Lecture Hop: Remembering ’68
Written by Bwog Staff
Thirty-nine years ago this month, Columbia erupted into the now-legendary ’68 student riots. Last night, Fortune magazine’s international editor, Robert Friedman, spoke to Spec staffers about being the paper’s Editor-in-Chief during the crisis. Frequent Bwog contributor Armin Rosen was there to soak up his memories.
I guess it’s a sign of progress that we can stroll through campus without images of college students getting the shit beaten out of them by riot police ever once crossing our minds. But it wasn’t always this way, and, come to find out, quite a few college students did got the shit beaten out of them by riot police in the middle of our very campus. And then-Spec Editor-in-Chief Robert Friedman, C’69 was there. And by there I mean here—in April of 1968.
It was a pretty heady time, he explained to a small crowd gathered in the Spectator office. Buildings were occupied. Members of the administration were ousted from Low Library and imprisoned in the basement of Hamilton Hall. Buses of trigger-happy, club-wielding riot police were parked on Amsterdam Avenue. And it was also a simpler time, in some respects. Why, back in his day, you could pie the head of the Selective Service administration and not have to get badgered on national TV by the likes of Bill O’Reilly. The now-forgotten pie-throwing incident, which occurred at Columbia a few weeks before the student strike, was a turning point, in Friedman’s opinion. It was an act “of ultimate incivility that cut through a lot of bullshit” which couldn’t help but galvanize the campus’s sizable and very vocal radical wing. And galvanize it did: Friedman explained that ’68 was an almost perfect confluence of circumstances, as an unpopular war, a problematic expansion for the University, various social and political discontents and the rise of an “action-oriented, confrontational” radical leader named Mark Rudd combined for one of the most bizarre and shocking events in the history of higher education.
Friedman looked back on it all with a haughty sense of nostalgia. He smiled wryly as he recalled his managing editor getting bloodied and arrested during the infamous police crackdown, and mentioned that he would have been at the Chicago riots if he hadn’t been writing a book about the Columbia standoff. And “apocalyptic” though the bust may have been, it resulted from a certain can-do spirit that Friedman didn’t seem to detect in present-day Columbians: When conversation turned to the recent New York magazine piece, he mentioned the “curious” lack of college activism on the Iraq war, and rejected out of hand the prospect of there being any major dissimilarities between 1968 and today.
For him, the ultimate lesson of ’68 was that “a group of 19 and 20 year olds could do something meaningful in the world.” This was, of course, coded smugness: in a similar situation, he seemed to say, my generation threw pies, occupied buildings, got clubbed by police and got shit done. Yours rushed one stage and got written up in New York. Congratulations.
Mark your calendars, lecture junkies: Friedman says he is attempting to organize an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the student strike, and that PrezBo seems open to the idea. Friedman says that he wants to reunite the strike’s major players and have what he described as a “dialogue” on what went down—and I, for one, am drooling at the prospect of seeing Mark Rudd and co. sit on the Miller Theatre stage opposite of the “majority coalition”-types and establishment figures they tried to bring down.