(The following 1998 interview first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Z magazine. See part 1 below. To see the current issue of Z magazine, you can check out its web site at
But why Columbia? Why would a major Ivy League university be affected by that [the world historical situation in 1968]?
Bernardine Dohrn [BD]: Columbia students, SDS, and the African-American students—Student Afro-American Society (SAS)--had been organizing—only small numbers—around two big issues at Columbia. One was the presence of secret war research. The university denied that it participated in this consortium, called the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA—a Pentagon-sponsored group of universities that were advising the government on defense strategy in return for lots of funding). Second was the construction of a gym for Columbia students in Morningside Park, which is part of the Harlem community, to which Harlem residents would be denied access.
SDS, three weeks before, had taken a petition with 1,800 signatures to the office of Columbia’s president, Grayson Kirk, demanding that Columbia stop its participation in war research.
IDA still exists, by the way, in 1998 [and in 2009].
BD: They were doing research, for example, on the “chemical control of vegetation,” the creation and use of Agent Orange or napalm, which ends up poisoning not only the countryside of Vietnam, but American troops as well.
IDA has a web site in which they brag about their current research in “deep attack analysis.”
BD: Right. And one of the other things that was also a major research project was “exo-atmosphere nuclear detonations.” So the students presented this petition and the president said it was a violation on a ban on indoor demonstrations. Columbia put some of the leadership on probation.
On April 23, a group of some 500 students met to protest putting students on probation. They marched to the gym site. There was a scuffle with police there. The fence got torn down. The SAS students and SDS marched over and occupied Hamilton Hall, taking an acting dean “hostage” in the process. Within a day and a-half, four other buildings were occupied by students.
My view is that a couple of things were going on here. One was that students at one of the most privileged places in the country were turning away from what universities were shaping them into: the technological products who benefit from inequality and world conquest. What they were doing is making a highly moral statement: “We won’t be molded into the future leaders of the society that you have in mind, if this is the society that you have in mind. And we can do something better.”
And with that action was released a spirit and an outpouring of creativity that attracted more people.
Once the students were occupying Low Library—which is where Grayson Kirk’s offices were—and went through the files, there was proof of everything that the university had been denying. In fact, Columbia and the other major universities were not only participants in IDA, they were discussing with the government and each other how to lie about it to the students.
So you have the kind of smoking-gun evidence of their manipulation of public relations. You have the wonderful research that had been done about Who Rules Columbia? And its interlocking corporate directorships. So everyone could see that universities really are part of the whole business of military, corporate and real estate power.
Then the Harlem community marched through the campus while the buildings were occupied by students. Obviously, Columbia was hesitant about what to do about getting the students out because of the presence of the Harlem community. Finally, Columbia decided to unleash a police riot against the students. A thousand police took part in what was really the largest police action at a college.
Did you see any of that?
BD: I didn’t see it. I was traveling for the National Lawyers Guild and was speaking at Morgan State, a traditional all-Black college, when I heard the news that the students had occupied the buildings. When I returned 700 students had been arrested. (end of part 2)