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Forty Years After Historic Columbia Strike, Four Leaders of 1968 Student Uprising Reflect

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Forty years ago this week, hundreds of students at Columbia University started a revolt on campus. Students went on strike. They occupied five buildings, including the president’s office in Low Library, and barricaded themselves inside for days. The students were protesting Columbia’s ties to military research and plans to build a university gymnasium in a public park in Harlem. The 1968 Columbia uprising inspired student protests across the country. We spend the hour with four of the strike leaders: Gustin Reichbach is now a New York State Supreme Court Justice; William Sales is now a professor at Seton Hall University; Tom Hayden is a former California state senator; and Juan Gonzalez, our own Democracy Now! co-host. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Forty years ago this week, hundreds of students at Columbia University started a revolt on campus. Students went on strike. They occupied five buildings, including the president’s office in Low Library. The students barricaded themselves inside the buildings for days. They were protesting Columbia’s ties to military research and plans to build a university gymnasium in a public park in Harlem.

The protests began less than three weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1968 Columbia uprising inspired student protests across the country.

Today, we’ll spend the rest of the hour looking back at this pivotal moment as part of our ongoing series, “1968: Forty Years Later.” Several of the student organizers are joining us in a moment, but first we begin with excerpts from the documentary Columbia Revolt by Third World Newsreel.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: We now deny we no longer have a say in decisions that affect our lives. We call on all students, faculty, staff and workers of the university to support our strike. We ask that all students and faculty not meet or have classes inside buildings.

    We have taken the power away from an irresponsible and illegitimate administration. We have taken power away from a board of self-perpetuating businessmen who call themselves trustees of this university.

    We are demanding an end to the construction of the gymnasium, the gymnasium being built against the will of the people of the community of Harlem, a decision that was made unilaterally by powers of the university without consultation of people whose lives it affects.

    We are no longer asking but demanding an end to all affiliation and ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Defense Department venture that collaborates the university into studies of kill and overkill that has resulted in the slaughter and maiming of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Students at Columbia moved to take over buildings despite warnings from campus officials.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: In order to show solidarity of people with six strike leaders who they had tried to suspend, they decided to take Hamilton once again.

    CAMPUS OFFICIAL: You are hereby directed to clear out of this building. I’ll give you further instructions if this building is not cleared out within the next ten minutes.

    STRIKE LEADER: I’m asking how many of you here are willing now to stay with me, sit-in here, until…

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: After three votes, a majority decided to stay.

    STUDENTS: Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!

    CAMPUS OFFICIAL: If you do not choose to leave this building, I have to inform you that we have no alternative but to call the police, and each student who is arrested will be immediately suspended.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The students then set up barricades inside the administration buildings.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: The first day in Math, we set up a defense committee, which took care of putting up the barricades. We decided what our policy would be toward police, toward jocks. We soaped some of the stairs. We taped the windows. We emptied bookcases and put them up in front of the windows in case teargas canisters did get through the tape.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: And it hung up a lot of people when there would be a little scratch or mar on the marble-top desks or something. And the second time we built barricades, these hang-ups disappeared, and we had decided that barricades were necessary politically and strategically, and anything went in making strong and, this time, permanent-type barricades.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: Defense is all taken care of. Security is a problem, letting people in and out of the buildings. Watches — we need people to watch the windows every night.

    STUDENT ORGANIZER: We had a walkie-talkie setup, citizens’ band walkie-talkies, plus there were telephone communications to every building, which the university tapped. We had three mimeographs at work constantly, and there were people who did nothing during the strike but relate to the mimeograph machine. And there was a big sign on the wall, a quote from somebody in Berkeley, who says five students and a mimeograph machine can do more harm to a university than an army.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A week later, New York City police stormed the campus. Hundreds of students were injured, and 700 were arrested. Images of the police assault were broadcast around the country.

    STUDENT STRIKER: Over 700 of us on charges of criminal trespass, resisting arrest, all kinds of other [inaudible], some of which was real and some of which was completely fake.

    STUDENT STRIKER: I know of nurses and doctors that pleaded with the police not to proceed, to please let these men alone, and they would say, “No, no. Get away. This is our job.”

    STUDENT STRIKER: I was arrested. They would not allow me to see a doctor. I had broken ribs. My face was cut. I got hit with a pistol under the eye and was bleeding there. And I wasn’t allowed to see a doctor ’til I got out of court, which was approximately ten hours later.

    STUDENT STRIKER: I was awarded a fellowship for next year. What the hell does — I’m sorry, what does it mean? I’m going to strike. I hope every — I don’t see how any teacher, I don’t see how any student can attend this school anymore. And I was completely liberal about the whole thing. But this bust has radicalized everybody, and me very personally.

    STUDENT: I was a nonviolent student. I was completely passive. I didn’t care what happened. I was completely neutral. I’m not neutral any longer. I’ll occupy buildings tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Columbia Revolt, Third World Newsreel. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by four of the student activists who led the strike at the university, now a dean of African American Studies, a former state senator, a judge and a journalist. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by four of the activists involved in the Columbia strike. In 1968, William Sales was a leader of the Student Afro-American Society at Columbia. He is now chair of African American Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Gustin Reichbach was a leading figure in Students for a Democratic Society at Columbia in 1968, now a New York State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn. Tom Hayden is also with us. He was a founding member of SDS and wrote the SDS manifesto known as the Port Huron Statement. He wasn’t a student at Columbia, but he took part in the protests. His latest book is called Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader. And, of course, another one of the other Columbia strike leaders is with us today, my colleague and co-host, Juan Gonzalez. In 1968, Juan was a member of SDS, one of the only Latino activists on campus.

Here is Juan speaking forty years ago during the strike.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Now we want to go into the dorms with all of you. Some of you who may not agree with a lot of what we’ve been saying here, who have questions, who support us, who want to know more, let’s go to the dorms, let’s talk quietly in small groups. We’ll be there. And everyone in Livingston — in Livingston lobby, in Furnald lobby and Carman lobby, we’ll be there, and we’ll talk about the issues involved, and we’ll talk about where this country is going and where this university is going and what it’s doing in this society and what we would like it to do and what we would — and how we would like to exchange with you our ideas over it. Come join us now.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Juan Gonzalez, courtesy of the Pacifica Radio Archives. Juan, you speaking forty years ago, explain the context.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in the process of trying to build the strike, we were going into all the various dorms of the students and holding what SDS used to hold a lot of in those days, which were discussion groups or political discussions, group discussions, and we were trying to win over more people to the strike at that period of time. And this was after, obviously, the big — the major police occupation of the campus, which occurred on April 30th, and as the rest — throughout the rest of the semester, there was a strike that shut down the entire university for the rest of the year.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Gus Reichbach, now a judge, then a leader of SDS, please set the scene for us. How did this happen? Where were you before the strike?

GUSTIN REICHBACH: Well, I was one of the few law students who was involved in campus activity, antiwar activity, anti-gym activity.

The actual event itself was a spontaneous one, in terms of the actual occupation of the buildings. But the predicate for it was really years of organizing on the campus, really beginning in 1964. The year before, there had been a big demonstration about recruitment in ROTC. The gym was becoming an escalating issue. People were getting more and more responsive to the protest of the local community in Harlem, who was opposing the gym.

So, you know, we were often given, I’m happy to say, more credit than we deserve, in the sense that this was seen as a well-calculated plot, where at any point along that day things might have taken a different turn. In fact, probably if Dean Coleman in Hamilton Hall had opened his door and received the petition, the occupation may never have occurred. So things proceed in peculiar ways. But even though the events were unplanned, the lead-up involved years of organizing.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention ’64. Bill Sales, ’65, Malcolm X was gunned down not far from there, now, actually at the Audubon Ballroom, that’s been taken over by a new building, the Columbia University biotech building, also very controversial. Did that play a role, though that was three years before?

WILLIAM SALES: The Student Afro-American Society has very definite links to Malcolm X through the son of Kenneth Clark, Hilton Clark, who was one of the founding members of that organization, who was very much inspired by Malcolm X. SAAS always had a distinctly black nationalist aura about it that was basically its guiding principle. So we saw ourselves as being in a tradition that had been highlighted by Malcolm X. When we actually took over Hamilton Hall, we renamed it Nat Turner Hall of Malcolm X University.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Nat Turner was.

WILLIAM SALES: Nat Turner was a slave preacher who in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia led the largest slave revolt on the North American mainland.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bill, one of the things, I think, that most people are not aware of, because sometimes they don’t connect all of the events leading up to a particular crisis, was the climate. As I’ve often mentioned, this strike or the occupation began less than three weeks after the King assassination. And the impact on young people then, not only of the assassination, but of the disturbances and rebellions that broke out in over a hundred cities across the country — any of you want to talk about what the climate for young people was at that moment, at that particular moment in history?

WILLIAM SALES: Well, I certainly can speak to the African American experience, and it certainly — what made it an important experience was that for the first time other than African Americans were also being caught up in that energy. But most of the people in Hamilton Hall had been in one or another urban rebellion. For instance, you mention the King assassination. That very night, I and Ray Brown and other people would go on to play leadership roles of the takeovers that were on 125th Street. First time anybody ever shot at me was a policeman shooting over my head on 125th Street as various stores went up in flames. We were also, much earlier that previous summer, in Newark during the Newark rebellions. We had raised funds in support of the families of students killed on February the 8th, I think, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, South Carolina state. So there was a continuous involvement in the turmoil of the day that incorporated larger and larger numbers of people who also would take over those buildings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Tom, also the impact of the Vietnam War obviously on the students, not only Columbia, but other universities — again, it was a particular moment in history. The Tet Offensive had just occurred earlier in the year. Lyndon Johnson had announced his resignation. The Eugene McCarthy campaign was building up. What was, again, the impact of the war on all of us, but the other young people at the time?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, there was a New York Times op-ed piece this week by somebody who was there in Columbia, which said essentially that the war had nothing to do with the demonstrations. He also said, in defense of his behavior, that he was crazy. He said it eleven times in the article. He said that the war made him crazy. I think that there’s some truth in that, that people were driven to extremes, felt devastated particularly by the murder of Dr. King. I had been a community organizer in Newark in ’67. We went through — watched the killings of twenty-five, twenty-six people. The war was ever-present, and it’s a big difference from Iraq, because you could be drafted, and many of the young people in the community or on the campus could not vote. So I wouldn’t call the response crazy.

The logic of it was like in the 1930s. Industrial workers occupied factories in Michigan, because they didn’t have union representation, they didn’t have any protection, they didn’t have living wages. In my experience in the South in the early 1960s, black students and whites, some whites, sat in at lunch counters and went to jail and refused bail, because powerless people sometimes have to do that in order to get any leverage or get any attention. And so, the occupation of buildings by students who had no rights, trying to fight for people in Harlem who had no representation on the campus — the campus was run autocratically under an eighteenth century regulation that gave the president all power, no due process; if you’re going to get kicked out, like yourself, there was no recourse, there was no appellate process — that was the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom, can you explain the founding of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society?

TOM HAYDEN: I wish I could. SDS was a kind of a clearing house for discussion. It was in response to two things: one, the imperative to do something in support of the Southern students who were sitting in at lunch counters and going to jail; and secondly, there was a rising awareness of the fact that students themselves, everywhere in the country, had no rights, no real power on campus, were treated like children. So SDS was about student power, but it was power to make a difference on campus and in the community and in support or solidarity with other movements.

AMY GOODMAN: And it was founded where and when?

TOM HAYDEN: It was founded slowly in a two-year period, and most people would date it as ’61. And then the Port Huron Statement, which was named after a town that’s called Port Huron — in a recent Michael Moore movie, actually, you can see what Port Huron looks like — the Port Huron Statement called for participatory democracy, an end to the Cold War or the nuclear arms race, and a focus on the internal problems of the United States, starting with race, poverty and civil liberties. And so, it became associated with all the movements that were starting spontaneously. I don’t think it was necessary to those movements, but it became a kind of channel where people could form chapters, discuss the situation, come together. It had a short life. It was a catalytic organization, I would say, a life of six or eight years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And interestingly, I mean, I think it was — the importance about the Columbia strike was that it brought together a variety of movements that had been developing not only against the Vietnam War and racism on campus, but the gymnasium was sort of a — it brought the whole battle beyond the university itself, because I remember — I actually was not a member of SDS at the time. I was actually more involved in some of the liberal student tutorial programs that were in West Harlem and in East Harlem, and I got involved actually in January, because there was a protest at the gym site. Columbia University was building a university gymnasium, but it was taking public park land, and it was going to create a backdoor entrance for the Harlem community to use from time to time when the university saw fit to give it some time. And there had been no real discussion about this in Harlem. It was a deal that the university did with the city. So the community group that I was working with was participating in a protest at the gym site in January, four months before the strike, so I went, because it was our community group that was involved.

And all of a sudden, this young African American minister, whose name I don’t know — I’d never met him before — came up to me and three other Columbia students who were standing around, Mark Nason, who was a part of Columbia CORE, and a guy by the name of Will Stein. They were both organizers of Columbia CORE. And the young minister said — pointed to the three of us and said, “Follow me.” So he was a minister. I’m respectful. I’ll follow a minister. So he goes around the back entrance of the construction site and sits down in front of the bulldozers, and he says, “Here, sit down with me.” So the three of us sat down with him, and we were all arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: I never knew you followed orders so easily, Juan.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So, well, a minister, you know, give him respect. So we ended up all being arrested and spending the day in jail in the Tombs, and so that was actually my introduction to protest movement, and from a complete stranger who — and I didn’t even know Mark Nason or Will Stein at the time, but I got to know them better over the period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up at Columbia University, being a student there?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Oh, well, I was a scholarship student from out of Frank K. Lane High School in Brooklyn, and I don’t really know how — I guess my college adviser had never heard of Columbia before.

AMY GOODMAN: And what year were you?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I was class of ’68. That was my senior year.

AMY GOODMAN: So this was the senior year?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. But I think the important thing is to understand that the land battle, because, as Bill and I were talking about this earlier, there has not been much of an analysis of the role of urban universities in their cities, and in — this university expansion is a huge problem in most major cities around the country where private universities exist, because they’re always gobbling up land for their own private interests that are cloaked as a public interest, an educational interest, but they are huge landowners, and they have enormous impact on what happens to the communities around them, whether it’s Johns Hopkins or University of Pennsylvania or Yale or any of these, Harvard, any of these universities. They’re all involved in the same thing.

And I think one of the interesting things that came out of the strike, and I think — is this pamphlet that the students produced in the midst of the strike called “Who Rules Columbia?” And somebody actually just gave me an old copy about a week ago, and I started to read it. And it is really an extraordinary analysis, not only of corporate influence on a university, but also on land policy on the university. And it’s particularly interesting because even in this pamphlet, it talks that forty years ago Columbia University was planning a major expansion into Harlem between 125th and 135th Street for a research park for military research. Now the university is only now completing that plan. Only they’ve turned it into a bioscience center, instead of a defense research center. But one of the things that we’ve done, since this pamphlet, I think, would be helpful for many students who are involved in campus activities, is we’ve taken the entire pamphlet and put it in a PDF file, and we’re putting it on the Democracy Now! website. So anyone who wants to download it can do so. And it’s an incredibly deep analysis of government and corporate involvement in university policymaking, specifically geared around Columbia University.

AMY GOODMAN: And it begins with a quote of Charles Beard, upon his resignation from Columbia University, October 9, 1917. “I have been driven to the conclusion that the University is really under the control of a small and active group of Trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. Their conduct betrays a profound misconception of the true function of a university in the advancement of learning.” 1917. And among those who wrote this — it was published by North American Congress on Latin America, NACLA, which is also now celebrating its fortieth anniversary — was Michael Klare.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Michael Klare, Stu Goodall. You know, it’s an enormous — considering that this is long before there were search engines and the internet, the depth of research that was done on the investments in Columbia, the landownership, it’s really an extraordinary document of research and analysis.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to talk about how the strike and occupation progressed, what it meant when the police were brought in, with our four guests. Three of them were students at the university; one, some call, an outside agitator, and he was Tom Hayden.

TOM HAYDEN: Please, I was the chair, the elected chair, of the Math Building commune, and I was arrested with everyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Bill Sales, he’s now chair of African American Studies at Seton Hall University —- are you correcting me, Bill?

WILLIAM SALES: Yeah, past chair.

AMY GOODMAN: Past chair of the African American Studies Department at Seton Hall University; Gustin Reichbach, now a New York State Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn; and Tom Hayden, a former California state senator, he was founder of SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, and has a new book called Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader. We are also, for our radio listeners who can’t see today’s TV broadcast, showing lots of video and photographs. In fact, one of them that we just showed before the break was a photograph. Was it you, Tom, dragging Francis Fox Piven into the Math Building?

TOM HAYDEN: Yes. I was dressed in a nice shirt, tie. She was a professor. She was the author of a very influential book on social movements, on sit-ins, on industrial labor strikes, and she wanted to see for herself. And I believe today she’s the head of the American Association of Sociologists. I hope that doesn’t get her in trouble with David Horowitz, but there she is being brought into the Math Building to observe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, you were in Math, which was always seen as the radical occupation building. What were some of the groups that were in there in the Math?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, there was Up Against the Wall Mother—- can I say that?

AMY GOODMAN: No, no, no.

TOM HAYDEN: And Abbie Hoffman.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a judge in the room.

TOM HAYDEN: Some diggers. I don’t know. It was mainly students, and most of what went on was to, you know, get peanut butter, get sandwiches, be prepared for tear-gassing and beatings. And it was a very — it was an intense but temporary community. And it was just a lot of discussion and an unforgettable experience, this thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Sales, was there division between the different student groups and especially between black and white?

WILLIAM SALES: Hamilton Hall, after the first day, was occupied by black students. We felt that it was necessary that we have a very clear, distinct identity inside of the whole demonstration. That being said, there was never any differentiation between demands that we advanced and demands of the larger strike. Secondly, we tried to make clear that the fact that we were in that building exclusively in no way should be interpreted as a split. It was an attempt at the time to suggest that there were divisions, animosities and what have you. There couldn’t be anything further from the truth.

TOM HAYDEN: You said last night there were a lot of Harlem residents there, too. Is that —-

WILLIAM SALES: Well, it was really a community takeover. There were representatives of many movement organizations from the community core, from Harlem, representatives of the Oceanhill-Brownsville community school board struggle. There were students from NYU, from City College. There were, of course, West Harlem Community Organization residents, which was the primary community organize that took the lead in the opposition to the gym. So, in addition to students who had Columbia IDs, there were at least an equal number of these community forces who stayed with us throughout the demonstration.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, I think once -— we initially were all in Hamilton together, but there was a discussion between some of the SDS members, myself, that was on the coordinating committee and SAS. And SAS said that they had wanted to occupy the building themselves, and we agreed. And so, it was actually a decision between both groups, and then the SDS members moved out and started occupying other buildings throughout campus, because I think that we understood that they needed to have a building that could completely be identified and seen by the community as a rallying point and a base area for the struggles of the community itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Gus Reichbach.

GUSTIN REICHBACH: I would just add that while certainly the specific demands were what motivated people, there was some transcendent issues involved. We came together — Tom talked about the powerlessness that people felt, the powerlessness about being able to stop the war, the powerlessness in confronting an institution that had an incredibly paternalistic and controlling aspect to it. So, part of this coming together — and it’s really a spontaneous coming together — was because we thought in some small way that we could be agents or wanted to be agents in the course of history, and we shared this electric moment where collectively all our hearts were touched by a certain passion and fire.

And so, that was really not that the demands were unimportant, not that the issues were unimportant, but there was this larger — and I don’t mean to reduce it to psychological terms, because I don’t think it was that. I think it was a fundamental political issue about powerlessness and the requirement of taking action, of doing something, of putting one’s body on the line, which I think now that I’ve reconnected with people, after many, many decades, have come to observe in terms of the lives we’ve led since that time, that, you know, this participation was this Sartrean moment of a fracture that really has altered, I think, for many of us the course of our entire lives since that time.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you become a judge after being a student leader?

GUSTIN REICHBACH: It’s very unlikely.

TOM HAYDEN: He went over to the law and order.

GUSTIN REICHBACH: Very unlikely. In fact, I had a lot of trouble getting admitted to the bar because of my participation. Law professors lined up to testify against my admission to the bar. Some testified in favor of my admission, so I guess I’m responsible for destroying the collegiality of the faculty, but I went through two years of loyalty hearings before the character committee. The thought of me becoming a judge was — it was unlikely I was going to become a lawyer, much less a judge.

But it actually — my becoming a judge is somewhat connected to ’68, in that I was brought into a local judicial race in Brooklyn to help elect the first Hispanic judge. There had never been an Hispanic elected to a judgeship in Brooklyn, and because of the peculiarity of the election law, they needed a second warm body in order to help elect Richie Rivera, who became the first Hispanic judge. But we organized, having learnt doing dorm organizing and going door to door. We ran a judicial campaign that was very similar, people knocking on doors, walking up flights. And at the end of the day, I won, beating — we ran — Richie and I ran as insurgents against the Democratic organization, and I won by the munificent total of 141 votes. So that’s how.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as we talk about what’s happening today, I wanted to turn to the Columbia students today. Democracy Now! producers Anjali Kamat and Nicole Salazar went to Columbia University yesterday just before the big Columbia University ’68 event last night to speak with community members about the state of activism forty years after ’68. By coincidence, campus activists had organized a week of events around the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. It’s called “Five Years of Occupation, Five Days of Action.” Activists dropped a banner Thursday afternoon over the Butler Library building, calling for divestment from war profiteers and an end to the war. They also hooded the statue of the alma mater across the street. As hundreds of students were enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, a smaller group was reading aloud the names of Iraqis and Americans killed in Iraq since the start of the invasion.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 1: Monday, April 3, 2006, one death, [inaudible], gunfire. Monday, April 3, 2006, one death, Baqubah, gunfire.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 2: Back there, we’re reading names of — we’re reading the entire Iraq body count list, which is some 90,000 names of Iraqi civilians killed in the last five years in Iraq, plus the 4,000 names of American soldiers who have died. This, of course, is a tiny fraction of the civilian deaths in America. A more reliable estimate is put at 1.2, 1.4 million. But this is the list that we have.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 3: Our week of action, perhaps by coincidence, has coincided with Columbia University’s appropriation of the legacy of 1968, where it has now become a matter of establishment. Now it’s a matter of celebration. There was a janitor here yesterday when we were having our name reading, who just came, and while I was giving him a flyer, he described how forty years ago he was here, and he was speaking about how there was blood on the stairs of the Low Library, the administration building, and he was asking, “How is it that this blood is forgotten, and now there is such a celebration of it?”

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 4: What bothers me most is that even if there were a situation as grave as in 1968, there would not be action, because we don’t relate personally to the war. You walk up to people, maybe ten percent will support the war. So why were only five percent of the entire campus at this rally? It should have been packed.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 3: This is one significant contrast between 1968 and today, is the level of student involvement. I think it has to do with the invisibility of the occupation, in general, and of the continuing war.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 2: One of the things that came out of 1968 was that Columbia disassociated itself from the idea and cut off its research — its research in terms of classified projects. By 1968, 48 percent of Columbia’s research budget was devoted to military-related research. What has essentially happened has been that Columbia has outsourced this research, so whereas Columbia once produced research for the government in exchange for, of course, enormous sums of government funding, today Columbia instead invests in private companies who carry out this research, and then those investment dollars are now what funds our non-military research.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 3: There’s no talk of divestment. There’s no talk of Iraq. It is treated as a foregone era.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 5: It’s forty years of ’68, five years of Iraq. It’s also sixty years of the Nakba in Palestine. And these are all — and it’s interesting that out of all of these, the ’68 is what is gaining, in some sense, the most traction. And I think on this campus, it is this sort of moment that we can look at and say this was possible, and not only to then be nostalgic about it, but then to create the conditions of possibility, where once again we can feel strongly enough to make it possible today on the issues that matter today.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 3: Our overall aim is to reclaim this campus as a space where occupation, colonization and war are simply not acceptable.

    STUDENT ACTIVIST 5: We’ve received a lot of support. A lot of people have contacted us. And it’s very heartening. But I would also just urge people to think about not only what happened but what can happen and what we can make possible. And I think that is the legacy. If there is going to be a legacy, that should be the legacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Students at Columbia University yesterday, as all the commemoration activities of ’68 were taking place, talking about their concerns today. Throughout the week, they have been reading the names of the dead from the Iraq war. And yesterday, I think they had only made it up through 2006, yet they have been reading for days. Bill Sales?

WILLIAM SALES: Yes. I think it’s important to recognize that the community will speak this weekend, because Columbia is more of a threat to the integrity of West Harlem and Harlem today than it ever was in 1968, and we should understand that protest is alive and well, and there will be a march on the campus. This commemoration so far has included academicians and some, you know, superannuated activists, but it will, before the week is out, include a substantial number of very angry community people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Tom, you know, there’s a school of thought even, among some of the folks who used to participate in SDS and others, that the protests of that year, at Columbia and then later on at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, actually created a rightwing reaction that led to a lot of the problems that have since accumulated in American society, from the election of Richard Nixon on, that in essence it was actually counterproductive. Todd Gitlin, obviously, is one of the main proponents of this.

TOM HAYDEN: Sorry to hear that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your perspective on that kind of analysis?

TOM HAYDEN: Well, the student movement and the civil rights movement, antiwar movements were reactions to a rightwing ascendancy, white supremacy in the South, and invasion of Vietnam. After a president said he wasn’t going to send American troops there, he went and sent 150,000 troops six months after he had been elected in. Those are the kind of factors that are left out of this narrative.

I think this strike at Columbia was a strike heard around the world. There were student strikes in, of course, Mexico, all across Latin America, all across Asia, Africa, Europe. Columbia might have been more famous, because it touched the nerve endings of the New York Times and the media capital of the United States. But there must have been — give me a suggestion — a hundred, 200 campus strikes, and by 1972, universities were simply on strike en masse. The semester didn’t end.

Now, I would say that it was a failure of Democratic Party liberalism to be specific, because they were, as some are still today, so wrapped up in the Cold War, in military spending, in anti-Communism, that they perceived Vietnam as being a threat to our way of life, as being an extension of Soviet imperialism. They refused to understand that it was a nationalist movement that was very difficult to defeat by foreign occupation, and it was a Democratic Party war from 1965 to 1968. So what were we to do? We couldn’t become Republicans. There was no party for us, as John Lewis said.

AMY GOODMAN: Recreate — go ahead, Gus.

GUSTIN REICHBACH: Well, there’s also another factor that’s never taken into consideration, in terms of a historical memory, which is it wasn’t SDS and antiwar activities that elected Richard Nixon. It was almost ten million white votes who voted for George Wallace. I mean, Humphrey lost to Nixon by really a handful of votes. Wallace carried five Southern states. In three of those states, it was Wallace first, Humphrey second and Nixon third. So it was a white backlash, not to the antiwar movement, but a white backlash to the black liberation struggle that really tipped the election. And everybody who blames the protesters in Chicago overlooks that important ingredient.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Bill, five seconds.

WILLIAM SALES: I was just going to say that we defeated Goldwater in 1964 in the hope that we would prevent escalation of Vietnam, and it was Johnson, a Democrat, who involved us massively there. So I don’t know whether party politics completely explains the fundamental reactionary nature of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Sales, I want to thank you for being with us; Gus Reichbach, now a judge in Brooklyn; Tom Hayden, his new book out is called Writings for a Democratic Society; and, of course, Juan. We’ll be — Tom Hayden and I — at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books tonight in Santa Barbara, tomorrow night in Los Angeles, and then we go on to Minneapolis and St. Louis and Fresno.

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1968: A Look Back at the My Lai Massacre, MLK’s Assassination, Columbia Protests & Catonsville Nine

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