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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968(vii)
Meetings were being held all around the campus. Non-student leftists from Manhattan and around the country were getting eager to jump into the scene and join the fight against the Columbia Administration.

Hundreds of previously apolitical and politically apathetic Columbia and Barnard students, as a result of the mass media attention and the disruption of classes, were now willing to come to Columbia SDS mass meetings and forget about their academic work or their personal-relationship problems for awhile.

Columbia SDS people rejoined “Tony and his 20 disciples” in Low on the night of April 24th. I spent one night inside Low Library, after running in-and-out of other buildings and around campus, helping to do all the political tasks that large numbers of people were sharing.

Inside Low Library, much of people’s energy went to arranging for food to be brought in-and-out, discussing political strategy in endless meetings and just sitting, talking and napping. There was a lot of time just spent waiting, but you also became personally closer to the people you sat-in with and new friendships were formed easily.

One of the top administrators at Columbia—a guy named Fraenkel—spoke with Mark, Lew and a few other Columbia SDS people in the rotunda of Low Library and tried to scare us into surrendering. After Mark raised some objections to his negotiating proposal, Fraenkel said in an angry tone: “Look, Mr. Rudd! You’re through at this University! There’s no way you’re ever going to be let back into Columbia! So why are you trying to prevent the other students from being reasonable?”

Lew and Mark both snickered and started to smirk after Fraenkel’s outburst. And Fraenkel left Low Library a few moments later.

By the night of April 24, 1968, some “Motherfucker” anarchist people from the Lower East Side were among the people sitting in Kirk’s office and they were helping to harden the spirit of resistance there. They also had good concrete suggestions as to how Kirk’s office could best be barricaded.

Seeing the non-student Lower East Side hippie “Motherfuckers” (who were mostly in their mid-to-late 20s) mingling with the slightly younger Columbia and Barnard students, made me feel more certain that the Columbia Administration would have more difficulty getting the anti-racist whites to leave Low by a few verbal promises. The white non-students had joined us inside Low Library because they wanted to strike a blow against a U.S. ruling-class corporate establishment that they hated vehemently. Unlike the more privileged white Columbia and white Barnard students (many of whom had never had to work 9-to-5 in corporate offices for more than a summer), the white hip non-student radicals from the Lower East Side felt that off-campus America was a death culture and that work-life after college in the plastic 9-to-5 world represented slavery and psychological death for white leftists. Hence, they were ready to trash Low Library if Columbia SDS people had chosen to give them our tacit approval. But this we did not do.

Between the night of April 24th and the police invasion of April 30th, what happened exactly remains a blur in my mind, for the most part, with the exception of a few significant events and scenes.

I can recall contributing to an endless tactical debate on the evening of April 24th in Kirk’s office, by saying the following: “Our collective power is that as long as we stay here, the only way Kirk can get us out is by creating an embarrassing scene of police dragging us out. Just like the cops had to drag students out of Sproul Hall in Berkeley in 1964. We have to stay here and show Kirk that if he doesn’t give into our demands, there’s going to be an embarrassing scene at Columbia.”

After the first day of the revolt, the Black student leaders in Hamilton acted autonomously and there developed an uncertainty among some Columbia SDS people about whether they would end their occupation once gym construction was stopped and amnesty was granted to all Black students, but before Columbia’s IDA ties were severed. As it turned out, although the Columbia Administration quickly agreed to stop construction of the Jim Crow gym, it was never willing (or legally able) to offer amnesty to just the African-American students alone. So there was never any incentive for the African-American students in Hamilton Hall to drop the anti-IDA demand and make a separate peace

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