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The Columbia Riots of 1968
Tom Williams, Alum
School of General Studies 1974
School of Library Service 1976

In the fall of 1967 I entered the School of General Studies, following a three-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia. I won't say that the spring of 1968 was my happiest time at Columbia but it was certainly the most interesting.

The SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and other "radical" groups were in high gear, with lots of meetings on the Quad, often with Mark Rudd the loudest of the bunch. I remember a young Jesse Jackson speaking to the crowd. Or was that during the fight of Columbia employees to bring in Union 1199? Maybe both.

There had been a lot of activity, such as marches, speeches, etc. Then one day we were told that a group of anti-war students had taken over Low Library. In those days (is it still so?) that was the administrative building wherein the University President, then a man names Kirk, had his office. So this was a big deal and created quite the furor on campus and in the entire city. It was all over the news. This went on for days.

Sympathizers were passing food and drink through the windows to the folks inside to keep them fed and hydrated. The University had cut off all electricity and water to the building. I won't get into the condition of the building when all was over.

At one point a bunch of burly jocks formed a line outside and tried to prevent any food or water to be passed to the protestors. I was standing around like everyone else, when all of a sudden one of them grabbed me and hoisted me up on his shoulders (in those days I weighed all of 130 pounds; I'd like to see him try that today). He handed me a tray of some sort and told me to hold it up to block food being thrown into the building.

I was very naive in those days and didn't fully understand what was going on -- politically or otherwise. Life Magazine did a spread in the May 1968 issue, the one with Paul Newman on the cover. You'll see me in one of the pictures, on the jock's shoulders. It was quite an experience.

Eventually -- and I don't remember how many days it was -- the men in blue of NYC came on campus. I was standing well inside the quad when they came in force. I could see them indiscriminately bashing people with ther night sticks. They look like the were having a merry old time and enjoying it. They bashed everyone in site, students, faculty, observers, you name it. My English instructor got a severe knock on her head.

I was lucky in that I was able to high-tail it off campus before getting beaten. I lived just a few blocks away. I could not believe that something like this could happen in America.

Although I was naive before, after this happened I got educated very quickly. The experience was life-altering. I subsequently joined the protest movement and even took a few trips to D.C. for some of the marches. I became a life-long moderate-liberal Democrat.

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