From: "Anne Z. Whitman"
Subject: Who Rules Columbia
To: "Jordi Reyes Montblanc"
(Click on the picture [see below] for more about the buttoms.)
A personal reminiscence of the 1968 student uprising at Columbia University. I was an active participant, but not a member of any particular faction (the only organization I belonged to was Veterans Against the War). I wrote this article for publication in the "Columbia Librarian" at the request of Columbia's Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian, Elaine Sloan (then my boss's boss), on the 30th anniversary of the student rebellion (a). In 1968 I was an Army veteran working my way through a Columbia degree with a part-time job in the library; now I work in Academic Information Systems (the academic half of what used to be called the Computer Center), which, since 1986, is part of the University Library; hence the library connection.
Because this article was written for a Columbia audience, familiarity with the Columbia campus and setting are assumed. The article was HTMLized for the Web and slightly updated in February 2001, with periodic updates after that. Pictures were added in June 2001, which you can view by following the links; I hope to find and add more pictures as time goes on. While this is a personal recollection and not an attempt at a definitive history, corrections, comments,additional information, and especially photos are welcome, and will be acknowledged.
Life was different at Columbia University in 1968. There was a war and a draft. Up until the previous year, the University had routinely furnished class rank lists to the draft board (b), so if you had poor grades, off you went (of course, privileged Columbia students still had it better than the many kids drafted right out of high school, but that's another story). There were ROTC drills on South Field, military and CIA recruiters on campus, and classified military research in the labs (c). The Civil Rights movement had become the Black Liberation movement, and Black Panthers and Young Lords -- and Soul music -- captured students' imaginations. The women's movement was beginning to shake everybody up, especially guys who thought they were already progressive enough. Dr. King had just been killed and the cities were in flames. You couldn't ignore all this.
Throughout the mid-to-late 60s there was all sorts of political activity on campus -- teach-ins on Pentagon economics, Sundial rallies against the war, demonstrations against class rank reporting, confrontations with military recruiters, etc. It was an era of bullhorns. Amidst all this, the University was constructing a new gym in Morningside Park -- the barrier separating Columbia from Harlem -- with a "back door" on the Harlem side. This offended many people, and one day in April some students went to Morningside Drive and tore down the fence, attempting to break into the construction site. They were restrained by police and some were arrested. The ensuing Sundial rally wandered into Hamilton Hall and stayed the night. The original idea was that the united student body, or at least the considerable left wing of it (how times have changed) would occupy Hamilton until the charges against the students were dropped and some other demands were met. Various factions debated tactics and what the demands should be. Eventually six demands were formulated. Their thrust was against Columbia's complicity the war, against racism, and for better and more responsible relations with the surrounding communities.
The First Building Occupations
About 6:00am the white students left Hamilton and moved into the President's office in Low Library, while the Black students remained in Hamilton. This was the result of an agreement reached between leaders of SDS, PL, SWP, YAWF, etc (the predominantly white groups), on the one hand, and SAS on the other, behind closed doors and reflective of the tenor of times . Over the next few days the various mostly-white factions branched out to other buildings -- SDS to Math (which flew the splendid red flag featured on the cover of Spring 1968 Columbia College Today, an issue devoted to the uprising with lots of great photos and much grouchy commentary), the Trotskyites to Avery, the anarcho-syndicalists to Fayerweather, etc (or something like that). In all, five buildings were occupied for a week. The history is written elsewhere such as the souvenir-bound editions of Spectator, and there is also a locally-produced film, Columbia Revolt (shot in large part by the legendary wall-scaling Melvin), that is trotted out on special occasions. When I took my son to see it at the 20th anniversary get-together in Earl Hall in 1988, it was already crumbling. (As of February 2003, there seems to be a copy available for viewing and downloading at Archive.Org; see Links.)
I spent the week in Low Library. There was a carnival atmosphere the first day, with press photographers and reporters from magazines, the local newspapers, etc (the Post was fair, the News was atrocious, but the Times was beyond belief -- small wonder, considering the connections (d)). There was an unforgettable, Felliniesque visit from a faculty member who swooped through the window in full academic regalia, Batmanlike, to "reason" with us. Security guards and office workers brought us snacks. Life magazine (May 10, 1968) ran a cover story featuring pictures taken in Low, including my favorite: a group of us seated on the carpet, each with a Grayson Kirk face, complete with pipe (from President Kirk's desk drawer, which was stocked with dozens of 8x10 glossy book-jacket poses).
After the first day, activities grew more structured, and thenceforth the occupation was one long meeting governed by Robert's Rules of Order, interpreted creatively ("point of obfuscation!"), interspersed by housework. Contrary to popular belief and press reports, the President's suite of offices was kept immaculate and orderly after the chaotic first day (e). Cleanup detail included vacuuming, shaking out blankets, scrubbing the bathroom, etc. The administration's fears of vandalism (and their special concern for the Rembrandt hanging above President Kirk's desk) were poorly founded, at least in Low.
Outside, a system of rings developed around Low Library. Opponents ("jocks") formed the inner ring; student supporters (known, along with us, as "pukes") formed an outer ring, and later concerned faculty formed an intermediate buffer ring. Each group wore distinctive armbands, not that they were needed: jocks (Columbia light blue) looked like jocks; pukes (red) were scruffy; faculty (white) wore tweed with elbow patches. Black armbands came later. Beyond the rings were crowds of onlookers and press. The outside pukes would try to send food up to us, but the jocks intercepted most of it and made a great show of wolfing it down con mucho gusto as we looked on with envy (most food didn't throw well and fell short; what little got through was mainly oranges and baloney packets). One day a tall stranger with waist-length hair appeared at the distant fringe of the crowd (almost all the way to Earl Hall) and began to hurl five-pound bags of home-made fried chicken our way, one after another, with perfect aim, over the jocks' heads and right into our windows. What an arm! (The chicken was cooked by Mrs. Gloria Sánchez of the Bronx, and it was delicious; I never learned the identity of the mysterious stranger.)
. . . Until June 1, 2001, when I had a call from Jerry Kisslinger of Columbia's Office of University Development and Alumni Relations, who recognized the waist-length hair and powerful arm of John Taylor, son of Nürnberg prosecutor and Columbia Law Professor Telford Taylor (who declined to lend his name to a statement signed by most other Law School faculty, which said the student protests exceeded the "allowable limits" of civil disobedience [New York Times, 24 May 1998]). Thanks to both John and his dad!
The First Bust
After a few days, the NYC Tactical Police Force (TPF, of distinctive leather cladding)(f) muscled through the crowd and the rings to form a new inner ring just below our feet as we congregated on the ledges and windowsills. Police on Campus! Academia violated! (A famous photo shows Alma Mater holding a sign, "Raped by Cops".) We fortified the entrances to the occupied buildings, especially through the tunnels, against the expected assault (more about the tunnels HERE). Which, inevitably, came. After the final warning to vacate or be arrested, we discussed (still observing proper parliamentary procedure) whether to resist or go peacefully. Opinion was divided and many variations were proposed. After much discussion, consensus converged on civil-rights-movement-style passive resistance; we would go limp and the police would have to carry us out.
We devoted the final moments to preparations -- the Defense Committee piled furniture up against door, while the rest of us picked up trash, vacuumed, and scrubbed so the President's suite would be left in pristine condition, better than we had found it (except for tape criss-crossed on the window glass and the jimmied file-cabinet locks). Those with pierced earrings took them off (a routine precaution in those days of police actions) and then we formed a 100-person, 10,000-pound clump singing "We Shall Not Be Moved", knowing that we would.
Soon axes were crashing through the door, the barricade was breached, and an army of TPF piled in, first prying apart the singing clump of us, then forming a gauntlet to pass our limp bodies down the corridors, whacking our heads with flashlights along the way, and dragging us by the feet down the marble steps so our heads bounced. Superficial head wounds are harmless but they bleed a lot, and journalists got some terrific photos of us on our way to the paddy wagons waiting on College Walk.
Soon we were in the Tombs [the jail and criminal court building at 100 Centre Street]. I was in a cell with six others including Tom Hayden (one of many luminaries who visited and/or sat in with us -- others included H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, Charles 37X Kenyatta, I forget who else -- Angela Davis? Che Guevara?). Later, students from the other buildings began to arrive, much bloodier than we were. The students in Math (some of whom -- the ones who weren't killed in the 1970 East 11th Street townhouse explosion -- later went on to the Democratic convention in Chicago, and then formed the Weather Underground) (deep breath...) received less gentle treatment -- one student was thrown from a second-story window and landed on a professor (Jim Shenton), breaking the professor's arm.
In December 2001 I received the following email from Thomas Gucciardi: "My dad, Frank Gucciardi, was a cop during the riots. He was paralyzed from the waist down for 3 years. (A student jumped off a building into the crowd) He has had a miraculous recovery & still enjoys a fairly active life. I just found your site & commend you on it. My dad till this day loved his job & he does understand the students uprising. He holds no grudges at all for what the students did to him at 34 years of age & having 3 children. Thank you for your website." Later Thomas sent copies of newspaper clippings that told how Patrolman Gucciardi had been inured when an unidentified white student jumped from the balcony of Hamilton Hall, landing on the officer's back as he bent over to pick up his hat, and of the operations on his spine over the next several years.
A series of articles by columnist Martin Gershen in the NY Times, the Long Island Press, and other papers, followed his progress and gained national attention. Also injured was Officer Bernard Wease, kicked in the chest by a student in Fayerweather Hall while giving the vacate-or-be-arrested order, causing damage to his heart.
While an article in the LA Times, 9 September 1969, quotes Mayor Lindsay as acknowledging that some police used "excessive force" and states that "news reports quoted witnesses as having seen nonuniformed policemen punching and kicking both male and female students... one blond girl was said to have been beaten unconscious on the sidewalk in front of Avery Hall... a boy left writhing in front of Ferris Booth Hall with his nose smashed...", the only two
injuries serious enough to require prolonged hospitalization were to Officers Gucciardi and Wease.
I made sure that I put on a coat and tie -- it was about 1 a.m. and I had been alerted by a colleague at Hunter who had heard the bust was imminent. I then joined the cop assigned to the gate who was entirely sympathetic to the students and we watched with horror as the cops beat up kids that had come out of their dorms to find out what all the ruckus was about (Those occupying buildings had been taken out through the tunnels earlier.). I will never forget one small sized student being chased by a group of cops with clubs intent on beating him up -- he finally took refuge on top of a car where he tried to avoid their swings. They finally knocked him off and pounced with their clubs. The next day many faculty and students were treated for head and other injuries -- all of them innocent of any connection with the actual building occupations.
Incidentally at the Cox hearings I heard the dean [Henry Coleman] who had supposedly been imprisoned by the students in Hamilton admit in response to a question by Anthony Amsterdam that he had in fact been ordered by the President to remain in his office and had been treated with entire courtesy by the students throughout and could have unlocked his office door (and relocked it to protect student records) and left at any time. This was given as the excuse for the police action and Sidney Hook refused to take it out of his book account (I got his galleys to pre-view) although I personally drew his attention to his
mis-reporting there. Hook had become very right wing by then.
Some 700 people were arrested that night, a logistical nightmare, involving at least 20 precincts and much transportation. We were arraigned and released over the next day or two, with court dates set that would stretch for years into the future, a story in itself. Back on campus... what a mess! The morning's newspapers were full of it. The Times ran a front-page story with a photo of a police officer standing in the President's Office, which was a total wreck (mean-spirited graffiti sprayed on the walls, bookshelves toppled, etc), gesturing sorrowfully towards a mound of mangled books, a forlorn tear in his eye: "The world's knowledge was in those books...". Ironic because it was not us who made the mess and sprayed the graffiti! We caught the author of the story on campus and asked why he had written such dreck when he had been witness to the whole episode -- he freely admitted it was a pack of lies and recommended we complain to his boss (a Columbia trustee). Luckily for posterity, whoever wrecked the office after we left overlooked the Rembrandt.
The Second and Third Busts
In the following weeks, regular classes were replaced by "Liberation classes" on the lawns (NEED PHOTO). There were no grades that year. Picket lines were thrown up in front of every building. The Grateful Dead played on Ferris Booth terrace. A student batallion marched up Amsterdam Avenue to City College to make noise and "link up". Organizers for progressive labor unions began circulating pledge cards among supporting staff (this cost me my Butler Library job). A contingent from the French student/worker uprising handed out those famous posters (unfortunately printed on cheap paper, now disintegrated) from the "Ex-Ecole des Beaux Arts", and we also had visits from student representatives of many of the other universities that followed Columbia's energetic lead that year, who raised clenched fists and gave rousing speeches. (Later some of us visited other student uprisings in progress, notably in Mexico City, where police and military actions made the Columbia arrests look like a lovefest.)
Community issues loomed large -- an apartment building on 114th Street was the scene of a second occupation a couple weeks later, in which several hundred of the newly radicalized onlookers from South Field took part and were promptly arrested (I don't recall exactly what the issue was, but housing has always been a touchy topic at Columbia). On May 22nd, sensing no movement in the administration on the issues of the strike, we went back into Hamilton (déjà vu was the rallying cry). This time the police were summoned onto campus without hesitation, and back we all went to jail (there were 1100 arrests in all). By now it was like commuting. Again, campus erupted after we left -- this time, 15-foot-high barricades were erected at the main gates and set ablaze (NEED PHOTO), windows were smashed, cars crushed, crowds surged back and forth, and many heads were bashed -- most of them attached to innocent bystanders. As in the first bust, the police also did a fair amount of mischief aimed at discrediting the strikers.
Commencement and Beyond
The year ended with most of the Class of '68 walking out of graduation, which was at Saint John's that year, on a prearranged signal -- students carried radios under their gowns and walked out when WKCR played "The Times They Are A'Changin'" -- to a countercommencement on Low Plaza, accompanied by loud rock music, and from there to Morningside Park for a big picnic that turned out rather well.
At Columbia, classified war research was halted, the gym was canceled, ROTC left campus, military and CIA recruiting stopped, and (not that anybody asked for it) the Senate was established. Robert Kennedy, the antiwar presidential candidate, was killed in June 1968, and later that month the French uprising was "voted away" in a national referendum. Mexican students and supporters and bystanders were slaughtered wholesale in October, in La Noche de Tlatelolco. Columbia antiwar rallies continued, and large Columbia contingents chartered buses for the huge demonstrations in Washington, of which there were to be far too many -- the war dragged on for another seven years. To this day, I don't know if all the antiwar activities combined had as much affect as the Vietnamese figuring out how to shoot down the American B-52s that were carpet-bombing their cities.
The Cox commission produced a report on the disturbances. Springtime building occupations continued for the next few years, but eventually were replaced by disco. Then came the 80s and 90s: the rich became richer at the expense of everyone else; organized labor was squashed; most real jobs were exported; drugs and greed ruled; social awareness was replaced by political correctness, student activism by ambition, and real work by sitting in front of a PC clicking on investments.
After a semester's suspension and dozens of court appearances (but no hard time -- thanks National Lawyers Guild!), I received my BA in 1970, held a number of odd jobs (taxi driver, etc; nobody pays you to save the world), and eventually wound up back at Columbia getting a graduate degree in computer science and working in what was called the Computer Center, where I still work today. And now, thanks to the Information Age, the Computer Center has been absorbed by the University Library and I suppose that brings us full circle(g).
Much can be said (and has been!) about the strike's effects on Columbia University. Of course it hurt the University in many ways -- applications, endowment, contracts & grants, gifts, and so on. It took at least 20 years to fully recover. Perhaps it strengthened the University in other ways, who knows.
Most press accounts of the time focus on the strike leaders, their affiliations and temperaments and hairstyles, but honestly, I don't recall them being a major force, except on the first night when they decided the white students should leave Hamilton Hall. They certainly didn't choreograph the events after that. Actions were either taken spontaneously, or discussed to death by EVERYBODY until consensus was reached, in the manner of the day (and night!). In Low library, leadership meant nothing more than fairly moderating the open discussion and applying Robert's Rules -- a process not nearly as interesting to the media as sound bites from high-profile personalities.
I never felt the strike was motivated primarily by antipathy towards Columbia. After all, students came here voluntarily and received good educations (often obtaining their introduction to radical thought from their own professors) and -- even in those days -- the student body, if not faculty and administration, was among the most diverse anywhere. Community relations were not all bad: many of us were Project Double Discovery counselors or involved in various Columbia-sponsored Harlem community action projects.
Rather, it was a case of students doing the best they could in the place where they were to stop the war in Viet Nam and fight racism at home, just as they hoped others would do in other places: in the streets, factories, offices, other universities, the military itself, the court of world opinion, and finally in the seats of government. Whether this was the best way to do it is debatable, but it is clear that the more polite methods of previous years were not working, and every DAY that passed cost 2000 lives in Southeast Asia. So to the extent that the Columbia strike hastened the end of the war, it was worthwhile. As to racism and community relations, it's not my place to judge.
Occupation of gym site, occupation of Hamilton Hall
24 April 1968
Occupation of Low Library
26-28 April 1968
Occupation of Math, Avery, Fayerweather
30 April 1968
712 building occupiers and bystanders arrested
6 May 1968
University reopened, students boycott classes
17 May 1968
117 arrested at 114th Street SRO
21 May 1968
138 arrested in "Hamilton II" + bystanders
4 June 1968
Counter-commencement on Low Plaza.
CORE Congress Of Racial Equality (then);
IDA Institute for Defense Analyses
PL (PLP) Progressive Labor Party
ROTC Reserve Officers Training Corps
SAS Students Afro-American Society
SDS Students for a Democratic Society
SNCC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
SRO Single Room Occupancy
SWP Socialist Workers Party
TPF Tactical Police Force
WKCR The Columbia student-run radio station
YAWF Youth Against War and Fascism
YCL Young Communist League
YSA Young Socialist Alliance
a. Publication of the Columbia Librarian issue, Volume XXVII Numbers 1-2, was delayed until Fall-Winter 1999.
b. Big demonstrations and other actions in 1967 persuaded Columbia's administration to stop turning over class rank lists to Selective Service, in defiance of US policy, if not law. Fast forward 35 years to when Columbia announced plans to send regular reports about each foreign student to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (not just residence and visa status but also detailed academic information) and not a peep was heard from anybody. In the intervening years Columbia had often refused to provide information such as students' reading preferences to the FBI as a matter of principle, even without student prodding.
c. These things are not intrinsically bad; you have to take them in context. For example, see the 1940s section of my Computing at Columbia Timeline. It's one thing to fight Fascism and genocide (if that's what we were doing) but Viet Nam was something else again, and Columbia was tied to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) which conducted classified war and weapons research for the Pentagon, e.g. on the "automated battlefield" and defoliation. Six weeks prior to the Columbia strike, a petition bearing nearly 2000 signatures calling on Columbia to cease classified war research was brought to the President's office; the University responded by placing the students who presented it on disciplinary probation.
e. Press and photographers were allowed into the President's office the first day, when it was messy, and this was the only view the public had (most famously from the May 10th Life issue).
f. In retrospect, perhaps the leather-clad police were not TPF after all, but a detachment of motorcycle police brought in temporarily until the TPF arrived.
g. Nothing lasts forever. In 2005, academic computing was severed from the Libraries and rejoined to administrative computing.
1. Naison, Mark D., White Boy: A Memoir, Temple University Press, Philadelphia (2002). This book includes the most vivid, accurate, and honest account of the Columbia scene in the 1960s that I have encountered. By focusing on the painful racial issues behind the events of 1968, it shows not just what happened, but why, and it captures the passions, stresses, sights, sounds, and smells of that time and place like nothing else I've read.
2. Who Rules Columbia?, North American Congress on Latin America, 475 Riverside Drive, NYC (1970). "If you depended on major media, all you knew about Columbia University in 1968 was that Mark Rudd, SDS, and some long-haired students became spontaneously restless. In fact, a major study of Columbia's role in the community and in the world was produced by these students. This is NACLA's reprint of the original 1968 edition. 'Strawberry Statement' is cute, but here's the beef." (NameBase, A Cumulative Index of Books and Clippings)
3. McCaughey, Robert A., Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University, Columbia University Press (2003), esp. Chapter 15: "Riding the Whirlwind: Columbia '68".
Erickson, Christian W.,
McCaughey, Robert A.,
1960s Home Page,
Scott David Atwell, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.
Columbia University protests of 1968, Wikipedia.
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Frank da Cruz / firstname.lastname@example.org / Columbia University 1968 / Apr 1998. Most recent update: Fri Feb 2 10:53:57 2007
Left to right:
The original 1968 Strike button. These were gathered up hurriedly from some other strike elsewhere (obscured by black magic marker).
The Strike If We Must button appeared after the first arrest, while talks went on in various forums over what would be done about the students' demands, punishing the students, gym construction, and so on. It was worn by moderates sympathetic to those already striking. Eventually there was a second building occupation and mass arrests.
A Local 1199 button, emblematic of the kind of widespread organizing that took place in the wake of the strike (in this case, for a diverse, then-progressive labor union).
John O'Brien, who was present at the Columbia events of 1968 and who is an authority on progressive political buttons, reported in May 2003:
The first button with the black ink over the rest of the wording (white and red color) only showing "Strike" is a Vietnam Peace button issued by the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) for the April 26th Strike held in 1968 around the U. S. against the Vietnam War.
The little red button was issued in Dec. 1967 for the "Stop The Draft Week" protests at the Whitehall Induction Center. It was issued by the YSA [Young Socialists Alliance] in response to the NYC Police Department having a larger red button made to identify the many hundreds of plain clothes police around that week of daily protests to "shut down the induction center".