Coming to the SDS
reunion, re-encountering the history of the Movement, was like coming to a
great city devastated by bombs, years later, when the radiation has finally
died down enough to allow the survivors to creep in from the outskirts to peer
toward where the center had been, reckon what had happened, and confront each
other on the blasted ground.
But we came there for
more, we came to work a magic -- a healing ritual, born only of and for our
few private lives, yet perhaps with a larger meaning. The magic was not only
to re-unite our past with our present. It was to achieve our own re-union, to
make something whole from the rich, scattered fragments of our lives, if only
for a week in the woods -- something wholer than what fell apart, enriched by
what we've learned since: not an organization but a lived gesture of meaning,
a social action.
I put it so because
there are many stories to be told of our reunion and I have space for only
one. The transcripts of our political discussions alone would fill three
timely books. You can imagine the tale of a gang of quite ordinary folks, old
friends and strangers getting it on for a week at a lodge by a lake,
reminiscing, flirting, boozing it up in the kitchen, boogeying till late; and
the FBI will imagine its own story of the affair.
Here I imagine a
deeper myth, of death and of re-birth.
All Sunday afternoon
we came drifting in from far corners of the land. We looked each other over to
see what the years had done, traded stories as we prowled the grounds. It
wasn't much, all things considered -- only enough of us bore the scars of
political beatings or prison years to remind us how few did, and the dead were
We were in our late
twenties to early forties, like a million other survivors just growing into
the prime of life. In the wrinkles at our eyes I read the strains and
pleasures of our maturation. A decade later, we are solider, mellower, and
pitched to survival -- this one in a rare college tolerating radical social
scientists, that one as a therapist, another in the woods -- and to a bit
more, still committed in a bewildering variety of ways each to moving a
democratic spirit on.
And we are still
young, we are strong, we have energy to begin again -- not only with this
project and that one, for yet another decade and another, but also perhaps one
time again for the big one. Everyone there knew it; we carried ourselves like
proud crippled animals, wounded by hope once denied. And we vowed at the
start, for the sake of what we hoped to do there, not to talk of forming
That night was our
first group meeting, a ritual that set the week's tone. After dinner we sat
around in a loose circle without a center, while the reunion's organizers took
brief turns telling why they had shaped the week as they had, and what they
hoped would come of it. And then we spoke with each other, in the open circle
of testament, where each one calls upon the next until all who are moved to
speak are heard.
We spoke each of why
we came and what we wanted from the week. Our many answers in time included
whatever you would have said, for that is the way of such circles. When my
turn came, I said I hoped to hear us speak together as fragments of a large
collective mind, thinking a very complex social thought in the slow time of
history; and during the week I did.
The next morning we
split into small groups and sat around in the grass all day talking about what
we'd been doing, what sense we had made of our lives since SDS fell apart. As
we took turns telling our tales, we were putting together the collective
biography of our generation, or the part of it we moved within and spoke for
once -- making sense of it, not in grand theory but by hearing all its parts.
Most of us had passed
through some private agony, breaking and re-forming, after the general fall.
We spoke of the variety of our personal odysseys, our lonely infiltration into
so many domains of American life, our struggles to keep on making meaning
through our work and lives against the grain of a society of meaningless
corruption, the efforts of the spirit needed to sustain these struggles, the
awkward tortuous rich courses of our relationships, our growth. Whatever our
place in history, little is special about our experience in the Seventies.
Millions share it.
Yet we were graced to
share it there. A day was far too short a time, and we were still too shy to
do it right, despite the trust we tried to offer as we told our tales. For
most had come with the secret fear that what they had managed to do was
inadequate or worse, "not political enough"; and it took time to let the
mutual respect, the determination to hear our differences rather than react to
them, sink in.
Face-to-face in our
circles on the autumn grass, together we formed a complex mandala, invoking a
present spirit -- digesting each other's lives, becoming one, as we prepared
to digest our past.
That night we
gathered for our first formal session, a panel discussion on the New Left, how
it came to be, what its impact and meaning were for America -- as seen now not
in the heat of action but in time's perspective. The transcript of our talk,
which continued the next day, would make a good introduction to recent
American history for college freshmen. But what mattered more to the spirit we
were evoking was the theater of the event, subtle and personal.
For as he began, the
first speaker made wry reference to the fact that once again, as so often long
ago, he was standing in the center making a speech. I remembered what it was
like, being a male "heavy" in the Movement, a sometimes leader -- and that
amazing time at the decade's end when that role fell apart for me and so many
others. For years, it seemed, one couldn't take on any kind of leadership, bad
or good, without being attacked by someone fresh in the flush of their first
indiscriminate rebellion against authority. And as if getting shot down by
one's presumed compatriots wasn't enough, there was the inward crumbling. As
the perspectives of women's liberation seeped in, I came more and more to
doubt, often with justice, the aggressive impulses and skills which had
enabled me to claim public space, make myself heard in the crowd.
The crumbling was
pretty complete. It removed many of us from leadership roles for years, while
we went through private changes trying to rebuild our inner assurance on
sounder grounds, and waited for the time's tempers to change. For only when
enough of us had gone through such changes, and only when enough groups of
people accumulated who had experienced such early phases of working together
and didn't need to repeat them, only then could we move on to something else,
some better mode of shared authority and work.
And so as the speaker
went on, into what proved a brilliant analysis, I felt the thrill of his
liberation, which was our own as well. For something had changed -- it was
clear even in the moment, as we leaned forward to hear him and the other
featured speakers, rather than keep independent distance shaking our heads.
When the panel ended we ignored the scheduled question period, and instead
rose in turn to speak, extending their interpretation of our history, until
the collective mind was once again (as it had patiently become the previous
night) satisfied with its say.
I cannot name the
magic of it. Yet in some sense each speaker there stood redeemed, enabled to
stand once again in a circle of peers, sharing the full force of his or her
unique vision and insight -- but now oppressing no one by taking the space, by
acting to lead the flow. I felt the flow of energy through us as each spoke,
no longer the speaker's but our own, our power restored to us through her or
him. And I too felt redeemed, in the presence of the spirit of democracy, the
mystery in which we are unique and yet together one.
We had come together,
shared ourselves some, practiced making our energies one again. With this as
our ground, the next day our reunion went deeper, into the "transition" years
1968-9 when everything fell apart, and the question, "What happened to us?"
Remembering the early
angry days of female liberation, some thought the impulse to deal with old
accounts might come from the women. It came instead from the gay men, whose
workshop on Homophobia -- dealing, in the end, with self-hate -- went on all
afternoon, engulfing people as they surfaced from the other workshops, till we
were sucked together into the emotional pits.
It was a grave and
orderly ritual, however spontaneous were the expressions of passion which gave
it form. First our gay brothers stood to testify to the wrongs we had done
each other. How it had been, to work together for freedom and justice, while
living in constant fear of being found out a faggot. The invisible
humiliations, lovers' suicides, no support, finally falling away! Didn't an
organization that treated its own like that deserve to die? And had the
straight men there yet faced their own contradictions which had made it that
The closet once
opened, our wronged thronged out. This one purged from his chapter because the
police accused him of holding one joint; that one whose friends froze him out
without a word after false hear-say about his "racist" attitudes; the friend
who froze him out. Our shames and our failures, personal and collective. The
women testified about their old oppression, and what it cost the Movement's
flow. They've come a long way since then, farthest of us all, and spoke in
balance and without rancor, though with honest pain and anger. More ragged and
unpracticed were the outbursts of class sentiment, as those of working-class
background said at last how oppressive the intellectual and social elitism of
SDS had been, even while it was dedicating itself in Marxist sympathy to The
The poets told how
they had had to diminish themselves, hide their work to be taken as
politically serious. And one sister grit her teeth as she accepted the task of
tasking us with the enormous fact that she was the only person of color
whatsoever there. "Where did you go in 1965?" she cried, "Did you think
Stokley spoke for us all?" -- reminding us of how relieved we'd been, as well
as how unsure, to hear him tell us to go home and work among our own kind,
which we did, shifting white energy from civil rights to the anti-war
movement. "Why couldn't you see me? Did you think I was a fool, to hang in
As she recounted her
past and present pain and loneliness, as every voice there spoke, we were
struck heart and mind by the most private pains, by the largest social issues,
all still unresolved. And we knew, assembled there, part of the answer to what
happened to SDS, how we helped destroy ourselves in the stress.
Children of America,
we inherited her every contradiction, alive in our habits to burden us as we
worked to change her. Nor could we let this lie. Instead we tore at the lie
within our own body, determined in the end to make our own lives and groups
reflect our beliefs, be the ground where we practiced utopia, where we would
have all deep needs met, or bring the whole game down. Idealists, we expected
the most of ourselves; judgmental, we criticized at close quarters. It's a
wonder there was anything left for Progressive Labor to tear apart at the end.
Yet though SDS died,
we survived -- and more, we grew, over the years re-forming ourselves, enough
at least for this remarkable ritual. For the afternoon's litany of pain and
wrong was not a blind thrashing, a destructive round of collective
guilt-tripping. It was rather, simply, our confession, our testament, our
reconnection to the history we had lived through -- articulate about the
damage done, and almost without blame. For how could we deny the necessary
truths about who we were at the time?
I cried on and off
all afternoon; it was neither my first day of tears nor my last. A lot of
people were crying, it was by far the most tearful political affair I'd ever
seen -- wetter than an encounter group, and perhaps more authentic. For never
before in my experience had any significant political group gathered together
to touch so deep, so intimate a pain. And that act, that historical instant,
felt as luminous and as transformative as any of the key instants of the
That night we turned
outward again, to sketch in the rest of the devastation that struck us during
those years. We recalled how our fight against the War grew to engulf our
energies, starving out our broader projects, inspiring us to despair as each
more vigorous protest seemed only to bring escalations in troop commitments
and technology, at home as abroad. But how we had misread the situation, when
the Vietnamese instead rejoiced at each such escalation, seeing them as
evidences of the loss of control that would lead the U.S. to defeat! And the
irony, of our being instrumental in ending the War even while we fell wearily
away, convinced of our impotence!
Meanwhile a rich
chaos took our minds, as I mention above. By the time the New Left got over
its brash innocence and realized that it needed a conceptual frame to support
its moral purpose, we were swamped with conflicting and fragmentary
perspectives. What person, what group, what program could comprehend them all?
In the end, the attempt to cohere a new center of thought and action -- which
SDS represented for the Movement, and the Movement for America -- fell apart.
As people peeled off into dozens of camps, regrouping, so our thought fell
apart again into this stream and that -- bequeathing us our present state,
pregnant with unresolved contradictions and unaccomplished syntheses.
And then, as if the
war and a blown mind weren't enough to do us in, there was repression and
sabotage. The best estimates so far say the FBI alone mounted over 3,000
separate "actions" against SDS, in COINTELPRO and other programs, while
Progressive Labor played along, provoking factional disputes to destroy the
organization. And we recalled the texture of those years in which our friends
were beaten, tailed, jailed for planted dope and absurd conspiracy charges,
learned to travel armed and distrust old friends, were duped into rash actions
by provocateurs and their own frustrations and paranoias -- or simply recoiled
weary, seeking peace for a time.
From inside and from
outside, then, this devastation came, to SDS, to the Movement. We never knew
what hit us -- not the whole, though we knew parts. The collapse of our
collective identity was so sudden and bewildering that it has taken us these
eight years to begin to pool our understandings of what happened, to
commemorate the many dimensions of our stress and failure in public space and
ritual, as a prelude to moving on.
I remembered the
demolition of the previous American Left, seared into my adolescent memory by
the Rosenbergs' execution; I remembered the FBI/police slaughter decimating
the small chapters of the Black Panther Party, and how our own harassments had
seemed pale in comparison. And I realized suddenly how strange, protracted and
deep our own agony had been, after all -- how I had somehow numbed myself to
it, refused to feel its depth, all these years until I myself was part of the
evidence assembled, in a group convened for this testament and supportive
enough of each other to let this pain into the open at last as a collective
artifact, rather than as the private wrenching and numbness it has been
for so many during these years.
The next night we
remembered our dead.
We invent the rituals
we need again, simply, from the beginning. At lunch someone put up a large
sheet of paper; and all afternoon, between workshops analyzing the mistakes
and strengths of our old perspectives and strategies, we came privately to
write down names. After dinner we gathered again, put the list on a table in
the center, added to it, lit candles around it. Two flutes and a marimba
improvised a slow invocation. And then self-consciousness dropped away, as the
rabbi read out the names, pausing after each for those alive to have their
There was no order to
it, only the graveyard's random democracy, rich as our lives. We remembered
our parents and teachers, our peers -- blown apart by their own explosives,
riddled by government bullets, driven to suicide, died on the road or from
early cancer, climbing mountains, doing drugs, in peaceful slumber after long
productive lives. Between Weatherwoman and SNCC organizer, one sang the songs
of the old union women he'd worked with in Appalachia; between lovers and
artists we were reminded of A.J. Muste, Paul Goodman, Malcolm X, spirits of
peace and righteousness and common sense.
Few names passed in
silence. With most, someone would rise, and often more than one, to identify
the dead and the nature of their work, or remember some vivid scene, something
learned, something given. And as the list ran on, its randomness became a
systematic chronicle of fifty years of struggle, an index to the many streams
of progressive movement in America; and a guide to the many ways in which
these spirits of the past have shaped us, nourish us still, and make us the
bearers of a proud tradition.
Of course there were
tears galore, and more, those gasps when someone heard what happened to a
former lover, or when fifty people got the news all at once. By the time that
one happened I had cried enough to come clear inside and to remember something
simple and astounding, luminous in our litany. There had once been people
who committed themselves to the task of taking on the whole system and turning
it around. They had lived in our past and in other lands. And in the
Sixties, quite early, quite mad, a few scattered groups of young people, SDS
included, had thought it possible to begin to organize a movement that could
do it; and actually began to try.
arrogance! How history had its revenge! Yet we shook the State; and in our
circle there the dead spoke again to remind us of each holocaust, nuclear,
fascistic, that threatens ever more despite our efforts.
"Too much!" I cried
out, as someone added yet another to the load. By then we had spoken for twice
as many dead as were present alive, and the walls of the room and my head were
throbbing with the pressure. "Don't interrupt," she said; and then gently
finished saying that it was time to remember the future, and spoke for us the
names of her children and their ages. As the healing impulse ran around our
circle, we spoke our children's names, in voices raw with feeling, until their
young spirits danced in the circle's center. Most, like my son, were named
after the dead, many after the dead we had named. Their names, their spirits,
stood beside us, flanking us fore and aft in history, in the purpose of
generations. It was a holy moment, and it made us whole, leaving us free at
some deep level to begin again.
During the next two
days, still somewhat dazed, we began again. Looking over the Seventies, we
discussed the current political situation, the state of the Left, prospects
for radical change, how to go about it, some efforts in progress, what they
might have to do with our lives. We began timidly to explore the differences
we had soft-pedaled for the sake of harmony there, and wondered how to help
knit together the many networks of people now working for a great variety of
fundamental changes. We asked what the hardest question we face now is; our
answers ran from love through Marx to quantum physics, and all of them rang
We reached no
conclusions, formed no new organization -- though we did undertake one belated
last action in SDS's name, a Freedom of Information Act suit to uncover the
grim details of what our own government did to us. We agreed to meet again in
a year. And then it was time to go, to slip back into our anonymous lives and
works across the land, and begin again the slow conversations we had
interrupted for this one which deepened them.
What stays with me is
what I saw being born through us, in a process slow as life itself, as we met
in Hell to bury SDS. For we are still in movement; and who we were with each
other there, and how we worked together, had changed in many ways since we
went at social action in the Sixties.
Nearly as many women
as men were involved, and they took equal share in organizing, leading and
enriching our reunion. At the end one feminist spoke for many, to say what a
rare joy it had been to work with the men, opening new potentials of
cooperation. Gay men in turn called it the first time they'd found, within a
political community, straight men with whom they could feel in sympathy, who
had learned somewhat to engage the softness in themselves.
All this was not from
inner changes alone, but because we had designed a way to work together which
honored our feelings as much as it honored our minds, all the political
thought unreported here. This in turn was because we are learning to value the
quality of our process together, as much as the content it produces -- again a
striking change from the politics of the past. Or rather, an evolution: for in
the reunion's careful planning, in the week's spontaneous creativity and in
our own persons there, we brought together the hard political learnings of the
Sixties and since, with the softer "psychological" learnings of the Seventies.
In such ways and
more, our affair was indeed a re-union -- not only of people who had been
divided, but of the ideas and impulses which helped tear us apart long ago,
and which led us then into divergent ways, our isolated communities of
survival, work and growth. Now we found ourselves able to bring the
intellectual, political, therapeutic, artistic and spiritual learnings we have
slowly been accumulating together to make something whole, for one brief time,
one particular purpose. It was an early wedding, temporary, clumsy despite its
grace, more strained than I have said; but it worked.
No problem had been
solved, no contradiction resolved; every tension between our perspectives
asked urgently to be addressed. Yet we were clearly met upon changed ground,
more able and willing to address them together, wanting to begin again.
Something was being born through us, in pain and joy, something more whole
than what we were burying. Our collective ritual itself was the signal I think
we came seeking -- a symbol, a transient living promise that we may yet find
some way to put it all together, this wondrous and terrifying complexity, to
govern our lives justly in the whole.
If I call this a
re-birth, it's because one thing seemed unchanged to me since the earliest
days of SDS, or rather reaffirmed. In the way the reunion's organizing
collective worked together and with us all, in the circles and ways in which
we met together, I saw us still trying to incarnate the spirit of
participatory democracy -- yet now with a somewhat more mature vision, taking
its mandate to mean that not only each person and group, but each basic
perspective and each aspect of our being, should have a fair share of
participation and power in the decisions and actions which determine who we
This was the spirit
which animated us once, the gift we sought to offer America as patriotic
children, seeking the forms of a more perfect union. Rebuked, our lives much
changed, it animates us still. Perhaps it is one name for what is still being
Heading homeward, I
wondered what our re-union meant, beyond its place in our few private lives.
Granted, it was a special occasion, and we were a special crew. But also we
are ordinary people, who have shared with the Movement's other survivors, and
with millions more younger and older, this past decade's diverse tides of
experience and learning; and our meeting was just something we took time in
our lives to do seriously together. The integrity we realized so briefly there
now broods in them all as it does in us, potential, each time we turn to
purposeful action -- though I have been taught by a hard decade how slowly
anything comes to pass, and against what inner odds.
Bicentennial faded, an empty symbol, we began organizing our re-union. While
we were planning it, coal miners and textile workers went on the move, gays
rallied against Anita's crusade, the handicapped sat in at the capitol, the
"human potential" movement geared to enter politics, Nader's Raiders plugged
away, the farm-workers began a new support drive, and the Clamshell Alliance
took on nuclear industry as anti-apartheid protests flared on California
campuses and rural ecologists organized regional stands. While we met in
Michigan, SNCC veterans were holding their own reunion, the first conference
of feminist songwriters began, and the western chapters of Progressive Labor
were breaking free to go independent.
Many people were
beginning again, in many ways. This was not new, it had been happening ever
since the Movement died, however much the media said it was all over; but this
year it was happening more, in a quiet surge of energy across the land.
Nothing had been solved, nothing resolved; almost every predicament seemed
worse. There was still nothing to belong to that one could name, no
perspective, group, or movement that could honor all that needed to be honored
-- only the partial, temporary shelters we had made for our survival and our
work, plus some deep, inchoate images of what might be possible to guide us.