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Review: Introducing SDS, Columbia Revolt, 1969

Greg Gabrellas

Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008

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A new chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was formed in February at the University of Chicago (UChicago) in tandem with chapters forming throughout the city and across the country. The new SDS is a national student organization dedicated to progressive political change, whose name was borrowed from the famous New Left organization that helped to shape the social unrest of the 1960s. UChicago SDS held a film screening and discussion in Harper Memorial Library on Thursday, March 6, of Columbia Revolt (1969), a documentary film by the Newsreel collective on the Columbia University student occupation and strike. Over thirty people, including students and residents of the surrounding community, attended the event which marked the first in a series of UChicago SDS film screenings dedicated to critically reevaluating the legacy of student organizing in light of the 40th anniversary of 1968.

The radical student actions at Columbia University in the spring of 1968 signaled a climax of the student movement led by the old SDS and the radicalized members of the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS). At the time, Columbia was in the process of constructing a private gymnasium in Harlem on top of a former public park, with a basement projected for use by black Harlem residents. Politicized students used the construction and placement of the gymnasium as an example of the University’s complicity with imperialism and racism at home and abroad. Members of SAS and SDS, led by Mark Rudd, used direct actions and organizing to agitate fellow students, ultimately leading to a student strike and the occupation of five university buildings. The strike escalated when students rushed en masse to support black students who had barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall. Columbia Revolt arrays a montage of audio and archive film footage collected at the scene as events transpired across the university campus and the surrounding inner-city terrain of Manhattan. This film was directed by Newsreel, a collective of media artists formed in 1967 to “show another side of the news”. In keeping with Newsreel’s mandate, much of the film was shot from inside the whirlwind of protests and building occupations, with the cameras “used as weapons as well as recording the events.”[1] The result is a loose narrative of the rise and fall of the student protests.

The event’s organizers had prepared a series of questions to guide discussion. Chief among them was “How can we shake the ghost of the ‘60s”? Some argued that students were simply mistaken: students used to have real political power that they no longer have. Others questioned whether taking over a university was an appropriate action to take at the time. The discussion turned towards activism today: one person stressed that students had learned to attend meetings with administrators to make change on campus; another argued that while that may be true, alternative tactics might still be necessary; a voice warned against focusing too much on tactics, and murmurs of assent were made throughout the room.

Viewers undoubtedly found aspects of the film dated. Protest songs, and an impromptu wedding, for example, were met with chuckles from the younger generation, in part because they seem strange, in part because they seem uncannily familiar. Think about student protests today, don’t they seem to desire a repeat of ‘60s camaraderie, the free spirited jubilation of past generations, and don’t protest songs gain legitimacy the more they refer to Dylan? Yet the question is not what do we take and what do we leave behind; rather, students today must learn the historical development and ultimate failures of past student movements to better understand the tasks of student politics today.

The necessity of critical consideration of the events was recognized by Rudd in his essay, “Columbia: Notes on the Spring Rebellion.”[2] Despite ending as a debacle, the revolt did attain modest objectives: the controversial gym was never built, and Columbia divested from a wartime contractor. The key factor that enabled the local escalation was the intensification beyond “student” issues to universal human issues: racism and imperialism. Rudd, in retrospect, conceived the SDS as “building a radical force which raises issues for other constituencies—young people, workers, others—which will eventually be picked up on to create a broader, solider revolutionary movement.”[3] The “radical force” did not convince Columbia’s faculty. One student interviewee remarked, “they never understood the nature of our demands, of our struggle… The only alternative they could see to the maintenance of the current system was chaos—they couldn’t see beyond the present occupation of the buildings to something better.”

At stake, during the post screening discussion, was whether student activists today even pose the problem of a utopian alternative. We activists defer the problem by striving for realistic objectives that seem progressive and pretend we do not need a radical movement (or worse, declare ourselves the movement!). In fact, the visions of past revolutionary struggles have much to teach us about the need for student politics today. Future installments of the new SDS film series promise to raise further awareness of the problematic legacy of 1960s student organizing. |P


[1]. Roz Payne: Early Newsreel Life. (2002).

[2]. Rudd, M. (1969). Columbia: Notes on the spring rebellion. In C. Oglesby, Ed. The New Left Reader (1st ed., pp. 290-312). New York: Grove Press, Inc.

[3]. Rudd, p. 302

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