The Columbia and New School Sit-Ins, ComparedBy Colin Moynihan
It was not a redux of the Battle of Morningside Heights.
When students at the New School staged an occupation in an academic building Wednesday night in an effort to bend the administration’s ear and will, it was difficult not to look back to the famous sit-in carried out in 1968 by students at Columbia University.
The actions, separated by decades, diverged in many significant respects. For one thing, the New School students differed from their 1968 counterparts in their choice of venue. While the Columbia students took over the well-appointed office of Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, and (at least according to legend) smoked his cigars, the New School students focused their ire on their university president, Bob Kerrey, from afar. Instead of approaching his West 12th Street office, they occupied a large cafeteria around the corner in a university building at 65 Fifth Avenue near East 13th Street.
Of course, there were similarities, too. Both the 1968 and the 2008 sit-ins were attended by people affiliated with the Students for a Democratic Society and both were partly motivated by anger over university associations with an unpopular war. In 1968, Columbia students were upset that the university was affiliated with the Institute for Defense Analysis, which advised the government on Vietnam. This time, some students objected to connections between university leaders and the war in Iraq. Mr. Kerrey, who served in Vietnam, was an early and strong proponent for the United States invasion of Iraq. Students also criticized Robert B. Millard, a member of the New School board of trustees and chairman of the executive committee of a military supplier called L-3 Communications, which employed contractors accused in lawsuits of abusing prisoners in Iraq.
Sometimes there were simultaneous similarities and differences within a single issue. Take, for instance, the student stances on university buildings, important in both 1968 and 2008. The Columbia students wished to halt the construction of a gymnasium in Morningside Park. The New School students, on the other hand, wanted to prevent the razing of the building at 65 Fifth Avenue, which had been scheduled for demolition.
Some of the most telling differences were in the nature of the occupations. While the Columbia protests spread to several buildings, the New School students largely remained in the ground-floor cafeteria and appeared to concentrate on consolidating their position. Twice, students took school security guards by surprise, flinging open doors and allowing reinforcements to stream into the cafeteria from chilly sidewalks.
For many students, the cafeteria was home for more than 30 hours. Their numbers fluctuated from about 50 to close to 200. Conditions mixed the spartan and the modern. Students slept –– or tried to –– on the cafeteria’s hard wooden floors. The thermostat was often uncomfortably high. Pillows and blankets were in short supply, but technology abounded. Students shared laptops, batteries and phones. They were in constant contact with the world beyond the cafeteria, posting communiqués on the Web and e-mailing manifestos and updates to allies. Messages were exchanged with sympathizers at other schools like Antioch and Clemson.
Some of the available amenities were achieved through negotiation with school officials. During much of the occupation, students with New School IDs were permitted to cross freely between the occupied zone and the streets outside the building. Supporters were allowed to deliver food, coffee and even a movie projector (news footage of melees in Greece and an episode of Charlie Rose interviewing Toni Morrison were beamed onto a wall) after building hours on Thursday night.
Occupiers also enjoyed a sort of safe conduct between the cafeteria and a bathroom in a nearby administration-controlled hallway until sometime after midnight on Thursday, when the authorities apparently announced that anyone visiting the bathroom would be prevented from re-entering the cafeteria.
And although officers and security guards at times scuffled with students –– and banged a newspaper photographer into a wall –– the level of animosity was far lower on both sides than it was at Columbia, when baton-wielding police officers arrested more than 700 people and seriously injured some students and reporters during a predawn raid to take back the university.
At one point in the middle of the first night of the protest a student and a New School security guard whiled away some time by discussing the history of radical politics. On Thursday afternoon, after police and students grappled in a narrow corridor leading from the cafeteria to the street, a mood of détente eventually descended with representatives from both sides engaged in a Checkpoint Charlie-style standoff with a rude barricade of debris-filled metal Dumpsters separating them. On one side of the Dumpster blockade, two students sat on a concrete staircase watching two police officers sitting on folding chairs while keeping an eye on the steps.
At the same time, wooden tables and heavy recycling bins in the cafeteria were used as barricades and podiums as the students turned the space into a cross between a town hall and Trafalgar Square. They repeatedly held meetings to debate tactics and hold votes. Some of the assemblies were refreshingly quick and direct. Others were tangential and lengthy (sometimes numbingly so, particularly for the sleep deprived).
Over time a rough, flawed, sincere and respectful form of democracy emerged in the cafeteria. Factions with competing agendas and ideologies clashed, but more often than not found common ground or agreed to disagree. A group called the Radical Students Union (which included former members of Students for a Democratic Society) was said to have initially opposed the occupation, but requested later that the start time be slightly delayed so that they could join in.
On the final afternoon of the occupation, the students held one of their biggest meetings and also began using a form of shorthand sign language to communicate: waving both hands in the air indicated agreement; pointed index fingers meant somebody had a fact to convey; and fingers forming a triangle were meant to remind others to stick to the point.
Although Mr. Kirk, the president of Columbia, largely kept away from the demonstrators, Mr. Kerrey visited 65 Fifth Avenue at least twice on Thursday. Students at one point refused to meet with him directly, but later heard him out through an intermediary. Offers were extended, arrangements were discussed and votes were taken.
In the end, occupiers put aside calls for Mr. Kerrey and other administration officials to resign and instead voted to accept a four-point offer from Mr. Kerrey that included a promise not to penalize students involved in the occupation and agreements to give students a voice in selecting a provost and investing school funds.
Shortly afterward, around 3:30 Friday morning, the occupation ended not with the wail of sirens, but with loud shouts as students streamed from the cafeteria into nearby streets.
-It should be noted that Colin shared our space with us for a large portion of the Occupation and we all have great respect and admiration for him and his work.
The New School in Exile.