Mere hours after real-life protest flared up along Broadway, filmmaker (and J-School student) Paul Cronin brought students back to an era of a different sort of Columbia protest. He was on campus to screen sections from A Time to Stir, his still-in-progress documentary on the protests, riots, occupations, and general mayhem of 1968. The screening was a bit scattershot (when completed, the film is expected to clock in at around 10 hours), but the fragments shown managed to capture so singular a moment in Columbia history that Bwog couldn’t help but grow simultaneously nostalgic (the best kind of nostalgia: for something we never knew!) and more than a little frustrated.
The two-ish hours screened focused on the first real explosion of protests on April 23, 1968. Students were growing ever more distraught with three particularly odious administrative actions: the University’s construction of a private gymnasium in public Morningside Park (something smells funny…), the school’s participation in the Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analyses (doing research then applied to Vietnam War policy), and a new ban, issued by the President’s office, on indoor protest. Working hand in hand for the first time, two leftist student groups, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS), had planned a march on Low Library. Finding access to Low barred, the massive crowd made a mad dash to the proposed gymnasium site, engaged and fought with police, and returned to campus to occupy Hamilton Hall (and hold Dean Harry S. Coleman hostage in his office).
While the standard retelling focuses on the later occupation of Low Library (and this picture), the film focuses instead on the power struggle between the SDS and SAS that emerged as the Hamilton occupation grew listless, the air filling with pot smoke and folk music. We’ll spare the blow-by-blow (in part available here), but here’s the quick rundown: the SAS students, having determined that an all-black protest was necessary for both political and logistical reasons, asked the SDS to clear their students out. The SDS complied, if grudgingly, and moved over to Low and a handful of other buildings, where they became famous for putting their feet on desks.
Cronin’s SAS interviewees (and a few of the SDSers) are careful to point out that, though initially frustrating, the SAS’ insistence on an all-black occupation bought SDS precious time, allowing them to foment the masses and turn the thing into a campus-wide shebang. Had SDS remained in Hamilton, the administration would have, by all accounts, moved in much faster—this way, however, they were reluctant to do anything that would light a spark under a Harlem-wide firecracker. Termed “70 militant Negroes” by one enlightened newscaster, the SAS occupiers attracted community-wide Harlem support (H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael make appearances) and freed the SDS to go their Lenin-spouting, Vietcong flag-waving way.
Racial politics aside, Cronin’s film is loaded with small bits of wonder. He lovingly details the buildings occupied in the days that followed: rumors flew of “brothers coming in from Newark with guns.” Avery was deemed an occupied building, but only because the architecture and urban planning students couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the studio. (Naturally, upon being made aware of the exact nature of the protests, they began drafting material solutions to the Morningside gym problem.) Mathematics was home to “the crazies,” like SDS founder Tom Hayden and an LES group called the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, who, anticipating police, coated the stairs with soap. Graduate students, frustrated with Mao-spouting undergrad punks, engaged in high-minded debate in Fayerweather—a lot of people wore berets.
And so we were back to Square One. In the face of so similar a “community project”, why does the political atmosphere at Columbia remain so damn neutered? A Time to Stir, however, also made us see the, well, silliness of 1968: students smoked pot in Fayerweather, had sex in Math, and talked about a lot of stuff they didn’t really understand during Columbia’s occupation. They were generally disorganized, confused, and you know, 20 years old. So how much sillier were those hunger strikes, anyway?
Cronin suggested our apathy on war comes from the lack of a military draft, but that only serves to explain the lack of military-focused protest. The inimitable Eric Foner makes a brief, if not unexpected, appearance, noting that the protests created “a sense of community where none had existed.” (That line hit awfully close to home for Bwog.) Though it’s acutely focused on 1968, A Time to Stir is very much of the moment.