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Revolt (1968) and The SDS at Columbia


LuckyDan
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Columbia Revolt is a 50 minute propaganda documentary, focused primarily on the week-long Columbia University building occupation by students and outside activists in April 1968, which is documented in the first 30 minutes. The final 20 minutes cover the student classroom strike that followed, the May occupation of a Harlem apartment building owned by Columbia, and the June 4 commencement walkout. Voices of anonymous participants are heard speaking over the footage and it soon becomes clear they are members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). 

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It was shot on 16 millimeter film using mostly voice-over commentary instead of synchronized sound by a collective of activist filmmakers who called themselves The Newsreel. They formed in December 1967 in New York City for the purpose of using "films and other propaganda in aiding the revolutionary movement." They made no claim of objectivity, and they disliked the term cinema vérité in describing their aesthetic. They admired the work of early Soviet film propagandist, Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), and most likely took their name from his group that made weekly newsreels. They were advocates, not journalists, and they not only filmed and photographed New Left protests but often took part in them. True to their collective spirit, one member said, "No one was officially credited on any of the films.... It would have been against the anti-establishment ideals to take any form of credit."

 

Up Against the Wall, Movie Maker!

Most of the footage was shot by founding member Melvin Margolis with a World War II-era Bell and Howell camera that, according to Newsreel cinematographer Roz Payne "could take the shock of breaking plate glass windows." I have learned from member Bev Grant, who shot still photography at Hamilton Hall in May 1968, that Revolt was edited by Lynn Phillips, who is no longer living. Melvin Margolis, who has no other activity that I can find, died sometime prior to 2003. 

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Melvin Margolis 

A print was purchased for distribution by Kit Parker Films, at that time an independent curator of non-theatrical movies established in 1971. Since the film offers little internal explanation of who the participants were or why they took the actions they did, some background information is helpful.

 

There's Something Happenin' Here

Two concurrent issues led to the trouble. The first issue began with the 1967 discovery by an SDS activist of Columbia's affiliation with a federally funded non-profit corporation called the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a multi-university consortium that assisted the government in research on national security issues. 

The other issue was the construction of a multi-level gymnasium and community center on city-owned land in neighboring Harlem, which for reasons both architectural and geographic, was dubbed "Gym Crow." This was opposed by a group called the Student Afro Society (SAS), a small group of black students formed in 1964. One side of the gym would face the Columbia campus which was situated on higher ground, and would have an entrance on the top level for the use of Columbia's male undergrads. The other side would face Harlem and would house a community center on ground level, accessed by what SAS termed, "a back door."

The first protest of 1968, not seen in Revolt, was related to the IDA. It occurred in late March and resulted in the arrest and suspension of six students for violating the University's prohibition of indoor demonstrations. SDS would refer to the students as "The Low Six" or "The IDA Six." Also in March, the Columbia SDS chapter, begun in 1965 and whose membership had never exceeded 50, elected a new chairman, Mark Rudd, who gave the name "The Action Faction" to his program. 

 

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 Mark Rudd in front of the Alma Mater statue

The murder of Martin Luther King on April 4th caused rioting in Harlem and provided an opportunity for Rudd to forge a coalition with SAS, which he took on April 9th at the memorial service for MLK held at Columbia's St. Paul's Chapel. There, Rudd commandeered the microphone, which was quickly cut off, and declared the service a "moral outrage" due to Columbia's "policy of racism." He then led about 40 of the 1100 in attendance out of the chapel. 

Still, SDS feared enthusiasm for a revolt prior to graduation was low, but on Tuesday, April 23, Rudd and SAS President Cicero Wilson collaborated to stage another protest, outdoors, at the University landmark, the Sundial. For SAS, the point was protesting the gym, which they advertised with flyers that read, "The big steal is on." For SDS, Rudd wanted the focus to be on "The IDA Six," and free speech on campus. 

Not all of the Columbia student body though was radical. A third group, who we get glimpses of but do not hear from in Revolt, was comprised of anti-protesters who called themselves Students for a Free Campus. They advertised a counter-protest with flyers that called Mark Rudd out by name and asked non-radicals a series of questions beginning with the words, "Are you tired of ...?" then listed SDS's coercive tactics and Columbia's coddling of them. Other non-radicals on campus formed groups that would become known collectively as The Majority Coalition.

As for the teachers, an ad hoc faculty group (AHFG) formed on April 24 and resolved to attempt mediation between the three groups (the radicals, CU administration, and the Majority Coalition). Their immediate concern was ending the standoff peacefully. 

Over 100 students from Barnard College, Columbia's undergraduate school for women, participated, notably future attorney Nancy Biberman who would soon after write of her experiences as a female among the radicals who she described as "decidedly pre-feminist." 

 

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Blackboard in occupied Fayerweather Hall

 

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The Cradle of the Nation's Future

Revolt begins with the camera looking upward and swirling slowly from the base of the neoclassical columns of Low Library at the center of the Columbia campus. An unnamed voice, speaking on some indefinite occasion, in tones mixing Walter Cronkite with a dash of Gary Cooper, tells us, "The modern university is the cradle of the nation's future." This voice continues, describing the importance of university research and innovation, and the preparation of future leaders, over scenes of classical statuary. We will hear this voice and these words again, over very different images, in the closing minutes of the film. 

After The Newsreel graphic with it's rat-a-tat-tat machine gun audio, stressing the collective's revolutionary posture, a less solemn voice speaking as if in a meeting, over images of less graceful, more severe, modern buildings, says, "However much Kirk's personality, and his style of administration may have exacerbated the situation, the situation would have been there no matter who was president of Columbia University."

A second voice, with greater urgency, follows and tells us, "The University now has become, to use an old term, a means of production ... producing the mechanisms of human oppression. It's been bought out by the military."

A third voice notes the new buildings going up on campus and relates them to profits Columbia has made in service to the corporations and "the war machine." 

University President Grayson Kirk "himself is a trustee of the Institute for Defense Analysis" and "President of Morningside Heights Incorporated, which is concerned with institutional expansion into Morningside Heights." 

At this point, black voices begin to speak in objection to the gym. "I don't trust anybody in the administrative network of Columbia University. ... Grayson Kirk wrote us a letter saying, 'We have stopped the gym' and the next damn day! the Board of Trustees states 'We have stopped the gym temporarily.'"

"This house went up on violence and this country's going down violence," a black female voice proclaims to applause. "As a house go up, a house must come down."

All of this leads to the primary subject of Revolt, that being the protest that began at noon on Tuesday, April 23.

 

Call out the instigators

"About 500 people joined us at the Sundial." From there they moved to Low Library, which they found locked and guarded by "about 200 jocks," who were the Students for a Free Campus, which was comprised largely but not solely of athletes.

"We went into Harlem and we busted into the gym site." Soon they found that occupying nothing more than a large hole left them vulnerable. "The pigs called in reinforcements." Confrontation with police swinging clubs and protestors resisting them is seen. "Then Mark Rudd got up on a dirt mound and asked us to leave. We had 300 people back at the Sundial. We could go back and meet them." 

At 2:00 p.m., they moved to Hamilton Hall, which contained classrooms, administration offices, and fortuitously, a dean, Henry Coleman, who they did not allow to leave until the following evening. "Taking Hamilton was - and Coleman! - was just the perfect thing" after the gym site conflict.

Within the hour SDS and SAS formulated a list of six demands which included ceasing construction of the gym, ending school affiliation with IDA, and amnesty for all protesters. They determined not to leave the building until the demands were agreed to.

It didn't take 18 hours of cohabitation before the 86 SAS students told the SDS to "find other buildings to occupy." SAS not only wanted an exclusively black protest, they disliked the boisterous and relatively disorganized tactics of the white radicals and their revolutionary rhetoric, who were intent on keeping Dean Coleman hostage. SAS also believed, correctly it turned out, that based on law enforcement behavior during the recent Harlem riots, police and the University would be less confrontational with black protesters for fear of reigniting hostilities.

And so just before sunrise on April 24, SDS was banished from Hamilton Hall. "The real thing about the black and white split was that ... we had two different political identities. The blacks wanted to stop the gym. ... The whites saw that our goal was and still is to radicalize the white people."

The eviction of SDS was disheartening to the white radicals who often co-opted black civil rights slogans and iconography, a constant example of which in Revolt is the many references to the Leroi Jones poem "Black People!" that features the line "Up against the wall mother f*cker, this is a stick up!" The SDS went so far as to title its newsletter "Up Against the Wall." 

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 "We left (Hamilton) and took Low Library," a female reads, "the seat of the administration." Not seen but recalled in an account written by a participant, is how SDS gained access to Low, which was by throwing a bench through the glass in the door.

"In two days, we've taken five buildings. Hamilton, Low. Avery, Fayerweather, and Math." The SDS presence was strongest in Low and Math.

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Occupied buildings highlighted in blue

Back in Hamilton black students barricaded the entrances. Voices speak of Harlem residents and outside activists offering support and assistance. "These high school kids, man, they snuck Rap Brown in right in the middle of hundreds of TPF." (The Tactical Police Force unit of NYPD.) H. Rap Brown, who the prior year had been elected chairman of SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and who was then facing charges including inciting a riot in Cambridge, Maryland, is seen reading the SAS statement to a cheering crowd and the gathered media. They had provisions to hold out and, Brown stressed, "Morale is high!"

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H. Rap Brown

Returning to Low, a voice reads, "Of the 200 that went into the library, only 23 stayed when the first cop scare came." Cops were amassed and standing by on campus much of the week.

"The first thing we did when we got into Kirk's office was hit his files. Besides a bunch of crap and his girly magazines, we found a bunch of papers linking Columbia to the IDA, uh, a whole bunch of sh!t about putting down SDS, and a lot of letters about cleaning up the area, about moving out the blacks and the Puerto Ricans."

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 SDS in the University President's office

SDS busied themselves with setting up committees. (Committees of various kinds, we will see, were a feature of SDS life.) The first of which was concerned with defense. They barricaded windows with bookcases, and soaped stairs. "We decided what our policy would be toward police, toward jocks." Meetings, a voice tells us, was a large part of communal life in the buildings, sometimes lasting for eight hours a day. 

It should be noted that not all students who took part were SDS members, but SDS's stated goal was to radicalize the student body. Tom Hayden, founding SDS member and principal author of it's 1962 recruitment pamphlet, "The Port Huron Statement," is seen conducting a meeting, though he was not enrolled at Columbia.

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Tom Hayden

After the University announced there would be no amnesty, the students attention turned to that. Votes were taken every thirty minutes, another voice says, over images of raised hands, to reassure everyone that the first demand would be amnesty.

By Sunday, April 28th, the question of food had become an issue. Chants of "Food! Food! Food! are heard. The Majority Coalition formed a blockading perimeter around Low, intent on keeping supplies from entering. While sympathetic outsiders, including a few mothers of protesting students, tossed edibles over the heads of the Coalition line, we hear audio of SDS chanting "Pass it up! Pass it Up!" (Chanting, like committee forming, was another staple of SDS membership.) Cheers and whistles are heard when a package is caught, as if points have been scored at a sporting event. Coalition members, by contrast, are shown standing stoically, shoulder to shoulder, in their sport coats with trimmed haircuts, as a filmmaker attempts to bait them. We also see them enjoying snacks, most likely to mock the hungry SDS. Among the members of the Coalition, though not seen in the film. was 17-year old freshman and future U.S. Attorney General, Bill Barr. 

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 William Barr

An inner perimeter, between the Coalition and the building, consisted of faculty intent on keeping the peace. To faculty, a narrator observes, the choice was between the status quo or chaos. "They couldn't see beyond the occupation to the creation of something that might be better." Eventually, with faculty aid, supplies got through and the SDS kids are seen eating and passing around a Tropicana carton, then dancing to a record player, doing the limbo. A female voice speaks of a new collective experience in Fayerweather, where she has found a new family, a new home, and where she decided to marry. Her wedding is seen, and the officiate pronounces Andrea and Richard "Children of the new age" to great applause and shouts of "alRIIIIIGHT!" But that happy scene shifts abruptly to night and the sound of sirens.

 

Spoiler: They Were Moved

It is the night of April 30th. Students sing "We Shall Not Be Moved" as the TPF masses outside a building, alongside NYPD regulars. "If you do not remove yourselves forthwith," says a man through a loudspeaker, "the University will make the complaint immediately of trespass with the New York City Police Department in connection with your activities. We have been informed that the police department will take all the necessary action in connection with our complaint against you. This order to remove yourself forthwith is separate and apart from any question of amnesty. You will be subject to proper disciplinary action by the University in any event. Those who leave the building pursuant to this order will have less to answer for than those who do not."

The singing ends. The TPF, in close order columns, amid shouts of "Butchers!" and "Where's the SS?!" at last begins clearing resistors to shouts of "No violence! No violence!" 

A voice that sounds like Allen Ginsberg but most likely isn't recalls calmly, "And they managed to kind of push them all together. And they were all sitting on the floor. And they pushed them all together and got them so they could hardly move. They would hit. They had something in their hands."  Images shot with a shaking camera depict arrests, scuffles, bodies being tugged and dragged. A voice recalls hearing the police laughing. 700 arrests were made.

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Not seen or mentioned - but significant - is the orderly and peaceful clearance of the SAS from Hamilton, where a unit of black policemen entered from the tunnels below the building and escorted cooperative protesters to waiting vans.

The next morning, after being released from custody, one arrestee is shown receiving medical treatment seven hours after incurring his injury, while a voice says the experience with the police had turned him from being neutral to questioning how any student or faculty member could ever associate with the school again.

A math professor is said to have compiled affidavits saying that "much looting and destruction" occurred between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., hours during which only police, press, and staff were in the building. "When I got out of jail and got back to Math, I looked around for my camera and my light meter I left behind. All I found was a lot of exposed film, broken lenses. Who the f*ck else would have done it but the cops?" 

It has been theorized, notably by Nicholas Frankovich writing in The National Review on the 50th anniversary of the protest, that class divisions between white upper class students and the white lower middle class officers of the NYPD created clear battle lines. Police had spent a week standing by, watching Ivy League kids acting up, failing to appreciate the opportunity they had been given to attend a prestigious school, an opportunity well beyond the reach of the working class members of the NYPD.

Police as well as protesters were injured. Unsaid in the movie is that one policeman, Frank Gucciardi, was paralyzed from the waist down after a protester jumped from a building and landed on him. (Other accounts say the protester was thrown from the building.) Gucciardi would regain the use of his legs after three years of therapy.

Also not heard in Revolt are statements by some members of the Majority Coalition who said they felt sympathy for the protestors who suffered at the hands of the cops.

"This bust has radicalized everybody, me very personally."

"I was a nonviolent student, I was completely passive, I didn't care what happened. I was completely neutral. I'm not neutral anymore. I'll occupy a building tomorrow."

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Columbia suspended classes the following week, and the next 10 minutes of the film cover the classroom strike, organized by a group named the Strike Coordinating Committee (SCC) which was dominated by SDS members. The segment begins with outdoor footage of students arriving back on campus and passing through guarded checkpoints where they must show student ID to gain access.

A carnival atmosphere soon emerges. Students are seen reenacting the bust, with some wearing helmets inscribed in homely script "IDA" and others "TPF," all skulking about with goofy grins and batons while taking the arms of laughing students in mock arrest.

On May 3, The Grateful Dead appeared in concert, performing an electrified Woody Guthrie song, "Going Down the Road." We hear post-production audio of the lyric, "I ain't gonna be treated this a way." 

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 The Grateful Dead performing on Low Plaza

I Don't Feel Like Going to School Noooo More!

Amid a chant of "Strike! Strike! Strike!" an unseen speaker calls for students to stop attending classes till the end of the term. SDS leader Eric Mann, at that time already an experienced political activist and organizer, and in no way affiliated with Columbia, is seen conducting an outdoor "class" on the topic of "The American University." SDS wanted to demonstrate that trustees are unnecessary for the learning process, "that free, open, democratic, and meaningful discourse between faculty and students" could take place. They wanted to end paternalism, and the idea of being groomed to take their eventual place in the managerial class.

On May 7th, though it is not mentioned in the film, the protesters splintered. SDS's objective of bringing about the destruction of the University as it was then constituted was not shared by many who had joined them in recent days. The dissenters then formed Students for a Restructured University (SRU)  for the purpose of reform. 

 

White Harlem

SDS then returned it's focus to the local community's concerns. At the 39:00 mark, the action shifts to mid-May and Morningside Heights, where a building on West 114th (either recently acquired by CU or being cleared for purchase by it - accounts differ) had become occupied by roughly 50 "community members," by which was meant local community activists who objected to Columbia's expansion into Harlem. SDS members, again led by Mark Rudd, co-opted the protest. "Columbia," a white male voice speaking to an assembled crowd says, "has forced the removal of over 8,000 people from their homes." 

"Of the 8,000 tenants," a black female voice says, "whom Columbia has systematically displaced ... only a token number of minority group families now reside in Morningside Heights. We deplore this deliberate creation of a white ghetto."

It's all very familiar by now. Police tell the occupiers they are free to leave if they don't want to be arrested, and the building is cleared. We see a shot of the few who chose to be arrested stepping untouched into a police wagon.

 

Hamilton Redux

But the semester wasn't over yet and SDS remained tenacious. "In order to show solidarity with the six strike leaders who they tried to suspend, they decided to take Hamilton once again." The familiar warning to clear the building is heard. "After three votes," a voice says, "the majority decided to stay." Another chant of "Strike!" is heard and Mark Rudd is seen leading them, punching the air with each word. Barricades were put up. As night fell police surrounded the building. Amid shouts of "Sieg Heil!" (ironically meaning "Hail victory!") and "Up against the wall, Mother f*ckers!" The camera pans across lines of cops in helmets, intermixed with nighttime still shots of iron gates, and finally a street scene, with something aflame.

After sunrise the following day, a scene of tired policeman standing on Hamilton's steps amongst strewn paper debris is seen, one cop with his helmet removed, seated and fatigued. The solemn Cronkite-like voice from the film's opening returns, this time with an inclusion of outtakes from the audio recording session.

"Start over again?"

"Take 1." 

"The modern university is the cradle of the nation's future. It has been called the chief energizing and creative force in our entire social system."

 

Less Pomp, More Circumstance

Images of gowned scholars and policemen are seen at the June 4th commencement, held that year not in the traditional locale of Low Plaza, but at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The fact that a commencement was even held must have been considered a victory by the administration, even though University President Grayson Kirk did not deliver the address. It was delivered instead by Richard Hofstadter, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of American History. 

But the protesters had one last move. A voice tells us, "At a given signal to the students, almost the entire graduating class is expected to leave the ceremony in protest over it's legitimacy, and to hold their own graduation in repudiation of the trustees. They expect to be joined by a few members of the faculty." Though we are not told this, the signal would come from college radio station WKCR, and it would be the song "The Times They Are a 'Changin" and would be heard by students carrying transistor radios under their gowns.

The concluding segment begins with audio of "Pomp and Circumstance" but changes to "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" sung over images of what looks like a parade of the estimated 300 students walking out to gather for a counter-commencement at Low Plaza. (The smiling, curly haired hippie we see is principal cinematographer Melvin Margolis.) The camera, from an elevated point above the gathering crowd, pulls back then upward for the closing shot of the steps and pillars of Low Library.

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For What It's Worth

SAS negotiated successfully with Columbia Administration to end plans for the gym in Morningside Heights, for the hiring of more black faculty members, and for the institution of a Black Studies program. 

A new 50,000 square foot gymnasium was completed in 1974, between the  Physics Building and Uris Hall.it did not include a community center.

IDA oversight by universities, which had grown to 12 affiliated schools in 1964, ended as a result of protests at Columbia and Princeton.

Grayson Kirk resigned his presidency that August. He retained his position as Bryce Professor of History and International Relations until his retirement in 1973. He died in 1997 at age 94.

H. Rap Brown continued his activism in the black separatist movement and changed his name to Jamil Abdullah al-Amin. In 2002 he was convicted of the murder of Fulton County Sheriff's Deputy Ricky Kinchen and the aggravated assault of Deputy Aldranon English. He is presently serving a life sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary, Tuscon. He is 78.

SDS was torn by faction at it's June 1969 convention in Chicago when a group led by Bernadine Dohrn and including Mark Rudd and called the Revolutionary Youth Movement clashed with the more traditional Maoist-Marxist faction and became the militant and avowedly Communist group known as The Weathermen whose stated goal was the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The last active campus chapter of SDS disbanded in 1974.

Tom Hayden did not join the Weathermen but continued his anti-Vietnam war activism and became better known a few months later at the Chicago Democratic Convention where his actions led to federal indictments of conspiracy and incitement to riot. He was convicted but the charges were reversed on appeal and the government did not re-try. In 1973 he married Jane Fonda. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1990. In 1982 he was elected to the California State Assembly, then in 1992 to the State Senate. He died in 2016 at age 76.

Mark Rudd was expelled from Columbia. He would grow more and more enamored of Che Guevara and the use of political violence as a member of the Weathermen, until a change of mind following the death of three Weather Underground members after bombs meant for an Army post in New Jersey detonated prematurely in a Greenwich Village apartment. Had that plan been successful, he would say, it would have killed innocent people and ended the anti-war movement. He lived in Brooklyn under a pseudonym until 1977 when he turned himself in to the FBI. He was not prosecuted for his Weathermen activities due to what would be termed legal abuses committed by the FBI's COINTELPRO which were uncovered by a Senate committee led by Frank Church. Rudd moved to Albuquerque in 1978 and found work as a math teacher at a community college. (I emailed Mr. Rudd asking for, among other things, his thoughts on the split with SAS and how it affected SDS at the time. I did not expect a reply. I was not disappointed.) He is 75.

A non-fiction book by 19 year-old James Simon Kunen titled The Strawberry Statement was published in 1969. It recounts the author's experience at Columbia during this period. It was fictionalized into a movie of the same name, released in 1970, which I discuss here.

The Newsreel collective formed groups in several major cities. San Francisco Newsreel produced propaganda for The Black Panthers. The New York group promoted feminist causes, notably against the Miss America Pageant. Two groups, Third World Newsreel and California Newsreel, remain in operation today. Photographer Bev Grant, who is seen in Revolt taking still photos at the second Hamilton occupation, operates a website here where her work as a photographer and musician is posted and available for purchase. 

Kit Parker Films is still in business. Mr. Parker offers a variety of titles that would be of interest to film enthusiasts which can be purchased here.

Columbia University, founded in 1754, operates today with three undergraduate schools, thirteen graduate and professional schools, and eight research centers. CU participates in research funded by the Department of Defense for non-classified military projects. Columbia University's Online Archives offers detailed information about the 1968 troubles here.

Low Library was completed in 1897. Its granite steps were renovated in the summer of 2022.

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