One Wednesday night this past winter, a group of radical students at Columbia University held a meeting with the moderate College Democrats. The topic: a February 15 strike of classes to bring the troops home now. The radicals were psyched.
“We need to take action!” said Karina Garcia. “People want to see that others are in motion, that something is happening around them, that students are striking, that people are willing to take to the streets.”
“People are at so many different levels of consciousness on this campus!” complained Kristin Wall, who was wearing a shirt with Arabic script and under it in English: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.
“Good news!” announced Anusar Farooqui. “I wrote to Chomsky. He’s going to mention [our strike] in his lecture.”
Consciousness, Chomsky, the streets … the College Dems wriggled and winced. They had the air of earnest choirboys next to the motley radicals sitting disdainfully on the backs of their chairs. “Let’s treat the administration as a potential ally,” said a tall, redheaded Dem named Jim Downie. Why not get a letter from the administration saying that Columbia was officially against the war and that the university also wants the troops home now?
At the back of the room, David Judd, a computer-science student and member of the International Socialist Organization, paced with his head down, measuring linoleum squares against his battered sneakers. Every time a Democrat said the administration might help out, he said quietly, “They won’t … They won’t.”
By the time of the Columbia Coalition Against the War’s next meeting a week later, the Dems were gone. The negotiations had broken down over one issue or other: divestment, calling it a “walkout” not a strike, the Palestine issue. The radicals didn’t seem to care. They were drinking new political wine. Olivia Rosane brought in a wooden crate full of cold red apples, and the meeting had the boundless air of young people conceiving transformative commitments. “He’s a completely beautiful human, he’ll make everyone cry, he’s a Gandhian scholar,” Kristin said of a professor who’d agreed to talk at their rally.
Running down six flights at a break to smoke, Jake Matilsky and Anusar decided that the revolution wouldn’t happen without nicotine, and Jake—angular, hairy, with a ring on his thumb—said his parents’ generation was “MIA.” It reminded me of a lethal comment David Judd had made about his liberal mom: “She drinks a lot of lattes.”
The group of Columbia radicals is small (the most I ever saw at a meeting was 25, and not everyone in the room would identify as such), but it is part of a radical rekindling, or smoldering anyway, at colleges across the country. The SDS—Students for a Democratic Society—has lately reformed, with more than 200 chapters. A group called World Can’t Wait (to drive out the Bush régime) seems even more robust than SDS, regularly haranguing the young generation to shrug off its laziness. The war is all that most students have known as they came of age, says Allen Lang, one of WCW’s organizers. Even if they’re not at risk to go to Iraq, he says, the war has left them dispirited and searching for causes.
Mark Rudd, one of the earliest members of SDS at Columbia 40 years ago, tours campuses today as a hero. “I’ve detected a change among the youngest kids, 15 to 19. The events of the last three years have just shocked them to shit, turned their heads around. They’ve learned that they can’t possibly trust people in power, and you have to do something about it.” Rudd’s fellow SDSer Bob Feldman says, “People have been 40 years in the wilderness, that’s how we have to look at this.”
Feldman, Rudd, and company gave Columbia its brand in 1968: Radicalism in the Elite, at 116th and Broadway. Columbia loves and hates the brand. Freshmen read The Strawberry Statement, James Simon Kunen’s chronicle of the ’68 protests, before they arrive, and find the sex-and-demos plot still fresh. Even mainstream students speak of the sixties as a time of glory. Jess Blakemore, a College Democrat, cried after the talks between the radicals and her group broke down. “The legacy inspires me too,” she says. “I don’t know how many times we’ve sat at a College Dems meeting and said, ‘Columbia is supposed to be in the leadership of liberal activism among youth, and how do we step up again and take on that role we used to have? And that’s been a frustration … In that situation [’68], radicalism worked. A popular movement, getting the grassroots involved from the bottom: It ended the war.”
The institution itself seems to fear a radical revival. Columbia was deeply wounded by ’68. Professors were pitted against professors. The school’s status as a destination for the highly success-oriented took a beating, for a decade or two, and Columbia has lately sent the radicals signals that building takeovers will meet with more than arched eyebrows. “We’ve heard you can be expelled if you try to occupy Hamilton again,” Olivia says (and an administration spokesman concurs).