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'Port Huron' Turns 50 as Occupy Turns 5 (Months)

The Port Huron Statement at 50 and the Occupy Movement at 5 Months

A Students for a Democratic Society national council meeting in Bloomington, Ind., in 1963. Tom Hayden is at far left. (George Abbot White)

The New York Times marks the upcoming 50th anniversary of the the famous 1960's treatise of the US left, The Port Huron Statement, with a profile in its weekend edition. The document, perhaps, takes on new relevance in an era when students and concerned citizens are once again taking to the streets to voice their opposition to a dominant culture and its governing institutions that undermine its hope for justice and equality and seems incapable -- without massive restructuring -- of addressing the major problems facing society. This new movement, most recognizable under the banner of the Occupy movement, appeared on the scene barely five months ago, but has already made its impact felt across the nation. And though it has entered a more dormant phase this winter, with its ultimate impact impossible to gauge, the movement continues to organize and take action while confronting both external forces aligned against and its own internal struggles the bubble up from within.

The New York Times explains the early genesis of Port Huron, which was first drafted at a ramshackle A.F.L.-C.I.O. education retreat northeast of Detroit in 1962, but ultimately "emerged from a five-day national convention of the Students for a Democratic Society held June 11 to 15, 1962, contained 25,000 words."

That was 7,000 more than the Communist Manifesto, which started a global revolution, and 24,300 more words than the Declaration of the Occupancy of New York City passed last September by a general assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which in three weeks produced the magnitude of protests that would take S.D.S. several years to galvanize.

But by invoking the spirit of John Dewey, Albert Camus, C. Wright Mills, Michael Harrington and Pope John XXIII, by at once championing and chiding organized labor as a victim of its own success (the S.D.S. began as the student arm of the League for Industrial Democracy), by elevating the university to the apex of activism and by validating liberalism and the two-party system, Tom Hayden and his colleagues forged a manifesto that still reverberates.

“While most people haven’t read it, it’s still extremely relevant” for its guiding principles, said David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist who has been active in the Occupy movement.

“For a long while I thought the Port Huron Statement was a relic of a hopeful past,” Mr. Hayden recalled last week. “But frequently students would read it and say how surprised they were at its sounding like the present.”

Relevance, as ever, is subjective. But certainly much of the Port Huron statement remains valid in a nation that in many ways has retained its political character over the last fifty years.

“We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity,” the statement said. Those sentiments were echoed in Occupy’s founding principles — “constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love.”  

“Sure, there were important things we missed,” Mr. Hayden recalled. “The environmental crisis, but Rachel Carson’s book hadn’t come out. Feminism, but Betty Friedan’s book wasn’t out. The escalation of Vietnam, which none of us expected, though we opposed. The assassination of J.F.K. and other killings to follow. The subsequent radicalization and polarization that characterized the late ’60s through Watergate.”

But, he continued, “the core of the Port Huron Statement rings true, and the theme of participatory democracy is relevant today from Cairo to Occupy Wall Street to Wisconsin to student-led democracy movements.”

But, not all members of the Occupy movement attach the same importance to a document that speaks to a different generation and a distinct set of problems.

Kalle Lasn was 20 in 1962. Today, he is the editor of Adbusters, whose Twitter tag #OccupyWallStreet branded the movement last summer. He does not feel the Occupy movement needs to look to the Port Huron statement for guidance. “If you ask me what is the most powerful, personal and collective feeling of people in the Occupy movement, it is a feeling of gloom and doom, that they’re looking toward a black hole future,” Mr. Lasn said. “I’m not quite sure we need a manifesto to say that.”


The Occupy protest movement may seem be receding, but look closer

Meanwhile, the contemporary student and protest movement pushes on. A recent NPR report notes that, "For people who watch TV news or read newspapers, the Occupy movement might seem to be in hibernation. Most of the encampments are gone, and diminished numbers take part in protests." But, it says, "But there's a lot of ferment behind the scenes - at least at Occupy Wall Street. Check the Occupy Wall Street website and you'll see at least 15 events every day: meetings by working groups on arts and culture, alternative banking, media, security."

Saying the movement as "evolving" may well be a better description than "hibernation," as the many Occupy affilliated groups across the country attempt to rethink their approach, narrow in on demands, or broaden their base of support.  Because mass street demonstrations have been replaced with what some call "Pop Up Action" -- where fewer, geographically isolated protesters take aim at more specific targets -- it's possible that the national media coverage has dropped while, in fact, the movement is growing.

"We're kind of going to occupy a Bank of America and turn it into a 'Food Bank of America,'" Occupy protester Luke Richardson said, describing an event on Wednesday.

Richardson stood behind a table with donated cans of food. Then, an hour later, 200 demonstrators braved the pouring cold rain and marched to the Bank of America headquarters, where they were stopped by police.

The following day, there were Occupy student debt rallies and marches by college students across the nation, including New York, protesting budget cuts and rising tuition.

Richardson describes these daily actions as pop-up occupations.

"We're going to different areas in the city and kind of just becoming a visible presence, letting people know we are still here and trying to get them interested again," said Richardson.

Protests on Thursday were held across California and make way for more to come:

..demonstrations [were] held on about 30 college campuses across California to protest rising tuition and call on lawmakers to restore funding to higher education. Rallies, marches, teach-ins and walkouts were scheduled to coincide with state budget negotiations, organizers said.

In San Francisco, about 200 demonstrators holding signs that read "Tax the Rich" and "Refund Education" held a teach-in in the lobby of the California State Building before attending an afternoon rally outside City Hall. College students and Occupy activists around the country held demonstrations as part of a "National Day of Action for Education."

About 15 of the demonstrators were taken into custody when they refused an order to disperse around 6:30 p.m., said California Highway Patrol Sgt. Diana McDermott. The 15 were cited on suspicion of trespassing and released.

At California State University, Los Angeles, about 300 students marched through campus blowing whistles and chanting, "No cuts, no fees, education should be free," according to the Los Angeles Times. At a rally in front of the campus bookstore, the group held signs that read "Stop Privatization" and "Defend Public Education."

The California protests are a prelude to a major "Occupy the Capitol" rally in Sacramento on Monday. Students and faculty members planned a "99 Mile March for Education and Social Justice" from Oakland to the state capital over the next few days.

And author and activist Naomi Klein, in a recent interview, says, "The Occupy movement has been a game changer, and it has opened up space for us to put more radical solutions on the table." And continued:

I think the political discourse in the United States is centered around what we tell ourselves the American public can handle. The experience of seeing these groups of young people put radical ideas on the table, and seeing the country get excited by it, has been a wake up call for a lot of people who feel they support those solutions—and for those who have said, “That’s all we can do.” It has challenged the sense of what is possible. I know a lot of environmentalists have been really excited by that. I’m on the board of, and they’ll be doing more and more work on the structural barriers to climate action. The issue is why? Why do we keep losing? Who is in our way? We’re talking about challenging corporate personhood and financing of elections—and this is huge for environmental groups to be moving out of their boxes. I think all of the green organizations who take corporate money are terrified about this. For them, Occupy Wall Street has been a game changer.


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