Friday, August 14, 2009

Chapter 16: We Shut Down Columbia University, 1968 (vi)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (102)

As the early morning hours passed, news that the cops were arriving on campus reached us inside Kirk’s office and people had to decide whether to stay seated in the office and submit to arrest, or whether to leave Low Library before the cops came. Most of the white students in Low Library on the morning of April 24th felt like I did: Why get arrested in Low Library, when we could be more productive in organizing students on campus to support the Black take-over of Hamilton Hall if we were out of jail? About 20 students, however, led by PL and Columbia SDS Labor Committee leader Tony, chose not to flee when news came of the cops’ arrival on campus. When the NYC cops started knocking on the door to Kirk’s office, Mark, myself and everybody else—except the 20 students that Tony had won over—began to exit through the open windows of Kirk’s office. From the ledge outside his windows, most of us jumped down or lowered ourselves to the grass, and headed back to our dorm rooms or off-campus apartments to get some sleep.

Surprisingly, the cops who entered Kirk’s office were not ordered to arrest the remaining 20 students who continued sitting there. All the cops did was remove a valuable painting from Kirk’s office. In retrospect, Tony and the students who remained in Low on the morning of April 24th, despite the arrival of the cops, had made the correct move in calling Kirk’s bluff of a quick police bust. Were it not for their refusal to leave on the morning of April 24th from Kirk’s office, Columbia SDS people would not have been able to re-join them en masse in Kirk’s office by the evening of April 24th, when it became evident that no separate bust of the white radicals was going to quickly take place.

After leaving Low Library and heading back to my Furnald Hall dorm room, I collapsed on my bed for a few hours. When I awoke and bought a copy of the New York Times and read through Spectator, I realized that Columbia SDS had finally made a political impact historically and that Mark, like Savio, was going to be a New Left mass media object and celebrity. I hurried over to Hamilton Hall to see how the Black student occupation was going.

A hard rain was falling on the campus. Campus life was obviously disrupted by the student revolt and there seemed to be much confusion. Large numbers of disgruntled right-wing students were gathered in the courtyard in front of Hamilton Hall, angry over their inability to attend class. Desks and chairs and wastepaper baskets were shoved against the front doors of Hamilton Hall from the inside, to form a barricade. The African-American students controlled who could and could not enter the building. Columbia SDS people took turns throughout the day standing in front of Hamilton Hall in the rain with a bullhorn, acting as a kind of white shield for the Black students inside Hamilton, although the African-American students really didn’t need white radicals as a shield as long as they maintained their community contacts. The Harlem community—not the white New Left—was the real external shield of the Black students in Hamilton.

On the 2nd floor of Hamilton, one or two male African-American students coolly looked down and out over the crowds outside the building from an outside balcony, but did not attempt to speak to the half-supportive, half-hostile crowd. In front of the building, Sokolow spoke at length through the bullhorn for the first time, trying to develop more white support for the revolt. His speech was clever. Like Stu, he blossomed as an orator during the revolt, although he never became as skillful or entertaining as Mark.

“As far as the IDA research goes. It’s not dirty because it’s secret. But it’s secret because it’s dirty. And it’s dirty because it helps the Pentagon murder millions of Vietnamese,” Sokolow said.

Sokolow was a very short, mustached guy who wore wire-framed glasses. The son of an Upper East Side corporate lawyer who did legal work for his law firm's CBS client (and who was a Robert Kennedy liberal-type Democrat), Sokolow had gone to prep school in Manhattan and tended to dress more often in a sport jacket and shirt and tie than in jeans (although Sokolow, in later years, no longer recalled himself wearing a sport jacket on campus as frequently as did I). But he was very intellectual. A sophomore in April 1968, he was an English major who had become quite radicalized during his first two years at Columbia. Although his father was wealthy and Sokolow sometimes took cabs instead of the subway to get around Manhattan, he worked part-time in the Butler Library as a sophomore, making sure that all books that left the Burgess-Carpenter library had been checked out.

During the 1967-68 academic year, I had become friendly with Sokolow because he was very enthusiastic about his commitment to New Left radicalism, very intellectual and extremely hard-working. He became a hard-core Columbia SDS activist who chose to spend his time doing Movement work (no matter how menial) on campus rather than spend it pumping out term papers or being into academic careerism. Sometimes, his enthusiasm hurt his organizing because, when talking with liberals, he would hammer away verbally at them in such a heavy way over an intellectual point of contention that, while winning the argument, he turned them off to the New Left by his vibes and his intellectually domineering approach. I thought Sokolow’s best quality was the moral outrage he felt at the System and at Columbia.

During the day of rain after Hamilton was first seized, Columbia SDS also handed out leaflets around campus explaining why the Columbia revolt was justified and calling for a mass meeting in Wollman Auditorium. Columbia’s campus was now completely politicized and polarized, and Establishment mass media cameras were everywhere.

Instead of seriously negotiating with the African-American students in Hamilton and immediately agreeing to the fairly moderate 6 demands, Kirk and Truman and the Columbia trustees refused to end the revolt quickly, by negotiation. As a result of this delay, more and more students began to polarize on campus in support of the New Left, more Harlem residents began to polarize in opposition to Columbia and more mass media attention began to focus on Columbia’s anti-democratic institutional policies.

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