FEATURE

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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For instance, one of the chief demands was that the university sever its ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Although Columbia initially had been an institutional sponsor of IDA, the university had no outstanding contracts to do military research at the time of the Columbia protests. Some individual faculty members did have dealings with the government, but the traffic was minimal: IDA served more as a conveniently symbolic focus for student outrage against the Vietnam War than an actual player on campus. Of course, in a larger sense, the university was thoroughly integrated into the “military-industrial complex,” as Columbia’s former president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had termed it: how could it not be? SDS researchers were busy charting the overlapping elite who sat on the boards of banks, corporations, newspapers, government agencies, and universities. Was this a genuine conspiracy or the logical outgrowth of a corporate society? Even at the time, I was not shocked at the information in these charts. But I had a role to play, knew my lines, and relished the spotlight.

The Columbia student radio station, WKCR, broadcasts from the steps of Earl Hall, overlooking the west side of Low Library, April 1968.

As for the gymnasium that Columbia had wanted to build in nearby Morningside Park, in retrospect it might not have been such a bad thing; the park was a shabby, neglected amenity that could have used some traffic. The bulk of the building would have been allocated to the university, while a smaller section with a separate entrance, occupying some minuscule percentage of square footage, would have served the community. That the entrance to this proposed community facility was located below, in the park, had unfortunate connotations of a tradesmen’s or servants’ entrance, which the protesters fastened upon, although the reason for that arrangement had more to do with topography than racial prejudice. The Harlem community leaders, originally in support of the gym, had grown mistrustful, rightfully suspicious of a Columbia land grab. The university has had a long history as an acquisitive neighbor. Still, the upside was that the community would have gotten much-needed recreational facilities, including a swimming pool. But its elected officials, State Senator Basil Paterson and Assemblyman Charles Rangel ’87HON, had both come out against the gym construction, while firebrand H. Rap Brown had said if it were built it should be torched to the ground. In essence, the strikers’ demand to stop the gym’s construction was largely symbolic, a way for SDS to link the antiwar protest to civil rights and to defer to the Black students who were occupying Hamilton Hall and who themselves were deferring to the Harlem community.

A third demand was amnesty for the six SDS student leaders who had led a march inside Low Memorial Library earlier in the year, in violation of the rule against indoor demonstrations. I had no problem at the time agreeing with this demand, although when I think about it now, I am less certain that self-proclaimed revolutionaries who hope to overthrow the government and in the short term bring their university to a halt should not be prepared to pay the consequences. Under normal circumstances, they might have faced academic suspension for a term. It seems hypocritical to argue that the university is morally bankrupt on the one hand, and to cling to enrollment in said institution on the other. But perhaps not: in armed rebellions, amnesty often is made a precondition to peaceful settlement. Interestingly, the university administration and the faculty were much more willing to compromise on demands involving external matters, such as the IDA and the gym, but the one demand they resisted strenuously was amnesty: they seemed averse to ceding the right to discipline students who had broken their rules.

President Grayson Kirk (left) and Vice President David Truman give a press conference, April 25, 1968.

As it turned out, Columbia, having spent millions on preliminary planning for the gymnasium in Morningside Park, gave it up, severed its formal connection with IDA, and suspended punishment for almost all student infractions. The criminal cases against the arrested students also were dropped. So in that sense, perhaps the demands were shrewdly conceived as practical and achievable, and their having been met in the end constituted a victory for the strike. Conversely, because they were largely symbolic, their accomplishment changed little of substance. The faculty had taken the demands quite seriously, and tried to negotiate on each item to bring about a peaceful resolution, using their (excessive) faith in the powers of reason to avoid a police bust. The student protest leaders did not, I think, take the demands as seriously. Mark Rudd himself later boasted to a reporter that “we [SDS] manufactured the issues. The Institute for Defense Analyses is nothing at Columbia. Just three professors . . . And the gym is bull. It doesn’t mean anything to anybody.” But whether or not the demands were serious, the SDS dug in, refusing to compromise on them, so as to compel exactly the theatrical, bloody denouement that occurred when police ousted the students. It was this very outcome the professors acting as go-betweens had dreaded: some faculty even volunteered to interpose themselves in front of the buildings if the police moved to clear them. In short, the faculty cared more about protecting the students from physical harm than the students themselves did. Youth believes itself immortal; those who have attained middle age know otherwise.

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