Remembering the Columbia Protest of '68: Government Officials

Fifty years ago this week, students at Columbia shut down the university for seven days, in protest of plans to build a gymnasium in a nearby Harlem park, university links to the Vietnam War, and what they saw as Columbia’s generally unresponsive attitude to student concerns.

Today on Gotham, we continue a weeklong series featuring excerpts from a new collection of more than sixty essays, edited by Paul Cronin, reflecting on that moment. A Time to Stir reveals clearly the lingering passion and idealism of many strikers. But it also speaks to the complicated legacy of the uprising. If, for some, the events inspired a lifelong dedication to social causes, for others they signaled the beginning of a chaos that would soon engulf the left. Taken together, these reflections move beyond the standard account, presenting a more nuanced Rashoman-like portrait. On Monday, we considered the remembrances of students (male, female, black, white, visiting, resident, pro, anti), followed on Tuesday and Wednesday by views of faculty and police officers. Today, we hear from some of the government officials involved.

Jay Kriegel

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. While other cities across the country erupted, New York remained relatively calm, in part because John Lindsay, in his third year as mayor, quickly headed to Harlem to walk on 125th Street, mingling with the crowd and expressing his sympathies. A bold move, it was a continuation of his personal outreach to alienated minority communities that began in the summer of 1966, when he raced out to East New York to defuse an outbreak of racial troubles. His visit to Harlem was impactful because he had been there so many times before, when it was calm, giving his presence now a legitimacy and credibility with those grieving... It was in sharp contrast to the approach of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. In the aftermath of King’s death, Daley had instructed police to stop arsonists and looters by issuing a “shoot to kill” directive. Lindsay’s response to Daley was simple: “In times of trouble... we are not going to shoot children in New York.”

Weeks later, when students occupied five buildings on the Columbia campus, the university administration seemed to be looking for a magic solution. Because Lindsay’s walks in Harlem and elsewhere had had such a calming effect, they thought he could quickly defuse their situation if he just came to the campus. But their assumptions were misguided. In troubled neighborhoods, the mayor could reach out to disaffected residents — community leaders, ministers, militants, parents, and street kids — and patiently listen to their grievances. He could then call on an array of commissioners and government representatives — the people responsible for things like substandard housing, schools, and social services — to respond, so that those aggrieved and skeptical residents could feel that some kind of action was being taken.

But the issues at Columbia were different. This community wasn’t boiling over because of perceived grievances, nor was it seeking access to senior government officials to air their concerns. This was not a civil disorder with fires, looting of stores, and people being attacked. On the contrary, Columbia was a calm, static, and deadlocked situation, without serious risk to life and property. The presence of the mayor would bring neither relief nor resolution. This was, for the most part, middleclass students, peacefully sitting-in over an odd combination of two unrelated issues: a gym Columbia was building in Harlem, and the Vietnam War. In response, the mayor sent three aides to Columbia, each of whom locked onto different campus groups. Barry Gottehrer, our leader, worked the black Columbia students inside Hamilton Hall and Harlem community leaders; Sid Davidoff spent time with the Columbia students who were vehemently against their fellow students occupying buildings (the so-called jocks, a conservative element); and I liaised with the activist contingent, the Strike Coordinating Committee, which was dominated by the militant SDS.

Lindsay was sympathetic to the overall demands of the student protesters and vocal in his long-standing opposition to the war in Vietnam. A month before the protests at Columbia, he spoke on campus at the Law School, suggesting that urban violence at home was strongly connected to the war in Southeast Asia. And as he put it some months later in December 1968, in a speech also made on the Columbia campus, as student protests were spreading at colleges across the country: "[T]he last year has taught us . . . that your effort and your energy may not be sufficient to build a better America, but it is necessary to that effort. I do not come to promise you that all we seek will be won if you continue speaking and acting for these goals — but I do come to say that without you, we cannot win. You have seen how much is at stake. You have reminded us of the work to be done. Now help us to do it."

But at the same time, Lindsay — whose record in Congress made clear his deep respect for the First Amendment — was troubled by the disruption being caused by this small group of radical Columbia students. As a fellow of the Yale Corporation, he was acutely sensitive to the pressures on university presidents and the difficulty of managing a college in the late sixties, as he made clear in a statement printed in the New York Times: "Students have a right to protest, to dissent, to demonstrate. That right is basic, but not supreme. It cannot be allowed to supersede equally important individuals’ rights and privileges, among them the right of a university to teach and grant degrees, and the right of students to learn. The demonstration by a group of Columbia University students during the past several days clearly exceeded even the most liberal perimeters of the right to assemble and dissent. The demonstrators, comprising less than 5 percent of the student body, ransacked the office of the university president, held a dean prisoner and forced the administration to suspend classes. Regardless of the merits of their cause, the few hundred students cannot be allowed to impose their will on a university of some 20,000 students through destructive, illegal tactics."

Just as the mayor’s presence was unlikely to bring about some meaningful resolution of the situation at Columbia, bringing in the NYPD also was unlikely to be helpful. The police are essential to stabilizing situations of urban unrest where domestic tranquility is being disturbed, where a community is being pulled apart, where people are endangered and property is threatened. But Columbia — with its middle-class students who had isolated themselves from the community, deep within the ivory tower — was a very different situation. It was readily apparent that the hundreds of students now occupying buildings weren’t interested in negotiating. (I was only a few years older than these students but found most of the SDS leadership, and especially Columbia chapter chairman Mark Rudd, quite unappealing, stubbornly rigid, and self-centered.) Moreover, the police would have virtually no sympathy for these students who were far better off economically and whose protests against the war, and ability to avoid military service, highlighted how the burden in Vietnam was being borne largely by the less fortunate, including the police, their families, and friends. To the cops, these kids seemed both spoiled and unpatriotic. In reality, introducing the police into Morningside Heights became a clash of social and economic classes. Ultimately, if the university decided to enforce its private property rights and eject trespassers, the NYPD would have to be called into action. But the last thing that the police wanted to do was to get involved in this multisided and impossibly complicated conflict, in which it was obvious they would please no one.

We were not unsympathetic to the situation that the Columbia administration found itself in. As they got worn down, tired, and frustrated, and with no end in sight, they wanted nothing more than to go back to running their sacred educational establishment. Faced with this intransigent, highly vocal group that was disrupting the university, with mounting counterpressure from other students, faculty, and outside commentators urging that the disorder end, that classes resume immediately, and that the values of the academy be restored, they were desperate to end the crisis. And while President Grayson Kirk and his board of trustees were convinced —erroneously, we believed — that these campus protests were somehow infecting Harlem and exacerbating community tensions, and sought to use this to justify their call for police action, we had no doubt that the Columbia protests were self-contained. We had been through two summers of community confrontations and eruptions, and felt battle hardened. After the dangerous and inflammatory conflicts we had been dealing with, we recognized the perils of introducing police into this unusual situation. As Barry Gottehrer wrote in his book The Mayor’s Man, any police action would probably “result in a massacre."

During our regular meetings with the university administration, we patiently explained that police would only inflame the situation if they were brought on campus. So we were startled when David Truman, Columbia’s vice president, finally told us, with some exasperation, “Let’s just get this over with. It’s inevitable. Let’s bring in the cops, end this once and for all, and the next day we’ll go back to life as normal.” We tried to make clear that we didn’t think anything would be normal the day after a thousand angry students confronted a thousand hostile cops.

Jay Kriegel was chief of staff and special counsel to Mayor John Lindsay from 1966 to 1973, including liaising with the nation’s mayors and the Kerner Commission.

Bennet Gershman

The events at Columbia in 1968 are a fascinating example of the way the power structure of the United States functions. When it came to prosecuting the hundreds of people arrested on the Columbia campus during the police bust that ended the building occupations of April 1968, it was obvious to me from the outset that none of the students were in need of incarceration or rehabilitation. I knew this partly because it was simple common sense that most participants in demonstrations and disturbances of the era were generally passive and peaceful, and also because the students of Columbia, and students on campuses across the country, were more interested in constructive participation with society than the destruction of the world in which they lived. These were idealistic people standing up for a cause in which they passionately believed. Moreover, their message — about racism, about the waging of an unpopular war, about corporate America — was one I was sympathetic to...

Deserved or not, we had a reputation as being one of the most nonpartisan, fair-minded, and effective prosecutor’s office in the country. Whether working down in Mississippi or as a prosecutor in New York City, I was obligated to defend the Constitution, enforce the law, and uphold the rights of everyone, no matter who they were. I had no problem with prosecuting antiwar demonstrators, for example, so long as our office dispensed justice fairly and consistently with the rights of every defendant. I was handed the cases of hundreds of men and women, a hodgepodge of Columbia students who had been sitting in the buildings for nearly a week, each of whom had been charged with criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor...

Without reliable witnesses, or photographs to document the events of that night, I wondered whether I could prove that the defendants had committed the crime of criminal trespass, or even been inside the buildings. These were all, at best, tenuous cases. There was, at the time, a battle in the DA’s office over whether we should be prosecuting these cases at all. Criminal trespass is really a crime against property, against someone who wants their property freed from interference. Did the trustees of the university — as owners of the buildings — really want to prosecute hundreds of its students? What message would that send? ...

As far as I was concerned, the students arrested at Columbia had been conducting legitimate acts of civil disobedience... For many of us in the DA’s office, Columbia reaching for its pound of flesh looked unnecessarily petty and vindictive. It seemed obvious that any self-respecting university is in the business of education, not trying to throw its students in jail. By dropping the cases, perhaps some kind of rapprochement might be brought about. As some people recommended at the time, this should all be kept in the family. Some degree of discipline might be exercised on students, but only according to university statues and rules. Any remedy other than calling in the DA’s office was preferable... Eventually, after what I gather was much internal discussion, and in the spirit of reconciliation, Columbia decided to throw in the towel.

... What made things troublesome was that my boss, Frank Hogan, the legendary district attorney — “a minister of justice,” as the New York Timesdescribed him in a hagiographic article from 1967, and a man I revered — was a member of Columbia’s Board of Trustees, so the building occupations had been for him a personal issue. He felt victimized and violated by what had happened at his beloved alma mater (his undergraduate and law degrees were from Columbia, and the place was an integral part of his existence). Hogan insisted on prosecuting the students, despite Columbia’s protestations and despite my reiteration that the cases had evidentiary weaknesses, that we had limited resources, and that it wouldn’t look good to take on a thousand dubious cases when we had many much more serious crimes to deal with...

Having recused myself, the job fell to my bureau chief, Joe Stone, who stood in a crowded courtroom, before Justice Arthur Goldberg, a handful of the best civil rights attorneys in New York... and Columbia’s lawyers, and proceeded to make what I can only describe as a series of half-hearted arguments. These included, notably, the suggestion that these cases were a testing ground for whether or not students across the nation would be able to escape punishment after committing what Hogan and others considered riotous behavior. It was almost as if Joe were doing it just for the record, going through the motions. This in contrast to the array of lawyers on the other side, all of whom made a series of convincing and impassioned statements. The issue ultimately became whether or not the judge would go along with Columbia’s desire to dismiss the criminal trespass cases. I found it all rather comical.

After listening to everyone, Judge Goldberg said he would return in fifteen minutes with his decision, and the courtroom was adjourned. He came back and immediately, irrevocably dismissed every case. End of story. No more prosecutions. The joke was that in one day I lost more cases than my colleagues had throughout their entire careers. True! But I wasn’t too upset about it.

Bennett Gershman is one of the original faculty members at Pace Law School, where he still teaches. Between 1967 and 1972, he worked in the office of Frank S. Hogan, Manhattan's district attorney, and in 1969 he was a member of the Mayor’s Committee for the Enforcement of Law During Civil Disorders.

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