Rebels with a Cause: a documentary on SDS

Get together 28 articulate, socially committed veterans of the largest
radical student organization of the 1960s. Get them to talk about their
experience in that tumultuous decade’s battles for social justice. Remind
people of the brutalities of the Vietnam War and naked Jim-Crow racism.
Do it all with a passion for social justice combined with solid film technique.
Manage those things—as does Helen Garvey in Rebels with a Cause—and you
can make an engaging, often moving film about the value of fighting for
a better world and defying established authority, as well as showing how
individuals can act to make a difference.

But keep things on the level of values, social commitment, and fascinating
individuals. Avoid the tough questions. In particular, gloss over the outpouring
of strategic and ideological debate that characterized the late 1960s.
You end up with a piece that offers only a truncated picture of what happens
when liberal-minded activists become radicalized, that offers little in
the way of strategic or intellectual lessons.

Rebels doesn’t address questions being asked by those most interested in
the 1960s, the new generation of activists who are battling globalization,
prisons vs. schools, the death penalty, sweatshops, sexism, and white supremacy.
The film is useful and positive in that it beats back today’s demonization
of the 1960s. But we need more than that.

Rebels tells the story of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Most
of the film consists of individual veterans recounting their experiences
on camera. Context is provided by documentary footage with voice-over narration
showing battles of the 1960s: civil rights protesters attacked by Birmingham
police water-cannon, Stop the Draft Week in 1967 in Oakland, and the 1967
antiwar Pentagon March. (The absence of student and youth revolts all over
the world, particularly in France and México, is inexplicable.)

The film begins with the Civil Rights movement and highlights its influence
on the birth and development of SDS. From that movement SDS drew its initial
vision of “participatory democracy,” meaning a society or social grouping
in which individuals are involved in making the decisions that affect their
lives. The impact of escalating war in Vietnam appropriately dominates
the narrative for the 1965-1968 period of SDS.

There is a reasonably serious effort to deal with Black Power and its impact
on developing a multiracial organization. But the actual character of SDS
as an overwhelmingly white organization is never explicitly addressed.
Of the 28 interviewees, two are African American and one Latino; this accurately
reflects SDS’s composition so it was a reasonable selection. However, the
larger movement of the 1960s was not just more multiracial; in many cases
it was led by people of color. This point is never adequately explored.

In general, the film’s structure of going back and forth between SDS specifics
and the broader contours of 1960’s movements leaves a certain unclarity.
While acknowledging the foundation stone of the Civil Rights movement,
the film sometimes gives SDS too much credit for actions that had various
sponsors. Even within the strictly SDS framework, the film gives superficial
attention to the effects of the women’s liberation movement on SDS.

Probably it is asking too much for a two-hour film to fill all those gaps.
But a fundamental political problem remains: the film’s final section,
its treatment of the post- 1968 period. That pivotal year began with the
Vietnamese Tet offensive that brought witness to the lie of U.S. triumphalism;
saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and avowed antiwar presidential
candidate, Robert Kennedy; the police riot at Chicago’s Democratic convention;
the work- er-student alliance that nearly toppled the French government;
the Columbia University and Mexican student revolt; and the election of
Richard Nixon.

That was the year when profound radicalization occurred. Thousands of activists
abandoned the idea of reforming the system and began discussing the nature
of capitalism, the ideas of Marxism, the role of the working class in social
change, the links between racism and capitalism/imperialism, and the relationship
of male supremacy and (in 1969) homophobia to capitalism, imperialism,
and militarism. That was also the period when discussion increased about
the repression of women and gays within radical movements.

In 1968 and 1969, still more North American self-determination movements
exploded—Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, Asian American. Radical
projects, such as the Venceremos Brigade and the National Congress on Latin
America (NACLA) were established by SDS activists and survive to the present
(unlike SDS as an organization). Marxist parties or groups and new magazines
like Radical America were initiated, largely by former SDS members.

Nineteen sixty-eight was the key time for the film to broaden its brush
and capture the period in all its complexity, explaining what happened
to SDS in that context. But exactly at that point the film narrows to the
issue of the Vietnam war; the only political debate alluded to is about
violence and how or whether to employ it. The words “capitalism” and “imperialism”
are never mentioned; Marxism is mentioned only twice and only in reference
to SDS being infiltrated by Marxist Leninist groups, “as it was similarly
infiltrated by the FBI.”

The only SDS faction discussed is the Weathermen, which turned to bombing
and armed propaganda. Even with this focus on those who went underground,
there is no mention of the SDS figures who joined the Black Liberation
Army and are now political prisoners: Kathy Boudin, Dave Gilbert, Linda
Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and Marilyn Buck. We never learn at all about the
outlook or practical work of the thousands of SDS members who neither turned
to small-group armed actions or dropped out of politics—the ones who threw
themselves into community and workplace organizing, built the 1970s international
solidarity movements, and played leading roles in the multi-front resistance
to the 1970s rise of the New Right.

Sadly, this failure to adequately analyze the post-1968 period is a common
affliction in treatments of the 1960s. It’s the rock on which the documentaries
Berkeley in the Sixties and Making Sense of the Sixties also crashed. All
these films take the easy road. The early 1960s is a deceptively easy and
inspirational story to tell, and that is the road the films take. So there
were hundreds of middle-class white people dedicated to peace and equality
battling arch reactionaries and liars. Good guys and bad guys were clear,
with the good guys having the moral high ground and remaining untouched
by difficult matters of ideology.

But as of 1968 (if not earlier) that vision was no longer sufficient. SDS
couldn’t just say that activists were betrayed by a government that didn’t
live up to its democratic ideals; in reality the entire origin story of
U.S. democracy was a lie. At the same time, developments in movements of
peoples of color had made organizing against racism more complex for white
activists. Unfortunately, these films do not deal with those challenges.

In the case of Rebels with a Cause that limited perspective is linked to
a generational one. The interviewees and director Garvey all joined SDS
before 1967, most of them in the early 1960s. No SDS member whose main
experience was the late 1960s appears on screen. Surely the 1968 generation
would have offered a different view. So the principal message of Rebels
with a Cause
remains “we were the good guys, we acted to save the soul
of America; we went a little nuts at the end, but have come back to our
senses and as older folks look back at that period fondly and are still
doing what we can to advance the cause of justice.”

The radical left in general has not yet developed or united around an in-depth
evaluation of that difficult post-1968 period. Yet probing that period
is essential to learning lessons for rebuilding a radical, multiracial,
anti- capitalist, anti-imperialist left. Failing to do so surrenders the
field to a sanitized, liberal evaluation of the crucial 1960s.

A new generation is struggling with how to combat capitalist globalization,
the links between the prison-industrial complex and corporate power, the
interconnections between class, race, gender and sexuality. It is also
struggling with internal weaknesses and organizational questions, from
sexism to sectarianism.

Pa’lante, Siempre, Pa’lante is a model documentary concerning the Young
Lords Party, which spearheaded the early 1970s Puerto Rican radical youth
movement (SDS leader Juan Gonzales, who also appears in Rebels, was a founder
of the Young Lords). That film sacrifices nothing in terms of the spirit,
flavor, the moral high ground, and the drama of the movement, but it delves
into strategic and ideological questions that the Young Lords confronted.
By doing so, it sets an example of courageously tackling questions that
confront organizers and activists—whether 1960’s veterans or younger folks
today.               Z

Max Elbaum, former member of SDS and activist today, is the author of Revolution
in the Air,
a history of the late-1960’s radical movements (forthcoming
from Verso in 2001); Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, a leading figure in the women’s
liberation movement and author of
Red Dirt and a forthcoming 1960’s memoir,
Outlaw Woman, teaches Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California
State University Hayward; Elizabeth Martinez, a
Z columnist who has published
six books on social movements, worked on SNCC staff and in the Chicano
liberation movement in the 1960s; she now heads the Institute for MultiRacial