Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories: Chap. 20: Commune On Staten Island, 1969

Chapter 20: Commune On Staten Island, 1969 (ii)

By March 1969, more and more students at Richmond College seemed to be hipper and more politically radical. In early April, twenty-one Black Panther Party activists were falsely charged with a “conspiracy to bomb Macy’s and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.” A few weeks later, CUNY’s campuses experienced Third World student-led revolts around open admissions demands. At CCNY, Brooklyn College and Queens College, buildings were occupied. In support of African-American student demands and the demand that Columbia abolish its NROTC program, Columbia SDS people also occupied a campus building again in April 1969—in defiance of a Columbia Administration-secured court injunction.

Political motion was all around and the U.S. mass media was compelled to cover this student political motion. After the Staten Island cops arrested the editor of our underground student newspaper, Russ, on trumped-up dope-peddling charges, 30 of us seized the President’s office at Richmond College and held it for 5 hours—before the white left-liberal professors persuaded the upper-division community college students to leave because they “had made their point.” The brief occupation of the Richmond College President’s office took place after a few Newsreel people had screened their film about the NYC Fall 1968 Teacher’s Strike and fight for community control of city schools.

The following day, I was arrested for walking into McKee High School to help an African-American high school student distribute city-wide High School Student Union leaflets inside the school. (The leaflets had been picked up by me a few days before from the High School Student Union’s commune apartment on the Upper West Side, where about ten men and women high school student hippies—the leaders of the High School Student Union—shared a hippie pad that smelled of pot and had mattresses scattered on the floor). Teachers surrounded me inside McKee High School and called the cops.

The cops took me to the local precinct and then drove me to the local courtroom jail. The Staten Island judge initially set bail at $500 because the cops initially charged me with “obstructing government machinery.” Later this charge was reduced to “loitering.” Social Change Commune people appeared at my courtroom arraignment in the afternoon and Professor Nachman put up the bail money needed to get me back on the street. I then went to the Emergency Civil Liberties Union office a few weeks later and they referred me to a lawyer at the Law Commune in Manhattan named Fred. The Law Commune was an experimental collective of hippie lawyers who specialized in collectively defending 1960s Movement activists on a non-profit basis. Fred took the case—for free—in order to test the constitutionality of denying anti-war activists the right to pass out leaflets inside City public schools.

The use of court injunctions by the Columbia Administration frightened Barnard and Columbia students away from another student revolt in Spring 1969. Columbia SDS couldn’t mobilize enough people to shut down Columbia again and withdrew in a demoralized way from the Philosophy Hall building it had temporarily occupied in April. The threat of repression created by the court injunction and the loss of New Left popular support at Columbia appeared to also create paranoia among Columbia SDS people; and a few activists who weren’t personally known to Columbia SDS leaders were erroneously labeled “police plants” because of the repression-produced paranoia. In June, Juan, Lew, Robby, Stu, Hurwitz and another Columbia SDS leader of the unsuccessful April 1969 occupation of Philosophy Hall were locked up for 30 to 60 days in jail, at Columbia’s request, on “contempt” charges, for their defiance of the court injunction against seizing Columbia’s buildings.

Ted and Teddy had visited Richmond College in early April to examine the possibility for recruiting Richmond College graduate students into their Teachers for a Democratic Society [TDS]. When Ted saw how loose the Richmond College Social Change Commune set-up was, he laughed and said: “There’s no basis for student revolt here, Bob. You’ve got so much freedom to do what you like at this school, that why would anyone want to revolt against the Administration here? It’s a classic example of co-optation of student radicalism by creating a soft `free school’ environment.” Ted and Teddy felt TDS could more productively organize on another campus.

Earlier in the 1968-69 academic year, I had bumped into Ted while he was walking stoned in December 1968 on Broadway, near W.114th St. After we embraced, I asked Ted how he liked teaching. “It’s hell,” he whispered, with a sad expression on his face.