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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (v)
There was some concern among some of the white students inside Hamilton Hall about a possible “threat to Dean Coleman’s life” if the Black students were left alone inside Hamilton Hall. This concern stemmed from a combination of white racist paranoia and rumor-mongering. During the evening of April 23rd, some non-student Harlem young men had joined the Black students in Hamilton and rumors were being spread that Black non-students—not Student Afro-American Society people—now controlled the demonstration. Another rumor being circulated was that Black non-students had brought guns into the building in preparation for self-defense in response to a police bust. Despite these rumors, I saw no indication that there were ever any guns brought inside Hamilton or that Student Afro-American Society people ever relinquished control of their sit-in/occupation.

After Mark’s surprise announcement, all the white students quickly ran to whichever part of the building they had dumped their sleeping bags, blankets or guitars at and gathered en masse down in the lobby. Many white students were tense and emotionally freaked-out. A few white students were crying, but the more politically and emotionally mature African-American students looked cool and determined, as Columbia SDS people led our demoralized band of 300 to 400 white anti-racist students out of Hamilton Hall and up to Low Library, in the early dawn hours.

About a third of the white left demonstrators immediately returned to their dormitory rooms or off-campus apartments to get some sleep, after being told to leave Hamilton Hall. The rest of us quietly walked across Low Plaza and towards the right entrance of Low Library, in order to occupy Low Library. When the first SDS people got to the glass door and tried to enter, they found the door was locked. Frustrated, some of the SDS people then picked up a wooden bench and—using it as a battering ram—slammed it into the glass door, in order to get inside Low Library. After the glass broke, I heard some gasping among the white students behind me on the plaza. About one-third of the white students who had been expecting to occupy Low Library with SDS turned around, and went back to their dormitory rooms and off-campus apartments, as soon as they heard the glass break.

I shook my head with disgust and thought to myself: “They’re only into fighting institutional racism when property doesn’t get damaged. Typical white liberals.” Then I went into Low Library and waited in the rotunda, until about 100 of us were all gathered together, and Mark began to speak to us:

“The reason why we had to leave Hamilton is that the Black students felt that we weren’t solid enough. They’ve chosen to make their stand in Hamilton Hall. And they’re ready to die.

“I’m not ready to die yet. But I think we can continue to support the Black students by holding this building.

“For many of us, our academic careers at Columbia are over. But before the police are called in, we have to decide what we’re going to do.”

There was some concern expressed about the possible fate of Dean Coleman. And even Robby, who would later become very hard-line politically, felt that Dean Coleman might get killed if cops were sent into Hamilton. After a few minutes of discussion, a consensus emerged that sitting down in the rotunda was tactically stupid, because the space around us was so large that when the cops came to arrest us they would be able to clear us out in no time, by just forming a circle around us. We therefore decided to take over Columbia President Kirk’s office. His door was closed and locked, but somebody figured out a way to get in. Then the 100 of us went inside the office.

It was the first time any of us had been inside the office of an Ivy League university president and it felt good to be there. I immediately began to pull open the drawers and files of Columbia President, IDA Director and Mobil Oil Director Kirk to see if I could discover some more dirt on Columbia to reveal to the people of New York City. I was curious. And I felt that people in New York City had a democratic right to go through the office files of Columbia’s President.

Surprisingly, as soon as I began to gleefully go through Columbia President Kirk’s office files, the white students around me started to look frightened.

“What are you doing?”

“Leave those files alone. We’re here to make a political statement, not to vandalize his office!”

There were just a few of the comments that greeted me when I started to do some more research inside Kirk’s office. I couldn’t believe my ears at first.

“We have a right to know what’s in these files,” I argued.

“It’s Kirk’s private property. We have a right to sit-in here, but we don’t have the right to go through his private files,” another white anti-racist student replied.

I was flabbergasted. Were these, indeed, the same students who, under Black student leadership, were willing to hold Dean Coleman hostage for many hours?

Since no other students in the portion of Kirk’s office where the files were kept were willing to join me in going through Kirk’s files, and I was getting bad vibes from the other students, I stopped going through Kirk’s files. Within a few days, however,–as white anti-racist resistance to the Columbia Administration hardened and people began to lose their bourgeois hang-ups about Columbia’s “property rights”—other students completed the search of Kirk’s files. Copies of some choice documents found their way into the Rat underground newspaper. The photocopied documents from Kirk’s files would reveal additional dirt on Columbia University expansion activity, its IDA ties and intra-Establishment conspiring.

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