|Columbia University 1968|
Personal recollections of the 1968 student uprising at Columbia University. I was an active participant, but not a member of any particular faction (the only organization I belonged to was Veterans Against the War). I wrote this article for publication in the "Columbia Librarian" at the request of Columbia's Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian, Elaine Sloan (then my boss's boss), on the 30th anniversary of the student rebellion (a). In 1968 I was an Army veteran working my way through a Columbia degree with a student casual job in the library; in 1998 I worked in Academic Information Systems (the academic half of what used to be called the Computer Center), which, after 1986, was part of the University Library; hence the library connection.
Because this article was written for a Columbia audience, familiarity with the Columbia campus and setting are assumed. The article was placed on the Web and slightly updated in February 2001, with periodic updates after that. Pictures were added in June 2001, which you can view by following the links or by clicking on VIEW ALL IMAGES above; I hope to find and add more pictures as time goes on, but I've been saying that for years. While this is a personal recollection and not an attempt at a definitive history, corrections, comments, additional information, and especially photos are welcome, and will be acknowledged.
May 31, 2011: This page and its sub-pages and images were moved from http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/ to http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/. On July 1, 2011, I was laid off after 45 years at Columbia. April 16, 2018: Converted to HTML5 and validated, all links verified, this and all sub-pages made "fluid", e.g. to fit on cell phone screens.
Throughout the mid-to-late 60s there was all sorts of political activity on campus – teach-ins on Pentagon economics, Sundial rallies against the war, demonstrations against class rank reporting, confrontations with military recruiters, etc. It was an era of bullhorns. Amidst all this, the University was constructing a new gym in Morningside Park – the barrier separating Columbia from Harlem – with a "back door" on the Harlem side. This offended many people, and one day in April some students went to Morningside Drive and tore down the fence, attempting to break into the construction site. They were restrained by police and some were arrested. The ensuing Sundial rally wandered into Hamilton Hall and stayed the night. The original idea was that the united student body, or at least the considerable left wing of it would occupy Hamilton until the charges against the students were dropped and some other demands were met. Various factions debated tactics and what the demands should be. Eventually six demands were formulated. Their thrust was against Columbia's complicity the war, against racism, and for better and more responsible relations with the surrounding communities.
I spent the week in Low Library. There was a carnival atmosphere the first day, with press photographers and reporters from magazines, the local newspapers, etc (the Post was fair, the News was atrocious, but the Times was beyond belief – small wonder, considering the connections (d)). There was an unforgettable, Felliniesque visit from a faculty member who swooped through the window in full academic regalia, Batmanlike, to "reason" with us. Security guards and office workers brought us snacks. Life magazine (May 10, 1968) ran a cover story featuring pictures taken in Low, including my favorite: a group of us seated on the carpet, each with a Grayson Kirk face, complete with pipe (from President Kirk's desk drawer, which was stocked with dozens of 8x10 glossy book-jacket poses).
After the first day, activities grew more structured, and thenceforth the occupation was one long meeting governed by Robert's Rules of Order, interpreted creatively ("Point of obfuscation!"), interspersed by housework. Contrary to popular belief and press reports, the President's suite of offices was kept immaculate and orderly after the chaotic first day (e). Cleanup detail included vacuuming, shaking out blankets, scrubbing the bathroom, etc. The administration's fears of vandalism (and their special concern for the Rembrandt hanging above President Kirk's desk) were poorly founded, at least in Low.
Outside, a system of rings developed around Low Library. Opponents ("jocks") formed the inner ring; student supporters (known, along with us, as "pukes") formed an outer ring, and later concerned faculty formed an intermediate buffer ring. Each group wore distinctive armbands, not that they were needed: jocks (Columbia light blue) looked like jocks; pukes (red) were scruffy; faculty (white) wore tweed with elbow patches. Black armbands came later. Beyond the rings were crowds of onlookers and press. The outside pukes would try to send food up to us, but the jocks intercepted most of it and made a great show of wolfing it down con mucho gusto as we looked on with envy (most food didn't throw well and fell short; what little got through was mainly oranges and baloney packets). One day a tall stranger with waist-length hair appeared at the distant fringe of the crowd (almost all the way to Earl Hall) and began to hurl five-pound bags of home-made fried chicken our way, one after another, with perfect aim, over the jocks' heads and right into our windows. What an arm! (The chicken was cooked by Mrs. Gloria Sánchez of the Bronx, and it was delicious; I never learned the identity of the mysterious stranger.)
. . . Until June 1, 2001, when I had a call from Jerry Kisslinger of Columbia's Office of University Development and Alumni Relations, who recognized the waist-length hair and powerful arm of John Taylor, son of Nürnberg prosecutor and Columbia Law Professor Telford Taylor (who declined to lend his name to a statement signed by most other Law School faculty, which said the student protests exceeded the "allowable limits" of civil disobedience [New York Times, 24 May 1998]). Thanks to both John and his dad!
Aside from the meetings and work details, a concerted effort was made to rifle through the many file cabinets and turn up evidence of covert links with the war machine and defense contractors, large corporations planning to divide up the spoils in Viet Nam, etc, all of which were to be found in abundance. These were photocopied and later published in the East Village underground newspaper, Rat. Some items were picked up by the mainstream press, resulting in some embarrassment among the rich and powerful, which quickly passed.
|*||As of April 2018, the Spring 1968 issue of Columbia College Today is online HERE in some kind of strange, nonportable, semi-animated multimedia format in black and white only. You'll need a large screen, and to maximize your browser, to read it. The narrative is emphatically anti-uprising (and often dishonest), but the photographs are invaluable.|
Which, inevitably, came. After the final warning to vacate or be arrested, we discussed (still observing proper parliamentary procedure) whether to resist or go peacefully. Opinion was divided and many variations were proposed. After much discussion, consensus converged on civil-rights-movement-style passive resistance; we would go limp and the police would have to carry us out.
We devoted the final moments to preparations – the Defense Committee piled furniture up against door, while the rest of us picked up trash, vacuumed, and scrubbed so the President's suite would be left in pristine condition, better than we had found it (except for tape criss-crossed on the window glass and the jimmied file-cabinet locks). Those with pierced earrings took them off (a routine precaution in those days of police actions) and then we formed a 100-person, 10,000-pound clump singing "We Shall Not Be Moved", knowing that we would.
Soon axes were crashing through the door, the barricade was breached, and an army of TPF piled in, first prying apart the singing clump of us, then forming a gauntlet to pass our limp bodies down the corridors, whacking our heads with flashlights along the way, and dragging us by the feet down the marble steps so our heads bounced. Superficial head wounds are harmless but they bleed a lot, and journalists got some terrific photos of us on our way to the paddy wagons waiting on College Walk.
Soon we were in the Tombs [the jail and criminal court building at 100 Centre Street]. I was in a cell with six others including Tom Hayden (one of many luminaries who visited and/or sat in with us – others included H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, and Charles 37X Kenyatta). Later, students from the other buildings began to arrive, much bloodier than we were. The students in Math (some of whom – the ones who weren't killed in the 1970 East 11th Street townhouse explosion – later went on to the Democratic convention in Chicago, and then formed the Weather Underground) received less gentle treatment – one student was thrown from a second-story window and landed on a professor (Jim Shenton), breaking the professor's arm.
In December 2001 I received the following email from Thomas Gucciardi: "My dad, Frank Gucciardi, was a cop during the riots. He was paralyzed from the waist down for 3 years. (A student jumped off a building into the crowd) He has had a miraculous recovery & still enjoys a fairly active life. I just found your site & commend you on it. My dad till this day loved his job & he does understand the students uprising. He holds no grudges at all for what the students did to him at 34 years of age & having 3 children. Thank you for your website." Later Thomas sent copies of newspaper clippings that told how Patrolman Gucciardi had been injured when an unidentified white student jumped from the balcony of Hamilton Hall, landing on the officer's back as he bent over to pick up his hat, and of the operations on his spine over the next several years. A series of articles by columnist Martin Gershen in the NY Times, the Long Island Press, and other papers, followed his progress and gained national attention. Also injured was Officer Bernard Wease, kicked in the chest by a student in Fayerweather Hall while giving the vacate-or-be-arrested order, causing damage to his heart.
While an article in the LA Times, 9 September 1969, quotes Mayor Lindsay as acknowledging that some police used "excessive force" and states that "news reports quoted witnesses as having seen nonuniformed policemen punching and kicking both male and female students... one blond girl was said to have been beaten unconscious on the sidewalk in front of Avery Hall... a boy left writhing in front of Ferris Booth Hall with his nose smashed...", the only two injuries serious enough to require prolonged hospitalization were to Officers Gucciardi and Wease.
Many of the later arrivals to the Tombs were bystanders. All hell had broken loose after we left, with mounted police charging through the crowds on South Field, swinging their "batons" at all nearby heads like rampaging Cossacks (NEED PHOTO). Subsequent investigative commissions called it a "police riot." The combat spilled out to Broadway and down the side streets towards Riverside Park, horses galloping after fleeing pedestrians – it must have been quite a sight, and it was a "radicalizing experience" for many former sideliners. Ed Kent (UTS BD 1959, Columbia PhD 1965, currently professor of moral / political / legal philosophy at Brooklyn College, CUNY) recalls:
I made sure that I put on a coat and tie – it was about 1 a.m. and I had been alerted by a colleague at Hunter who had heard the bust was imminent. I then joined the cop assigned to the gate who was entirely sympathetic to the students and we watched with horror as the cops beat up kids that had come out of their dorms to find out what all the ruckus was about (Those occupying buildings had been taken out through the tunnels earlier.). I will never forget one small sized student being chased by a group of cops with clubs intent on beating him up – he finally took refuge on top of a car where he tried to avoid their swings. They finally knocked him off and pounced with their clubs. The next day many faculty and students were treated for head and other injuries – all of them innocent of any connection with the actual building occupations. Incidentally at the Cox hearings I heard the dean [Henry Coleman] who had supposedly been imprisoned by the students in Hamilton admit in response to a question by Anthony Amsterdam that he had in fact been ordered by the President to remain in his office and had been treated with entire courtesy by the students throughout and could have unlocked his office door (and relocked it to protect student records) and left at any time. This was given as the excuse for the police action and Sidney Hook refused to take it out of his book account (I got his galleys to pre-view) although I personally drew his attention to his mis-reporting there. Hook had become very right wing by then.
Meanwhile, back in jail... Escorting a group of incoming wounded was a fellow worker from Butler Library, now wearing a badge. In Butler, posing as a student library assistant, he had been trying to recruit us to "blow stuff up". Luckily he had been an inspiration to no one, but the episode served well for many years in discussions of leftist paranoia. The librarians, to their credit, were shocked to learn they had hired an agent provocateur and fired him immediately, not so very inhumane considering his better-paying day job.
Some 700 people were arrested that night, a logistical nightmare, involving at least 20 precincts and much transportation. We were arraigned and released over the next day or two, with court dates set that would stretch for years into the future, a story in itself. Back on campus... what a mess! The morning's newspapers were full of it. The Times ran a front-page story with a photo of a police officer standing in the President's Office, which was a total wreck (mean-spirited graffiti sprayed on the walls, bookshelves toppled, etc), gesturing sorrowfully towards a mound of mangled books, a forlorn tear in his eye: "The world's knowledge was in those books...". Ironic because it was not us who made the mess and sprayed the graffiti! We caught the author (Sylvan Fox) of the story on campus and asked why he had written such dreck when he had been witness to the whole episode – he freely admitted it was a pack of lies and recommended we complain to his boss (a Columbia trustee). Luckily for posterity, whoever wrecked the office after we left overlooked the Rembrandt.
Community issues loomed large – an apartment building on 114th Street was the scene of a second occupation a couple weeks later, in which several hundred of the newly radicalized onlookers from South Field took part and were promptly arrested (I don't recall exactly what the issue was, but housing has always been a touchy topic at Columbia). Thomas William Hamilton recalls (January 3, 2018):
The May arrests at the Columbia owned building at 618 West 114 Street does not mention that only 113 of the 117 people arrested were actually in 618. Four of us were in the lobby of 622 W 114, not owned by Columbia. Two lived in 622, Mai Ling Rogoff (a pre med student at Columbia), and myself, a 1960 Columbia alumnus. The other two were Mai Ling's boy friend (name long forgotten by me), and a classmate of mine, Jay Russek.On May 22nd, sensing no movement in the administration on the issues of the strike, we went back into Hamilton (déjà vu was the rallying cry). This time the police were summoned onto campus without hesitation, and back we all went to jail (there were 1100 arrests in all). By now it was like commuting. Again, campus erupted after we left – this time, 15-foot-high barricades were erected at the main gates and set ablaze (SEE GALLERY), windows were smashed, cars crushed, crowds surged back and forth, and many heads were bashed – most of them attached to innocent bystanders. As in the first bust, the police again did a fair amount of mischief aimed at discrediting the strikers.
A police sergeant (Last name Healy) opened the lobby door during the police invasion of 618 and screamed "Stay inside." Stupid me replied "We are inside." I saw his face flush and he grabbed Mai Ling and Jay, who were in front of me, pushed them out the door, and grabbed me. At some point the boy friend went also.
We were all charged with trespassing in 618. In court some CU creep testified yes, CU owns 618, and no, CU did not authorize our presence there. As he let the witness stand he had to walk by me, and I said in a low tone "Filthy liar." No one but my fellow criminal, Sam Melville, and the creep heard me, so when he screamed "What! What did you say?" his reaction seemed totally unmotivated. The judge stared, and the assistant D.A. rushed over and tried to calm him down, finally escorting him from the room. Melville kept a poker face, but nudged me.
At Columbia, classified war research was halted, the gym was canceled, ROTC left campus, military and CIA recruiting stopped, and (not that anybody asked for it) the Senate was established. Robert Kennedy, the antiwar presidential candidate, was killed in June 1968, and later that month the French uprising was "voted away" in a national referendum. Mexican students and supporters and bystanders were slaughtered wholesale in October, in La Noche de Tlatelolco. Columbia antiwar rallies continued, and large Columbia contingents chartered buses for the huge demonstrations in Washington, of which there were to be far too many – the war dragged on for another seven years. To this day, I don't know if all the antiwar activities combined had as much affect as the Vietnamese figuring out how to shoot down the American B-52s that were carpet-bombing their cities.
The Cox commission produced a report on the disturbances. Springtime building occupations continued for the next few years, but eventually were replaced by disco. Then came the 80s and 90s: the rich became richer at the expense of everyone else; organized labor was squashed; most real jobs were exported; drugs and greed ruled; social awareness was replaced by political correctness, student activism by ambition, and real work by sitting in front of a PC clicking on investments.
After a semester's suspension and dozens of court appearances (but
no hard time – thanks National
Lawyers Guild!), I received my BA in 1970, held a number of odd jobs
(taxi driver, etc; nobody pays you to save the world), and eventually wound
up back at Columbia getting a graduate degree in electrical engineering and
computer science and working in what was called
the Computer Center, where I
today worked until 2011. And now , thanks to the Information
Age, the Computer Center has been absorbed by the University Libraries and I
suppose that brings us full circle(g).
Most press accounts of the time focus on the strike leaders, their affiliations and temperaments and hairstyles, but honestly, I don't recall them being a major force, except on the first night when they decided the white students should leave Hamilton Hall. They certainly didn't choreograph the events after that. Actions were either taken spontaneously, or discussed to death by EVERYBODY until consensus was reached, in the manner of the day (and night!). In Low library, leadership meant nothing more than fairly moderating the open discussion and applying Robert's Rules – a process not nearly as interesting to the media as sound bites from high-profile personalities.
I never felt the strike was motivated primarily by antipathy towards Columbia. After all, students came here voluntarily and received good educations (often obtaining their introduction to radical thought from their own professors) and – even in those days – the student body, if not faculty and administration, was among the most diverse anywhere. Community relations were not all bad: many of us were Project Double Discovery counselors or involved in various Columbia-sponsored Harlem community action projects.
Rather, it was a case of students doing the best they could in the place where they were to stop the war in Viet Nam and fight racism at home, just as they hoped others would do in other places: in the streets, factories, offices, other universities, the military itself, the court of world opinion, and finally in the seats of government. Whether this was the best way to do it is debatable, but it is clear that the more polite methods of previous years were not working, and every DAY that passed cost 2000 lives in Southeast Asia. So to the extent that the Columbia strike hastened the end of the war, it was worthwhile. As to racism and community relations, it's not my place to judge.
Maybe I was being too polite above when I said students weren't motivated antipathy towards Columbia. Students had legitimate grievances and tried repeatedly to get through to the administration with no success. The University was complicit in the Viet Nam war (e.g. in the “automated battlefield” from which the Vietnamese continue to suffer to this day), and its behavior towards its neighbors was arrogant, patronizing, and bellicose. The University administration never appreciated its African-American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican neighbors in Harlem and Manhattan Valley. The administration's door was closed and in the end, students were placed on probation for trying to get in to speak with President Kirk about these issues.
By 2010 or so, Columbia had prevailed in every way over its critics. The surrounding neighborhoods are gentrified to the extent that only hedge-fund managers can afford to live in them. Harlem as we knew it is vanishing; Columbia bought up the buildings and either raised the rents or turned them into luxury condominiums and then gave low-interest loans to Columbia faculty to buy them. Industrial West Harlem ("Manhattanville") has been flattened to make way for a new Columbia campus. Today, students enter Columbia to become Masters of the Universe, not to learn about real life and then leave equipped to make the world a better place.
Sometimes I wonder why I wasn't more involved in SDS; if I had been, my life would have been quite different after nearly everybody I knew went off to Chicago in 1968 and then underground. I noticed recently that Wikipedia pages have appeared about many of my friends from those days: Ted Gold, JJ, and others I won't name because they are still alive. Reading them, it suddenly dawns on me after all these years: as a returning veteran putting myself through college, often working 60 hours a week* in addition to taking a full course load, I simply never had the free time for all the meetings. Teddy and JJ and many others, on the other hand, probably didn't have to work.
|*||The Vietnam-era GI Bill paid only $100 a month.|
The last moral leader the USA knew was Martin Luther King. When he began to speak openly about the Vietnam war and of social and economic justice (right next door at Riverside Church just a year before the Columbia strike) he was killed. Since then nobody has stood up to take his place. In fact, every prominent leader who posed a serious threat to the Vietnam War was assassinated: JFK (when he tried to stop the war and make peace with the USSR and Cuba), Malcolm X (the first Black leader to speak out against the war), MLK, and finally Robert Kennedy.
This country and the planet itself are spiraling into Armageddon. Can we stop it? The kinds of mass movements and open rebellion that made some difference in the 1960s don't happen any more, or if they do nobody pays attention. American government at every level as well as the two-party system are utterly corrupt, the electoral system rigged, the population torn by hatred, depression, despair, and addiction. Even if elections were fair, open, and honest, at least 40% of the electorate is openly racist. And of the other 60%, probably most feel threatened by "radical Islamic terrorism" and favor the wars, the security state, the drones, and all the rest. The best hope we had for meaningful change, Bernie Sanders' campaign, was squashed like a bug. Fifty years ago, I could never have predicted a world like this. In 1968 and the years that followed we tried to fix things and the world has been engulfed in the backlash (to 1968 as well as to the New Deal) ever since. I don't know what else to say, except to recall what we were taught as children: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A simple rule, what became of it? When, exactly, did morality die?
23 April 1968 Assault on gym site, occupation of Hamilton Hall 24 April 1968 Occupation of Low Library 26-28 April 1968 Occupation of Math, Avery, Fayerweather 30 April 1968 712 building occupiers and bystanders arrested 6 May 1968 University reopened, students boycott classes 17 May 1968 117 arrested at 114th Street SRO 21 May 1968 138 arrested in "Hamilton II" + bystanders 4 June 1968 Counter-commencement on Low Plaza.
BPP Black Panther Party CORE Congress Of Racial Equality (then); Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (now) IDA Institute for Defense Analyses PL (PLP) Progressive Labor Party ROTC Reserve Officers Training Corps SAS Students Afro-American Society SDS Students for a Democratic Society SNCC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee SRO Single Room Occupancy SWP Socialist Workers Party TPF Tactical Police Force WKCR The Columbia student-run radio station YAWF Youth Against War and Fascism YCL Young Communist League YSA Young Socialist Alliance
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