Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 19: Spreading The Student Revolution, 1968

Chapter 19: Spreading The Student Revolution, 1968 (ii)

In Fall 1968, the Albert Shanker-led United Federation of Teachers [UFT] struck in order to try to sabotage any Board of Education plans to concede control of NYC public schools in the Black community to African-American community control boards. New Left SDS people supported the demand of African-American activists for community control of their neighborhood schools, seeing it as a just demand for Black self-determination, and defined the UFT strike as a reactionary, racist action. PL and Labor Committee members within SDS chapters, however, supported the UFT strike and argued that it represented a justified struggle of labor against Ford Foundation and white corporate establishment-sponsored “bourgeois black nationalism.”

PL and Labor Committee people within SDS chapters also opposed New Left SDS people on the issue of fighting for open admissions to places like Columbia and CUNY for African-American, Puerto Rican and white working-class people. New Left SDS people argued that it was democratic to demand that open admissions be established in the “bourgeois university.” PL and Labor Committee people, however, charged that it was reactionary to fight for open admissions to the “bourgeois university” because, once admitted, the African-American, Puerto Rican and white working-class students would “become bourgeoisfied.” Within Columbia SDS, the ideological division between the white New Left response to the UFT strike and the open admissions demand and the PL/Labor Committee response led to more demoralizing faction-fighting throughout the fall. But off-campus, Teachers for a Democratic Society [TDS] members, led by Ted, taught in African-American-controlled “freedom schools” during the UFT strike.

Although the New York Regional SDS office attempted to mobilize masses of anti-war youth in an Election Day 1968 “vote in the streets, vote with your feet” demo in Manhattan, less than 1,500 people showed up at Union Square to march to Rockefeller Center. The intention of the New York Regional SDS Office demo organizers had been to march to Rockefeller Center and attempt to create an Election Day evening street scene analogous to what had been created during the Democratic National Convention in August in Chicago. But the New York City cops outnumbered us and they surrounded us at Union Square before we could “take the streets” as a group, and block traffic. Consequently, by the time various small portions of our demonstration reached Rockefeller Center we were too dispersed to either effectively block traffic or attract TV cameras. And there was no need for the cops to even brutalize us on Election Day evening in order to keep the streets clear. Columbia SDS actions around Election Day at Columbia were also unsuccessful in attracting the kinds of crowds that Columbia SDS had attracted during the height of the spring revolt.

In early November, the UFT strike was finally settled in a way that was unfavorable for the African-American community, and all the white middle-class teachers went back to work. High school students, however, were ordered by the Board of Education to remain in school 45 minutes longer in order to “make up for the school time they had missed” as a result of the teachers’ strike; and thus insure that New York City school bureaucrats would be able to still receive the maximum amount of state government funding. Spontaneously, students at McKee High School and Curtis High School—which were both located a few blocks from Richmond College—walked out and refused to stay for the extra 45 minutes.

An African-American peace activist from Bedford-Stuyvesant who now lived and worked on Staten Island, named Neal, was asked by some of the white and Asian-American high school students (who he knew from his work as a Job Corps youth counselor) to help organize a student strike on Staten Island in early December. One of the Richmond College underground newspaper editors (who had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” while observing the high school student walk-out) arranged for me to meet Neal. We immediately hit it off. Neal had decided to start forming a Black Panther Party [BPP] chapter on Staten Island and we agreed that Richmond College SDS and the Staten Island Black Panther Party should work together in helping to organize the December 1968 high school student strike on Staten Island.

Neal was around 26 years-old and considered himself both a writer and an African-American revolutionary. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and had spent most of his stint in the Army fighting on one of its boxing teams, in the middle-weight division. Neal was soft-spoken and gentle in personal conversation and seemed very aware politically. When he spoke before a crowd about the question of Black Liberation and Revolution, Neal spoke as charismatically as Bill or Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture. He was a fiery orator who could rap as well or better than most African-American ministers. His theatrical skill as an orator seemed to rival Mark’s skill.

After getting out of the Army, Neal began working against the war in Viet Nam with Staten Island Peace Coalition people. Following his decision to form a Black Panther Party chapter on Staten Island, Neal set up a storefront on Jersey Street and began to sell Panther newspapers within Staten Island’s small Black community. Most of the people who lived on Staten Island were white working-class people of Italian-American or Irish-American background in the 1960s, but Neal managed to gain some support off-campus for the BPP from the white intellectual peace activists with whom he had worked.

Prior to the scheduled December high school student strike, Neal and I met with a committee of about 6 high school students in the home of a white pacifist woman artist-activist in her early 40s, whom Neal had met as a result of his Staten Island Peace Coalition work. From the SDS Regional Office, I was able to get some organizing help from Karen and Dionne in attempting to attract Staten Island high school students to the New Left. Along with Nick, Karen and Dionne hoped to stimulate the formation of high school chapters of SDS around the City. Dionne and Karen joined Neal and me on a few occasions in meeting with dissident high school student leaders on Staten Island.

As a result of working with Karen and Dionne on this organizing project, I got to know both of them better. We would all take the subway down from the Upper West Side to the ferry terminal, then get on the ferry, and finally take a 20-minute bus ride together from the Staten Island ferry terminal to the private house in which our meetings were held. Then, after the meeting, we would all make the long trip back to the Upper West Side. So there was plenty of time to talk with Karen and Dionne about politics and SDS.

Karen was taking some self-defense lessons at this time and she demonstrated a few of her karate moves, while we waited for the uptown Broadway local on the W.96th St. subway station platform. She seemed to be ahead of most other Movement women in questioning traditional definitions of gender roles. Karen also appeared to be totally committed to the Movement and very hardworking. During the summer, she had become friendly with Gus for a brief time, but now she seemed to be unattached. Our conversations, however, generally never moved beyond questions of Movement work or politics. After we both traveled down to Staten Island early in the morning to speak to the December 1968 student strike rally before about 300 high school students, we didn’t see much of each other anymore.

The Staten Island high school strike rally was only half-successful. Although the turn-out was respectable, a majority of the white high school students were too racist to accept Neal’s African-American leadership and too right-wing to continue working with SDS people. At the same time, they were too disorganized and politically inexperienced to create any alternative white leadership of their own for their high school student strike. So the strike lasted only 1 day on Staten Island in December 1968.