What Did You Learn in School Today — Reflections on the Columbia Strike Gathering
by Alan Senauke
These are brief and incomplete reflections of the CU 68 Strike Gathering, April 24-27, 2008. Consider this “in-house” for those of us who share the history. From the moment I walked back onto the Columbia campus — my first time in more than 30 years — I felt energized by memory, by the warm embraces of old friends, and by the notion that our work was unfinished. Yet it was amazing to gather and review our history; to considerstrengths, weaknesses, and the present day implications of our ancienttangled karma. Few people anywhere have an opportunity to do this. Ithink there were more than 150 strike veterans present, and without exception, it seems to me that those who chose to come back for this gathering have each tried to live according to the best of what we learned in 1968, setting aside pettiness and narrow views.
• Forty years is a long time. Leaving Egypt, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. Long enough, maybe, to disremember god’s message, and yet remember there was a god. (Not that I believe there is one, of course.) My own memory is gapped and elusive. It is hard to know what I remember and what I may have made up. For example, my images of the bust in Low, confirmed by several other narratives, seem like a movie I saw once long ago. Then I feel the bump on the right side of my head, artifact of a police club, and I know I didn’t make this up. I think I remember going backstage after a Grateful Dead concert in Central Park, talking to Garcia, and inviting the Dead to come play at Columbia. It seems this did happen, but it was Bob Merlis who actually called their road manager and worked out the necessary logistics. I remember being on the strike committee after the bust (I cannot recall a thing about the meetings aside from arguments and boredom). But I can’t remember how I got there. Talking with people at the strike gathering, I learned I was a representative from the Low Commune, though how that came down escapes me. Why me?Actually, it was a relief to find that others’ memories suffered the same insufficiencies and doubts. God knows what our 50th anniversary might be like.
• I expected to recognize most everyone. The workings of time, gravity, hair loss, and the effects of a high fat American diet, meant that I had to look through an aging face in front of me to see the youthful face within. I said to one old friend, “Yes, but who are you?” Only then could I collate name and face, memory and identity clicking into focus.
But the pure pleasure of old friendships is beyond explanation. Falling so easily into step with Hilton, Les, Rick and others — time seemed to drop away, and the two presents of 1968 and 2008 were contiguous. I felt this way about many others, and savored the mystery of close connection to some I had not known well at all. Maybe growing up (if that’s what we have done) has removed the barriers to unrealized friendships.
• From the moment Bill Sales began to speak about his experience at Columbia and in Hamilton Hall, mists of confusion parted, that had long obscured interactions between Black students and SDS. Misunderstanding had lingered for forty years, which is understandable given the bitter facts of white supremacy that go to the root of our American experience. Why exactly had the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) told SDS to leave Hamilton Hall and take our own building? But the truth-telling of Ray Brown,Thulani Davis, Al Dempsey, Leon Denmark, Michelle Patrick, and manyof the SAS Hamilton Hall veterans brought clarity and tears all mixed together.On Friday night we learned something about what it was like back then forBlack students at Columbia and Barnard. We heard about racial profiling atColumbia — students being stopped for i.d. checks over and over again; aboutstellar athletes who were not allowed to take the field; about students whohad been raised in the segregated South finding segregation alive and well in student housing and even in classes. We were reminded about the ugly Jester satire of Columbia’s Black fraternity. The most painful thing was to hear SASmembers say after forty years that their Columbia years were the hardest and most painful time of their lives. I am sorry to say I never knew that.
Until now I didn’t get how Columbia’s Black students had carried the weightof race on their backs. Their own parents had fought doggedly against oppressionin employment, the military, education, and in society at large. These students,come to an elite university, carried all their parents’ and communities’ besthopes for ending or transcending the sickness of racism. Given the circumstances of their upbringing and all they had learned from their parents’ struggles, it is not surprising that SAS brought a strong notion of discipline to the occupation of Hamilton Hall, a style that was very different from the freewheeling participatory democracy of SDS. When SDS left, the first thing the Black occupiers did was toclean Hamilton Hall from top to bottom. (Although I must say that we — or moreaccurately the commune women — did a good job keeping Low clean and livable for a week.)
Ray Brown told Barbara Bernstein:
“…inherent in discipline, especially in a long-term stay, would be the needto be clean, and to be neat, from everything from food to waste and clothing.And I think there were some deep cultural divisions between at least some ofAfrican–American students and the white students. And it’s clear we maintainedour building in a different way than the other students, and we did that with some pride. But that was a level of discipline that went from making sure that we controlled who was in the building and what was in the building and what was done in the building…everything about your person and your space is critical in a situation that calls for discipline.”
For Black students the stakes have always been higher (and they still are) than forwhite protesters. Their hard-won places in the Ivy League were at stake. Eventhough this was New York City, not the deep south, SAS was well awareof the shooting at a segregation protest near the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, SC only two months earlier, which left threestudents dead and twenty-seven wounded. They had a correct perception of themselves as potential victims of state violence, describing how police had been reaching for their pistols in a melee at Columbia’s gym site.
Going back to the first panel on Thursday evening, Bill Sales explained a central point that was developed by many other Student Afro-American Society veterans throughout the weekend. African-American students at Columbia andBarnard were involved with the wider Black communities in Harlem and Morningside Heights. They participated in local organizing efforts, worked and volunteered in the community, and had friendships that crossed the usual “town-gown” line. More than Vietnam, the gym was their central issue. How could a public park belonging to the people of New York, the people of Harlem, be co-opted for the nearly exclusive use of an elite university?
Black students had links to Manhattan’s African-American political leaders. (Can you imagine actual relationships between SDS and city government?) What was clear is that despite the isolation and discrimination these students felt on campus, they saw themselves directly connected to the people and the city around them. This was not something abstract, like having the correct political perspective, but a matter of flesh and blood, brick and soil.
At one of Saturday’s panels, Mark Rudd said, “The miracle is that after forty years, the Black students told the white participants what was on their minds. And we heard them.” I hope this is true. I hope we heard them, because our future is still at stake.
Paul Spike wrote a moving piece for the Saturday night reading. He spoke of his activist father’s unsolved 1966 murder. Then he pressed on to reflect on what he (and I, and so many well-intentioned white students) failed to see right in front of us. I borrow some of Paul’s words. They go right to the heart of things.
“I want to ask Ray Brown, and Thulani, and Leon, and all of your brothers and sisters, to try to forgive me — and those like me. I want to ask all of the black students at Columbia in 1968 to try to forgive the adolescent self- absorption and intellectual mindlessness, even the privileged racism, which failed to grasp the reality of their suffering, which failed to reach out to them.
“I realize this is a lot to ask. It is like asking me to forgive the people responsible for my father’s murder. I understand that asking for forgiveness is, in many ways, outrageous.
“But I believe that, if you could forgive me, and forgive us, then perhaps one day together our children might begin to fulfill the ideals — freedom, justice, equality — which we all want them to share.”
Note: Sherry and Kamau Suttles’ film “VALA! The Power of Black Students at Columbia University 1968-2008” is an essential document. Prof. Stefan Bradley, of Southern Illinois University, has published journal articles on African-American struggles at Columbia, and is at work on a book focusing on this history to be published by the University of Illinois Press.
• It’s embarrassing to admit how few Barnard women I knew during my four years at Columbia. At last I did have a Barnard girlfriend, and we were beaten and busted together in Low. But there was an amazing collection of women veterans of 68 who came to the gathering. Only one or two could I consider friends from back in the day.
I could chalk this up to psychology or immaturity. And my social development was hardly enhanced by smoking a lot of dope. But I suspect it was also, consciously or not, part of the Columbia plan — isolate and elevate Columbia men to their intended high place in society. Spare them the powerful distraction of women in the halls and classrooms.
What little I knew of Barnard life has been long forgotten. Did I know that Barnard students were locked in each night? You could get expelled for living in sin off campus? (Oh, I did that…) But this was just the tip of the iceberg. A cohort of women — every bit as smart and talented as their male counterparts across Broadway — were denied access to name-brand professors at Columbia. These professors, while inclined to support and encourage Columbia men as future colleagues, tended to belittle and marginalize the few women bold enough to fight for places in their classes. I’m sorry I didn’t remember this.
I like to think that the events of 1968 put cracks in the false front of male supremacy at Columbia. It’s a comforting thought. The numerous accomplished women who co-organized our gathering and shared all the various stages seem to confirm this. Their creative and intellectual abilities would not stay bottled up.
But there is no erasing the pain of their experience, how long and hard the struggle has been. It is not enough to witness victory over narrow prejudice and contrived circumstance. We should know there are scars on the surface and wounds deep below. And I wonder what tragic lives are unseen — among women, Blacks, and even among the white students? Such stories are too often lost.
• Lee Bollinger did not impress me. I understand why it was polite on both sides for him to be there, but I can’t forget or excuse his rambling on and on about the 1st Amendment, while neighborhood critics lined up at the microphone to encounter him. Watching him quickly slip away when the panel opened to questions from the audience reminded me that some things seem not to change at Columbia. A disappointment.
• In1968, we took Low Library easily, climbing in and out the windows, scampering about on ledges. 100 or more of us sleeping on the floor for a week…with only one bathroom. If it were today, I imagine looking at each other andthinking: Only one bathroom, maybe we should reconsider. Along with loaves of bread, whole chickens, apples and grapefruit, our allies on the outside would have to toss up cartons of FloMax.
• It is safe to say that many of our political perspectives have changed over the last forty years. Still there are unresolved issues around strategies of violent and nonviolent social change. My own views are clear at this point, or at least clearer. I am unwilling to kill or harm another person in the service of my beliefs. This intention flows from a study of Dr. King, Gandhi, the Buddha, and Catholic activists, which replaces the imperfectly understood Leninism and Guevarism I subscribed to in the late 60s and 70s.
But I still believe that political change is inseparably linked to power. This means there are bound to be opposing points of view. In 1957 Dr. King preached:
“Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
Active nonviolence is a difficult path. It involves a soldier’s discipline and an awakened faith in human nature, even when seeing human nature at its worst. We have to make use of power. That will not always be pretty or nice, but my hope is that as much as possible we can rely on power with, rather than power over. Something like the Aikido techniques of aligning and turning with one’s opponent.
But we are not yet done with the past. Much of Columbia’s SDS leadership was as little later instrumental in Weather Underground. I myself was involved in it. At the Townhouse, Ted Gold (along with Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins) lost his life in the service of a militant political line (which I believe was marked by a sincere but tragically flawed identification with the world’s oppressed) run off the rails. At several points in the weekend people felt the need to celebrate Weather politics, perhaps out of necessity to honor those who are dead or still imprisoned, perhaps in affirmation that years spent in those ideological wars were not wasted. Others, of course, were quick to attack.
I have some regrets, but I can’t get caught in recriminations over wasted years. Do I wish I/we had a clear vision of nonviolent direct action that would have built a broad and radical movement that turned America away from war, racism, and destruction of the world’s environment? Of course. But I remember that the murder of the foremost proponent of that very vision, Martin Luther King, prelude to the uprising at Columbia. The assassination of King, Malcolm, Fred Hampton, and other leaders propelled many of us towards armed struggle. Whether one calls this crazy or not (I don’t), there was an ineluctable logic to our course. The inner logic of trauma keeps one from thinking straight.
Low Library Ledge, April 1968
Now forty years have passed. We can weep and we can heal. We can honor those we grew up with — right or wrong, alive or dead — just by seeing them as human, neither on or under a pedestal. We remember brothers and sisters still imprisoned, along with 2 million others caught up in the world’s largest gulag. We can also honor the lives of all those who did show up last week, lives that are astonishing in meaning and variety. And I hope we can build a strong nonviolent movement that weans us from war, from oil, from exploitation and from self-destruction. Which means we have to train ourselves in nonviolence, and deconstruct the habits of violence that persist in each of us.
• I wonder what would have happened if we had another week together. On one hand I find myself yearning for more time and more opportunity to be with old friends and to engage with our shared and disparate history. On the other hand, it might not have been pretty. We would probably have gotten past the lovefest to our disagreements. Those differences nourish the fertile soil of change.
• Thulani Davis and I organized a memorial service on Sunday morning at Earl Hall to remember those connected to Columbia and the strike who have died in the years since 1968. This included participants on all sides (although, it seems a line was drawn at Grayson Kirk) and allies in the wider world. Names were read, people spoke briefly of the departed. Mark Rudd and Jeff Sokolow recited Kaddish. Tom Hurwitz read from the Episcopal Book of Hours. Thulani offered Buddhist verses. All this was more or less in the script we created. Unscripted and marvelous, Plunky Branch showed up with a soprano saxophone and a cd player queued to a gospel-style piano track. I remembered his face — that youthful, playful quality bright and clear — from the late 60s Soul Syndicate. I asked what he had in mind, and he said he could play “Amazing Grace.” I said, why don’t we start the whole thing that way, and so we did. His playing built, the melody down low, rising, twisting, and filling every hollow of Earl Hall. It was impossible to hold back the tears that came along with the music. Then came words and more tears, and Plunky took us home with Thomas A. Dorsey’s gospel classic “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
• Sunday’s chill and bluster was the right weather for the closing in Morningside Park, though the weather was too iffy for a planned picnic. A small group of stalwarts were left. There were a few speeches that went on too long, then a weeping cherry tree was planted on the hillside, where its blossoms can drift over Harlem below. Again, for me, the park was a place discovered at last. Aside from playing softball for physical education, and going to demonstrate at the gym site in April of 68, I don’t think I had ever set foot in Morningside Park, although for three years I lived on 119th Street, just a block away. Another embarrassing realization of how cut off I was from the actual world around me. The park, built in the 1880s and 90s around designs by Olmsted and Vaux, is quite beautiful, with winding paths, green fields and tall trees. Community activism since the 1980s have recreated an urban gem, hewing to Olmsted’s plans. And a pond and waterfall now rest in the abandoned excavation of Columbia’s ill- considered gym.
• Everything is incomplete. The intensity of being with old comrades, of reconsidering the things we did so long ago, lingers as I write these words. So many of us who lived this history were there. And many have passed on. We will never meet again this way. But our words, thoughts, and actions ripple through the world, and, more intimately, through our own minds, shaping and changing us. These facts go far beyond love, like, dislike, or any feelings we may have. The way we know the world depends on those come and gone before us. The challenge left us is to accomplish all we once wished and wish still for this sorrowful, miraculous world. Memory gives difficult birth to responsibility.
Resources • Barbara Bernstein’s excellent 84 minute piece on KBOO/Portland, includes interviews with Ray Brown, Kathy Knowles, et al:
• Steven Marx’s 5-part blog, details many of the weekend’s events: www.stevenmarx.net/2008/04/columbia-1968-and-the-world/