Being Left

Years After The 1968 Columbia Revolt

Bob Feldman interviews Bernadine Dohrn


Thirty years ago Columbia University was the scene of "The Battle Of Morningside Heights"—when Columbia President (and Institute for Defense Analyses Director) Grayson Kirk called in 1,000 NYC police to clear the campus of protesting students on two occasions—711 students were arrested, 148 injured, and 120 charges of police brutality were filed.

In July 1968, following the revolt, a National Lawyers Guild activist who coordinated some of the legal defense work on behalf of the arrested Barnard and Columbia students, Bernardine Dohrn, became a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).


BOB FELDMAN: It’s now 30 years since New York City police were used to suppress the 1968 Columbia student revolt. Thinking back, what are your most vivid memories of that time?

BERNADINE DOHRN: I remember the creative spirit of liberation and the moral force generated by Columbia students. Black and white students took action in solidarity with justice and freedom for others (in Vietnam and Harlem)—and by risking their own privileged futures, they forged meanings and discovered their own humanity. When several hundred students disrupted the status quo and defied their own upbringing by seizing university buildings, they uncovered a flood of creativity: daily wall newspapers, art posters, real learning in a crucible of activity, strike solidarity, legal defense strategies, freedom schools, unity with the Harlem community.

From this inventive rebellion would come activists of the women’s movement, the environmental struggle, Puerto Rican independence, labor, the gay liberation movement, Wounded Knee, struggles for the disabled, veterans, the elderly, health care, children, and a renewed peace movement.

Let me remind you of the context:

On January 5, 1969, Dr. Benjamin Spock and four other intellectuals were indicted for "conspiracy to aid, counsel, and abet" young men to violate the draft laws.

On January 30, the Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. The U.S. embassy in Saigon was overrun by Vietnamese liberation forces. In 36 cities of South Vietnam, there was a military uprising, ripping apart the illusion that the United States was on the verge of winning the war in Vietnam.

In the middle of January and continuing for 77 days, the Vietnamese surrounded the military outpost of Khe Sanh. The U.S. military made Khe Sanh the most heavily bombed target in the history of warfare for the next six months, until it was quietly abandoned.

On March 5, the Kerner Commission issued a report about the uprisings in Black communities across America, with the famous statement: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black and one white, separate and unequal."

On March 15, the week’s casualty figures from Vietnam were 509 U.S. soldiers killed, 2,766 wounded. At that point, U.S. casualties in Southeast Asia—these numbers never included Southeast Asian casualties—surpassed the war in Korea.

The next day, Robert F. Kennedy announced that he was running for president. Also on March 16, although not yet known to the United States public, U.S. troops entered a hamlet called My Lai in the middle of the Mekong Delta. They reported to headquarters that they killed 128 "Viet Cong troops" and captured 3 weapons. My Lai was later exposed as a barbaric example of the nature of the war against an unarmed civilian population.

During the last week of March, a group called "the wise men" that President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) convened, composed of military and corporate leaders with whom he talked about the Vietnam war. The wise men" told LBJ that the United States could not win in Vietnam, and they were concerned about the deep divisions in American society.

On the same day, SDS convened its National Council meeting in Lexington, Kentucky with 102 delegates. Primarily, we debated the question of support for the Black Liberation Movement.

Three days later, LBJ declared he would not run again. I don’t think it was tied to the SDS meeting. It was probably tied to the wise men’s determination that the U.S. could not win the war against Vietnam.

On April 4, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. There follows uprisings in 125 cities in the United States. Fifty-five thousand National Guard and federal troops are called out. Forty-six dead. Twenty thousand people arrested in that one week.

A week later, the worker/student strikes began in France.


But why Columbia? Why would a major Ivy League university be affected by that?

Columbia students, SDS, and the African-American students-Student Afro-American Society (SAS) had been organizing—only small numbers—around two big issues at Columbia. One was the presence of secret war research. The university denied that it participated in this consortium, called the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA—a Pentagon-sponsored group of universities that were advising the government on defense strategy in return for lots of funding). Second was the construction of a gym for Columbia students in Morningside Park, which is part of the Harlem community, to which Harlem residents would be denied access.

SDS, three weeks before, had taken a petition with 1,800 signatures to the office of Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, demanding that Columbia stop its participation in war research.


IDA still exists, by the way, in 1998.

They were doing research, for example, on the "chemical control of vegetation," the creation and use of Agent Orange or napalm, which ends up poisoning not only the countryside of Vietnam, but American troops as well.


IDA has a web site in which they brag about their current research in "deep attack analysis."

Right. And one of the other things that was also a major research project was "exo-atmosphere nuclear detonations." So the students presented this petition and the president said it was a violation on a ban on indoor demonstrations. Columbia put some of the leadership on probation.

On April 23, a group of some 500 students met to protest putting students on probation. They marched to the gym site. There was a scuffle with police there. The fence got torn down. The SAS students and SDS marched over and occupied Hamilton Hall, taking an acting dean "hostage" in the process. Within a day and a-half, four other buildings were occupied by students.

My view is that a couple of things were going on here. One was that students at one of the most privileged places in the country were turning away from what universities were shaping them into: the technological products who benefit from inequality and world conquest. What they were doing is making a highly moral statement: "We won’t be molded into the future leaders of the society that you have in mind, if this is the society that you have in mind. And we can do something better."

And with that action was released a spirit and an outpouring of creativity that attracted more people.

Once the students were occupying Low Library—which is where Grayson Kirk’s offices were—and went through the files, there was proof of everything that the university had been denying. In fact, Columbia and the other major universities were not only participants in IDA, they were discussing with the government and each other how to lie about it to the students.

So you have the kind of smoking-gun evidence of their manipulation of public relations. You have the wonderful research that had been done about Who Rules Columbia? and its interlocking corporate directorships. So everyone could see that universities really are part of the whole business of military, corporate, and real estate power.

Then the Harlem community marched through the campus while the buildings were occupied by students. Obviously, Columbia was hesitant about what to do about getting the students out because of the presence of the Harlem community. Finally, Columbia decided to unleash a police riot against the students. A thousand police took part in what was really the largest police action at a college.


Did you see any of that?

I didn’t see it. I was traveling for the National Lawyers Guild and was speaking at Morgan State, a traditional all-Black college, when I heard the news that the students had occupied the buildings. When I returned 700 students had been arrested.


Why would the Lawyers Guild agree to defend the Columbia and Barnard students? You mentioned that people went through files. The occupation of buildings. And the media, when they covered it, stress: "Students used violence to shut down and deny the academic freedom rights of an academic institution."

When I look back at the 1960s, including what was to come—which was certainly more militant than Columbia—I’m astonished at how restrained the movement was. The notion that people could be worrying now about the small amounts of violence committed by the anti-war movement, compared to the massive U.S. extermination of populations at home and abroad that was going on in our name. To me, the movement had an incredible record of restraint and appropriateness of response.

There was the nightly "body count" from Vietnam. The class and racial inequality of the draft and who was dying. The massive assault and occupations of urban Black communities by National Guard and police. Then you have students breaking a lock on a door? Going into files?

The response to me was highly contained and appropriate. Yes, it was breaking the law. Yes, it was taking risks. But people were acting in a larger framework, an illegal and immoral war abroad and cruel inequality at home. They were engaging in activist civil disobedience, willing to sign up for the consequences. People were actually getting off their career paths. The notion that "I have to be good and obedient all my life" is not what democracy is really about.

One of my favorite critiques of the 1960s comes from Samuel Huntington, a Harvard history professor who was advising the government.


He’s also an IDA trustee now in 1998.

Is that right? At the time, he called the youth anti-war movement "an excess of democracy." That is one of my favorite negative critiques of the 1960’s movements. We believed in John Dewey. We believed in the notion that democracy was the active participation of citizens, not just the pulling of a lever every four years.

Student activism revealed that the war was not what the authorities said it was, that the university was a citadel of learning and also a private landowner. And a racist landowner at that. And a profit machine. These were shocking revelations. And when a large number of students said: "We’re not buying it. We will not be complicit. And if it means it’s going to affect the rest of my life and my career and what you’re molding me into—so be it."

The Columbia rebellion was in the finest tradition of American social activism and real democracy. We thought that we were part of a global movement for liberation and real democracy.

Let me tell you about the role of the National Lawyers Guild, because you asked me about that. The Guild challenged the legality of the Vietnam war. As you know, it was the longest undeclared war in American history and had no legal basis, ever. It was in violation of international law.

Secondly, we were committed to supporting people who were arrested in mass demonstrations against the war and the draft, including military resistance. We organized law students and lawyers at the Pentagon protest, at the Foreign Policy Association [Hilton Hotel demo]—which involved a lot of the Columbia students protesting the relationship of this elite group of policymakers to the war in Vietnam. The Guild took responsibility for organizing legal defense.

The Guild had a noble history of being involved in the Southern Civil Rights movement. Our notion was that lawyers should make themselves accountable to the movement, and that law students needed to be participants in social movements, as well as being trained to be legal experts.


The Guild is still around in 1998, right?

The Guild managed to survive the 1980s and continues to thrive by embracing a huge array of social issues. From immigration and labor, ecology, international law, women’s rights, children’s rights and so on. It is very much in the tradition of the 1960’s grassroots organization, where local chapters work away on their own priorities but are a part of a broader network and coalition.


When you worked for the Guild, did you meet William Kunstler?

I met Bill Kunstler, Leonard Boudin, Victor Rabinowitz, Howard Moore, Conrad Lynn, Ann Ginger, Haywood Burns, Ralph Shapiro. A whole generation of people who inspired me.


How were they different from other lawyers? Did they have anything in common, in terms of the quality that they had, that would distinguish them from the lawyers we see when we go to the corporate offices?

Well, what’s distinguishing is that they committed themselves—each and every one of them, really—to being on the side of progressive social change. They were intellectually honest and rigorous, but they did not pretend to be neutral. They were clearly partisan. They were dedicated to their clients. They were people who stayed in touch with their clients for a lifetime. They added to our "new left" analysis a framework, a history of the uses and abuses of law. They identified the incredible strengths embedded in our constitutional and civil liberties, and civil rights traditions, as well as the social control and constraints and pull towards the status quo, which is fundamental to the law.

And the movement also changed them. It was a mutual relationship. Guild lawyers included people who practiced traditional corporate law, and they were influenced by the 1960s elan, the spirit, the notion that politics are not just your ideas, but your whole life and who you are.


Do you have any special memories related to William Kunstler?

My most vivid memory of Bill will always be the Rap Brown conspiracy trial in New Orleans. I happened to be there during the trial. H. Rap Brown became the chair of SNCC—Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee—after Stokely Carmichael [aka Kwame Touré]. In the Spring of 1968—six days after the King assassination—Congress passed the Rap Brown Amendment, attached to some pending civil rights legislation. Rap Brown was so feared as a speaker on college campuses and within the Black community that Congress passed a piece of legislation to muzzle him. He was indicted for "conspiracy" and tried in New Orleans.

The courtroom was ringed with armed National Guards. Every day you had to go through the military to get into the courtroom. Every night Rap Brown would speak to crowds of 10,000 people in the Black community. It was a city under a state of siege, practically.

Bill Kunstler and Howard Moore were his lawyers. I remember Kunstler at one point questioning an FBI agent who had followed Rap day and night, as one of the most brilliant pieces of cross-examination I’ve ever seen.

And the thing that was always so striking about Bill is that he played by the rules and he rejected the rules, simultaneously. He rejected the framework in which the legal violation was being discussed, even as he repudiated the allegations, point-by-point.


Where were you and what were your first thoughts when you heard that Martin Luther King had been assassinated? You had some personal contact with Martin Luther King, hadn’t you?

When Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Chicago in 1965, I was a law student. I went to work for them on the West Side of Chicago, helping to organize a city-wide rent strike against slumlords. People put their rent into escrow accounts and fixed up their own buildings. SCLC organized marches for open housing into exclusively white neighborhoods every weekend.

So my life was transformed. My understanding of society was deepened through practical legal work with King and his civil rights organizers in Chicago that Winter and Spring of 1965-1966.

I was attending a meeting at the Guild offices to plan the Democratic National Convention protest legal support when somebody ran in saying that King had been assassinated in Memphis. We didn’t know what to do, but we all went downstairs—this was on Beekman Street—and got on the subway and went to Times Square. Which apparently tens of thousands of other people were doing. I don’t even know why we went there.

King’s open opposition to the war in Vietnam and his determination to move toward the labor movement, toward support of Black labor, those two forces were pushing him to connect issues. And that connection of issues, I think, is what pushed students, pushed me, pushed the Black movement into revolutionary consciousness. In a way, part of what was going on that Spring of 1968 was the recognition that the issues we cared about were not separate. That it was part of one system. And it was that understanding which became explosive.


Martin Luther King was a victim of COINTELPRO. Other people who have been victims of COINTELPRO are still locked up in the 1990s. In terms of Columbia SDS, you have Dave Gilbert still locked up. In other countries they give amnesty to political prisoners. In the U.S., that doesn’t happen. Why do you think the establishment’s so reluctant to release some of the activists from the 1960s? And, in terms of the Columbia Revolt and student activism, what was Dave Gilbert’s role?

I met David in 1967 when I spoke at Columbia Law School to organize a Guild chapter there. Then saw him during the November 1967 anti-war Rusk demonstration. I met Teddy Gold both of those times, too. Teddy, who died in March 1970 in an explosion at a New York townhouse, was an activist and a leader of the SDS chapter at Columbia.

David, you know, is one of those brilliant figures who was a real intellectual. A classic Columbia student. A political economist, who loved to talk theory. Who, if it hadn’t been 1968, would surely have become a professor and an academic and written books. Who was and is a gentle person.

But David and Teddy, like all of us, were thrown into this, were lucky enough, really, to be offered the opportunity to step into this cauldron. We felt the world didn’t have to be like this.

David remains both an intellectual and a determined freedom fighter in prison. I think the other Columbia alums think about him and acknowledge his determination and his clarity of vision in a very special way.

There’s no question that it’s important to the government to pretend that the political activists of that period were "violent," "criminal," and "crazy." I think the authorities remain reluctant to put that period behind us with justice, rather than propaganda wars. Amnesty should be granted not just to draft resisters, which was done in the late 1970s, but to all prisoners of conscience from that period. We criminalize so much behavior in this society, it is essential for the government to pretend that these were not acts of social commitment, but "crimes."


In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement developed and grew. Were you involved in any feminist groups when the new wave was originating?

When I came to New York in 1967, I became part of a group of women. Suddenly we were meeting once a week, talking with other women. It seemed to be happening spontaneously everywhere. This small women’s group met through 1967-1968, just discussing our lives, really. How our personal concerns tied to bigger issues. We worked our way toward our understanding of how much gender influenced how we thought about ourselves and ways in which being a woman at that moment in time created barriers to full humanness. We "discovered" together the ways in which male supremacy influenced every aspect of our lives.

The women students who took part in the Columbia rebellion, of course, on the one hand had a secondary role and were relegated to the service of the great men speakers. On the other hand, Columbia and Barnard women were, themselves, critical organizers, analysts, thinkers, and speakers.

So women were coming to radical consciousness at that period of time. Part of what we were doing was, I think, not surprisingly, coming back to ourselves through the process of having been involved in struggling for equality and freedom and justice on behalf of others.

One of the most interesting things about revolution and social change struggle is the relationship between external and internal change. It’s not an either/or process. You are transformed and opened to the possibility of who you can become, in the process of getting involved in justice and fairness for other people.

The real heart of the 1960s movements to me was that rejection on the part of millions of young people in the United States that "other people are not like us," that there’s a "them" and an "us," that the enemy is not human. The solidarity of humanity can be forged across different lines.

Today we’re told that people act only in their immediate self-interest. History is replete with examples which belie this reductionist, reactionary notion. Columbia exemplifies the capacity of people to choose to engage with a resistant world, to act as if people can be better, to challenge racism and national chauvinism.


Do you think the gains the women’s liberation movement made can ever be rolled back or reversed?

Gains can always be unraveled. And frequently are. Unintended consequences happen all along the way of social change. Some things were changed forever, obviously. The role of women in the United States and in the world is not going to go back to what it was. There are powerful forces at work trying to control women’s bodies, to put women back in "their place," to lock us exclusively back in the home, to divide more privileged women from women who suffer the most, as in welfare reform. All of those forces are constantly at work. Not just in the women’s movement, but in all social change movements.


We’ve seen a revival of the anti-war movement on campuses like Ohio State. What’s behind this?

The protest at Ohio State was startling, because the campuses were again denied to the warmakers. It’s extraordinary that the Administration thought that they could go to the campus to make war. I think they were lulled into it because of a good campus reception for the Administration a month before. And I think they were also lulled into it because they somehow thought that the Gulf War put Vietnam finally behind them.

Vietnam will never be behind the U.S. So the fact that students spoke out, disrupted, and asked demanding, probing questions: "Why? Why does it make sense? How can you bomb somebody into agreement with you? Why should a civilian population pay the price for its despicable leaders? How can the United States act alone against the rest of the world? Shouldn’t the United Nations and international law bodies be in play here?"

Those questions about American policy toward Iraq were not fully shaped into a whole analysis. But they were the right questions, the moral questions, the ethical questions. We will not allow immoral, unjust, and illegal policy to be conducted in our name. That’s the heart of democracy. And the everlasting legacy of Columbia.


If the immorality of U.S. foreign policy is not altered, could the Columbia Student Revolt happen again?

You know the plight that we have today is the plight that we started with in 1968, too. The notion that "people can’t make a difference." The students who occupied the buildings at Columbia began as a small minority. It was not a majority. Remember that people who occupied the buildings were immediately surrounded by thousands of opposing "jocks" and right-wing students jeering at them. But the forces they unleashed there by being on the right track—not right about everything, but mainly on the right track about the oppressive U.S. role in the world, and in the Black community nearby, meant that the Cox Commission Report on Columbia University—by the final days of the Columbia Revolt—found that: "the revolt enjoyed wide and deep support among the students and junior faculty; and, in lesser degree, among the senior professors. The grievances the rebels felt were felt equally by a still larger number, probably a majority of the students."

That’s what happens. A small group of people acting in concert for justice and peace throw into motion invisible questions held by a lot of people. They challenge that notion that "we can’t make a difference."

We all have a drive to be free, to be connected to others, to recognize and reject the fact that many of us are non-poor because someone else is poor. Today enormous effort goes into convincing the American public that we’re just consumers of media manipulation and sound-bites and spin doctors. That we care only about ourselves, money, and "stuff." That acting out of passion and conviction "doesn’t make a difference." But all of history shows that it does.          


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