Columbia 68 and the World (4)

Saturday morning back in Queens I drove with Peter past immense cemeteries to the center of Middle Village where, since his birth, his mother had bought groceries. The clerks in the small supermarket went out of their way to provide us with empty boxes. These were neighborhood folks, sounding like characters in Mafia movies, and so were the residents of the small tidy row houses sporting American flags we passed on the way back. “Police and firemen mostly,” said Peter, “90% white. I grew up with these people. That’s why I never believed in the working class revolution.”

Jan was still sorting documents upstairs, and there was nothing for me to do till decisions were made about how to dispose of the furnishings. I sat on one of the plastic covered sofas and started reading my signed copy of Busy Dying, Hilton Obenzinger’s delicious new memoir centered on Columbia 68, while Peter conferred with the real estate agent in the dining room.

Meticulously dressed and coiffed, the young man, who also worked as a marriage counselor, had lived down the street all his life and cherished the place. He told Peter that the house could be made beautiful for the virtual tour he’d put online, but suggested gently that some items be cleared. After he left, Peter asked me to help move a bookcase to the basement, and I suggested we put it in the Goodwill room so that no further decision about that item would be required. When he agreed, I knew we were getting somewhere. Within the next two hours the ugly lamps, coffee tables, nylon curtains, artificial ferns, plastic slipcovers were removed, and the original, quaint design of the place emerged, ready for its internet debut.

Gratified with the progress of cleanup, Jan and I didn’t leave Middle Village until three in the afternoon. I regretted missing the splendid lineup of this day’s events”films of the strike, panels on “The Legacy of the Student Movement” and on “Ethics and Protest” and also the active demonstration against Columbia’s expansion we’d been urged to join. There was a good excuse, but nevertheless I knew that part of the decision was to evade having to make a commitment to a new cause here and now.

I haven’t yet heard about what happened at that demonstration, but Dan Leighton sent me his impressions of the two missed panels, which I copy here with his permission:

Among other highlights earlier Saturday was the panel moderated by Juan Gonzales in which Lew Cole eloquently challenged Todd Gitlin’s contention that, along with its positive effects (which were ably elaborated by Frances Fox Piven), Columbia 68 and its aftermath helped elect Nixon. Others countered that Nixon was more a product of Wallace’s votes from segregationist Democrats, and Humphrey’s own ineffectiveness.

Cole argued that aside from electoral politics there is another level of politics that may be “romantic,” but has its own kind of virtue and effects. I believe it was Lew who paraphrased Rosa Luxemburg to say that Columbia 68 was “an incandescent moment of dazzling audacity.” He proclaimed passionately that we had acted as a moment of international solidarity, standing with the Vietnamese people and the people in the community, and that every generation needs a moment when we try to follow our ideals to make the world. That we stood up in the face of “inexorable evil” gave us strength. Cole talked about walking home from the Friday night re-creation of What Happened with his son, who appreciated the romantic side of the event. Cole said that aside from the birth of his children, Columbia 68 was the highpoint of his life, and he valued 68 even more now that he has limited time left (sadly, due to his ALS condition).

Also I enjoyed the rich discussion in the panel thereafter on Ethics, including Jamal Joseph a young-looking ex-Panther who chairs Columbia Film Dept., but spent 11 years in jail, speaking more extensively about the Black experience in NY, and in 68. Also Mark Rudd declared that he himself was unimportant, despite the media focus, and that the 68 occupation and strike really happened especially thanks to the Blacks in Hamilton Hall, along with the collective befuddled response of the rest of us. Mark also talked about how he had been totally wrong to side with the “Action faction” in SDS, and that he now believes that Organizing is more important than “Self-expression politics.” I would say that the latter can hopefully support the former. Karl Klare (Michael’s brother) challenged the notion of working within, or without of the “system,” as there is always some simultaneous aspect of both needed. And Winnie Varghese, the young black woman who is Episcopal Chaplain at Columbia, spoke well about the potential role of religious conviction in social justice work.

He also sent this link,, to a ninety-minute radio show about the event aired by Barbara Bernstein on Portland’s alternate radio station on April 30 which includes her recording of the last ten minutes of Cole’s impassioned speech.

While time carries me further from the conference and its halfway point passes in this writing, the notes in my journal get more sparse. I depend on the gathering documentation of others”a web of recollections of recollection.

At 4:30 we arrived back at the Journalism building, in the middle of the session called “Organizing, Activism, Engagement”Then and Now.” It took place in beautiful room with twenty foot ceilings, thick red curtains and a huge stained glass mural.

The speakers’ table was at its center and it took me a couple of minutes to realize that people were circulating through its seats, taking and relinquishing the microphones without recourse to a moderator: a variant of participatory democracy that allowed everyone “a place at the table.” This was convenient for Monroe, an elderly man with a very loud voice whose bloated ravings tried everyone’s patience, as well as for one young man, self-identified as a member of PL, who rambled interminably.

On the other hand two young Columbia students associated with the A.N.S.W.E.R Coalition–Act Now to Stop War and End Racism–eloquently described ongoing efforts to raise public consciousness off campus by walking through subway cars and talking to riders about the connections between violations of the rights of immigrant and the conduct of the Iraq war.

At the promptings of the oldsters, one gave a stirring sample, a tiny bit of which I was able to capture on video. In regard to a question raised by Grace Linda about the gender roles in this current movement, the women stated that they had to overcome the traditional machismo of latino culture by cutting short discussion and getting down to action, in which the men would then take part. A young male student with a quiet voice responded that in his experience the leadership positions of radical groups were usually occupied by women.

Racism and war”the mobilizing issues of 68”remained in the forefront of the these students’ activism, but I heard no discussion of the environmental concerns that have dramatically engaged large numbers of students at my University and at two national environmental conferences I’ve attended recently. Those issues tend to be less confrontational than war, race and class, and they are also more congenial to the less urban settings of the West. For that reason I found myself distanced from repeated references to our side being “the left.”

We left this session early and walked across the plaza to check out Fayerweather Hall. Jan had sent this posting to the Yahoo group about her memory of one incident there:

I was a graduate student in Comparative Medieval Literature, and my husband was a professor in the English Department. My day job was teaching at Elisabeth Irwin School, and at night my husband and I camped out in Fayerweather.

I remember attending a meeting there which was overflowing with students, so I was near the entrance to the Hall, straining to hear. All of a sudden, police came charging up the staircase a few feet in front of me. They had billy clubs, flashlights etc. and immediately started using them on the nearest people. A transcendently handsome young man with long red hair and green eyeswas standing next to me, and he was hit on the head by a police officer. I am not sure I have ever since seen so much blood at once. He went down, and a bunch of us dragged him back toward the front door.

There, attached to the wall, I noticed a wooden telephone booth and urged people to help me pull it off the wall. We succeeded, put it down horizontally and slid it toward the staircase, toward the wave of police officers continuing to pour out from below. It was easy to slide because of all the blood on the marble floor. With our phone booth in front of us, we managed to trip and push down a lot of the
police, and then the wave of blue suddenly stopped. The meeting continued uninterrupted throughout all this. I am not sure if the people in the other room even knew what was happening outside.

I had never before nor after been in such a combat situation, but this need to suddenly defend an innocent person brutally attacked inspired the warrior in me…it still causes me to marvel. Others may debate whether the police were out of control or not. I know what we experienced.

Acknowledging the imperialist coding of the McKim, Mead and White campus architecture, I still felt a bit of the returning alumnus’ nostalgia in its serenity and grandeur. I wandered into the open side door of the adjoining St. Paul’s Chapel where golden rays from the dome illuminated a group of student musicians rehearsing for a Bach concert that night.

Another take on this place recalled on several conference occasions as the scene of Mark Rudd’s audacious interruption of the University’s official Martin Luther King Memorial Ceremony a couple of weeks before the occupations.

Returning to Journalism as the Activism session adjourned, we ran into Dan together with a person I almost could place. He introduced himself as Bill C. and said he had taken the Pastoral and Utopia course in 1969, that he loved the readings and did a presentation on Donovan’s album, For Little Ones. I hadn’t seen or heard that recording in 30 years, but now my mind was flooded with the songs from it we listened to like mantras under the candle lantern slowly making our living room revolve. Bill mentioned that he had also come to our farm in B.C. after graduating in 1971. I accounted for that memory lapse by explaining that during our first year there we were preoccupied with leaky roofs, lack of firewood, sick baby and unmet mortgage payments–unaccommodating hosts for seekers the good life.

Dan and Bill disappeared, Linda Grace, Ellen, Isetta showed up, and Peter called me on my cellphone from 100 yards away at the sundial where we’d arranged to meet after another session of his at the nursing home. The six of us walked down Broadway back to the Italian restaurant. The dinner order disappeared somewhere in the kitchen for a full hour, allowing us to drink wine and eat bread without getting too anxious, but the headwaiter was mortified and Jan negotiated with him to cut thirty dollars off the tab.

Our well fed happy band made its way uptown again to the School of International Affairs, a sterile high-rise bastion of establishment foreign policy, for the evening’s program of writers reading from their published works relating to the events of 68. Not surprisingly it was a large and star-studded group. Hilton Obenzinger, one of the conferences organizers who moderated the listserve and was present start to finish at every event, began with the chapter I’d read this morning in Busy Dying.

Ntzoke Shange moved slowly to the stage with the help of a walker and an attendant. Her determination to join us under those circumstances, like Lewis Cole’s, who’d come in a wheelchair with a respirator, offset the celebratory atmosphere, but also heightened it. Others will provide a more adequate report on this alignment of art and politics, and Alan Senauke’s photographs will provide a better picture. I recall Sharon Olds’ letter to Laura Bush refusing to attend an honorary dinner at the White House (accessible here), James Kunen’s shy and endearing memoir from The Strawberry Statement, and Bob Holman’s pyrotechnic performance of a slam poem about the brain’s inner dialogue that reminded me of The Cat in the Hat.

As happened the previous night, there was an embarrassment of riches, and by the end of the program I sadly preferred getting back to a bed in Queens to going on to the West End for the scheduled drinking and dancing.

last installment

Note: To access more photos, a slideshow and larger versions of the ones included here, go to this flickrpage.

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