DC SCAR Foundations & South Africa: A Brief Sketch of Solidarity & Struggles
By Doug Calvin, 1996
DC SCARs’ formation in 1983 was prompted by anti-apartheid student organizers at Howard University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, John Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland at College Park. These student organizers formed a coalition of their campus progressive and anti-apartheid organizations to support and share resources regarding their work in solidarity with South African freedom organizations, and to coordinate university divestment of corporations doing business in South Africa. These actions included constructing “shanty-towns” at these campuses to bring attention to the plight of South Africans. These direct actions were highly controversial, and included 35 student protester arrests at Georgetown University, a firebombing attack on the shantytown at Johns Hopkins University (the perpetrator was a student who was later convicted of arson and assault), and twelve student protester arrests at the University of Maryland at College Park, when students rebuilt shanties destroyed by campus police. All the universities eventually divested.
During this time, DC SCAR meetings were held monthly, most often at the University of the District of Columbia or at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Washington DC. Meetings generally attracted 30-40 people, including three or four students from each campus chapter, members of the All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, the Young Socialists’ Alliance, Frontline (a Communist Party youth organization), and often student activists from out of town, including Rutgers University, Columbia and other schools around the country. While the sectarian groups tried hard to recruit at the meetings, most of the students were generally oblivious to these efforts and stayed focused on the work of DC SCAR.
The divestment campaigns were part of a wide-spread movement, involving hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the US and internationally, to pressure the South African government to abolish the apartheid system. DC SCAR members were active beyond their own campuses in the anti-apartheid movement, often initiating and participating in protests at the South African Embassy, and attending conferences and meetings of student and community activists in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the deep South.
As the Free South Africa Movement grew to include steady acts of non-violent civil disobedience at the South African Embassy, different constituencies planned different days to protest at the Embassy, including lawyers, clergy, and movement leaders. Students pressured to have a student day, that occurred on February 1, 1984, the anniversary of the birth of the student sit-in movement of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. DC SCAR mobilized throughout the city and 120 students were arrested; the most arrests in one day of any of the Embassy protests.
DC SCAR was instrumental in organizing a DC student contingent to the U.S. Student Association-sponsored 1985 Chicago summit addressing “Youth Solidarity with the Peoples’ Struggle in Southern Africa,” and establishing a national legislative alert network with the Washington Office on Africa and the U.S. Student Association.
By 1985, the South African Government was attempting to disrupt the U.S. anti-apartheid movement and launch its own counter-campaigns through hosting embassy tours for student government leaders. Students from American University were invited on one of these tours. When DC SCAR member, Dee Harris, could not dissuade the students to cancel, he decided to participate as well. Once inside the Embassy, Harris handcuffed himself to a desk and demanded to see the Ambassador. His request was not granted and he was arrested. No more Embassy tours were granted under the apartheid governments.
A major anti-anti-apartheid meeting was held in New York City in 1985, co-sponsored by the South African Government, the U.S. State Department, a national association of university administration lawyers and other groups. In this meeting they evaluated student organizing against apartheid that had spread to hundreds of college campuses, and many universities were divesting from corporations with holdings in South Africa. They realized that the threat of arrest records and legal punishment did not deter students from taking a moral stance. Some of the decisions from that meeting were exposed by the American Coalition on Africa, including suggestions to change university penal codes regarding political protests to threaten a student’s academic standing, a greater emphasis on police surveillance and increased force by campus security and state police. Over the next year, these changes were apparent on campuses across the country.
The Last Days of Apartheid
Many of the anti-apartheid organizations eventually split on many campuses, due to racial tensions within the anti-apartheid organizations themselves and misleading media coverage of South African news. This was prevented in DC SCAR largely due to the continued belief in having leadership of color in charge, and the commitment of all members to maintaining a principled, multi-racial and multi-ethnic organization with long-term goals and analysis.
DC SCAR continued to apply pressure on South Africa until apartheid was abolished. In 1990, DC SCAR was responsible for the only national mailings to student groups regarding sanctions on South Africa, and in 1993, held the last anti-apartheid demonstration at the South African Embassy, in response to the South African government-inspired massacres and assassinations that had taken place. The news media of the day covered these atrocities as “black on black” violence, but it was known within the movement and later proven through the South African Truth Commission that the violence was orchestrated by the apartheid government.
Social Paradigms of the Reagan Era
The 1980s were an era of intense social strife and upheaval around the world, including extensive organizing for social justice on the part of U.S. progressive activists. These movements were ignited by highly confrontational policies and personalities of Ronald Reagan and his allies, including South African President F.W. Botha, Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, the Contra Armies in Honduras and Costa Rica, Israeli Prime Minister Menacham Begin, English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and a host of other hard-line right-wing despots and dictators. The Cold War heated up; wars in the Third World intensified, and within the U.S. there were concerted political and economic attacks on women, left-wing movements and the poor. Major corporations made record profits and mergers while undermining the stability and rights of working people. The adversaries of human rights and social justice were easily identified.
Many people in the U.S. responded to these affronts by organizing around a host of issues, often holding large demonstrations and acts of non-violent civil disobedience. The alternative press was prevalent in communities throughout the country, and national newspapers, such as the Guardian Independent Weekly, provided support and education around a host of issues. Youth in the early eighties often prevented or disrupted public relations attempts by Reagan Administration officials to speak at universities, such as U.N. Representative Jeannie Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, causing their speaking engagements to be abandoned as a publicity strategy. These students also set in motion a momentum that was to involve their younger brothers and sisters in a decade of growing student activism.
Over the course of the 1980s, a diverse and widespread student movement grew, including leadership from black, white, gay, lesbian, Latino, Native American students from major universities, small community colleges and high schools around the nation. This movement made significant contributions to larger social causes, as well as confronting a host of student and educational issues although it was largely not recognized nor fully nourished by older organizers and society as a whole. Thus, an entire generation of activists became veterans of a youth movement that was hardly recognized and is largely forgotten in the 1990s.
Overview of DC SCAR Membership and Structure
For the past thirteen years, DC SCAR has been an evolving coalition of youth organizers from area schools, with participation ranging from elementary school children to college graduates, from a wide cross-section of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. DC SCAR is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of students and young people, with leadership by people of color, seeking to understand and struggle against racism and other forms of oppression in their communities and around the world. It is guided by the principles of the right to self-determination, equality and justice for all people.
As a coalition, DC SCAR has always had leadership of people of color, made decisions collectively, and has been open to all members of the community. Members have included African-American, African, European-American, European, Caribbean, Jewish, Palestinian, Latin American, Indigenous, Asian, gay, lesbian and bi-sexual student activists. Many young women, in particular, have contributed to the organization in leadership roles, including former members, Executive Director Marguerite Fletcher, General Secretary Desiree Arretez, Office Manager Joan Heckscher, intern Kasey Jones, Robin Templeton, Tracy Krumm, Deborah Robinson, GMU SCAR President Rahel Addamu, Wilson High School SCAR Co-Presidents Sameena Mulah and Lindsay Moore, and current staff member Wyannie Sajery.
Older organizers, including Dr. Sylvia Hill, Sondra Hill and Immani Countess, leaders of the South Africa Support Project, and members of the All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (AAPRP), played tremendously helpful roles in the formative years of DC SCAR. Other older organizers, including Howard University Professor Walda Katz-Fishman; South African poet Dennis Brutus; educator Abena Walker; George Mason University counselor Dr. Dennis Webster; and movement veterans Rosalinda Ramirez, a Taino Elder; Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, an educator, author and filmmaker; Leonard Zeskind, a top-notch researcher on white supremacist movements; Gerry Gable, editor of Searchlight Magazine; Loretta Ross, a leader in human rights and womens’ organizing internationally, and others have been invaluable mentors, providing political analysis, insight and a wealth of experiences for members of DC SCAR.
Funding for DC SCAR has come from a variety of endeavors over the years, including foundation grants, student government associations, religious organizations, cultural programs, speaking engagements, workshops and trainings, and in-kind donations, such as printing, mailing and travel expenses.
As a youth and student organization, the structures and strategies for the organization have undergone changes with each generation of activists. Over the thirteen years, SCAR chapters have come and gone and at times reformed at many Washington DC colleges and high schools; holding monthly general meetings throughout most of that time. In many ways, DC SCAR has served as a proving ground for new activists to learn skills and gain leadership positions in movement campaigns and mobilizations. DC SCAR members have “graduated” into other realms of community organizing, including becoming union stewards, community organizers, an Amnesty International regional director of the Southeast, founders and leaders of new organizations, the founder of a graphic design company serving social justice causes, and much more. There has always been an emphasis on personal development and growth in building social change movements with a long-term perspective.
DC SCAR has always sought to make decisions democratically, achieving consensus on the vast majority of issues. In theory, ideas for events and campaigns are proposed at meetings, discussed within the organization and with key allies, and shaped into timelines and tasks. Many campaigns have been in response to solidarity requests from Southern Africa and around the world. This process may occur over the period of years, months, days or hours, depending on the urgency involved. In the founding years, consensus was taken very seriously and helped build trust among the group. In reality, during the period from 1991-- 1996, however, power was concentrated in fewer and fewer people, as organizational tensions and turnover affected recruitment of new members.
In the early 1990’s, the central organization and the chapters attempted to restructure themselves into a more cohesive coalition, with DC SCAR acting more as a resource center and clearinghouse for information. Turnovers in membership again changed this structure, with fewer chapters at high schools and only one college that operated mostly autonomously, and the resource center developing campaigns and programs around the far-right and prison issues in the DC metro area, as well as collaborating with sister groups nationally and internationally.
The Roots of DC SCAR: A Legacy of Struggle and Grassroots Youth Organizing
The origins of DC SCAR rest in a legacy of movements of resistance against repression for human rights and dignity that stretches back hundreds of years. As singer-songwriter Utah Phillips and others have said, the most radical thing in this country is a long memory. When approaching social change, it is important to understand the lessons and continuums of history, knowledge that is notoriously absent in much of the organizing in this country. Without such knowledge, movements constantly “reinvent the wheel,” and activists lose information and insights from valuable precedents and perspectives that have developed through the passage of time and could be utilized to better evaluate their own effectiveness.
There is a continuity through time that links organizers of any generation to a rich legacy of struggle, each generation in turn adding its own experiences from which others may learn and draw inspiration and strategies. The origins of the Underground Railroad, for example, stretch directly back to Indigenous populations in the Caribbean freeing African slaves. The origins of the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement rest in the Abolitionist Movement of the 19th Century. The 1960s anti-Vietnam War Movement and Free Speech Movement stem directly from the Civil Rights Movement, as young organizers gained experience and consciousness through working in the deep South. These movements, in turn, gave rise to the womens’ movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the American Indian Movement, and many other movements that took shape in the 1970s. Members of the Black Panther Party called themselves the “sons of Malcom X”, and they, in turn, inspired the formation of black studies and student centers on campuses across the country. The Central America Solidarity Movement of the 1980s had roots in the 1960s “butter and bullets” counter-insurgency efforts during the Kennedy Administration, when thousands of liberal young U.S. citizens volunteered for Peace Corps duty in Latin America, and saw firsthand the poverty and political and economic struggles that had become entrenched in these countries for generations.
The Growth of a U.S. Student Movement
The mid-to-late 1980s were characterized by a mass upsurge in student activism covering a wide range of issues, including apartheid, racism, Central America, anti-CIA, Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, womens’ rights, gay and lesbian struggles, AIDS, and access to education. Around the country, students traveled from campus to campus and hosted conferences to learn from one another and plan strategies. DC SCAR members played a central role in many of these gatherings, as keynote speakers, workshop leaders and participants, often attending out-of-town events with a van or a bus full of DC students. At a poorly planned radical student gathering of over 700 students at Rutgers University in 1987, members of DC SCAR and the ad hoc people of color caucus stopped the conference from forming an organization due to the minimal representation and presence of students of color, who had been left out of the organizing and recruiting for the conference. It is significant to note that while the entire conference hung in the balance between utter collapse and forward motion, organizer Christine Kelley held the large group together by an unaccompanied song.
This was also a period of mass demonstrations and formidable coalitions, often centered in Washington DC. Most major peace and justice campaigns and mobilizations in recent years have been characterized by short-term, political objectives to influence legislation and policy-makers, led by a powerful coalition of “movement leaders” who determine the objectives and tactics, often to the detriment of ongoing local organizing efforts. Although students would typically mobilize one-third to one-half of the participants, they were often marginalized by the more established baby-boom leadership who were in charge of the mobilizations. Taking their own initiative, the students would generally organize a sub-coalition of youth organizations, allowing for coordination, organizing and influence in the mobilizations.
In one example, the 1987 March for Freedom in Southern Africa and Central America, students not only hosted a youth meeting of over 400 participants, but also changed the planned civil disobedience site from the White House to the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. In another example, the 1988 March for Housing Now, had not involved students in the national planning, but members of DC SCAR and others made large student banners, hosted a youth networking party, and formed an impressive student contingent during the march.
Forming a Student United Front
The exponentially increasing student activism across the country and ongoing collaboration in the mid-1980s led to an informal ongoing alliance of a few of the most important student organizations, and parent organizations with student organizers. The primary organizations in this alliance included DC SCAR, the Progressive Student Network (PSN -- consisting of dozens of college campus chapters, mainly concentrated in the Midwest), the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, CISPES (which had a national student organizer, six regional student organizers and over fifty college chapters and another 250 school organizations that participated in campaigns), the U.S. Student Association (consisting of student government representatives throughout the nation), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), and varying participation from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Young Communist League (YCL). This informal grouping was pragmatically based in the overlap of interests and the principles of solidarity with each others’ work and networks. Some examples of cooperation included working together to recruit more organized student turnouts for major demonstrations and mobilizations, such as womens’ reproductive and human rights, and the massive student response to the FMLN offensive in El Salvador in 1989.
In 1990, two important acts of collaboration, demonstrating the cooperation of PSN, CISPES and DC SCAR were organized. The first, in late March was a protest of US policies in El Salvador, initiated by CISPES, which included a march and act of civil disobedience at the White House. Students not only participated in numbers at these actions, but gathered the day before and organized a demonstration at the U.S. Department of Education, followed by a networking meeting and another protest at the Salvadoran Embassy to support the University of El Salvador and political prisoners. DC SCAR’s Executive Director Ray Davis and CISPES National Student Organizer Doug Calvin also gathered a statement of support from campus religious leaders throughout the country to support this demonstration and DC SCARs’ Days of Anti-Racist Action, which were held in February.
The second event, initiated by PSN was held at Kent State University in Ohio. It was a student activist conference and commemoration of the 1970 Kent and Jackson State anti-war demonstrations, where students had been shot by government troops. The collaborating organizations worked together in conceptualizing these events, publicizing and recruiting for them, and fully involving each other in the programs and events.
Probably the most significant benefits of this informal alliance was the dissemination of information regarding radical student organizing to other student organizers throughout the country, promoting coalition-building and solidarity in a very diverse, widespread and unconsolidated student movement. The members of these groups were also closely linked with other movements that were equally promoted, including a resurgent movement of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Atzlan) chapters in the Southwest, black student initiatives from the Southeast, and emerging student organizations, such as the Student Environmental Action Coalition and Education for the People. Contact lists of student organizers from many issue areas were compiled, widely published and distributed, encouraging greater communications and a sense of identity in a national progressive student movement, which crossed issue, race, class and geographic divisions.
This mutual promotion provided a basis for strong student involvement in the anti-war mobilizations during the Gulf War, including a February 22nd DC SCAR-sponsored protest at the FBI headquarters in protest of harassment of Arab students and anti-war protesters. DC SCAR also helped distribute educational materials to student activists regarding government harassment of political activists and the need for basic security measures to lessen the impact of government harassment, as well as an organizational statement entitled, “The War is at Home” that addressed institutional racism and anti-democratic FBI and Bush Administration policies. All members of DC SCAR participated in these endeavors in response to the crisis provoked by the escalations in the Middle East.
The End of an Era
However, the Gulf War also signaled the end of the era that had begun with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The broad popular anti-war sentiment across the country was fraught with “national leadership” ego-battles and political divisions that affected progressive organizing nationally. Even within student coalitioning, the great many new activists did not share the political foundations and approaches to coalition-building of veteran organizers -- most of whom were not in the Washington DC area where movement power was concentrated.
Equally significant was that parent groups that had student organizers were threatened by the multi-issue coalition approach to student organizing that had grown over the previous decade. As a result, student organizing programs and staff positions were terminated. This was particularly critical with the disbandment of the CISPES student program in 1990, as it alone had more staff, resources and chapters around the country than any of the other organizations.
Other major weaknesses during the late 1980s within the student movement were the lack of consistent communications between organizers on different campuses, media coverage that tended to promote 1960s nostalgia and obscure current issues, and a narrow focus on single issues, such as abortion rights, environmental issues, or foreign policy issues, by many campus organizations. The role of the far-right wing, corporate and government strategies and programs cannot be overlooked either. Right-wing collaborative strategies that had been developed in the 1970s were implemented in the 1980s, including funding rabidly right-wing newspapers at scores of college campuses and concerted efforts to disrupt and defund student left-wing groups and radical faculty. These forces invested huge sums of money and resources to counter and undermine progressive activism in general, and youth activism in particular.
Foundations of DC SCAR
DC SCAR itself is modeled on many of the founding ideals of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. SNCC embraced the ideals of black-leadership, multi-racial youth leadership in community organizing and in its larger movement for social change. However, the differences are also significant.
SNCC was primarily a voting rights organization throughout most of its history, DC SCAR has always addressed multiple issues, such as apartheid, domestic racism, womens’ rights, and the far-right wing. SNCC had tremendous organizational capacity and structure, but was beset by bitter internal political, racial and gender struggles. SNCC was largely a black organization, with participation of white students and Latina member, Elizabeth Martinez. By the late 1960s, racial tensions split the organization; white members were expelled, and the organization took an increasingly black nationalist stance. The extreme sexism within SNCC denied recognition and power sharing for the women, many of whom were to become leaders in the womens’ movement, along with women who had suffered similiar treatment in other radical youth organizations in the 1950s and 60s.
DC SCAR, on the other hand, has never been very strong organizationally; with no fulltime staff members. More often than not, it follows an ad hoc approach to structural issues. Despite these problems, the political clarity and integrity of DC SCAR have remained consistent throughout its history, drawing upon the strength and integrity of members.
DC SCAR has been a highly successful model of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic anti-racist youth organization. The heavy racial tensions that were prevalent in some anti-apartheid organizations and destroyed many altogether, were never stumbling blocks within DC SCAR. Often these tensions grew from white students trying to “recruit” black students into structures that were established without their involvement, or by white students taking control of multi-racial groups.
At DC SCARs’ inception in 1983, student organizers from different universities came together from the greater Washington DC area as equals to form a coordinated response to oppose apartheid as resistance to government repression grew in South Africa. These included leaders from black student unions and white progressive student unions. No one person or group took absolute leadership of the coalition; they shared credit for the successes and worked on a basis of mutual respect.
In the early meetings, older members of the black-nationalist All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party talked a lot about the importance of black students needing to lead the coalition. Founding member, Marty Ellington, a student at Georgetown University, patiently and without anger addressed these issues further: the black community did not need white students to tell them about racism; white students needed to talk to other white students and their parents, and each ethnic group needed to work within its own community. These discussions were highly productive and established people of color leadership in DC SCAR, a concept that was written into its constitution.
At its inception in 1983, DC SCAR was a close-knit coalition of college campus organizations, some of which had already existed, such as the Georgetown Progressive Student Union, and others that had recently formed to oppose apartheid in South Africa, support liberation movements throughout Southern Africa, and oppose racism around the world. Later, DC SCAR itself worked as a separate organization, focusing primarily on racism in education, with chapters operating completely autonomously, with little coordination as a coalition.
Founding member Paul Strauss, now the elected DC Senator in the U.S. Senate (a non-voting position) reflects, “In the early ‘80s several of us had formed a city-wide student coalition to fight against a hike in the legal drinking age, which we viewed as a civil rights issue. Through this effort we got to know a lot of activists in student governments and student organizations. In 1983, several of us from area colleges and the U.S. Student Association formed DC SCAR to tackle the issue of South African Apartheid. Marty Ellington was the main leader, and Keith Jennings from USSA brought a wealth of organizing experience to the group. "The first year was very discouraging and the coalition kind of died for a while. We were considered extreme left-wing to even be addressing a foreign policy issue, especially one that was almost invisible in the U.S. media. Then in ‘84 we found ourselves together again, actually as a splinter from another coalition. That formation was called “Students for Azania,” and it split after a stormy meeting at the University of the District of Columbia. There were a lot of problems, including lots of differing ideological agendas and some anti-Semitism. So we just decided to revive DC SCAR."
“It started up again with a bang as divestment struggles began to get popular across the country. We wanted to bring attention to the struggles in South Africa and keep it there, but not hide the fact that racism is very present in the U.S. as well. The divestment issue brought it home -- it was relevant to students -- and it became part of a whole international movement that was ultimately successful in toppling apartheid.
“We were committed to fighting racism, but this also meant that we were also equally committed to fighting anti-Semitism. We also addressed Palestinian issues as a link to anti-Jewish sentiment and as a human rights issue. It was hard; we were all middle-class kids and we had to educate ourselves on the issues and do our own sensitizing around gender, racial, class issues, and so on. There were no institutional curriculums or organized frameworks to do that kind of thing; we had to work through it ourselves. There were a lot of issues but we worked through them. We worked by consensus; not always unaminity, but not by simple majority either. If two or three members had a different viewpoint, we had to struggle through it. We learned to work together and trust each other. The friendships endure to this day.
“I remember one meeting we listened to Gil Scott Heron’s song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and talked about it for a long while. We stayed true to our ideals. We never did bureaucratize it; we never developed a treasury or even paid much attention to fundraising. Campus student government support provided office space, phone lines and printing for us. It was never highly efficient but it wouldn’t have been the same if we had been. If you just wanted to get press attention on South Africa, you would go ahead and do it and not moralize about the role of the media and all. We did a lot of in-depth soul searching.“DC SCAR profoundly influenced me -- I wouldn’t have stayed here and become so committed to the people of Washington DC if it weren’t for SCAR. It’s ironic that now South African blacks have more democratic rights than the people of Washington, DC. It taught me to appreciate other cultures and embrace diversity as an important goal that made for better decision-making. Organizational dynamics are better when they include the experiences and perspectives from different backgrounds. I became more sensitive to feminist issues and gender relations -- no small challenge for a nineteen year-old college kid. I was taught to be more objective, and it may sound contradictory, but it made me more hopeful and cynical at the same time. We thought that we could change the world and in some ways we did. I’m astonished and very happy that DC SCAR is still around.” [December 1996 interview]