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Juan González Reflects on Historic 1968 Columbia Protests & Crackdown on Gaza Solidarity Encampment

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Fifty-six years ago today, hundreds of students at Columbia University in New York started a revolt on campus, occupying school buildings and disrupting class to protest the school’s ties to the Vietnam War and racism in New York. Democracy Now! co-host Juan González, who participated in the 1968 protests when hundreds of students were injured by police and arrested, speaks about the rebellion and how it compares to Columbia’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian protesters occupying campus today. “What really strikes me about this response is the total flouting of any kind of democratic process by the current administration compared to what happened in 1968,” says González. “These students are protesting a genocide that is occurring before the eyes of the entire world and that is being funded by U.S. arms. And if anyone has the right to rebel and to stand up against injustice, these students do.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Fifty-six years ago today, hundreds of students at Columbia University here in New York started a revolt on campus. They occupied five buildings, including the President’s Office in Low Library. The students barricaded themselves inside the buildings for a week. 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. The 1968 Columbia uprising led to one of the largest mass arrests in New York City history. A week into the strike, April 30th, New York City police stormed the campus of Columbia University. Hundreds of students were injured, 700 arrested. Images of the police assault were broadcast around the country. This is a clip from Columbia Revolt by Third World Newsreel.

STUDENT STRIKER 1: They got over 700 of us on charges of criminal trespass, resisting arrest, all kinds of other [bleep], some of which was real and some of which was completely fake.

STUDENT STRIKER 2: 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 3: 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 10 hours later. But 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: The 1968 Columbia uprising inspired student protests across the country. This is Democracy Now!’s Juan González, then a Columbia student, speaking during the strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now we want to go into the dorms with all of you, with some of you who may not — 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, in 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 the society and what we would like you 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 González, courtesy of the Pacifica Radio Archives. And Juan is here now, courtesy of Democracy Now!, co-host of Democracy Now! Juan, talk about that moment. We’re talking about 56 years ago. Talk about then and what you see as the echoes of today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Amy, I think the important thing to understand is that the Columbia strike unfolded over several weeks. The first week was the week of the occupation, but because of the brutality of the attacks by the police — as you said, more than 150 people were hospitalized the night of April 30th — it led to a massive strike of the entire university. Over 10,000 students shut the university down for the rest of the semester.

And I think what is really unusual about this process is that here the university moved in very quickly, and also these students were not disrupting classes. We occupied buildings. We did not allow classes to go forward in 1968. But classes were going forward. The students were camped out peacefully on the lawn. So, the disproportionate nature of the response of the university, the quickness with which it responded, without even consulting or listening to the faculty, is really astounding.

And the other aspect of it is that when we were suspended — and there were many of us suspended — before we were suspended, we were allowed to appear before a tribunal to plead our cause. There was at least the rudiments of due process. Here, there is no due process. The university is already, within 24 hours, saying that the students are suspended, even though there is yet no legal proof that any of these students knowingly participated in illegal actions. So, I think that what really strikes me about this response is the total flouting of any kind of democratic process by the current administration compared to what happened in 1968.

And, of course, I think the other aspect of it is we were fighting at the time against the racism of the university toward Harlem and against the Vietnam War. These students are protesting a genocide that is occurring before the eyes of the entire world and that is being funded by U.S. arms. And if anyone has the right to rebel and to stand up against injustice, these students do. And actually, I personally only wish that more students would follow their example across the country and continue to disrupt the process that is occurring right now, to at least allow the people of Palestine to understand that the American people are not united behind this genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Juan, do you have messages for the college presidents, from your experience 56 years ago with the mass arrests of 700 students, which only provoked more protest?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I have to say that President Shafik, who, as I understand, is a baroness — she was knighted during her time in England — that the baroness has very little time left as president of Columbia University. I don’t see how she survives in office, given the enormous resistance to her of not only the students, but the faculty. And I think that the universities across America have to realize that the young people of this country do not support the constant wars that our — imperial wars that our government is either participating in or funding, and that something has to change.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is a discussion that will continue as we move into graduation season.

But next up, we’re speaking to the pioneering union organizer Jane McAlevey on the fight for labor rights and her own personal fight against terminal cancer. We’ll be back with her in 20 seconds.

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