JUAN GONZALEZ: Forty years ago this week, hundreds of students at Columbia University started a revolt on campus. Students went on strike. They occupied five buildings, including the president’s office in Low Library. The students barricaded themselves inside the buildings for days. They were protesting Columbia’s ties to military research and plans to build a university gymnasium in a public park in Harlem.
The protests began less than three weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1968 Columbia uprising inspired student protests across the country.
Today, we’ll spend the rest of the hour looking back at this pivotal moment as part of our ongoing series, “1968: Forty Years Later.” Several of the student organizers are joining us in a moment, but first we begin with excerpts from the documentary Columbia Revolt by Third World Newsreel.STUDENT ORGANIZER: We now deny we no longer have a say in decisions that affect our lives. We call on all students, faculty, staff and workers of the university to support our strike. We ask that all students and faculty not meet or have classes inside buildings.
We have taken the power away from an irresponsible and illegitimate administration. We have taken power away from a board of self-perpetuating businessmen who call themselves trustees of this university.
We are demanding an end to the construction of the gymnasium, the gymnasium being built against the will of the people of the community of Harlem, a decision that was made unilaterally by powers of the university without consultation of people whose lives it affects.
We are no longer asking but demanding an end to all affiliation and ties with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a Defense Department venture that collaborates the university into studies of kill and overkill that has resulted in the slaughter and maiming of thousands of Vietnamese and Americans.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Students at Columbia moved to take over buildings despite warnings from campus officials.
STUDENT ORGANIZER: In order to show solidarity of people with six strike leaders who they had tried to suspend, they decided to take Hamilton once again.
CAMPUS OFFICIAL: You are hereby directed to clear out of this building. I’ll give you further instructions if this building is not cleared out within the next ten minutes.
STRIKE LEADER: I’m asking how many of you here are willing now to stay with me, sit-in here, until…
STUDENT ORGANIZER: After three votes, a majority decided to stay.
STUDENTS: Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!
CAMPUS OFFICIAL: If you do not choose to leave this building, I have to inform you that we have no alternative but to call the police, and each student who is arrested will be immediately suspended.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The students then set up barricades inside the administration buildings.
STUDENT ORGANIZER: The first day in Math, we set up a defense committee, which took care of putting up the barricades. We decided what our policy would be toward police, toward jocks. We soaped some of the stairs. We taped the windows. We emptied bookcases and put them up in front of the windows in case teargas canisters did get through the tape.
STUDENT ORGANIZER: And it hung up a lot of people when there would be a little scratch or mar on the marble-top desks or something. And the second time we built barricades, these hang-ups disappeared, and we had decided that barricades were necessary politically and strategically, and anything went in making strong and, this time, permanent-type barricades.
STUDENT ORGANIZER: Defense is all taken care of. Security is a problem, letting people in and out of the buildings. Watches—we need people to watch the windows every night.
STUDENT ORGANIZER: We had a walkie-talkie setup, citizens’ band walkie-talkies, plus there were telephone communications to every building, which the university tapped. We had three mimeographs at work constantly, and there were people who did nothing during the strike but relate to the mimeograph machine. And there was a big sign on the wall, a quote from somebody in Berkeley, who says five students and a mimeograph machine can do more harm to a university than an army.
JUAN GONZALEZ: A week later, New York City police stormed the campus. Hundreds of students were injured, and 700 were arrested. Images of the police assault were broadcast around the country.
STUDENT STRIKER: Over 700 of us on charges of criminal trespass, resisting arrest, all kinds of other [inaudible], some of which was real and some of which was completely fake.
STUDENT STRIKER: I know of nurses and doctors that pleaded with the police not to proceed, to please let these men alone, and they would say, “No, no. Get away. This is our job.”
STUDENT STRIKER: I was arrested. They would not allow me to see a doctor. I had broken ribs. My face was cut. I got hit with a pistol under the eye and was bleeding there. And I wasn’t allowed to see a doctor ’til I got out of court, which was approximately ten hours later.
STUDENT STRIKER: I was awarded a fellowship for next year. What the hell does—I’m sorry, what does it mean? I’m going to strike. I hope every—I don’t see how any teacher, I don’t see how any student can attend this school anymore. And I was completely liberal about the whole thing. But this bust has radicalized everybody, and me very personally.
STUDENT: I was a nonviolent student. I was completely passive. I didn’t care what happened. I was completely neutral. I’m not neutral any longer. I’ll occupy buildings tomorrow.