One of the first great student protests to come out of the 60s counter-culture movement, the Columbia University occupation began on April 23, 1968. Over the next week, students took over five different buildings and completely shut down campus while calling attention to issues from local race relations to the Vietnam War. The occupation ended when the NYPD violently stormed the buildings, resulting in hundreds of injuries and arrests.
The Columbia protests were very much of their time. Few years in modern history were more turbulent than 1968, which included Soviet repression of the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive, massive students protests in France, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. But Columbia students also had a few specific grievances.
In 1967, Bob Feldman, a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), uncovered a secret contract between Columbia and the Institute for Defense Analyses, a military think-tank doing weapons research for the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, on the northern end of campus, tensions were stirring over a proposal to build a new gym along Morningside Park. The gym would be available part-time for free use to the community, but they would have to use a back door, which initiated the “poor door” controversy of its time. Some locals saw the gym as an encroachment into their community by Columbia. There were other issues floating around, as is always the case in campus life. Students had been raising a number of quality of life issues, and intense opposition to the Vietnam War only inflamed passions further.Columbia’s SDS Chair, Mark Rudd, tied these issues together (loosely) by explaining that students “would not attend a university that exploited black people and developed weapons to kill them and murder the Vietnamese.”
On April 23, about 150 members of SDS and the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) took over Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main academic building,named, of course, for Alexander Hamilton. Then, in a stunning development, SAS students demanded that SDS students leave, claiming ideological and tactical differences. Chagrined SDS students took over Columbia President Grayson Kirk’s office at the Low Library in the middle of the night, smoking his cigars and drinking his champagne. Takeovers at three more buildings followed.
During the week, activists from across the city supported the protesters, bringing them food and supplies, while student counter-protesters attempted to blockade the buildings to stop supplies from coming in. You can see a news account of the protest here, or peruse a contemporary documentary here. The Columbia administration seemed paralyzed, unwilling to send in the NYPD, but also refusing to amnesty student protesters, reducing their incentive to end the occupation. Finally, in the early morning hours of April 30, 1,000 police officers stormed all of the buildings except for Hamilton Hall, where SAS students surrendered themselves.
This account by a former New York Times reporter cites rampant police violence against both students and journalists, a recollection confirmed by numerous comments in a 40th anniversary retrospective. Out of those comments, however, the most universal opinion was the poor handling of the protests by President Kirk. By the end of the police action, 132 students, four faculty members and twelve police officers were injured and 720 students had been arrested. Disruptions continued for the rest of the semester, and at graduation much the class of 1968 walked out of the commencement ceremony and held a rival ceremony. To Columbia’s credit, it ended its contract with the Institute for Defense Analyses.
Many of the sources for this piece are from the 40th anniversary, which led to published recollections of participants and even an introspective conference held at Columbia. A tree was planted at Morningside Park where the gym to commemorate where the gym would have been constructed. To revisit the “poor door” argument, some would ask whether the community would be better off with part-time access to a free gym rather than no gym – Columbia certainly would prefer to have such a facility.
The event’s more lasting impact was the rise of student occupations as form of dissent. (For example, see the Today in NYC post about the Hostos College takeover.) In the upcoming Janos.nyc podcast with Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of The Occupiers, we’ll talk about these types of occupations and whether they are still effective today.