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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (ix)
There was a march of a few hundred Harlem supporters across Campus Walk to support the students inside Hamilton Hall. At first it looked like force would be used by right-wing students to keep the African-American demonstrators off-campus, but the right-wing jocks decided to retreat. “The gym goes up—Columbia goes down!” was one of the main chants. Another chant was “Beep! Beep! Bang! Bang! Ungawa! Black Power!”

Before the demonstrators from Harlem arrived, there were rumors on campus among white students, Columbia administrators and Columbia professors that the Harlem demonstrators might try to burn Columbia down. But, as it turned out, the march was quite peaceful, even though the mass spirit was militant.

There were all-white male meetings of Columbia professors inside Philosophy Hall lounge, in which these politically naïve professors unsuccessfully tried to develop a proposal for a negotiated settlement. Mark later accurately described the Columbia professors’ attempts to resolve the campus crisis as “bull-shit,” causing many morally arrogant Columbia profs like Professor Silver to become very offended. But I felt that Mark was right. All the verbal talk of the politically naïve, anti-communist, white racist Columbia professors during the student revolt seemed to amount to little more than bull-shit. The issue was whether the Columbia trustees were going to concede the 6 democratic demands of the New Left Movement and the community or whether they were going to use brute force to try to drive us from the buildings we had liberated, and which we felt now belonged to the people of New York City and Columbia and Barnard students—not to the white corporate Establishment.

Columbia faculty members never understood this simple fact. All they were concerned about was trying to figure out some kind of meaningless verbal formulation that would persuade their students to withdraw from the buildings, return to academic business as usual, and stop putting their bodies on the line to fight the Establishment. They didn’t seem to realize that in 1968 there was a war going on in Viet Nam that made it immoral for students to do anything other than shut down Columbia until the IDA ties were cut and all the other demands were won. The faculty jokers didn’t realize that Columbia was not sacred to anyone whose salary check did not arrive from Columbia. They didn’t realize that most people in New York City in 1968 who knew anything about Columbia’s institutional policies had come to hate Columbia.

I dropped by a few times, myself, to observe some Ad Hoc faculty meetings in Philosophy Hall but quickly realized that they were irrelevant to what we were trying to accomplish inside the occupied buildings.

By the third night of the revolt, I was basing myself inside Fayerweather Hall, because you could go in and out of there without difficulty, and I was too restless to want to just stay in one place during the revolt.

It was in Fayerweather Hall that I met Louise. She was a graduate student in Columbia’s English Department with long brown hair, who had attended Bryn Mawr as an undergraduate. Like most of the other graduate students (who spent much of their time inside Fayerweather Hall debating whether or not Columbia SDS’s primarily undergraduate leadership was too uncompromising in not being willing to accept anything less than winning all 6 demands), Louise had not been involved in campus New Left politics prior to the occupation of Hamilton. Like most of the other Fayerweather Hall graduate school rebels, Louise had been too busy working on her PhD to be involved with Columbia SDS people before April 1968.

But unlike most of the other women Columbia graduate students who had become politicized, Louise seemed willing to get romantically involved with younger undergraduate Columbia College men. After one lengthy debate inside one of Fayerweather Hall’s largest classrooms, in which much time was spent having to argue against a red-haired woman graduate student named Rusty (who had gotten her BA from the University of Chicago) and her anti-SDS, left-liberal, right-opportunist politics, Louise touched me in a friendly, comradely way.

But I was hesitant about responding to her willingness to make the first move socially in relationship to a younger man. In 1968, there were still social taboos around the New Left, with regard to women being the initiator of love relationships and younger men becoming involved with older women like Louise. Instead of being praised for being straightforward and emotionally open with Movement men who were younger than her, women like Louise ended up being foolishly put down by some Movement men or rejected by others. Yet when I think of Fayerweather Hall during the Columbia Student Revolt, mixed in with my memories of the endless debates, the sleeping on hard floors, the smoking of joints, the sharing of food, the bumping into a whole set of new friends, the dancing, the sense of community and comradeship in a combat-type situation, the ‘new age” wedding of Andrea and Richard in the middle of a generational war and the generalized love vibrations, I think of Louise.

By the third day of the revolt, the right-wing Columbia students, wearing their suits and ties, had organized themselves into a misnamed “Majority Coalition.” Encouraged by the more politically right-wing administrators like Dean Coleman, the non-intellectual, status-seeking, materialistic, pro-war “Majority Coalition” students started to stand around the buildings that had been liberated by the white anti-war students. Their intention was to try to prevent food from getting into the occupied buildings. A few of the Majority Coalition-types, impatient with the Columbia Administration’s failure to call in cops to clear out the buildings quickly so that classes could resume immediately, attempted to re-take Fayerweather Hall once, but they were too outnumbered to be effective.

Because the more visible the Majority Coalition became on campus during the revolt, the more Barnard and Columbia students polarized in support of the New Left in reaction to a visible right-wing presence, I did not feel particularly disturbed by the Majority Coalition-types. When they outnumbered leftists in a dark alley, they were dangerous, because they could not defend their political views verbally, yet were willing to physically attack left-wing students who were politically sharper in debate. But around Columbia, there was never any danger that the more intellectually-oriented Columbia SDS’s mass base would ever be smaller than the “Majority Coalition”’s mass base. The political demographics of the Columbia and Barnard student body were always in our favor, even though the Establishment media tried to give more media publicity to the right-wing students, as the revolt continued.

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