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LGBT Rights Movement Can Learn From the Weather Underground: Q&A With Mark Rudd

As the chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the student occupation and strike of April 1968, Mark Rudd began his journey as a controversial student activist. He was a regional and national organizer for SDS, elected in 1969, as the last National Secretary of that organization. He was a founder in 1970 of the Weather Underground, whose goal was for the violent overthrow of the government of the United States; ultimately, he was federal fugitive for over seven years.

After turning himself in to authorities in 1977, he became a community college math instructor and a full-time activist and organizer around peace, racial justice, and environmental and union issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In 2009, Rudd published the political memoir Underground: My Life in SDS and Weatherman.  He's currently organizing around building a progressive wing in the Democratic Party. 

I spoke with Mark Rudd about his connections with the organization, how Generation Y can achieve political change through activism, and his suggestions on how millennials can advance the rights for those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community; the civil rights movement of our time.

Jeffrey Hartinger (JH): Although we are nowhere close to the activism of the 1960's, many of us in Generation Y are using different approaches to fight for social change and equality. What is your view of the current youth culture?

Mark Rudd (MR): Most of the organizing I've seen, aside from occasional direct action, seems to be digital. Clearly, this is a vast improvement over communicating via phones and mimeograph machines, which is what we had. Yet there also seems to be something missing. Malcolm Gladwell, in a 2010 article in the New Yorker entitled "Small Change," took up the question. He pointed out the difference between what he called "strong ties," which are built on personal relationships among activists, and "weak ties," which are the type developed in digital media, where it's very easy to just press a "like" button or make a financial contribution.

I've come to the conclusion that all the great social movements of the 20th century, including women's suffrage, labor, the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War, the women's and gay rights and disability movements, all used a model of organizing that involved building personal relationships between people, developing leadership, and creating broad coalitions. I was exposed to this method when I joined the peace movement as an 18-year-old freshman at Columbia in 1965.  SDS members who had been raised in socialist, communist, and labor families had learned organizing as children and they taught the rest of us.

The goal of all organizing is growth toward building a mass movement. All the movements I mentioned above were mass movements, involving millions of people and therefore changing both social mores and governmental policy. There's no other way. My own history, of attempting guerrilla warfare as a means of sparking social change, is useful for learning what not to do.

My friends and I stopped organizing on college campuses, which we were relatively good at, in order to run around pretending to be guerrilla fighters, which had zero utility for building a movement.

You might recall in the movie Milk that Harvey started every speech he made with the sentence, "My name is Harvey Milk and I'm here to recruit you! "To recruit you" meant to move a person to the point where they will take action. The usage comes directly out of the labor and civil rights and peace movements, which were contiguous in time with the gay rights movement. They all were built on the tradition of an organizing model. The problem your generation is facing is that that tradition has been lost because of the gap of the last forty or so years. You haven't participated in actual mass movements being built. This is a subject I could go on and on about.

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JH: While you were with SDS, and then Weather Underground, was advocating for the rights of those in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community ever on your radar?

MR: No, not at all. The Weatherman faction of SDS and later the Weather Underground were particularly macho disasters, despite the fact that women were involved. We were cultists of guns and "armed struggle," and fighting cops in the street. It was especially ridiculous because most of us were middle class and didn't come from violent backgrounds. We were posing as revolutionaries, which we thought needed to be hard and strong and tough communists. Our images must have come from comic books. Che Guevara was the ultimate hero to be emulated.

Heterosexual sex was the norm, though women were encouraged to have sex with other women to build intimacy. Male gay friends of mine who were in the organization subsequently told me that they had to be very much in the closet. Personally, I never broke my own taboos against sex with men. There was plenty of group sex, though, which had undertones of male bonding via females.

The gay movement was just beginning in 1969 and most of us "socialist revolutionaries" in the Weathermen probably figured that socialism would take care of all problems of injustice and inequality. We specifically said that about the women's movement, that it needed to be subordinated to the greater struggles for national liberation and socialism; I suspect we felt the same way about gay liberation. Wait for socialism.

JH: In Underground: My Life in SDS and Weatherman, you pointed out how some Jews who fled from Nazi Germany were now oppressing, in various ways, African-Americans and Latinos in and around New York City. Do you see any similarity with the LGBT individuals are treated?

MR: A slight correction in the way you posed the question: I was not necessarily speaking of the same Jews who fled, but rather that Jews were persecuted in Europe and now Jews in New York (specifically the teachers' union) were opposing African-Americans and Latinos who wanted to organize for power in their own schools and communities. I think your question is more about oppression than about the role of Jews: Yes, LGBT people are still discriminated against in much the same way as non-white minorities. Hence the need for closets and for a mass movement to end all forms of discrimination.

At the onset of the gay movement, I thought that gay people were raising a fundamental critique of the nature of American society, that it is essentially macho and militaristic and competitive. But that critique got subordinated to other issues, such as the right to serve in the military and the right to marry, which are essentially civil rights. And the deep criticism of this macho society has gone by the way side. I'm hoping that the gay movement will eventually come back to the criticism of our militaristic and competitive way of life. I don't want my grandchildren to be raised in this nightmare.

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JH: Although a painful time in your life, is there one positive thing you took away from your years as a fugitive? 

MR: For about two years (1968 to 1970) I was posing as a revolutionary leader, making all sorts of ridiculous media statements and even carrying guns and strutting around. All along, I was just this nice Jewish kid from New Jersey suburbs. Being underground for seven and a half years, when I had to survive as nobody and work as an unskilled laborer and live anonymously grounded me so that I could leave all that early craziness behind. I saw what it was like to be down and out and at the bottom of society.  I never forgot that. When it came time for me to take my place back in the upper middle class, I chose to be an instructor at a community college, so as to remain in touch with people at the bottom.

JH: In my opinion, America is not where it should be in regard to the rights of LGBT individuals. Do you have any advice for us millennials? 

MR: Study the history of successful mass movements in this country, including the gay rights movement, and learn how they were organized. Figure out who the leaderships were, and what their strategies were and then raise the questions in your own organizing around goals, strategy, and tactics. I've been studying the civil rights movement in the South, which is probably the greatest story of the 20th century in this country. It was NOT one man with a dream. That's the Disney version. The truth is infinitely more complex.

Self-expression is not necessarily strategic. It often can be, but alone it doesn't build a movement. People are brought into movements and moved to take action themselves through relationships, not by watching heroes.

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Make sure to visit Mark Rudd on his website for more information. I would also strongly recommend his book, Underground:  My Life in SDS and Weatherman, for an in-depth look at various radical movements of the 1960's and beyond. In addition, if you are a member of Generation Y that is striving for social change, check out Examples On How To Use Writing To Protest, Petition, And Sway Opinions.

This article was originally posted on Generation: W(hy)?

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