Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (i)
April 23, 1968 marked the last day I sat in a Columbia College classroom as an undergraduate, after nearly 3 years of being a Columbia College student. It marked a personal turning point in my life, as well as a political turning point in 1960s history.
As I sat behind the SDS table on Low Plaza at High Noon on April 23, 1968, observing people as they gathered around the sundial, it became obvious that we had mobilized more than the 400 leftist students required to finally hold a mass sit-in at Low Library. It became clear that I was going to finally join a Berkeley-like student revolt at Columbia. As I watched and listened to Mark speak in his humorous—but charismatic and morally earnest—way, I felt that together with my Movement comrades I could actually make a great impact on U.S. history and change the world in the way I envisioned doing so in Summer 1965 when I wrote my first songs of protest—until everybody on earth was equal, free, in love and at peace. I overestimated the ease with which the United States could be changed.
Each one of the IDA 6 spoke. Cicero, the new head of the SAS, also spoke in opposition to Columbia’s gym construction project. The inter-racial alliance increased the enthusiasm in which the predominantly white New Left student crowd responded to each speech. There was a tense air of anticipation. On the steps in front of Low Library, the right-wing Columbia students and jocks eyed the rally and frowned. The white liberal students watched from further down in Low Plaza, curious about what was going to happen.
A short time before we were all scheduled to march into Low Library, Mark was handed a compromise offer from Columbia Vice-President Truman. Truman agreed to meet with us to discuss our three demands in McMillan Theatre, if we agreed to call off our march into Low Library. Mark informed us of Truman’s proposal and suggested that it only made sense to meet with Truman if he agreed that such a McMillan Theatre meeting would be a “popular tribunal” on the guilt or innocence of the IDA 6. The crowd supported Mark’s rejection of Truman’s “Too little, too late” offer of negotiation, and it began to get more restless as the speeches continued to go on.
Then a tall, beardless guy, with long-hair and a blue bandana around his head, suddenly stepped up on the sundial, pointed his arm to Low Library and shouted: “To Low!” The New Left students cheered, turned around and, in a disorderly fashion, while chanting, started to march up the stairs towards Low Library, led by six or seven Columbia SDS hard-core activists who were linking arms, while searching for an open door into the building.
The wild-eyed, bandana-wearing freak who spontaneously went to the sundial to get SDS people to end their verbosity had not previously been active in Columbia SDS. His name was Hurwitz. His father—Leo—had graduated from Harvard in the 1930s, been apparently active in CP circles and founded Frontier Films, in order to try to use film as a political weapon and an instrument for developing mass revolutionary consciousness and to combat the anti-communist ideological influence of Hollywood. In the 1950s, Leo had apparently been economically forced to scale down his Frontier Films operation because of the anti-communism of most U.S. movie house owners and to trade in his radical film camera for a CBS cameraman career. But Leo had managed to pass on much of his leftist politics and his love of filmmaking to his artistically-oriented son.
Yet when Hurwitz dramatically appeared on the Columbia New Left political scene on April 23, 1968, all you knew about him was that he cut an impressive-looking new figure, he seemed militant and hard-line politically and he appeared devoted to his quiet, but physically beautiful, Barnard woman friend. He also seemed somewhat inarticulate when he tried to express his political views in debate, as well as somewhat cold and elitist when he related to Movement men and women whom he didn’t consider “honchos.” But, despite his political weaknesses, what was great about Hurwitz was that he liked Mark, hated Grayson Kirk and Columbia, had great and deep gut-level revolutionary left feelings and was eager to fight it out with the Establishment. So he seemed a welcome addition to the late 1960s New Left at Columbia.
Standing in front of the main entrance to Low Library was the line of right-wing students, so the Columbia SDS people led the march into Low Library towards the right front side entrance of Low, in order to avert an intra-student, left-wing vs. right-wing fight, a la what had happened in John Jay Hall in April 1967 when Marine recruiting had been stopped. As the demo marched to the right front of Low Library, I put into a box all the SDS literature from the SDS table and walked to the end of the line of march, figuring that, later, somebody else would bring all the SDS literature and the table back to its Earl Hall storage place. I didn’t want to miss out on the expected action inside Low Library.
From the back of the crowd, however, I could see that Columbia security guards were blocking the side door into Low Library, thus frustrating our collective desire to enter the building, confront Kirk and probably sit-in.
Immediately sizing up the situation, some SDS person in the front of the march shouted out: “To the gym site.” And within a few seconds, the front of the angry demonstration was racing away from the side of Low Library, past St. Paul’s Chapel, down towards Amsterdam Ave. and across W. 116th St. to Morningside Park, chanting “Jim Crow Gym, Must Go!” Because of the unexpected difficulty in getting into Low Library, the back of our demonstration was confused about where the front of the demonstration had run off to. So our demo of 500 participants and 300 onlookers was split in half, with some demonstrators and onlookers marching down to Morningside Park and some demonstrators and onlookers standing around in Low Plaza asking each other “What happened?” and “Where’s the rest of the demo?” and “Why aren’t we inside Low Library?”
Being cut off from the front of the demo and trapped on Low Plaza with the confused rear of the demo, my initial thought was “What a fiasco! Everyone was ready to have a mass sit-in at Low Library a few minutes ago and now nobody knows what’s going on.” Then suddenly Mark and Sokolow, a short sophomore caucus action-faction activist and English major who had become increasingly active during the 67-68 academic year, appeared out of nowhere, from the front of the demo.
In an excited way, Mark started to chant “Jim Crow Gym, Must Go! Jim Crow Gym, Must Go!” But because he was now chanting in the middle of an equal proportion of right-wing, liberal and confused left-wing students, nobody else was chanting along with him. He seemed, suddenly, to be a forlorn, utopian, Jehovah witness-like figure. Both the right-wing students and the liberal students who noticed Mark were laughing at him in a sneering way, because he now looked like a leader without any followers.
Not being able to rally people on Low Plaza to quickly head back down towards the gym site to reunite with the front of the demo, Mark stopped chanting and he and Sokolow quickly ran down to Morningside Park in order to catch up with the action. Along with some other confused Columbia SDS people around Low Plaza, I tried in a more patient way to get our supporters to march across Campus Walk to Amsterdam Ave. and 116th St. to also join up with the people who were already at the gym site. Ted, meanwhile, stood up on the bottom of some street lamp on 116th St. and got people organized enough to regroup so that the original demonstration was reunited by the time we all reached the entrance to Morningside Park on Morningside Drive and W. 116th St.