In March of this year, a loose confederation of organizers from New York, Wisconsin, and various points on the West Coast began working to answer the question believers in the Occupy movement everywhere had begun to ask: what next? That fall and winter, amazing images of protest and solidarity from Zuccotti Park, Oakland, and campuses and communities throughout the country imprinted themselves on the national consciousness. However, these organizers knew that if OWS and its offspring were to have any lasting resonance there had to be some kind of logical progression. They turned their efforts toward creating a structure that could shape the causes and beliefs of students involved in campus encampments throughout the country into one unified force. Out of these talks, the idea of a National Student Power Convergence—a space in which student activists from across the country could gather to share skills, compare tactics, and plan future actions—was formed.
From August 10 to 14, the organizers of the Convergence found themselves dealing with the logistical minutia that come with feeding, housing, and training over two hundred activists on the strength of a donated budget and the goodwill of two progressive Columbus, Ohio churches. Yet, with all of the potential for the Convergence to end in disaster—or at least the kind of anticlimactic fizz that often follows attempts such as this—logistically the event was as successful as could be reasonably expected. I left Columbus feeling much more optimistic about the Left’s future in this country than I had anticipated, and felt I had gained a clearer understanding of the ideological tensions and oppositional backlash any serious student movement faces in this country than I have had at any point since the last time I stepped foot in an Occupy encampment.
The archetypes are familiar to anyone who has spent much time doing left organizing in North America. The newspaper-hawking Trots convinced that anyone who does not share their vulgar Marxist critique is a shill for the Democratic Party. The gruff anarchists who reject any attempt to work within established frameworks as a betrayal of freedom. The pro-Obama moderate who dismisses both as radical and out of touch with reality. These and other personalities representing diametrically opposed schools of thoughts and approaches to politics were all well represented. What was remarkable was that, with the exception of a few caustic souls intent on turning workshops on strategic planning into ideological battlefields, all of these various strands of left and liberal thought could exist in relative peace. The general consensus, both among students and Convergence organizers, was that a variety of approaches and tactics could coexist without one contingent “selling out” or another being off the deep end.
Even more interesting, student organizers working on radically different issues were being encouraged to view themselves as part of one big movement. Stephen Lerner was especially explicit about this in his presentation Saturday afternoon, reminding the audience that regardless of whether they care about racist incarceration policies, immigration, student debt, or mountaintop removal, they could all find the same handful of banks benefiting from the system they opposed. Joshua Kahn Russell, of the direct action training organization the Ruckus Society, gave a rousing reminder in his keynote address that you cannot accomplish goals of systemic change by remaining a member of the “righteous few.” Students who interrupted or attempted to alienate speakers they disagreed with were generally not well received by their fellows. Slogans like “We Are the 99%” are not going to liberate us from left sectarianism, but these kinds of presentations did open up a space where genuine cross-ideological movement building could begin.
The blogger, student power advocate, and Convergence facilitator Patrick St. John wrote that “probably the most interesting part of this convergence is that it wasn’t organized under the umbrella of a large national organization.” In person, he elaborated that many of the Convergence’s predecessors were bankrolled either by NGOs such as Campus Progress or by the Democratic Party itself, making them unreliable incubators for student radicalism. These five days, in contrast, consisted of “programming based on what [student organizers] perceived the needs of the current student movement to be,” and not any one agenda or ideology.
Also of interest was the sense of being part of both an international movement and a broader historical narrative. Proceedings opened with a video that tied in iconic scenes in the history of American student activism (the SNCC sit-ins, Mario Savio’s “gears” speech) with solidarity videos from students in Spain, Egypt, Iran, and Great Britain. Carl Davidson, former vice president of Students for a Democratic Society and member of what Marshall Berman calls the “Used Left,” was on hand as a living tie to both the mythological and historical 1960s. Students from Quebec’s CLASSE student strikes, Mexico’s #YoSoy132 protests, and Puerto Rican student unions were present. “We are united in a global fight for education, and learning models that organizers in other countries use will make us a stronger student movement,” said Isham Christie, a Convergence organizer affiliated with New York Students Rising.
“We should see some kind of large coordinated direct action within three weeks, a month tops,” says Maxwell John Love, the corporate secretary for the USSA and one of the people who took part in those conference calls back in March. Already, plans are coming together for regional “mini-convergences” and groups are following up with one another to talk about potential campaigns.
“It’s great that people are talking about organizing for the first time in a long time,” Davidson said to me as my time at the Convergence was coming to an end. “In the ’60s, that’s what we all wanted to be when we grew up. But most of us weren’t actually organizers, we were just activists.” To Davidson, the difference between an activist and an organizer is that an organizer builds organizations while an activist simply works through them. Movement building was, after all, supposed to be why students were coming to Ohio in the first place.
What happened in Ohio this weekend was not the birth of some New New Left, or even the resuscitation of a floundering Occupy movement. There is still much work to be done before we can say that Convergence has produced anything resembling a national student movement. However, it was a jolt of badly needed energy to the hearts and minds of student activists from all over the country.