Columbia 68 and the World (3)

Early Friday morning Jan selected clothes for Peter to take to his mother in the nursing home, and I divided the basement into areas for stuff going to the trash, to Goodwill and possibly to keep. On the subway trip back to Columbia, we attracted many people eager to direct us. Passing the gates at College Walk, we heard loud noise coming from Low Plaza and noticed hundreds of pink balloons attached to posts and railings all over the central quad.

Wow! I thought, there must be a huge group of Code Pink students marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war today. But instead it turned out to be a festival sponsored by a Korean-American sorority.

We arrived a few minutes early at the Journalism building for the morning session and met up with Taigen Dan Leighton, Zen priest, translator and scholar, just arriving from a stay in Richmond Virginia where he led members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in a walk along the Slave Trail and a meditation vigil at the Statue of Reconciliation in downtown Richmond, Virginia, the site of the slave auction houses.

Dan took a couple of my classes at Columbia before and after the strike and spent a good deal of time in our apartment. We reestablished contact as a result of Jan’s involvement with the San Franciso Zen center, where Dan was a resident teacher before starting his own congregation in Chicago. It was he–along with current students at Cal Poly–who helped me overcome reluctance to attend the reunion.

Dan and I shared gratitude for what we’ve learned from Michael Klare about the dynamics of money, power and war. Klare was the featured speaker on “Vietnam to Iraq”40 years of intervention, what have we learned.” He addressed the question of why there’s been so little protest against the Iraq war compared to Vietnam. The sixties, he said, was a time of intent study. Through teach-ins in universities and also thorough better media coverage than today’s, war opponents became experts on the history of Southeast Asia, the architecture of the military-industrial complex, the covert operations of the CIA. That study revealed that the war was not a mistake or aberration, as maintained by its liberal critics, but rather an inevitable product of an imperial foreign policy. The pressure of the draft made the war’s justification a topic of family discussions throughout the country. It was the consequent loss of popular support that eventually brought about its end.

I agreed that more concerted educational efforts in Universities nationwide would lead to stronger war opposition. My own involvement in organizing teach-ins about Sustainability and Global Warming at Cal Poly showed that student activism can be awakened through this approach. And I also agreed that the difference resulted primarily from the absence of a draft affecting the middle class, replaced today, in Klare’s words, by an “economic draft,” facilitated by the privatizing of combat with mercenaries.

But I was sceptical about another of Klare’s major points: that through their study of us in the 60’s, the Pentagon came up with a strategy of defusing protest that has succeeded in prolonging the present war by maintaining its moral justification through media manipulation. Neither then nor now have huge demonstrations convinced Congress to withdraw funding for the war or to enforce the Constitution’s limitation on the President’s power to declare and conduct wars. Demonstrations continued for eight years and still we stayed in Vietnam. Anti-war protests before we attacked Iraq were the largest ever, and after the unmasking of the WMD hoax, the present war has been even less popular than Vietnam.

The Then and Now theme was taken up by Callie, a Columbia graduate student in anthropology, whose youthful bloom highlighted the effects of age on us celebrants. She represented a group of graduate students who had in fact been protesting the war this week–by hooding the statue of Alma Mater and stringing wires from her hands, a reminder of Abu Ghraib which was dismantled by campus security guards after one hour. They also staged a walk-out of classes participated in by very few. And they were continuing a five-day reading of names of war dead, American and Iraqi, at the sundial in the center of the campus. “We don’t have a movement,” she exclaimed. “We don’t have demands, we don’t have much support.” However, she said, there is a large group of activists who refused to attend this conference because we had aligned ourselves with Bollinger and the University while it was engaged in the expansion into Harlem. Tomorrow at 12:30 we should at least join the protest.

Before this session ended, it was time to attend the one on “Feminist Legacies of 1968,” and we ducked out to join Linda Grace on the walk up to Schermerhorn Hall, where she was to be a panelist. Passing Low Library she got a cell phone call from her daughter who wanted to know how long to bake a chicken in the oven. We found seats in the packed lecture room next to two women near the front. Barbara Bernstein, whom we see almost every year and whom we’d greeted briefly the night before, came over and pointed: “This is Ellen and Isetta.”

We’d never met Isetta and had lost contact with Ellen, who’d been an admired friend in New York and who’d spent time on our homestead in B.C. during the early seventies. The intense and slightly awkward encounter was abbreviated by the program’s start.

The panel consisted of women who were at Barnard and Columbia in 1968 and, as stated in the program, who “played important roles in the rise of the feminist movement.” They included Louise Yelin, Sharon Olds, Elizabeth Diggs, Catharine Stimpson, Rosalyn Baxandall, Christine Clark-Evans, Grace Linda LeClair and Ti-Grace Atkinson.

Sharon read a poem about lying on her back on the sidewalk at 114th St. and Broadway, looking up at the hooves and belly of a police horse, suddenly knowing she was pregnant, and deciding to go home. Catharine Stimpson told of teaching the first black literature and women’s literature courses at Barnard. She took a more sympathetic view of Martha Peterson, who achieved a great deal for women but had to deal with alumni donors and with the efforts of Columbia to gobble up its sister school. Christine, who was among the SAS students in Hamilton Hall, spoke of learning from her mother to accept what life brings you, to take setbacks as opportunities, and to face the struggle against racism as a hundred years’ war.

All the women were great story tellers, and each succeeding speaker tended to take more time than her predecessor. The audience was most eager to again hear the tale of Linda Leclair, and when she interrupted herself for going on at too great length, they insisted she continue.

Grace spoke of coming to New York from a long line of strong women in a small New Hampshire town, expecting that Barnard would be a place she could have more scope and freedom. She felt caged by the parietal rules that were supposed to protect her while her boyfriend was able to run free. She spoke also of another prison”the objectified identity of a public persona manipulated by the media against which she had to struggle to define herself. Ti-Grace, who was one of Linda’s advocates in the sixties, discussed the way political issues are sexualized to humiliate women and force them to step back. She saw the same process still at work in relation to abortion and lesbianism.

During the audience participation that followed, Barbara spoke of waking up with her boyfriend, hearing of the strike, and climbing into Low Library while her boyfriend stayed behind and disappeared from her life.


A current student expressed gratitude for “your gift and your burden” and for the fact that 40 years later we were still doing it. Jan proposed that Barnard confer upon Linda an honorary degree, an idea that elicited strong approval from the audience.

The next session was on “Political Action and Offical Response,” in the late sixties and today. It featured two professors of law, a jurist and a state supreme court judge, all of whom had been arrested in 68, as well Columbia President Lee Bollinger. But we were already overstimulated and starving, and less than eager to engage more of the controversy about present-day University expansion. In the stylish Chinese restaurant on 114 St., formerly Chock Full ˜o Nuts, Jan and I were joined by Grace, Ellen and Isetta.

With all the intensity but less whimsy than I remembered of her, Ellen told of her encounter this morning with Bonnie Wildorf. They recalled that they were the two unacknowledged individuals who directed the leaderless crowd of angry students “to the gym, to the gym,” thereby setting off the events that led to the occupation. They were planning to claim credit at tonight’s group presentation of “What Happened.” I had just read the memorable account of this incident in Up Against the Ivy Wall, which I pulled out of my packsack. I found the quote and lent her the relevant clump of pages.

Jan and I got back to the Journalism Building just in time to see Lee Bollinger leaving the the hall harangued by members of the audience. Whatever had transpired, he was not staying on to answer questions. The next session was on “Race at Columbia, Then and Now,” and even with full stomachs, feeling ill prepared to face this topic, we decided to head for the display of memorabilia of 1968 in Butler Library before it closed for the weekend. Afterwards we moseyed out to South Lawn and sat with the few disconsolate students listening to names being read, a mournful gong tolling after each one, its long reverberation filling the vast space of the quad.

Through with his mother’s affairs in Queens for the day, Peter joined Linda me and Dan for an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant on Broadway, and then we made our way past the sentries at the gate and the police cars patrolling College Walk over to the Law School for the conference’s biggest event, “What Happened?” Over the podium in a huge lecture hall, two screens flashed images of the 68 strike accompanied by period music. Noone mentioned Julie Taymore’s operatic recreation of the strike in the recent film about the Beatles, “Across the Universe,” but it would have been appropriate here.

As the 500 seats filled, Robert Friedman introduced the 40-person narrative that was to inform us about what had gone on outside and in buildings other than the ones we occupied. Memory is fragile, he averred, but we were going to do our best tonight because “it aint gonna get any better.” Nevertheless, each of the participants in this ably orchestrated production was able to recall their experience with with vivid and prolific detail and tell it with palpable impact on the audience. I jotted down only a couple of examples. Juan Gonzalez, today’s sedate partner of Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, told of how his involvement with tutoring programs in Harlem led him to outrage about Columbia’s treatment of its neighbors.

Nick Freudenberg spoke of the horror that children of refugees from the Nazis felt at behaving like “good Germans” in complicity with the U.S. government. Bob Holman told about Fred Wilson, whose iconic image of being the first person arrested at the gym site didnt reveal that he was only there looking for his lost glasses.

nor that a year later he committed suicide.

Three hours into the two hour planned program, sensing the audience’s growing fatigue, the organizers huddled and decided to delete many of the presentations still remaining. Although detailed narratives of the bust itself were cut short, no one seemed disappointed. The most notable of the evening’s impacts for me was created by testimony provided by a dozen or so former SAS members about conditions on campus for black students leading to their takeover of Hamilton Hall.

They lived in constant humiliation: stopped and required to provide identification every time they passed through the gates, subject to racist comments by fellow students and some professors, accused of practising self-segregation, insulted by the University’s offer of a back door portion of the gym to the Harlem residents they worked with in community projects, refused the opportunity to play by coaches of the teams for which they had earned athletic scholarships. One speaker concluded: “The time I spent here just about destroyed me…the only thing worse was watching my wife die of breast cancer.” Very few of the hundreds of white students in that room who went to jail to fight the university’s racist policies toward Harlem were remotely aware of these experiences of their fellow students at the time. Robert Friedman said that as he adjourned the event near midnight. There were tears on his face.

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

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