Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 17: Enter Bernardine Dohrn, 1968

Chapter 17: Enter Bernardine Dohrn, 1968 (ii)

In order to finance a June move from Furnald Hall to an off-campus apartment on W.106th St., I had to start working 9-to-5 again in mid-May. Despite the mood of Revolution throughout the world, landlords in New York City were still able to force their tenants to pay rent for their housing. I landed a job on W.125th St. as a clerk in Columbia’s Alumni Office, but was fired within a week—after I began talking with the most disgruntled African-American worker at the place about the need for unionizing Columbia clerical workers.

I soon found another job, however, by being in the Columbia Citizenship Council office one afternoon. Citizenship Council was using work-study money to finance a research pamphlet, which would describe Columbia’s relationship to the West Harlem/Morningside Heights community in which it was located, and it needed to hire an additional researcher/writer. Because I had discovered Columbia’s connection to IDA, Cit Council head Zift quickly hired me as one of his pamphlet’s researchers, when he noticed me in the Cit Council office.

The job only paid $90 per week. But it enabled me to spend my days during June, July and August of 1968 interviewing both Columbia administrators responsible for its real estate policies and community tenant leaders like McKay and Hickerson. It also enabled me to do library research for money, under the supervision of a left-liberal Columbia student from Scarsdale named Rauch. Although I was able to document in concrete ways the number of tenants evicted and housing units destroyed during the 1950s and 1960s as a result of Columbia’s neighborhood gentrification and institutional expansion policies, Rauch—not me—had control of the overall writing of the pamphlet. So the final draft of the pamphlet was not radical in either its content or its conclusions. But working as a researcher-writer in Summer 1968 felt less oppressive than working all day at the Mental Health Clinic in Queens General Hospital had seemed, the previous summer.

Despite all that had happened in April 1968, the Columbia Administration still insisted on disciplining members of the IDA 6 during May 1968. Consequently, when the suspension of members of the IDA 6 on May 21, 1968 was announced, New Left white students marched from a sundial rally in the afternoon into Hamilton Hall again. This time, however, Columbia’s African-American student leaders did not choose to join SDS people in organizing an occupation of Hamilton Hall.

Believing that their biggest mistake during April had been not calling in police quickly enough after Hamilton Hall had been first occupied and before other buildings had been seized by students, Columbia President Kirk and Vice President Truman decided to clear out Hamilton Hall of New Left students as quickly as possible and with as little police brutality as possible. Within Hamilton Hall on the evening of May 21st, New Left students were quickly threatened with suspension by the Columbia Administration if they did not leave before police came in to arrest them. The atmosphere inside Hamilton Hall on the night of May 21st thus quickly became less frivolous than it had been prior to SDS people being asked to leave by SAS leaders on the night of April 23rd.

Despite the events of the previous month, many of the students who initially occupied Hamilton Hall were uneasy about staying to get arrested there, once it became clear that the Columbia Administration was going to take an uncompromising line, call cops again and suspend more students. This reluctance was reflected in the debate inside the building and Columbia SDS leaders like Mark and Ted were later accused of manipulating people to stay inside Hamilton Hall and ignoring certain votes that reflected the uneasiness some students had about prolonging the occupation.

Although over 200 people had originally marched into Hamilton Hall, by the time the cops were to arrive less than 150 people were willing to get arrested. Most of the people who had been arrested during the April 30th campus bust or the off-campus bust in front of the W.114th St. apartment building chose to avoid a second arrest, not only because of the threat of suspension, but also because a second arrest was likely to tie them up in much deeper court difficulties. Because I had only been beaten, not arrested, on April 30, 1968, I felt obligated to risk an arrest on May 21st, 1968. The threat of suspension did not worry me too much because I felt we were justified in occupying Hamilton Hall again and I felt the only value of retaining my student status at Columbia was that it was the most convenient way to protect my 2-S deferment from the draft.

Right before the cops came into Hamilton through underground tunnels, the 130 of us who had remained there sat peacefully and sang Freedom Songs. Both action-faction people and praxis-axis SDS people were sitting in with me, as well as more newly politicized students and non-students. I noticed both Ted and Mark there, and I was happy that even the threat of suspension and more arrests could not discourage us all from refusing to compromise with our class and generational enemies. The Columbia trustees still had the cops. But we still felt we had the just cause and the U.S. Establishment had no moral right to punish us for resisting its institutional policies.