Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories–Summer In The Streets, 1968

Chapter 18: Summer In The Streets, 1968 (iii)
By September 1968, the Columbia Strike Committee’s sublet of the W.114th St. fraternity house for its Liberation School had expired and the headquarters of Columbia SDS and the Columbia Strike Committee was moved into an apartment a few more blocks south of the campus. It was there that I met with Mark and Lew prior to the day when we were planning to confront the Columbia Administration over its refusal to allow Mark to register.

As part of his effort to divide Columbia SDS’s mass base by developing a split between our newly-radicalized left-liberal supporters and our radical hard-core supporters, Columbia President Cordier agreed to drop charges against most of the arrested students and not take any disciplinary action against those arrested students who agreed to visit the dean’s office and acknowledge the legitimacy of the University’s disciplinary authority. And it turned out that–despite the summer events in Chicago increasing the sense of white student political alienation in relation to the Democratic and Republican parties—a summer away from Columbia and traveling in Europe or being at home with parents had caused many newly politicized student rebels of Spring 1968 to become more politically cautious by Fall 1968. As memories of the spring term busts at Columbia had receded somewhat and a summer of isolation from other enraged students had also helped defuse memories of the spring, a sizeable number of white participants in the revolt were inclined to accept the partial amnesty that Columbia was offering most Columbia and Barnard students.

In addition, the African-American students had quickly chosen to visit the deans and meekly return to class during the fall term, because they did not feel that the white New Left’s goal of continuing to keep Columbia shut down was either practical or relevant to their collective concerns. This fact encouraged many white left-liberal participants in the spring revolt to feel morally justified in also passively returning to class in Fall 1968 at Columbia.

True, we still had maybe 400 to 500 white activist students and non-students in early September around Columbia who appeared willing to keep the fight going in confrontation with the Columbia Administration, until Mark was let back in and until more of our radical New Left goals were achieved. But as long as the Columbia Administration did not call in the cops to invade the campus a third time, it began to appear unlikely that our mass support was going to expand rapidly enough in September to be able to prevent Columbia from returning to business as usual, despite the events of the previous spring.

In the early weeks of September, our afternoon and evening rallies and demonstrations were still well-attended and we were able to disrupt an Administration-sponsored meeting of Freshmen in Low Library. When Hayden spoke on campus, fresh from the war on the streets of Chicago, in early September, there was also a large crowd in attendance and the mass spirit was high. An international conference that included student rebel leaders from France, West Germany and Italy which Lew had organized also attracted a good crowd and kept mass spirit high (despite the fact that deep ideological divisions were revealed at this conference between the student leaders of each country). It started to again appear possible that we would be able to shut down registration at Columbia and prevent classes at Columbia from beginning–until everybody who was not being allowed back into Columbia because of their political activity in the spring—including Mark—was allowed to register.

But in mid-September, when the afternoon to disrupt registration came, we did not have enough militant anti-Columbia demonstrators in our march of 300 students who were willing to use physical force to push aside a few African-American security guards that Columbia had shrewdly hired—to keep us from sitting-in at the old on-campus gymnasium where Columbia had shrewdly decided to have its fall term registration. Although a picture of Mark and Gus unsuccessfully trying to push past Columbia security guards appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine the following week, to symbolize a new wave of campus protest that was beginning again around the U.S., our failure to occupy en masse the site of Columbia’s fall registration meant that fall classes at Columbia were going to resume. We had naively expected the spontaneous, unorganized mass militancy of our supporters to be sufficient to enable us to get past the registration area security guards some way, in the same way that spontaneous, unorganized mass militancy had carried us into the Columbia buildings during the spring revolt.

Another reason why Columbia SDS people couldn’t prevent the Columbia Administration from reopening the University in Fall 1968 was that both the Labor Committee and PL each flooded the Columbia scene with at least 10 of their dogmatic members. The Labor Committee and PL sectarians were able to drag the chapter into lengthy sectarian debates and faction fights that demoralized and turned off many returning veterans of the spring revolt, as well as new members. Instead of being able to spend SDS mass meeting time figuring out ways to more effectively mobilize Barnard and Columbia students to confront the trustees, much of the mass meeting time had to be spent with Columbia New Left activists exposing the inadequacies of the politically sectarian proposals of the Labor Committee people—who were acting as external cadre for Lyndon LaRouche/”Lynn Marcus”’s cult group, within Columbia’s SDS chapter.

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