December 20, 2006

Tear It Down!: A Personal View of the First SDS Northwest Convention

From the very beginning the Northwest convention had a very different feeling than the previous two. There has been very little MDS involvement in the Northwest so students had planned the entire conference.
Friday night, a group of Lewis & Clark SDSers, including myself, crammed into two cars and headed over to Reed College for our last minute meeting. On the way we stopped at the Red & Black café to pick up a 3-pound bag of chips and a gallon of hummus and tapenade that they had so generously donated for the cause.
Thanks to Sam Downs and Frazer Lanier of LC SDS Noah’s Bagels had also given us a weekends worth of bagels and Food Not Bombs prepared some veggies, fruit and other goodies for the conference. When we got to Reed, some guy needed help jump starting his car, so I stayed behind as everyone else headed to the Student Action Office. When I got there ten minutes later everyone had already made big signs on butcher paper directing people where to go.
We all headed over to the psychology building where the opening plenary was to take place. I set up my computer for registration as Guy Dobyns, an LC SDSer tried to fix our button maker. Within an hour dozens of unfamiliar faces, which would soon be familiar, poured into the hall. Alex Cooper and Mary Sackley from LC SDS registered everyone while we waited for the last few cars to get here. It was great to see Brendan Dunn from Olympia SDS and Patrick and Millicent from Tacoma SDS, whom I hadn’t seen since the National Convention in August. We started at 7:15pm, a little behind schedule. After introductions from Mary, Matt Wasserman from Reed SDS gave a short history of what SDS did in the 60s and then I gave a brief synopsis of what the new SDS has been doing around the country. Afterwards Alejandro Queral from the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center gave a very informative speech on the federal government’s roundup, intimidation and harassment of environmental and animal rights activists, and what student-based organizations can do to counteract attacks on dissenting political points of view. I had booked Alejandro only a few days before, so it was great to see everyone to react so positively to his speech. When Alejandro finished, a member or a few members from each chapter gave a report back on what they had done over the course of the semester. Every chapter was doing some great stuff, but the highlight for me was hearing from Bellingham SDS who had just formed a few weeks earlier.

After the report backs Mary had everyone who needed housing head to the left side of the room and those who could offer housing head to the right side. After everyone was paired up, we all separated for the night. I had to run off to play a concert back at Lewis & Clark, but I eventually ended up at Frazer’s house with a bunch of Portland, Bellingham and Olympia SDSers. We had a few beers and talked politics until way too late in the morning and after a few hours of sleep I was up and heading to Lewis & Clark College for the first day of the convention.
I got there at 9am when registration was supposed to start and the place was completely vacant. I started crimping some buttons with our newly fixed button maker (thanks to Guy), and blasted The Coup from my computer speakers while I waited for people to show up. By 9:45 the registration room was crowded with people, food, and coffee mugs donated from the Lewis & Clark Co-op. The workshops started at 10am and like the rest of the convention, I had to pick from a jam-packed schedule of amazing workshops.
I ultimately decided to head to the workshop entitled “Removing Gender Biases and Embracing the Trans-Community.” The queer-rights activist group from Lewis & Clark, called SAFER gave the workshop. It was incredibly informative, especially about the vocabulary used when talking about gender identity.

Others went to workshops on learning from the Black Panthers, the Military Commissions Act, and the first of several workshops and discussions on environmental issues. After a small break I facilitated a discussion on local structure. It was incredibly interesting to talk about the problems each branch had been having and to collectively think of solutions. After our discussion it was time to eat lunch. Food Not Bombs and Sam Downs spent the whole morning cooking food for the group.

Brendan Dunn (Olympia SDS) playing with Stitches
While I ate, I participated in a caucus on feminism and gender equality. When that discussion finished I went to an incredibly informative workshop on basic protest preparation and safety held by Mimi Calkins and Rachel Graham of Olympia SDS. They talked about their experiences being pepper sprayed at the port of Olympia and different ways to help those who had been pepper sprayed or tear gassed.
After the last section of workshops we all broke off in small groups for the “From Theory to Practice” plenary that Daniel Cairns from Tacoma SDS had thought up. Millicent from Tacoma was the facilitator in our group of almost entirely Lewis & Clark students. The group was largely SDSers but included two students from Lewis & Clark who I had never seen at a meeting. It was interesting talking to them about their conceptions of SDS and conceptions of SDS on campus in contrast to what those who were involved experienced. One of those students, Scott, seemed very inspired and changed by the conversation and has been coming to meetings and playing an active role in our chapter ever since. When the discussion ended, everyone gathered in one room and I facilitated our first general discussion amongst the entire group. Although originally the discussion was slated to talk about regional structure, we actually ended up discussing a whole range of regional issues including actions, letters, goals and structure. Afterwards we showed the video of the Iranian American student at UCLA who had been tasered by campus security. A few of us stayed behind to draft a letter to the UCLA officials and the UC regents about the event.
Finally, we left the campus and I got to go out with a bunch of the Tacoma SDSers and Joshua Russell from the Rainforest Action Network to eat scrumptious burritos at Laughing Planet. After a lot of face stuffing and dinosaur action figure role-playing we split in two as some went to Portland’s infamous Voodoo Donuts and another group went with me back to my house, The Alamo, to set up for the party. When we got there, it was already packed. We had a fun night of drinking, dancing and listening to live music and after four hours of sleep I was back at Lewis & Clark setting up the registration table.
Everyone was pretty tired and we ended up starting the opening plenary 30 minutes late. The plenary went extremely well and we made a bunch of unanimous decisions. After brief discussion and a few additions we sent out the letter to UCLA that a group of us had written the night before. We also sent out a letter I had drafted that morning to the Pace University officials about their blatant disregard for their students 1st amendment rights and the problems Pace SDSers have been encountering. We decided to create a Northwest phone tree for emergency actions or meetings. We also set up a monthly conference call with representatives from all of the chapters in the region. The group requested that I set up a Northwest SDS website, where we can all post news and events and discuss different topics. You can now see that website here: We also decided that the next Northwest SDS Convention would be held in Olympia sometime next semester. After the plenary we all put our hands together for a big “Tear it Down” salute, to which Josh quickly replied “while building sustainable alternatives.”
After the salute were made a few people left to go to an Oaxaca protest in Olympia. With a smaller crowd, the convention marched on with a new set of workshops. I listened to an interesting history of the environmental movement given by Alex Cooper, who is writing her thesis on the ELF and afterwards I participated in an incredible workshop on sustainable student organization building that was facilitated by Joshua Russell.

After the day was over I had tons of new ideas of how to better organize our chapter and integrate new members and about a dozen projects I wanted to take on for SDS. By the time the conference ended at 6:00pm there were only about twenty SDSers left. We all said our goodbyes and it was over. The next day a bunch of Lewis & Clark SDSers met with Josh Russell to reflect on the conference. Here are a few quotes from that meeting:
“It came together so well in the end and students from all over the region were teaching students the tools they learned through activism.” — Frazer Lanier
“All of these people with varying opinions came together. As a stranger, I walked in and got a distinct sense of community amongst a great group of people.” — Scott Heirshberg
"That students who are usually so busy with their academic and social life could meet together on a weekend and sit and talk extremely intellectually for eight straight hours two days in a row, says something about the power of students ability to self-educate." – Nick Kaufman
"I get a lot of criticism about how anarchism would ever work. And this weekend it worked. It was mutual aid in its purist form. Students cooking for students. Cleaning others dishes, etc." – Sam Downs
Personally, I think the conference was incredible. I learned more in this weekend from my peers and fellow activists then I've learned in my last two years at college. I feel like a lot of people felt very empowered by this convention. Building a non-hierarchical, multi-issue organization is very difficult. We're not like STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur), where the title of your organization defines what you are going to do and people getting involved know exactly what they are getting into. Instead we are trying to deal with a very diverse set of political views and tactics. And we want to structure our organization in a non-hierarchical, democratic way leaving room for dissent and for oppressed peoples to voice their concerns. I think every branch was beginning to encounter structural and tactical problems because of the many issues that arise when trying to accomplish this. The convention opened all of our eyes to the larger picture, and in doing so, helped us brainstorm and come to conclusions about ways to overcome the difficulties within our individual branches. Everyone left the convention with tons of great ideas about what to do next.