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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (x)
By Friday, Mathematics Hall had been liberated by non-student leftists and Columbia SDS people and it quickly gained the reputation for having the most militant of the white demonstrators who were inside the buildings. JJ ended up basing himself inside Mathematics Hall, as did the Motherfuckers, who quickly had moved from Low Library to Mathematics Hall, after Mathematics Hall was liberated.

Hayden, one of the early founders of National SDS, ended up holding Mathematics Hall occupiers together during the days before the police bust. After hearing news of the student occupation of Hamilton, Hayden had appeared on campus. But he didn’t really start to play any major white radical leadership role until he was able to join other SDS people in occupying Mathematics Hall.

Like most other Columbia SDS people, I felt that Hayden’s presence in Mathematics Hall further legitimized the revolt and further certified the event as being as politically and historically significant as the 1964 Berkeley Student Revolt. I didn’t personally bump into Hayden before the bust in Spring 1968 because most of his time was spent in Mathematics Hall, except for when he spoke at a spring anti-war rally in NYC that took place on the weekend before Kirk called the cops.

Abbie Hoffman was also inside Mathematics Hall during the Columbia Revolt. But Abbie was not as prominent in SDS and Movement circles as Hayden at this time, and I can’t recall Abbie being asked to speak to a crowd during the Columbia uprising. In late April 1968, Abbie was still known only in relationship to being good at guerrilla theater, throwing money at the New York Stock Exchange, telling funny jokes at the pre-Pentagon March news conference and using humor and WBAI airwaves to get hippies to Central Park be-ins and to an anti-war yip-in at Grand Central Station, which the NYC cops brutally broke up. In late April 1968, most SDS people still didn’t realize how popular Abbie was going to get as a political leader or how massive his freak constituency would become once he was given more mass media access. We also didn’t realize how fantastic an orator and rabble-rouser he was. Although Mark was over 10 years younger than Abbie, Mark was still a more effective mass agitator than Abbie was at this time.

Each of the occupied buildings had their own political character. Black nationalist revolutionary Hamilton, led by Bill and Ray. Hippie revolutionary, white radical Mathematics, led by Hayden. White radical sectarian/white left-liberal/white New Left radical undergraduate Low Library, led by Tony and Robby. White left-liberal, politically-wavering Fayerweather Hall, led by Columbia graduate students. And white left-liberal Avery Hall, led by architecture students. Within Ferris Booth Hall’s Citizenship Council offices, the various white student-occupied buildings were coordinated by Lew, Mark, Juan and others, who would go from occupied building-to-occupied building, encouraging the mass of white left students to hold firm.

I can recall Mark and Lew each taking a turn on separate occasions arguing persuasively to the Fayerweather Hall student demonstrators that it was the Columbia Administration’s intransigence, not Columbia SDS-led Strike Coordinating Committee irrationality, that prevented a negotiated end to the revolt. Mark looked exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed, as he spoke with people in Fayerweather. But he still projected the charismatic, moralistic, Savio-like earnestness and emotion that enabled him to inspire most anti-war students who listened to him.

Yet despite Mark’s charisma and the intellectually concise, logical way Lew later explained to Fayerweather people why it remained necessary to hold firm, some anti-Mark grumbling began to develop in Fayerweather, a day or two before the big police bust. At a key point in one of the debates, a Columbia Law School student with a thick Brooklyn accent, who had never appeared in left activist circles before April 23rd, stood in front of the room and defended Mark’s leadership of the Movement at Columbia. His name was Gus.

“If it weren’t for Mark, none of us would be here,” Gus began. Then he delivered an impassioned defense of Columbia SDS’s role in the revolt, using an overdramatic rhetorical style that struck me as being somewhat archaic, too theatrical and “square,” in comparison to the usual New Left Movement activist style of oratory. Yet despite Gus’s rhetorical style and thick Brooklyn accent, his speech was extremely intelligent and effective with the predominantly graduate school audience. And his jovial, extroverted personality quickly made him a popular Movement figure for awhile.

Gus was apparently the red diaper son of a hard-core leftist Brooklyn working-class guy. Unlike the affluent red diaper baby, Ted, Gus initially chose, within the Ivy League world, to be more into careerism than radical politics. Columbia SDS’s Spring 1968 activity, however, had somehow inspired Gus to apparently carry on his father’s work and to start putting his body on the line. Being a Columbia Law School student in 1968 now seemed much less chic than being a New Left activist in 1968, for the trendy Gus.

Outside the various occupied buildings, those anti-war students who weren’t yet ready to sit inside the liberated buildings put on green armbands and vowed to remain in front of the buildings, alongside various sympathetic Columbia professors, should Kirk and Truman decide to call in police.

In the early morning hours of Friday, April 26th, Truman and Kirk did decide to call in police. When Truman announced the cops were being called-in at a meeting with the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee in Philosophy Hall lounge, a few professors shouted “Shame!”

But after the first police to go into action clubbed Professor of French Literature Greeman, who—along with the Episcopal Campus Ministry’s Rev. Starr—turned out to be the most committed New Left professor at Columbia in 1968, Truman and Kirk were pressured into cancelling the request for police to empty the buildings, in order to once again try to negotiate some kind of settlement.

Before Professor Greeman, who was standing in front of Low Library next to Rev. Starr, was brutalized by the cops, everybody inside the buildings was all tense. It looked like the revolt was going to be crushed. But once Professor Greeman was clubbed, it became obvious that any use of NYC cops by Kirk and Truman would produce a bloody scene at Columbia. So SDS people began to feel that the Columbia Administration might concede the 6 demands, including the amnesty demand. And not call cops on campus again.

If all this sounds confusing, it was all confusing. People remained in the buildings. On April 27th, anti-war protesters from the NYC anti-war rally downtown marched up to Columbia to cheer us on. During the revolt, SNCC leaders like H. Rap Brown (n/k/a Jamil Al-Amin and currently imprisoned in a Georgia jail) and Stokely Carmichael (a/k/a/ Kwame Ture) also held a press conference in front of occupied Hamilton Hall. In addition, many other left celebrities, such as Norman Mailer and Dwight MacDonald, visited the liberated campus.

Much of what happened immediately prior to the first police bust in the early hours of Tuesday, April 30, 1968, is now a blur.

The big issue was “amnesty.” The Columbia trustees did not want to give us amnesty. We were not going to leave those buildings without amnesty, because we felt we were morally justified in occupying Columbia’s buildings in support of our just demands and we did not accept the right of the U.S. Establishment to punish us. We felt that the Columbia University Administration represented an undemocratic, illegitimate authority that served the special corporate interests of a minority—not the majority interests of students and oppressed and exploited humanity.

Inside the buildings between the clubbing of Professor Greeman and the April 30th early morning invasion of 1,000 cops to clear the buildings, life became more repetitive. Life became a mixture of endless debates, waiting in line to go to liberated co-ed bathrooms or to receive some food to eat—which, because of our inherited and internalized male chauvinism, was usually prepared by Barnard women—and trying to find time to sleep. I began to feel there was little more to debate and it became more boring to just wait around inside the buildings.

Politically, though, the longer we held Columbia’s buildings, the more politicized and radicalized students inside the buildings tended to become. So if the Columbia Administration had decided not to call in the cops–yet also not to give in to our demands and, instead, just wait us out– Columbia SDS people would have been willing and able to keep Columbia shut down until June.

But such was not to be the case. The Columbia Administration asked the “liberal” mayor of New York City—John Lindsay—to order his cops to clear us out of the buildings. And, overnight, a mass base for the New Left Revolution was created on the Upper West Side, and the Columbia New Left replaced the Berkeley Left as the student movement’s vanguard. SDS was put on the map, historically and mass media-wise, and, for a few years, “SDS” became a household word in the United States.

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