Monday, March 26, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (ii)

The pie-throwing incident of March 20, 1968 marked the start of Columbia SDS’s more confrontational approach, under Mark’s dynamic charismatic leadership.

Colonel Akst, the New York City Director of the Selective Service System, had been invited by some Earl Hall religious counselors of Columbia to speak about the draft options of students. A meeting had been held by Columbia SDS’s Draft Counseling Committee to decide the best way to greet Colonel Akst. At this meeting, Ted, Peter Schneider and Al had persuaded the bulk of Draft Counseling Committee members that the most effective way to respond to Colonel Akst’s presence was to “ask probing and embarrassing questions” after the Colonel spoke.

Mark, however, had argued that this response was not dramatic enough and that SDS people should use guerrilla theater in the middle of Akst’s speech to disrupt the speech of a war criminal. But Mark’s proposal had been voted down by 31 to 3 within the draft counseling committee because Ted, Schneider and Al had argued that it would “alienate” the non-SDS people who would be listening to Col. Akst. Hence, when Col. Akst began to speak in the Earl Hall auditorium all that was expected was that Columbia SDS people would “ask probing and embarrassing questions.”

A de-classified “Red Squad” document of March 22, 1968, however, described what happened when Colonel Akst began to speak:

“Approximately 150 students had assembled in the hall at 4:00 P.M. when Col. Akst began his talk. He had spoken about one-half hour, when a group of students, identified as Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) members, entered through the rear of the audience and proceeded to cause a commotion. The invading students were equipped with an American flag; some were masked, and some carried toy pistols and fake rifles. They conducted what was purported to be a mock war. While everyone’s attention was drawn to the rear of the hall, one or two youths sneaked up on the stage and threw a lemon meringue pie at Col. Akst. The pie struck the Colonel on the left shoulder and left side of his face. The perpetrators escaped before they were apprehended.”

This same document also erroneously identified me as one of the pie-throwers:

“7. [deleted…] F.B.I., advised that a confidential source had been present at the above meeting, and was able to identify the following members of S.D.S. who had taken part in the `mock war’…The source also indicated that one BOB FELDMAN, a member of Columbia University S.D.S., not previously known to this command, was one of two persons who had perpetrated the above pie-throwing incident. The other person was not identified. Bob Feldman is described as follows: 20 years of age, 6’, very thin face, smooth complexion, brown curly hair, blue sun glasses, brown leather jacket…”

The description of me also overestimated my age and height and described the physical appearance of somebody else.

When I noticed Colonel Akst wiping the pie from his face—from a seat in the rear of the auditorium—I was as stunned as everybody else in the room. Nobody in the crowd was laughing and most of the audience perceived the pie on Col. Akst as an act of humiliation against a human symbol of the hated Selective Service System.

It was Mark who broke the silence a few seconds after everybody realized that a pie had been thrown. He stood up and yelled out: “He’s a war criminal. He has no right to speak on campus.”

The meeting soon broke up and the humiliated Col. Akst quickly left the campus, to the jeers of a few students. Ted, Teddy, Al, Peter Schneider and other Praxis-Axis people who had voted against Mark’s proposal to disrupt the speech at the Draft Counseling Committee meeting were furious that Mark had unilaterally decided to arrange for the pie to be thrown.

An emergency steering committee meeting was set up for a few days afterwards, and there was some talk among Praxis-Axis people that Mark would be ousted as Columbia SDS chairman. In the evening after the pie was thrown, Mark, himself, had self-doubts about the political wisdom of planning the pie-throwing and about his own ability to be Columbia SDS chairman. I can recall bumping into him near Harkness Theatre, in the basement of Butler Library, when he was walking around with an increasingly active Barnard SDS activist named Ann, on the evening of the day the pie was thrown.

“Everybody thinks it was a big mistake, Bob. They’re furious. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I should resign as chairman. It reinforces Ted and Teddy’s notion that I’m too impulsive to be a good chairman,” said Mark.

I reassured Mark that arranging for the pie-throwing wasn’t necessarily a bad political move, although he probably shouldn’t have overruled the vote of the Draft Counseling Committee. “Regardless of what Ted, Teddy and Schneider think about the pie-throwing, you still should stay on as Columbia SDS chairman, because there’s still nobody else who can do a better job,” I said.

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