Up Against The Wall, Motherfucker!

The Columbia Student Strike of 1968

In 1968, just like today, Columbia was heavily involved in weapons research for the Department of Defense. In 1968, just like today, Columbia practiced racist development policies in the Harlem community. In 1968, just like today, Columbia students were energized by a vibrant protest movement against American imperialism (then in the form of the Vietnam War, now in the form of sweatshops). In 1968, two student groups led an uprising that changed the history of America. Today, it doesn t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows...

For years, social disillusionment and institutional disenchantment had simmered on campus and off; the war in Vietnam began to bring popular hostility towards all forms of authority to a boil. Civil rights activists were beginning to move towards Black Power, and nationalist paramilitary self-defense organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Harlem Mau Mau had begun to challenge Martin Luther King s leadership. At Columbia University, according to a report commissioned and then sequestered by President Grayson Kirk, student life was at a dismal low point, yet Kirk refused to act on many of the recommendations in the report. Relations between the University and the Harlem community were strained to the point of breaking over the construction of a private University gymnasium on public land in Morningside Park; this tension was exacerbated by the assassination of King and the ensuing riots in Harlem.

On April 23, 1968, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) united for the first time to occupy the gym construction site. The University called in the 26th Precinct of the NYPD (then, as now, hired thugs for the administration) to forcibly remove their own students, so students marched back to Hamilton and occupied it, taking Dean Coleman as a hostage. The SAS members were far more serious and much better trained than the SDS members, so the next morning they evicted all of the white students from Hamilton; SDS marched over to Low Library, and, gaining entry by shattering a glass door, took over President Kirk's offices. Over the next week, students and supporters also occupied Avery, Fayerweather and Mathematics, and turned them into communes, spaces where they could live collectively and practice alternatives to capitalism. The strikers were supported by hundreds of students who rallied in front of the occupied buildings, running supplies and press releases back and forth; they were opposed by a handful of athletes and alumni who called themselves the Majority Coalition, who, with the implicit support of the administration, attacked their fellow students with fists and weapons. Finally, in the early morning hours of April 30, President Kirk instructed the NYPD to invade the occupied buildings and remove the students by force. The police rioted: 712 were arrested and 148 were injured in the police violence; 372 complaints of police brutality were filed. Most of those arrested and injured were not in the occupied buildings, but were just students on South Lawn who had come to watch. Some students evacuated from the buildings were made to walk by a line of police officers while being beaten by each one; others were dragged head-first down marble stairs.

The Rev. Bill Starr marries a couple in Fayerweather during the strike.

On May 6, Kirk unsuccessfully attempted to reopen the University as most students and many faculty members boycotted their classes. An alternative Liberation School was established on South Lawn, with classes about the Cuban Revolution and the history of Native Americans taught in a truly collaborative method still unknown at this University. Students put on guerilla theater pieces; the Grateful Dead played a free concert. The strike lasted until Friday, May 17, when community activists, with the help of student strike leaders, seized a Columbia-owned low-income apartment building slated for demolition. Within hours, police cleared the building and arrested 117, including 56 students. On May 21, nearly 300 students protesting disciplinary action against strike leaders again occupied Hamilton Hall; the administration again called in the NYPD to arrest 138 more students. Police attempted to clear the campus; confronted with student resistance far more militant than before, they rioted again. Fortyseven student bystanders were arrested, and 68 people were reported injured, including 17 police. Plainclothes police officers chased some students down Broadway, or into buildings: two students were arrested inside Carman, where police had followed them up the stairs.

The last action that spring came on June 4, graduation day. Several hundred graduating seniors walked out of the ceremonies and held a counter-commencement on Low Plaza. With this peaceful symbolic gesture, the tumultuous spring semester of 1968 came to a close. Over the course of the never-to-be-forgotten six weeks, 1,100 were arrested at Columbia. Hundreds of arrested students went home for the summer facing suspension or expulsion, not knowing if they would be allowed to return. Others took their experiences to Chicago, for the Democratic Convention of 1968. Some formed the Weathermen, a guerilla organization committed to ending American imperialism by force and supporting the African-American right to self-determination. The legacy of 1968 on campus is the formation of the University Senate, a more democratic governing body and of a campus security department that is headed by a former CIA operative, that is committed to using espionage to stifle student protest movements before they erupt, that maintains still closer ties to the 26th Precinct of the NYPD. They said it could never happen at Columbia, but it happened at Columbia. They say it could never happen again at Columbia...

Come watch actual footage of the 1968 strike, eat free food, and learn about contemporary campus activism. See our homepage for details.