After discovering their parent organization was corrupt, members of Students for a Democratic Society launched a new, independent organization.

Illustration by Adeline Kon

Illustration by Adeline Kon

On the night of Radical Student Alliance’s first event as an autonomous group, the Civic Media Center hummed with life.

Bit by bit, students and community members found their places among the mismatched furniture. The chairs faced a screen with the question “What is Capitalism?” magnified by a projector, set against shelves overflowing with countless timeworn books. A toddler wiggled by.

The event, called Capitalism 101, aimed to challenge systems of oppression that stem from capitalism. With more than 40 people in attendance, no seat was left empty.

Members of RSA and Dream Defenders leaned against a wooden table and talked among themselves, buzzing with excitement. This was the alliance’s first teach-in, the first of anything they could call their own.

The event, a collaboration of social justice groups in Gainesville, embodied a strong, unified front in the activist community — a partnership strengthened by the recent birth of Radical Student Alliance.

Tristan Worthington, one of RSA’s core members, began by thanking the CMC for hosting. Dream Defenders’ Malu Brooks and Jabari Mickles presented an unscripted expression of the mechanisms capitalists use to perpetuate racism.

The two played off one another, describing problems with police, prisons and educational systems, echoing the flow of spoken-word poets. Michael Reyes, a student armed with a pen and paper, drew charts to visually depict how these systems interact. A woman who appeared to be in her 60s listened carefully.

This wouldn’t have been possible under RSA’s previous incarnation as a local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a multi-issue social justice organization represented at universities nationwide.

This year, members of the University of Florida chapter found out that SDS had previously been informally controlled by another organization: Freedom Road Socialist Organization. Upon breaking ties with FRSO, the new, independent society found that the local activist community was much more open to collaboration.

“We are seeing the fruits of that breakup everywhere we turn, both on and off campus,” said Leah Robbins, one of the founding members of RSA. “Now, the Gainesville activists have embraced us with open arms after having severed that toxic relationship.”

The Gainesville chapter of SDS was formed in the 1960s but later disbanded after the Vietnam War movement faded. In the mid-2000s, the group reformed at UF. But as time passed, members moved on. Campus activism gained fresh faces, unaware of the tangled web of past controversies.

Sky Button, a 19-year-old wildlife ecology and conservation major at UF, joined SDS in September 2014. Button was one of many students unfamiliar with the organization’s intricate history. To Button, SDS seemed like the only campus organization with an anti-capitalist presence.

“Now, the Gainesville activists have embraced us with open arms after having severed that toxic relationship,” said Leah Robbins, one of the founding members of RSA. 

Upon joining, he formed relationships with other members Tristan Worthington, Farah Khan and Leah Robbins, who each shared his passion for activism.

After a year of taking part in campaigns for causes such as police demilitarization and in-state tuition for undocumented students, they discovered that SDS was a front group for another organization’s agenda.

SDS had been informally controlled by FRSO since about 2008, Button said. FRSO is an activist group with a strong Marxist-Leninist ideology built on the core principle of democratic centralism. The idea is that leaders should listen to the will of the people but ultimately make the final decision, Button said.

SDS isn’t explicitly communist, which makes it attractive to a broader variety of progressives, Button said. This difference in ideology had kept many from joining FRSO in the first place.

Button said that a friend, who wished to remain unnamed, confided in him and revealed the underlying power structure that was driving SDS decisions.

Although Button said he had a vague idea that FRSO was attempting to assimilate members of SDS into the Marxist-Leninist ideology, he was unaware of the hegemonic interactions between the two organizations.

“FRSO members would meet the night before SDS meetings to plan out how the SDS meetings would go,” Button said. “Everyone in FRSO would take the same stance so it would look like some organically or naturally formed majority.”

Non-FRSO members were kept in the dark until Button’s friend broke the ranks. Tristan Worthington, an English major and former SDS member, had been under the impression that everything was on the table. She said she had believed all members were coming as equals.

“When we did find out about this going on, it was a sense of betrayal for a lot of people,” she said. “It was very secretive; it was very controlling and manipulative.”

Button and his peers discovered that structural corruption ran deeper than prearranging the meeting outcomes. Worthington said there was a strong sense of misogyny in SDS chapters throughout Florida, which showed its hierarchical and male-dominated structure.

“Sexual assault would go unchecked, where women who experienced abuse at the hands of their fellow members couldn’t get justice or have a voice,” Worthington said. “We didn’t want anything to do with an organization that was allowing people to get away with such actions.”

The Gainesville and Tampa chapters of SDS had established a line of communication. When former members of the Tampa chapter informed the group about a sexual predator operating within FRSO, the core group decided something had to change.

According to former Tampa SDS member Bridget White, a woman had been sexually assaulted by a FRSO member. When she attempted to speak out against her abuser, the organization’s leaders turned a blind eye.

At an SDS meeting, White suggested the group take on a Coalition To End Rape Culture campaign. When the idea was rejected, she confronted FRSO about the predator and severed ties with the organization completely.

“You don’t really know at first that SDS is part of the bigger tree that is FRSO — it’s like a branch,” she said. “They tried to downplay what he did and acted as if they were trying to get him out as hard as they could.”

A similar confrontation occurred on the UF campus when SDS members met to discuss the information. During the meeting, a FRSO mediator denied the accusations.

“When we saw that there would be no justice for the victim, we decided to produce a statement condemning rape apologia and formally separating ourselves from them,” Robbins said.

In the statement, they wrote: “In the eyes of many, SDS serves as a front group for FRSO and we understand this claim to have merit in many locations. Given that reality, we want to make it clear that UF SDS refuses to be a FRSO front group and we do not align ourselves with their mishandling of instances of sexual violence.”

Button said issuing the statement was arduous, but it effectively purged FRSO members from SDS. Despite members’ knowledge of misconduct, Button said it was hard for many of them to let go of the name.

“For some members it was the only activist group that they had been heavily involved in,” Button said. “They associated it with their first experiences with activism.”

Shortly after the statement was released, an SDS member still associated with FRSO helped hijack the group’s Facebook page to delete the statement. The hijack prompted the group to wonder why it held onto the name in the first place, Button said.

Button, Worthington, Robbins and Kahn, along with other SDS members Claudia Conger and Lara Alqasem, held a conference call during the summer. Each student was in a different location, traveling, studying and working. During the call they agreed to take the next step. And thus RSA was born.

“As upsetting as it was to witness SDS dissolve, it ended up being a blessing in disguise,” Robbins said. “It forced us all to reevaluate and solidify our convictions as a group.”

RSA is based on an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, pro-women and pro-LGBTQ+ foundation. While not all members share the same views, the group relies on organizing principles based on the belief that most social problems stem from capitalism and other forms of oppression.

But spearheading an entirely new activist organization, especially without a traditional power structure, has come with obstacles. Though the hierarchy was seemingly poisonous to the idea of democracy, SDS was efficient because it forced a sense of responsibility.

“As upsetting as it was to witness SDS dissolve, it ended up being a blessing in disguise,” Robbins said. “It forced us all to reevaluate and solidify our convictions as a group.”

Another challenge is finding out how to liberate all marginalized groups both on and off campus. Worthington said it involves rejecting band-aid solutions and working in conjunction with other organizations.

“It’s not just about seeing a symptom and trying to fix it, it’s going to the root of the problem and addressing it directly,” Worthington said.

Since the purge, activist groups have been more interested in working together, Button said. RSA has also been able to build closer ties with community centers, specifically the Civic Media Center. And October’s Capitalism 101 event demonstrated just how tightly knit the community had become.

Uriel Perez, membership director of CHISPAS, said each organization respects, learns from and works to understand the other. From sharing resources like button-makers to hosting group socials on the weekends, they are building a coalition.

“Developing real relationships is arguably the most important thing,” Perez said, “because you know that people have your back and you can count on them. Not just on Wednesdays at a 6:30 meeting, but anytime.”

While RSA focuses on combating the overarching problem of capitalism, it shows its support to a variety of race-related campaigns. The organizations agree that these differences are not a dividing factor. It is a cultural melting pot that acts as a catalyst to reach more audiences than ever before, Perez said.

“RSA tackles what imperialism is, what capitalism is, what ableism is,” he said. “They’re tackling the big topics. There is some intersectionality in all of our causes.”

Malu Brooks, a member of Dream Defenders, called the group “a rainbow coalition,” comprised of people from different ethnic backgrounds and unique histories. He said when atrocities happen, he’s confident that more than 100 activists will come out — ready to plan, build and work.

“Real power comes from the people. Real power comes from coalitions that can bring out the people — and different people,” Brooks said. “Everyone’s not going to dig the bravado of Dream Defenders, but you can dig the bravado of RSA.”

At the beginning of the Fall semester, FRSO attempted to revive an SDS chapter at UF. But with the help of the Gainesville activist community, Worthington said FRSO was unable to reinstate its authority on campus.

RSA is still in its developing phase, Worthington said. It plans to focus on lending help to other organizations, like the Civic Media Center; Dream Defenders; CHISPAS; Students for Sensible Drug Policy; Students for Justice in Palestine; and the Alachua County Labor Coalition. Currently, RSA is working on the Alachua County Labor Coalition’s Fight For 15 and the CHISPAS #SwipeLeftOnWendys campaign. It plans to launch its own campaign this Spring.

“No matter your race, your gender, your class — if you can empathize with struggle, you’re more likely to get involved,” Brooks said. “As we build this coalition, it has to be through love — because there has been enough pain.”

Alec Carver contributed to this report.