Remembering the Columbia Protest of '68: "Outside Agitators"

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, Wednesday, and Thursday by select views of faculty, police officers, and government officials. Today, we hear from some of the "outside agitators" often blamed at the time for stirring up the trouble.

Johnny Sundstrom

1968 — that wild year! I was a member of a group called Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, based in the Lower East Side of New York City, which became the only nonstudent chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The best description I ever heard of the Motherfuckers was “a street gang with an analysis.” Before we went running out into the streets and causing disruption, everyone had to participate in a study group. We discussed current issues, talked through the theory, and studied Bakunin and Kropotkin and the historical conflict between the anarchists and the Communists and the socialists. The Motherfuckers ran a free store in the neighborhood that provided clothing and some food, as well as printing services (you paid whatever you could). We set up crash pads for people who needed them (runaways who ended up in New York) and published in the underground press, including local newspapers Rat and East Village Other.

Being a Motherfucker was a lifestyle. More than anything, we considered ourselves a family, with a mission to provide services for the community and to be engaged in political change. Our credo included self-defense, so we held karate classes, and whenever we went on a camping trip, we all did target practice. It was a mixture of militant politics and theater — one of the first actions we did as a group was during a New York garbage workers strike. The wealthier neighborhoods hired private contractors, but the trash and rotting garbage was piling up around the Lower East Side and other poor areas, so one night a bunch of us piled onto the subway with bags of garbage, others got in a van, and we converged on the fountain at Lincoln Center, where we ceremoniously dumped our collection of trash. It was a “cultural exchange.” The Motherfuckers were accused of being all image and no content. Our response was that without an image, no one is going to pay attention to your content...

From the start, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers was an informal collective, with no leaders or membership rolls, and small, too — maybe no more than a dozen or so that formed the core. We applied to SDS to be a street gang chapter because we felt that the student movement was weak and ineffectual and, frankly, needed our assistance. We went down to the national SDS meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, to practice our disruptive politics and advance our style and content. I remember Carl Oglesby, one of the theoreticians of SDS, talking brilliantly about how he saw things in the United States — a battle to the death within the ruling class between Yankees (the New England banking community) and Cowboys (Texas oil magnates), fighting for control of the country and the war in Vietnam. (That was also one explanation for Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.) I thought this was all pretty brilliant, but Ben Morea, a member of the Motherfuckers, had had enough. He ran up onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and shouted that everyone should quit this intellectualization bullshit and join us on the streets. “Fuck the Yankees and fuck the Cowboys, too!” he said. “We’re the new Indians!” Crazy, I know, but it did appeal to certain segments of SDS, and we made lots of connections that weekend...

I ended up as a liaison with the SDS folks and was sent uptown [to Columbia]. People were standing around in a crowd outside Hamilton Hall, where inside there were still black and white students together... The endless meetings inside Math were very, very boring. But that was the kind of ultrademocracy we were practicing — giving everyone the chance to weigh in, whether or not someone really knew what they were talking about. It was important that everyone have a voice. The whole point of Columbia ’68 was that if you were inside one of the occupied buildings, you had just as much power as anyone else. It didn’t matter who you were, what your major was, who your parents were, or whether you were on scholarship or paying your own way or not even a student. None of these things mattered when it came to our daily lives inside Mathematics. Everyone was equal...

It turned out the cops were saving Math for last. It was going to be their dessert, probably because it was known to be the most militant of the five buildings, and also the one with the most nonstudents. We could hear them coming, one building at a time, and in the lights they had set up, we could see the chaos. When they reached Math, it took the cops forty-five minutes to dismantle that barricade and get through the front door... When they finally broke through, we were all sitting on the three floors of staircases, in our protective civil rights pose, arms over our heads. As they marched past us, everyone was slugged on the back of the head by a plainclothes cop with a small club. As I recall, some of them were using handcuffs as brass knuckles. Angry and pumped up, screaming and yelling, they got to the top floor and starting pushing everyone down the stairs, and then shoved us into paddy wagons...

Several years ago, one of my young nephews said to me, “Oh Johnny! Those sixties must have been really incredible. You guys had everything! Wow!” “Hold it just a minute,” I told him. “You have to understand that for everything that was brand new and exciting, that had never been done before, there were equal parts of risk and joy.” Fear was associated with every freedom we embraced... The sixties wasn’t all fun and joy, and you would have to be ignorant not to be afraid at least part of the time. One of the Motherfuckers, a street philosopher, once said to me, “When you’re living in a nightmare, paranoia is a normal response.” That’s something I want today’s young people to know when they look back on that time. Nobody voluntarily gives up power. Freedom always comes at a cost. But it’s worth it.

Johnny Sundstrom left the cities of America in 1970 and became part owner and manager of a cooperative livestock, forestland, and garden operation in western Oregon.

George Cavalletto

The year 1968 was the peak of a few charismatic years when increasing numbers of people across the country —and the world — dropped what they were doing, threw self-interest to the wind, dedicated themselves to alternatives, and began expressing an energetic willingness to work in a collective situation with little remuneration. For many of these people, this was a moment when everything was up for grabs, when a strong and vivid divide existed between not only old and young people but also between progressives and conservatives in all matters of life.

In town after town, one of the things these people did was set up a newspaper, which in many cases became the organizational center of those communities. Sometimes there wasn’t a local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society — there wasn’t even a college campus. It was maybe just a bunch of high school students who got together at a coffee shop after realizing that if they wanted to know what was really going in the world around them, it was likely that lots of other people did too. What became known as the underground press developed into an important way of communicating to hundreds of thousands of people what was happening with the countercultural and antiwar movements. What helped sustain these publications, what at times helped give focus to them, was Liberation News Service (LNS), an organization that twice a week sent packets of material — a couple of dozen pages full of articles and sheets of photographs that could be cut out and used on offset printers — to any newspaper that wanted it. Enough publications paid for this material that LNS could cover costs.

In an atmosphere when the national press, if it even covered certain events, did so with pronounced adversarial bias, the theory was that activists on college campuses and in all these small towns needed a supply of researched and well-written stories about what was going on. Look at some of those publications from the late sixties and you will see that much of the cultural coverage, much of the international coverage, and a fair amount of national political coverage was provided by LNS writers, who made no pretense of “objectivity,” preferring instead a journalism of participation and commitment. The New York Times was known as the newspaper of record, but its legitimacy was questioned by not only radicals but also many liberals. Although alternatives did exist — in 1963, for example, The New York Review of Books was born — the perception was that the mainstream, establishment media was captive to a middle-of-the-road perspective. By 1968, an environment existed in which great legitimacy was given by a large percentage of young people to the underground press. For them, these locally produced newspapers helped fill the gap and were the only place where they regularly could find out what was really happening. For a short but crucial time, LNS played an important role in helping hold these publications together, offering direction and content, and giving them a sense of national context and connection...

In April, the building occupations at Columbia exploded across the neighborhood, the city, the country, even the world. It was an important starting point for us because although we were doing things on a shoestring — it was only later that people were paid a whopping $25 a week — we had the resources of a range of Columbia students who were happy to assist (some even dropped out of school to work with us 24/7), knowing that LNS was an important organization, or at least had the potential to become one. I went up to campus that first night, when students had just taken over President Grayson Kirk’s office, and was hoisted up into Low Memorial Library, where people were going through his filing cabinets and desk drawers. (Later I was the recipient of a file of stamps from Kirk’s office, which we used to mail out a packet when we were short of money.) Members of LNS were probably the only members of the press permitted inside the occupied buildings, which I visited several times. I would have stayed longer but had to be back at the office to take care of things, and I knew we had a handful of good writers on campus, including Steve Diamond, who wrote a fifteen-page account of the protests entitled “Columbia: The Revolution Is Now,” and that served as the basis of a (much rewritten) Ramparts article. Later, once it was all over, I negotiated a book deal with a publisher, and we rented a house upstate to allow LNSers to sit and write a book about the student protests. But for one reason or another, it never happened.

George Cavalletto continued to do left-wing presswork after 1968. In the late eighties, he returned to graduate school, earned a Ph.D. in sociology from CUNY, and taught for twenty years at Brooklyn and Hunter Colleges.

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