40 Years Ago Today, the Police Tried to Kill Me at Columbia University
April 30, 1968
With billy clubs swinging, bloodying heads, a phalanx of riot police stomped their way through the crowd of faculty supporters standing outside Fayerweather Hall. No one was given a chance to walk away.
The police then proceeded to smash in the main doors of the Hall where students had been camped out for a week -- and to systematically drag students down the stone stairs to the lawns out front.
Nobody was violently resisting.
Many of the students were resisting passively, simply by going limp. This infuriated the police, who weren't buying these Gandhi-like tactics of Ivy League coeds. They beat everybody, young and old, male or female, with lead truncheons until they agreed to stand up. 150 students were injured and treated in nearby hospitals.
When the police reached the corner classroom -- filled with graduate students of which I was one -- they broke down the large antique doors and, with a crazed look in their eyes, struck wildly at us as we huddled together. It was a military operation clear and simple, and they were out to "shock and awe" the middle class demonstrators.
I was in the back of a group of fifty students and scurried out a window, along a narrow ledge, to get away from the flailing truncheons. Suddenly, looking down, I realized I was about forty feet above the cement of Amsterdam Ave's sidewalk. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea? A red-faced, fat cop, angry that I was just out of his reach, leaned out the window after me, striking at my legs and whacking me with a long pole, as if to deliberately knock me off the ledge.
Twelve feet from the window, along the ledge, was a terrace that overlooked the avenue. I didn't look down and, with my back against the building wall, cautiously edged my way to the terrace, worried that more cops might be waiting for me when I got there.
They weren't. I hopped down, relieved that I wasn't splayed on the sidewalk forty feet below. And just in time to witness and photograph the police riot that enveloped the campus that night.
Days earlier I had been a member of an angry group of students that had stormed the president's office at Low Library, after the black protesters told us to leave the first building that had been occupied -- Hamilton Hall. They thought that the white student rebels were too unfocused.
Once ensconced in the comfortable couches of the president's office at Low, we helped ourselves to his private stash of Madeira and exquisite cigars. I photographed a longhaired David Shapiro (a well known poet who has since taught at Columbia) sitting at Kirk's desk smoking one of these cigars and sipping Madeira. (The picture was widely circulated in newspapers and magazines around the world.) Despite our fun, we were careful about Grayson Kirk's possessions and his fine antiques and art. We were, after all, children of the elite.
Later when the cops cleared the building, they smashed everything. The New York Times published pictures of the office destruction and blamed it on the student "animals". The "Paper Of Record" also failed to report that the cops beat up two of their own reporters, John Kifner and Michael Kaufman, the night of the bust.
How had things come to this? Why were we there?
Some participants have not been able to articulate their motives. It is easy to mock the long-haired rebels who practiced free love, smoked marijuana and wore Che Guevara t-shirts. To many on the hard left, the protesters were frivolous and mindless. To many on the right, we were traitors and degenerates.
But we had genuine grievances.
- Martin Luther King, the embodiment of the Civil Rights movement, had been assassinated a few weeks earlier. The movement had been dragging on since the early 1960s and not much had seemed to change. Columbia was planning to build a gym in a Harlem Park with a separate "Jim Crow" entrance for the black people of the community.
--The unwinnable Vietnam War was raging full tilt and would eventually kill 50,000 American boys, despite the fact that the majority of Americans were against it.
-- The draft was looming over all the male students. If we didn't stay in school, we might end up in the mud paddies of South East Asia. Middle Class kids like us stayed in school and mostly black and poor kids went to war. We knew as much. The stakes were high.
And we made our point.
After the demonstrators were routed, a student and faculty strike shut down the campus for the rest of the semester. The Gym was never built, the University stopped doing research to benefit the Vietnam War effort, and the 700 arrested students got amnesty and were not expelled.
The Columbia demonstrations were not an isolated incident.
College students across America were organized and militant, having learned their lessons from the Civil Rights movement. There were sit-ins, mass demonstrations, thousands of arrests, and a real anti-war passion flowered on every campus.
Senator Gene McCarthy had mobilized an anti-war "army" of young people and intellectuals to challenge a sitting president. When he came close to upsetting the all-powerful Lyndon Baines Johnson -- as a write-in the New Hampshire primary -- the president bowed out of the race, because polls predicted a loss to McCarthy in the upcoming Wisconsin primary.
Johnson didn't want to face the bitterness and anger that was hounding him everywhere he went:
"Hey, Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?"
(Can't imagine crowds today chanting that every time the president appears.)
Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for president on March 16th. McCarthy's supporters called Kennedy ruthless and calculating for letting McCarthy take the major political risks. Banners appeared with slogans like "Bobby Kennedy: Hawk, Dove or Chicken?"
McCarthy was the Change candidate and promised to get us out of the war and transform the way politics was practiced. Bobby Kennedy represented the establishment's candidate to many students; to others, he represented the candidate that could win.
Following Johnson's exit, Vice President Humphrey entered the race and managed to avoid the primaries -- (or was) too late to enter them -- instead concentrating on winning over unelected delegates. Surely enough, after RFK was assassinated, Humphrey beat George McGovern, who took RFK's place after he was killed, for the nomination in August without a single primary under his belt.
1968 was a heady time.
All over the world, students were angry and challenging authority.
It was the time of the Prague Spring and, later that summer in Czechoslovakia, there were more demonstrations against Russian troops. There were also demonstrations in Poland (against Soviet domination), France (against the Algerian war), and Mexico (against a feudal ruling class), to name a few.
But the real legacy of the '68 turmoil was the idea that young people and students had the obligation to challenge authority, to question assumptions... and could succeed.
We drew strength from Robert F. Kennedy's words when he told us, "Let us not have tired answers."
This spirit of questioning and change from the Civil Rights movement and the sixties taught every succeeding generation of students and young people that they must speak truth to power. That it is their civic duty.
The women's movement, the environmental movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the current anti Iraq War movement have all built on this legacy of questioning what is.
This attitude was a radical departure from the complacency of those students who grew up during World War II and the Fifties, when challenging authority was out of the question.
That spring, we didn't entirely change the world, but at least we tried. I am proud that we did.
Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues.
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