Saturday, April 7, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (iii)

Dean Coleman was a tall, non-intellectual, athletically-oriented, good-natured white bureaucrat who had previously been the Columbia College Dean of Admissions. Aside from his interest in a career as an academic administrator, he appeared to be not that deeply interested in either the fate of Columbia University or in such “non-university” matters as the war in Viet Nam or IDA. Yet because Dean Coleman saw nothing wrong in just carrying out the orders of Columbia Vice-President Truman with regard to disciplining student activists for political reasons, he quickly became another symbol of administrator complicity in the attempt to repress Columbia SDS on campus.

When he returned to Hamilton Hall after lunch and found the 500 of us in the lobby in front of his office, Dean Coleman refused to debate the issues with us. Instead, he walked back into his office, unaware that once he was inside his office he was going to be held hostage until Wilson was released by the cops.

In the first half-hour of the April 23rd sit-in in Hamilton Hall’s lobby, student activists who were most eager to speak to the crowd—like Stu—began to emerge as mass leaders. Part of the time was also spent singing Civil Rights Movement freedom songs. After Coleman had walked into his office and the consensus was that he was being held hostage, Bill and Ray started to take control of the demonstration from the more confused and divided Columbia SDS people. Mark would get the crowd laughing from time to time, like when he rhetorically asked the crowd: “Is this an indoor demonstration?” And the crowd then answered “Yes” in unison, with laughter. But during the first few hours of the demo, especially, only the Student Afro-American Society “heavies” seemed to have a clear, unified sense of how to direct and organize the demo, based on their clearer understanding of how the Black student occupation of the Howard University Administration Building, earlier in the spring term, had been carried out.

A Hamilton Hall demonstration steering committee was formed with Bill, Ray and Cicero representing the Student Afro-American Society, Mark, Ted and Nick representing Columbia SDS, Juan and a Columbia Citizenship Council bureaucrat from Minneapolis named Ziff representing Citizenship Council and a guy named Jonathan representing the unaffiliated liberal students. Within a few hours, both the bureaucratic Ziff and the unaffiliated liberal Jonathan had resigned, however, because of the growing militancy of the demo. But Juan stayed on the demonstration steering committee and his politics pretty much blended into Columbia SDS politics by the second day of the student revolt.

The Hamilton Hall demonstration steering committee started to meet in one of the classrooms to discuss strategy, while the rest of the demonstrators started to prepare for a long sit-in. People went outside to bring in food and more student support, and telephone calls were made to the local TV and radio stations and newspapers to bring in more media publicity. Telephone calls were also made to community people to bring in more community support from Central Harlem and West Harlem.

Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. But after it became clear that cops were not going to be sent to clear us out of Hamilton Hall quickly because our numbers were large and more students, media people and community and civil rights activists were joining us, the white anti-racist students started to bring sleeping bags, blankets and guitars from their dormitory rooms into Hamilton Hall. The Citizenship Council offices in Ferrris Booth Hall started to pump out leaflets in support of the sit-in on its mimeograph machine. The Columbia student FM radio station—WKCR—started to broadcast around-the-clock coverage of the revolt—after New York Post editor, James Wechsler (who had led a student strike, himself, at Columbia in the 1930s) put news of our holding the dean hostage and of the sit-in on the Post’s late afternoon edition’s front page.

After its initial meeting, the Hamilton Hall demo steering committee reported back to the sit-in with a list of six demands, and the demonstrators approved of their demands by cheering. These six demands became the six demands of the Columbia Student Revolt and were, more or less, as follows:

1. Stop the construction of the Columbia gymnasium in Morningside Park immediately;
2. End all Columbia ties to the Institute for Defense Analyses by having Columbia President Kirk and Trustee Burden resign their positions on IDA's Executive Committee immediately;
3. End the ban on indoor demonstrations at Columbia;
4. All future disciplinary action decisions be made by a student-faculty committee;
5. Drop all charges against students arrested at the gym site; and
6. Amnesty for the IDA 6 and for all the participants in the current sit-in and demonstration.

In retrospect, the Columbia Revolt was really about just winning 3 essential demands: 1. No “Jim Crow” gym be built in Morningside Park; 2. No more ties to IDA; and 3. No criminal or disciplinary reprisals against any revolt or strike participants. The reason why the Columbia Administration chose to eventually call in police to clear the campus on April 30th was that Kirk and Truman were willing to stop gym construction (because they feared Harlem’s mass anger) and to cut Columbia’s ties to IDA (because it related to the unpopular war in Viet Nam), but they were unwilling to give Mark amnesty.

Somehow the U.S. Establishment felt that the national security of the United States and the security of all Ivy League universities would be threatened if Mark were given amnesty in Spring 1968. And because large numbers of students would not end their sit-in unless everybody—including Mark—was granted amnesty, the Columbia Administration never even got to the point where it felt it was realistic to publicly offer every student amnesty, with the exception of Mark. Mark had somehow touched a vital nerve of the U.S. Establishment’s university system with his style of confrontational politics, and this university system now wanted Mark banished from the Ivy League.

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