At Columbia, Remembering a Revolution
Sunday, April 27, 2008
NEW YORK, April 26 -- Forty years ago, they launched a student protest at Columbia University that involved the occupation of five campus buildings, the hostage-taking of a dean, 712 arrests and injuries to scores of students, faculty members and police officers.
Now, they are lawyers, judges, playwrights, poets, professors and ministers. They gathered this weekend back on campus with former classmates to hear memories of those events and occasionally raise a revolutionary fist for old times' sake.
"Strangest reunion I ever saw," said Victoria Benitez, a spokeswoman for the university, which did not sponsor the event.
Some of the most radical are no longer fomenting revolution. Mark Rudd, the student leader who later helped start the Weather Underground and spent seven years as a fugitive, is now retired from a community college in Albuquerque.
The idea for the reunion developed at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Switzerland, where Robert Friedman, editor of the student newspaper in 1968 and now an editor at Bloomberg News, ran into the current Columbia University president.
But many of the student protesters of 1968 see their effort as part of a series of upheavals in American society that prompted deep change. They say the events also shaped their personal and professional decisions, and the people they became.
"It crystallized the emotion that struggle was necessary, and that you could win, and it marked us the rest of our lives," said Raymond Brown, then a student spokesman, now a criminal defense attorney.
In 1968, the students sought to end Columbia's affiliation with a think tank involved in Pentagon weapons research. They also wanted to halt construction of a gym in Morningside Park they thought would be segregated because of its separate entrances for Columbia students and Harlem residents.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated over spring break, and students returned to campus to see smoke from the fires in Harlem. Meanwhile, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had been playing out for months at home on television.
On April 23, the Columbia rebellion began. Three hundred students barricaded a dean in his office in Hamilton Hall and seized the building without any real plan, they recalled at a forum Friday night in which dozens of alumni took turns at the microphone, telling bits of the story.
Soon students controlled five buildings. After a week of meetings with faculty and student negotiators shuttling among the parties, the administration opened the campus gates to 1,000 New York police officers, who rushed into the buildings with riot clubs and nightsticks.
Sid Davidoff, Mayor John V. Lindsay's assistant, was sent to the scene. "The elite police were chewing on their sticks, just waiting . . . for seven days to get a shot at you," Davidoff said at the forum Friday.