‘Model’ student movement

Bryan Wroten

Former SDS members talk past politics

Frand Norton, a member of the Vietnam Veteran Panel, signs a petition for the reunion of Kent State Chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society on Sunday afternoon at the Kiva.

Credit: Andrew popik

Vanguard of the revolution.

Though it lasted for only a few years, Students for a Democratic Society acted as a catalyst for Kent State’s student movement during the late 1960s. Though a national group, the Kent SDS focused on issues directly related to Kent State. Alan Canfora, former SDS member and the May 4 protester shot through the wrist, said there were four goals in the spring of 1969, but they were unsuccessful. He said the goals were to:

n Abolish the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

n Shut down Project Themis, a Pentagon contract with the Liquid Crystals Institute.

n Disarm the campus police.

n Stop the university research assisting the government.

SDS’ activities included simple tactics, such as leafleting and hosting meetings, speakers and films, Canfora said. The larger scale events included rallies and marches. He said he went to meetings and some of their events.

By comparison, the SDS on a national level was working at an all-time high. Mark Rudd, former chairman of the SDS at Columbia University and a founder of the Weathermen, a militant faction of the SDS after its dissolution, said the SDS took a radical view of the anti-war movement opposing the war in Vietnam because they viewed it as a form of imperialism.

In the spring of 1968, Rudd helped lead a student protest at Columbia, opposing the university’s researching for the military and the racist policy of allowing Harlem citizens to use only a part of a new gym the school built in the area and only let them enter through the back door.

Visiting the Kent State campus in 1968 and 1969 for speeches, Rudd called the Kent SDS “terrific” and a model of how the student movement should spread.

“I came from an elite school,” he said. “Kent State was a model of going from the elite to the state schools.”

Jeff Powell, called Donovan because of his likeness to the singer, said he and his friends joined the anti-war movement at Kent State because they didn’t want to be good Germans by watching 2 million people die.

“Imagine interacting with 100 people a day — the guy at the 7-11 or the people you smile at on the street,” he said. “That would be 36,500 people a year. You could live for 50 years and not meet as many people as 2 million.”

Donovan was a member of the SDS and later a part of the Weathermen.

In November of 1968, officers from the Oakland police department came to Kent State to recruit students, Canfora said. The student group Black United Students, joined by SDS members, held a sit-in in protest because of the controversy surrounding the police department after the killings of several Black Panthers in Oakland.

When threatened with suspensions for the sit-in, 90 percent of the black student population walked off. SDS escorted them off campus, where BUS members boarded buses and did not return to the university for days.

Canfora said although there were instances when SDS worked with BUS, it was not a regular practice to join with other groups. In fact, he said the SDS looked down on some of the other groups, such as the Young Socialist Alliance. He said their ideologies were different and SDS found the socialist alliance’s tactics ineffective.

It is the dozen or so members of the socialist alliance that made it a serious organization, said Mike Alewitz, former chairman of the socialist alliance and the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam. He said members had attended all the meetings and made contributions.

“That cut down on membership,” he said, laughing.

Now the artistic director of the Labor Art and Mural Project at Central Connecticut State University, Alewitz said the mobilization committee and socialist alliance focused their efforts on ending the war in Vietnam rather than taking the anti-imperialism stance.

SDS had its own large demonstrations, such as when the group took over the third floor of the Music and Speech Building on April 16, 1969, to break into the closed expulsion hearings of SDS leaders. Their slogan was “Open it up or shut it down,” Canfora said, meaning the university should make the hearings open or stop them altogether.

“We came to the entrance of the building and there were about 60 frat guys there, locking arms and saying, ‘SDS go home,’” he said. “There were 200 of us, and we went right up against them.”

Canfora said they pushed against the fraternity members and eventually things become a little violent: split lips and bloody noses, he said.

“The frat guys got the worst of it,” he said.

SDS members ran up to the top of the stairwell and found the door chained shut. Canfora said someone took apart coat rack and used the pieces to pry open the chains. They shut down the hearings, accomplishing their goal. He said their celebration didn’t last long because they found out the police arrived and trapped them inside.

He said students were able to escape when former Kent State professor Carl Moore used his elevator key to take students down and let them out. The elevator was out of the view of the police, so the professor was able to help several loads of students escape. Canfora said he was in one of the last ones and made it back to his residence hall. The police eventually caught on and arrested 60 students.

Moore, now a facilitator at the Community Store, a consulting company in Santa Fe, N. M., said he helped the students because the police trapped them.

He said he left the building, went to his apartment and then returned to the Music and Speech Building after the police locked the students inside. After a janitor let him back in, Moore said he used his elevator key to get to the top floor.

When the doors opened, he said students ran towards the elevator. The hearing members, trapped as well, ran with them.

After two or three loads, he said he took down about 50 to 75 students. The police were waiting for him after his last load, he said, because some earlier released students ran around to the front of the building to tell others what just happened.

“There was a warrant for my arrest,” he said. The police never arrested him said.

Almost immediately following this demonstration, the university banned SDS from the campus. A group called the Concerned Citizens of the Kent Community spoke against this banning, demanding the dropping of charges against SDS members and the reinstating of the SDS charter, Canfora said.

Professor emeritus Jerry Lewis was a member of the concerned citizens, acting as a sort of adviser or sponsor. He said most of the members disagreed with the SDS’ violent tactics, but felt the university acted unfairly in banning the group after trapping them on the third floor.

“I didn’t like the SDS,” he said, “but I thought they were tricked.”

Lewis said the concerned citizens worked to create a referendum to allow students to vote on whether the university should allow the SDS to come back to the campus. Included in the referendum were the issues students could vote on.

In campaigning for the referendum, the concerned citizens held a march that went around all campus, Lewis said. About 400 students took part, he said.

When it came time for the vote, he said there was a turn out of 5,000 students. The majority voted against bringing back the SDS, but Lewis said the number of students who voted amazed him. He called the number extreme in comparison to the usual amount.

Their actions proved fruitless, however, as the SDS fell apart nationally when the group split into factions: the Weathermen and the Revolutionary Youth Movement, a more moderate group.

The former members of the SDS at Kent State tried to continue their work. However, with leaders such as Howie Emmer, Mark Lencl and Donovan in jail for their activities, Candy said, it was hard for some of them to step up and take control.

If it were not for the SDS, Canfora said, the students would not have protested as they did that weekend in May of 1970. Though some protesters were former SDS members, as he was, the majority of those involved were never part of the group.

“We had an impact on campus,” he said, “Regardless of whether they liked us or not.”

Contact news correspondent Bryan Wroten at [email protected].