(The following 1998 interview first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Z magazine. See parts 1-2 below. To see the current issue of Z magazine, you can check out its web site at
Why would the National Lawyers Guild agree to defend the Columbia and Barnard students? You mentioned that people went through files. The occupation of buildings. And the media, when they covered it, stress: “Students used violence to shut down and deny the academic freedom rights of an academic institution.”
Bernardine Dohrn [BD]: When I look back at the 1960s, including what was to come—which was certainly more militant than Columbia—I’m astonished at how restrained the movement was. The notion that people could be worrying now about the small amounts of violence committed by the anti-war movement, compared to the massive U.S. extermination of populations at home and abroad that was going on in our name. To me, the movement had an incredible record of restraint and appropriateness of response.
There was the nightly “body count” from Vietnam. The class and racial inequality of the draft and who was dying. The massive assault and occupations of urban Black communities by National Guard and police. Then you have students breaking a lock on a door? Going into files?
The response to me was highly contained and appropriate. Yes, it was breaking the law. Yes, it was taking risks. But people were acting in a larger framework, an illegal and immoral war abroad and cruel inequality at home. They were engaging in activist civil disobedience, willing to sign up for the consequences. People were actually getting off their career paths. The notion that “I have to be good and obedient all my life” is not what democracy is really about.
One of my favorite critiques of the 1960s comes from Samuel Huntington, a Harvard history professor who was advising the government.
He’s also an IDA trustee now in 1998.
BD: Is that right? At the time, he called the youth anti-war movement “an excess of democracy.” That is one of my favorite negative critiques of the 1960’s movements. We believed in John Dewey. We believed in the notion that democracy was the active participation of citizens, not just the pulling of a lever every four years.
Student activism revealed that the war was not what the authorities said it was, that the university was a citadel of learning and also a private landowner. And a racist landowner at that. And a profit machine. These were shocking revelations. And when a large number of students said: “We’re not buying it. We will not be complicit. And if it means it’s going to affect the rest of my life and my career and what you’re molding me into—so be it.”
The Columbia rebellion was in the finest tradition of American social activism and real democracy. We thought that we were part of a global movement for liberation and real democracy.
Let me tell you about the role of the National Lawyers Guild, because you asked me about that. The Guild challenged the legality of the Vietnam War. As you know, it was the longest undeclared war in American history and had no legal basis, ever. It was in violation of international law.
Secondly, we were committed to supporting people who were arrested in mass demonstrations against the war and the draft, including military resistance. We organized law students and lawyers at the Pentagon protest, at the Foreign Policy Association [Hilton Hotel demo]—which involved a lot of the Columbia students protesting the relationship of this elite group of policymakers to the war in Vietnam. The Guild took responsibility for organizing legal defense.
The Guild had a noble history of being involved in the Southern Civil Rights movement. Our notion was that lawyers should make themselves accountable to the movement, and that law students needed to be participants in social movements, as well as being trained to be legal experts. (end of part 3)