Columbia 1968 & 2024: The Suffering Behind the Protests

“Protest” (1943-1944), Arnold Peter Weisz-Kubínčan (Slovak, 1898 – 1944).

Tom Barson in Wisdom of Crowds: I’ve only witnessed one pitched battle in person, and it cured me of any wish to see another. It was not a firefight, like those taking place between American and Vietnamese armies halfway around the world. It was more like the battles described in the Iliad, at that time the first text assigned to every entering Columbia freshman, or in The Peloponnesian War. On April 30, 1968 at the Columbia campus, police phalanxes and cavalry brigades opposed an irregular mob. Bricks and clubs were the weapons instead of swords and spears, but these sufficed. From the roof of my dormitory I could follow the trajectories of the bricks my classmates had hurled and hear them clattering off riot shields and helmets. They made a crisp, unforgettable sound, somehow perfectly audible over the taunts and chants and bullhorn warnings.

That crystal moment of confrontation was soon shattered. The shielded police moved forward and parted, as soon as the students wavered, to let their mounted colleagues through, and the standoff became a rout. Students fled towards me, over the grassy lawn where the recent encampments stood, and were run down, or beaten, or both, and the campus, to use the term then in parlance, was “cleared.”

I had some sense of how this felt.  I had been run down myself a few days before, by a large group of students seeking to break through an opposing group and provision the students occupying Low Memorial Library, who could not live on the president’s cigars alone. It was nothing personal, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My parents in Ohio got to see me trampled on the evening news and for years, as my claim to fame, I kept a Life magazine picture in which the light blue shirt I was wearing was visible under contending boots and ankles.

But if I turned the incident into a good story over time, it was a sharp taste, at the moment, of rage feeding on rage. Rage—Homer’s proximate cause for everything that happens in the Iliad—was on abundant display at Columbia in the spring of 1968, but to take one step back from it was to wade into the bewildering context of the escalating protests. Here administrative complacency played a role, as did the excitement of media coverage, and even more the vanity and colossal emotional and intellectual immaturity of many students, which led to bizarre position statements, replicating lists of “non-negotiable demands,” and to the depersonalization and demonization all perceived opponents. But I judge now and felt then that the war was behind the rage, the war and the awful anxiety of a generation that felt it was being sacrificed to geopolitics. We were afraid, and whether that fear led to weekends in New Jersey, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy (as it did in my case), or to the first occupation of Hamilton Hall, it led to something, and all those somethings, on a national level, contributed to the election of Richard Nixon, and to the conservative turn in the country that was for a long time masked by the radical turn in the universities.

I don’t want to call out the Columbia protests, those of 1968 or today, as being of unique importance. One was and the other is part of a much broader development. But watching the far-more-deft NYPD intervention on Tuesday night, fifty-six years to the day after my long night atop Carman Hall, seeing much the same passion and rage in the foreground, and with a war again in the background, I have to ask: Are these events parallel? My answer has to be both Yes and No.

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2 thoughts on “Columbia 1968 & 2024: The Suffering Behind the Protests

  1. Definitely current protests are different than Kent state and Columbia. Now media is controlled as they report and show what they like to.

  2. The rage is the same but the contexts are completely different. In 2968 the protest are against the draft and the Vietnam war. Both affected the students at a personal level. These protests are fighting for equality, liberty, justice for people everywhere, especially in Gaza. It is showing the total hypocrisy of the West. It is trying to protect true freedom of speech. These values are universal and thus these protests are mire important . Their impact will be even greater than the ones in 1968.

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