Organization’s membership suffers under leadership

by Rob Kuznia

At the beginning of winter quarter, the Progressive Student Organization — a University student-run activist group that has been protesting on political issues for more than 17 years — boasted about 30 members.
The group recently returned from a demonstration in Atlanta and was actively involved with the issues of Highway 55, Mumia Abu Jamal and the bombings of Iraq.
Now, former members say, it appears that about five members of PSO remain — only two of whom are students.
“Over the course of the winter quarter, the membership withered to about 12,” said former member David Gordon, an American studies sophomore.
But the exodus continued. During spring break, a walkout after what ex-members describe as an “ugly” meeting downsized the group to three non-students.
“At the meeting, our goal was to clean up our own house,” a former member said. “There was a certain member named J Burger who was taking too much control and not respecting the democracy of the group. But the meeting backfired.”
J Burger remains in the group. After a quarter-long, unsuccessful struggle to impeach him, dissenting group members — and several members frustrated with the conflict — left the organization.
“There was a small clique that said ‘J leaves, or we’re leaving,'” Burger said. “But most people just got fed up with the in-fighting.”
A highly involved member since 1993, Burger has organized several high-profile events, like last year’s effort to drown out a speech by then-United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson.
A visible political presence on campus, PSO was born of an effort to get ROTC off campus in 1981.
In the last three years, The Minnesota Daily has covered PSO more than 30 times, including the organization’s plans to protest Madeleine Albright’s commencement speech last year.

Seeds of dissent
According to former members, the protest of Madeleine Albright’s 1998 spring commencement speech, which one member described as “pathetic”, foreshadowed future conflicts.
One protester disrupted the ceremony by screaming chants during the ceremony, but cooperated with the police when they escorted her out. After the protest, Burger attempted to block Albright’s motorcade while on his bicycle, but police arrested him.
While former PSO member Pete Johnson didn’t agree that the protest was “pathetic,” he thought it was indicative of a pattern of the organization becoming a one-man show.
“J said he wouldn’t take matters into his own hands,” Johnson said, “but he did anyway.” Johnson added that the group had previously agreed not to take such drastic measures. “There was a deficiency of democracy within the group,” he said.
After the rally, several frustrated members quit for the summer. When they returned in the fall, they tried to change the structure of the organization.
A silent student majority
Former members of the group say that while PSO was technically democratic, certain non-student members used the passivity of the student members to their advantage.
“We all chose not to say things,” said language major and former PSO member Lee Pera. “No one wanted to take a stand.”
Johnson agreed.
“It went the same every time,” he said. “Maybe the treasurer would bring up an appeal. J and a couple others would immediately attack him while the rest of the group sat in silence.”
In the fall, younger members wanted to focus more on issues other than Iraq, such as protesting the reroute of Highway 55 and supporting the Mumia coalition, said former member Don Kingsbury, a College of Liberal Arts sophomore.
“After working on Mumia a little, interested members realized that all we were talking about was Iraq,” Kingsbury said. “So we proposed a Mumia subcommittee. J hated that idea.”
Members like CLA junior Jon Collins and Kingsbury lobbied within PSO to form a Mumia splinter group. Many allege that Burger tried to thwart their efforts.
“J called several cultural centers (like the Africana Cultural Center and the Native American Cultural Center) and tried to sabotage what Jon was trying to do by labeling him a ‘dumb white kid’ and a sexist,” said Johnson.
As a result, nobody from those communities supported Collins’ efforts, Johnson said.
Burger denies this.
“(Members of the cultural centers) asked me who these ‘dumb white kids’ were, and I told them,” he said.
Members also allege that Burger would pit them against one another.
“Once Burger brought up some concerns to me about the way the treasurer was handling money,” said Gordon. “I said, ‘Maybe I’ll talk to him sometime.’ A little later, I found out J had called the treasurer and said I had big concerns about how the money was being handled.”
Action taken
By the middle of winter quarter, when the group had dwindled to 12 members, tensions resulted in actions.
“Something had to be done,” said Gordon.
Five members issued a letter to the group calling for Burger’s resignation.
“J should agree to a plan which phases him out by the end of spring quarter,” the letter read.
Burger responded with a letter to the group March 30 calling for unity and a stop to the efforts to oust him.
But this didn’t happen.
On April 6, the group voted 10-2 in favor of implementing disciplinary penalties for Burger’s “behavior.” While the prevailing sentiment was to lessen Burger’s control, a measure to remove him from the group was defeated by the same ratio.
The group planned to convene again on April 13 to determine the specifics of the “disciplinary action.” The ballot they used to reach an agreement included measures like: “When J speaks it must be short and concise.”
But a lack of participation in the proceeding rendered the measure toothless.
“So few people showed up for the meeting that we couldn’t get a two-thirds majority vote on anything,” Johnson said.
As a result, the remaining student members — about five — walked out, leaving three non-students: J Burger, Anh Pham and Jeff Norman.
One woman, who said she was the last to leave, thought about sticking around.
“But then (Burger) said, ‘Lets forget this ever happened,’ so I left, too.”
Student group Constitution/MSA grants
In 1998, PSO received a $1,250 diversity grant from the Minnesota Student Association. To qualify for the grant, student organizations must include a two-thirds student majority. But former members say there are about five people in the group — only two of whom are students.
Burger said his student status is irrelevant.
“No, I’m not a student. We’ve always had students and non-students. According to the Campus Involvement Center, more than half of the members must be students, so we’re OK. I’m part of the University community like anyone else.”
At press time, the organization had not furnished a roster of current members or documentation of their student status.
Moving on
Burger and the other members of PSO are currently working on creating awareness about NATO’s war with Yugoslavia.
On June 1, the organization plans to hold a speak-out and picket about the war on Northrop Mall, outside of Ford Hall.
But most of the former PSO members have since joined other groups like the Mumia Coalition, University Young Women and the Student Labor Rights Coalition.
“PSO’s problems weren’t all because of J,” said Collins. “People on campus weren’t taking us seriously anymore. They thought we were a bunch of wackos.”
Pera, now a member of UYW, agreed.
“I just wasn’t inspired by PSO. It was getting boring. It wasn’t because of sexism, group dynamics, J or anything specific.”