Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Landscape of a university? A city? A nation?: 1968 and a moment of conflicting, fragmenting, collectivizing, restructuring




So my blog runs smoothly on from Mark’s. For the most part of this entry, I consulted the University Protest and Activism Archive Collection and a documentary film, Columbia Revolt (1969). I don’t want to recount all the events of 1968 here. I’m not sure if I myself know the ins and outs but I want to try to present a picture of the landscape and offer some interpretations on the conceptualizing of it. The Columbia Revolt documentary starts with showing close shots of Low library, from a ground position looking up at the monumental pillars, as well as shots of Low’s interior grandeur; in the background an authoritative voiceover affirms that “the modern university is the cradle of the nation’s future…the chief energizing and creative force in our entire social system.”
We then get a close up of the lion statue which starts to hone our attention to the specificity of the chain of events that the film is about to present. A significant event (in some narratives) took place on March 27, 1968 with a peaceful demonstration by 6 students in Low library who were subsequently put on probation for violating university policy of no indoor demonstrations. Subsequent protests were fought by various groups for various reasons; student voices in heard in the documentary attest to “different political identities,” including those protesting the “functioning of the corporate entity.” At the same time, we see close-up shots of new buildings on campus: engineering, business, international affairs, the law school representing the priorities of the university. The proposal for a new gym became particularly contentious; the site for which was a physical incline and one of the few panoramic shots in the documentary involves pivoting the camera around this incline and out towards the Harlem horizon, comprising mainly of low rise buildings. The proposal became nicknamed “Gym Crow,” as Harlem residents would have limited access and the site itself became subject to protest when demonstrators were refused access inside Low. The site was itself guarded by the NYPD and the students returned back to campus and “occupied” Hamilton Hall. The strike received much media attention given Columbia’s New York location.
The racial division amongst activists, a division thus on goals, led to a separation between blacks (who stayed in Hamilton) and whites (who moved in to Low), making the issue of race one in which all groups and networks had to navigate and consider in their decision-making processes. Black students felt that they had a particular militant advantage and their agenda would be better served by the split. One student in the documentary said that the black strikers had “militant tactics that we didn’t understand”.

 Two places of “occupation” thus emerged and the university and police worked on a fragmented and building-specific policy. The use of force in Hamilton had the danger of leading to race riots; black students garnered considerable support from off-campus black activists (according to one voice in the documentary, “the brothers who got it made were revolting” and this was especially powerful), the reality that Harlem was next door and the strikes occurred just days after MLK’s death which itself sparked race rioting meant that the authorities were wary of wider mobilization. Hamilton Hall was peacefully cleared since mediators were black lawyers and policeman, and indeed the students were allow to exit the buildings from underground tunnels.

Low became a place of tense standoffs and violent confrontation. A human blockade formed around Low called the “Majority Coalition,” referred more colloquially to as the jocks by students in the documentary, creating the a real possibility of violent conflict between students themselves. Despite occupying the higher ground (physically speaking), strikers looked rather disheveled and poor, to the fresher looking jocks stationed on the lower ground (a comment as concerns the conditions rather than to background, then again…). Scenes in the documentary show “jocks et al” preventing food from reaching the strikers, indeed confiscating and feeding themselves. In Low itself there was a cultural transformation of space as students talked of “collective feelings” trumping “individual feelings” in an environment described as “electric awakening.”
Yet groups across the occupied buildings were connected, taking advantage of existing physical structures and technologies to maintain contact; “every building has a communication room,” says one student, and the telephone system ensure that buildings were connected. Communication showed itself in the activity of print and media; pamphlets boasted that all buildings were ready to resist police infringement, and one suggestion floating around through the communication and gossip was that Hamilton Hall could become its own university. The landscape was transformed. Creativity arose out of the breakdown. There was an energy. Perhaps not speed, so often equated with efficiency and success in a modern sense, but in messiness came vitality. Word by mouth invigorated movements. Typed pamphlets and letters often had handwriting scrawled on them with the time and date of events; events that could be not made be arranged weeks in advance, but were those comprising ad hoc associations reacting to and trying to invigorate the spur of the moment.

Jocks and the police too showed solidarity. Jocks stood shoulder to shoulder while police, who arrived in great numbers in darkness as they were getting ready to storm Low, lined the each stair to the building; one student voice is recorded as saying that such a formation ensured that each line got their “licks in” as protestors were dragged out. How different and yet true to the description of the stairs, devoid of experience at the time, in Dolkart: “simplified, dignified and convenient.” In Mathematics Hall strikers attempted to make life difficult for the police, according to the police report, by dousing the floors with soapy water! I don’t know the composition of the strikers in that particular building, but I like to think that the majority were math majors!


When I started to research for this blog, I wanted to focus solely on the voice of external organizations during the events and how we could theorize the university landscape then (in relation to city and nation). Although the material was not so numerous, one section in the collection was devoted these organizations. What we begin to see in the literature is how building names and spatial awareness became familiar to those outside of the university network. Or perhaps they too were getting entangled via their various associations. What is noticeable is that directions are given based on what is already familiar; i.e. New Yorkers should know how Hamilton and Low look like and roughly where they are located on campus.

One letter in support of the protestors from an external group reads: “As residents in Columbia owned buildings, we have an opportunity, therefore a responsibility, to make our position in the current crisis clear to the board of Trustees of the University to whom we pay rent. We believe that the events of the last few ays have had a positive effect on the entire University community by putting the administration in a position where it must face up to its responsibilities to ties neighbors in Harlem, to the critics of its ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, and the members of the student body…WE REQUEST THE RESIDENTS OF ALL COLUMBIA OWNED BUILDINGS TO WITHOLD RENT UNTIL THESE DEMANDS ARE MET. COLUMBIA TENANTS IN SUPPORT OF THE STRIKE (their emphasis!).” A telegram from “Morningsiders for the Students” to Mayor Lindsay exclaims, “we don’t kill college students in New York – do we?.. We are prepared to mobilize our respective memberships to support and defend those students whose demands in many cases are also community demands.” Another pamphlet reads: “SUPPORT THE FIGHT AGAINST THE JIM CROW GYM, IDA, FOR AMNESTY, AND AGAINST VICIOUS POLICE BRUTALITY ON CAMPUS OR ANYWHERE!” Here we start to see the neighborhood strike back, but on a more serious level, the walls of Columbia are being penetrated. In closure, connections and links were being forged; things that were not possible when the school was open and running as “normal.” Strikers complemented the external groups' literature:



A few months later (May 1968), community residents occupied a vacant apartment building on 114th Street to protest the university’s expansion and students went to reoccupy Hamilton Hall to protest the suspension of the initial six students who entered Low. A countercommencement on Low Plaza took place, including a picnic in Morningside Park. Clearly students were becoming conscious of the landscape; what could become possible when they disrupt the order of things. The direction of the expansion changed. What the protests did was bring to light the not so obvious side of Columbia’s ever changing/expanding landscape, sometimes, most times by stealth. The power of subtle expansion was scarier than the monumentality of Low or the much spoken about 116th gates themselves. Indeed, the physical structure is not so indexically symbolic of force of the “institution” and the campus extends beyond the gates. Perhaps the gates meant more to the white students, but for community residents and black protestors, there was a different sensuous experience of the injustice, which goes beyond the symbolic power of gates, which are anything if not just cunning. Indeed, one thing that is very noticeable about the documentary is the relatively short amount of coverage given to the Hamilton Hall black strikers. The events point to some of what we have discussed in class; namely our understanding of campus beyond just a thing, but perhaps a process-thing dialectic.
In his post, Mark touches on similarities between the discourse and conditions back then and now. One thing I got a sense of from reading the primary literature as well as watching the documentary was the feeling amongst the students that this was their moment. In political science parlance, variables that existed back then could be seen to exist now. A nation embroiled in an unpopular war. The approval of the return of ROTC. Columbia university expansion to surrounding areas. I suspect we might have missed our moment. And perhaps that was what some of the students of 1968 feared when they saw the transformation of the landscape by the introduction of buildings like Uris and International Affairs. But then again, the specificity of 1968 might have arose from a particularly black student activism, with the potential of greater mobilization from Columbia’s neighbors! Food for thought! And now I must go get mine.

7 comments:

Daniel Molina said...

Awesome, rich history...it continues to surface that Columbia was seen as a slumlord.

Sara Ray said...

Really enjoyed reading this!! Great history and it was nice to read it in this context. Very thoughtful and well put together.

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