Bollinger Says Bringing in Police Was Mistake in 68 Strike
Bollinger Says Bringing in Police Was Mistake in �68 Columbia Student Strike
By MIRIAM FURMAN
April 30, 2008 (NEW YORK)—It was a mistake to bring in police to end the 1968 student strike at Columbia University, said President Lee Bollinger at the “Political Action and Official Response Panel” on April 25. The panel was part of “Columbia 1968 + 40,” a three-day anniversary and retrospective conference on the causes of and fall-out from the eight-day takeover of six buildings by student groups in April 1968.
“You simply do not bring police onto a campus,” Bollinger said. “All the assurances in the world cannot be kept,” that police presence on campus will not result in violence.
Although not an official sponsor of the conference, Columbia made its campus available to alumni to reunite for what was billed as an “intergenerational dialogue” on war, race, activism and the University. And come they did: Several hundred 60-plus-year-olds returned to campus – some in updated hippie garb – to put this seminal event of their college days in context.
Among the panelists were three former students who participated in the strike: Raymond Brown, criminal defense attorney, then a member of the Hamilton Hall Steering Committee and one of 75 black students to occupy Hamilton Hall; Samuel Gross, University of Michigan law professor; and Gustin Reichbach ’70 CLS, a New York state supreme court justice who described himself as among “a handful, about four of us” in the Law School then who sympathized with the strikers. President Bollinger, who graduated from Columbia Law School in 1971, was the fourth panelist.
Judge Reichbach said his involvement had made it difficult for him to become a member of the New York Bar. “Several of my law school professors opposed my admittance to the bar,” he said. “I never would have believed then that I would become a judge.” Columbia Law School’s Nash Professor of Law, Kendall Thomas, moderated the panel organized by the Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Culture.
Although Thomas told the audience the panel would look at some of the legal issues fueling the 1968 student protest, the event served more as an opportunity for the panelists to share their memories and explain their involvement. Protesters from the Coalition to Preserve Community interrupted the program several times to express opposition to the University’s planned expansion into West Harlem. Thomas and Bollinger maintained order by insisting that the protesters stop interrupting the program. (Once the floor opened for questions, several community activists made their points.)
Ironically, it was students’ opposition to Columbia’s expansion into Morningside Park to build a gymnasium that was one of the grievances prompting the strike which involved about 800 students, and plans to build in that location were subsequently disbanded.
Reichbach stirred up some of those old passions for social justice, again. “Who would believe today that professors are arguing about the legality of torture?” he asked. He urged the audience to “speak out and resist” the current state of affairs in the country in which “White House officials discuss how they can make men scream in the name of national security.” For that, he received a standing ovation.
Bollinger, a legal scholar and professor who specializes in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, said, “The ’60s were significant in establishing freedom of expression” in our society. “We are at a moment in time, at an age when we can feel the end of a generation. How will the beliefs of our generation affect the future?”
Samuel Gross, who described himself as a frequent protester who had demonstrated against racism in the South in 1965, said that racism and “over three million casualties in Vietnam” were behind student protests.
“A lot of us focused our lives on protest,” he said. “Kent State [the 1970 protest in which the National Guard killed four students] and the invasion of Cambodia led to the shutdown of hundreds of colleges. The chief victims of violence were often minorities.” He added that trials of political activists -- such as the Harrisburg and the Chicago Seven trials—“drew me to the law.”
Brown, the criminal defense attorney, described the seizure of Hamilton Hall by black students as motivated “by issues of racial struggle against white supremacy,” which he said was, “an every day reality.” [Brown had been an officer of the Student Afro-American Society.] The University had only begun to recruit black students in 1967, he said, “and many of us came out of segregated schools. We couldn’t walk across campus without guards stopping us. Some, but not all of us, were involved in the larger civil rights movement. Our occupation of Hamilton Hall kept the demonstration going.”
The student protest movement wasn’t just about the draft, Brown said, adding that the University’s handling of the strike “missed a great pedagogical opportunity” to teach non-violent response to protest and discuss the issues, particularly racism, spurring student opposition. He called racism “that ancient and insidious influence.” Like Reichbach, Brown got a rousing standing ovation.