Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (ii)
There was a deeper mood of mass anger and militancy in the first group of demonstrators who we met at W. 116th St. and Morningside Drive. What had happened was that the front of the SDS demonstration that had raced down to the gym site had started ripping down the fence surrounding the construction site. The New York City cop who was guarding the gym site had radioed for reinforcements and, when the additional cops came, they foolishly began shoving around the mostly white male Columbia students.

When the cops tried to arrest a demonstrator, the white Columbia students—both left-liberal and SDS hard-core—instead of just meekly letting the cops take the demonstrator away, tried to prevent the arrest and shoved back at the cops. Although the cops managed to take the Columbia sophomore they had grabbed away—an anti-war guy named Wilson (who was then living with my old roommate Tom in the same Furnald Hall dorm room that I had lived in as a sophomore when I discovered Columbia’s IDA connection)—the gym site demonstrators were enraged. And Columbia Student Afro-American Society activist Bill (who was also involved in the scuffling with the cops) was surprised and emotionally touched by the militant way the anti-racist white student radicals seemed willing to fight back against Columbia’s city cops, in order to protect Harlem’s land.

Mark had correctly realized that it made more sense to bring the mass anger back up to Columbia’s campus quickly, and quickly confront the men who were responsible for both the decision to build the gym and the use of cops—the Columbia Administration—instead of getting trapped in another off-campus brawl with cops—after new police reinforcements arrived to clear the gym site out of demonstrators, totally. He stood up on some point of elevation at the gym site. And, after outlining the tactical options, he supported the mass consensus to return to the campus where, as Mark realized, there were large numbers of additional New Left supporters from the rear of the original march towards Low Library. Mark now showed that he could spontaneously lead and hold together masses of people, when unpredictable obstacles to their mass motion appeared.

Fighting against Columbia’s policies of institutional racism, complicity with the U.S. war machine and repression of student activism was a helluva lot more exciting than sitting in a typical all-male Columbia classroom. And for the first time at Columbia, hundreds of new Columbia and Barnard anti-war students had finally gotten hip to this fact.

The arrested student—Wilson—was a good-natured, bright, tall guy with glasses who, although feeling threatened by the draft, had been more into smoking grass, listening to rock music and hanging out with his hippie-anarchist Columbia and Barnard friends than being that active in Columbia SDS. If the April 23rd demo hadn’t appeared in advance to be the big dramatic confrontational event that it would actually turn out to be, I doubt that Wilson would have made any special effort to be at the demo, despite his New Left sympathies. By singling out Wilson for arrest, instead of somebody who was in the Columbia SDS hard-core, the cops unintentionally further radicalized people. By arresting Wilson, they indicated that any Columbia student who protested against the gym was fair game—no matter how apolitical.

United as one demonstration on W. 116th St. and Amsterdam Ave. again, 500 of us marched back to the sundial and Mark got up on the sundial and started to speak again in a humorous, easygoing way: “The way I see the situation, we’ve got about four hundred or five hundred people who’ll do anything now. On the other hand, I don’t know if we’ve got four hundred or five hundred people who’ll do anything tomorrow–but I think you do. I don’t think four or five hundred people can close down the university.”

Cicero, the Student Afro American Society head, then was asked to speak to the crowd and he said: “SDS can stand on the side and support us, but the black students and the Harlem community will be the ones in the vanguard. Black people alone will decide whether or not they want the gym to be built. It’s not up to you to tell Harlem whether the gym should be built.”

Because Cicero seemed to be equating the white New Left students who opposed the gym construction with the white Columbia Administration that approved the gym construction, the crowd did not cheer his speech and was on the verge of getting demoralized and confused again.

What raised the crowd’s morale again, however, was that Bill rushed to the sundial after Cicero had finished speaking and—luckily for Columbia SDS—Bill praised the white anti-racist students’ militancy, in a revolutionary nationalist rap:

“Okay, I want you to check something out. I thought up until this stage of the game thaat white people weren’t ready. But I saw something today that suggests that maybe this is not true. Maybe you are ready. Because when the deal hit the fan, you were there, you were with me. It was almost soulful.

“If you’re talking about revolution, if you’re talking about identifying with the Vietnamese struggle…you don’t need to go marching downtown. There’s one oppressor–in the White House, in Low Library, in Albany, New York. To strike a blow at the gym, you strike a blow for the Vietnamese people. You strike a blow at the gym and you strike a blow against the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You strike a blow at Low Library and you strike a blow for the freedom fighters in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea, and Zimbabwe, South Africa.

“All you need is superior organization and superior commitment so that you’re not acting like an incoherent mob. Need I say more? I don’t want to get arrested for sedition,” Bill said in a spirited way.

The crowd cheered Bill enthusiastically. Most white anti-war Columbia and Barnard students would not have sustained their militant anti-racism without the encouragement of Bill. Black radical activist approval appeared to be psychologically required before the mass of anti-war students would fight against institutional racism at Columbia.

After Bill’s great charismatic and spontaneous speech, Mark then proposed that we march into an administration building at Columbia and take a hostage until Wilson was released by the cops:

“We don’t have an incoherent mob, it just looks that way. I’ll tell you what we want to do. We want to win some demands about IDA, we want IDA to go. We want the people under discipline to get off of discipline. We want this guy who got busted today to get the charges dropped against him. We want them to stop the fucking gym over there. So I think there’s really only one thing we have to do, and we’re all together here, we’re all ready to go–now! We’ll start by holding a hostage.

“There’s one part of the administration that’s responsible for what happened today–and that’s the administration of Columbia College,” Mark concluded in an easygoing way.

The demonstration cheered in support of Mark’s proposal that we take a hostage in Hamilton. Then somebody shouted “Seize Hamilton!” and Mark shouted, “Hamilton Hall is right over there. Let’s go!”

Instantaneously, demonstrators then started to run at a fast pace to the lobby of Hamilton Hall. Within a few minutes, led by Mark, Bill and Ray, 500 of us were standing in front of the door to the office of Columbia College’s Acting Dean in the first floor lobby, waiting to talk to Acting Dean Coleman.

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