About a dozen college students sit around a small circular table outside of a boba tea house on the outskirts of Arizona State University’s (ASU’s) Tempe campus, discussing guns, Democratic Party politics, tuition reform and Chairman Mao Zedong. They are loud enough for passersby to take notice, their voices competing against the sound of cars whizzing by Rural Road.
As they fish the last bits of boba from the bottom of their cups, they decry the anti-gun views of liberals nationwide, emphasizing that though gun violence is horrific, allowing law enforcement a monopoly on firearms would be extremely dangerous.
This isn’t just any group of college students. They are members of ASU’s chapter of the modern-day incarnation of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the militant student group of the 1960s especially known for its activism against the Vietnam War.
In its present embodiment, the group follows an amorphous structure similar to its predecessor. Unlike other campus political and activist clubs, whose work is grounded in party politics, SDS is all about public and direct action against institutions and other figures of authority – in other words, making demands through protests, boycotts or sit-ins.
“We don’t canvass. We don’t do petitions for putting people in office. We don’t participate in trying to get bills passed,” said the group’s charismatic chair Fallon Leyba, who, while emphasizing the decentralized framework of SDS leadership, describes herself as the organization’s spokesperson and coordinator.
“The purpose of the club,” Leyba said, is “trying to get individuals on campus to stop being apathetic.”
This fight against apathy has taken the group all over ASU’s Tempe campus. They have organized meetings, pickets, marches, teach-ins, town halls and social events to bring awareness to student issues – everything from tuition costs to sexual assault prevention – and enact change.
While the group has been involved in activities around national topics — including the moving of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which its members harshly oppose — capping tuition has been its primary focus. Last April, four students tried to storm the office of the university’s president, Michael Crow, to deliver hundreds of petition signatures collected over four months. One of the students read demands from a smartphone, and he and other students argued with a receptionist who wouldn’t let them in.
The scene evoked memories of the student sit-ins of the 1960s, except that this action was broadcast live on Facebook under a caption that read: “This is our administration: one that silences students, refused their opposition, thus driving them to storm their office.” The students exercised their legal right to protest for the world to see.
Campus Activism: Then and Now
The original Students for a Democratic Society, descended from a group called the Student League for Industrial Democracy, became one of the shining examples of the political and social mobilization efforts of 1960s counterculture. They were a visible presence on many US college campuses, pushing a radical brand of antiwar, anti-capitalist, left-wing politics on their peers while also fighting for freedom of speech rights on college campuses.
In an interview with Truthout, Maurice Isserman, a professor of history at Hamilton College in New York and member of Reed College’s SDS chapter during the 1960s, said that SDS started out as a small student activist organization that failed to gain notice, mainly because its members were afraid of endangering their post-college careers by taking “radical stands” on social issues.
Everything changed with the civil rights movement: It brought a new sense of “possibility” for students, Isserman said, “a model for how relatively small groups of people, including many young people, could make history, could change the world.”
This small activist group changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society in 1960. Two years later, it held its first convention under the new title near Port Huron, Michigan; it had only a few hundred members at the time.
The Vietnam War proved to be a rallying cry for leftist students. As the United States began bombing North Vietnam in earnest in 1965, the group’s ranks swelled to 15,000, according to Isserman. It had 100,000 members when it splintered in 1969.
Eventually, a more sanitized, less in-your-face version of political activism took its place. Long-haired, bell-bottomed protesters were mostly replaced by young men and women in suits who operated under the banners of “Reagan Republicans” and “Clinton Democrats.”
The election of Donald Trump, among other factors, has changed that, spurring a resurgence of far-left as well as far-right activities on college campuses nationwide. Groups such as Students for Trump, Democratic Socialists of America and Turning Point USA all have college-based chapters, along with already established groups like Amnesty International, the Human Rights Campaign and others who have continued to organize after Trump’s election win.
Across the country, students have sought to re-claim their campuses. At John Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have taken the lead against efforts by the university to establish a campus police force. Earlier this year, at the University of North Carolina, art students protested against university policies that they feel neglect the art department. And at Oregon State University, pressure from activists over buildings named after people linked to slavery and white supremacy helped lead to the university announcing name changes for the buildings earlier this month.
These local activist groups are often parts of larger national multi-university structures, but many are specific to their campuses.
The Arizona State chapter split from the national Students for a Democratic Society in recent months over what its members characterized as a lack of diversity among the types of leftist ideologies it embraces. Leyba said the national SDS is dominated by Marxism–Leninism–Maoism – or MLM, as she and many others call them – even though it bills itself as a multi-tendency leftist organization.
“We felt we couldn’t uphold the multi-tendency principle while still associating ourselves with something that is very explicitly MLM,” she said.
In the SDS group on campus, there are self-professed leftists of different kinds. Quinton Washburn, a sociology major, describes himself as a democratic socialist. Tanzil Chowdhury, a materials science and engineering major, deems himself more of a Marxist, finding inspiration in Marx’s anti-capitalist ideas and pathway to a post-capitalist world. Ben Cooper, a history major, is a self-described “communist, but not a Marxist.”
Cooper, a constant presence in the group’s meetings and protests over the past two semesters, said that he swung left of progressive during the 2016 presidential election, when he became an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders.
He cast a mail-in vote for Hillary Clinton, but now regrets voting at all. That, he said, is in part because of his frustration with the Democratic Party and in part because ideological growth and insight from fellow leftists have made him lose faith in the US political establishment.
“I find when it comes to climate change and ecological issues,” Cooper said, “that was one of the first things I noticed: that (neither party) could really handle or come to address [them] in a significant or comprehensive way.”
He initially joined SDS to get more involved in on-campus activism. The first time he remembers going to a protest remains the most memorable: He was one of many tear-gassed by police outside the Phoenix Convention Center last summer, after Trump delivered another of his defiant speeches on border security and immigration. At the time, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams defended the action authorities took, saying the police had done so to protect “themselves” and the “community” from protesters hurling projectiles.
“That left an impression on me,” Cooper said. “Even by the normal standard of police practices, it was pretty excessive what they had done.”
Angus Johnston, a history professor in the City University of New York system who specializes in US student activism, told Truthout that Trump’s unexpected election victory galvanized students from many sides of the political spectrum into taking action. However, he says those who lean left have been especially active, vividly shown by the rise of the #MeToo movement, as well as the sustained popularity of the Black Lives Matter activist movement.
“There is a sense that (Trump) is an existential threat to American democracy that’s much more widely spread than in previous presidencies,” Johnston said. “All of that energy is being felt very powerfully on campus.”
Out in the Streets
The meeting at the tea house on an overcast Tuesday evening happened less because of Trump and more because of Leyba. Sardonic and steadfast, she punctuates much of what she says with comedic hand gestures, flailing her knowledge of socialist economics with precision to anyone who is willing to listen.
Leyba, 21, was acquainted with the left long before she had seen a college tuition bill. She remembers identifying herself that way during her time at Phoenix Country Day School, an exclusive private school in the affluent city of Paradise Valley, where homes rarely sell for less than $1 million. It was there, she said, that she first noticed political and economic polarization between classes, some of the foundation for her later views.
“I was going to school with people far wealthier than I,” said Leyba, who says she is from a working-class family where her father’s work as a firefighter was the primary source of income. “The class divide was very apparent.”
She was not immediately involved in far-left politics when she joined ASU in 2015. She was brought in at the beginning of her sophomore year, when a friend told her she should join the ASU branch of the Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party. To her friend’s chagrin, Leyba refused: The Young Democrats’ brand of “establishment” politics did not align with her leftist ideology. Frustrated, her friend told her she should instead join the Students for a Democratic Society if she felt that way.
Leyba says she was quickly enthralled once she acquainted herself with the group.
“It did very much interest me that they were a kind of a hardcore leftist group,” says Leyba, a double major in political science and philosophy who is enrolled in ASU’s elite Barrett, the Honors College, where students must maintain at least a 3.25 grade point average to graduate.
The election of Donald Trump brought what Leyba describes as a “huge uptick” in participation in ASU’s SDS chapter, but with new members came new friction from those who believed SDS was not adequately addressing national issues – Trump’s policies on refugees and immigration, for example – in a way that made them feel connected to the nationwide anti-Trump movement. Leyba and a more veteran cadre of SDS members seem less troubled by that than by the general indifference concerning on-campus issues among many students, even among those who care about politics.
Campus issues “can be a lot less sexy because they seem smaller,” Leyba said, though she doesn’t see them that way. “They are examples of ways the big general stuff can concretely affect human beings, specifically people in our age group and people in our economic class.”
One such example is tuition. Chowdhury, co-chair of the campus SDS group, had meetings with ASU administrators after their sit-in at the university president’s office. On March 23, the group and other political organizations on campus claimed victory: Crow announced that there would be no tuition or program fee increases for in-state students in ASU’s 2019 tuition proposal.
In a statement posted on Facebook, SDS said the decision was “facilitated” by efforts from student leaders, who had now won a “hard-earned” victory. It was one not unlike other victories for campus activist groups in the months before, from Washington, DC, to Wisconsin.
The statement emphasized, though, that the battle for improvement on campus still goes on: “Michael Crow has still not promised a freeze on tuition, and the administration has a lot of work to do before it becomes clear that they actually care about ASU students,” the statement said. “We will continue that fight and demand accountability from this administration.”
The statement ended with several emojis of a raised fist, a classic symbol of leftist solidarity made famous by two Black athletes at the 1968 Summer Olympics, now replicated with a few keystrokes.