This story is part of a series on the 1968 protests at Columbia and their present-day implications fifty years later.
Remembered by leader Raymond Brown, CC ’69, as a “unit of brothers and sisters,” the Student Afro-American Society led black students, members of the Harlem community, and white students within Students for a Democratic Society in protest against Columbia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and gentrification of Harlem in 1968.
“Our story was one of survival in an environment that wasn’t prepared for us at all. But we cohered together because what we had in common was more than what separated us,” Brown said. “We were there because we identified with ourselves and the larger black community. Everything else flowed from that.”
Columbia’s activist community in 1968 consisted of two main groups: SAS and SDS. But since the large-scale protests of 1968 that helped establish Columbia’s activist tradition, the structures of student activist organizations have changed significantly.
Now, student activists make up dozens of different organizations with distinct interests—many of which form immediately following the rise of a new political issue or University policy. While only around 41 student organizations existed in 1968, there are now over 400. Of these new groups, 53 are affinity groups, many of which have also taken on stronger activist roles as members unite under shared identities.
As a result of this atomization of student activist groups, protests themselves have shrunk significantly in size, especially in recent years—only a handful over the past two years have garnered more than 50 people. This recent decline draws a contrast to spring and fall in 2015, when near-monthly protests by groups like No Red Tape and Columbia Divest for Climate drew large crowds.
The decline in number of protests is due in part to a rise in other avenues for students to voice discontent within the University’s bureaucratic system. The University Senate, created in the wake of the 1968 protests, provides students today with a somewhat direct means of communication with the administration, potentially reducing the need for protest action.
However, as this type of advocacy occurs under conditions established by the University, rather than activists themselves—the scope of student demands and student agency are inherently limited.
“The biggest practical issue is the way the institution has evolved out of ’68 in terms of having created more University—sanctioned avenues for voicing student discontent––but controlling the terms under which that information is welcome and in what way it ought to be presented.” Alejandro Desince, CC ’18, said.
The growth in number of affinity groups has allowed students to connect with individuals who share similar identities. But in the eyes of some activists, this has come at the expense of overall unity on overarching issues.
“In 1968 there were not as many groups, different cultural groups and political groups, as there are now at Columbia,” Corrine Civil, CC ‘19 and former political chair of the Black Students’ Organization, said. “One thing we would need to do is better coalition building and realizing that yeah, we can have all our groups and that’s great, but at some point, we need to come together to address things.”
Few issues today have attracted the same level of collective student opposition as seen in 1968, even though many have argued that the actions of Columbia’s current administration reflect past decisions, such as the construction of the Manhattanville campus that has contributed to the gentrification of Harlem.
“We think that things are getting better and I think that in a sense they are, but what was ‘Gym Crow’ about? That was about gentrifying Harlem and displacing people — Columbia just built a big-ass Manhattanville,” Julia, CC ’18 and a member of Columbia University Apartheid Divest, who omitted her last name for fear she could be barred from traveling to visit Palestinian relatives, said. “Maybe it’s not the Vietnam War anymore, but it’s Palestine, and there’s this repeated instances of injustices that we need to address and we need to keep fighting to be better.”
In 1968, national upheaval allowed organizations to mobilize groups of people despite differences in beliefs. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the threat of being drafted into the military turned students’ focus toward the role of the University in perpetuating systems of violence.
According to SDS President at the time Mark Rudd, CC ’69, organizations like SAS and SDS were able to channel years of organizing and research into a tangible movement.
“What happened in the years of organizing around the war and racism and the University was that people had time to learn and think and wonder about their own relationship with these issues,” Rudd said. “It takes time, very little happens spontaneously ... The protest that came together on April 23 was the congruence of a number of crises that came together at exactly that moment.”
In place of broad activism based on larger societal movements, today’s protesting takes on a more specialized nature—many groups arise in direct response to specific University-related and political issues. Columbia University Students Against Gun Violence formed immediately after the Parkland shooting, and the Liberation Coalition formed in response to Columbia University College Republicans’ invitation of white nationalist speakers.
Moreover, due to the small size of protest groups, the methods of protests have diversified significantly.
Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, which previously held a sit-in to advocate for the University’s divestment from fossil fuel companies, has recently focused its efforts on educating the student body rather than protesting University actions. It now claims to approach activism in a more relationship-based, intersectional way, by hosting teach-ins and art shows. While 24/7 Columbia has appropriated the sit-in structure, it has had to structure its protests in a manner that is more limited and precise—and the sit-in lasted for less than a week.
“In ’68, they had a small army and there wasn’t a lot that Columbia could do about that, so they could take over a whole building, rename it, whatever,” Anja Chivukula, BC ’21, said. “But because we don’t, at least for this action, have that capability and that’s not generally something that most activists groups can expect nowadays, we have to play it differently and play it safe.”
Many activists also pointed out the benefits of the internet in allowing groups to mobilize quickly and respond to issues that arise suddenly. The internet also allows for support to take on a virtual form, further contributing to a diminishing culture of physical demonstration.
However, despite the changing culture of activism on Columbia’s campus, protests remain a primary means of expression for groups to push back on University actions and societal issues.
“I’m from Harlem—I grew up right on the other side of the park, and just seeing the difference in the amount of privilege that we have going here, I don’t think there’s any other choice for me but to leverage that privilege and actively fight against it and the hegemonic structures that are predicated upon it,” Civil said.