From Eisenhower to Grayson Kirk
Columbia lurches from jerk to jerk
When I got back to Hamilton Hall, the main classroom building for the college, early that Wednesday morning at the end of April, I discovered that the black students had asked SDS to leave. Hamilton Hall was theirs, the doors barricaded, Dean Coleman their hostage now, and there they would make their stand, alone.
“Take your own building,” Cicero Wilson or one of the other black students had yelled, which was exactly what the white students had done in the early dawn. “They went to Low,” was the word I got, so I went too, easily scaling up the thick bars over the first-floor window onto the ledge of Low Library, the former library with its iconic rotunda, then through the open window into President Grayson Kirk’s inner sanctum.
Except for a brief excursion to change my clothes and make some phone calls, I stayed in Kirk’s office throughout the entire occupation. When I hopped over the sill I had no intention of remaining, but when the cops came in that first time early Wednesday morning, I didn’t dive out the window with Mark Rudd and the rest.
I don’t know why.
I just sat on the floor and waited, fully expecting to get hauled away. Maybe I stayed because everyone believed that the Black students had guns in Hamilton, that they were willing to die. They were making their stand, and so would I. Even if getting busted for trespassing in the President’s office was not quite the same thing as shooting it out with the cops, I just sat down.
Rap Brown had told people in Harlem about the gym Columbia planned to build in Morningside Park, the gym which the university was gracious as to allow the community limited use, just so long as the colored folks used the back door – the gym that stank of Jim Crow: “If they build the first story, blow it up,” Rap declared. “If they sneak back at night and build three stories, burn it down. And if they get nine stories built, it’s yours. Take it over, and maybe we’ll let them in on the weekends.” I hadn’t thought it out, I hadn’t planned it, and I had no blueprint: I just knew that the time had come to do what Rap had said: Take it over.
It’s hard even to tell when it all began. On Monday a leaflet had circulated around the campus: “Can democracy survive at Columbia University? Will Mark Rudd be our next dean?” Signed by “Students for a Free Campus,” the flyer called for a counter-demonstration against Students for a Democratic Society’s usual noon rally at the Sundial in the center of the campus the next day. But most ominously, it ended with a cryptic note: “Be there on the 23rd – Prepared.” We could only assume that “Prepared” meant that the right-wing jocks would pick a fight, so everyone had to come to the next day’s noon rally at the Sundial to back up Students for a Democratic Society. Most of us didn’t think of ourselves as political, and we thought SDS was pretty ineffective. We were “freaks,” stoned out and seeking cosmic inklings, poets and artists, but the jocks regarded both SDS and us as “pukes,” and like them we hated the war and the racist bullshit, so we came to the defense of SDS.
But of course it began long before that. There was the campus memorial service after Martin Luther King was killed during which Rudd, as the head of SDS, got up and grabbed the mike, denounced Columbia for hypocrisy, then led a stream of students out the door of St. Paul’s Chapel to boycott the official claptrap. Then there was President Kirk’s speech charging that students “have taken refuge in a turbulent and inchoate nihilism whose sole objectives are destruction.” We contemplated the idea of an “inchoate nihilism” – what did that mean? – did we only want destruction? Mark Rudd, who led SDS, answered with surprising eloquence: “If we win, we will take control of your world, your corporation, your University and attempt to mold a world in which we and other people can live as human beings.” Rudd’s letter concluded with the cry which ended up being heard round the world: “There is only one thing left to say. It may sound nihilistic to you, since it is the opening shot in a war of liberation. I’ll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I’m sure you don’t like a whole lot: ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick up.'”
Even before all this, there were the demos against the university being involved in counterinsurgency research for the Institute for Defense Analysis, or IDA, demos against the university’s complicity in Vietnam, demos against the construction of the apartheid gym in Morningside Park, demos about the ban on indoor demos after students got disciplinary charges for previous demos under Low’s rotunda.
Demos about demos about demos . . .
Every spring there had been riots – against the Navy ROTC, against Dow Chemical, against CIA recruiting. Every year the “Spring Offensive” got heavier, although it never really amounted to much, and even though there had been the stunning Tet Offensive only a couple of months before, we really hadn’t hatched a plot to raise the Viet Cong flag over the Math building.
But I count the real beginning as when LBJ announced he wouldn’t run for president again. It’s not that anything actually happened right then, certainly not much did on campus. But it was that brief week or so after his abdication speech, those few days at the end of March when we felt that maybe, just maybe, the war would end and the country would dig itself out from under its mountain of shit. It was that brief flicker, that moment when even the inconceivable took wing.
And when King was gunned down soon after, when city after city exploded into flames, the bitterness was worse than ever before.
That was when it all started: when we got a whiff of the possible.
Expecting a rumble, we gathered around the Sundial that Tuesday, along with about a hundred jocks holding signs like “Send Rudd Back to Cuba” and a crowd of professors trying to keep the two sides apart.
“There may not be a Columbia University after this summer,” Cicero Wilson, speaking for the black students, warned, and in response a dean offered to hold a meeting with students.
Then Tom Hurwitz from SDS jumped up and yelled, “Did we come here to talk, or did we come here to go to Low?” The crowd roared, and chanting “I-D-A MUST GO!” they pushed across Campus Walk to the side door of Low, which was locked, of course. Rudd stood on an overturned garbage can trying to hold a meeting about what to do next when someone else shouted, “Let’s head to the gym, let’s go to the gym site!” and the crowd bolted.
It looked like one more aimless, ineffectual outburst, so I stayed behind, hanging out with Les Gottesman and Alan Senauke, my friends from the college literary magazine, on South Lawn. After a while, people who had remained at the Sundial to hear more speeches also headed for the gym site, only to collide with the first contingent marching back. It turned out that when they had stormed into the gym site they stomped down the cyclone fence around the construction work in their fury, the cops jumped in, and a student had been arrested. No one knew who this student was, but the idea that the cops were arresting students made everything suddenly seem very different and much uglier.
Bill Sales, from the Student Afor-American Society, got up on the Sundial and gave a speech on how there’s one oppressor – in the White House, in Low Library, in Albany. “You strike a blow at the gym, you strike a blow for the Vietnamese people. You strike a blow at Low Library and you strike a blow for the freedom fighters in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa.” But then he criticized white students for being an incoherent mob. “We have to get more sophisticated,” he ended. “Now, need I say more? I don’t want to get arrested for sedition.”
At this point the crowd was ready for anything when Rudd got up and spoke in his off-hand, lanky manner: “We don’t have an incoherent mob, it just looks that way.” I-D-A must go, he yelled, the gym must be stopped, and that student who no one ever heard of before must get “un-busted.” Rudd went on some more, but then he ended with a surprise. He said there was only one thing left to do, and then he yelled, “We’ll start by holding a hostage!”
Later, Rudd told me that what he really meant was that we should take a building hostage and not an actual person, but it didn’t matter. “Seize Hamilton!” someone screamed, and almost a thousand students went and did just that. That’s when Dean Coleman barricaded himself inside his office, and suddenly we really did have a hostage.
Some big jocks stood guard in front of the door, glaring at us, but we filled the lobby around them. Posters of Stokeley Carmichael and Malcolm X went up. Che’s face dangled crookedly over the dean’s door. Coleman never really did try to leave, even when the jocks offered to run a block for him, and we stood around listening to speech after speech. A steering committee of Black and white students was formed, six demands were hammered out – including stopping the gym, cutting all ties to the Institute for Defense Analysis, amnesty for the student rebels, and more – and Soul Syndicate set up their amps in the lobby to begin blasting away with rock ‘n roll. We didn’t block the doors – students passed in and out going to classes – and Coleman remained safe behind his big mahogany door.
It was hard to tell where all this would lead. As the occupation of Hamilton Hall dragged on into the night a phalanx of burly Black men suddenly appeared and whisked the jocks from Coleman’s door before anyone could bat an eye, taking up the guard positions in their place. More and more, Harlem’s presence began to be felt, a seething angry presence.
Sometime after midnight I had had enough of the circus and went back to my apartment at 110th Street. I figured they would just stay up all night and then split. Bill Sales was right: It was pretty much an incoherent mob.
Only when I came back early the next morning did I realize that things had taken a much more serious turn than I had expected. Hamilton was barricaded, no one allowed in. Bill Sales, Cicero Wilson, and the rest of the Black students had been joined by Harlem militants, and they had announced their stand, asking the white students “to do their own thing.”
When I climbed onto the wide ledge of the window and stepped into Kirk’s office, I could see a swirl of activity. In one room some SDS people carefully pawed through Kirk’s files, yanking each folder out to photocopy, and then carefully placing it back. Eventually, they dug out details on the university’s secret plans to make Morningside Heights an all-white enclave; they found the scheme on how Columbia was going to pull out of the Institute for Defense Analysis officially, only to let President Kirk and others sit on its board of trustees as individuals so as to let the murderous counter-insurgency work continue; they got the goods on the university’s easy compliance as a tool of the CIA; and the files were printed in an East Village underground newspaper.
Students took turns sitting behind Kirk’s desk, sniffing his brandy, chewing his cigars. David Shapiro, child-poet prodigy now college literary star, stuck a cigar in his mouth and lofted his feet up high on the juggernaut desk, his hands behind his head. With his brushy moustache he looked a lot like a young Groucho, and Tom Hurwitz promptly took his photo. Life ran it, and David’s image – cocky, contemptuous – was wired around the world as the Symbol of the Scruffy Student Radical. David soon jumped out the window, never to return, but the die had been cast, and that image would come to haunt him the rest of his days.
Rumor had it that someone had found Kirk’s Trojans, although I never did see them. I suspect it was just a rumor, but it was a good one, a sizeable one, a rumor worth spreading, so we did, elongating it, so to speak. We literally sat in the forbidden seat of power – no student was ever allowed here, not even the tweediest of tweeds – and we were dead set on exposing the hairy truth: Grayson Kirk had a private toilet, a real throne – and he even had a dick.
When the cops finally did file through, all they did was whisk out Kirk’s Rembrandt – I hadn’t even noticed it – along with a few other precious artifacts. Then, mysteriously, they left us alone. We were glad they took the painting. None of us wanted to be responsible for preserving Western Civilization.
It was peculiar why the cops didn’t bust us then. Only later did we learn that the administration had truly licked their chops to bust us, but they had also wanted to leave the blacks in Hamilton alone for fear of provoking Harlem’s rage. No dice, the cops told them, they weren’t going to play favorites, especially since they lusted for black blood and had no cause to go easy on them. Hence, the cops’ perverse sense of equality: Everyone gets busted or no one. So Grayson Kirk and his recently appointed vice president, David Truman, faced with this dilemma, backed off. We didn’t know this until after the big bust, of course, but it was clear to us even then that, while our stubbornness, our “inchoate nihilism,” was our strength, the very real fear of Harlem’s rage was our leverage, our deterrence, our atom bomb.
We sat around the floor talking about what to do when suddenly Orest Ranum, the French history professor vaulted through the window. Ranum always strode across campus in flowing academic robes, so as he flew over the ledge we gasped. With his black cape billowing around him, he was a stunning, tripped-out sight, and we all turned to each other in wonderment as we sat on the floor, eyes wide, each of us with the very same silent thought: “It’s Batman!”
Professor Ranum told us that we had already made our point and we were only going to foment a right-wing backlash, the faculty would take over and negotiate, so we should leave. We listened, we refused to leave, and in an instant he flew back out. But the idea that Batman had suddenly materialized, had actually come to speak with us, became a mystic talisman, an acid flashback that no one, in all the jumble of events that followed, would ever forget.
The police stood out in front of the windows now, blocking people from climbing up the grates, although it was easy to get up on the ledge from the rear of the building, then walk over to one of the windows. Once on the ledge, you were home free, and the cops would leave you alone. Climbing back in that way, Rudd read us a note of support from Rap Brown, he told us that Black groups like CORE and SNCC and the Mau Maus were reinforcing Hamilton, and then went back out to organize Strike Central. So we met about what we would do, trying to decide whether or not to barricade the doors.
The meeting went on for hours. JJ suggested putting the huge precious Ming vases Kirk kept in the office in front of the doors to keep the cops from breaking them down. We didn’t want to take responsibility for protecting Eastern civilization either, so that was turned down. Discussion went around and around in that endless, tedious fashion of participatory democracy. Everyone had to be heard, and we had to reach a reasoned consensus. We were tense but in no hurry, we had nowhere to go, and we knew that if we were really going to put ourselves on the line, everything had to be talked out, everything agreed upon.
In the middle of the meeting, Stephen Spender strode through the window. Someone whispered who he was, but I had already recognized him from the time in high school I saw him read his poems at the 92nd Street Y. Tall, graying, dignified, he was the very image of the thoughtful, cultured poet – not an exploding, hairy galaxy like Allen Ginsberg, but a calm, tough nucleus. Several of us gathered around him. He asked us about the issues, our tactics, but when we asked him to join us, he only offered a tight grin and soon left. Clearly, this was our Spain, not his.
We still hadn’t decided to barricade, and we could walk by the cops posted outside the door and stroll into the rotunda. That night, the composer Otto Luening, almost ninety, came to play piano for us, jovial, smiling, wanting to know what agitated the young so much. “Being old is the same as being young,” he told us. “You want the same things, but you don’t have the energy – so you have to be sly.” We smiled back, listened to his music echo in the cavernous rotunda, although I don’t think he ever did figure out what we were doing. Still, professors, poets, big shots who had never even talked with us before were now suddenly sitting at our feet, begging to know why students were doing such crazy things.
In the afternoon the blacks in Hamilton let Dean Coleman go – probably a good public relations move – and the militants from Harlem split, leaving the building entirely in the hands of the Student Afro-American Society. The architecture and city planning students took over the School of Architecture in Avery Hall, signing up with the six demands, plus tacking on some of their own about the gym, particularly how wrongheaded and even ugly the design was. A university strike was declared, and a strike committee was formed with representatives from each of the buildings.
Some Barnard girls set up a makeshift kitchen in Kirk’s pantry, another girl vacuumed the floor, and we all took turns keeping the place clean. (It would be months before the women’s movement exploded, and it hadn’t dawned on us to overturn all the standard gender roles.) The administration was already tooting that we had vandalized the place, but we were actually very careful not to wreck anything, considering what kind of mess a hundred or so people can make cramped up in three small rooms with one small bathroom.
At a rally at Broadway and 116th Street the next day Charles 37X Kenyatta from the Mau Maus warned Kirk that Harlem would burn Columbia down if he didn’t stop the gym. Then the crowd tried to march across Campus Walk to Amsterdam Avenue. We couldn’t see the jocks trying to block the Mau Maus, but we could hear the yelling. All of a sudden the cops pushed the jocks back and formed a corridor, and from Kirk’s window we could see the chanting blacks march across the campus. How strange, the cops providing a royal escort for the Mau Maus – another weird sign of imminent apocalypse.
We started to hear about all sorts of meetings. The jocks, howling in their old gym about the niggers and the pukes, formed their Majority Coalition, and Dean Coleman soothed the savage beasts with a promise of “definitive action” that very night. The faculty formed their Ad Hoc Committee, trying to be go-betweens to negotiate, declaring their silly “Doctrine of Interposition” like they were the United Nations or something. This doctrine meant they would stick themselves in the middle, trying to block the inevitable brawl between jocks and pukes, while offering half-assed ideas to the administration for compromise.
That day another building, Fayerweather Hall, was taken over by graduate students, and very late that night, while I dozed on the floor, I could see JJ and a squad from Low jump out the windows and run right across the lawn to join Tom Hayden and other commandos from Fayerweather to occupy the Math building. In the end, five buildings were occupied, and after the administration announced they were shutting down the university, the General Studies students voted to keep Lewisohn Hall open in defiance of the order, a kind of anti-lock-out strike.
But “definitive action” had been in the air that night, and we kept on meeting to determine how to respond to what seemed to be the increasingly inevitable bust. JJ had wanted to push the Ming vases off the ledges onto the cops, but he was overruled, again. Not only did we not want to damage the vases, but we also wanted to remain nonviolent. So JJ next proposed that we push the cops off the ledges – “non-violently.”
JJ always went for the most militant action, and he was joined by the Motherfuckers, anarchist digger freaks from Tompkins Square who sported motorcycle helmets and terrific, floppy leather cowboy hats over their straggly, long hair. The Motherfuckers loved nothing more than fighting cops, and they certainly jacked up our spirits to resist. I liked JJ, and I thought The Motherfuckers were a trip, although I suspected they could get us all killed. I was relieved when they all went to mount the guerrilla assault on Math.
An hour or so after their takeover of what they quickly renamed Liberated Zone Number Five, word came that cops were pouring into the other side of Low: the bust was on. We finally resolved to barricade, closing up the doors, tying ropes around them, piling up chairs and desks, and we got ready for passive, nonviolent resistance.
The more radical faculty lined up on the lawn outside, standing between the windows and doors of Low and whatever phalanx of cops would appear. Crowds of crazed jocks and pukes sprawled in front, yelling and chanting at each other. Suddenly plainclothes cops in the darkness pulled out clubs and charged into the line, cracking some French professor’s skull open. “KIRK MUST GO!” people screamed, and the faculty line held despite the blood. Kirk and Truman were in offices just on the other side of the rotunda, and after frantic faculty members pleaded with them they backed off. The administration cancelled the bust, announcing that the university would remain closed until Monday.
The next day, black high school kids paraded through the campus chanting, “Hell, No! We Won’t Go!” and “Get Your Gun! Get Whitey!” We heard that Rap Brown and Stokeley Carmichael had visited Hamilton – now named Nat Turner Hall of Malcolm X University – and came out to give full support to the brothers at a press conference in front. All of Black America – the whole world, in fact – turned to Columbia to see what would happen.
Also that day the faculty set up a permanent cordon around Low, declaring that they would keep the warring factions apart. With their line of suits and ties and white armbands, access to Low was cut off. They even blocked Robbie Roth, our rep on the Strike Coordinating Committee, from getting back in. From that point on, we were cooped up until the bust, and we thought the professors, in all their vaunted neutrality, were actually doing the job of cops.
“What are you doing? Hilton, I taught you Marx. What are you doing?” Dr. Ross, my Government instructor, shrieked at me from his post behind the hedge. “I TAUGHT YOU MARX! Come out! This isn’t going to work!”
He did teach me Marx. I had written a paper for him on the division of labor in the sexual act based on The German Ideology and the 1844 manuscripts, which reached the inevitable conclusion that full-blown communism meant nothing less than one endless, non-stop orgasm. It was a convoluted Talmudic argument that the universe was simply a giant Reichian orgone box, and history was waiting for us to enter it. Ross liked the paper, despite my conclusion, which, ludicrous as it may seem, made complete sense according to the texts’ internal logic, and he gave me an A, the only unmitigated A that I ever received at Columbia. I had liked him, too. He took students seriously, and we did read Marx and Lenin and Sorel and Kropotkin and all the rest. But now he stood on the lawn, and I looked down upon him from the ledge in sad silence as he shrieked up at me and the rest of Low: “I TAUGHT YOU MARX!!”
Maybe he did feel what we were doing wouldn’t work, but what I felt was that he couldn’t live Revolution; couldn’t put his life, his career, on the line. All I could feel was sorrow at how ineffectual, how pathetic, how confused he appeared as he wailed at us from the little lawn between Low and the hedge. I just stared down at him without saying a word, and even now I can still feel the sadness of my disappointment, my loss of respect. A huge gulf right then widened between us.
Later that day, Kenneth Koch did his stint on the faculty cordon. The poet smiled in his affable way, didn’t preach or wail or gnash his teeth; and he offered a friendly wave at me and the other editors of the literary magazine, Les and Alan. He couldn’t keep from enjoying himself, couldn’t take things too seriously, which was in its own way very unnerving. But it was good to see the poet, in all his goofiness, and we waved back. He had thrown his lot in with the rest of the feeble faculty, which saddened us, although we couldn’t be mad at him. His humor lent him some transcendent grace.
“Did you write any poems?” he chuckled up at us.
No, we hadn’t. We set right off to punch out a bunch of spontaneous three-way-collaboration poems, each of us taking a turn on the typewriter we had liberated from President Kirk’s secretary.
So terrible, so embarrassingly idiotic were these poems that we threw them away almost immediately. The muse of Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara and Frank O’Hara had failed us, and moment-to-moment rhapsodic bop would sound only like Allen Ginsberg, and there was only one Allen Ginsberg. We couldn’t bear to write tedious Fight-Team-Fight anthems or lugubrious, boring manifestos. All we could knock out was intense, manic gibberish, when what was needed was something entirely new, written in a language no one had yet invented.
Still, I marveled at Koch’s sweetness, his unwillingness to change his peaceable demeanor in the face of chaos and violence, his chuckle, and his question: “Did you write any poems?”
All the newspapers – and many of the faculty – thought we were simply in it for “the kicks,” college pranksters out on an overblown panty raid, or we were drug-crazed hippies simply tripped out of our minds. Above all, especially to the Daily News, we were the Ivy League, we were elite spoiled brats who were intent on soiling our own sheets, pampered kids, Human Be-In monsters of permissive Dr. Spock.
Although we laughed all the time, we were totally serious. We met and talked nonstop, weighing every twist and turn in the negotiations. Sundial rally after Sundial rally we had heard Dave Gilbert and Paul Rockwell and Mike Clare and others patiently, eloquently explain the ways the university was a corporate leviathan and not the exalted acropolis of learning we had all come there expecting it to be. Exactingly, they had detailed which Columbia trustee was on the board of which corporation, how one interest scratched the back of another.
We had learned that almost ten thousand people in the neighborhood had been evicted or otherwise forced to move in the last eight years – black folks, colored people, the elderly, like my grandmother who had lived in the 110th Street apartment I had taken over after she died two years before – and the university was slated to push out ten thousand more in their plans to create their all-white, middle-class enclave. We knew all the lies, all the university’s stupid moneymaking schemes, like their plan to market a cigarette filter commercially, promoting it with the bullshit “science” of low nicotine as their excuse – until they were exposed and laughed at as fools. We knew all their lies, the same as we knew with such bitterness and sense of betrayal all the lies about Vietnam – all the phony body counts, the cold-blooded kill ratios, the cooked-up Gulf of Tonkin incidents; all the tumbling dominoes.
We laughed and played, but we were on no panty raid.
Right at the start, we decided on a policy of no grass and no beer, just so the administration couldn’t dismiss us with a cheap drug bust – although some people objected that life without a joint was just another way of caving in to the straight Establishment.
But, really, Low Commune was already an incredible high. For the first time, students were working together instead of trying to cut each other’s throats in class. No more competitive, masculine, intellectual one-up-man-ship egged on by professors. For the first time, we had a real feeling of mutual aid, of group yearning and learning, of one-mind determination and compassion. We were bound together, girls and boys, no longer isolated in girls’ or boys’ schools, alienated, stuffed into narrow dorm rooms or dark apartments by ourselves. Now we were a group of intersecting obligations to each other and to the world, sharing blankets and peanut butter, and we were set to overturn the System; and the discovery of that power kept us cool, kept us deliberate, filled us with joy.
Early on, we had felt that high, but after the bust scare Thursday night it became a palpable, overarching, living thing. Once we had decided that we would barricade, that we would allow ourselves to be arrested, that we would offer nonviolent resistance in the face of cop terror, we knew we had crossed some kind of Rubicon.
Having made that choice, it was as if we were already busted, as if we were living knowing that we were already dead, so the fear of death could not sway us. Faculty, liberals, administrators, everyone was hollering at us that we were ruining our academic careers, wrecking our lives. And they were right, we were. But we knew that our old lives didn’t matter anymore. None of us would take our expected place in the corporate war machine; none of us would allow ourselves to be used again, even though it would be “for our own benefit,” no less.
The most horrible genocide was being committed right before our very eyes, and none of us would be Good Germans; a whole generation said, “No,” no matter what the consequences.
Afterwards, I realized it was that sensibility – that terrible concentration camp feeling – that drove me to my “already-dead” sensibility. Sure, this time it wasn’t the Jews, my entire family, being slaughtered, but it was the same thing. But, unlike the Germans, our great HELL, NO, WE WON’T GO! would in fact gum up the works. Our spoiled-brat, “nihilist” refusal, that was life, real life, and we knew we were catching a peek of another universe, and that glimpse would keep us solid, whole, honest – and that vision turned us into a commune.
It’s not as if I really got to know anyone in the usual sense of collecting details about someone’s past, what they majored in, where they came from. I don’t even remember a lot of people’s names. We were so busy meeting over one negotiating ploy after another, deciding how to resist, fending off attacks, that anyone’s individual ambitions or their past didn’t seem to matter much anymore.
During breaks in meetings or after the danger of busts or assaults by jocks had subsided, I would merely doze or hang out with Les or Alan and our other friends. We were talked out, emptied, and could only feel dazed and oddly bored because of the excess of tension.
At the same time, I realized that I was being held captive. Of course, I could step out onto the ledge and climb down anytime. No one would stop me, and the faculty would welcome me in their arms. Yet, while I knew I stayed put by choice, I also knew I was being kept in by some inexorable force, like one of the bourgeois dinner-party guests in Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel.
Some politicians tried to make out that we were manipulated by Communists, saying that we were brainwashed or coerced into staying, which only made us laugh. After all the lies, no one could manipulate us. Robbie Roth chaired one meeting (before the faculty cops prevented him from getting back in), and when he hadn’t called on everyone who had their hands up, we went up to him afterward, told him he couldn’t pass over people like that, and he reconvened the meeting. After that, nothing was decided, no action taken, until everyone got their chance to speak.
Later, Tony Papert would chair the meetings. Tony was from the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, but he scrupulously encouraged every point of view, never quashing or silencing anyone, always in his soft voice reasoning everything out. Maybe it was our insistence on participatory democracy – that those who act must decide, and those who decide must act – which made him fair-minded. He respected us, no matter his dogmatic Maoist bent. No, the invisible force that held me captive was something too powerful to be wielded by one guy.
Mark Rudd was the leader of the Strike, and he became “The Student Radical,” a certified “Star,” in the eyes of Time and David Susskind and Walter Cronkite, which we found nothing but wickedly amusing: No one occupying Kirk’s office in Low Library made Rudd out to be anything too special because he was only a schlemiel like the rest of us, and he knew it, and all his friends knew it, no matter how much day-glow the media might drip on his aura. Still, he had a way, a manner, a style of low-key, participatory, anti-uptight goofiness that made him not just “represent” us but “be” us, and I suppose that meant real leadership qualities – just so long as he wouldn’t try to be “a leader” in the traditional sense of the word.
“Kirk is a jerk!” became a favorite chant in front of the windows of Low, and as negotiations about the IDA and the gym dragged on it became patently clear how true. He and the rest of the administrators were the real manipulators – except they couldn’t get away with it, not anymore. When confronted at a demo before the strike Kirk or some other administrator had rejected student demands with the remark that we were nothing more than “transitory birds.” Students migrated a mere four years across his realm, so we could have no say over how such a lofty institution could make its decisions.
Now those birds had perched in his office, crapping all over his cigars and condoms.
True to form, Kirk at first refused to budge, insisting that the gym could never be stopped; then that only the trustees could decide, and he could only put it on the agenda of their next meeting weeks away. Finally, he announced that he would temporarily suspend (merely suspend) construction – but only as a courtesy to honor Mayor Lindsay’s personal request. While the faculty clamored that that was the most we could ever hope to accomplish, we knew we had only just begun.
After a few days it became clear that, no matter what Kirk said, the gym was dead, and he and his cohorts would even have to disentangle from their Pentagon deals. So, out of our six demands, the one demanding amnesty for those in the buildings became the crux of the struggle. The administration adamantly refused, declaring, in their own game of falling dominoes, that if Columbia students went unpunished, then campuses all across the country would capitulate to the forces of darkness. Like McNamara facing down Communist bogeymen in Vietnam so he wouldn’t have to battle the Red Menace in Honolulu, Kirk had to stand his ground at Columbia, or else Harvard, Yale and Oneonta State College would likewise fall.
Giving in on amnesty was never a question for Low Commune. How could we allow ourselves to be expelled or otherwise punished – by an arrogant administration that held its own students in contempt, no less – for doing what was right? Sure, they could call in the cops, they could even expel us, but why the fuck would we agree to let them? Liberals thought giving in made sense: We broke the rules, so we had to pay, even if we had just faced down imperialist genocide and racism. After all, that’s all part of fair play: The faculty would pat us on the back and then sell us down the river.
“Bullshit!” was our response, which was exactly what Rudd said, thus freaking out the faculty at their meeting Friday night, but we knew he was right. Some buildings wavered, especially Fayerweather, our Fair Weather friends, we called them. Filled with a mixed bag of ambivalent graduate students and instructors, Fayerweather never ceased agonizing and waffling, at least in our eyes. Meanwhile, the black students in Hamilton remained stone-faced, hardly uttering a word after assuring SDS that they would stick by us and not make a separate deal, no matter what.
Maybe because we had that life-after-death feeling, Low just sat serenely, never budging for an instant. Intractable, we developed a reputation for being militant, although we were never the banner-waving guerrilla types like those who occupied Math. We considered every deal carefully, every proposal that was floated to us; we rejected each one point by point and then just stayed put, watching all hell break loose from out of the windows of Kirk’s cockpit.
It gets harder and harder trying to recall events after Saturday, especially as cordons and blockades and brawls broke out one after another. That evening Rudd spoke from the Law Bridge over Amsterdam Avenue to a contingent from the huge peace march in Central Park. He called the faculty worse than cops. This outraged a lot of people, but when we learned what he said, we knew exactly what he meant: We had been betrayed by our teachers, and that felt a lot worse than the expected brutality of the NYPD.
Around midnight nearly a hundred supporters tried to break through the faculty blockade, storming up the window grates to the ledge. The professors pulled them down, grabbed them by the legs and hauled them off, while we tried to yank them in. We pulled and screamed from above, a jumble of arms and legs in the darkness, and in the tumult and rage all several of us could do was spit at the “neutral” faculty. (Was Elisabeth Hansot in that melee? I don’t remember seeing her, but perhaps that was the time I spit on her.) About half a dozen students made it through the window, while the rest were yanked off and shoved back.
Around five the next evening, the jocks set up their own blockade on the other side of the hedge from the faculty, declaring that nothing other than medical supplies would pass through. By now everyone was marked by an armband: white for the faculty, red for our supporters, blue for the jocks, and even green for those liberals who supported amnesty even though they didn’t really like us.
When a group of red armbands who tried to push through with a box of food were shoved back, Robbie Roth made a break around the side for the ledge. Blue armbands charged after him and white armbands after the blue. All hell broke loose, but Robbie didn’t make it up to the window, and the faculty quickly ruled that they would enforce the jocks’ embargo, allowing in only medical supplies (which meant, at least, that we got Vaseline for protection against the anticipated tear-gas attack).
Late that night we learned that there was a wedding at Fayerweather officiated by the radical campus chaplain Rev. Bill Starr – “I pronounce you Children of the New Age” – and soon after we could peer out Kirk’s window as the bride and groom – he wore a green Nehru jacket – led a procession around the Sundial. We thought it was a giddy trip, another way to swat at the straight world, although we also snickered at how flighty the people occupying Fayerweather could be while we sat besieged in Kirk’s office.
Soon after the procession, the mood shifted again as JJ tried to lead another contingent though the jock blockade, and nearly a thousand green arm-bands camped out all night on the Sundial in a peace vigil against a bust.
But a bust was becoming inevitable.
On Monday the university stayed shut while the faculty tried to negotiate one last deal. Meanwhile, JJ and others kept on trying to run the blockade. I stood on the ledge – we each took turns at the post to ward off jock attacks, to help anyone who made it through, and to show that we were the ones who had command of the heights.
Barry Wildorf, the law student who led Low’s security committee, pointed at the fat, heavy books with uncut pages that Kirk never read but kept around to show off his phony intellect. He suggested that we hurl them down at the jocks if they tried to charge through the faculty cordon. But we rejected that idea: Our war wasn’t with books, and heaving them down like a bunch of Quasimodos seemed only to play into the media’s nihilism fantasies. Besides, I kissed my Siddur whenever I dropped it on the floor in Hebrew School, so the thought of tossing books like grenades made my heart ache. Barry was only looking for some way to ward off the expected assault, and he muttered that it was a good thing the jocks didn’t know we wouldn’t defend ourselves or else we would really be up shit’s creek when they did storm the windows.
Instead of throwing books, we decided to wield the long poles with small metal hooks used for opening the window tops to push back any jock who might try to climb up the ledge, although we mostly kept the poles hidden, not wanting to provoke an unwarranted escalation. So when it came time to stand on the ledge I only had my hands to ward off whatever Coke bottle or spit or giant linebacker would come my way.
About a hundred of our friends marched around Low with boxes of food. Around and around they paraded, chanting, “Food! Food!” Suddenly the crowd veered towards Low and charged into the jock line. Fists flew, our people sprayed ammonia, I saw a jock with a knife glinting in the sun, a soda bottle swung up high above the boiling heads then dashed down, and I hollered from my position on the ledge. The professors broke up the melee, no one seriously injured, and our contingent backed up, unloading the goods in the boxes to throw their contents piece by piece at those of us doing guard duty on the ledges.
I teetered, I lunged, and I even caught a few grapefruits as they hurled over the heads of the blue and white armbands. Strikers cheered as each sardine can or loaf of bread was caught. Jocks jeered when salamis or oranges went wild or fell short or when I, the puke poet, bobbled and dropped them. Soon the jocks were waving blankets and frying-pans trying to block each flight, they began flinging eggs and grapefruits and rocks at us, and I had to dodge or try to catch each missile or simply allow myself to be hit as I focused on catching the goods.
Friends told me I looked very grim on that ledge. I know I didn’t smile as I concentrated intently at the fierce barrage coming at me. By the time it was all over,I had avoided most of the eggs, and I had even managed to haul in a decent catch of groceries. But I had never felt closer to war than my stint on the ledge, and I was certain that the next battle could only end in bloodshed.
In response to that brawl, Kirk and Truman sent a squad of cops to form yet one more line, this time in front of the jocks, to keep the warring sides apart. Now we had three cordons around us, and while still we held the heights on the ledge, we could only wonder how long this dance macabre could go on.
Not long, as it turned out.
That night, Low voted unanimously to reject the faculty’s last deal, what they called their “bitter pill,” the compromise that would be hard for all sides to swallow.
Now the bust would surely come.
We met for hours deciding how we would make our last stand. One suggestion even floated around that we should all strip and resist nonviolently while stark-naked. This tactic had its charms, but it was dismissed as too dangerous – who knows how the cops might react to a bunch of girls and boys in the buff?
Bobby Plower argued passionately yet calmly for fighting the cops. If the blacks were willing to defend themselves with guns, we could at the very least use our fists. Discussion went on and on, but finally we voted in favor of nonviolent passive resistance, clothes on. Some would go limp, while others would allow themselves to be taken.
“Then let me barricade myself in a separate room so I can fight the cops,” Bobby pleaded, tears in his eyes.
No, that would only court disaster. Bobby was a Navy Vietnam vet, a munitions expert, and despite his quiet, sincere demeanor, some thought he could have been a provocateur.
No, we had to stick together, our obstinate unity the one thing going for us, and a lone warrior could bring down a hail of bullets.
A crew went off to reinforce the barricades.
“You know I respect the Commune’s decision, no matter what,” Bobby softly responded, “so I’ll leave. I’m going to Hamilton. At least black people are willing to fight, and the time has come to fight.”
Bobby was no grandstander, no loudmouth braggart. He was serious, ready to make the sacrifice. The war had etched a deeper, more sorrowful scar in his soul. But it was still an odd, lonesome feeling watching him climb out the window. He raised his fist in one last salute then plunged into the night and the chanting crowds to make his way to Hamilton and possible death. A year or so later, he was arrested for setting off bombs at recruiting stations; he was concited, sent to Attica, took part in the uprising there, yet managed to survive the onsalught by the police.
At 2 a.m. the water was shut off, while word came over the walkie-talkie that cops were massing on Amsterdam Avenue.
This was it – no more false alarms, the bust was on.
Crowded into the largest room of the suite, we stood with our arms linked in a series of concentric circles, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” and other civil rights songs. Axes and hatchets began chopping through the barricade of desks and bookcases and nailed-up boards, the rhythmic thuds playing counterpoint to our hymns.
Suddenly, a swath of blue uniform could be seen through the rubble, then a blue arm. A girl screamed, and we sang even louder to drown out the fear.
By chance, the literary crowd from the Columbia Review had formed the smallest orbit in the very center of Low’s concentric circles. I clutched Alan Senauke’s arm tighter when the cops broke through; I looked at Les Gottesman’s bulging eyes, at Kathy Knowles’s and Nancy Werner’s pale faces, and we howled “We Shall Overcome,” knowing our time had really come when the first cop stepped through the hole.
That’s when I noticed David Somerset.
David stood by himself in the very core of our most central circle. There, in the very heart of Low Commune, was David, an open paperback in his hands. Arms linked to no one else’s, he clutched his book, his eyes steadily moving along the type.
I did a double take, but there he stood, reading with unaccountable serenity, his glasses teetering on his nose. So intent on finishing the book, invisible in his wry, unassuming manner, he wasn’t noticed by anyone else. Despite the rising panic, despite the smell of violence, despite our straining voices, he kept on reading, unperturbed.
I gaped at him as he turned the last page, catching his eye as he looked up.
“Gotta finish the book, you know,” he answered my astonished look with a wisp of a smile. He tilted it up to show the cover – Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep – as if that were explanation enough, then he stuffed it into his back pocket.
How could he read a book, even a Chandler book, at a time like this? David simply offered his wry smile.
All the cops – dozens – shoved their way through the cleared barricade to take their positions, the final, blue concentric circle surrounding ours. Some officer blared through a megaphone – probably the official announcement that we were trespassing, would be arrested, etcetera – although exactly what he said was unintelligible above the din of our chorus.
Then one cop, anonymous in his helmet, sauntered up to a girl on the very outermost circle – he seemed casual, almost nonchalant, a slight, fixed grin pasted to his lips.
He grabbed her shoulder with one hand; then, with his other, he raised one of those extra-long, aluminum utility flashlights high up over her head.
For a moment, time stood still, the silvery flashlight suspended above her head.
I stared at the frozen glitter of light on the long metallic tube, and even now I can see it glinting, forever poised above her head.
Then, in a slow, heavy arc, the cop brought the flashlight down on her skull.
Raising it up and swinging it down. Up and down, again, then again, repeatedly he pounded the girl’s head, methodically clobbering her, the ghastly grin never leaving his lips.
She shrieked in pain and fell to the floor, yet he still kept swinging.
We howled in horror and rage, clutching each other more tightly, singing even more loudly.
Maybe they had drawn straws, and he would be first. Once that cop began battering the girl with his silvery flashlight, the rest of the horde as if on cue descended upon us from all sides. Yanking each circle of arms apart, they beat us wildly with their fists, their clubs, their flashlights.
Long talks on whether to accept arrest or go limp had meant nothing: The cops had made up their minds to beat the shit out of all of us, no matter what we did.
One by one, our concentric circles were pulled apart and battered. I had hoped they would have shot their load before reaching us at the very core, but their fury raged unabated.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see one cop crack Nancy’s skull open, blood quickly gushing over her eyes.
Alan yelled, “Hey, don'” – but before he could even finish, he was thrown down on top of one of the desks, a half dozen cops working him over, fists and clubs pumping like high-speed pistons.
When I turned back, David Somerset had disappeared, swallowed up; only his book had been left behind, torn and tossed on the floor.
I stood by myself then. Trying to be very small, very quiet, I inched my way towards the other rooms and the door to the rotunda.
Suddenly I was hit from behind and shoved through a gauntlet of cops.
Wallops, blows, jabs, a swirl of fists – I tried to keep my eyes open wide, watching the nightstick as it formed a crescent slicing into my gut.
Then, oddly, the floor quickly thrust up to my nose, and all I could see were bits of rug and dirt and darkness.