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April 26, 2008
One of the most important explanations for the length of the building occupations at Columbia, and one that I have rarely seen mentioned in histories of the event, is the role that high school students played in protecting demonstrators during the early days of the occupation.
Many commentators on the strike point out that Columbia was reluctant to bring in police to clear out demonstrators, particularly from Hamilton Hall, because of fear of provoking a riot in Harlem, but they don't really talk about why the students from the "Majority Coalition," who surrounded Hamilton and Low Library during the first two days of the strike, ultimately gave up on trying to pull demonstrators out of the buildings or prevent food from getting in.
As someone who was part of the group of radical athletes and neighborhood youth who tried to get food through the Majority Coalition barricades (my girlfriend was in Hamilton Hall) I had first hand exposure to how volatile the situation was. Majority Coalition members, several hundred in number, exchanged ugly racial epithets with the demonstrators in Hamilton Hall, and tried to punch and tackle members of our Food Committee when we broke their barricade around Low Library.
But it was not members of our fifteen person "SDS Goon Squad" that persuaded the Majority Coalition to end their barricade around the occupied buildings, it was the group of 500 high school students from Harlem and the West Side who came up to confront opponents of the strike the third day of the occupation. The majority of these students came from Brandeis High School, a notoriously tough school located on 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue located in what was then a working class, mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood. As they marched through the Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue gates onto the campus chanting Black Power slogans, many of the Majority Coalition students began to think twice about whether they were willing to get involve in what could easily turn into a race war with neighborhood teenagers. From that point on, the demonstrators no longer had to worry about their fellow students; it was police action that was their major concern.
Why is it important to emphasize this incident? Because without the passionate support of people in the working class Black and Latino communities adjoining Columbia, the strike and occupations would not have lasted seven days, and would not have produced the major policy change the strike induced, which was halting construction of the gym in Morningside Heights.
Sadly, many of those working class neighborhoods are gone. The blocks surrounding Brandeis have become prime Manhattan real estate, with some of the highest rents in the city. Manhattan Valley, the tough mostly Puerto Rican area bordered by Amsterdam Avenue, Central Park West, 110 Street and 100th Street is gentrifying at breakneck speed, only saved from a complete turnover in population by the public housing project in its borders. And Harlem is in the midst of a development boom that is radically changing its racial and class composition.
Today, should Columbia students decide to seize buildings on their campus in support of an important objective, be it stopping Columbia expansion, or ending the war in Iraq, one would be hard pressed to find, much less mobilize, a critical mass of high school students living close enough to the campus to be a factor influencing university policy. And as for the people of Harlem rioting to defend their community from outside forces, as they did to protest police brutality in 1935, 1943 and 1965, that, I am afraid is something the class and racial diversity of the neighborhood has rendered most unlikely.
Without worrying about pressure, and possible violence, from residents of neighborhoods outside the the campus, the Columbia administration will have a relatively free hand to deal with its own students if they protest university policies.
That is why the current University expansion plan, unlike the gym project in Morningside Park, is likely to go forward with little opposition.