|Columbia Student Strike Committee Leader and Columbia SDS Founder Dave Gilber In 1968|
In the spring of 1968, as the representative of the 1968 Columbia Student Strike Committee, David Gilbert spoke at the Strike Committee's "Counter-Commencement" event in early June 1968. Imprisoned excessively since October 1981 in New York State as a result of his participation in a politically-motivated action in Nyack, New York, 1968 Columbia Student Strike Committee Leader Gilbert recently shared his memories of what happened on Columbia University's campus in the spring of 1968, by writing the following words in his prison cell, 50 years after the Columbia Student Revolt::
We responded to a high tide of struggle in a world of searing injustices and bright hopes for change. The immediate context entailed two giant events. On 1/31/68, the Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, with attacks in almost every major city there, showing that the U.S invasion would never subdue them. On 4/4/68, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, setting off Black uprisings in over 100 cities. These burning issues of the day had many concrete expressions locally. Having worked on those concerns at Columbia for years, I was elated to see an eruption of mass militancy that might make some sorely needed changes happen.
I had graduated in 1966 but stayed in touch with the SDS chapter. As it happened, about two weeks earlier I got busted at a downtown demonstration – jumped by police for exercising my constitutional right to peacefully picket. With those charges pending, I was overly cautious in not occupying a building. When I heard that the Black students had asked whites to leave Hamilton Hall, I was pleased that those exiting responded by seizing other buildings.
The central role of the Student Afro-American Society wasn’t just an inspired moment but came out of the organizing work they’d been doing, which was especially courageous given that Black students were such a small minority back then. Their strong relationship with groups in Harlem who were fighting the gym was a key. Many white students, even with a passion for fighting racism, found it hard to recognize Black leadership and support self-determination. And, despite the outstanding roles of many women, leadership and even who was heard in discussions was terribly male dominated. We still had a lot to learn about racism, sexism, and class elitism within ourselves. At the same time, taking principled action against the power structure is the best way to move forward.
A Black only building with others seized in solidarity made perfect sense to me as someone who admired Malcolm X and had supported the Black Power movement. But like many others, it wasn’t until later that I understood fully the pivotal role that the Black students had played. Looking back, I realize that when I was asked by the strike coordinating committee to carry out some functions, I didn’t know and didn’t ask if this decision had been worked out and agreed upon with Hamilton Hall.
The night after the occupation began, I was sent to represent the strike to the faculty assembly, which was insisting on a campus vote on how to proceed. Some faculty were scandalized when I said that our understanding of democracy insisted on the Vietnamese and the people of Harlem having a vote in decisions that affected them most of all. Later on, I climbed in and out of a couple of buildings to facilitate strategy discussions, monitored police activity, and handled some communications with the outside world. Joe Barthel and I conducted a post-bust press conference where we faced a fire storm of hostility from the “objective” media.
The strike could be so successful because of the years of persistent organizing around both racism and the war, including a long train of requests and demonstrations asking the Columbia administration to end these travesties. The first time the university disciplined me, about 4 years earlier, was when we tried to organize a boycott in support of the predominantly Black and Latin cafeteria workers’ effort to unionize. Later, we joined tenant protests against Columbia University, one of the biggest slumlords in New York City. We had raised concerns about war research in the science and engineering departments, and we actively tried to disrupt CIA and military industrial complex recruitment on campus. (We were completely committed to free speech, and we felt an urgent moral imperative to stop criminal organizations from recruiting operatives for mass murder and torture.) A wide majority of students supported our demands around IDA and the gym, which showed that with consistent organizing and catalyzing action many people can be won to opposing oppression and injustice. While some moderates felt our demands were too radical, these were but two examples of the many more, extensive ways the university functioned as an institution of war and racism.
Despite our serious shortcomings, there is a lot to affirm. For me, the Columbia strike was a high point in the student protests of the sixties as an elite institution completely integral to the prevailing social structure, was shut down from within in solidarity with the oppressed. Such effective collective action and the sense of a community-of-resistance that went with it felt great. Columbia also became an inspiration for scores of other campuses to intensify their efforts around racism and the war. The way the strike revolved around solidarity with Harlem and Vietnam pointed to an understanding that white supremacy and global domination are two fundamental aspects of one, intolerably inhumane, system – and that those who care and are aware can make a difference.
David's current address is:
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, NY 14004-1187