Daniel L. Feldman

Columbia 1968

In Uncategorized on February 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm

In my sophomore year, 1967-1968, politics on the Columbia campus drew my attention away from the West Side Democratic clubs. Mark Rudd succeeded Ted Kaptchuk as the leader of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. Unlike the scholarly Kaptchuk, Rudd wanted to radicalize the majority of students, who tended toward moderate liberalism, by choreographing violent confrontations between his SDS members and the police. In April of 1968, Cicero Wilson led a militant group of African-American students to occupy Hamilton Hall, where most of the required humanities courses for freshman and sophomore were offered. Then Rudd followed their lead but raised the ante by leading the occupation of the main offices of the Columbia University administration in Low Library.

The University refused to accede to Wilson and Rudd’s demands, especially the demand for amnesty for the protesters. The other demands included ending the University’s contracts with the Defense Department and ceasing construction of a new gymnasium Columbia was building in Morningside Park. The protesters vilified the latter as racist. (It was to give the neighborhood community a separate entrance from that to be used by the Columbia community, while using land for the project taken entirely from the neighborhood’s public park.)

After a few weeks, the University administration called on the City to have the police evict the trespassers. This confrontation, at least temporarily, seemed to achieve Rudd’s goals. A few days later masses of students, appalled at the injuries – many of them gratuitous — inflicted by the police on the occupying students, mobilized in protest on South Field, the grassy campus surrounded by the main undergraduate dormitories, classrooms, and libraries. When the police received their orders to “clear South Field,” some perhaps not aware that the gates behind the students had been locked, many more students were bloodied by police billy clubs, precipitating the subsequent student strike that closed the University for most of the remainder of the spring semester.

These events seared several lessons into my consciousness. First, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, sat on Columbia’s Board of Trustees.    Its news and editorial coverage tilted in favor of the administration,  to the point of dishonesty, when the administration had actually responded to the demonstrations ineptly and ham-handedly. Having been brought up to believe that the Good Grey Lady could be relied upon, this was an important eye-opener.

Second, I remember my arguments with three of the SDS Steering Committee members, Robbie Roth, Stuart Gedal, and Anne Hoffman, prior to the uprising.  I had met Robbie at a National Science Foundation program at the Mount Herman School in Massachusetts the summer between our junior and senior years in high school; I knew Stuart from a debate team encounter between our respective high schools; and Anne was in my freshman advanced calculus course. As a liberal of the Morris Raphael Cohen school – committed to the notion that a true liberal must subject all dogmas to constant reevaluation in the light of available evidence – I was skeptical of the radical leftist point of view, and unkindly (though not entirely unreasonably) asserted that in thirty years I would still be a liberal when they turned into right-wingers.

Third, Rich Wojculewski (later, “Wyatt”), captain of the football team, led the “Majority Coalition,” which had urged the University to call in the police to drag the protesters out, and indeed kept threatening to do so themselves if the University hesitated too long. Many of the Majority Coalition crowd were football players. Some of them rowed crew in the spring to stay in shape, and as a second-string member of the freshman heavyweight crew I knew some of them, and I was friendly with “the Woj” separately. I argued with them from the other side: while I thought the occupation of the buildings was wrong, it brought some useful focus to the protesters’ anti-war and anti-racism messages. Forcible eviction by the police, I argued, would engender more negative consequences than waiting them out, or using the gentler University security personnel. But my Majority Coalition friends, who were being deprived of their classes, did not have the patience for those approaches.

I was among the South Field protesters, but after the initial thrust by the police, I spent the rest of the night on the first aid squad, carrying my bleeding classmates to St. Luke’s Hospital across Amsterdam Avenue from the College. At one point that night, watching the police violence, I stood next to another friend, Vince Rigdon, against whose extremely conservative views on both religion and politics I had previously enjoyed arguing. After seeing the extent of the injuries, I had heard a number of my Majority Coalition friends express some doubts about their earlier views. Not Vinny. He said “Well, they got what they deserved.”  That was a rare moment of epiphany for me. At that moment I thought, with a certainty I have rarely experienced since, “Everything I think is right and everything he thinks is wrong.” Maybe it was not very Morris-Raphael-Cohen-like of me, but I still relish the memory.

  1. My recollection was that in 1967 you described yourself as a “Marxist” rather a Morris Cohen liberal. As I recalled in the Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories blog: “That evening, I dropped by Jerry’s dorm room. In the room with Jerry was his roommate, a Columbia College sophomore named Dan. Both Jerry and Dan seemed interested in talking with me about politics. After talking with them both about Columbia and IDA, Dan and I got into a discussion about New Left politics and radical social change. I asked Dan why he didn’t join SDS, since he seemed to be strongly against the war in Viet Nam and against the U.S. military and U.S. foreign policy.

    “`I’m a Marxist, too. And I seek the same radical change in U.S. society that SDS wants. But I think the best strategy is to infiltrate existing institutions and not let people know you’re a Marxist. Then, once you’re in power within Establishment institutions, you can use your power to really make radical change. That’s what I’m going to try to do with my life. I’m going to secretly work from within to radically change U.S. society,’ Dan answered…”

    • This does not sound like something I would say. If I did say it, it must have come out of a point of view I held so briefly that I cannot remember ever holding it. On the other hand, I certainly did intend to acquire as much political influence as I could in order to move society toward my “Morris Cohen liberal” views.
      Just a minor factual correction: I only roomed with Jerry in my freshman year, not my sophomore year.

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