Police forced Columbia University students out of Hamilton Hall on May 22, 1968, ending the students’ occupation in the building. (Photo: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times).
The year is 1968.
Communist Czechoslovakia has just elected the relatively liberal Alexander Dubcek, who seeks to establish ”socialism with a human face.” During what became known as Prague Spring, Dubcek starts to loosen restrictions on speech, media, and travel.
Meanwhile, the Northern Vietnamese’s Tet offensive stuns America. The My Lai Massacre follows in March. The next month, President Lyndon B. Johnson announces that he wouldn’t seek another term. Robert Kennedy puts in a bid as the Democratic nominee. On April 4th, Martin Luther King is shot.
Riots erupted across the country — in Louisville, Kansas, Chicago, Baltimore, and DC. You know how computer speakers seize up several seconds before a cell phone rings? That’s what the air was like four months into 1968. The unrest was palpable. Nineteen days after the assassination of King, students united to protest Columbia University’s support of the Vietnam War and its [ongoing] colonization of Harlem. The students decided to occupy:
On April 23, 1968, several hundred students gathered at the sundial on the Columbia campus to protest the war and the gym led by the Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Some went to Morningside Park, where they tore down a fence around the gymnasium construction site and battled with police. Then they and other protesters marched into Hamilton Hall, Columbia’s main undergraduate classroom building, occupied its lobby, and prevented the dean of the college from leaving his office. By morning, African American students continued to occupy Hamilton, while other Columbia and Barnard students, mostly white, took over President Grayson Kirk’s office in Low Library. Soon student protesters took over three other buildings—Fayerweather, Mathematics, and Avery.
For six days, while demonstrations for and against the occupation roiled the campus, faculty members attempted to mediate. But to no avail. The stumbling block: a demand for amnesty for the protesters that the administration was unwilling to accept. In the early morning hours of April 30, Kirk summoned the New York City police, who entered the occupied buildings, beat many of the demonstrators, as well as bystanders and faculty members, and arrested more than 700. The building occupation was over, but the outrage was just starting to build. Thousands of students and faculty, many radicalized by the police action, went on strike, effectively shutting down the university for the rest of the semester.
The gym was never built in Morningside Park, and Columbia’s weapons research contract was terminated. But the implications of the 1968 occupation and strike went far beyond those two demands. In the wake of Columbia’s protest, campuses around the country exploded. And students took to the streets in cities around the world, from Paris and Prague to Tokyo and Mexico City. The social framework—institutions that excluded minorities, political parties that disenfranchised voters, a government that waged an unpopular war—seemed to be coming apart. Hopes were soon dashed. Before the year was out, Kennedy was assassinated, Prague Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks, the Chicago police violently beat protesters at the Democratic Convention, and Richard Nixon was elected President.
Let me just repeat one bit: Thousands of students and faculty, many radicalized by the police action, went on strike—
Thank you, Oakland Police Department.
Students outside of the occupation of Hamilton Hall in 1985 demanding that Columbia divest from apartheid South Africa.