Chaos at Columbia University Epitomized 1968

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On April 23, 1968, students involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Afro Society took over buildings at Columbia University in New York City. Their cause? Civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam. Columbia's radio station, WKCR, reported live from each occupied building. NPR's Robert Siegel worked at WKCR at the time, and here he reflects on those live reports.

I remember them very well.

I was the anchor of the station's coverage.

I was a college senior. I had spent far too much of my time at the radio station. And when the demonstrations began, and students took up physical positions that reflected their politics — protesting inside a building, counterprotesting outside, trying to mediate, trying to study— I took up my position behind the microphone.

We covered what was suddenly a national news story, and we knew that story better than the seasoned professionals who descended upon us.

We tried to cover it as straight as we could, which meant some tense moments both with striking students and with the university administration. People praised us; people complained about us, but above all, people listened to us, and they relied on us.

For me, that was a first.

It was also my first experience with chaos. All rules were violated. And in such chaos, all sorts of fantastic ideas gained credence. No exaggeration was off limits.

When the Sorbonne in Paris erupted in protest at the same time — in what would eventually be a national strike — some Columbia students figured it must be a strike in sympathy with them.

One student I knew was exasperated. Why hadn't the blacks in Harlem started rioting in sympathy with Columbia students opposed to the gym in their park and a war that their sons would likely not be able to stay out of?

Some SDS members saw the sudden radicalization of kids who had been witnesses or victims of police brutality, and they put two and two together and got: Nineteen. America was on the verge of revolution, they reasoned, provoke more Columbias, more police crackdowns, and then more radicals would emerge. The Weather Underground came of that.

Of course, just a handful of people became urban terrorists.

And that's the enduring impression I have of those events: How few people it really takes — a few impetuous activists, one aloof and insensitive university president, cops who abandon discipline, the protestor who destroys a professor's papers — how very few people it takes to ignite a crisis, to create chaos and to write a piece of history.

For 1968, which was a time of war, assassinations, protests and riots, the chaos at Columbia epitomized the state of things. I remember that time, I was shaped by it.

But I certainly don't miss it.

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