Confessions of a Reluctant Revolutionary

During the campus protests of 1968, writer Phillip Lopate ’64CC, today a professor in the School of the Arts, joined an alumni group supporting the student radicals. Now, almost fifty years later, he’s still trying to make sense of his place in that time.

by Phillip Lopate '64CC Published Winter 2017
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Demonstrating on campus, April 1968.

Those tensions had been brewing for some time. In the early sixties, I had been largely apolitical, as was the campus, but when the administration censored the literary magazine, Columbia Review, I enthusiastically joined the protest. The college was still all-male, and the hottest political issue at the time was whether women should be allowed to visit the dorms. (I was all for it.) The paternalistic, in loco parentis attitude on the part of the university administration rankled deeply. The fact that then-president of Columbia Grayson Kirk ’53HON was known to be resistant to women faculty only intensified our opposition to this patriarchal authority figure. You could never admit aloud that the students’ rebellion was partly oedipal, but you could think it. And so what if it was? I was too young then to put in a word on behalf of fathers.

I don’t recall how I received notice that some graduates were forming an organization in support of the student protests, but I went to the first meeting. Out of it came Alumni for a New Columbia (ALFONECO). We fancied ourselves the progressive, pro-youth alternative to the official, conservative alumni association, which supported President Kirk and the anti-protest students to the hilt. As with many New Left organizations, our members ran the gamut from mildly liberal to revolutionary, a confusion that would have to be sorted out later. For the moment, we were united by goodwill toward the strikers and a desire to support them. My own political position at the time might be best defined as social democratic, more in sympathy with Sweden’s social-welfare state than Maoist China, but I felt guilty about my wishy-washy politics and was open to persuasion by the more militant stance of the SDS radicals who were spearheading the unrest, should historical events move in a more extreme direction.

Tom Hayden, who had helped found SDS in 1962, remembered the chairman of Columbia SDS, Mark Rudd, as “absolutely committed to an impossible yet galvanizing dream: that of transforming the entire student movement, through this particular student revolt, into a successful effort to bring down the system.” It’s hard to credit now the gullible belief that such an overthrow of the government and the whole capitalist system was even in the offing. I remember going during this time to a reading at St. Mark’s Church, and the poet Anne Waldman whispering in my ear: the word on the street is that it’s going down this summer. “It” being the revolution. I very much doubted that but was intrigued that there even existed rumors about the possibility. One day during the strike, I was on an uptown bus going past Columbia toward Harlem and saw sidewalk demonstrators yelling up to the passengers, “Join us! Join us!” From the baffled looks on the faces of my fellow riders, mostly Black, I could tell they had not the slightest idea what they were being asked to join. Ten blocks away from campus and, moreover, throughout the city, the disturbances had caused not a ripple. Yet in my progressive circle, the sentiment was growing that one should “organize,” or at least enlist in a like-minded crew to prepare for a general strike or some sort of insurrection that might break out. And so I joined ALFONECO.

About fifty of us were at that first meeting, mostly in our twenties and early thirties: psychotherapists, medical students, and writers, as well as a smattering of older people, lawyers whose children were among the protesters, and ex-Communist (maybe not “ex”) organizers from the Maritime Union who had come out of the woodwork. Michael Nolan '63CC, a documentary filmmaker for public television, chaired the meeting. I sat in the back, raising various objections, as I would in subsequent meetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged that whoever speaks up and challenges a group with irritating questions eventually will be asked to lead it. That is how I became in short order the president of ALFONECO.

Mark Rudd

By that time, the students had been evacuated from the buildings by the police, who forcibly dragged them out and pummeled them and many bystanders bloody with nightsticks. I was not a witness to this shameful event, but it became the dividing line in the protests, a scandal that the Kirk administration would never live down and which solidified sympathy for the student radicals (within hours a university-wide strike was called). During the bust, several hundred protesters had been arrested, and ALFONECO quickly got to work, its lawyers filing amici curiae briefs in court and its polemicists (the group was rich in writers) turning out statements for the press about how “shocked and appalled” we were at the university administration’s latest clumsy maneuvers.

President Kirk and Provost–Vice President David Truman both seemed to possess tin ears, granting us much insensitive fodder to work with. We were hoping local newspapers would at least include a line or two from these “shocked and appalled” press releases, in the interest of balanced coverage. We also hoped the stream of press statements would disguise how small we were: I doubt if our membership ever exceeded two hundred on the mailing list. We engaged in public debate with the official alumni organization, men in business suits who deplored what they saw as longhair anarchists spoiling the college experience for more serious students. I went on the Barry Gray radio show and argued with someone from the official alumni group. By this time, I had all the talking points down pat: the university was engaging in military research, ripping off the Harlem community, and so on. It was easy to stay outraged after the police bust. But looking back, I wonder how much I actually accepted the logic of the strike demands.

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