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.

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

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

A few days before Columbia SDS was to hold its March 1968 elections for its 1968-1969 officers and steering committee members, there was a knock on my dorm room door in Furnald Hall. It was Ted. Ted hadn’t visited me before in the dormitory that spring, so I asked him what was up.

“Some of us have been talking about next week’s chapter elections. And we feel that of the juniors in SDS, you’d make the best chairman.”

I laughed in disbelief and replied: “Are you kidding? Mark would make the best chairman. He’s a great speaker.”

Ted scowled. “Mark’s a good speaker. But he can’t be trusted politically. His political arguments in debate with liberals are often incoherent and unpersuasive. And he doesn’t seem able to work collectively or get along with chapter people as well as you do. We want you to run against Mark for chairman.”

I shook my head. “No. I have no desire to be Columbia SDS chairman. I’m not even sure we should have a chairman and a vice-chairman, since it reduces the collective power of the steering committee. And it creates a hierarchy of power in the chapter that may be unhealthy.”

Ted looked disappointed. “Well, if you feel you don’t want to run for chairman, how about running for vice-chairman?”

I shook my head again. “No. I have no desire to be vice-chairman. Why not ask Nancy to run for vice-chairman? She’s a junior, also.”

“We can’t have a woman speaking from the sundial. The campus isn’t ready to accept a woman as vice-chairman.”

Personally, I felt that Nancy deserved to be the new vice-chairman of Columbia SDS. But I didn’t argue with Ted over this subconscious capitulation to 1960s Ivy League male chauvinism.

We spoke for a few more minutes. And when I suggested that Brian might also make a good vice-chairman, Ted replied that Brian wasn’t charismatic enough to be effective, although he was a hard worker and a decent guy. Shortly afterwards, Ted left the dorm room. The Praxis-Axis faction he represented decided it would have to accept Mark as chairman but would back a sophomore named Nick as vice-chairman—because I didn’t want the post and Nancy couldn’t have the post because of her sex.

The next week, after Mark had returned from Cuba, Columbia SDS chapter elections were held one evening. Mark was elected chairman, Nick was elected vice-chairman and I received more chapter votes than either of them, after somebody renominated me for the steering committee. I seemed to be politically popular with the New Left members of Columbia SDS, whether praxis-axis or action faction, with PL cadre within Columbia SDS, and with Barnard women students in Columbia SDS.

The new Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick, was a tall guy with long hair and a mustache, who was from Long Island. In his freshman year, and the early part of his sophomore year, he had spent most of his time working as a Columbia Citizenship Council bureaucrat and a P.A.C.T. organizer. But in early 1968, he had started to spend less time with Citizenship Council and more time working on Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee. By the time of his election as Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick seemed to be defining himself as a Columbia SDS New Left radical activist, primarily, and not as a Citizenship Council bureaucrat.

On the night Mark and Nick were elected to head the chapter, the sophomores in Columbia SDS seemed much more enthusiastic than before. Robby, Stu and other sophomores—like Joel, Sokolow and Fitzgerald—were jumping with excitement, as if a dead weight had been lifted from their shoulders. There was a sense of expectation among them that Mark was, indeed, going to return Columbia SDS to a more confrontational style of campus political activism.

To try to channel student anti-draft sentiment away from involvement in Columbia SDS, the Columbia Administration met with a few of its student bureaucrat puppets and organized a “draft moratorium” around this time. For one day in March 1968, all classes were suspended by the Administration and students heard a variety of speakers in the McMillan Theatre talk about the immorality of the Viet Nam War draft.

In response, Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee adopted my proposal that we hold an “anti-complicity fast” to begin when the draft moratorium ended; in order to protest Columbia’s continued ties to IDA. My main argument in favor of holding this fast was that it was a good way to generate publicity for our anti-IDA campaign when people would be in a more receptive political mood because of the anti-draft moratorium.

At this IDA Committee meeting, Teddy and Nancy were not too enthusiastic about Columbia SDS sponsoring an “anti-complicity fast” because it seemed “too apolitical” and “too churchie.” And after the committee had finished planning the fast and the meeting was breaking up, Teddy said to me in a condescending way: “Are you trying to imitate our `fast for peace’ of last year?” Nancy laughed at Teddy’s remark in a condescending way.

“This fast is completely different. It’s just a publicity device to raise consciousness,” I answered.

About 20 Barnard and Columbia SDS people participated in the fast. And we were able to generate a news article in both Spectator and the Columbia School of General Studies’ student newspaper, The Owl. And some of the students involved in the 3-day fast became more deeply committed to radical politics as a result of hanging around the Columbia SDS table, while fasting on Low Plaza. Yet militant non-violent confrontational action, not more fasting, was what would be most effective in stirring up students that spring about the need to institutionally resist the war machine.

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (v)

By early March 1968, I had reached my peak of personal loneliness and misery at Columbia. I was feeling so alienated and broken-down emotionally that I made an appointment at the student health service at St. Luke’s Hospital to see a shrink. By this time, also, Eliezer was so crazy from his acid trips and his metaphysical rebellion that Columbia had given him a leave of absence and committed him for a few weeks’ hospitalization at St. Luke’s, until he recovered from his hallucinations. When I visited him at St. Luke’s, he appeared to be in an emotionally helpless state and very illogical and paranoid.

My own emotional problem was the same as it had been in Summer 1967: I couldn’t seem to find any women to love in sustained ways and my New Left political activism, although it fulfilled me morally, failed to satisfy me emotionally. I had quit my job at the Journal of Philosophy, so I no longer saw Nancy and Teddy outside of political meetings. I had drifted apart from Ted, Dave and Mark and had not gotten close to Stu. I was not personally involved with anybody in any deep way, so my Friday and Saturday nights were now being spent alone pretty much, except on the few occasions when I would get invited to some hippie pot party--like one in which I stumbled into Mark, as he was sharing a joint.

I felt uncomfortable when I walked into the shrink’s office. He was a young guy in his late 20s who had short hair and no beard and didn’t wear glasses. As soon as he started talking, I regretted making the appointment. He seemed to lack the ability to empathize with my loneliness and my political commitment. I made a second appointment, but did not keep it.