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'68 Protests, Riots at Columbia Sparked Student Activism at Harvard, in Nation

By Leondra R. Kruger

One of the most violent, and most important, protests of the 1960s occurred at Columbia University.

"Most of the campus uprisings that happened in the late '60s happened with some reference to what happened at Columbia," says Alan Brinkley, a former Harvard faculty member who is now a professor of history at Columbia. "The idea of occupying an administration building at Harvard certainly owed a lot to Columbia."

In the Spring of 1968, members of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Organized against the presence of recruiters form corporations involved with either the Department of Defense or the Vietnam War. In particular, the students objected to Columbia scientists' work in the government's Institute for Defense Analyses.

At the same sime, the Students Afro-American Society (SAS) was protesting a university proposal to build a gymnasium in a public park in the predominantly Black community of Morningside Heights.

In late April, SAS and SDS entered into a tenuous alliance. The University's expansion into Morningside Heights, SDS leaders argued, was analogous to the United States' expansion into Vietnam.

So on April 29, after a joint rally in front of Columbia's Law Library, students marched on Hamilton Hall, entered the office of the dean of students and held him hostage for the night.

But the alliance didn't last. In the early hours of the next morning, the more disciplined SAS leaders, citing different goals, told SDS members that they would have to leave.

The groggy SDS members marched over to Low Library, where they broke into the office of Columbia's president.. Soon, members of the original group, as well as other students, had spread out to several other classroom buildings and set up "Strike Central" in Ferris Booth Hall, the student union.

SDS and SAS entered into separate negotiations with the administration, and the faculty established itself as a neutral body, proposing alternative solutions to the groups' conflicting demands.

SDS and SAS occupied various campus building for seven days, while the faculty met repeatedly to debate the situation and the national media began to cover events on campus. Student counter-demonstrators and anti-SDS faculty members slowly grew impatient.

After a week, negotiations broke down and university administrators called for police to clear the buildings. At 2:30 the next morning, striking SAS members in Hamilton Hall gave themselves up without a struggle. The SDS protesters in the other buildings--shocked by the surrender of SAS--vowed to fight on.

When police advanced on Low Library, pro-SDS students blocked their passage. Police cleared the way with blackjacks and night sticks, and tore off the doors to the president's office after students inside refused to open them.

In other halls, police broke through barricades, struggled up stairs soaked with soap and dragged students, face down, out of the buildings. Passive resistance had turned into war.

Exactly 712 students were arrested in the first sweep. But thousands of others assembled to watch the arrests, chanting anti-police slogans. In violation of a prearranged agreement between police and administrators, officers charged the crowd of students and injured many in their attempts to clear the area.

The next morning, students called for the faculty to strike. Although the faculty did not officially sanction student demands, enough avoided campus to effectively shut down the university for three weeks.

The strike only the precursor to more violence. When university administrators met to determine how to punish the strike leaders, students protested again. occupying Hamilton Hall and building barricades at two of the main entrances to campus.

After removing students from the building, uniformed and plainclothes officers again swept the lawn, injuring 68 students and arresting 37.

In the end, 73 students were suspended. And about 300 students walked out of Commencement that year when the president started to speak.

Although Columbia University was seriously hurt by the violence, student activists learned from the experience.

Says Brinkley: "Both Harvard and Columbia were as much about finding ways to allow privileged students at universities to fulfill themselves as they were to fight particular social injustices."

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