Anti-war activist speaks at Pitt, sparks debate

Eric Shannon | March 4, 2010    

An anti-war activist who was a member of the Weather Underground Organization in the Vietnam… An anti-war activist who was a member of the Weather Underground Organization in the Vietnam era came to Pitt last night to advocate non-violent protest, to the criticism of some who protested during Pittsburgh’s G-20 Summit.

Mark Rudd, a former leader of Students for a Democratic Society and member of the Weather Underground, spoke in the Public Health Auditorium Wednesday night to advocate a non-violent strategy for protesting.

“If you use violence you’re either stupid, or a cop,” Rudd said.

Rudd said that he started his activism when he was approached by David Gilbert, a fellow activist, during his freshman year at Columbia University. Gilbert educated on the Vietnam War and introduced him to fellow students who were interested in how the war started.

“I grew up believing that the U.S. was a moral country … we always fought on the side of morality,” said Rudd. “It was a moral shock.”

Rudd recounted how fellow students at Columbia protested and overtook several buildings after learning that the university worked for the military, and that the university intended to expand into the black neighborhood of Harlem.

Rudd said that he was expelled for his actions, and then went around the country speaking at colleges on behalf of SDS. Then he became part of a growing militant faction of SDS that aimed to violently overthrow the government. According to the Tribune-Review, Weather Underground bombed Pittsburgh’s own Gulf Building in 1974.

However, Rudd realized that their tactics weren’t working, and left in the mid-70’s.

“I substituted organizing for self expression,” said Rudd. “We should have kept organizing, but we abandoned a goal for the tactic.”

“Violence cannot work. The government will call it terrorism,” said Rudd. “All Americans think violence is either criminal or insane unless the government does it.”

After speaking of his own failures, he took the controversial G-20 protesters to task.

“I don’t think that militarism is that valuable at this point,” Rudd said. “I don’t understand the black bandanas. They played right into the hands of the police and the media.”

Instead, Rudd advocated the idea of building a large base movement through a non-violent strategy of education and building of relationships with people.

However, many G-20 protesters strongly disagreed, often angrily interrupting Rudd — such as Pitt student and member of the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, Noah Willumsen.

“My main problem is he made a lot of assumptions,” Willumsen said after the lecture. “His ideas are dated. He assumes that there has to be a leader and a framework that emphasizes structure, a hierarchy and part line.”

“We didn’t send people a letter saying, ‘This is what we’re doing, if you don’t do it you’re stupid or a cop’,” Willumsen said, quoting Rudd. “That’s ridiculous.”

Jordan Romanus, president of the Pitt chapter of Students for a Democratic Society said that they brought Mark Rudd to speak because he fit in with the group’s current vision.

“We were thinking about having a speaker come in to talk, and he contacted us,” Romanus said. “We looked at what he did. He was the most popular student organizer, and then alienated his base.”

Romanus said the new SDS is about non-violence, and decided to host Rudd as a speaker because he also advocated SDS’s new stance.

A faction of disaffected SDS students created the Weather Underground in 1969. Kathleen Blee, a Pitt sociology professor, discussed its motives.

“It was a reaction to what they saw as a corporate backed imperialist venture abroad,” Blee said. “It was a strategy or set of tactics, and non-violent.”

The group aimed to bring destruction to the buildings of institutions that supported the war effort, such as the Gulf Oil building in Downtown Pittsburgh..

Blee said that the group thought its confrontational tactics would “shock” Americans, and that they would be more successful.

“They didn’t get the response from citizens or government they wanted,” she said. “Instead of saying ‘this is a problem’ they just saw the [Weather Underground] as criminals.”

Rudd now lives in Albequerque and recently retired from teaching math at the Central New Mexico Community College. He now gives speeches and writes books about his history with activism.

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