Thursday, April 26, 2007

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

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

In Fall 1968, the New York SDS Regional Office was flooded with requests for SDS speakers. So Karen asked me to go out to an Ethical Culture Society meeting in Nassau County one night to sit on a panel that was discussing “Student Rebellion.” Most of the people in the crowd were in their late 40s and early 50s, but I felt they responded positively to my spontaneous talk and seemed more disturbed by my casual dress than by my revolutionary political rhetoric. A Newsday columnist also wrote a fairly sympathetic column about me the next day.

Yet by mid-December 1968, SDS at Richmond College and the Black Panther Party on Staten Island still were not mass-based. After I had spoken with Mark in November about the difficulties I was having in getting the mass of students at Richmond College interested in becoming New Left activists, Mark had suggested: “Why not arrange for me to come down and make a speech and show the Newsreel film? I should be able to draw a crowd down there.”

The Newsreel film that Mark referred to was a 45-minute film about the Columbia Revolt that had been produced by a recently-formed small group of radical filmmakers in Manhattan.

Our SDS chapter set up a meeting for the film to be shown and for Mark to speak at Richmond College. Around 100 people watched the movie and listened to Mark speak. Yet most of the audience appeared to be more curious about seeing Mark in person than eager to become active in the New Left. After the meeting, Mark met with Neal, a good-natured Richmond College African-American student group leader named Earl and about 10 white SDS student supporters in the basement-student lounge of the college. An FBI student informant also attended the meeting, according to my de-classified FBI file.

But, although our discussion with Mark was lively, we could all not agree on how to best interest the mass of students at Richmond College in New Left politics. And after Mark’s visit to the school, it was still hard to persuade even sympathetic students that political organizing or collective action could actually accomplish anything that related to maximizing the freedom they enjoyed in their own lives. The students who most identified with SDS at Richmond College were also still really just anti-war and left-liberal in their politics, not anti-imperialist and revolutionary communist or Marxist-Leninist like their more affluent counterparts within Columbia SDS had been. If there had been no Viet Nam War draft in 1968, there would have been absolutely no interest at all in SDS or the New Left at Richmond College. Students at Richmond College, unlike students at Columbia and Barnard, did not appear to have been socialized to believe that they could make any impact on U.S. history in a positive way.

Despite our inability to really attract a mass New Left base quickly at Richmond College, Richmond College President Schueler was still paranoid about our small group. After being telephoned during his dinner by a paranoid school security guard about an evening meeting of some high school students that Neal and I had decided to hold at Richmond College, Schueler suddenly appeared at the school’s student government office, his breath smelling of alcohol, and begged me to cancel the meeting and not “cause trouble.” After I shrugged my shoulders and assured him that we were only planning to hold a small meeting and not to secretly attempt to take over his office that night, Schueler went back to his home, feeling somewhat embarrassed that he had behaved so paranoically.

Christmas 1968 approached and I spent some of the vacation back in Queens with my parents for five days, writing a paper on “The Logic of Genocide,” in which I attempted to explain the economic motives for the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazi German government. The continued mass murder of Vietnamese civilians in the 1960s appeared to be motivated by economic motives and I felt similar motives probably provided the logic for the genocidal crimes committed by the Nazis less than 30 years before.

January 1969 began and it now appeared that, despite the events at Columbia of Spring 1968, the New Left Movement around New York City was once again stagnating. Away from Columbia, there had been very little mass motion of students around New York City at colleges where most students still lived with their parents and commuted. Outside of New York City, student demonstrations still only occurred mostly at the elite universities or large state universities only. Mark drew big crowds whenever he spoke at state university campuses around the U.S. and more students were involved in SDS outside New York City than ever before. But within New York City, SDS was still not very mass-based at campuses other than at Columbia. One promising development, though, had been an increase in political activism among anti-war college-bound, elite intellectual NYC high school students in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, who managed to form some kind of high school union around this time, with some SDS Regional Office assistance.