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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (iv)
By the late evening inside Hamilton Hall, although the steering committee was continuing to meet and had agreed on the 6 demands, it was becoming apparent that tactical divisions between the Black radical students and the white radical students were developing. The more apolitical Barnard and Columbia African-American students who hadn’t bothered to even attend the noon rally had, by now, joined in the demo at Hamilton and the SAS leaders had used the phone effectively to gather community support rapidly in Harlem. Harlem community residents were already starting to send food parcels to the African-American students.

The number of white anti-racist students in Hamilton Hall had also grown, after the mass media publicized the sit-in and holding of the dean as a hostage. But many of the white students inside Hamilton seemed to be there more as trendies than as serious political activists. The Columbia and Barnard African-American students in Hamilton seemed serious, disciplined and all business. Columbia SDS’s mass base in the building seemed frivolous and more into a partying, sleep-away camp, hippie-anarchist mentality and undisciplined.

Within the steering committee meeting, a division appeared between Columbia SDS and SAS leaders over whether classes in Hamilton Hall should be shut down for students on April 24th or whether the sit-in should not interfere with Hamilton Hall classes. Ted and other Columbia SDS leaders still felt in the late evening hours of April 23rd and early morning of April 24th that too many white students at Columbia would be alienated from the New Left and polarized to support the Columbia Administration, if we prevented them from going to class, by completely shutting down Hamilton Hall. Bill and Ray argued that, if the white leftist students were really serious about winning demands and really politically solid, they should have no qualms about shutting down Hamilton Hall classes completely, until the demands were won. And now was not the time to be worried about “not alienating” Columbia students.

In retrospect, the Black radical students were correct about it being necessary to shut down classes at Hamilton Hall in order to have any chance of forcing concessions from Columbia. But in the late evening of April 23, 1968 and early morning hours of April 24, 1968, most of the white students in Hamilton Hall were confused about whether the sit-in and holding of Dean Coleman hostage should be expanded into an occupation and total shut-down of Hamilton Hall.

People were allowed to walk in-and-out of Hamilton Hall on the evening of April 23rd. I can recall talking inside Hamilton Hall that night to the hostile right-wing Professor Schilling, whose term paper assignment had led me to discover Columbia’s IDA ties. Schilling had left an outdoor gathering of a few hundred hostile right-wing students in front of Hamilton Hall, in order to try to use his right-wing logic inside Hamilton Hall to persuade us to give up our bargaining chip of being inside the building—in exchange for a promise of negotiation.

To determine democratically what Columbia SDS’s formal position should be on the Black students’ call to shut down classes in Hamilton on April 24, 1968, a packed early morning emergency meeting of a few hundred white anti-racists was held in one of the larger classrooms of Hamilton Hall, which began with Mark chairing.

People were confused and divided. And most speakers—unlike Mark—seemed to feel Columbia SDS shouldn’t support the African-American students’ call to prevent classes from being held in Hamilton. Mark seemed to be showing the strain of the day’s events on him. Because the head of Columbia’s Student Homophile League—one of the first gay liberation student organizations to appear on U.S. campus in the 1960s—was wearing a suit and tie and had not been involved in leftist political activity before, Mark irrationally focused on his presence at the emergency meeting of white demonstrators. Knowing only that the mustached and short-haired Student Homophile League head was dressed like a preppie-tweed, looked like a Young Republican and looked only vaguely familiar, Mark suddenly pointed him out and yelled: “You! You’re an Administration informant! Get out of here!”

Before anyone could tell Mark that the Student Homophile League head was probably just a newly-radicalized student and not necessarily an informant for the Administration, Mark had verbally bullied the guy out of the building.

While the debate over whether to back the Black students’ call to shut down classes dragged on and on, Mark was suddenly called from the lecturer’s podium. Bill and Ray wanted to speak with him, Ted and Nick, immediately. In the debate, Ted had been one of the most persuasive opponents of shutting down Hamilton Hall.

“If we prevent classes from being held, we end up defining the student constituency SDS wants to radicalize and organize as the enemy. We don’t have to alienate our student constituency in order to maintain a militant sit-in and win the six demands,” Ted had said. Within a few days, even Ted, himself, had realized that this argument reflected an excessively cautious tactical sense. But in the early a.m. hours of April 24, 1968, it sounded plausible to most people and was only being opposed by a few white anti-racists because the Black student leadership, which seemed more politically mature than the white New Left student leadership, had challenged us to shut down classes.

Not seeing another SDS person who he felt could chair the disorderly meeting while he, Ted and Nick met with Ray and Bill, Mark tried to persuade me to start chairing the meeting. But not feeling confident that I could keep the debate going in a meeting that included confused white left-liberals, as well as confused SDS people, I declined to take over from Mark as the emergency meeting chairperson. Mark then spotted Halliwell, the Regional SDS organizer and Columbia Russian History graduate student, who agreed to chair the rest of the meeting. Mark left and the debate continued. But about 5 minutes later, Mark, Ted and Nick returned. And with a sad look, Mark said the following:

“The Black students want us to leave the building. They don’t think we’re solid enough. They feel they can get more community support if only Black students are in Hamilton Hall. They’ve chosen to make their stand alone here and we have to respect that choice. They’ve suggested that, if we want to continue to support them, we should open up a second front by occupying another building on campus.”

Most of us were momentarily stunned. We did not wish to leave our Black brothers and sisters alone to face a possible police bust, since most of us, initially, mistakenly assumed that the presence of white students—not the threat of Harlem’s mass anger—was what prevented the Columbia Administration from ordering the arrest of its Black student protesters. Many of the white anti-racist students were emotionally hurt by the Black students’ decision to ask them to leave Hamilton Hall, because part of the attraction of the demo for them had been its inter-racial, early Civil Rights period nature. But given the anti-militant, divided tone of the early morning general assembly white student debate over whether to support the African-American student desire to prevent classes from being held on April 24th, it was also obvious that Columbia SDS’s mass base was too wavering a group of people at this time for the Black students to politically risk having within the same occupied building.

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