Thursday, December 10, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Conclusion

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 6).

In recent years, U.S. university professors like Norman Finkelstein and Joel Kovel, who have written books that were critical of Israeli militarism and expressed support for Palestinian national self-determination rights, have ended up losing their academic jobs--apparently due to pressure from the Zionist lobby in the United States. How would you characterize the role that the Zionist lobby presently plays on U.S. university campuses in 2009?

Hilton Obenzinger: The campaign by Zionists to purge campuses of critical views has been going on for decades, and it’s shameful. Finkelstein and Kovel are by no means the first. For example, Breira—Choice--a Jewish peace group--was crushed in the Seventies with McCarthyite type attacks on those who worked in Jewish communal organizations.

I was on a list of people to ban from speaking on campuses in the early eighties – I was honored to be on the same list with Edward Said and Rabbi Elmer Berger and Noam Chomsky, probably the only time I would be on the same list with such luminaries.

When Jewish students at Stanford organized to support the divestment campaign, they were banned from meeting at Hillel until they denounced the “apartheid” label of Israel. They refused, and it’s the same old story.

The Zionist lobby has been focusing on campuses since the late Seventies because they correctly determined that it’s necessary to prevent critical approaches, alternate theoretical and historical frameworks, from becoming legitimate. They want only fringe groups or actual anti-Semites to become the critics of Israel so that they can smear everyone else as “anti-Semites” or “self-hating Jews.”

Now that they have attacked well-known academics like Tony Judt they are even crazier than ever, and even many who consider themselves pro-Israel think they have gone too far. Nonetheless, when you believe they can’t get more fanatical and shrill, they pull something even crazier else off.

I think their approach may be similar to Israel’s military thinking in their attack on Gaza: The military wanted to be regarded as a crazy animal, capable of doing anything, going totally bananas. That was on purpose, the lesson being that if Israel believes it’s provoked, it will unleash widespread, wild violence, and civilians will be chewed up in the IDF's jaws.

Likewise on the intellectual level. It seems absurd to attack Judt or Jimmy Carter, people who are not radical at all, but they are following that wild animal strategy, and any mild-mannered critic will be blown away. When I heard that Netanyahu called Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod “self-hating Jews” because Obama called for a settlement freeze, I thought that it’s consistent with that wild animal strategy.

Academics do resist, and there have been successes. But the fact is that the campaign has been debilitating, and, once again, a distraction from Israel’s on-going colonial project.

My bottom line is simple and not even ideological: Through everything in the past 40 years, Israel keeps doing one thing: they keep building settlements in land occupied in 1967. Rain or snow, storm or drought – intifadas or Oslos – they keep building gated, segregated housing projects on stolen land. Can professors and students object to such outlaw behavior without getting smeared?

If readers find that their local university and local public libraries did not purchase copies of your `Busy Dying' book, how can they obtain copies of your book?

Hilton Obenzinger: They can order from the usual outlets, such as Powell’s Books or Amazon, or they order from the publisher (CHAX). They can also go to a web site a friend made of my work. There’s information on how to order `Busy Dying’ along with other books, including `This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem’, directly from me. The website is www.obenzinger.com

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 6

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 5).

Following the Israeli war machine's late 2008-early 2009 military campaign in Gaza, many anti-war students in the UK began to stage campus protests there in support of some kind of anti-apartheid divestment and academic boycott campaign for Palestinian human rights. Do you think it might be desirable and/or possible for a similar campaign to happen on many U.S. campuses during the 2009-2010 academic year--especially if the Israeli war machine gets the green light from the U.S. government to attack Iran?

Hilton Obenzinger: The BDS campaign could have some impact, although I’m wary of its effectiveness.

A few years ago, students at Stanford set up a committee to call for divestment and called Israel an apartheid state. They made some headway, but much of the discussion got deflected into the Zionist outrage that Israel could be associated with the racist South African regime.

Likewise the boycott debate – it often gets deflected into a freedom of speech or academic freedom brouhaha. Maybe getting into academic freedom debates is good, but I have my doubts.

If Israel attacks Iran, all kinds of things may make sense – but the propaganda about Iran as evil is very intense--not that I support theocracies--and I’m sure many will support any attack. Perhaps better would be a campaign for Israel to join the non-proliferation treaty so that UN inspectors could check their bombs?

In the main, though, I consult with students but I leave it up to them to take the lead. They don’t need one more moth-eaten old radical to tell them how to do things.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 5

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 4).

In 1968 anti-war students at Columbia University protested against Columbia's complicity with the U.S. war machine. In recent years the Pentagon has funded millions of dollars of research work at many U.S. universities. At Stanford University, for example, $37 million worth of research work was being funded by the Department of Defense in 2000. Do you think it's now appropriate for U.S. universities like Columbia and Stanford to continue to accept research contracts from the Pentagon while the Pentagon is using drones and robot weapons--that were often initially developed with Pentagon funding in the labs of U.S. university campuses--to continue to wage endless war in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

Hilton Obenzinger: At Stanford, students in 1969 demanded an end to secret military research. They won that demand and that still stands.

However, military research that is not secret is tremendously active. Not just military research, many economic and political science scholars, in particular, purposely keep their visions narrow, and the departments exclude scholars with alternate world views, otherwise the smart guys could have known the economic disaster was coming, and they didn’t. The Hoover Institution looms over Stanford, even though it’s supposed to be an autonomous organization and not part of the university.

As soon as the military rescinds the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, ROTC will return to campuses, since what prevents their role on campuses is the discriminatory position of the military and not opposition to militarism. And most students I teach are just fine with the military; even if they are opposed to the current wars, they support the military as an institution, and there’s little anti-imperialist analysis of the US.

The country seems headed into disaster with endless wars but not an endless flow of money. Elite universities are part of the ruling apparatus, even if the students and faculty are not following that agenda. When there is an even deeper crisis and a real challenge to the priorities of the country as a whole, then students will also move. When there really is a mass movement challenging the assumptions of militarism, then students will target universities.

But I don’t see that movement in the near future. There was an awakening because of the Obama campaign, but I’m not sure that has gelled into anything on-going – it’s too soon to tell. There is hope of mobilization, but it’s—rightfully--coming from the terrible condition of education, such as the dismantling of the UC and CSU systems in California. We’ll see how this all develops when connections to the military budget and the prison-industrial complex are brought into the students’ protest programs.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 4

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 3).

In what way is `Busy Dying’ different or similar to Professor Stefan Bradley's recently-published book,` Harlem vs. Columbia University’, from both political and literary point-of-view?

Hilton Obenzinger: Stefan Bradley’s book is not at all fictionalized, and it’s not memoir like Mark Rudd’s book; the book is history, based on interviews and archives, and projects a historian’s analysis of events, strategies, and motivations.

The book provides a needed revision of the distorted accounts of 1968, situating members of the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and other black students, along with Harlem, as central players in how events unfolded. This is wonderful, as well as Bradley’s extension of his analysis of other black student-community eruptions at that time in elite universities, such as at Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, and the struggle for African American Studies at Columbia and other universities.

Professor Bradley’s work was also well-served by the April 2008 conference. I have some disagreements with his account, particularly his account of the white students, but that does not take away from the book as a major accomplishment.

There’s still more to do: I hope Ray Brown, Jr., Cicero Wilson, and the other leaders of the black students in Hamilton Hall write their accounts of the occupation and strike; and there’s certainly room for other historians to explore Columbia 1968, pulling together an account and analysis of all the threads of the story.

In 1968 many white Columbia and Barnard students protested against the Columbia University Administration's attempt to grab a few acres of Harlem parkland in order to build a new gym for Columbia students. Yet at a 40th anniversary reunion of '68 student protesters in 2008 there didn't seem to be that much discussion about Columbia's current attempt to grab 17 acres of West Harlem land, north of West 125th Street, for its latest campus expansion project. In what ways do you think people who participated in the 1968 Columbia protests have generally changed politically and philosophically since 1968? And in what ways do you think U.S. universities like Columbia University have changed or not changed since 1968?

Hilton Obenzinger: For the conference in 2008, the ad-hoc organizing committee assessed the situation of Columbia’s expansion, talking with a number of people involved, including Manning Marable, who heads up Columbia’s African American studies program.

We reached the conclusion that we--the conference organizers and the attendees--had no basis as an organization--if you could call it an organization!--to take a position on the decades of controversy surrounding Columbia’s plans. But we also decided to encourage everyone’s positions and discussion, and it was distressing to see Columbia President Lee Bollinger leave one panel he participated in just when questions were opened from the floor.

When we had our initial meeting with Pres. Bollinger, we pointed out that there were parallels between 1968 and today – Vietnam/Iraq, Gym/Manhattanville – and he said that Columbia is different today, and in terms of expansion, they were working with the community, with Harlem leaders. I’m sure that many would dispute that.

I had not followed the controversies and felt ill prepared to take a position, and I didn’t want to take a knee-jerk position that everything Columbia does is evil, tempting as that may be. Others I spoke with thought it was too late to stop the project, that gentrification involves a lot more players than Columbia and the community needed to pressure Columbia to win concessions (such as housing and jobs), while others thought it was a betrayal of 1968 to invite Bollinger to the conference when Columbia was once again engaging in what many consider a land grab.

Our goals for the conference – one of which was to insist that 1968 be accepted as part of the university’s history with our active involvement and not have our role erased or distorted – meant that we welcomed a tactical relationship with the university (which helped us with space and the participation of many sympathetic faculty) while encouraging a wide range of views on the current situation. I think we were successful in this regard.

Bollinger ended up getting attacked by a right-wing columnist in the Daily News who was outraged that the university president would participate in “an all-Bolshevik affair.” Hilarious.

I don’t think I can talk of how all the people involved in 1968 have changed politically. About 400 people were involved in the conference, but there were thousands of people involved in the anti-war, anti-gym side of the conflict (not counting those against us or in the middle), and they have probably gone in many directions.

A great many who came to the conference or who signed up on our on-line discussion group have continued their progressive political stances, although most do not adhere to radical views popular in the 60s. Quite a few shaped their lives to a great degree around their commitments to change in whatever career they took up – people who are academics in women’s studies and African American studies and other fields, union and community organizers, activists in social movements such as the women’s, environmental, anti-war, anti-racist movements, writers with left politics, lawyers and physicians for change, and more.

It’s probably safe to say that the majority opposed the war in Iraq (if not at the outset, at least by the time of the conference). As a generation at Columbia in 1968, I would say that, as far as the people I know and those who participated in the conference, we have been mainly true to our roots.

Universities have changed enormously as a result of Columbia and the whole student movement of the 60s. Universities now have ethnic studies, women’s studies, GLBT studies as separate programs emerged, and a lot more social consciousness in teaching and research. Not enough, but things are very different. Ivy League schools are now co-ed, students are regularly invited to contribute to university deliberations.

A lot has changed, but elite universities like Columbia are still instruments of the ruling elite, and particularly when it comes to military research, most are as deeply involved as ever, if not more.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 3

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 2).

In what way is your `Busy Dying’ book different or similar to former Columbia Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] chairman Mark Rudd's recently-published book, `Underground’, from both a political and literary point-of-view?

Hilton Obenzinger: I worked with Mark on his book for years, including the first time he attempted to write it in the 80s.

My book is fiction because I began to doubt whether I could ever write a memoir without inventing memories – and it became easier to tell the truth by releasing myself from the memoir format. I spoke with people who were there, such as Mark but also other friends who were part of the Low Library Commune – it’s an interesting thing, doing research on your own life from others’ vantage points – and I used real names when I could, but if I couldn’t contact someone, I used fictional names.

My book has additional, different themes than Mark’s – including coming to terms with the death of my brother and the literary scene at Columbia and in the Lower East Side – and it moves back and forth between students at Columbia back then and the work I do with students at Stanford today.

Mark’s description of Columbia 1968 is from his vantage point, of course, and it’s well done. It’s a welcome addition to the historical understanding of Columbia 1968, and the growing library of Weather Underground literature. The book gained greatly because of the 40th anniversary conference in 2008, and he was able to provide an even broader perspective, particularly on the media distortions of the occupation and strike that created “Mark Rudd,” the Great Revolutionary Leader.

But his biggest struggle was figuring out how to discuss his post-1968 Weather Underground experience. I wrestled with him many times on how to characterize mistakes while historicizing them, and we don’t always agree. It’s a tough job trying to understand one’s own involvement in the 1968 moment and its aftermath in a larger (even worldwide) political, even sociological context.

I think, in the end, he did a fine job in the book. He tried staying honest throughout, tried to be judicious, and he certainly did not romanticize – and it’s well written.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 2

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for part 1).


Why do you think anti-war students at Columbia University in 1968 did not also protest against the U.S. government's support for Israeli militarism in 1968?

Hilton Obenzinger: When the 1967 war broke out I was very confused and conflicted and ignorant. To illustrate: Edward Said was my teacher but I didn’t know he was a Palestinian – I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Palestinian. I didn’t even know he was an Arab – I thought he was Jewish!

We later became friends and colleagues in terms of literary studies and working on Palestinian rights, and we joked about that moment.

I stayed up one night during the war, upset about it, and in the early dawn sat on the Sundial in the center of the campus to read the NY Times, weeping. Wasn’t Israel sort of socialist? Weren’t they advanced, democratic and progressive? Why did the Arabs want “to push the Jews into the sea”?

My moment of awakening was in 1969 when Moshe Dayan went to Vietnam on a fact-finding tour and offered complete support for the US war. This was cognitive dissonance in a big way – and I either had to be consistent with my principles or begin fudging them out of some sense of ethnic loyalty (and fudging became the process for many progressive, anti-war, pro-civil rights Jews, trying to support their principles while apologizing for Israel – ultimately, an untenable position).

When I taught on the Yurok Indian reservation in 1969-70 I began a process of understanding settler colonial societies. In the 1970s, I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sympathizing with the Palestinians as a national liberation movement, and I began to speak out.

Then, in the mid Seventies, I was working with the American Indian Movement, and I was going to collaborate with the Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz on a book on how history made it so that we both ended up in California. Simon quickly realized he had to get the hell out of California, and he returned to New Mexico where he wrote a terrific book about his early experiences working in uranium mines.

I ended up writing This Passover or the Next I Will Never Be in Jerusalem, a collection of poems and sketches about Jews, Indians, and Palestinians that invokes a Jewish American sensibility free of Zionist assumptions – and that became the basis for my support of Palestinian rights. While writing that book I helped to establish a Jewish group in the Bay Area in order to protest the Israeli occupation and to provide a clear ideological alternative to the Zionist consensus that even held the left in thrall.

The book received the American Book Award, and I was invited to campuses to speak about what it means to be a Jewish American critical of Israel and Zionism. At this point I would be regularly attacked as a “self-hating Jew” and would have my life threatened.

That book appeared in 1980, and in 1981 I was invited to Beirut as part of an American delegation to the PLO to investigate the bombing attack by the Israelis on Fakhani, in downtown Beirut, a prelude to the 1982 invasion.

From that point Palestine became the focus of my political work through the first intifada, and eventually the “Holy Land” and the study of comparative settler colonial societies became the main interest in my scholarly research, which culminated in the cultural and literary study American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania, and continues today with a book I am working on called Melting Pots and Promised Lands: Zionism and the Idea of America.

Interview With `Busy Dying' Author Hilton Obenzinger--Part 1

Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,

http://www.obenzinger.com/books_busyDying.html

Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger.

An interview you did last year about your Busy Dying book that's posted on the video.google site

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5884618881046739147#

mostly just discussed the 1968 Columbia anti-war student protests, but doesn't make much reference to the impact of the Israeli military occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights that happened less than a year before the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt. Would readers of `Busy Dying’ find any indication in the book as to why you later become such a strong supporter of Palestinian human rights?

Hilton Obenzinger [HO]: In 1968 many of us didn’t want to be “Good Germans,” passively accepting genocide and vicious Jim Crow racism. Engaged in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, right after graduating college I taught school on an Indian reservation – and my eyes opened. I began to understand the US more deeply as a settler society, and consequently the similarities between the US and Israel.

I wrote Busy Dying trying to stay within much of the consciousness I had then – and Israel was not a central part of my concerns at the time. It’s an indication of just how un-Zionist many of us were, and how much Israel was on the periphery of our consciousness (although I know I was deeply aware of being Jewish, of my family’s murder at the hands of the Nazis, the narrative of Israel as Jewish redemption after death and persecution).

Rejecting being a “Good German” expanded in time to include other things, such as rejecting silence about Israel’s colonization. So, Columbia 1968 was a decisive, formative experience for me. I got a glimpse of a new world, of the possibilities of change, and of overturning injustice, and that glimpse has kept me going ever since.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

`Columbiagate': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 18

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 17)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] colluded with Columbia, asking it to provide a basis for the finding of blight and allowing it to create conditions that could be used to try and establish such a basis.

“ESDC colluded with Columbia in hiring Columbia’s consultant AKRF to perform the blight study, in tailoring with AKRF the methodology of such a study to achieve a predetermined result, and in allowing Columbia to participate in and control the gathering of evidence, and in allowing Columbia to review and direct such a study.

“ESDC engaged in deception in its allegations of the neutrality of Columbia’s consultant AKRF…ESDC engaged in deception in its repeated misrepresentation of what records it possessed in relation to the Columbia Project…

“…The City Planning Commission [CPC]…failed to consider impacts of the threatened use of eminent domain in driving sales to Columbia, and consequent loss of businesses and jobs, and in causing the neglect of building repairs, and in fueling speculative run up of real estate prices in the wider West Harlem area…”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 17

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 16)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] failed to prepare a carefully considered plan when it failed to determine the public purposes of the project prior to selection of Columbia for the overwhelming benefit of such a project.

“ESDC failed to prepare a carefully considered plan when it failed to consider any competing proposal to Columbia’s General Project Plan [GPP], including as-of-right development under the Community Board [CB] 9 197 (a) plan.

“ESDC failed to prepare a carefully considered plan when it placed no limitation on Columbia’s GPP…limiting its displacement of current West Harlem business and residents or preventing it from defeating the intent of the community as expressed in the CB 9 197 (a) plan.

“ESDC made no effort to achieve public benefits proportional to the private benefits likely to flow from Columbia’s proposal.

“ESDC, together with NYC Economic Development Corporation [EDC], Department of City Planning [DEP], the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Development, the New York City Law Department and other agencies worked to keep planning secret…and time the project for Columbia’s convenience and political advantage…”

Friday, November 27, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 16

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 15)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“…Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] has cooperated in a developer driven project, conceived by Columbia, initiated by Columbia, configured and defined by Columbia to maximize its own private benefit, and timed and directed by Columbia.

“ESDC, together with Economic Development Corporation [EDC] and Department of City Planning [DCP], failed to prepare a carefully considered plan when it showed favoritism to Columbia over other development proposals, cooperating with it in secret to subvert prior public planning commitments, allowing Columbia to choose the dual prong re-zoning and General Project plan [GPP] strategy, and assisting Columbia in developing such a strategy so as to maximize Columbia’s chances of realizing its maximal private benefit…”

Thursday, November 26, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 15

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 14)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“…Article I, section 7 of the New York State Constitution and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution limit takings to public use. Under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Kelo v. City of New London, the majority limited the reliance upon economic development as public use, benefit or purpose to projects that are the result of a carefully considered plan. 54 U.S. 469, 478.

“The deciding concurring opinion of Justice Kennedy further required courts to be vigilant against pretextual purposes and favoritism in developer driven development projects…

“The stated public use, benefit or purpose of redeveloping a substandard and insanitary, or blighted, area is null and void because the finding that the Manhattanville industrial area was blighted was made in bad faith, in error of law, and without basis, and what blight-like symptoms are present are overwhelmingly caused, maintained or exacerbated by Columbia with Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC]’s knowledge and consent…

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 14

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 13)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“…Calling privately funded and directed academic research a `civic purpose’ is…inappropriate when the knowledge gained from such research is not required to be made public, but in fact, through partnership with private pharmaceutical companies and other for-profit entities is proprietary and subject to patent.

“Further alleged civic purposes such as widening of street walls, increasing sight line and 125th street access to the Hudson waterfront, planting, and transparency requirements, and creation of a 12th Avenue market area cannot be civic purposes of the Project because they are already mandated in any development pursuant to the Re-zoning of December 18, 2007…

“Additional alleged civic purposes associated with the project are not only incidental, but pretextual because they were extraneous to the dominant use and purpose of the project…

“Such pretextual `civic purposes’ include the operation subsidy for a largely Columbia used waterfront park, lighting improvements, subway escalator improvements, funding of certain Harlem…organizations, a playground, rent free lease of other property on which New York City Department of Education may or may not build a school, the provision of a $20 million housing fund that will at most cover the cost of relocating residential tenants directly displaced from the area, limited use of Columbia facilities, and various scholarships and health, educational, business development and legal assistance programs, all amounting to no more than $200 million in value, or 3% of the total project cost…”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 13

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 12)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“There is no legal precedent recognizing private institutions of higher education as a civic facility, or an entity carrying out a community, municipal, public service, or other civic purpose. The term `civic’ implies use and participation of the public, and has heretofore required at least use by invitees from the public.

“A private university, with selective admission, charging high tuition, and offering its graduates valuable credentials for their private advantage, cannot qualify as a civic facility or provider of a civic purpose. If it did, there is no project sought by or benefiting…any land hungry private university that would not also qualify as a `civic purpose.’.

“In so far as `educational’ services or purposes can constitute civic purposes, the education must be for public education, open to the public, and subject to public governance.

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC]’s finding of need for educational facilities in New York City and State is made in bad faith, and without rational basis, for it has not established any public duty to provide private university facilities…”

Monday, November 23, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE: Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 12

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 11)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] acted in bad faith when it hired Columbia’s consultant AKRF to produce a study allegedly to ascertain whether the area was blighted, then collaborated with Columbia’s consultant AKRF to design, or consented to the use of, a methodology that would yield a predetermined conclusion.

“AKRF’s methodology excluded evidence the area was not blighted, that ignored causal links, such as that between Columbia ownership and vacancy, or between building condition and Columbia acquisition, management or control, and inferred causality without basis, such as between building conditions and supposed disinvestments in Manhattanville, even as Columbia itself was aggressively investing in Manhattanville.

“By excluding the ownership and occupancy history and economic context of the Manhattanville industrial area, AKRF, with ESDC’s knowledge and consent, deliberately engaged in an effort to color the evidence, and shape it to fit the pre-determined conclusion that the area was blighted…”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 11

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 10)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] acted in bad faith when it continued to participate in advancing Columbia’s Project when it knew in December, 2004 that the…Urbitran blight study did not adequately show the area to be blighted, when it communicated that concern to Columbia’s attorney…

“ESDC acted in bad faith, and in illegal delegation of its authority to make public findings, when it asked Columbia on August 1, 2005 to provide a `basis for a finding of blight,’ and when it requested a progress report on Columbia acquisition in Manhattanville.

“In doing so ESDC effectively communicated to Columbia that the realization of Columbia’s project would depend upon Columbia’s acquiring as much as Manhattanville as possible, and by direct control of the property, creating the conditions that could be used as a basis for a finding.

“Columbia proceeded to do so, refusing to renew leases, pressuring tenants to leave, and intentionally not performing adequate maintenance and repairs on buildings, even when economical to do so and minor repairs would ensure long productive lives of the buildings…”

Friday, November 20, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 10

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 9)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Though Columbia held a series of three meetings with community leaders in 2004 and 2005 that it called `community consultation,’ Columbia treated them merely as informational meetings to present the alleged benefits of the project. Participants alleged Columbia was unresponsive to concerns expressed in those meetings…

“Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC]’s finding that the area was blighted was made in bad faith and violated its statutory authority, the New York State Constitution and the United States Constitution (UDCA Sec. 10 c; Article 1, section 7 of the New York State Constitution; 5th and 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution)…”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 9

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 8)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“From the outset, Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] let Columbia define the scale, scope, and design of the Project solely for Columbia’s benefit…

“From the outset, Columbia dictated the area it wished to control and the square footage it wished to build…

“Why Columbia must control the entire Manhattanville area, or why it must have precisely the number of square feet it desired was never questioned by ESDC…

“This Project has only been about what Columbia wants, not what the public needs…”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 8

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 7)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Overwhelmingly, the West Harlem community has consistently opposed the Columbia project so long as it was premised upon the use of eminent domain.

“On September 23, 2005, West Harlem Community Board 9 opposed the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville by a resolution adopted 29-0…

“…In August 2007…Community Board 9 voted 34 to 3 against the project…

“Community Board 9’s 197 (a) plan called for the creation of an entity which could negotiate a Community Benefits Agreement [CBA] with Columbia. The West Harlem Local Development Corporation [LDC] was established in 2006…

“…Columbia…was unwilling to negotiate over the scale, configuration, or program use of its Project…”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 7

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 6)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“…Compared to most of the rest of New York City, Manhattanville is not deprived of open space.

“Not only would the Project contribute little open space suitable for West Harlem community use, but the Project, by its height and the shadows it cast, would degrade existing Manhattanville Houses and Shieflin Park open space…

“Additional allegedly `civic and community benefits’ were offered in the Modified General Project Plan [GPP] of which Columbia would be the principal beneficiary. These include 12,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, for which Columbia will collect market rents, a $500,000 per year subsidy for 24 years for the operation of the Harlem Piers Park, the use of which will likely be more Columbia’s than West Harlem’s, lighting improvements under the Riverside Drive viaduct, or free wireless access throughout its campus…

“What all of these alleged `civic community benefits’ share in common is that they are extraneous to the dominant uses, benefits and purposes of the project…

“The total value of all these `goodies’ amount to no more than $200 million, or approximately 3% of the $6.5 billion projected cost of the Project.

“This package of `goodies’ was not agreed upon by the local community as adequate compensation for the impact of Columbia’s proposed project…”

Monday, November 16, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal--Part 6

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 5)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“In summary, Allee King Rosen and Flemming [AKRF] provided a study with a methodology effectively tailored to deliver the result that the area was blighted, despite a fundamental absence of background economic conditions associated with blight. AKRF, with the knowledge, participation and approval of Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC], suppressed contrary evidence, avoided evaluation of casual relationships, and, most importantly, avoided any accounting for activity, omissions, and responsibility of the single most important player and causal factor in Manhattanville: Columbia’s activity as a purchaser, owner, and operator of over 75% of the properties in the area.

“…The New York State Supreme Court, Justice Shirley Kornreich presiding, found AKRF to not only be serving an advocacy function on behalf of its client Columbia, but also that AKRF itself had an interest in ESDC’s adoption of Columbia’s General Project Plan [GPP]…ESDC took an appeal to the Appellate Division, First Department.

“On July 15, 2008, this Appellate Division issued its decision…finding AKRF’s relationship with Columbia to be `tangled.’…

“…Of the 37 buildings AKRF…determined to be in poor conditions, at least 16, or 43%, are likely to have crossed that line during the time of Columbia’s ownership or control due to Columbia’s discontinuation of maintenance and its failure to perform repairs…”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 5

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against New York State’s Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] decision to allow the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street. (See below for parts 1 to 4)

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Columbia did undertake cosmetic interior renovations in certain properties, but left underlying waterproofing conditions unaddressed, allowing structural elements to deteriorate…

“Columbia also posted on buildings it owned `For Rent’ signs, creating the appearance of available commercial rental property and flagging demand, even as Columbia had no intention of renting its vacant properties. Calls to the phone numbers listed on such signs, by both Manhattanville owners, and other prospective renters, yielded only answering machines and unreturned calls. In May, 2007, an attorney representing a number of businesses being forced out of a Columbia owned building upon inquiring as to the possibility of relocation into one of the vacant Columbia owned buildings in the area was informed by Columbia’s attorney that `There is no space available in Manhattanville.’

“In late March, 2006, Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] turned to Columbia’s Consultant, Allee King Rosen and Flemming, Inc. [AKRF,] to perform a new blight study of Manhattanville.

“In sworn affidavits, AKRF and ESDC stated that in retaining AKRF, ESDC had required the erection of a `Chinese Wall’ separating employees working on the Blight Study for ESDC from those working on the environmental review for Columbia, and that such separation had been strictly maintained…On May 19, 2008, ESDC admitted that such a wall had not in fact been maintained. Billing records indicate that as many as six AKRF employees worked on both sides of the alleged barrier…

“Far from keeping the study confidential from Columbia, ESDC permitted Columbia to control access to the properties, accompany surveyors, review and comment on reports, and to be present at meetings and reviews…”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhatanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 4

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street.

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“In properties Columbia acquired, Columbia allowed or maintained accumulation of garbage and trash.

“In most buildings it acquired, Columbia refrained from attending to even minor repairs or preventive maintenance, causing existing conditions from water infiltration to become significantly exacerbated. At 635 West 125th Street, for instance, for failure to repair a broken pane in a skylight, sufficient water entered the building as to cause flooring to buckle and ceilings to collapse, such as a building identified as in `fair’ condition in 2006 was in `poor’ condition by 2008. At 623 W. 129th Street, a roof drain was left clogged, causing significant water damage in the building below.

“On the basis of Petitioner’s review of individual building reports, it appears that in 34 out of 51 Columbia owned buildings, or 66.6%, conditions were allowed to deteriorate significantly over that period…”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 3

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street.

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“Manhattanville is a riverfront community in West Harlem…

“…The number of jobs in the area was rising until Columbia began buying the area up in 2002.

“…At least since the 1960s Columbia has been looking to expand beyond the confines of its Morningside Heights campus, to acquire land and to build in Manhattanville and West Harlem. Already in 1960 Columbia was seeking to take over the Manhattanville industrial area with a…development scheme. Columbia’s attempt to take over part of nearby Morningside Park to build an athletic facility brought community relations to a boil in 1968…

“After 2002, Columbia’s acquisition activity in Manhattanville accelerated. By the end of 2005 it had acquired or entered into contract on 28 of 67 properties in the area. In approaching property owners, Columbia sought to portray the use of eminent domain as certain and inevitable, urging owners to sell now at the low price they were being offered or have their property taken by eminent domain.

“As Columbia acquired property, it applied pressure to remove all tenants except for the few it intended to incorporate into ground floor retail spaces in its proposed campus.

“Columbia refused to renew leases except on commercially unreasonable one year terms, and with provisions effectively providing for summary termination at Columbia’s sole discretion.

“Columbia exaggerated alleged building defects as a pretext to require tenants to relocate, but in relocation, offered smaller spaces and covered only a fraction of relocation costs.

“Columbia refused to perform repairs when asked by tenants. At 609 West 125th Street, for example, Columbia refused to repair major leaks from skylights and roof over the space rented by the Eritrean Community Center of Greater New York, a tenant it sought to remove, even while it replaced the roof over the section of the same building rented by Floridita, a restaurant it had designated for incorporation into the new project.

“Columbia refused to conduct fa├žade repairs, and left in place indefinitely sidewalk sheds obscuring tenants’ store fronts and signage, without compensation.

“Columbia added inappropriate charges to rent, including for structural repairs that were the owner’s responsibility, and refused to recognize lease modifications by the prior owner.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 2

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street.

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“This case raises the question of whether allegedly public purposes attributed to a project long after it was fully conceived, and that involve almost no use of the land or facilities proposed to be developed, or that are diminutive in relation to the private benefit conferred by the project, constitute `civic’ or `public’ purposes, or whether they are not, in fact, pretext.

“This case presents the question of whether the desire of any private university to expand, or the acquisition of proprietary knowledge, constitute a `civic’ purpose.

“And this case raises the constitutional question of whether the use of eminent domain for economic development alone, under the Supreme Court of the United States’s 2006 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, constitutes a public use, benefit or purpose in the absence of a carefully considered plan with public purposes determined prior to selection of a developer and reached through a transparent and accountable public process.

“…Columbia and Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] have refused to compromise, and ESDC…has condoned and enabled Columbia in its drive to achieve 100% physical, economic, and cultural control of the entire area…For Columbia’s preference to have it all is what this struggle is being fought for. Columbia’s preference to have it all does not constitute a public use, benefit or purpose…”

Saturday, November 7, 2009

`COLUMBIAGATE': Is Columbia University's West Harlem-Manhattanville Campus Expansion Project Illegal?--Part 1

In a January 21, 2009 petition to the First Judicial Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York Appellate Division, a New York City civil liberties lawyer named Norman Siegel presented the legal case against allowing the Columbia University Administration to move forward on its 17-acre campus expansion project in the West Harlem-Manhattanville neighborhood, just north of West 125th Street.

According Siegel’s January 21, 2009 petition:

“This case is about the abuse of the government’s power of eminent domain to secure for a developer a contested area of West Harlem it had long sought to control and for which it had formed a fully blown plan.

“This case is about the secret collaboration between Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] and New York City agencies in a complex plan to give that developer, an elite private university, everything it wanted, without compromise or limitation, while evading public review and accountability.

“This case is about favoritism shown to an elite private university over community interests, clearly and consistently expressed through the local Community Planning Board, over multiple well established public planning processes, and over competing development proposals for existing local business and property owners, for purposes that in the end amount to no more than the speculative estimation that what is good for Columbia University is good for New York.

“And this case is about how ESDC, in its determination to maximize Columbia’s private benefit, overreached its statutory authorization, made findings in bad faith, and fabricated pretextual purposes to cover up the illegality of its dominant purpose…”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Columbia University's Goldman Sachs Connection & West Harlem Construction Project

Columbia University Trustee Armen Avanessians is Goldman Sachs' director of FICC Strategies, Equity Strategies, Investment Banking and Financial Group Strategies and became a partner in Goldman Sachs in 1994.

In addition, Columbia University Trustee Ann Kaplan is a member of the Goldman Sachs Bank USA board of directors and Columbia University Trustee Esta Stecher is Goldman Sachs Group's executive vice president and general counsel.

Also, Columbia University Trustee Richard Witten was a Goldman Sachs partner and managing director from 1990 to 2002.

Coincidentally, if Goldman Sachs merges with the M&T Bank Corporation, the head of the Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] which approved the use of eminent domain in Columbia University’s 17-acre West Harlem-Manhattanville construction project, M&T Bank Corporation CEO Bob Wilmers, may personally benefit from a business relationship with the Columbia University-linked Goldman Sachs firm.

As Thomas Hartley observed in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Baltimore Business Journal, one of Ireland’s largest independent securities firms, NCB Stockbrokers, noted in a 2008 report that: “Remember that M&T’s CEO, septuagenarian Bob Wilmers, has been at the bank for 25 years [and] might be tempted to roll his 10 percent holding into something larger driven by Goldman Sachs.”

Speaking of the latest real estate development and land grabbing project of the tax-exempt “Goldman Sachs University of Morningside Heights,” an interesting article by Damon W. Root, was posted on the www.reason.com website. In his February 9, 2009 article, titled “Exposing Columbia University’s eminent domain abuse,” Root noted:

“Consider the following: In 2006, the Empire State Development Corporation [ESDC] hired the planning and engineering firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming, Inc. (AKRF) to perform an `impartial' neighborhood blight study. AKRF was certainly a bold choice, given that the firm was already on Columbia's payroll and actively working on the contested Manhattanville plan. According to billing records that…civil libertarian Norman Siegel, turned up via the state's Freedom of Information Law, as many as six AKRF employees worked on both the blight study and the redevelopment project, which is practically the definition of a conflict of interests.

“The report itself proved to be just as flawed. For starters, AKRF failed to mention that Columbia owns 76 percent of the neighborhood and was thus directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of blight that the report alleged, ranging from overflowing basement trash heaps to major roof and skylight leaks. (Columbia has been performing maintenance on several buildings it plans to preserve for their historical significance.) As numerous tenants have now reported, the university refused to perform basic and necessary repairs, which both pushed tenants out and manufactured the ugly conditions that later advanced Columbia's long-term interests….

“AKRF admitted as much in preliminary findings delivered to the ESDC, which identified `Open violations in CU Buildings' and `History of CU repairs to properties' among its `issues of concern.' On top of that, AKRF relied on misleading and in some cases inappropriate evidence, including irrelevant crime statistics and building code violations that had zero relationship to actual physical conditions (such as the failure to file an annual boiler inspection).

“In fact, the ESDC-Columbia redevelopment scheme fails to meet even the generous standards set by the Supreme Court's notoriously eminent domain-friendly decision in Kelo v. City of New London (2005), which permitted the transfer of property from one private party to another so long as the taking was part of a `comprehensive redevelopment plan.’ But as Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion in the case also made perfectly clear, `transfers intended to confer benefits on particular, favored private entities, and with only incidental or pretextual public benefits, are forbidden by the Public Use Clause.’… “

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

1968 Columbia SAS Leader Bill Sales: A 1995 Interview by Meg Starr

In its August/September issue of 1995, the anti-imperialist Love & Rage newspaper published the following interview with former Columbia Student Afro-American Society [SAS] Leader Bill Sales by long-time anti-imperialist and anti-racist prisoner solidarity activist Meg Starr. This interview was originally posted in the archives section of the Love & Rage website at the following link:

http://www.loveandrage.org/?q=node/33

During the 1960s Bill Sales was a radical student activist. His experiences show how the Black student movement was shaped by the overall Black liberation movement, and how Black students in turn helped shape the white student movement.

It is interesting to compare Bill’s version of the early stages of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Columbia Strike (an important occupation of buildings at New York City’s Columbia University by Black and white students in 1968) with more mainstream and white-centered accounts of the same period. His stories also bring to life the incredible radical diversity and power of the Black Liberation movement. Readers interested in learning more should read Bill’s latest book, From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (South End Press, Boston, 1994).


U of Penn and the NAACP

Meg Star [MS]: How did you become an activist as a student?


Bill Sales [BS]: “I was involved with the student chapter of the NAACP at the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. I had first come in contact with the movement on that campus through some people who were members of RAM. [The Revolutionary Action movement was a semi-clandestine organization that, beginning in 1963, attempted to combine mass direct action with the tactics of self-defense to push the movement towards revolutionary politics.] Two members in particular were friends of mine: Max Stanford [Muhamed Ahmed] and Stanley Davis. I knew Max from high school, and Stanley was a student at Penn before we became active. We all ran track together, believe it or not.”

In 1962 the Penn Chapter of the NAACP invited Malcolm X to speak on campus, and they picketed Democratic Party Headquarters in Philadelphia to support Robert Williams. Williams had been the president of the NAACP in Monroe County, NC until 1959, when he called for armed defense in the face of growing KKK violence. During the next several years James Farmer, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, and many other Civil Rights leaders also spoke on campus.

BS: “Then I went to the march on Washington and was very impressed by all the goings on. I wanted to come back and assume the leadership of the NAACP on campus; I wasn’t satisfied with its level of activism.”

In the meantime, during the summer of ‘63, CORE [The Congress of Racial Equality was a direct-action-oriented civil-rights group that emphasized community based actions in Northern cities.] and the NAACP were confronting de facto segregation of construction sites in Philadelphia. Bill’s two radical friends were arrested after being beaten by the police at one site. U of Penn was undergoing major renovation, so the students confronted the university’s own hiring practices.

“Now all during the four years at Penn I was being exposed to different ideological currents, both in the Civil Rights Movement and in what came to be the New Left. I didn’t have the slightest idea that that was what it was at the time. In my senior year, protesting segregation, I came in close contact with CORE and the NAACP. I can put it this way: I developed a greater appreciation for CORE and an utter disdain for the NAACP.”

Black Students Organize

When Bill graduated from Penn he went to Columbia University to do graduate work. He arrived in the fall of 1964, the fall after African-American students organized on campus.

“A year after I left Penn, Bob Brand, a white student from the NAACP, got in touch with me. He asked my permission to convert that chapter into an SDS chapter because at that point the only people left were white students who were very much interested in the anti-war situation. Many of those guys who became important in SDS got their first exposure in civil rights activity.”

Bill arrived at Columbia in 1964, the same semester that the Students Afro-American Society was founded. In the mid-’60s campuses that for centuries had been lily-white were opening the doors to Black students for the first time. Columbia, Harvard and Yale were a little ahead of the majority of campuses.

“A whole lot of debate was going on about identity, about who we were as Black students, and what was our responsibility to the movement.”

The numbers of Black students were increasing every semester and the class base of the students accepted by the college was becoming more working class, which affected the level of militancy.

“There was a basis for effective group action. People sensed that potential, and also, no Black person at this time could get away without defining their lives at least in part in terms of the struggle that was going on in the larger society.”

While Bill studied Swahili and met African leaders in the internationalist community around Columbia, he also reunited with Max Stanford.

“Max had been working with Malcolm in the OAAU period [the Organization of Afro-American Unity] and I ran into him shortly after Malcolm was assassinated. Max helped me get oriented to the scene in NY.”

“Gym” Crow & Early Alliances

In ‘68 the off-campus and on-campus movements were to come together. Columbia University had admitted Black students while continuing to be a smug and racist institution, completely out of touch with the neighboring Harlem community. The university occupies a small area of land, one side of which is a cliff overlooking the public Morningside Park, which is used primarily by the Harlem community. Columbia worked out an arrangement through its shady Board of Trustees’ ruling-class connections to lease public land for the site of a new gym. Originally the gym was intended to be in Morningside Park, and to be completely closed to community residents. When the community objected to that Columbia started construction of two gyms: a large one for Columbia students and a smaller one for the community residents. Protesting the “Jim Crow Gym” brought together many different insurgent communities.

Already alliances between SDS and the African American students organization had developed through two experiences. By 1967 the university had allowed the student athletes to be developed into a right-wing firing squad that attacked SDS demonstrations.

“So one day Black students went out there. We had our own beef with these cats because they were racists. So we joined in to help the SDS guys because those people just didn’t know how to fight. Not that they weren’t game, they just didn’t know what to do in that kind of situation. So we went out and knocked heads with these jocks.”

CORE was trying to organize a union among the mostly African-American and Latino workers on campus. Black students and some of SDS became involved.

“Ted Gold, one of the activists that got blown up in the townhouse [a member of Weatherman who was killed during an explosion at a safe house in NY on March 6, 1970], was very active in that. We all knew Gold long before we knew Rudd and those cats. The hell with them! They were off on some trip, but we knew the folks that were down. They were down long before it was fashionable to be down.

“One of the things that really got to me about Rudd was how you write a book confessing all the things you did were wrong. That’s bullshit! It wasn’t wrong just because you lost and it didn’t work. There’s a difference between winning and losing and being wrong.”

Alliances off-campus were also very important to the Black students. In ‘67 there was a Black Power Conference in Maryland that had a special meeting for student activists.

“There were no more than 10 or 15 people in the place, but the following spring we were all involved in building takeovers on our different campuses. Herman Ferguson [an important Black activist and political prisoner, Ferguson was involved both in the Republic of New Afrika and the OAAU] was there that day; he was already on the lam.”

Bill became involved in an underground student group called “cadre.” The members were at different campuses. They took karate, studied, and made contact with various groups in Harlem.

MS: Why were you clandestine?

BS: “This was an era when people got shot. H. Rap Brown was already underground. Some of the people we worked with were underground. It wasn’t as if we were planning to blow things up. But we felt that what we were doing was objectively revolutionary. And you just didn’t run around in a public organization. We assigned ourselves public organizations on campus to be in.”

The Columbia Strike

In April and May of 1968 Columbia University exploded into the famous strike and blockade. During those months over 1,000 students occupied four buildings on campus, fought the police, and held a dean hostage (briefly).

The role of the Black students in these events has been somewhat eclipsed in popular accounts. After describing the alliances on campus and off-campus that had been developed over the previous years, Bill described the day the decision was made to occupy the first building.


“1968 in some ways appeared to be spontaneous. On the day the takeover occurred none of us had planned a takeover.”

Bill and his friends went down to an SDS demonstration at the sundial [a central location on the main part of the Columbia campus] to fight the jocks and to support the new president of the Afro-American Students Organization who was speaking.

“When I got there I swear there were 5,000 people. It was a total shocker. I expected 200 people or so—the usual demonstration. The jocks were completely neutralized. The demonstration started by trying to take some demands into the president of Columbia University, but he closed his office building. The Black students wanted to storm the building, but Rudd said no. Someone in Progressive Labor said: ‘Let’s charge the gym site.’ So we all ran down.”

Community activists and campus activists had recently been arrested demonstrating at the site.

“We ran down 1,000 strong and all hell broke loose. It’s the first and only time I ever got into actual combat with the police. We should have all been dead but there was a sergeant who pulled his forces back. At that time I was trying to break this cop’s thumb because I said “If he gets his gun out I’m a dead person.”

“I had only jumped him because one of his associates had started hitting one of our guys and then one of CADRE punched him out. This guy was facing me so I grabbed his wrist and twisted him around. I didn’t want to fight this cat and he didn’t want to fight me. I said I can take this guy; he’s scared of me. He’ll shoot me out of fear if he gets his gun out. People don’t realize how things escalate. Lethal confrontations that nobody means to happen—people were all fighting and this sergeant comes down and tells his men to back off and leave us alone. He recognized that it was Harlem and if they grabbed a bunch of Black students all hell would break loose.”

Bill stressed how many different people had their own organizations then and were prepared for confrontation. The Black women on campus, repulsed by the sexism of the African-American students group, had their own organization with their own community contacts.

“They didn’t want to get everything through the guys. That meant that independently they had come to the same decisions we had come to, and they had a structure for functioning. When the shit hit the fan they weren’t tailing behind the men.”

After the confrontation at the gym site SDS and the Black students occupied the first building. While SDS leaders remained ambiguous about the decisions to occupy buildings for several days, the Black Students were firm from the beginning and influenced the actions of the rest of the campus.

The Movement Today?

When asked about the Black movement today Bill said:

“There is no Black movement today. There are a number of different people who are struggling as organizations or individuals, but a movement would imply a consensus on some very basic demands; a clear understanding of who the enemy is and some notion of what the future would look like. We don’t have that yet. I hope we’re building to it...

MS: Is there anything you’d like to say about white solidarity?

BS: “I think there are some obvious errors that white leftists have made that they don’t need to make again! The arrogance and paternalism in relationship to the Black movement—to assume that you know what’s right for everyone because you have a revolutionary analysis of society, etc., etc. To see a certain kind of division of labor—you provide the intellectual muscle and the troops come from various Third World communities—that’s disastrous.

“A second thing that we really want is to build up a left inside of white working-class communities. We need to develop another pole in the communities that have been conceded to the fascists. That has been very difficult to do and very dangerous. That’s why it’s not done much! It’s actually easier for a white person to work in communities of color. Once they know you’re for real, people aren’t hostile to you, whereas in the white communities you can get murdered!

“A third point is not to get manipulated by feelings of guilt. There are a whole lot of opportunists in the Black and Latino communities who’ll try to manipulate you because you are white. You have to stand up for what you believe in.

“And then of course it’s important to study hard, be humble, and really listen. I know that as a 52-year-old one of the really frustrating things is trying to pass on your knowledge to the generation coming behind, because they think they know more than you already. But without an open mind you can screw up and repeat past `mistakes.’”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

`Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s'--Review of Stefan Bradley's new book

HARLEM VS. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
Black Student Power in the Late 1960s

By Stefan M. Bradley
Urbana and Chicago : University of Illinois Press (2009)

In the epilogue of his great new book on the historic 1968 student revolt at Columbia University , Harlem vs. Columbia University,

http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/69erx5xt9780252034527.html

which “attempts to draw out some of the important factors that contributed to the 1968-69 uprisings,” St. Louis University Professor of History and African American Studies Stefan Bradley notes that “although many of the participants have since passed on, the issues at Columbia seem to linger.” This was borne out at a 2008 commemoration event held on Columbia’s campus to mark the 40th anniversary of the student revolt. A Harlem Tenants Council activist denounced the Columbia Administration's current 17-acre campus expansion project in the neighborhood north of West 125th St. and passed out a flyer in which the Coalition to Preserve Community group of community residents vowed to stand against Columbia ’s “ West Harlem eviction plan.”

Professor Bradley also observes that over 40 years after the student revolt, some of the black students who participated in the non-violent student occupation of Hamilton Hall in April 1968, “bristle at the image of the Columbia demonstration that media sources often invoke” and “are dismayed at the representation of the rebellion as one where raucous white youth defied their parents and authority by taking over buildings…”

A key reason why the white students at Columbia and Barnard who were active in its Students for a Democratic Society [SDS) chapter were able to mobilize large numbers of white students to help shut down Columbia a few weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination was because a political alliance developed between Columbia SDS and the black students who were most active in the Student Afro-American Society [SAS] campus group. So a book like Professor Bradley’s book, which focuses more on the role that the black students who occupied Hamilton Hall played in the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt than on the role of Mark Rudd and the white student demonstrators, is long overdue.

By examining the 1968 confrontation between the Harlem community (and its student supporters at Columbia) and Columbia’s board of trustees, Bradley attempts to: (1) explain how it was possible for Columbia to take land and power from black people before 1968; (2) determine the effects of the confrontation method that the 1968-69 student protesters used; (3) explain why the black and white student protesters separated after Columbia’s Hamilton Hall was jointly seized by them; and (4) explain why Columbia eventually capitulated to some of the demands of the student demonstrators. The first part of Harlem vs. Columbia University explores Columbia’s historic relationship to Harlem’s people and land, while the second part of the book examines the historic role students played in attempting to change Columbia’s institutional policies.

The first part of Harlem vs. Columbia University includes an interesting history of the Harlem and Morningside Heights neighborhoods surrounding Columbia’s campus and explains why community resident opposition to Columbia developed. Bradley recalls that “there was only one full-time black faculty member at Columbia by the mid-1960s;” and, during the 1960s, 9,600 tenants, “approximately 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican,” were pushed out of the Morningside Heights and West Harlem apartment buildings or Single-Room Occupancy [SRO] residential hotels which Columbia University purchased and demolished or converted for its own institutional use.

Bradley next focuses more specifically on Columbia’s plan to construct a gymnasium for its students in Harlem’s Morningside Park and the history of community protests against this project. We learn, for example, that in a January 29, 1966 editorial, Harlem’s African-American newspaper, the Amsterdam News warned:

If Mayor Lindsay permits Columbia University to grab two acres of land out of Morningside Park for a gymnasium it will be a slap in the face to every black man, woman and child in Harlem…Columbia University, one of the richest institutions in the nation, only admits a handful of Negro scholars each year and its policies in dealing with Negroes in Harlem have been described as downright bigoted…Why then should the parents of Harlem give up their parkland to Columbia? What has Columbia done to merit such favoritism?”


Thirty-one years before, W.E.B. DuBois had also written in his classic 1935 book Black Reconstruction In America that “the Columbia school of historians and social investigators have issued between 1895 and the present time sixteen studies of Reconstruction in the Southern States, all based on the same thesis and all done according to the same method: first, endless sympathy with the white South; second, ridicule, contempt or silence for the Negro…”

By digging up flyers of various 1960s community groups and articles that appeared in various neighborhood newspapers and the local African-American press, Bradley indicates that between April 1966 and March 1968 there were at least four community rallies against Columbia’s gym construction project and at least 25 arrests of anti-gym protesters before April 1968. As Bradley observes:

“After realizing that they would receive access to only 15 percent of the proposed structure that Columbia University would control, and be forced to use a different entrance, many black residents in the community saw that things were once more separate, but hardly equal…Instead of fighting against Jim Crow, the community now fought against Gym Crow…”


In the second part of his book, Bradley relates the growth of the New Left and Black Power movements on U.S. university campuses during the 1960s and describes the initially integrated protest effort of the black and white student demonstrators at Columbia on April 23, 1968, on campus and at the Morningside Park gym construction site as well as inside Hamilton Hall during the first few hours. He goes on to show how the black student protesters in Hamilton Hall won some concessions from the Columbia Administration by aligning themselves with off-campus Black Liberation Movement groups and the Harlem community. Bradley also provides a good description of what happened inside Hamilton Hall, after the white student demonstrators were told to leave Hamilton Hall and explains the political and strategic rationale of SAS leaders for their decision to separate themselves from their white student allies.

Bradley goes on to indicate the supportive role of SDS and its objective of increasing white student support for the Black Liberation Movement at Columbia and includes a description of what happened when a thousand New York City police were called in by the Columbia Administration on April 30, 1968, to arrest student protesters.

Bradley breaks some new ground in late 1960s Columbia historiography by showing how, “at Columbia, the strategies and goals of Black Student Power continued into the spring of 1969 as the black student group, with the support of SDS, called for changes in admission policies” and observes that in the 1960s Columbia’s black students “were regularly stopped by the security guards…to have their identifications checked while most white students were not stopped.” Bradley is among the first historians to write a detailed historical summary about black student activism on Columbia’s campus during the 1968-69 academic year. He also provides a concise summary of black student protests at Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell (that received less mass media publicity than did the 1968 Columbia student protests) which reveals to readers that Columbia University was “not the only Ivy League university to be impacted by Black Power” in the late 1960s. Yet as late as 1984 there were still only three tenured black professors at Columbia and the university did not recognize a black studies program until 1987.

One very useful feature of the book is a collection of rare photographs of some of the black participants in the 1968 Columbia uprising and the excavated gymnasium construction site in Morningside Park that weren’t included in most previously-published books about the student revolt. But there are also a few omissions or inaccuracies in the book. For example, it inaccurately states that Mark Rudd “decided not to return to school” in the Fall of 1968, when--as Rudd notes in his recent autobiography, Underground-- he was actually expelled from Columbia. In addition, although Bradley notes that “SAS and SDS participated in student-supported on-campus demonstrations throughout the month of May”, readers of the book would not learn that on May 21, 1968, the Columbia Administration called police onto its campus a second time, the police rioted again and, a leader of SAS, Ray Brown, was clubbed to the ground and then kicked systematically by a crowd of cops.

Despite these few omissions or inaccuracies, Harlem vs. Columbia University does a much better job than previously published books about the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt of-- from a deeper anti-racist perspective-- highlighting the relationship of the late 1960s Black Power Movement, the history of the Harlem community, the Black radical left and left nationalist intelligentsia and the role of Black students and Harlem community activists to what happened at Columbia in 1968 and 1969 and the current position of African-Americans in the Ivy League academic world. So if you’re interested in the history of 1960s movements, Harlem and Columbia University or if you’re a 21st-century opponent of institutional racism at Columbia University and at other Ivy League universities, Harlem vs. Columbia University should be considered required reading.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

`Reader's Digest''s Hidden History--Part 12

(The following article originally appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of the now-defunct alternative Lower East Side weekly, Downtown. Between 2007 and its recent bankruptcy, Reader’s Digest has been owned by Citigroup board member Tim Collins’ Ripplewood Holdings’ private investment/leveraged buy-out firm. See below for parts 1 to 11 of article).

About 53 percent of the non-voting stock of the profit-making Reader’s Digest Association was owned by “non-profit” institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and the New York Zoological Society in the early 1990s. But the DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund which Mr. & Mrs. Wallace established before their deaths in the 1980s still owned over 50 percent of the voting stock of the Reader’s Digest Association, as well as about 30 percent of its non-voting stock, in the early 1990s.

The “non-profit” DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund owned $1.1 billion in assets and was the 15th-largest U.S. foundation in terms of assets in the early 1990s. The “non-profit” Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund owned $802 million in assets and was the 20th-largest U.S. foundation in terms of assets in the early 1990s. And the same U.S. Establishment figures who directed both the “non-profit” DeWitt Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund and the “non-profit” Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund also directed the then-profit-making Reader’s Digest Association Incorporated in the early 1990s. (end of part 12)

(Downtown 10/27/93)

Monday, September 14, 2009

`Reader's Digest''s Hidden History--Part 11

(The following article originally appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of the now-defunct alternative Lower East Side weekly, Downtown. Between 2007 and its recent bankruptcy, Reader’s Digest has been owned by Citigroup board member Tim Collins’ Ripplewood Holdings’ private investment/leveraged buy-out firm. See below for parts 1 to 10 of article).

As a result of their 100 percent ownership of the Reader’s Digest Association’s voting stock, both DeWitt “Wally” Wallace and Lila Acheson Wallace became quite wealthy during their lives [before both dying in the early 1980s]. Fortune magazine estimated DeWitt Wallace’s worth at nearly $300 million [in 1960s money] in 1968 and this made the Reader’s Digest co-founder among the 31 wealthiest men in the United States at that time, according to Theirs Was The Kingdom by John Heidenry. The same book also noted that, at the time of her death in 1984 at the age of 95, Reader’s Digest co-founder Lila Acheson Wallace “was the richest woman in the United States,” with a net worth of at least $250 million [in 1980s money] that was “two and a half times the size of the estate left by Henry Luce” of the Time-Life magazines media conglomerate.

As early as 1935, Mr. & Mrs. Wallace had pocketed a huge fortune from their Reader’s Digest publishing hustle and they used part of this fortune to buy 105 acres of land in Mount Kisco, New York, upon which the childless couple built a 22-room castle called “High Winds”—during the height of the Great Depression. Although Mr. & Mrs. Wallace were quite eager to spend $277,336 [of 1930s money] in the 1930s to build their “Reader’s Digest Castle,” in 1936 their Reader’s Digest Association only donated $4,418 to 13 organizations, including “a check for a mere $10” to the American National Red Cross, according to Theirs Was The Kingdom. The same book noted, however, that “As the Digest’s fortune grew, Wally and Lila…established trust funds for numerous members of the Wallace and Acheson families.” But over $500,000 [in 1930s money] per year from their Reader’s Digest Association’s gross income was personally taken home by Mr. & Mrs. Wallace in the form of salaries during the late 1930s.

To reduce their federal income tax bills, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace apparently utilized the “non-profit” philanthropic foundations which they established. As Theirs Was The Kingdom revealed in the early 1990s:

“Wally’s greatest vulnerability lay with his philanthropies, which he often used as a cover to pad the retirement or compensation packages of favored employees…He arranged for Digesters to serve on the boards of organizations to which he gave money. But honorariums, free travel, and other perquisites—many of them nontaxable—were often involved. Another of Wally’s tax-evading ploys was to arrange for the children of privileged Digesters to travel abroad courtesy of the Reader’s Digest Association’s Foreign Study League…”


(end of part 11)

(Downtown 10/27/93)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Firefighter Appeals For New 9/11/01 Investigation

On the Fire Fighters For 9-11 Truth blog

http://firefightersfor911truth.org/

, a retired firefighter named Anton Vodvarka recently made the following appeal for a new investigation of what actually happened on 9/11/01 in Downtown Manhatan:

An Appeal to Firefighters, Present and Past

Fellow Firefighters, A great tragedy befell our community on September 11, 2001, an unprecedented 343 deaths in the line of duty. As horrible as that toll is, if there were a rational explanation for it, we could accept it and mourn. We all understood the risk we accepted when we took the oath of office, that chance might cut short our lives when we placed ourselves in harm’s way in the public’s service. This is what we are paid for and it is our honor. However, in short, the official explanation of the events of that day are not only insufficient, they are fantastic and cannot bear rational examination. We are asked to believe that on that day three structural steel buildings, which have never before in history collapsed because of fire, fell neatly into their basements at the speed of gravity, their concrete reduced to dust. We are asked to believe that jet fuel (kerosene) can melt steel. We are asked to believe that the most sophisticated air defense system in the world, that responded to sixty-eight emergencies in the year prior to 9-11 in less than twenty minutes allowed aircraft to wander about for up to an hour and a half. We are asked to believe that the steel and titanium components of an aircraft that supposedly hit the Pentagon “evaporated”. There is much, much more if anyone cares to look into it. Trade Tower #7 by itself is the “smoking gun”. Not hit by an aircraft, with only a few relatively small fires, it came down in a classic crimp and implosion, going straight into its basement, something only very precise demolition can accomplish, which takes days if not weeks to prepare. The 9-11 Commission actually stated the they DIDN’T KNOW WHY IT COLLAPSED AND LEFT IT AT THAT. Brothers, I know that the implications of the above are hard, almost unthinkable, but the official explanation is utter nonsense, and three hundred and forty three murdered brothers are crying out for justice. Demand a genuine investigation into the events of September 11!

-Anton Vodvarka, Lt. FDNY (ret)

Lt. Vodvarka served on FDNY Ladder Co 26, Rescue Co. 3, Rescue Co. 1, Engine Co. 92, Ladder 82 and Ladder 101. He was awarded the Merit Class 1 award, the Prentice Medal

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

`Reader's Digest''s Hidden History--Part 10

(The following article originally appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of the now-defunct alternative Lower East Side weekly, Downtown. Between 2007 and its 2011 bankruptcy, Reader’s Digest  was owned by Citigroup board member Tim Collins’ Ripplewood Holdings’ private investment/leveraged buy-out firm. See below for parts 1 to 9 of article).

In 1950, the Reader’s Digest Association established its lucrative Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club which condenses a number of novels and/or nonfiction books into one volume and distributes these volumes around the globe to its members. The Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club quickly became the largest book club in the world, with over 2.5 million members by 1955.

In 1955, after its newsstand sales began to drop when many of its readers began buying TV sets, Reader’s Digest then began to sell ad space for the first time in its U.S. edition to make up for its lost revenues. Reader’s Digest has also sold ad space to U.S. corporations like Eastman Kodak, Gillette, international Harvest, Exxon, Mobil, U.S. Steel, Texaco and Lockheed in its international edition. By 1980, a full page ad in the U.S. edition of Reader’s Digest cost $65,000 (in 1980s money) per issue.

Although $1.6 million worth of Reader’s Digest equipment at its Havana, Cuba plant—that had been used to produce its Spanish-language edition for Latin America—was confiscated in June 1960, following the Cuban Revolution, the Reader’s Digest Association continued to prosper during the Vietnam War Era of the 1960s and early 1970s. A division to sell vinyl record albums around the globe, which had been set up in 1959, had also proven to be quite profitable.

By 1980, the Reader’s Digest Association was a billion dollar/year business that employed 10,000 people around the globe and earned $100 million (in 1980s money) per year in profits. But in 1981, Reader’s Digest co-founder DeWitt Wallace died at the age of 91 and, in 1984, Reader’s Digest co-founder Lila Acheson Wallace died at the age of 95. (end of part 10)

(Downtown 10/27/93)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

`Reader's Digest''s Hidden History--Part 9

(The following article originally appeared in the October 27, 1993 issue of the now-defunct alternative Lower East Side weekly, Downtown. Between 2007 and its 2011 bankruptcy, Reader’s Digest was owned by Citigroup board member Tim Collins’ Ripplewood Holdings’ private investment/leveraged buy-out firm. See below for parts 1 to 8 of article).

According to the book Little Wonder by John Bainbridge, the “transformation of the Reader’s Digest into something other than a digest began in the early 1930s.” The magazine began to hire writers directly to produce articles for Reader’s Digest to reprint—after Reader’s Digest first “planted” these same articles in other magazines. Theirs Was The Kingdom by John Heidenry recalled: “The Digest…subsidized original articles in its client magazines” like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, but “nowhere in those magazines, were readers given notice that articles purporting to be original with the respective editor of each publication were, in fact, either original with the Digest or paid for with Digest money.” According to Little Wonder:

“In the five years from 1939 through 1943, the Digest planted articles in more than 60 publications…Of 47 articles reprinted from Harper’s, eight were Digest plants; of 39 furnished by the Atlantic Monthly, eight were plants;…of eight taken from The Nation, five were plants; of 26 credited to the New Republic, eight were plants and 13 others were on the Digest’s presses before the New Republic appeared on the stands with them…The Digest gave Commonwealth credit for nine reprinted articles; all were plants…”


By 1962, according to Theirs Was The Kingdom, “articles planted in other magazines for reprinting later in the Digest now constituted 70 percent of every issue in the U.S. edition.” Its policy of subsidizing and planting articles in other magazines before re-printing them in Reader’s Digest “gave the Digest power to propagandize its right-wing political views across a broad spectrum of the periodical press,” according to a reference book titled The Magazine In America. (end of part 9)

(Downtown 10/27/93)