Rebels with a Cause


Rebels with a Cause movie posterIn our continuing exploration of documentaries about the radical groups of the 1960s and 1970s, Mark and I watched Rebels with a Cause the other night. Made in 2000 by former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) member Helen Garvey, the film is a semi-romantic montage of present-day interviews with people who were active in SDS and video clips from the time when SDS was active. A dozen or so members of the organization talk the viewer through from SDS's conception in the early 1960s through its disintegration and the rise of the Weather Underground in the late 60s/early 70s.

As I've mentioned before, SDS is an organization I know quite a bit about, as I studied the "second wave" feminist movement in undergrad and a lot of it was connected to SDS. Because of this, many of the people who were interviewed were familiar to me (Tom and Casey Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Bill Ayer, Bernadette Dohrn, etc.), as were many of the stories they told (the sit-in at Columbia, the organization efforts in Newark and other cities, the Days of Rage, etc.). Even having heard the stories before, though, it was interesting to hear and see them told again. This film also included perspectives from people I hadn't seen in other films or read in many books (including early SDS president Alan Haber), which I thought was fascinating.

The really interesting part for me, though, is the feelings about having been in SDS (and, in some cases, the more violent Weather Underground) portrayed by the participants 30+ years later. Most of the people interviewed for this film seemed proud of their participation, if slightly in awe of their younger egos and naiveté. However, many of them were also very anxious to align themselves with SDS's history of non-violent resistance and community building, while distancing themselves from the tactics of the Weather Underground. While this is hardly surprising, given the professional careers of some of these individuals, as well as their general tendency towards pacifism, I still find it disappointing. Ayers and Dohrn, both first members of SDS, went on to become leaders of the Weather Undergound, and it seemed almost backstabbing for the other interviewees to disavow them. What this comes down to, of course, is an argument about whether "those who make peaceful revolution impossible [will] make violent revolution inevitable" (JFK). The Weather Undergound believed that to be the case, as do I. As did, I'd suspect many disenfranchised, fed-up SDS members by the late 1960s. But it's not something they want to cop to now, and that disappoints me.

As has been the case before in my study of these people and this time period, I found Ayers and Dohrn to be the most compelling speakers. It's easier for them to speak honestly, I suspect, because they are semi-sheltered in privileged careers (both are professors). It doesn't seem accidental, though, that the most compelling members of SDS are the ones who went on to become Weathermen. Whether you agree with the tactics of the Weather Underground or not, you have to admire the dedication of people who were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, and I think you can still see some of that dedication in Dohrn and Ayers.

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