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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968(viii)
Throughout the week of turmoil, WKCR radio broadcast news of the revolt constantly—on-campus and off-campus. The Establishment’s mass media also had correctly focused-in on Mark as the revolt’s white radical spark plug and he was doing a great job speaking in front of the TV cameras. But on the second or third day of the revolt, Mark temporarily resigned as Columbia SDS chairman.

The reason why Mark resigned was because of what happened at an emergency Columbia SDS steering committee meeting in Ferris Booth Hall. Ted, Peter Schneider, Dave and other old Praxis-Axis people—while excited by the depth of politicization on campus—were against Columbia SDS people occupying as many more campus buildings, in support of the Black students, as they could. Instead, Ted, Schneider, Dave, Nick and other Praxis-Axis people proposed that Columbia SDS—in the middle of the developing revolt—start knocking on dormitory doors, do dorm canvassing, hand-out informational leaflets and hold more dorm lobby meetings to explain the New Left politics behind the student strike that Columbia SDS was calling.

Mark, however, argued that Columbia SDS people seizing more buildings would do more to both win the demands of the revolt and encourage Columbia and Barnard students to strike, than any more dorm canvassing would do. Mark argued that, given the occupation of Hamilton and Low and the constant threat of a police bust, now was not the time for “business-as-usual” radical educational work. And that it was totally ridiculous not to focus on engaging in more militant action, since “militant action, not dorm canvassing, is what has gotten us so far during the past few weeks.”

Mark, as usual, turned out to be correct. But the Praxis-Axis people had argued that more building seizures by Columbia SDS would decrease support for a student strike and leave no New Left cadre outside of buildings to do the necessary radical educational work to both pull-off a successful strike and create more revolutionary consciousness among our mass base. And their arguments had sounded more plausible than Mark’s at this time. So, by about a 70 to 3 vote, Mark’s proposal to take more buildings was voted down. Only JJ and one other Columbia SDS person voted with Mark. I, myself, mistakenly fell for the Praxis-Axis argument that it wasn’t necessary for Columbia SDS to hold more than one building in order to maximize its political impact and bargaining power. After the vote went against him, Mark said with disgust: “I resign as chairman of this fuckin’ organization.” Then he stalked out.

Ted, Dave, Nick and the rest of us all shrugged. Then people went ahead with the process of planning for the writing, printing and distribution of more strike leaflets, and the planning of a mass meeting of strikers and an intensified dorm canvassing drive. I can recall feeling quite confused. The Praxis Axis seemed to make more sense at this time. But there also seemed some validity in Mark’s argument. And it seemed foolish for him to resign the Columbia SDS chairmanship, just because a vote went against him once, since he had been doing such a great job.

As it turned out, however, events moved so rapidly that Mark quickly agreed to reassume his Columbia SDS chairmanship post and continue being the white spokesperson for the media. The mass of Columbia SDS people and supportive students turned out to be much more interested in seizing more buildings, than in doing more dorm canvassing.

Although Columbia’s graduate students were generally more politically and personally conservative—and less personally desperate and angry—than its undergraduates, the effect of the mass media publicity was to cause the left-liberal “trendy” graduate students to occupy Fayerweather Hall. Around the same time, white left-liberal School of Architecture students occupied Avery Hall. The revolt seemed to be expanding.

With so many buildings occupied, there was no longer any need for the African-American students to hold Dean Coleman hostage as a bargaining chip, and he was allowed to just leave his office in Hamilton Hall. Everybody in Columbia SDS steering committee circles—even Praxis Axis people—realized that, finally, the mass of New Left students on campus had moved beyond the need for more dorm canvassing. We had collectively not been audacious enough during the first two days of the revolt and had, initially, underestimated the speed of campus radicalization produced by the firm stand of the Black students in Hamilton Hall and the subsequent mass media publicity generated by that stand and by our willingness to open up a second front in Low Library. Plans were made by SDS people to “liberate” another building, Mathematics Hall.

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