Hey, did you know that some stuff happened at Columbia in 1968? Bwog daily editor Pierce Stanley braved two of this week’s numerous ’68-centric lectures; here’s what he thought about them.
That tangible sense of nostalgia gripping campus has not waned this weekend as the commemoration of the Columbia 1968 Protests hits full stride. After its tame opening on Thursday evening in Casa Italiana hosted by PrezBo and Nancy Biberman B ’69, the gaggle of aged (and surprisingly boisterous) anti-war and anti-discrimination activists continue to mill around campus, reminiscing about their hours spent hunkered down in Hamilton, Fayerweather, and Low in the spring of 1968.
The commemoration, however, has been heavy on reminiscing. Aged protesters have spent much of their time back-patting, reminding themselves that they were the greatest generation of activists, catching up on years spent away from one another and bickering about current day social justice issues. At the end of the day, much of the audience, including this Bwogger, was left frustrated by the single-mindedness of the activists who graced Columbia’s campus forty years ago and wondering if they might be still looking for a fight but are just a bit out of touch.
Friday’s lecture, entitled “What Happened,” set the stage for the ensuing conversations on Saturday which attempted to place the 1968 riots in a broader intellectual context questioning both ethics and the nature of protest in general. The event explored whether some of the tactics used in 1968 can still be used to affect real change today, as well as probing into the similarities between the political climates of 1968 and 2008. Friday’s speeches introduced the activists by name, showed pictures of the event itself, and discussed many of the political realities that existed on campus and in Morningside Heights in ’68. In contrast to the informative discussion the night before, Saturday’s decidedly less cogent events broke down into fractious discussions on the nature of protest with very few resolutions.
Instead of focusing on a small segment of speakers, Saturday’s commemorators favored breadth over depth. Nostalgia for the ’60s was clearly reflected in the choice to have so many different speakers at the “Ethics and Protest” discussion. This caused much confusion and lent itself to a lack of continuity among what the speakers had to say. Rather than presenting a clear picture of what these events actually meant for the nature of protest and ethics today, audience members were subjected to attempts to justify the freedom of a convicted murderer (who happened to be a Columbia activist) and other general and largely unsubstantiated claims about protest movements. Enduring the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and aura of patting oneself on the back at Saturday’s lecture, this Bwogger was left uncomfortably disenchanted by the protesters. Perhaps forty years later, these activists who gathered to discuss their impact on the future do not really have a substantiated reason to engage in such self-flattery.
Where Friday’s event succeeded in returning the ’68 protests back to their roots, Saturday’s fell short, essentially giving the protesters a platform for sycophancy (like much of this weekend has done.) Powerful anecdotes were told that exemplified the real challenges that Columbia students faced in the late ’60s. For example, several African American former student leaders spoke about the real acts of racism that they experienced everyday on Columbia’s campus, and discussed their motivations for creating the first black fraternity at Columbia.
Marked by the participants’ willingness to interrupt each other, a hurried Q & A at the end, and a lengthy diatribe issued by a disgruntled and roguish activist of old, the “Ethics and Protest” talk epitomized the disheveled nature of this weekend’s commemoration. Indeed, this enthusiastic Bwogger, once willing to draw parallels between 1968 and 2008, is now willing to put away the riots of 1968 as an arcane product of yesteryear.