Day 99: The Great One – The 1968 Columbia Occupation

originally published April 8, 2012

Today’s article is about apathy.

I attend one of Canada’s premium universities (I consider us ‘premium’ because we have two Starbucks on campus), and apart from a handful of tiny anti-tuition-raising protests, we never really see any demonstrations of mass solidarity against an oppressive ill in the world.

Things weren’t always this way. There was a time when college students could stand for something and bring about change. And I’m not just talking about when we only had one Starbucks on campus and we successfully lobbied for another (although that was awesome).

My parents’ generation has taken a lot of criticism for their wacky hippie antics.

It’s easy to dismiss that generation of protests and demonstrations as trite and ineffective. But to do so, you’d have to overlook what went down on the Columbia University campus in April of 1968.

Things got rolling because of two issues: the recent discovery that Columbia was affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analyses (the IDA), a weapons-research think-tank utilized by the US Government to come up with new ways to make Vietnamese people explode; and Columbia’s construction of a new gymnasium facility on their border with Harlem, allowing Harlem’s (mostly black and Puerto Rican) residents to enter through a back-basement door and utilize only some of the facilities. The protesters came from two groups: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the civil rights students group called the Student Afro Society (SAS).

In March, a peaceful anti-IDA protest had resulted in six students getting suspended. Then, on April 23, a larger group of students amassed to demonstrate. They were chased out of a campus library, so they marched down to the gymnasium construction site and yelled at some local NYPD officers. One protester got arrested, so group leader Mark Rudd marched everyone back onto campus.

This is when shit got real.

Hamilton Hall. A few classrooms, but more importantly this is an administration building. The protesters stormed in and conquered Hamilton Hall. Before long, conflict arose – not conflict from an outside force, but conflict from within. The SAS felt that the white protesters should form their own protest, so that they could focus their efforts on the anti-gym-construction agenda. The air got downright tense, and both groups moved to separate sides of the building.

For the police, dealing with the SAS was not going to be easy. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated less than three weeks earlier, and there had already been a few riots around Harlem. They didn’t want to spark one on the Columbia campus. The SAS knew this, and they played it to their advantage.

On the other side of the building (and the protest had actually spread to three additional buildings), protest leader David Shapiro was seen occupying the University President’s office.

Acting dean Henry S. Coleman was taken hostage by the SDS group, barricaded in his office and not allowed to leave. This is when shit got realer than real.

A counter-protest group of 300 students formed a blockade around the Low Library, where the SDS group had set up its headquarters. They didn’t necessarily disagree with the protests’ aims, but they wanted to make it known that the majority of Columbia students were against the idea of occupying local buildings. They’d be willing to let the protesters out peacefully, but they weren’t about to allow any supplies to enter the building.

This went on for days. By April 29, another group of counter-counter-protesters showed up to try to storm the blockade. They were not successful, and things were getting violent. The administration soon asked the blockade group to step away from the building in order to prevent any more fist-flinging.

The following morning, April 30, a week after the protests had begun, the NYPD decided they’d had enough. Hamilton Hall was cleared rather peacefully. A group of black NYPD officers marched in while a flock of civil rights lawyers remained perched outside, ready to represent any SAS supporter who was mistreated.

The SDS group was not leaving without a fight, however, and there was no fleet of lawyers hanging around to watch for lawsuit material. The NYPD used tear gas and stormed into the SDS side of Hamilton Hall and the Low Library. The violent confrontation sent 150 injured students to the hospital, and crammed the local jails with over 700 arrests.

There was another, smaller occupation of Hamilton Hall in May, but that only lasted two days. 30 members of the protest groups had been suspended in addition to the 6 suspended in March. A number of the graduating students walked out of their commencement ceremony in protest of the school’s handling of the situation. Some of the SDS members aligned themselves with the Black Panther Party and formed the Weathermen, a group devoted to violently overthrowing the US government. They deserve their own kilograph someday.

So what was the point? Like many demonstrations in the late 1960s, it was probably an excuse to get together with friends, get high and feel like a part of something, at least for some of the people present. For others, it probably felt like an act of futility, another disappointment for a youth movement that struggled to be heard. Except that this was anything but an act of futility.

Columbia University disassociated itself with the IDA shortly after the protests finished. They also scrapped the gymnasium construction. Both the SDS and the SAS had somehow achieved their initial goals. Also, acting dean Coleman resigned, probably figuring that while he’d make less money constructing fishing lures in his basement, he was probably less likely to be taken hostage while doing so.

The University was forced to become more liberal. They cancelled classes for the remainder of the week, and instead the campus was filled with peaceful rallies and concerts, including one by the Grateful Dead. The school formed a Senate to facilitate communication between student groups and administration.

The hippies had won.

So next week, as I return to campus for the final week of my winter semester, I will wonder where this generation’s passion has gone. With environmental issues looming like a guillotine over our heads, with our own administration having recently displayed some questionable ethics, where is our occupation? Why is our passion overshadowed by apathy?

And when are we getting a third Starbucks already?

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