Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–Enter Bernardine Dohrn, 1968

Chapter 17: Enter Bernardine Dohrn, 1968 (i)
I first heard Bernardine speak in a room on the second or third floor of Ferris Booth Hall in May 1968. She was in her mid-20s and was dressed like a straight, middle-class radical lawyer. She wore a tight skirt, not jeans, and was representing the National Lawyers Guild. The Lawyers Guild had agreed to represent all the students who had been arrested following the April 30th police invasion, and Bernardine’s speech explained in a coherent way what was the current legal situation of arrested people, in the eyes of the Guild. Bernardine spoke in an efficient, unemotional way and she seemed to be more of a radical lawyer than a New Left political activist. She seemed smart. But she also seemed more middle-class fashion-oriented than bohemian or hippie-oriented in lifestyle.

Bernardine had grown up in the Chicago area, studied at the University of Chicago and worked with Martin Luther King during his 1966 open housing campaign in Chicago and Cicero, Illinois. She had moved to New York City during the year before the Columbia Student Revolt in order to work as the National Lawyers Guild’s campus organizer. Although she had traveled to many U.S. campuses on behalf of the Lawyers Guild and spoken on topics such as draft resistance law, few people within Columbia SDS steering committee circles had heard of Bernardine prior to her May 1968 appearance in Ferris Booth Hall.

As May 1968 unfolded, the student revolt in Paris’s Latin Quarter, that attracted the support of French industrial workers and nearly brought down the French government, reinforced Columbia SDS’s notion that revolution in an advanced capitalist country like France or the United States was, indeed, possible.

Michael and his community activist allies secretly planned to take over an apartment building on W. 114th St. that Columbia was in the process of emptying in order to use the apartment building space for Columbia’s School of Social Work. A rally was held in mid-May, our mass base of students marched off campus from the sundial to the site of the community’s occupation of Columbia’s apartment building and a number of students who hadn’t been arrested or clubbed during the April 30th campus bust sat down in front of the W. 114th St. building. Columbia called in City cops to reclaim its apartment building and arrest those Columbia and Barnard students or community activists who were either sitting in the street or occupying the apartment building. The cops made over a hundred arrests but were not brutal when they arrested people this time.

Mark was among the students arrested outside the W. 114th St. apartment building. At the time of the April 30th campus bust, Columbia SDS people felt that there was no need for Mark, himself, to get arrested inside one of the liberated buildings, because he could best serve the cause by continuing to speak to the U.S. mass media after the mass arrests were made. Following the April 30th police invasion, however, the Establishment’s media tried to make political hay out of the fact that, despite his militant leadership, Mark had “not even been willing to get arrested with his followers” on April 30th. To disprove this Establishment propaganda ploy, Mark felt it was necessary to submit to arrest when the mid-May seizure of a Columbia apartment building occurred.

As the cops made their arrests on W. 114th St. and pushed onlookers back towards the campus while the off-campus arrests were made, I felt that, despite our sense that revolution was possible, given what was happening in France, we really were going to get nowhere—unless we could figure out a way to overcome the Columbia Administration’s ability to keep calling in police.

Among the community activists arrested with Michael in the W. 114th St. building was an old CP activist of the 1930s named Hickerson, who appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s. Hickerson had fought against Columbia’s real estate policies for many years and during 1968 was a popular speaker at Columbia SDS rallies because he combined a militant verbal attack on Columbia’s gentrification and expansion policies with a strong opposition to the “crimes of monopoly capitalism,” whose interests Columbia served.

Columbia SDS people (who now worked under the banner of the Columbia Strike Committee) continued to produce a lot of political literature during May 1968, in order to consolidate the New Left’s mass base; and debate continued as to what the next political goal was to be. We rejected the notion that our goal was to simply establish student power at Columbia or student control of Columbia at this time. We argued that until the whole society was changed by revolution, it was utopian to expect that Columbia could become an oasis of democracy within an imperialist society. We also argued that Columbia should serve the interests of community residents and humanity, not just the interests of students.

Influenced by the establishment of “Critical Universities” by student radicals in France and West Germany, Columbia Strike Committee people made plans to establish a “Liberation School” with “liberated classes” during the summer. In this “Liberation School” students would be offered tuition-free courses by Movement people on subjects that were relevant to the cause of Revolution. By attending our Liberation School, students would learn what education at Columbia should really be like and would come to realize why the “bourgeois education” that Columbia provided before the April 1968 revolt was nothing more than pro-capitalist indoctrination.

During May 1968, classes were cancelled by Columbia because of the student strike’s success and students were marked on a pass-fail basis for the courses they were enrolled in prior to April 23, 1968. Yet, given the magnitude of the revolt’s impact, the marks and classes of the pre-April 23rd era at Columbia seemed irrelevant to most Columbia and Barnard students.

Within the New Left, JJ’s political prestige rose dramatically as a result of the Columbia revolt because the revolt proved that–despite JJ’s pre-revolt inability to convince anyone else that immediate campus disruption, not educational forums, was the quickest way to radicalize students–JJ had been strategically correct all along.

Wearing a headband and looking like a hippie for the first time, at a meeting of the Mathematics Hall “commune” (students within each building had begun to identify themselves collectively as “communes” in the days prior to the April 30th bust) in May 1968, a former ideologue of the Praxis-Axis, Evansohn, smiled sheepishly at me one afternoon and said: “You know, JJ was right all along.”

As a result of the Columbia revolt, people now took JJ seriously as a New Left political thinker and strategist and, when he rambled on in his usual way in political debate, he now seemed to make sense and people now paid attention to him. Mark, in particular, began to follow JJ’s political and strategic lead; and he was able to then articulate JJ’s politics in a more persuasive way than JJ, because Mark’s oratorical skills were greater than JJ’s, and he possessed more charisma than JJ.

Phil Ochs visited Columbia again after the April 30th bust and gave a free concert one evening inside Wollman Auditorium, as a tribute to participants in Columbia’s student revolt. His biggest cheers came after he sang “I’m Gonna Say It Now.” The Grateful Dead and Allen Ginsberg also showed up at Columbia, following the revolt.

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