Tuesday, April 23, 2013

45th Anniversary of 1968 Columbia University Student Revolt: Revisiting 2011 Interview About 1968 Revolt and Columbia's NROTC Connection

On April 23, 1968 a student revolt of Columbia University and Barnard College students began on the campus of Columbia University in New York City that led to the non-violent occupation by anti-war and anti-racist students of five Columbia University buildings: Hamilton Hall, Low Library, Avery Hall, Fayerweather Hall and Mathematics Hall; and a subsequent invasion and occupation of Columbia's campus in the early morning hours of April 30, 1968 by around 1,000 New York City Tactical Patrol Force [TPF]cops (who arrested over 700 students and injured over 100 students and faculty members during the police riot that developed after the police began to make arrests and clear the university buildings of its protesting students).

To mark the 45th anniversary of the beginning of the 1968 Columbia University Student Revolt, following is the text of a 2011 e-mail interview with a Columbia student about both the 1968 student revolt at Columbia and the Columbia Administration's decision to begin training U.S. Navy military officers again on its campus for the endless U.S. wars abroad during the 21st-century in a Columbia University Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps [NROTC] department/unit:

What was the climate like on campus in the 1960s from your perspective?

BF: Although Columbia was on the border of Harlem, in the 1960s very few students, professors or administrators at Columbia or Barnard were African-American in the 1960s. So the climate on Columbia’s campus in the 1960s was felt by most Black students who attended either the then-all-male Columbia College or one of Columbia’s professional grad schools to be unfriendly and unwelcoming. Black students returning to their dorms on Columbia’s campus at night, for example, were often stopped by Columbia’s security guards on campus and asked to show their Columbia student identification card much more frequently than their white student counterparts—who were usually never stopped unless they were visibly drunk and rowdy.

Yet perhaps because of the impact of mass media coverage of the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement, by the Fall of 1965—when I arrived at Columbia—hundreds of mostly white liberal or white left Columbia College or Barnard College undergraduate students were involved, outside of the classroom, in various Harlem or Upper West Side community service or tutoring projects that the student-run Columbia Citizenship Council organized; or in student activist groups like Columbia and Barnard’s Congress on Racial Equality—C.O.R.E.—chapter.

But still, until April 1968 the majority of Columbia and Barnard undergraduates seemed much more into just hanging out in the Ferris Booth Hall student union building lounge and Lion’s Den cafeteria during the day, going to the West End Bar—you could legally drink at 18 years of age in Manhattan in the 1960s—and exploring Manhattan on weekends, their academic/career preparation work, or their personal relationships; than into getting involved in either Civil Rights Movement activism, Citizenship Council community service projects, or any anti-war activism which protested the Columbia University Administration’s collaboration with the Vietnam War Era Pentagon war machine in any sustained way, on a daily basis. And until April 1968, most of the Columbia grad students and professional school students seemed too busy working on their master’s thesis or PhD dissertations or academic work—or reading of law books-- to be involved much with anti-war student groups like Columbia-Barnard SDS, on a regular basis.

And aside from a Columbia Professor of Math named Serge Lang, a Columbia Professor at the School of Engineering named Seymour Melman, a Columbia Professor of Sociology named Vernon Dibble and the Episcopal Campus Ministry person at Columbia’s Earl Hall—Rev. Bill Starr—nearly all the members of the Columbia and Barnard faculty in the 1960s seemed more into their academic careers on a daily basis, than into speaking out much against Columbia University’s involvement, institutionally, with both the Institute for Defense Analyses—IDA—weapons research think tank of the Pentagon or the Pentagon’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps—NROTC—program that trained U.S. military officers for the U.S. military intervention in Indochina.

Another thing about the climate on Columbia’s campus in the 1960s was that since only men were then admitted to Columbia College, only men then lived inside the Columbia College dorms and there were some restrictions on allowing women to visit men inside Columbia College’s dorms even in the late 1960s. So the only anti-war canvassing and knocking on dormitory doors to discuss the war and the draft with dorm residents on each floor—and the slipping of anti-war flyers under dormitory room doors—that could be done inside Columbia’s dorms in the 1960s had to be done usually by Columbia College men alone.

Most of the students on Columbia’s campus seemed to be either politically apathetic or pro-war until the Fall of 1966—when the Columbia SDS chapter that the still-imprisoned U.S. political prisoner David Gilbert founded was re-organized and most of the 200 to 300 students who had attended the demos and meetings and rallies on a fairly regular basis of the Independent Committee on Vietnam—the ICV—at Columbia--which had been formed after the Pentagon began bombing North Vietnam regularly in early 1965—collectively decided that a multi-issue, anti-war student group like Columbia SDS—which also worked to democratize the decision-making process at Columbia by creating more student power at Columbia—was the way to go politically for Columbia and Barnard’s white student left.

Yet even though there had been a protest outside Low Library—where the NROTC ceremony at Columbia was being held—in May 1965-- which was broken up by the New York City cops that the Columbia Administration called in at that time--it’s important again to realize that anti-war students at Columbia and Barnard still represented a minority campus sentiment until the early months of 1967. And until April 1968, the majority of Columbia and Barnard students—although by then passively opposed to the Vietnam War and the draft that then threatened their lives after graduation once they lost their student deferments—were generally still pretty apathetic politically on a daily basis.

What did exist, though, before April 1968 at Columbia and Barnard that didn’t exist at most other U.S. universities—with the possible exception of UC-Berkeley and some of the other large state universities—was a hard-core of 30 to 50 anti-war New Left radical student activists, organizing under the Columbia SDS banner, whose steering committee met every Friday afternoon—usually in Earl Hall—to figure out different ways in which the apathetic anti-war liberal majority of Columbia and Barnard students could be politically radicalized in their political/philosophical consciousness and lifestyle aspirations; and eventually also mobilized to unite politically and end the Columbia Administration’s collaboration with the U.S. war machine and its institutional racism with regard to the historic way it related to Harlem residents and its African-American students.

What also existed at Columbia in the 1960s that didn’t exist at most other U.S. universities was a political revolutionary leadership of SAS—the Student Afro-American Society—which was willing to both align with a nearly all white anti-war left radical student group like Columbia SDS—once SDS showed it could mobilize nearly 500 people to non-violently confront the Columbia Administration around a set of anti-war and anti-racist demands; and which was willing to take a leadership role inside Hamilton Hall of the mass base of SDS during the initial period of the April 1968 student revolt at Columbia—that was sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, the failure of the Columbia Administration to both stop construction of its planned gymnasium in Morningside Park despite the protests of Harlem’s community groups and end Columbia’s institutional membership and sponsorship of the Pentagon’s IDA, and the attempt of the Columbia Administration to discipline anti-war student activists for staging an indoor demo against the Columbia-IDA connection inside Low Library in march 1968.

After Columbia’s buildings were occupied and the two police invasions/police riots of April and May 1968 on Columbia’s campus happened, of course, the climate on Columbia’s campus became much more politicized for the next few years than before April 1968; and the level of general student political apathy seemed to decline dramatically.

What objections, if any, do you have regarding the return of the ROTC today?

BF: The return of a ROTC program to Columbia’s campus would represent a decision by the Columbia Administration to, on an institutional level, contribute to the Pentagon’s military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2011. If you think it’s moral for the U.S. government to continue waging war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, then it probably would seem o.k. morally to you for Columbia University to start training U.S. military officers on its campus.

But what if, like me, you think that it’s immoral for the U.S. government to continue waging war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Then wouldn’t it also be then immoral for Columbia University to contribute to prolonging this U.S. military intervention by training U.S. military officers who will be participating in this unjust and endless war?

In recent years, for example, 80 percent of all students who were trained on Cornell University’s campus by that Ivy League School’s ROTC program have served as U.S. military officers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, if you check out the Wikipedia entry for “Reserve Officers Training Corps,” it seems to indicate that in recent years U.S. university ROTC programs have been producing 39 percent of all active-duty officers for the Pentagon—20 percent of all active duty U.S. Navy officers, 41 percent of all officers for the U.S. Air Force which has dropped bombs that kill civilians on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and 56 percent of all active duty U.S. Army officers (many of whom have—after being trained by U.S. universities—been involved in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example).

Or to put my objections another way. Imagine that you were a German student at a German university in late 1940 and you were examining the ways that German universities were contributing to the German war effort and occupation in Poland and France, for example. One way might be that science professors at German universities were doing research for the German Ministry of Defense. And another way might be that German universities were training some of their students to serve as German military officers in the German war machine that bombed and occupied Poland, France and other countries.

And imagine that you had discovered in 1940 that thousands of civilians had been killed in Poland and elsewhere by the same German military that the science professors at the German university you attended were doing research for; and that the German university you attended was training some of its students to be military officers for the German military? Wouldn’t you then feel that you had an internationalist moral and humanitarian obligation to do all that you could to stop the German university that you attended from training officers for the German military on your campus?

In addition, even if you don’t object to what’s been done overseas to foreign civilians and to the foreign soldiers, foreign insurgents and U.S. soldiers who have been casualties of the endless Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan military intervention by the U.S. government, an objection to the return of ROTC can be made on the philosophical basis that U.S. universities should be in the business of the pursuit of knowledge and the promotion of humanism and pacifism; and not be involved in training its students in ROTC courses like “the art of war” and the killing of the people that the U.S. government decides is now “the enemy.”

Before the DADT law was in place, what were the guidelines barring ROTC from being a campus activity: in other words, what do you see was the reason for its absence in the 1970s and 1980s?

BF: The official grounds for barring ROTC from being a campus activity before the DADT by most of the Ivy League administrations and their faculty committees may sometimes have been that the ROTC courses may not have conformed to the academic course accreditation criteria required by some of these Ivy League schools. But I think the real reason for ROTC’s absence in the 1970s and 1980s from places like Columbia was because anti-militarist student and faculty sentiment was still high, due to the campus political consciousness that had developed during the Vietnam War Era. And administrators at places like Columbia probably felt it made no political sense to disturb the relative campus calm of the post-1973 era by provoking its by then generally politically passive anti-war student body and politically passive anti-war professors into a potential new wave of campus protest--comparable to what happened in the 1960s—by trying to push ROTC back onto their campuses.

What do you think would happen if the ROTC was allowed to return to campus—at Columbia and elsewhere?

BF: Both the Pentagon and the U.S. corporate media—including the New York Times—would probably highlight it as an historical reversal of one of the legacies of the Vietnam War Era and the 1968 Columbia Anti-War Student Strike fall-out and the Sixties Anti-War Movement. And it would probably be utilized by the U.S. government as evidence that—under the Democratic Obama Administration—the alienation of U.S. college students from the U.S. military has decreased and that current U.S. college students—even at a bastion of anti-war sentiment historically like Columbia and Barnard—now have less objection to the continued endless U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan than did U.S. college students during the Republican Bush Administration.

The folks on the U.S. right-wing who don’t see anything morally questionable about the militarism of U.S. foreign policy will probably also feel more emboldened about bringing their pro-militarist agenda onto Columbia’s campus and re-militarizing Columbia to the point where they would eventually demand that the ban on secret military research on Columbia’s campus also be lifted.

And I suspect that some more juicy, lucrative Department of Defense research contracts would tend to get thrown Columbia’s way much more, if ROTC were now allowed to return to Columbia’s campus. So Columbia might once again, eventually, become “The MIT of West Harlem”—in terms of the degree to which it once again started to become dependent on Pentagon contracts for nearly half its budget, like it was in the mid-1960s.

Of course, once students wearing ROTC uniforms started marching around on campus and holding military-oriented ceremonies again on Columbia’s campus, it’s also possible that eventually—if the endless U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan isn’t ended or if an additional U.S. military intervention in Iran, North Korea or Venezuela is eventually started over the next few years—some anti-war students at Barnard College and Columbia College might mobilize eventually in larger numbers to again demand that Columbia stop training U.S. military officers for the U.S. power elite’s endless wars abroad.

What is your perspective on the acceptance, with faculty, alumni and current students?

BF: If you check out the chapter, titled “The Military Ascendancy,” in former Columbia University Professor C. Wright Mills’ book The Power Elite, J.W. Fulbright’s The Pentagon Propaganda Machine book or the CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon from the 1970s—and also Al Jazeera TV’s recent documentary on YouTube on the way the Pentagon uses Hollywood to promote support for U.S. military adventurism around the globe—you’ll see that since World War II there’s always been a big public relations effort by the Pentagon and the U.S. military-industrial-university-media complex to get people in the USA to feel that it’s “unpatriotic” to be opposed to the militarization of U.S. society and a U.S. foreign policy that is militaristic or to call for huge cuts in the Pentagon’s defense budget. And U.S. supporters of a pacifist U.S. foreign policy and the demilitarization of U.S. society and of U.S. universities like Columbia generally don’t get much mass media TV exposure—except when anti-war and anti-racist students non-violently occupy buildings in large numbers at places like Columbia in 1968 or when anti-war activists—like the Chicago 8—went on trial in Chicago during the 1969-1970 academic year.

So it wouldn’t be unexpected if current Barnard College , Columbia College students and faculty—as well as current Columbia Journalism School students and faculty—end up accepting passively the return of ROTC to places like Columbia in 2011. Especially if it’s marketed as “a way to influence the U.S. military in a more humanitarian direction”; or as something that only students and professors who are “soft on terrorism” or “stuck in a 1960s mentality,” or “politically na├»ve pacifists” would have moral objections about.

On the other hand it could be that the now-imprisoned Private Manning’s morally courageous de-classification of those Wikileaks cables and documents have revealed to enough people on campuses like Columbia that what the U.S. military is doing around the world contradicts the humanistic values and democratic moral values that most students and professors and workers at Columbia and Barnard have, historically, been brought up to adhere to. And that, therefore, the U.S. military still does not belong on Columbia University’s campus in 2011. (end of interview)