Columbia Protests Now and in ‘68

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Protests in and around Columbia University in support of Palestine and against Israeli occupation. Photograph Source: SWinxy – CC BY-SA 4.0

The student protests on the campus of Columbia University this April have reminded me of the protests that took place there 56 years ago. Along with about  700 or so other men and women, I was arrested and jailed at the Tombs in Manhattan. Those arrests didn’t curtail student protests. Indeed, there were demonstrations later that year and again in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972. When push comes to shove, Columbia has called on the police again and again and the police have arrived in force and have made arrests.

The current president of Columbia, Minouche Shafik, an Egyptian-born American economist and a baroness, has surely not acted on her own impulses to establish what she might call “Law and Order.” Rather, she has surely followed the orders, the prayers and wishes of trustees, deep pockets and alumni who have wanted to see demonstrators punished for exercising freedom of speech and for practicing old-fashioned American civil disobedience.

Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots CEO, and a major financial contributor to Columbia —and my classmate— recently said, “I am no longer confident that Columbia can protect its students and staff and I am not comfortable supporting the university until corrective action is taken.” He also said,  “I believe in free speech, say whatever you want, but pay the consequences.”  That doesn’t sound like free speech, not if it comes with a price tag. Back then, the protests were largely about Vietnam. Now, they’re largely about Gaza and Israel. The names have changed, but the underlying story is much the same. Shouldn’t students today have a significant role to play when and where it comes to university investment?

Columbia University president Shafik was deputy governor of the Bank of England, and a vice president at the World Bank. She surely knows who has buttered her side of the crumpet and who has poured her cup of tea. Over many decades, Columbia has known very well how to make cosmetic changes and alter its image. It is now, as it was in the 1960s, about making money, expanding and occupying more and more of the island of Manhattan, and about mass-producing students to become consumers and citizens loyal to the social institutions that have made the US a global superpower.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we raised awareness about the university’s collaboration with the war machine and with institutions of racism and patriarchy. Columbia began to hire women and Black and brown intellectuals and to revise the curriculum in response to student demands to make education relevant to their own lives and their times.

In 1968, I was not a student at Columbia. I was already a professor at the State University of New York who had graduated from the college in 1963 when it was still locked in the mindset of the Cold War, and McCarthyism and could not  be accurately described as an “Ivory Tower.” In 1968, my beef with Columbia had its roots in my undergraduate years when I was rebuked for using Marxist sources for essays I wrote for teachers and slammed for thinking critically and questioning academic dogma. In 1969 when I was arrested again for my role during a campus protest, one of my former professors said that since I was a “Columbia scholar and a Columbia gentleman” I should apologize to the university. When I declined to knuckle under, the powers that be had me arrested and jailed. Who then was the scholar and the gentleman?

My freshman year at Columbia, my classmates and I were required to read Jacques Barzun’s tome The House of Intellect. It didn’t take long for me to see that the house of intellect was a house of cards. In 1968, we didn’t blow it down or blow it up, but we rocked it for a time and then watched as it put its house back in order and restored its foundations.

I don’t believe it’s possible to dismantle Columbia now, much as it wasn’t possible to dismantle it in 1968. It’s too big, too powerful, too wealthy and too rapacious. But protesters today can certainly raise awareness about the political and economic ties between the US “power elite,” as Columbia professor, C. Wright Mills called it, and the power elite in Israel. Things may not improve in the Middle East any time soon, but they won’t stay the same way they have been for the past half-century, either. The student protesters with their tents on campus are a sure sign that the times have changing and will go on “a-changin’” as Dylan suggested.

Too bad Columbia is locked in the past. Too bad it has given up on meaningful dialogue with student protesters today. Too bad it doesn’t see the handwriting on the wall. Over the past few weeks, I’ve wondered what Columbia professor Edward Said, the author of Orientalism—and for a time an independent member of the Palestinian National Council—would think and say. Indeed, he seemed to occupy a kind of middle ground when he observed in 2003, the year he died, that with regard to Palestine, “nobody has a claim that overrides all the others and entitles that person with that so-called claim to drive people out!”

That middle ground seems to have evaporated. Indeed, the ground under our own feet has shifted dramatically.  There is less room for dissenting opinions today than there was in ’68, near the height of the war in Vietnam. There are also more virulent anti-Arab and more virulent anti-Jewish voices today than there were then. Better prepare for the rocky road ahead.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.

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