Remembering the Columbia Protest of '68: Police Officers

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). Yesterday, we considered the views of faculty. Today, we look across the barricades, to see how police officers charged with ending the demonstration viewed and remember the event.

John Poka

I joined the New York City Police Department’s Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) in 1967 and have vivid memories of the following year, when I sat for days on a bus with other officers, all highly motivated and ambitious, on streets adjacent to the Columbia campus, feeling gung-ho, pumped up on adrenaline, testosterone charged, and preparing to mount an offensive against a band of activists and their supporters. I believe it’s fair to say that no matter how vocal people are who say otherwise, we young policemen and women — defenders of the status quo — were more reflective of the views of the majority of Americans than the small group of dissident and anarchist anti–Vietnam War Columbia students inside the occupied buildings just a few feet away.

At Columbia, members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and their protests against the war, were gaining no public traction or support. SDS then hijacked a local cause (Harlem’s African American community was angry at Columbia’s proposed gymnasium, which was to be built on public parkland adjacent to campus) and combined this with their anger over the university’s apparent associations with the Department of Defense. But their arguments, often reduced to a series of questionable facts, were devoid of critical thinking and analysis. Worse still, SDS members lacked worldly experience and believed in their own intellectual superiority and righteousness... When it came to achieving purposeful change in society through peaceful means, these were people who didn’t know the difference between radicalism and fanaticism, whose activities — so divorced from lawful behavior — led directly to socially unacceptable disorder and chaos.

Too many of the protestors appeared to be immune to a certain understanding of the world, believing in the tragic notion that the forces of law and order existed not as a protective shield but as a sword designed to subjugate and control. Columbia was being led by inept and arrogant administrators who committed one colossal blunder after another, including the gym in Morningside Park, which was a brazen example of their invading, intruding, and infringing on the West Harlem community. But the student movement, I felt, lacked a viable moral compass, and I could find no commonsense rationale for the rebelliousness and disillusionment of the Columbia radicals. Their violent behavior was indefensible and ultimately escalated because their frenzy went unchecked. (No one can dispute that the leadership of SDS in those days was in tune with the authoritarian teachings of Mao and Lenin. The evolution of SDS into the Weatherman faction subsequently crystallized these extremist political views.)

This was an era notable not only for the losses of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy but also for the loss of many police officers. No one but members of the force today remembers that fifty years ago it was open season on the police, that we couldn’t walk down the street without looking over our shoulder. Objects were regularly thrown down on officers from rooftops, and the number of police deaths and casualties significantly increased during these years. Also to be taken into consideration was the oftentimes skewed public understanding of our role in society (prone, as always, to manipulation by the media), which resulted in many people always managing to find fault with the police, and the belief of many members of the NYPD that Mayor John Lindsay, at the helm of the New York City government, was providing neither the strong leadership the city needed nor the support we needed as the enforcement agent of the law (a case in point was his attempted expansion of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which we felt needlessly tied our hands and restricted our ability to do our job). Nonetheless, by the sixties, the NYPD was expert at handling the kind of urban violence that was overwhelming some American cities in the second half of that decade, an era in which young people were advocating the violent overthrow of the system and calling for insurrection and “death to pigs.” The TPF, the police equivalent of the Marine Corps, an elite group of one thousand in a police department of around thirty-six thousand men and women, embodied a new kind of policing (disbanded in 1984...). We were the flying squad, all at least six feet tall, specially trained then dropped in, at locations around the city, as crime fighters. Wherever the criminals went, we followed, taking a different kind of fight to the streets, one that local precincts had never seen before. It is important to know that the TPF was composed of people who, as statistics will show, were highly educated and who, as a group, successfully avoided the stigma of an occupying army.

When tasked with clearing the occupied campus buildings at Columbia, we members of the TPF had no idea what we were being asked to deal with. What was happening on campus appeared, at first sight, quite different from the kind of violence we so often were confronted with in other parts of the city, but it didn’t mean we felt no fear when preparing to face Columbia students. We had been trained to expect the unexpected, and each of us predicated present experience on past experience, which in our line of work rarely involved individuals and groups that observed established rules of order. Quite the opposite. No matter how peaceful we might have thought the majority of book-learning students, it was known that a group of diehard activists — so-called “outside agitators” — were also in those buildings. They had, for some time, been fueling the fire, leading to a gradual but noticeable escalation of violence within the increasingly emboldened antiwar movement...

For many police officers... the student takeover in 1968 shattered the image that the student protest movement could be dealt with summarily. No understanding of those events, that conflagration of disorder, can be complete if the framework with which we members of the TPF (an apolitical group that only ever followed orders) had to wrestle is not taken into consideration. We were there to do our job: to return control of the university to those lawfully charged with its operation so that those students seeking an education (the majority on campus) could be so provided. There is no question that we all believed in the right of peaceful protest, but our duty was to protect those endangered or facing possible harm. Because the Columbia administration wanted police assistance in removing people who were criminally trespassing on university property, the NYPD had a duty to fulfill. It’s worth stating here that while Columbia was a place of learning that some of my colleagues and their children undoubtedly one day aspired to attend, none of us looked at our arrival on campus in 1968 as part of what might be described as a “class struggle.” This was about law and order, plain and simple. We had a job to do, and we didn’t have the luxury of framing those events philosophically or ideologically.

John Poka graduated with a law degree from Queens College and LLM from Temple University. During his tenure with the NYPD, he was awarded more than fifteen medals.

Mike Reynolds

The TPF... was formed in 1959[,] an all-volunteer group of cops all over six feet tall who had shown their capacity for tough policing. These were cops who liked being cops, liked being active, and liked making arrests. TPF cops patrolled high crime areas and were called to respond to crowd control duties. It was, in effect, the NYPD’s riot squad. Trained in crowd control, TPF could turn on the force quickly, and just as quickly turn it off.

I had come from a fairly well-off family and had two years of college. All in all, I completed seven years of Jesuit education. I knew the theory of policing and was about to learn the reality of policing in the sixties. I joined the police department in February 1968. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, all training was halted and we went straight out into the street. My company was sent to TPF. It was months before we would see a classroom again.

Fifty years can wreak havoc on memories. The 1968 Columbia business takes on a surreal image. Flashes of yelling students and swinging nightsticks mix with images of card games and coffee on the buses as we waited for the university administration, the police brass, and city officials to decide just what to do about the student takeover. We spent several days and nights on buses parked on streets in Morningside Heights before we actually walked onto campus, which gave the working-class cops a good opportunity to build up resentment against the elite students who were running amok and pissing away their shot at a fine education and a future that the cops would have liked to see their own children get. When the order “hats and bats” (helmets and nightsticks) finally came, there was no doubt in any cop’s mind about what was about to happen. The ungrateful elites were going to get the spanking they so richly deserved. There is an aphorism that there is more law in the end of a nightstick than in a Supreme Court decision. That night at Columbia showed that no matter what, all law ultimately rests on force...

If the students at Columbia learned anything about the real-world use of law, the cops learned a lot about mob psychology. I remember this one kid. He was one of the students we had arrested. He had been pulled — not too gently — from a building, and now he was about to be put in the police wagon to be taken to be booked. The kid was trembling and had pissed himself. As I helped him into the van, I asked what the matter was. He said, “You’re going to kill us.” I asked what the hell he was talking about. He replied, “You’re going to take us up to 125th Street, shoot us, and throw us into the river.” I told him he was nuts, that he had gotten his lumps and was now being taken to be booked, given a summons, and made to go to court a week or two later where he probably would have to pay a fine, but maybe not. He was having none of it... I assumed he had been brainwashed by the radicals leading the whole business.

Nobody had gotten much sleep in the days and nights before the removal. Fast talkers and sleep deprivation might have been able to get these people to believe just about anything. Hallucinogens were popular back then, and maybe he had taken some acid. What it showed to me was that under the right circumstances even the best and the brightest could get their brains scrambled. Looking back, Columbia was basically no different than any other mob confrontation we had. The only real difference became apparent in hindsight. It was one of the few times this kind of force was used on a white crowd. And not only were these kids white, they were far from working class, being the children of upper-middle and upper-class parents who were attending an Ivy League university. But as far as us TPF cops were concerned, it was just another confrontation involving the use of force.

Mike Reynolds was a member of the New York City Police Department from 1968 to 1976. After the Tactical Patrol Force, he was an instructor at the Police Academy and then a beat cop in the South Bronx. He left the job and went into the family real estate business. Three of his sons were on the job in September 2001 and were first responders to the World Trade Center. Reynolds has received numerous awards for his service as a volunteer emergency medical technician in his community and is on the board of directors of an agency that cares for people with developmental disabilities.

Mike Reynolds was a member of the NYPD from 1968 to 1976. After the TPF, he was an instructor at the Police Academy and then a beat cop in the South Bronx.

Copyright (c) 2018 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.