Monday, April 2, 2007

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

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

Mark, meanwhile, was solidifying his friendship with the new Columbia Daily Spectator editor-in-chief, Robert. Spectator now began publishing columns by Mark in which he reported on some of his experiences in Cuba, during his brief trip of the previous month. Around this time, I recall dropping by Mark’s apartment and listening to Dylan’s long-awaited John Wesley Harding album for the first time on Mark’s stereo. We spent a half-hour speculating about what Dylan was trying to say in his new album, but I can’t recall whether we reached any definite conclusions. We also listened to FM rock on WNEW’s Night Owl program which was DJ’d by Allison Steele. I recall Mark smiling and saying: “Did you ever wonder what she looks like? I bet you she looks completely different from the way people picture her from her voice.”

Following King’s assassination, Lew appeared out of nowhere—after over a year’s vacation from Columbia SDS activism. When I had asked Ted one night in Ferris Booth Hall in Fall 1967, “What about Lew? What ever happened to Lew?,” Ted grimaced and replied in a sarcastic tone: “He says he’s too busy writing a novel to be involved in SDS.”

But now Lew started to push for more Columbia SDS militancy at various steering committee meetings. He also appeared to push himself aggressively to the top of the white campus left hierarchy again, past many Columbia SDS women and men activists who had been doing political shitwork for months, while Lew had been working on his never-to-be-published “great American novel.” But nobody really cared about this too much, because we all felt it was quite positive to have the talented Lew back in Columbia SDS steering committee circles again. And Lew could be quite charming to people who did not block his “Movement heavy” aspirations.

Lew was still also quite inspiring on a political level. When a left sectarian-type tried to discourage SDS people from speaking positively about the slain King because King was a “bourgeois pacifist” and a “pro-capitalist Uncle Tom,” Lew tore into his sectarian argument in a passionate way which made you feel that, with Lew’s intellect on your side, how could Columbia SDS ever lose politically?

Although large street demonstrations of West German students (led by the German SDS New Left group) against the Springer media-monopoly (following the shooting of a West German New Left leader named Rudi Dutschke) took place in early April 1968, most students at Columbia and Barnard did not follow these demonstrations too closely. In early April 1968, few U.S. students yet had the sense that we were part of a worldwide student movement of New Left radicalism.

There wasn’t time for personal introspection or worrying about loneliness in early April 1968. Just one meeting after another. The Columbia Administration had decided to discipline 6 white Columbia anti-war students for the late March anti-IDA demonstration inside Low Library, because they had violated Kirk’s ban on indoor demonstrations. Why single out just 6—but not everyone—who had demonstrated? It seemed like an obvious case of selective punishment. Columbia SDS protested by having the 6 anti-war students refuse to report to the office of Assistant Dean Platt and thus refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of his disciplining authority in this situation.

The six who were to be disciplined came to be called the “IDA 6.”

No women New Left activists from Barnard were included among the IDA 6, not only because the Columbia College Administration wasn’t responsible for disciplining Barnard students, but also because in 1968 the Columbia Administration, like the Democratic Party, was even more male chauvinist than was Columbia SDS. In the eyes of the Columbia Administration and its recently-appointed Vice-President, David Truman (a noted liberal political scientist of the 1950s and 1960s and former Dean of Columbia College), women students were incapable of being autonomous political activists who exercised political leadership.

Mark was the first member of the IDA 6—because he was the Chairman of Columbia SDS. And, let’s face it, without Mark as Columbia SDS chairman, the chapter would have remained an essentially non-confrontational, academic left discussion group without the collective drive and collective will to actually shut down Columbia. So it was quite logical for the Columbia Administration to attempt to discipline Mark, since he was the SDS activist most willing to risk being expelled from Columbia for the sake of his action-oriented politics of militant confrontation with the Establishment. And if you were able to scare Mark off with the threat of discipline in early 1968, then you wouldn’t have to worry about the other hard-core SDS activists that Mark’s militant spirit was pushing into confrontation.

Nick was the second member of the IDA 6—because he was the new vice-chairman of Columbia SDS. Because he had this title, the Columbia Administration felt that he should also be held responsible for the actions of the organization which gave him this title.

Ted was the third member of the IDA 6 because he had been a thorn in the Administration’s side as chapter vice-chairman from March 1967 to March 1968, when he personally carried on his back the day-to-day work of the chapter. He was also targeted for disciplinary action because, unlike Teddy, Ted didn’t visibly retreat much from Columbia SDS political activism after Mark’s action-faction replaced Ted’s praxis-axis faction as the dominant force within Columbia SDS.

Morris was the fourth member of the IDA 6. Not because he was especially militant or politically influential, but because he had been the guy who generally contacted the Administration and, in his name, reserved all the rooms for Columbia SDS leftist film showings and cultural events and did much of the work in publicizing these events. Consequently, the Administration knew Morris’ name better than the names of more politically active Columbia SDS people.

A short, stocky, bearded guy with long-hair who usually wore a beret—named Nate—was the fifth member of the IDA 6 to be selected by the Columbia Administration. And he wasn’t even a member of Columbia SDS. The Administration only chose him because he was the head of the Joan Baez-oriented Columbia Resistance anti-war group, which specialized in turning-in draft cards and getting arrested at off-campus draft induction centers. Nate had decided to participate in Columbia SDS’s March 27th anti-IDA demo and it appeared that the Administration singled him out to warn other anti-war students in groups other than Columbia SDS to avoid forming united fronts with us to protest against university complicity with that war.

The last member of the IDA 6 was Ed, who had only been active in Columbia SDS’s Labor Committee for a few months. Few people in Columbia SDS could ever really figure out why the Columbia Administration singled out Ed. Perhaps because he had a big mouth, was fast-talking and glib and, because he wasn’t shy about speaking in front of a crowd, he may have done some speaking at the March 27th indoor demo? Or perhaps because the Columbia Administration felt that, being so new to Columbia SDS leadership circles, Ed could be the IDA 6 member who it could best pressure into breaking the solidarity of the IDA 6 by threatening him with disciplinary action? Whether for egotistical or political reasons, however, Ed did not break the IDA 6’s group solidarity. Perhaps one reason why Ed chose to stay firm politically until the summer of 1968 was that he was a personal acquaintance of Phil Ochs’ brother.

Columbia had no constitutional right to legally ban indoor demonstrations because the first amendment did guarantee freedom of assembly—even for Columbia and Barnard students. But the problem the IDA 6 faced was that if they all refused to accept the right of Columbia College to discipline them for their political activism they could, conceivably, be suspended, in an era when suspension meant losing your student deferment and being drafted. Columbia Resistance leader Nate probably didn’t feel any special concern about this, because his political beliefs already strategically justified the logic of going to jail, rather than cooperating with the Selective Service System. But the five other IDA 6 people all wished to remain out of jail, in order to avoid the draft and to remain free to continue their political work and pursue their personal and academic lives.

Yet, emboldened by the support of their Columbia SDS peers, the IDA 6 held firm and demanded that they be given an open hearing before any Administration disciplinary action was taken against them. Not wanting to grant an open hearing to the IDA 6, but also not wanting to throw them out of school because it might provoke more student protest, the Columbia Administration put the IDA 6 on “disciplinary probation.” In response, Columbia SDS was forced to mobilize people and attempt to sit-in at Low Library on April 23, 1968, until the IDA 6 were taken off disciplinary probation for exercising their first amendment rights.