Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (iv)
In March 1968, Howard University students occupied their Administration Building in support of their demands. Columbia’s African-American student activist leaders were influenced by the tactics used by activists at Howard. I read about the Howard University Administration Building occupation, but, insofar as I could envision a spring shut-down of Columbia, I could still only imagine a mass sit-in inside Low Library. The issue at Columbia that stirred the African-American students up was Columbia’s gym construction project in Harlem’s Morningside Park.
In early March, Columbia SDS’s “bread-and-butter” mass organizing issues were still the Viet Nam War-related issues of IDA-Columbia University complicity with the Pentagon and the draft issue. Despite numerous demonstrations—and even a December 1967 anti-war student march in and out of Low Library to drop off anti-IDA petitions signed by over a thousand students—the Columbia Administration still refused to resign its IDA institutional membership. And most Columbia SDS people involved themselves in some way in anti-IDA work.
But the PL cadre, which functioned as an external cadre within the SDS mass umbrella, had also organized a Columbia SDS “Labor Committee,” which was more oriented towards uniting students and transit workers than organizing the mass of students at Columbia to act collectively around their own oppression as students, and in support of anti-militarist and anti-racist demands. PL student activists pretty much controlled this committee, which was led by Tony and his PL disciples and a guy named Roger—who always argued in favor of an immediate sit-in, regardless of whether 300 people or 2 people could be mobilized by SDS to sit-in. In March, however, this committee was strengthened when a newly active, bombastic-talking, politician-type guy named Ed—who seemed somewhat phony in his radicalism—pushed himself rapidly into a prominent position in Columbia SDS by working with this PL-dominated SDS Labor Committee and loudly articulating a PL line.
Another committee within Columbia SDS was a small committee formed to work with community residents to resist Columbia’s further expansion into West Harlem/Morningside Heights. Columbia’s institutional expansion in the late 1950s and early 1960s had already caused the destruction of thousands of homes and the removal of thousands of African-American, Puerto Rican and white elderly tenants from the neighborhood, as a result of what is now called “gentrification.” Columbia SDS’s University Expansion Committee was carried by a tireless, dedicated tall guy with glasses, in his mid-to-late 20s, named Michael.
Michael was not part of Columbia SDS’s inner circle or steering committee leadership and he had been into liberal Democratic Party electoral politics when most of Columbia’s New Left leadership was already revolutionary communist or anarchist. Neither was Michael bohemian or hippie or a part of the aesthetic left or interested in getting involved in Columbia SDS’s theoretical or strategic discussions. But were it not for Michael, the Columbia gym issue would not have been raised by Columbia SDS in early 1968.
All of us who were busy trying to mobilize students around the IDA and draft issues were opposed to the gym construction project. But because neither the Student Afro-American Society nor African-American activist organizations in Harlem initially seemed outraged enough to mobilize many people against Columbia’s land-grab, we tended to feel that there wasn’t much point in white radicals, alone, trying to lead a confrontation on the gym issue at Columbia.
Michael, however, had spent a few years in local electoral politics and being involved with neighborhood tenant groups at meetings in which they had argued with elitist, arrogant representatives of Columbia’s real estate and housing office. As a result, he felt a strong passion to prioritize the fight against Columbia’s land-grabbing in West Harlem/Morningside Heights, whether or not the African-American community was in leadership. When the bulldozers moved into Morningside Park to rip up land for Columbia’s gym, Michael and his neighborhood allies—plus some politically liberal Columbia Citizenship Council people—got arrested in a symbolic way.
Among the people arrested when the gym construction began was Juan of the Columbia Citizenship Council’s Program to Activate Community Talent [P.A.C.T.]. Although Juan was still only a liberal, his work at P.A.C.T. and in Citizenship Council had made him feel—before most Columbia SDS and African-American student activists did—that it was worth getting arrested symbolically to stop Columbia’s gym project—even if most community residents were not mobilized yet on this issue. (Presently, Juan is the Democracy Now! radio show co-host who moonlights as a New York Daily News columnist).
In addition to Columbia’s proposed gym project being an institutionally racist attempt to steal Harlem’s parkland for white upper-middle-class students, there was a Jim Crow aspect to the project. African-American Harlem residents were to be allowed to only enter the token “community” portion of the gym through a back door, while most of the gym space would be utilized by the white Columbia students, who would enter through a separate, elite student front door. Hence, the chant: “Jim Crow Gym must go!”
From the time it was first proposed, there had been some community and liberal verbal opposition to Columbia’s proposed gym construction project. And Harlem CORE had warned Columbia in early 1968—as had SNCC chairperson H. Rap Brown [n/k/a Jamil Al-Amin and currently imprisoned in the South]—not to go ahead with the gym construction. But as late as March 1968, there was still little evidence that the mass of Harlem residents could be mobilized to prevent Columbia’s Morningside Park land seizure.
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