This Tuesday, the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) hosted an exhibit and panel called “1968 and its Afterlives: Reflecting on Campus Activism Past, Present and Future” in the Diana Event Oval. Arts Editor Riva Weinstein gives her thoughts below.
I had been looking forward to this panel for months. Obsessed with the cultural watershed that was the year 1968 in America, when war, protest, youth culture, and art came together in an explosion that would rock the boat for generations, I was excited to learn more about how Columbia, and especially Barnard, students had been involved.
If I had hoped to understand the 1968 protests by the time the panel was through, I came away disappointed. But what I did learn was far more fascinating and troubling–and more enlightening about the changing face of activist politics–than what I’d expected.
Panelists Elizabeth Langer ’68, Nancy Biberman ’69, and Karla Spurlock-Evans ’71 (all BC) had lived through the 1968 protests at Columbia, including a sit-in in Hamilton Hall in which many students were arrested. DaMonique Ballou ’17 and Krish Bhatt ’18 (both BC) represented the present generation, including the labor union protests. Their stories were presented anecdotally, through question-and-answer, which sometimes made me feel like I was missing the bigger-picture context.
The first question addressed the “tipping point” at which a person, or a community of people, turn to activism. For Krish Bhatt, there was no “tipping point,” because racism and other forms of discrimination were a part of their life from the beginning. There was no option but to be an activist. But for Spurlock-Evans, whose fears of hurting her family prevented her from organizing for a long time, it took the companionship of her fellow activists to finally radicalize her.
Ironically, when Spurlock-Evans was finally arrested at the Hamilton sit-in, her father pronounced it a good thing. “If my generation had taken care of business,” he said, “you wouldn’t have had to be in that building.”
The panelists discussed the campus as a site of activism, and the dynamics within activist organizations themselves, which are often dominated by the voices of white men. According to Biberman, it was hard for women to be heard in the 1968 protests–they could only participate through men. In Langer’s experience, coming to Barnard was the first time she felt as though she had a voice at all. Both Biberman and Ballou addressed the difficulties posed by activist language: In Biberman’s case, because the language of feminism was not yet fully developed and understood, and in Ballou’s, because the language was already fixed, preventing the possibility of complexity.
A gap in language indeed became apparent. It grew wider as the panel went on (for a long time–so long that the moderators had to cut out the audience table discussion which had been promised). The new-generation activists, particularly Bhatt, were using the highly specific language of modern identity politics (“black and brown bodies,” “women and non-men,” etc.), while the older activists discussed discrimination and activism in a much more generalized, political way. Bhatt’s fiery statements about the whole work of activism resting on the backs of black and brown people were met with some confusion and discomfort from the other panelists, and from the audience, which was mostly of the older generation.
The tension finally snapped in the second half of the panel, when Bhatt called out an audience member for being an “old white man asking for the mic.” The gentleman became angry and began to reject Bhatt’s discourse, insisting that there was no difference between them. When he was finally given the mic, he said that he felt alienated by the exhibit and panel discussion, criticized the new activists who would never be able to “win an election,” and repeatedly misgendered the speaker while trying to make his point that they were one and the same.
The panel was indeed poorly handled. The moderator had allowed the Q&A section to go on too long, repeatedly cut off questioners (many of whom were older activists attempting to share their experiences), and failed to provide enough context for the panelists’ work. While trying to diffuse the room, a BCRW member apologized especially for failing to hold the table discussions. “We are addressing each other as strangers,” she said, without context, without knowledge of each other’s backgrounds, and without “understanding when to listen.”
The old generation had this question for the new: Will you ever be able to organize? Can such a large amount of special-interest, intentionally exclusionary groups based on particularly conceptualized identities ever be able to reach the “mass movement” proportions of 1968?
The new generation had this question for the old: Will you ever be able to listen? Can you move past your hardheaded prejudices against new words and new identities? Can you allow the mic to be handed to someone else without asking, or even waiting, for its return?
The moderators were certainly hopeful. The final speaker urged us to consider the meaning of the term “inter-activism,” which means becoming permanently conscious of the power dynamics in the room, the multiplicity of voices which are being heard, ignored or silenced. At the same time, it is necessary to break from the “paradigm of separateness” which keeps us from actualizing collective efforts.
“Who is in that room?” was her question for us; and: “How do we inter-be?”