The Palestine Solidarity Movement is Making History: Thoughts from a 1968 Columbia University “Outside” Organizer

Today, on college campuses in the U.S., and around the world, there is a powerful student/faculty/staff/community movement supporting the self-determination of the people of Palestine. It is winning the battle of ideas by challenging the murderous state of Israel, long a proxy for U.S. and British imperialism as these anti-Semitic countries claim to “love the Jews—or in fact, those Jews who support settler colonialism and carry out their objectives.

The protests against the daily mass murder of Palestinian civilians, and freedom fighters, is challenging the entire ideological and institutional structure of U.S. imperialism. Like Israel, the system’s idealization of the “university” as a neutral site of intellectual discourse covers up the university as a defense contractor, police trainer, CIA and Defense Department strategist, agribusiness, and toxic polluter think tank, while it tries to recruit its students as the next generation of mass murderers—U.S. imperialism’s willing executioners.

The heroic movements at Columbia, UCLA., USC, Columbia University, Emerson College, Harvard University, NYU, Brown, Spelman, Howard, Ohio State, Cornell, Emory, University of Georgia, University of South Carolina, McGill University, Johns Hopkins, University of New Mexico—and every college campus in the U.S.— are in the traditions of the Harlem, Black Community, Black Liberation and Anti-Vietnam war campus revolution that we built in the 1960s and 1970s. And like the Black students at Jackson State and white students at Kent State—where students were murdered by police and national guardsman in 1970, and hundreds of thousands of student fighters were beaten by police, vilified by the system, suspended, and expelled, we understood that no victory is possible against this brutal imperialist system without “putting your body on the line.”

I hope that some of today’s dedicated fighters for the right of Palestine’s self-determination and protection of the Palestinians in Gaza against Israeli and U.S. imperialism, can find encouragement from your many allies. I hope my detailed sum-up of our successful campaign against Columbia University in 1968 can be of use.

The Historic 1968 Struggle Against Columbia University

How a Black United Front in Harlem, the Students’ Afro-American Society, and Students for a Democratic Society took on the Columbia University Ruling Class, Mayor John Lindsay, the New York Times, the NYPD—and won!

In 1968, three forces joined hands in a pitched battle with the Columbia University ruling class—the Black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican residents of Harlem, the Black students led by the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS) and the white, radical Students for a Democratic Society. I was asked by S.D.S. to come down from Boston to join the team of “outside organizers.” The Movement made three structural demands—that Columbia, on stolen land from Black Harlem that the white settler state stole from the Indigenous people, stop the construction of a racist, gentrifying gym, GYM Crow, and expel the Institute for Defense Analyses, a university-sponsored “think tank” for genocide against the people of Vietnam. We also demanded amnesty for all demonstrators—a critical demand today as the system says, “you should suffer the consequences” of protesting against our genocide in order to intimidate and suppress the movement.

As our movement grew, the repression from the system was brutal and systematic and radicalized and revolutionized its participants including me. Every liberal institution turned against us with a vengeance. The N.Y. Times, about which I still had some romantic illusions turned into a mouthpiece for Columbia University and a hit piece against our movement. Mayor John Lindsay, who had done some good work in Harlem, turned against us to prove his reactionary credentials. The NYPD, serving Columbia and the U.S. ruling class, raided the campus and beat up and arrested hundreds of students. In one of my most naïve and incorrect assessments, I argued in front of our leadership group of more than 100 people, “OK. The brutal March 27 police raid against our movement was predictable. But it also dramatically expanded our ranks. But we can’t expect them to make the same mistake again.  Then on May 7, “The Second Bust” the police, armed to the teeth, came back with a vengeance and inflicted far more brutality than the first one.  I had already been a field secretary with CORE, a community organizer with the Newark Community Union Project, and an anti-imperialist regional organizer with SDS in Boston/New England. Yet, I had to confront my own illusions about the system as they were smashed before our eyes. The systematic attack on our movement led us to hate the system even more. It radicalized and revolutionized a generation as most continued the struggle for years and decades, and for many of us, a lifetime.

The collective Voice of the System told us, “You are violent, destroying property, dupes of the Viet Cong, enemies of the state, arrogant privileged students who have nothing better to do with your lives, enemies of the Democratic Party that is your friend, ungrateful, Black students. You should know your place, ,you are terrorists, communists, hateful anti-Americans, you hate the G.I.’s, you violate the civil rights of the establishment and the sanctity of the university—the shit did not stop. And yet, we found it more revelatory than upsetting. The System showed itself as so ugly, unattractive, fascist, duplicitous, racist, obnoxious, and pathetic, that it heightened our confidence and resolve. H. Rap Brown and James Baldwin came to support us. “Outside” Harlem helped to lead the struggle. And just as they called in the NYPD, SAS and SDS called in reinforcements from all over the country. I was one of them. I came the day after the first bust and spent 2 months there working with the campaign.

To the courageous students, faculty, and community members, especially the Palestinian groups that are leading the struggle, you are making and moving history. The system is moving against you because you are moving against it. So, what began as a human rights struggle to stop U.S. and Israeli Genocide Against the people of Gaza and Palestine, to call for a cease-fire and an end to all U.S. aid to Israel, to stop the mass murder of more than 30,000 Palestinian human beings in Gaza, out of self-defense, becomes a struggle against the Democratic Party, Republican Party,  NY Times, corporate media, the white settler NYPD police state, Mayor Eric Adams, and Columbia and all universities that are little more than think tanks for genocide. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for moving the revolution forward—the whole world is watching and the Third World and people of conscience all over the world are on your side. Free, Free, Palestine.

As I send in this article, I am going to our Strategy and Soul Movement Center in South Central L.A. to pick up copies of my Columbia article, food, and books and then to join the courageous students leading the U.S.C. Divest from Death Encampment.

Eric Mann is the co-director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers New Directions Movement. He is the host of KPFK/Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines. His forthcoming book is I Saw a Revolution with my Own Eyes: History, Strategy, and Organizing for The Revolution We Need today. He welcomes comments at Eric@Voicesfromthefrontlines.com