(The following 1998 interview first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Z magazine. To see the current issue of Z magazine, you can check out its web site at
Thirty years ago [now 41 years ago] Columbia University was the scene of “The Battle Of Morningside Heights”—when [then-] Columbia President (and Institute for Defense Analyses Director) Grayson Kirk called in 1,000 NYC police to clear the campus of protesting students on two occasions—711 students were arrested, 148 injured, and 120 charges of police brutality were filed.
In July 1968, following the revolt, a National Lawyers Guild activist who coordinated some of the legal defense work on behalf of the arrested Barnard and Columbia students, Bernardine Dohrn, became a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). [And during the 1970s Dohrn was a leader of the Weather Underground.]
It’s now 30 years [currently 41 years] since New York City police were used to suppress the 1968 Columbia student revolt. Thinking back, what are your most vivid memories of that time?
Bernardine Dohrn [BD]: I remember the creative spirit of liberation and the moral force generated by Columbia students. Black and white students took action in solidarity with justice and freedom for others (in Vietnam and Harlem)—and by risking their own privileged futures, they forged meanings and discovered their own humanity. When several hundred students disrupted the status quo and defied their own upbringing by seizing university buildings, they uncovered a flood of creativity: daily wall newspapers, art posters, real learning in a crucible of activity, strike solidarity, legal defense strategies, freedom schools, unity with the Harlem community.
From this inventive rebellion would come activists of the women’s movement, the environmental struggle, Puerto Rican independence, labor, the gay liberation movement, Wounded Knee, struggles for the disabled, veterans, the elderly, health care, children, and a renewed peace movement.
Let me remind you of the context:
On January 5, 1968, Dr. Benjamin Spock and four other intellectuals were indicted for “conspiracy to aid, counsel, and abet” young men to violate the draft laws.
On January 30, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. The U.S. embassy in Saigon was overrun by Vietnamese liberation forces. In 36 cities of South Vietnam, there was a military uprising, ripping apart the illusion that the United States was on the verge of winning the war in Vietnam.
In the middle of January and continuing for 77 days, the Vietnamese surrounded the military outpost of Khe Sanh. The U.S. military made Khe Sanh the most heavily bombed target in the history of warfare for the next six months, until it was quietly abandoned.
On March 5, the Kerner Commission issued a report about the uprisings in Black communities across America, with the famous statement: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black and one white, separate and unequal.”
On March 15, the week’s casualty figures from Vietnam were 509 U.S. soldiers killed, 2,766 wounded. At that point, U.S. casualties in Southeast Asia—these numbers never included Southeast Asian casualties—surpassed the war in Korea.
The next day, Robert F. Kennedy announced that he was running for president. Also on March 16, although not yet known to the United States public, U.S. troops entered a hamlet called My Lai in the middle of the Mekong Delta. They reported to headquarters that they killed 128 “Viet Cong troops” and captured 3 weapons. My Lai was later exposed as a barbaric example of the nature of the war against an unarmed civilian population.
During the last week of March, a group called “the wise men” that President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) convened, composed of military and corporate leaders with whom he talked about the Vietnam war. The “wise men” told LBJ that the United States could not win in Vietnam, and they were concerned about the deep divisions in American society.
On the same day, SDS convened its National Council meeting in Lexington, Kentucky with 102 delegates. Primarily, we debated the question of support for the Black Liberation Movement.
Three days later, LBJ declared he would not run again. I don’t think it was tied to the SDS meeting. It was probably tied to the “wise men”’s determination that the U.S. could not win the war against Vietnam.
On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. There follows uprisings in 125 cities in the United States. Fifty-five thousand National Guard and federal troops are called out. Forty-six dead. Twenty thousand people arrested in that one week.
A week later, the worker/student strikes began in France. (end of part 1)
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
7 years ago