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

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (xi)

After coming home from the hospital, returning to the campus, going to sleep, and awakening and realizing that people were, spontaneously, not going to return to class until Kirk was replaced, I was still somewhat dazed. Everybody seemed to be talking Revolution. Everybody around seemed to be a New Left activist. I, personally, didn’t need to do much activist work anymore. Many new recruits were now involved with SDS. Students wanted to strike. New student leaders had emerged as mass leaders and mass orators during the student revolt who seemed better able to move a crowd than I could.

I started to read Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence and spent the next few weeks writing a brief history of Columbia SDS activity at Columbia between 1967 and 1968, which attempted to analyze why we had been so successful in confronting the Establishment. Other Columbia SDS people who were newly energized by the events of late April and early May seemed to think I was retreating from New Left politics, because I wasn’t as visibly active as before the revolt, and because I was spending time writing down my thoughts on the revolt.

Yet, personally, I felt like a rock singer who had helped produce a hit record before he was 20. I also felt that people at Columbia should never let the Administration reopen the corporate university again, now that it had used its cops so brutally against its own students.

As to the next step for the New Left at Columbia, now that we had created another Berkeley Student Revolt on the East Coast, I was confused—as were most of the other Columbia SDS steering committee people. We now had the numbers to mount an effective strike. But the U.S. Establishment still had the clubs and the guns of the cops. Thousands of students had been politicized and radicalized. But once you’ve created another Berkeley, what are you supposed to do for an encore, in order to build more quickly a New Left white revolutionary movement?

Why did the use of 1,000 NYC cops to bust up the occupation by about 950 students and maybe 50 non-students at Columbia have such a radicalizing effect at both Columbia and on other campuses?

First of all, the brutality of the police invasion shocked a predominantly upper-middle-class, white academic U.S. setting that had never experienced that kind of indiscriminate police repression before. To get into the buildings occupied by white anti-war students and some non-students, the helmeted TPF had to pass through crowds of curious, sympathetic white liberal youth who might not have been committed enough to sit inside the buildings, but did not wish to see other students of their generation beaten, or feel themselves being pushed around by the burly cops. Some of these sympathetic white liberal students were peacefully sitting in front of the entrances to the buildings we were occupying, acting to both shield us from police brutality and to demonstrate their commitment to a non-violent resolution of the campus confrontation.

Many more sympathetic liberal white students, having never seen so many cops in action before on a college campus, felt the need to observe the cops closely and start chanting in protest, once the cops started to brutally do their thing. And when the cops started shoving some of the sympathetic liberal student onlookers, some of the white liberal students shoved back a little which, in turn, stimulated more police brutality.

In clearing out Hamilton Hall, the cops shrewdly avoided using the kind of brutality that might have provoked a Black mass rebellion in Harlem or an angry march from Harlem to Columbia. Fearing, perhaps, that any militant Black student resistance to white cops inside Hamilton Hall prior to their arrest might provide the cops with a pretext for seriously brutalizing or even killing SAS-led students in Hamilton, the African-American student leadership chose to accept a dignified arrest without further non-violent resistance, on tactical grounds. Hence, there was no need for police brutality against the Black students to insure that Hamilton Hall would be quickly cleared.

With regard to the white anti-war students, who did not have the kind of off-campus militant community backing that the African-American students had, there was no apparent tactical need for the cops to restrain themselves. If they had to wade through sympathetic white liberal students with clubs to clear out the buildings, so be it. If they had to beat some students inside to overcome any white student slowness about obeying their commands to stop “trespassing,” so be it.

By sending around 150 predominantly white upper-middle-class students to the hospitals with head wounds, arresting over 600 other white students and shoving or clubbing, indiscriminately, bystanders who hadn’t been politically radical before the bust, the cops blundered. You can’t inflict that kind of mass police brutality on an Ivy League campus in the U.S. and not expect large numbers of the politically impressionable youth hanging out there to respond by being radicalized for many months afterwards.

But when 1,000 cops are sent onto a campus to put down a political protest, it seems likely that—even if the cops don’t intend to be especially brutal—you’re always going to end up with some kind of bloodbath, of cops beating on students and some students fighting back. That kind of police invasion can never be done without some kind of brutality.

Once the cops were used by the Columbia Administration, the Establishment’s argument that the New Left relied on force, not reason, to achieve its political goals was no longer credible to the bulk of upper-middle-class white youths who hung out around Columbia and who were already radicalized somewhat by the failure to quickly end the war in Viet Nam and the draft.

All the old liberal ideological myths about how the U.S. operated politically no longer seemed to explain how political decisions were actually made, once Kirk and Truman called in the cops. Columbia SDS people had been arguing for a few years that Columbia was run in an undemocratic fashion to serve corporate and government interests, not student interests, and Columbia’s use of police seemed to validate the argument for many people. Neither Columbia nor the United States, as a whole, seemed to be run in a genuinely democratic fashion.

A second reason why the bust at Columbia had such a radicalizing effect was because it took place in the context of a big media fishbowl event. Everybody around the country heard about the event or watched some of the event on TV or read about the event in newspapers or magazines.

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