By Colin Moynihan
December 19, 2008
It was not a redux of the Battle of Morningside Heights.
When students at the New School staged an occupation in an academic
building Wednesday night in an effort to bend the administration's
ear and will, it was difficult not to look back to the famous sit-in
carried out in 1968 by students at Columbia University.
The actions, separated by decades, diverged in many significant
respects. For one thing, the New School students differed from their
1968 counterparts in their choice of venue. While the Columbia
students took over the well-appointed office of Columbia's president,
Grayson Kirk, and (at least according to legend) smoked his cigars,
the New School students focused their ire on their university
president, Bob Kerrey, from afar. Instead of approaching his West
12th Street office, they occupied a large cafeteria around the corner
in a university building at 65 Fifth Avenue near East 13th Street.
Of course, there were similarities, too. Both the 1968 and the 2008
sit-ins were attended by people affiliated with the Students for a
Democratic Society and both were partly motivated by anger over
university associations with an unpopular war. In 1968, Columbia
students were upset that the university was affiliated with the
Institute for Defense Analysis, which advised the government on
Vietnam. This time, some students objected to connections between
university leaders and the war in Iraq. Mr. Kerrey, who served in
Vietnam, was an early and strong proponent for the United States
invasion of Iraq. Students also criticized Robert B. Millard, a
member of the New School board of trustees and chairman of the
executive committee of a military supplier called L-3 Communications,
which employed contractors accused in lawsuits of abusing prisoners in Iraq.
Sometimes there were simultaneous similarities and differences within
a single issue. Take, for instance, the student stances on university
buildings, important in both 1968 and 2008. The Columbia students
wished to halt the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park.
The New School students, on the other hand, wanted to prevent the
razing of the building at 65 Fifth Avenue, which had been scheduled
Some of the most telling differences were in the nature of the
occupations. While the Columbia protests spread to several buildings,
the New School students largely remained in the ground-floor
cafeteria and appeared to concentrate on consolidating their
position. Twice, students took school security guards by surprise,
flinging open doors and allowing reinforcements to stream into the
cafeteria from chilly sidewalks.
For many students, the cafeteria was home for more than 30 hours.
Their numbers fluctuated from about 50 to close to 200. Conditions
mixed the spartan and the modern. Students slept –– or tried to –– on
the cafeteria's hard wooden floors. The thermostat was often
uncomfortably high. Pillows and blankets were in short supply, but
technology abounded. Students shared laptops, batteries and phones.
They were in constant contact with the world beyond the cafeteria,
posting communiqués on the Web and e-mailing manifestos and updates
to allies. Messages were exchanged with sympathizers at other schools
like Antioch and Clemson.
Some of the available amenities were achieved through negotiation
with school officials. During much of the occupation, students with
New School IDs were permitted to cross freely between the occupied
zone and the streets outside the building. Supporters were allowed to
deliver food, coffee and even a movie projector (news footage of
melees in Greece and an episode of Charlie Rose interviewing Toni
Morrison were beamed onto a wall) after building hours on Thursday night.
Occupiers also enjoyed a sort of safe conduct between the cafeteria
and a bathroom in a nearby administration-controlled hallway until
sometime after midnight on Thursday, when the authorities apparently
announced that anyone visiting the bathroom would be prevented from
re-entering the cafeteria.
And although officers and security guards at times scuffled with
students –– and banged a newspaper photographer into a wall –– the
level of animosity was far lower on both sides than it was at
Columbia, when baton-wielding police officers arrested more than 700
people and seriously injured some students and reporters during a
predawn raid to take back the university.
At one point in the middle of the first night of the protest a
student and a New School security guard whiled away some time by
discussing the history of radical politics. On Thursday afternoon,
after police and students grappled in a narrow corridor leading from
the cafeteria to the street, a mood of détente eventually descended
with representatives from both sides engaged in a Checkpoint
Charlie-style standoff with a rude barricade of debris-filled metal
Dumpsters separating them. On one side of the Dumpster blockade, two
students sat on a concrete staircase watching two police officers
sitting on folding chairs while keeping an eye on the steps.
At the same time, wooden tables and heavy recycling bins in the
cafeteria were used as barricades and podiums as the students turned
the space into a cross between a town hall and Trafalgar Square. They
repeatedly held meetings to debate tactics and hold votes. Some of
the assemblies were refreshingly quick and direct. Others were
tangential and lengthy (sometimes numbingly so, particularly for the
Over time a rough, flawed, sincere and respectful form of democracy
emerged in the cafeteria. Factions with competing agendas and
ideologies clashed, but more often than not found common ground or
agreed to disagree. A group called the Radical Students Union (which
included former members of Students for a Democratic Society) was
said to have initially opposed the occupation, but requested later
that the start time be slightly delayed so that they could join in.
On the final afternoon of the occupation, the students held one of
their biggest meetings and also began using a form of shorthand sign
language to communicate: waving both hands in the air indicated
agreement; pointed index fingers meant somebody had a fact to convey;
and fingers forming a triangle were meant to remind others to stick
to the point.
Although Mr. Kirk, the president of Columbia, largely kept away from
the demonstrators, Mr. Kerrey visited 65 Fifth Avenue at least twice
on Thursday. Students at one point refused to meet with him directly,
but later heard him out through an intermediary. Offers were
extended, arrangements were discussed and votes were taken.
In the end, occupiers put aside calls for Mr. Kerrey and other
administration officials to resign and instead voted to accept a
four-point offer from Mr. Kerrey that included a promise not to
penalize students involved in the occupation and agreements to give
students a voice in selecting a provost and investing school funds.
Shortly afterward, around 3:30 Friday morning, the occupation ended
not with the wail of sirens, but with loud shouts as students
streamed from the cafeteria into nearby streets.