The sound of voices travels across campus, carried by chilly April gusts that rattle the chains on the doors of Hamilton Hall. It is day five of the blockade, which has taken over the steps of the building. Blankets, newspapers, and books litter the ground, and overhead a makeshift tarp rustles in the wind, partially obscuring the large banner reading "MANDELA HALL." Next door, in Hartley Hall, protesters take refuge under warm blankets, while leading members of the blockade continue their hunger strike, already more than two weeks in.
It is April 9, 1985. Easter Sunday was two days ago, and just yesterday famed folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger joined Columbia students in calling for the University's full divestment from firms operating or conducting business in apartheid South Africa.
During that fateful month in 1985, a protest movement in favor of divestment from the National Party of South Africa's apartheid regime rocked Columbia to its core. What began as a gathering of seven students around the entrance of Hamilton morphed into a mass movement that involved students from across the undergraduate and graduate communities. Jesse Jackson spoke to a crowd of 5,000 students on the steps of Hamilton, while more than 1,000 students guarded the entrance to the building at the peak of the protests.
The demonstrations were sustained for 21 days—three weeks before the first meeting between the protest leaders and the University president and six months before Columbia became the first major American university to fully divest from South Africa.
The protesters' success attests to the confluence of an energized, organized activist community, a supportive faculty, national media coverage, and the careful development of a persuasive economic and moral case that convinced the trustees to divest. The history of divestment from apartheid at Columbia is a unique historical episode, but it also speaks to the nature of successful student activist movements more broadly.
In September 1977, the question of divestment at Columbia first came to the fore as the University Senate was asked by the board of trustees to look into the morality of Columbia's investments in South Africa. At that time, Columbia had about $80 million in assets in firms doing business in South Africa, or around 1/3 of the University's endowment. Nine months later, the senate recommended selectively selling off those investments.
Others in the Columbia community called for more drastic action, echoing the rising sentiment that total divestment would be necessary to put sufficient pressure on South Africa's government.
Economics professor Alexander Erlich, who was on the University Senate's investment policy committee, authored a minority report in 1978, arguing, "Columbia must not be a party to activities lending direct or indirect support to an abhorrent regime."
Erlich, who passed away in 1985, held a unique perspective on the committee. Ronald Findlay, an economics professor at Columbia, recalls his colleague and friend's moral conviction with a fond smile.
"For professor Erlich, the moral issue was the only issue."
Part of what helped the protests of '85 succeed was precisely this moral drive. Todd Gitlin, who teaches sociology and journalism at the Journalism School, emphasizes the importance of "morally stirring" demands. Gitlin, a Ph.D. chair at the Journalism school, was himself a student activist at Harvard in the 1960s, and his academic work concerns issues of dissent and popular protest.
"Protests about procedure are generally not as morally charged as fights about principle," he says. Gitlin explains that civil disobedience like the kind that characterized Columbia's divestment movement provokes polarization and mobilization. "In arguments about principle, people take sides."
These enthusiasms can generate what Gitlin calls a "free-floating moral surplus," which is "a kind of surplus of morally available energy. And the object of the protestors is to channel that energy into a manageable set of demands, or as people say today, 'asks.'"
On April 4, 1985, the steering committee of the Coalition for a Free South Africa, founded four years prior, channeled that energy.
In conjunction with National Divestment Day, the coalition organized an event on campus wherein around 200 students met at the sundial on Low Plaza to hear speeches by members of the steering committee before marching around campus chanting and shouting.
The protesters were led to Hamilton, where the front doors had been chained and locked by organizers, before announcing that they were going to remain on Hamilton's steps until the University committed to total divestment.
The majority of the protesters who attended didn't expect this bold occupation, yet most of them stayed. Several hours after the blockade was officially announced, the number of students on the steps increased to around 250 to 300.
What made these protesters stay? On one level, the immediate response by the administration was a factor, and that response was itself influenced by the long shadow of history.
Back in 1968, students protested the University's ties to military research for the Vietnam War and the planned construction of a gymnasium within Morningside Park that protestors claimed was designed to segregate (predominately white) Columbia students from (predominantly black) residents of Harlem. Peaceful protests quickly turned into a scene of violence as the administration called in police. The NYPD arrested over 700 students, and, according to Gitlin, "smashed a lot of heads."
Gitlin says that the national response to the administration's handling of the protestors likely played a role in how it handled the protesters in '85.
"In '68 Columbia was burned very badly. … Columbia took a big hit, not only morally but financially, in the years after '68, and nobody wanted to go through that again. So I'm not surprised that a lesson was learned, that they were going to handle a protest with relatively kid gloves."
Holly Fluty Dempsey was a student at the Mailman School of Public Health from 1983 to 1985 and was was an active participant in the '85 blockade. She says that activists involved in the blockade were aware of the "risk-taking element" involved in their protests. She was conscious of the legacy of the '68 protests, and that made the willingness of her peers to make sacrifices all the more powerful.
"[Divestment] was complicated and of enormous economic worth—especially in Manhattan, we all know the power of money and financial capital—so … seeing fellow students, in terms of the diversity of people who came forward, was wonderful."
It wasn't just the financial pain that the protesters hoped to inflict on the apartheid government in South Africa that complicated divestment. Findlay says divestment necessitates thinking about the effects that divesting away from higher profit sources has on financial aid, as well as the targeted country.
Divestment puts pressure on societies as well as governments, and that, too, was a risk of the divestment proposal—whether it could hurt those it meant to help.
"[W]ho is suffering [due to divestment]? The military dictators? The effect is on the consumers, on the workers, who will bear the brunt."
Dempsey acknowledges that she "wasn't as complex a thinker" as she is now. Yet for her, the drive behind her protesting was the fact that the very firms Columbia had investments in "were upholding the structure of apartheid. They were contributing to black South Africans having zero opportunities and being kept subservient."
Furthermore, she says, the student protesters were well-informed.
"There was a concerted effort, not just from an emotional perspective or ethical or some humanitarian one … but it was more, this is the amount of money, this is the number of companies, this is the impact that it would have—that we thought it would have; it was more of a hypothesis at that time."
Dempsey and other student activists from Mailman would take the subway down from Washington Heights, joining the wide array of protesters and onlookers in front of Hamilton. The mood of the protesters would vary, she says, but their shared moral drive and their frequent discussions kept up their energy and determination to continue.
"The groundswell took a while, and I think there was a fair amount of knowledge being shared with students on why this was important, why this mattered, and why everyone should feel that it was an issue that they needed to weigh in on. "
The members of the steering committee especially added to the blockade's perseverance. Their role was crucial in continuing the protests, beginning with chaining the doors of Hamilton and continuing to maintain the crowds, even as initial waves of enthusiasm began to dissipate.
Gitlin says that this speaks to the strategic difficulty of sustaining a protestor base over time.
"[They need to generate] just enough of a confrontational mood to intensify the sense that there are large moral questions at stake, but not so much as to turn off large numbers of people who might otherwise be your allies. And symbolic events, symbolic gestures, play a part in making the issues seem more graphic to onlookers and others."
More than a week before the blockade began, seven out of 10 students on the committee began a hunger strike, vowing to continue until they would be granted an audience with the board of trustees. For 15 days they fasted—several required hospitalization—until then-University President Michael Sovern intervened.
On April 9, Sovern met with them privately at Mount Sinai St. Luke's hospital, in case the strikers required medical attention. Although Sovern made no agreements to divest, his meeting with the students was celebrated by the protesters, who saw it as a legitimation of their efforts.
However, no word came from the board of trustees about divestment. Finally, on April 22, the student organizers announced that they would be ending the blockade. The announcement was made minutes before a court order compelling the students to remove the barriers to Hamilton was issued.
Photo from the Columbia Archives
Although no promise for full divestment was secured during the blockade, the protesters' demonstrated resolve and their bold, confrontational tactics were replicated on college campuses across the United States.
On October 7, about five months after the chains were put on Hamilton, Columbia's board of trustees announced that the University would be fully divesting from stocks related to South Africa.
Columbia was the first American university to commit to total divestment. By 1988, more than 155 educational institutions made the decision to fully or partially divest from South Africa.
For Gitlin, as a former activist, a member of the Columbia community, and a scholar of activism, the heyday of protest movements on campus seems to be waning.
"I don't get the sense that the campus is brewing with [activism]," Gitlin says. "I don't see a lot going on on campus. I don't see a lot of political fliers or anything like that. Maybe I'm missing it. Am I missing it?"
Gitlin bore witness to one of the most audacious periods in American history of protesting. Student protesting today, he says, is "less photogenic, and also, I think it would have to be said, less confrontational."
These days, Gitlin doesn't see students joining ranks in front of major academic buildings to try to take down oppressive foreign governments. According to him, that sense of change has both aesthetic and practical implications.
"Summoning a bunch of people to a meeting or a demonstration is easier than it used to be," Gitlin says. As he speaks, he raps his knuckles on his wooden desk that stands in front of shelves laden with books and knickknacks.
"But I do think that since so many forms of communication seem so easy, with social media and so on, there's something of an illusion that doing protests is a push-button process. And so it's easier to summon people, but it's also easier to see them dissipate, because in general the activists don't know how to create and sustain an organisation that keeps up its work, that's hard work."
He begins to rap his knuckles more rapidly, knocking against the table with an increasing urgency. "And so in some ways, paradoxically, the ease of the social media actually interferes with some of the more steady work of political organization."
Reflecting on how her involvement in the blockade fit into her overall experience at Columbia, Dempsey says her "true activism—beyond talking, beyond working [in foreign service], beyond conversations with people" began at Columbia.
"There was just a lot of talking and a lot of energy, a lot of coordination. Very strong community organization, that was pretty impressive when I look back on it, because I had never really been exposed to any of that before."