Lecture Hop: Remembering ’68

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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. 


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  1. Uh...  

    Uh...no difference? Draft vs. No Draft? When people are volunteering to kill and/or die, there's no selective-service representative to pie in the face. Pretty clear there's a difference there champ.

    This leads to the question, what are anti-war protestors even protesting? Because at this point, you have the option of war-crimes, military spending, or hell, even the two party system (or all three, I suppose). No one but Greens, Socialilsts, Libertarians, or extreme independants are actively working for these planks (and certain individual anarchists, I suppose). I support all these groups and individuals to a greater or lesser extent, but they're hardly mass movements in the United States. If this fellow is talking about creating some new movement, he better stop spreading misinformation; it's not silly to make the Iraq/Vietnam comparison, but it's most certainly not the same at all.

    You see, it's hard to get upset about something people volunteer to do thousands of miles away. The only way I could see a movement of this sort occuring in our politically specialized culture is if the Democrats picked up some of these third party ideas. If some enterprising young Democrat wants to dismantle the two party system or halve the Pentagon's budget, I'll gladly back them. Hell, if they start introducing impeachment motions every day in the house, I might actually start voting democratic.

    Of course, they'd be assassinated. But that'd just get their agenda through all the quicker. So what about it, Democrats? I'm pretty sure tons of people feel this way, and if you've got the guts, the glory is there for the taking.

    Until then, I'll take my advice from critical thought and discussion instead of cheap and easy analogies.

  2. bored  

    columbians keep finding new ways to outflank each other from the left. its amazing. this stuff is so tired. and the lionizing of Rudd and company is sickening. they were thugs. and failures. what has the glorious mark rudd done since 1968 except be on the lam, imprisoned and way below any radar of effectiveness?

  3. Speccie  

    So I was there for the speech, and I think Armin is badly misrepresenting what Friedman said. He very clearly conceded that the draft was the biggest distinction between the two eras, and that it was largely to blame for the lack of activism around the Iraq war. Also, I didn't think it was all that smug or haughty for him to say that the '68 protest was more impressive and meaningful than what goes on today. It's pretty obviously true.

  4. curious  

    This is not a rhetorical point at all, but I am genuinely curious about why the gym in Morningside Park was seen as such a bad idea. I'll try to give some points for and against:

    1. Takes up park land that was previously used by nearby residents. (Maybe it was lots of parkland).

    2. Idea of two gyms is reminiscent of segregation (but different, because Columbia is a private institution and because white and latino people unaffiliated with Columbia also live in this area.)

    1. Nearby residents get to use a gym (even if it's not as good as the one Columbia people can use). This is better than the current situation, where Columbia has a huge gym that no local people can use for free. (But maybe the gym being offered to residents was not very good).

    2. Some general renovation and upkeep in Morningside.

    As I said, this is not an argument either way (so please, no irate comments), I just want relevant facts.

  5. speccie  

    I'm a speccie who was at the speech too and I think Armin's kind of off the mark. Nothing new.

  6. do some reading  

    The issue wasn't the gym itself--it was the fact that there were going to be two entrances. Somewhere down the line, it was said that one entrance would be for students and the other for neighborhood residents--which struck some people as racist. In 1968, students = white and residents = black.

    Are you trying to make some oblique point?

  7. Armin  

    seems to misrepresent every lecture that he hops.

  8. Blah  

    He's so proud of his activist past, and now he works for Fortune magazine. What a sell out.

  9. i'd still love  

    to see a discussion between the SDS guys, et. al.

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