An Incomprehensive Overview of CU Activism

“On October 17, 2012 at 9:00am a Tabletop Exercise was conducted by Columbia University’s Emergency Management Operations Team in room 555 of Lerner Hall located on the Morningside Campus.  The exercise provided an open, no-fault environment where participants collectively evaluated emergency protocol plans and the coordination of campus Emergency Management Operations Team personnel in the event of a student-led protest and occupation of a campus building.” — James F. McShane, Vice President for Public Safety, October 22, 2012.

Administrators don’t forget the power (and successes) of student protest, and neither should we. Unfortunately we have a slight disadvantage: Administrators stay at Columbia for a long time, even decades, while most undergraduates come and go in four years. Almost everyone "remembers" 1968, but we need a deeper memory than just “it happened.” We need to remember Barnard and Columbia have over a century of principled dissent. We need to know why the protests happened, how they were organized, what worked and what didn’t work, and what we owe to those who stood up and fought. This is absolutely not to say no one is doing this — there are and have been students working to create and sustain an institutional memory. However, this is to say we need more: More students, more memory, more protest.

Why do we need an institutional memory? Perhaps most importantly, we need it so we know that we can win. As far back as 1932, Columbia and Barnard students took action to defend free speech. Reed Harris, then-editor of the Spectator, was well-known for his biting, investigative journalism. But when Reed wrote and published an article charging that President Butler had awarded a lucrative, sweetheart dining room contract to his sister, Butler expelled Reed. Thousands of students went out on a one-day strike for Reed and free speech, and they won.

There’ve been countless victories, including the Election Break we are about to enjoy (won in ’68), and while some aren’t so clear-cut, this only makes it more urgent that we understand "why," "what," and "how": So we learn from and continue these struggles. It took thirteen years of protest to make Columbia divest from racist apartheid South Africa. From teach-ins, sit-ins and a brief 275-person strong occupation of the Business School in 1978, to University Senate votes, to Trustees refusing to comply with a democratic mandate, to a 1985 blockade of Hamilton Hall with hundreds of students and faculty and workers and Harlemites. It took administrators until 1991 to fully divest, but protests played a pivotal role in pressuring Columbia to actually uphold democracy and anti-racism, and protests here learned from and contributed to student actions around the country.

So we also need these memories to know it can be a long road to victory. We need to ask why it took longer in some cases. Was it the size of the demands? Was it students not creating an open enough structure to involve new students, such as seems to have been the case in 1985? And how have administrators attempted to defeat protests? This isn’t just an academic exercise; these exercises are necessary to anyone who wants to fight against war and racism and for free speech and democracy. For instance, what can we learn from 1978 to 1991 that informs how students today can make Columbia divest from apartheid Israel and the occupation of Palestine? We need to study and debate with each other so we can develop strategies that can win today.

How can we build an institutional memory? Start with those who were there. Ask as many questions as we can think of. Some graduate students spend a long, long time at Columbia, and they can share first-hand experience from their participation in these protests. Some professors, too, have been involved with these protest movements. University workers also have myriad stories to tell from their own protests and from students’. Ask alumni. Ask everyone. You never know what you’ll learn or what new perspective you’ll get on something you may have already known.

Then there’s research. Google and Wikipedia are your friends. Follow leads, links, footnotes. The Spectator’s archive covers decades of campus history. Publications, both campus-based and unaffiliated, have published pieces with invaluable information and lessons to be gleaned. Don’t forget Columbia’s libraries. Of course, be aware of authors’ and publications’ viewpoints and digest them critically.

Finally, we have to make it sustainable. We have to share what we know and make it last. We can share through formal and informal events, by writing, and by creating and publicizing open structures that make this sharing happen consistently. For years the Columbia Student Solidarity Network linked left groups on campus, published a Disorientation Guide, for a period published a brief directory of activist groups on campus, and organized activist gatherings. StACC (Student + Activist + Community + Coalition) is a new group that formed out of last year’s May Day with similar goals to CSSN, starting with monthly forums. The Intercultural Resource Center just started a new publication, TALK (The Activist Lives for Knowledge), to unify and highlight social justice action here, and Lucha continues to publish El Participante.

We have to keep studying, debating, testing new strategies, and sharing our experiences with each other and those who will come after, and along the way, we will win.