By my long time comrade Eleanor Stein
In Spring 1968, I was completing my first year at Columbia Law School with my brilliant cohorts Gus Reichbach, Michael and Bruce Ratner, Margie Leinsdorf (later Ratner), Barry Willdorf. Despite my upbringing by Annie and Arthur Stein, former Communists, union organizers and anti-racist activists and my teenage organizing with student CORE and SANE in New York City, I was determined to get law school under my belt and begin to practice law. But the first day that SDS and African-American students led a march off campus to Morningside Park to protest the construction of a gym for students, Gus and I slipped out of the back row of contracts class and brought up the rear. When students decided to sit-in at Hamilton Hall, and then to take other buildings as the African-American students instructed the white students to leave them in possession, I joined in. Nevertheless, I was holding on to my privilege as a lawyer-in-training, and wore an armband marking me as slightly apart from the rebels: Legal Observer. Years later, I met a then-medical student who confirmed he, too, wore a protective armband: Medical Presence.
But after a week living in Fayerweather, those distinctions had worn thin. I was one of five law students arrested on April 30. We had one room in Fayerweather for non-violent resisters, and I locked arms with Gus and my husband Jonah Raskin. We were all dragged out by the police; I still have the scars on my knees to prove it.
Context is all: 1968 was the year of unparalleled revolution rivaling 1848 in its breadth. French workers and students allied and were liberating factories, to proclaim a general strike in May. It was also the year that more than 536,000 American military personnel served in Vietnam, with more than 14,500 Americans killed in combat. We were then and continued to be consumed by the cost of unjust war and compelled to action to stop it.
In January 30, 1968 in the Tet Offensive and general uprising, North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces attacked more than one hundred cities, with over thirty uprisings in provincial capitals. Most dramatically, to us, NLF forces temporarily occupied the U.S. embassy in Saigon. In early February African-American students at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg demonstrated, police opened fire killing three and wounding 33. On March 19 a Howard University sit-in morphed into a campus building takeover and on the last day of March, LBJ announced that he was not going to run for reelection and we danced in the streets and on the campus.
But on April 4 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. In 125 cities across the country people took to the streets and were met with tanks in Chicago Baltimore, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. Seventy thousand troops were called out and in Washington machine guns were mounted on the Capitol balcony and the White House lawn as fires blossomed. Forty-six people were killed. In the midst of mayhem, Oakland police shot and killed 16-year old Black Panther Bobby Hutton.
Only in revisiting that global context does the logic of the Columbia occupation and strike emerge. We were driven by the exigency of throwing ourselves at the war machine and of standing side by side with African-Americans combating racism. And that is what we did.
Retrospective cynicism is cheap: one action, no matter how dramatic, seldom results in fundamental societal change. The university prevailed, the war bled on for another seven years. The gym was never built but Columbia expanded throughout Harlem.
What did we accomplish? The meaning of the Sixties remains contested ground, with a strong establishment interest in dismissing the whole project as a kid’s game that threatened the city with violence and accomplished nothing.
Columbia sparked countless student protests and takeovers all over the country and symbolized the fact that privileged young people were rejecting their inheritance of war and racism and taking a stand. Make no mistake, that shook the ruling class. And at a 2008 reunion of hundreds of participants, it was striking that 40 years on, almost all had remained in helping professions, community organizations, and advocacy.
The successful fight against the construction of a gym for Columbia students in one of the few green spaces in Harlem stands as an early victory for what is now termed environmental justice: the fight for equitable distribution of the burdens on and benefits of the environment.
Was Columbia purely symbolic or was it a real radical movement? The phrase “only symbolic” misses the fact that symbolism is an enormously important, motivating, inspiring and enraging aspect of human existence and life.
Demonstrators lying down in front of a troop train in Oakland was a symbolic action. They were not going to stop the transport of draftees to the Vietname front. Yet they may die and they will certainly get arrested. And yet, what a powerful symbol: I will give my life to stop this war or to delay this war for four hours, delay the delivery of troops going – likely to their death or severe injury – to kill Vietnamese people in my name. People who immolated themselves, people who marched across the bridge in Selma. Each of these actions are the iconic images of that period. And yet each one of those actions could be characterized as purely symbolic.
We didn’t have the power in 1968 to actually physically stop the gym. We didn’t have the power to actually physically remove the Institute for Defense Analysis from the campus. What did we have? We had the power to convince a sufficient number of people on that campus and even some who made the decisions at the university that these things were wrong, that they should be stopped, that they could be stopped, and that the price for not doing that was going to be extraordinarily high for the university and the city.
The ultimate symbolism of Columbia for me was the incomparable sight of five red flags, flying from the roofs of the five occupied buildings. That memory stirs me to this day. Even though I wrote, in a contemporaneous account of the takeover, that I realized that
“we can’t run a socialist communal university in a capitalist city and society”, the events at Columbia remain a marker in my life. I went into Fayerweather as a Legal Observer; I was dragged out by the police as a woman determined to transform my life and to throw my body and my spirit at the oppressors. I soon left the law school, my marriage ended, I left New York and threw my lot in with the underground. But that’s another story altogether.
But for me, to participate in an act of liberation at the age of 24, was a gift. Seamus Heaney says it best:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy