By Thomas Good
April 23, 2008
NEW YORK In March 1967 a Columbia University SDS activist named Bob
Feldman discovered documents revealing Columbia's formal relationship
with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a Department of Defense
think tank. This discovery, along with the University's encroachment
into Harlem - the attempt to build a gymnasium on public park land -
triggered a series of protests that culminated in the 1968 Columbia
Strike. The strike, violently put down by the NYPD, was ultimately
successful in attaining two of its goals: Columbia's disaffiliation
from the IDA and the scrapping of the plan to build a gym in
Morningside Park. The victory prompted Tom Hayden to urge, "Two,
three, many Columbias" in a 1968 Ramparts article.
On April 23, 1968, Columbia University SDS rallied to protest the
university's relation to the Institute for Defense Analysis, the
school's encroachment into Harlem and Columbia's placing the "IDA
Six" - SDS members who had peacefully protested in the Low Library on
March 27 - on probation. The rally eventually escalated into the
takeover of Hamilton Hall by SDS and the Student Afro Society.
Shortly afterwards SDS vacated Hamilton Hall - at the request of SAS
- and took over Low Library. On the morning of April 30, 1968, the
NYPD violently cleared the library, injuring 150 students and
arresting over 700 protesters. In an ironic twist, Police Officer
John Brower - husband of current MDS activist Elaine Brower - stood
on the opposite side of the barricade from SDS in 1968.
After Columbia, Feldman went on to co-found the Richmond College
chapter of SDS on Staten Island - in October 1968. Since that time he
has continued to agitate - and educate - for peace and progress. A
believer in intergenerational organizing, he is supportive of the new
Students for a Democratic Society - and the new Movement for a
Democratic Society as well. Feldman maintains a blog that chronicles
the Columbia University strike http://bfeldman68.blogspot.com/ and
has autobiographical sections that provide a glimpse into the Sixties
from the perspective of someone who experienced the turmoil and
remains a committed radical.
Recently Feldman became involved with the Columbia University 40th
Anniversary organizing committee. In his efforts to publicize the
commemorative event - being held at Columbia's School of Journalism -
he works with other SDS veterans including Mark Rudd. Initially,
Columbia University offered support, including financial, to the
organizers. When the program didn't evolve the way Columbia
envisioned much of the support was withdrawn. However, Columbia
president Lee Bollinger will speak at the Welcoming Ceremony on
Thursday, April 24. Feldman and other organizers are not sure what he
Mark Rudd told NLN, "There was a problem a few months ago, when it
appeared that the Columbia administration didn't want to work with
our organizing committee anymore. So they pulled out and are holding
some sort of official academic event the following week, when
students are busy with exams. However, lately President Lee Bollinger
has agreed to give a welcoming to our opening session. We're all
holding our breaths to see whether he's going to Ahmadinejad us."
The full program for the event can be found at www.columbia68.info.
It opens Thursday, April 24 and tuns through Sunday, April 27.
Speakers include Nancy Biberman, Kathleen Cleaver, Tom Hayden, Mark
Kurlansky, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Rosalyn Baxandall, Manning Marable,
Juan Gonzalez, Mark Rudd, Frances Fox Piven and others.
Intrigued by the idea of a commemorative event that does not focus
exclusively on nostalgia and features panelists with very different
perspectives - from liberal academic Maurice Isserman to radical
social theorist/activist Manning Marable - NLN approached Feldman and
requested an interview. Bob agreed and the following material gives
the reader an insight into Feldman's positive, militant and
nonviolent approach to politics.
NLN: What is your relationship to the 40th anniversary
BF: A recent New York Daily News opinion section column by some
right-wing propagandist tried to characterize the 40th anniversary
event/organizing committee as "leftist" and "radical." But, in
reality, the political orientation of the 40th anniversary
event/organizing committee is just left-liberal, I think. Not radical
left. For instance, there's no panel at the 40th anniversary event
devoted to discussing the current situation of the still-imprisoned
David Gilbert, who spoke on behalf of the Columbia Strike Committee
at the June 1968 Counter-Commencement.
I'm a subscriber to the 40th anniversary event/organizing committee's
yahoo group list and I have been helping to publicize the event on
the internet. Also, I was asked last week to speak on the IDA issue
for 2 to 3 minutes at the Friday night "What Happened" session.
NLN: What is the purpose/mission of your blog?
BF: The purpose/mission of my blog is to try to promote amnesty for
all U.S. prisoners in 2008 and more sustained anti-imperialist
non-violent mass resistance to IDA and to university complicity with
the U.S. war machine. Another purpose/mission of the blog is to try
to promote radical democratic change and more sustained
anti-imperialist non-violent mass resistance to U.S. media
conglomerate censorship in 2008.
By providing my blog readers with the alternative historical
information and alternative news about Columbia University and other
U.S. power elite institutions that generally gets hidden by the media
gatekeepers in the USA, my hope is that my blog readers will then
tend to organize themselves more rapidly to non-violently resist
Columbia University and other U.S. power elite institutions; and
create participatory democracy in the USA in the 21st-century–before
U.S. imperialism drags humanity into yet another endless war.
NLN: Why is the purpose of this event?
BF: The 1968 Columbia Student Revolt was a turning-point in 1960s
anti-war movement history. And the U.S. war machine is waging an
endless imperialist war now. Maybe holding an event that commemorates
how anti-war students in 1968 non-violently resisted university
complicity with the war machine at Columbia then, might encourage
more anti-war activists to non-violently resist university complicity
with the war machine now?. Also, one of the 1968 Columbia Strike
leaders, Columbia-Barnard SDS Co-Founder David Gilbert, is still a
political prisoner in New York State. Maybe holding an event that
commemorates the 1968 Columbia Strike might encourage more people to
support the "amnesty for all U.S. political prisoners in 2008
demand?. Those are my two reasons for wanting to hold this 40th
anniversary "68/08 commemoration of the student rebellion at Columbia.
But if you check out the www.columbia1968.info link for the schedule
of events, you'll notice that some of the other folks involved in
setting up this event are more into holding the April event to
"reexamine events from a wide range of viewpoints," to "engage
current students in a dialogue" and/or to "reconnect, reconcile and
reflect" with other 1968 Columbia event participants. So I think the
event is being held for a variety of reasons.
NLN: Who are you working with to make this happen?
BF: Some current students at Columbia and Barnard have been involved
in working to make this event happen, along with some current
Columbia and Barnard faculty members. But most of the people working
to make this event happen have been the now-aging veterans of the
1968 Columbia Student Strike like myself.
NLN: What role did you play in the events of 1968 at Columbia? What
would you have done differently?
BF: I was a member of the steering committee of Columbia-Barnard SDS
between March 1967 and September 1968. Also, one of the six demands
of the 1968 Columbia Student Revolt was that Columbia University end
all its institutional ties to the Pentagon's Institute for Defense
Analyses [IDA] weapons research think-tank. And I was the Columbia
SDS activist who first discovered–14 months before the 1968 student
revolt–that Columbia University was an institutional member of IDA.
I was brutalized by the cops when they cleared Fayerweather Hall on
April 30, 1968. And I was suspended by the Columbia University for
participating in the May 21-22, 1968 non-violent occupation of
Hamilton Hall, shortly before the cops were again called in by the
Columbia Administration to clear its campus of its students.
After the first police bust, Columbia-Barnard SDS's mass student base
grew so rapidly at Columbia and Barnard that it appeared that the
"action-faction"'s strategy of relying on militant, confrontational,
non-violent mass disruption of Columbia University to both radicalize
students and end institutional racism and university complicity with
the war machine at Columbia was the most effective strategic
approach. Yet, despite the further radicalizing effect on many young
people of the August 1968 "Battle of Chicago"–where Abbie Hoffman and
the Yippies played such a prominent role–when Columbia-Barnard SDS
was unable to re-mobilize enough anti-war students to prevent
Columbia from reopening in September 1968, it became evident that
there were limits to how effective the "action-faction" strategic
approach that had worked in the Spring of 1968 could be–in the
absence of a political alliance with the African-American student
radicals who had aligned with us in April 1968.
So, in retrospect, I think Columbia-Barnard SDS steering committee
members should have devoted more time to attempting to reconstruct
its April 1968 political alliance with the Student Afro-American
Society leadership at Columbia. Also, I think Columbia-Barnard SDS
steering committee members were too slow to respond to some of the
discontent that was developing among anti-war movement women in 1968
about the level of male chauvinism that then existed within the New
Left student movement.
And I think we also should have handled the post-April 23, 1968 mass
media attention to Columbia-Barnard SDS people and mass media circus
atmosphere at Columbia in a different way, in retrospect. But it's
often difficult in the current moment to see what might have been
done differently, especially when it seemed that world history was
moving in a more revolutionary democratic direction all over the
globe in a rapid way in 1968.
NLN: Do you have the support of Columbia University?
BF: Columbia University is not financing the event. Originally, it
appeared that the Columbia University Administration was going to
co-sponsor, finance and help organize the commemoration event.
Perhaps to try to project the image that "Columbia University has
changed since 1968 ? But after seeing that the commemoration program
of panels and events proposed by the veterans of the 1968 Columbia
Strike was not exactly what the Columbia Administration had
envisioned, the Columbia Administration decided not to co-sponsor,
finance and help organize the commemoration event. The Columbia
Administration did agree, though–after some subsequent Columbia
faculty and current student pressure– to permit the current students
and '68 Columbia Strike veterans to hold the commemoration event at
Columbia's School of Journalism.
NLN: What is the message you hope to get out?
The message I hope to get out is that the 1968 Columbia University
Student Revolt was a morally justified act of student and community
non-violent resistance to Columbia University's institutional racism,
complicity with the U.S. war machine and undemocratic attempt to
suppress anti-war student dissent. Some of the other folks involved
in helping to set up the commemoration event may be seeking to get
out other messages about the late 1960s and current historical era.
NLN: Who are you trying to reach with this event? Is it a reunion or
are you trying to reach organizers who are currently active?
BF: All of us hope to attract as many currently active students and
current organizers as possible, in order to learn from them, share
ideas with them and attempt to create as much of an intergenerational
discussion as possible. That's one reason that, unlike some academic
left conferences, the 40th anniversary commemoration event is free
and there's no admissions charge. But it's also a reunion of people
who felt their life direction changed dramatically as a result of the
impact of the 1968 events at Columbia.
NLN: Do you see any similarities between Gym Crow and Manhattanville?
BF: As a co-author of the 1968 Columbia Citizenship Council pamphlet,
"Columbia and the Community," which took the position that an
institution that serves as a tool of U.S. imperialism, like Columbia
University, has no right to expand its campus over the objections of
local community residents, I'm, obviously, opposed to Columbia
University's latest land-grabbing campus expansion project in West
Harlem/Manhattanville. In the same way that Columbia University
undemocratically ignored the community groups' demand that no gym be
built in Morningside Park in 1968, Columbia University in 2008 is
also undemocratically ignoring the demand of various neighborhood
tenants' groups that the local community board's West
Harlem/Manhattanville development plan–not Columbia University's
expansion plan–be the plan that is implemented north of West 125th
Street. Just because "tax-exempt" Columbia University has spent a lot
of money lobbying various local and state politicians and agencies in
New York–despite its tax-exempt status–on behalf of its private
special interests, doesn't mean it has anymore of a right to expand
its campus north of West 125th Street than it had to build a Jim Crow
Gym in Morningside Park in 1968.
NLN: What is your opinion of new SDS? And it's non-student counterpart, MDS?
BF: I think if the new SDS and MDS were able to get as much mass
media access as Columbia-Barnard SDS activists got in the New York
Times and on local New York City tv stations after April 23, 2008,
they could both possibly be able to recruit large numbers of people
during this current "era of permanent war" and economic crisis of the
U.S. economic system. Because I think large numbers of people of all
generations in the USA now realize that some radical democratic
change in U.S. society is required and I think people are open to
eventually mobilizing behind anti-imperialist and anti-corporate
groups like the new SDS and MDS.
Before Martin Luther King was eliminated on April 4, 1968, there were
only about 30 hard-core Columbia-Barnard SDS activists who, on a
daily basis, attempted to politicize the campus and recruit other
Columbia and Barnard students into the Columbia-Barnard SDS chapter.
And even after Martin Luther King's assassination and before April
23, 1968, there were still less than 40 hard-core Columbia-Barnard
SDS activists doing day-to-day organizing at Columbia. Yet look how
many more anti-war students ended up rallying in support of
Columbia-Barnard SDS on April 23, 1968 when the Columbia
Administration tried to repress Columbia SDS people for non-violently
protesting against its complicity with the U.S. war machine, as
evidenced by Columbia's IDA connection.
NLN: Do you need any help with the event - how can people plug in?
BF: If people can let others know about the 40th anniversary
commemoration event that would be great. People can also plug into
the event by checking out the www.columbia1968.info site. And I think
that's where they can also find out about where organizations table
can be set up. If the weather in late April is good, I've heard that
some of the organizational tables for the current student activist
groups might be set up on Low Plaza, so I imagine the organization
tables of non-campus groups can also be set up on Low Plaza in late April.
NLN: Is there anything else you like to say?
BF: Freedom Now. Peace Now. End University Complicity With The War
Machine. Amnesty for All U.S. Political Prisoners. All Mass Media
Power To The People.