-second clip of Obama hugging Bell after introducing him at the rally, and a clip of Harvard professor Charles Ogletree joking that he hid that clip from the media during the 2008 campaign. That’s it. That’s the whole thing that they have.

As I noted last month, only one of the dozens of police officers involved in the notorious November 18 UC Davis pepper-spray incident has yet been publicly identified. Now a police demand for continued anonymity has delayed today’s intended release of the university’s report on the incident.

Attorneys for the officers claim that because the report includes “confidential peace officer matters such as the name of the peace officers and some sort of description of wrongdoing,” its release would violate state law.

The report, originally slated for a December release, has already been delayed multiple times. The most recent stumbling block came in response to a police union request for redaction of information about individual officers. A judge has scheduled a March 16 hearing on the issue.

The authors of the report have compromised with police before, but it seems like their patience may be wearing thin.

Retired California supreme court justice Cruz Reynoso, the chair of the commission, said in a statement that he was “very frustrated” by the delay, and remains committed to releasing “the complete and unredacted work of the task force.”

UC president Mark Yudof, who has presided over multiple incidents of police violence against non-violent student protesters over the last three years, took a similarly aggressive posture. He has, he said, “asked the UC General Counsel’s office to do everything in its power in court to turn back this attempt to stifle these reports” to ensure “a fully transparent and unexpurgated accounting of the incidents in question.”

In a separate statement, UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi said “the campus’s own internal affairs investigation into complaints of officer misconduct, which would be the basis for any personnel actions concerning the accused officers,” was “near completion.”

This is kind of astonishing.

A mere 12 hours before it was due to be released online, the official UC Davis report on last November’s pepper-spray incident has been pulled indefinitely as a result of threatened legal action by the UCD police department.

The report, commissioned by UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi in November and originally slated for a December release, had already been delayed multiple times. Police had previously refused to allow investigators access to Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza or either of the two officers who sprayed the activists.

According to the Associated Press, “the officers involved in the Nov. 18 incident where 10 protesters were pepper-sprayed don’t want their names and confidential information they told investigators” released, and planed a morning filing for a Temporary Restraining Order.

Former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso, head of the investigating committee, said that the report’s release was being delayed on the advice of university lawyers. He added, however, that he remained “undeterred in my commitment to release the complete and unredacted work of the Task Force, a view shared by President Yudof.” Yudof himself said that “the entire UC Davis community deserves a fully transparent and unexpurgated accounting of the incidents in question,” and that he had “asked the UC General Counsel’s office to do everything in its power in court to turn back this attempt to stifle these reports.”

Fourteen DePaul University students have staged a campus occupation against the university’s tuition policy — the first occupation at a US Catholic university this year.

On Thursday evening, students and allies staged an action in DePaul’s administrative offices as a part of the March 1 national day of student action. They met briefly with the university president, who rejected their tuition freeze demands. Non-students were escorted out of the conference room by police at 6:30 pm, and the remaining students left voluntarily two hours later.

Last night a group of students reconvened at the university’s student center in advance of a scheduled trustee vote on a tuition increase this morning. As the deadline for the building’s closing passed, fourteen students decided to remain in occupation. Supporters raised a tent outside the building, and made plans for a 7:30 am demonstration. In an overnight statement, the occupiers declared that the university’s tuition has increased by 35% in the last seven years, and that the average DePaul graduate now leaves with a $28,000 debt load.

The DePaul activists have been blogging at the site of CACHE, a multi-university Chicago activist coalition. Updates on the occupation are being live tweeted at the #occupydepaul hashtag.

8:30 am (Chicago Time) Update | With the trustee meeting scheduled to begin at the top of the hour (9 am Chicago time), students have learned that the meeting is being moved to a new, secret location.

Noon Update | From the Occupy Chicago Facebook page:

The DePaul administration was scheduled to meet this morning to vote on the tuition hike at the Lincoln Park campus. At the last minute, the meeting was moved to an undisclosed location. Anthony Alfano, President of the Student Government Association, accepted an invitation to the meeting. He was driven downtown by administrators, who made him enter through the back door of a high-rise and refuse[d] to reveal his location to him.

This is utterly astonishing, if true: Not only did the DePaul board of trustees move their meeting to an undisclosed off-campus location, but they refused to tell the students’ elected representative, whom they invited to the meeting, where that meeting was being held. It’s like something out of a bad movie.

12:30 Update | I’ve added DePaul to the site’s map of 2011-12 campus occupations. It’s the 38th occupation so far this academic year, the fourth in Illinois, and — as noted above — the first at a Catholic college.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out AngusJohnston.com.

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