Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chapter 15: Steering Columbia SDS Into Action, 1968 (i)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (86)

A few days before Columbia SDS was to hold its March 1968 elections for its 1968-1969 officers and steering committee members, there was a knock on my dorm room door in Furnald Hall. It was Ted. Ted hadn’t visited me before in the dormitory that spring, so I asked him what was up.

“Some of us have been talking about next week’s chapter elections. And we feel that of the juniors in SDS, you’d make the best chairman.”

I laughed in disbelief and replied: “Are you kidding? Mark would make the best chairman. He’s a great speaker.”

Ted scowled. “Mark’s a good speaker. But he can’t be trusted politically. His political arguments in debate with liberals are often incoherent and unpersuasive. And he doesn’t seem able to work collectively or get along with chapter people as well as you do. We want you to run against Mark for chairman.”

I shook my head. “No. I have no desire to be Columbia SDS chairman. I’m not even sure we should have a chairman and a vice-chairman, since it reduces the collective power of the steering committee. And it creates a hierarchy of power in the chapter that may be unhealthy.”

Ted looked disappointed. “Well, if you feel you don’t want to run for chairman, how about running for vice-chairman?”

I shook my head again. “No. I have no desire to be vice-chairman. Why not ask Nancy to run for vice-chairman? She’s a junior, also.”

“We can’t have a woman speaking from the sundial. The campus isn’t ready to accept a woman as vice-chairman.”

Personally, I felt that Nancy deserved to be the new vice-chairman of Columbia SDS. But I didn’t argue with Ted over this subconscious capitulation to 1960s Ivy League male chauvinism.

We spoke for a few more minutes. And when I suggested that Brian might also make a good vice-chairman, Ted replied that Brian wasn’t charismatic enough to be effective, although he was a hard worker and a decent guy. Shortly afterwards, Ted left the dorm room. The Praxis-Axis faction he represented decided it would have to accept Mark as chairman but would back a sophomore named Nick as vice-chairman—because I didn’t want the post and Nancy couldn’t have the post because of her sex.

The next week, after Mark had returned from Cuba, Columbia SDS chapter elections were held one evening. Mark was elected chairman, Nick was elected vice-chairman and I received more chapter votes than either of them, after somebody renominated me for the steering committee. I seemed to be politically popular with the New Left members of Columbia SDS, whether praxis-axis or action faction, with PL cadre within Columbia SDS, and with Barnard women students in Columbia SDS.

The new Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick, was a tall guy with long hair and a mustache, who was from Long Island. In his freshman year, and the early part of his sophomore year, he had spent most of his time working as a Columbia Citizenship Council bureaucrat and a P.A.C.T. organizer. But in early 1968, he had started to spend less time with Citizenship Council and more time working on Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee. By the time of his election as Columbia SDS vice-chairman, Nick seemed to be defining himself as a Columbia SDS New Left radical activist, primarily, and not as a Citizenship Council bureaucrat.

On the night Mark and Nick were elected to head the chapter, the sophomores in Columbia SDS seemed much more enthusiastic than before. Robby, Stu and other sophomores—like Joel, Sokolow and Fitzgerald—were jumping with excitement, as if a dead weight had been lifted from their shoulders. There was a sense of expectation among them that Mark was, indeed, going to return Columbia SDS to a more confrontational style of campus political activism.

To try to channel student anti-draft sentiment away from involvement in Columbia SDS, the Columbia Administration met with a few of its student bureaucrat puppets and organized a “draft moratorium” around this time. For one day in March 1968, all classes were suspended by the Administration and students heard a variety of speakers in the McMillan Theatre talk about the immorality of the Viet Nam War draft.

In response, Columbia SDS’s IDA Committee adopted my proposal that we hold an “anti-complicity fast” to begin when the draft moratorium ended; in order to protest Columbia’s continued ties to IDA. My main argument in favor of holding this fast was that it was a good way to generate publicity for our anti-IDA campaign when people would be in a more receptive political mood because of the anti-draft moratorium.

At this IDA Committee meeting, Teddy and Nancy were not too enthusiastic about Columbia SDS sponsoring an “anti-complicity fast” because it seemed “too apolitical” and “too churchie.” And after the committee had finished planning the fast and the meeting was breaking up, Teddy said to me in a condescending way: “Are you trying to imitate our `fast for peace’ of last year?” Nancy laughed at Teddy’s remark in a condescending way.

“This fast is completely different. It’s just a publicity device to raise consciousness,” I answered.

About 20 Barnard and Columbia SDS people participated in the fast. And we were able to generate a news article in both Spectator and the Columbia School of General Studies’ student newspaper, The Owl. And some of the students involved in the 3-day fast became more deeply committed to radical politics as a result of hanging around the Columbia SDS table, while fasting on Low Plaza. Yet militant non-violent confrontational action, not more fasting, was what would be most effective in stirring up students that spring about the need to institutionally resist the war machine.

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (v)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (85)

By early March 1968, I had reached my peak of personal loneliness and misery at Columbia. I was feeling so alienated and broken-down emotionally that I made an appointment at the student health service at St. Luke’s Hospital to see a shrink. By this time, also, Eliezer was so crazy from his acid trips and his metaphysical rebellion that Columbia had given him a leave of absence and committed him for a few weeks’ hospitalization at St. Luke’s, until he recovered from his hallucinations. When I visited him at St. Luke’s, he appeared to be in an emotionally helpless state and very illogical and paranoid.

My own emotional problem was the same as it had been in Summer 1967: I couldn’t seem to find any women to love in sustained ways and my New Left political activism, although it fulfilled me morally, failed to satisfy me emotionally. I had quit my job at the Journal of Philosophy, so I no longer saw Nancy and Teddy outside of political meetings. I had drifted apart from Ted, Dave and Mark and had not gotten close to Stu. I was not personally involved with anybody in any deep way, so my Friday and Saturday nights were now being spent alone pretty much, except on the few occasions when I would get invited to some hippie pot party--like one in which I stumbled into Mark, as he was sharing a joint.

I felt uncomfortable when I walked into the shrink’s office. He was a young guy in his late 20s who had short hair and no beard and didn’t wear glasses. As soon as he started talking, I regretted making the appointment. He seemed to lack the ability to empathize with my loneliness and my political commitment. I made a second appointment, but did not keep it.

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (iv)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (84)

In March 1968, Howard University students occupied their Administration Building in support of their demands. Columbia’s African-American student activist leaders were influenced by the tactics used by activists at Howard. I read about the Howard University Administration Building occupation, but, insofar as I could envision a spring shut-down of Columbia, I could still only imagine a mass sit-in inside Low Library. The issue at Columbia that stirred the African-American students up was Columbia’s gym construction project in Harlem’s Morningside Park.

In early March, Columbia SDS’s “bread-and-butter” mass organizing issues were still the Viet Nam War-related issues of IDA-Columbia University complicity with the Pentagon and the draft issue. Despite numerous demonstrations—and even a December 1967 anti-war student march in and out of Low Library to drop off anti-IDA petitions signed by over a thousand students—the Columbia Administration still refused to resign its IDA institutional membership. And most Columbia SDS people involved themselves in some way in anti-IDA work.

But the PL cadre, which functioned as an external cadre within the SDS mass umbrella, had also organized a Columbia SDS “Labor Committee,” which was more oriented towards uniting students and transit workers than organizing the mass of students at Columbia to act collectively around their own oppression as students, and in support of anti-militarist and anti-racist demands. PL student activists pretty much controlled this committee, which was led by Tony and his PL disciples and a guy named Roger—who always argued in favor of an immediate sit-in, regardless of whether 300 people or 2 people could be mobilized by SDS to sit-in. In March, however, this committee was strengthened when a newly active, bombastic-talking, politician-type guy named Ed—who seemed somewhat phony in his radicalism—pushed himself rapidly into a prominent position in Columbia SDS by working with this PL-dominated SDS Labor Committee and loudly articulating a PL line.

Another committee within Columbia SDS was a small committee formed to work with community residents to resist Columbia’s further expansion into West Harlem/Morningside Heights. Columbia’s institutional expansion in the late 1950s and early 1960s had already caused the destruction of thousands of homes and the removal of thousands of African-American, Puerto Rican and white elderly tenants from the neighborhood, as a result of what is now called “gentrification.” Columbia SDS’s University Expansion Committee was carried by a tireless, dedicated tall guy with glasses, in his mid-to-late 20s, named Michael.

Michael was not part of Columbia SDS’s inner circle or steering committee leadership and he had been into liberal Democratic Party electoral politics when most of Columbia’s New Left leadership was already revolutionary communist or anarchist. Neither was Michael bohemian or hippie or a part of the aesthetic left or interested in getting involved in Columbia SDS’s theoretical or strategic discussions. But were it not for Michael, the Columbia gym issue would not have been raised by Columbia SDS in early 1968.

All of us who were busy trying to mobilize students around the IDA and draft issues were opposed to the gym construction project. But because neither the Student Afro-American Society nor African-American activist organizations in Harlem initially seemed outraged enough to mobilize many people against Columbia’s land-grab, we tended to feel that there wasn’t much point in white radicals, alone, trying to lead a confrontation on the gym issue at Columbia.

Michael, however, had spent a few years in local electoral politics and being involved with neighborhood tenant groups at meetings in which they had argued with elitist, arrogant representatives of Columbia’s real estate and housing office. As a result, he felt a strong passion to prioritize the fight against Columbia’s land-grabbing in West Harlem/Morningside Heights, whether or not the African-American community was in leadership. When the bulldozers moved into Morningside Park to rip up land for Columbia’s gym, Michael and his neighborhood allies—plus some politically liberal Columbia Citizenship Council people—got arrested in a symbolic way.

Among the people arrested when the gym construction began was Juan of the Columbia Citizenship Council’s Program to Activate Community Talent [P.A.C.T.]. Although Juan was still only a liberal, his work at P.A.C.T. and in Citizenship Council had made him feel—before most Columbia SDS and African-American student activists did—that it was worth getting arrested symbolically to stop Columbia’s gym project—even if most community residents were not mobilized yet on this issue. (Presently, Juan is the Democracy Now! radio show co-host who moonlights as a New York Daily News columnist).

In addition to Columbia’s proposed gym project being an institutionally racist attempt to steal Harlem’s parkland for white upper-middle-class students, there was a Jim Crow aspect to the project. African-American Harlem residents were to be allowed to only enter the token “community” portion of the gym through a back door, while most of the gym space would be utilized by the white Columbia students, who would enter through a separate, elite student front door. Hence, the chant: “Jim Crow Gym must go!”

From the time it was first proposed, there had been some community and liberal verbal opposition to Columbia’s proposed gym construction project. And Harlem CORE had warned Columbia in early 1968—as had SNCC chairperson H. Rap Brown [n/k/a Jamil Al-Amin and currently imprisoned in the South]—not to go ahead with the gym construction. But as late as March 1968, there was still little evidence that the mass of Harlem residents could be mobilized to prevent Columbia’s Morningside Park land seizure.

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (iii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (83)

Two events related to the African-American student movement made an impact on Columbia’s campus: the Orangeburg Massacre and the student occupation of Howard University’s Administration Building.

Student activists and SNCC people who had been involved in resisting racial discrimination at a local bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina were shot at by racist cops. Some students were killed. Hence, the event was characterized as “The Orangeburg Massacre.”

To publicize what had happened in Orangeburg around the United States and to raise some money for bail and other Movement needs in Orangeburg, a meeting was set up at Columbia by Bill and another leader of the Student Afro-American Society, named Ray, in which Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC worker who had witnessed the Orangeburg Massacre, was to speak. Ray had observed Columbia SDS meetings with Bill on a number of occasions and seemed, with the exception of Bill, to be the most politically radical African-American student on campus. In discussions with Ray on a number of occasions during the 1967-68 school year I had often indicated that Columbia SDS was interested in forming a working political alliance with the SNCC-oriented African-American students on campus.

The meeting to discuss the Orangeburg Massacre was scheduled to be held in Harkness Theatre, in the basement of Butler Library, at around 7 or 7:30 p.m. Before the meeting had even begun, the hall was packed and it appeared there would not be enough seats for the predominantly white anti-racist student crowd that wished to join about 30 African-American students, in listening to Cleveland Sellers speak about the Orangeburg Massacre.

Coincidentally, Jeff Shero of the New York SDS Regional Office was scheduled to hold a film benefit showing for his new radical underground newspaper—Rat—on that same night in Columbia’s McMillan Theatre, which had a much larger seating capacity than Harkness Theatre had. In Harkness Theatre, some Columbia SDS people suggested to Ray and Bill that we all should walk over to McMillan Theatre and hold the emergency meeting there, so that everyone who wished to attend could fit into the larger hall and a maximum amount of money could be raised. Bill and Ray thought the idea was logical, and the crowd of 150 students walked over to McMillan Theatre expecting to be seated in the hall that the New York Regional SDS Office had reserved.

When we all arrived at the entrance to McMillan Theatre, however, Shero told Columbia SDS people that since he and other Regional SDS and Rat people had reserved and paid for the hall, “You can’t use it for any kind of meeting, no matter what emergency has come up.” Shero was a white Southern transplant from Texas who was short and fairly thin. He also had a full beard and short hair. Prior to his recent arrival in New York City, he had been a vice-president of National SDS for the 1965-66 academic year.

Outraged, I and a few other Columbia SDS people attempted to argue with Shero for a few minutes. But after Ray saw how much bureaucratic argument Shero was giving us just to avoid letting the crowd walk into McMillan Theatre, he told people that “The meeting will be held as planned in Harkness Theatre.” And as we walked back to Harkness Theatre, Ray scowled and said sarcastically to me: “Is this what SDS means by having an alliance with the Black Revolution?”

Embarrassed by Shero’s bureaucratic white Southern racism in placing his white radical underground newspaper’s need ahead of the emergency needs of SNCC people, I replied quietly: “SDS still has political problems,” as Ray turned his back on me and walked ahead towards Harkness Theatre.

In Harkness Theatre, Bill gave a militant introduction to Sellers, who looked somewhat dazed, almost as if he had just returned home from some kind of war zone. In detail, Sellers then described the atrocity that had been committed in Orangeburg. People were moved and enraged at the deadly repression down there that had produced the massacre. There was little doubt that in early 1968 most white anti-racists at Columbia were solidly behind SNCC, not the SCLC or CORE. The Orangeburg Massacre of African-American students once again seemed to confirm that racism in the U.S. could only be ended by mass armed resistance of the Black masses, and not by non-violently singing “We Shall Overcome” and imitating the tactics of the non-African Mahatma Gandhi.

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (ii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (82)

The New York SDS Regional Office was organizing a trip to Havana, Cuba at this time. Mark decided that he wished to visit Cuba on this trip. To raise money for the trip, Mark began to deal grass to Columbia students. We ate together one night at Duke’s all-night diner on Broadway and W. 112th St. a week or two before he was to leave. He told me that his dealing had been successful in raising money for his travel expenses. At this time, he still had a beard and long-hair.

Another SDS person who was going on the Cuban trip was Karen. Karen had dropped out of Antioch College and was crashing in Mark’s apartment for a few days before she, Mark and others were to leave for Cuba. I first met Karen when she was crashing in Mark’s apartment. She was from white suburban Roslyn, New York—in Nassau County—and she was short, had dark hair and was wearing a skirt and blouse when I first met her. She seemed earnest and pleasant, and she was excited about the Cuban tour that she was coordinating. But aside from some vague discussion about the logistics of how people were to fly to Havana by way of Canada, I can’t recall talking with her in any significant way at this time. Like most full-time Movement women, she seemed very committed and very intelligent. But Mark later mentioned that an article on SDS and New Left women in the liberal New York Times Magazine had, in a male chauvinist way, recently portrayed her and other SDS women activists as “just Movement cunts.”

In late February, Mark left for Cuba and vanished from the Columbia scene for about three weeks. Right before he left, rank-and-file Columbia SDS people were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the non-confrontational, over-academic, frivolous, praxis-axis approach of the Ted-Teddy-Peter Schneider-Al chapter leadership. The majority of students at Columbia College who had voted in a non-binding referendum were opposed to Columbia’s ties to IDA and the War—but still felt that freedom of speech included the right of organizations like the CIA and Dow Chemical to recruit on campus. So Ted and Teddy were unwilling to prevent Dow Chemical recruitment on campus on February 23, 1968, to avoid “alienating” the majority of liberal students on campus that SDS was still trying to “organize” and “radicalize.”

On other campuses around the U.S., however, anti-war students had sat-in to stop Dow Chemical recruiting, regardless of what the majority opinion of students on their campus was, on the grounds that it was morally wrong to permit Dow Chemical to recruit on campus. Thus, when Ted and Teddy tried to persuade Columbia SDS’s rank-and-file to—“on tactical grounds”—limit the anti-Dow protest to just picketing Low Library, everybody ignored them and marched up to Dodge Hall to sit-in and stop the campus recruitment process of Dow Chemical. Most Columbia and Barnard New Leftists now felt it made no moral and political sense to passively let Dow Chemical recruit at “radical” Columbia University, when it was being stopped at every other less radical university in the U.S.A.

After seeing their leadership being ignored, Ted and Teddy followed the rest of the chapter up to Dodge Hall to join in the sit-in in a half-hearted way. Dow Chemical recruitment was cancelled, the Columbia Administration took no disciplinary action against SDS people and there wasn’t much of a liberal student campus backlash in response to our “violating” Dow Chemical’s “free speech rights” in order to stop them from recruiting people to help produce napalm to drop on Vietnamese civilians. An undercover “Red Squad” detective, however, also attended the demonstration and filed a report on the demonstration which listed some of the people “observed by the assigned taking part in the rally, picketing and sit-in that SDS sponsored that day.”

Mass student interest in Columbia SDS around this time was further stimulated by the U.S. government’s decision to eliminate the student deferment of graduate students in the U.S. Those Columbia students whose personal strategy for avoiding the Viet Nam War draft was to enroll in graduate school were now personally threatened by the War and more likely to feel a self-interest in mobilizing behind the leadership of an anti-draft organization like Columbia SDS. Columbia SDS had both a draft counseling committee and an off-campus anti-draft organizing project, coordinated by Will, who was a student in Columbia’s School of General Studies. Very few Columbia School of General Studies students became involved in Columbia SDS but, single-handedly, Will’s organizing project did manage to spread some anti-draft consciousness off-campus to some African-American high school students.

Yet despite these developments, it still appeared in early March 1968 that people around Columbia were more interested in its basketball team than in its SDS chapter. Even I attended a few basketball games at Columbia’s old gymnasium around this time and cheered for Columbia’s team, as it reached the top 16 in the NCAA’s basketball championship finals.

Chapter 14: Back In Furnald Hall, 1968 (i)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (81)

A few weeks into February 1968, I was assigned a share of a dorm room on an upper floor of Furnald Hall. Coincidentally, my roommate turned out to be another Columbia SDS hard-core activist who was from my childhood neighborhood in Queens. His name was Stu.

Stu had grown up in an affluent working-class garden apartment development in Glen Oaks—just a few miles from the Beech Hills development where I had lived. Like Robby, Stu had entered Columbia a year after me. His father was neither rich nor a professional, but Stu had been a socially-concerned student leader at Bayside High School, with a strong interest in civil rights and war and peace issues. During his 1965-66 senior year at Bayside, Stu had been mobbed by hostile right-wing students, after he organized the screening of an anti-war film at the high school. During his high school years, Stu had been somewhat active in the United Synagogue Youth movement. But by the time I first noticed him during my sophomore year, when Stu was a freshman, he seemed to be pretty much of an atheist or an agnostic, despite still identifying himself as ethnically Jewish.

During his freshman year at Columbia, Stu—like Robby—appeared to devote more time to his academic work than to political anti-war activism. In Spring 1967, however, when we both lived in Furnald Hall in different rooms, I recall noticing him in the dorm lobby more frequently, arguing with students about the morality of the U.S. war effort in Viet Nam and lecturing them in a stern way if they opposed his anti-war views. Stu seemed more easy-going when not talking about politics and more concerned about his academic career than in getting involved in day-to-day Columbia SDS chapter politics overall though, at this time. At best, he could be counted on to circulate a petition on his dormitory floor and do some dormitory floor canvassing from time to time.

In Summer 1967, however, Stu worked in Columbia’s “Double Discovery” program as a counselor and became more radicalized. By Fall 1967, Stu had become much more active in Columbia SDS organizing and was taking the initiative in setting up floor meetings and lobby meetings in Furnald Hall, under Columbia SDS auspices. By early 1968, he seemed to have lost much of his interest in Columbia’s institutional academic life and was spending most of his time either reading leftist and old CP-published books on his own, setting up floor meetings, dorm lobby meetings or teach-ins, arguing with Columbia students who weren’t yet leftist about racism and the war, or attending Columbia SDS strategy meetings.

What struck me most about Stu before I moved into Furnald Hall to share a dorm room with him was his restless energy and the degree to which, like me and the other hard-core Columbia SDS people, he had become obsessed with the need to resist the immorality of U.S. intervention in Viet Nam and Columbia’s ties to the U.S. war machine. Although we shared radical political beliefs, Stu and I didn’t become that personally close as a result of sharing a dorm room. We both generally spent most of the time out of the dorm room and used it only as a place to sleep.

Stu didn’t respect Teddy politically and he didn’t like Ted too much. He did, however, feel that Nancy was quite beautiful and he seemed to respect Teddy for being able to sustain a love relationship with a beauty such as Nancy. In addition to regarding Nancy as beautiful, though, Stu also regarded her, in this pre-feminist era, as too domineering a woman.

Around this time, Mark split up with Sue. He appeared to spend a few weeks wandering around campus to search for other possible female companions. I recall seeing him walking around with his English-accented old friend, with whom I had seen him occasionally during the previous year. When I visited him in his apartment one night, Mark said to me after I entered the apartment: “I have a new girlfriend.”

“That’s good,” I replied.

Then Mark went into the kitchen and, as he affectionately escorted Sue into the apartment hallway, he smiled and said: “Here she is.”

I started to laugh and Sue and Mark started to laugh with me.

Around this time, Sue seemed to wish to match me up with one of her unattached friends. She invited me to her own apartment for dinner with Mark’s unattached roommate, Neumann, and two of her unattached women friends. But since I was the only one who was heavily into Columbia SDS activism, and the other people had different interests from each other, the dinner conversation soon became boring. So we all left early from Sue’s dinner party.