Exactly forty years ago, between April 23rd and April 27th of 1968, students at Columbia University took over several campus buildings to protest a school gymnasium being built on public land in Harlem, and the school's connection with a think tank helping direct the war in Vietnam. More than a thousand police broke up the occupation, cracking skulls with nightsticks and flashlights, and famously dragging students down marble stairs by their feet so their heads bounced on the steps. Conservative America applauded the police, furious over the "unpatriotic" students who scoffed at the law and protested the war. Two months before, police fired upon protesting students at South Carolina State University, killing three and wounding twenty seven.
The Columbia occupation is a pivotal event in 1968, a year of pivotal events. In a couple months, Martin Luther King would be murdered, then Robert Kennedy. Party hacks at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would select Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic nominee over the surviving peace candidate, Eugene McCarthy, thereby assuring a continuation of LBJ's disastrous policies and the Vietnam war. Protesters in Chicago were met with violence, getting attacked by the police as they chanted the now famous "The whole world is watching" and the city unleashed what the Walker Commission would later term "a police riot."
Hubert Humphrey lost the general election to Republican Richard Nixon, who promptly escalated the war and condemned all opposition, especially those protesting "bums" on college campuses. Nixon escalated the war on students, too. Before long, four students at Kent State were shot and killed killed by the National Guard, and three more were killed at Jackson State.
The 1968 protest and occupation of Columbia is probably the most documented student disturbance of the 1960s. It's worth taking a look at the event this election year, as an unpopular war drags on and we head for another Democratic convention without a nominee. You know what they say about history...
Click HERE for the interactive site about the 1968 occupation.
Click HERE for Frank de la Cruz's personal reminiscence of the '68 occupation of Columbia.
Click HERE for the first chapter of Mark Kurlansky's history, "1968, The Year that Rocked the World."