Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (iii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (88)

The Columbia SDS steering committee meeting to discuss the pie-throwing incident took place in one of Earl Hall’s side rooms. I was picked to chair it because both the Praxis-Axis people and Mark felt I would chair the meeting in a neutral way. “What we’re going to discuss is whether Columbia SDS should repudiate the pie-throwing action,” I said right before we went around the room to debate the merits of Mark’s actions.

There were about 20 people in the small room and, initially, it looked like the vote was going to overwhelmingly repudiate the pie-throwing and a move might then possibly be made by the Praxis-Axis to call for new SDS chairman elections the following week.

“Throwing the pie in the middle of the Colonel’s speech was a terrorist action. What Columbia SDS has to still be about is building a mass movement by rational discussion and education—not infantile, small group terrorist actions. It was totally irresponsible for you to ignore the Draft Counseling Committee vote, Mark,” Peter Schneider argued, in an angry voice.

Then Ted followed: “We had a long debate in the committee, Mark. And you lost. You had no democratic right to go off and plan such a politically childish action on your own. It hurts us politically on campus because it alienates us from most of the liberals who still have hang-ups about free speech.”

Teddy and Al and a few other SDS hard-core activists followed with more angry Praxis-Axis condemnation of Mark. It looked like the whole debate was going against Mark, as each speaker poured on heavy criticism of him, and none of his previous sophomore caucus supporters appeared willing to defend either him or the pie-throwing action.

Jeff, from the SDS Regional Office, had dropped by to attend the steering committee meeting. He was one of the first speakers to talk about the pie-throwing action in a positive way. “I was at another campus yesterday and, when I mentioned the pie-throwing, they dug it and thought it was a great action,” Jeff said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile.

A Resist! organizer named Ron, who had been a civil rights worker in the South during the summer before he enrolled at Columbia, also supported Mark’s action.

I then stated my own position: “I think it was a good political action because it shows the campus that we’re about militantly resisting the war and not just having more polite academic discussions. But I don’t think Mark was right in violating the democratic forms of the chapter, in order to carry out the pie-throwing.”

Another speaker or two continued to pour criticism on Mark, as he sat impassively and carefully listened. Finally, it was Mark’s turn to speak. And there was an air of hushed tension as he began his reply:

“The issue isn’t really a question of democratic forms. Or whether the pie-throwing was a good tactic. The issue is whether the old leadership is going to really surrender control of the chapter to me and stop trying to block those of us who want to use more creative tactics to build the Movement.

“Many activists around Columbia have been made to feel like outsiders by the old leadership that still doesn’t want to relinquish control. Now that I’m trying to act more independently and provide a chance for people who have felt excluded from the chapter leadership to get involved in a creative way, they’re trying to undermine me.”

The Schneiders, Al, Ted, Teddy and Nancy began to frown, while the faces of SDS sophomores like Stu and Sokolow began to smile. Then Mark looked at each individual who had criticized him, in turn, and proceeded to answer, in a specific and convincing way, each of their specific individual criticisms, one-by-one. After demolishing each individual’s arguments and criticisms of him, he then made his own psychological and political counter-criticisms of their individual political practice, before turning his attention to the next individual whose criticism he responded to. By the time Mark had finished his 20-minute response, he had won over everyone in the room to his point of view, with the exception of Ted, Teddy, Nancy, the Schneiders and Al.

I called for a vote on whether or not Columbia SDS should repudiate the pie-throwing action. And everyone—except the hard-core Praxis-Axis of Ted, Teddy, Nancy, the Schneiders and Al—voted to support Mark’s position. Ted, Teddy, Nancy, Al and the Schneiders then hurried out of the room after the vote. Everyone else remained in the room to converse about what had just happened, in a gleeful way.

“Did you see Nancy’s face when the vote went against Teddy?” Stu asked somebody, while laughing.

Mark was smiling widely and talking with people in an enthusiastic and animated way.

“That was great! You really exposed their true motives in a clear way. I never saw anyone turn a political meeting around so dramatically like that,” I said to Mark right before I left Earl Hall to get some dinner.

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