Eric Lerner

Personal Remembrance

Note: Since, unlike many of you fellow strike veterans, I’ve never written about my experience of the ’68 strike, I’m doing it at length here, and so saying less about the rest of my bio. I’ve left out my personal life entirely, but will be happy to trade stories of that with you all in person. I also have left out the names of almost everyone, not to protect them, nor because I was in any underground activities–I wasn’t– but because I had just as terrible a memory for names and faces then as I do now.

On April 23, 1968, I was crossing the campus, when I ran into a large demonstration. I had been a very inactive member of SDS, so I had not heard of the demo planned for earlier in the day. By the time I joined the crowd milling near the Sundial, the protestors had already returned from Morningside Park and the confrontation with the police. Speakers from the black students groups were alternating with SDS speakers. I took a few shots with my Minox camera, but after listening for a while, it seemed clear to me that no one knew what to do next, so I went back to my apartment on 113th St. I thus missed the start of the Columbia Student Strike of 1968.

The next morning, it was raining and when I arrived on campus, I saw a major crowd in front of Hamilton Hall. The front doors were locked, black students were looking down from the balcony, the press was on hand, and so was an angry Dean Coleman, who had recently been released by the students. I rapidly found out that this was the continuation of the protest against the Gym, and against the Jason program. I could not find out much more and the building was clearly in the hands of black students, so I moved on to Low. That too was now barricaded and surrounded, so on Wednesday I was basically confined to the role of sympathetic spectator.

By the following morning, Thursday, Fayerweather had also been occupied. But there the situation was different and when I got to the barricade at the front door, someone directed me around to the ground-level window on the north side of the building. It was indeed open, and I climbed in to join the protest.

When I entered a group of perhaps 40 or 50 students were crowded into class room, mostly standing, listening to Mark Rudd hold forth on what I would hear a lot about in the coming days—the issue of amnesty. Rudd was explaining again to some of the doubters why one of the Six Demands that the student had unified around was for amnesty for the strikers themselves. This immediately struck me as a strange argument. Why in the world would we not be demanding amnesty for ourselves if we hoped that others would do the same things again? If we were all disciplined, no one would want to strike in the future, so of course we would demand amnesty. But some of the occupying students argued that we were engaging in civil disobedience and part of that was submitting to punishment. It was soon clear that these students were a small, but very vocal minority and when Rudd called for a vote affirming Fayerweather’s adherence to the Six Demands, it was an easy win.

After the meeting and Rudd’s departure for another building, I started to settle into the budding routine of the occupation, which, as I recall, consisted mainly of nearly continuous meetings, broken up by small group discussions. I knew almost no one in the building. Although the Fayerweather occupation was the only one that was open to all, it had been initiated by the graduate students and especially the architecture students. I was a senior in the College, a physics major, and I think, one of only two physics majors in the occupation. But since I had been involved in the political organizing since I had come to Columbia, I had no trouble diving into the debates.

Fayerweather, with its open-window policy, became the site of the largest occupation. But since it was far easier to come and go at Fayerweather than at the Hamilton, Low and Math and since the original occupiers were rapidly outnumbered by later comers, the building rapidly acquired a reputation as the “softest” politically with the most “moderates”. Since I saw no way we could win if we did not stick to the six demands – demand that struck me as both reaodmnable and attainable – I rapidly gravitated to the “hards”. I aligned with the strike leadership who argued for amnesty and against accepting any of the various “compromise proposals” from faculty groups. Yet at the same time I wanted the strike to stay very democratic, not top-down, so I also hung out with a pair of anarchists. I agreed with when one of them said “we don’t want a Russian Revolution on campus.” My views on the Russian Revolution would evolve a bit over time.

Since I was hard enough for the hards and yet clearly not aligned with any of the SDS factions like Progressive Labor or Praxis (I couldn’t be since I hadn’t attending a meeting in months) and since I could argue through the endless meetings, I was one of the delegates elected from Fayerweather to the Strike Steering Committee. I have to admit I have only a hazy memory of the meetings there, since they seemed basically repetitive. We knew that our only hope lay in prolonging the strike to win over more of the students. We also knew that the only thing keeping the cops off the campus was the support that Harlem residents were giving to the black students in Hamilton. It was clear that a violent bust of Hamilton risked a real, politically-motivated revolt in Harlem. For the powers that be that would be a nightmare be far worse than the riots that had followed King’s assassination a month earlier. So the main task of the Steering Committee was really to stall and try to maintain unity among the “hards” in Low and Math, the “softs” in Fayerweather and Avery and above all with the black students in Hamilton.

Eventually during the day, everyone ran out of steam—or at least most did—and at Fayerweather the occupation late at night turned mainly social. Since I did not see much possibility of getting any sleep in Fayerweather, the first two nights I snuck back to my apartment for a shower and a few hours’ sleep. I just was not as hard-core as many of the other occupiers, especially those who took pride in staying up for days at a time. After Friday, however, it seemed to every one that each night was going to be the bust, so I gave up on both going back to my apartment and on sleeping.

The high point of the occupation of Fayerweather for me was the wedding of Richard and Andrea “Fayerweather”, or Eagan, as they were later known. The image of the hundreds of candles we were all holding in darkened classroom and the simple procession of the two of them coming to Reverend Starr is one of the most vivid of the strike. I did not know them then, but I came to know Andrea, a truly wonderful person and a great organizer, very well when we worked together to found the National Writers Union, whose first president she became. And their marriage, begun so romantically, lasted until Andrea’s death 25 years later.

By the time the bust finally came late Monday night, after several false alarms, I was approaching zombification from lack of sleep but the adrenaline of the approaching bust easily overcame that. I had attached myself to the “communications squad” and was on the top floor of Fayerweather, talking with the other buildings over a walky-talky. As I heard the cops breaking into the other buildings, I could look down and see, in the police searchlights, the cops bashing their way through the cordon of faculty and supporters, cutting away the chains and barricades and barreling into the building. In a few minutes a pair of cops arrived on our floor.

Before the bust we had divided ourselves into three groups. One would not resist arrest, a second would resist passively—going limp– and a third would resist actively, but non- violently. This meant sitting with locked arms. I had joined the second group and got carried to the paddy wagon past a huge crowd of students on Amsterdam Ave. who were cheering us on. When the cops dropped me—on the grassy slope—loud chants of “Police Brutality” erupted, but I was doing fine. The unlucky ones were the active resisters, where the cops threw heavy chairs and clubbed heads.

We spent a night in jail congratulating ourselves and were all back on campus the next day, with the General Strike of all 30,000 students already underway. The General Strike was to me a far more radicalizing experience than the occupation, fun though the occupation was. In the strike, students who, two weeks earlier, had not had a thought of politics, who had been wholly concerned with studies, dates and future jobs, overnight became passionately, with their whole being, involved in debating and acting in a mass political movement. Thousands of students were transformed from focusing on their individual concerns to being part of a collective process. We were all struggling over how to change the university, how to radically change the society, far beyond even the goal of ending the war. And many of us were changed for the rest of our lives—by seeing what is possible when people act collectively for the common interests of all.

This was not the unity of soldiers in battle—for it was we who were giving the orders. For the first time in our lives we experienced real democracy. After a sharp debate, we set up a new strike steering committee on the basis that any self-designated group of 50, whether from a department, a political faction, the community, or a dorm, could elect a delegate to the steering committee, who would report back to the same group. Now the strike was not just the concern of some radicals, but of a majority of the entire student body. We had, without consciously applying any models, set up the same form of democratic organization that came into existence in so many other mass strikes—under the name of commune, Soviet, strike committee, or workers’ committee. We became part of a democratic collective—united in a community, but without surrendering our individuality—in fact expressing it to the highest degree. That was truly exhilarating.

What’s more, since we set up the whole “Liberated University”– with classes from Shakespeare to folk-dancing to Marxism– we were, briefly, running the university without need for the Administration and its heavy-handed bureaucracy, and doing it better than they could. I joined the Stake Education Committee that set up the rules and gave out the “strike authorizations” for the classes that were held on the lawns or in apartments, anywhere except in the classrooms. Since everything was run democratically and everyone was self-organizing, our committee did not have a lot to do after we wrote up the rules—which I was surprised to see got posted to the “official” strike history website years later. I do remember officially–or officiously—taking a tour of all the class rooms buildings, running up and down the stairs of the empty buildings, to assure the strike committee that they were indeed empty on a gloriously sunny day that had dozens of strike-committee-approved classes on the lawn. (See my photos for some –slightly faded—shots of the Liberated University.)

While we ran the university, a relatively small community, for only a few weeks, it did convince me that the thing could be done. We could indeed have a society without hierarchy where people “made the decisions that affected their lives.”

As graduation approached and the strike neared an end, Ted Gold asked me to help with his plan to broadcast music as we walked out of commencement. He thought that since I was in the physics department I would know something about radio. That was too practical for me at the time, so I was no help. I did end up next to Ted as we joyfully marched out; being one of the few people who could actually hear the tiny radios we had brought along.

I never could put together the Ted I knew in ’68 with the one who died building anti-personnel bombs a couple of years later.

I stayed on in New York for part of the summer. Before the strike, I had already been committed to helping bring about radical change in society. But now for the first time, I could see how it could happen–the “alteration of people on a mass scale”. Within weeks, we saw in the huge French General Strike, with 10 million workers occupying their workplaces, the same process unfold on a thousand-fold larger scale. During the summer, reading Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and later, Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike pamphlet, I saw how what was happening in ’68 had happened in similar ways many times before. We were part of century-long attempt to replace capitalism and build a new society.

But we all knew that that effort had run off the rails before, with revolutionary democratic ideals followed by terror and bureaucratic dictatorship. Like the vast majority of the young radicals that came out of the Columbia Strike and the many other student and worker mass actions that followed, I was committed to make the society truly democratic, to make a revolution, but to avoid the dead-end that the Soviet state had become. Not quite the way things have turned out so far!

The rest of my life—to date

Since I have been discursive about my experience in April-May ’68, for balance I’ll be briefer about everything else. How did I get to Fayerweather? I too was a red-diaper baby. My parents met coming home from a Communist Party youth camp, so no CP, no me. But they left the Party, just weeks after they met, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed. So by the time I was growing up, they were left-leaning liberals. They gave me a vague sympathy for socialist ideas, but more importantly a deep-seated opposition to bigotry of any kind. I started to form my own political views at a then-conservative prep school, Phillips Exeter, as I read about the growing civil rights struggle. By the time I got to CU in the fall of ’64 I was ready to join the most militant civil rights groups I could find. I joined Friends of SNCC—and I’ve written about my experience there and in the Selma March: http://www.crmvet.org/nars/lerner.htm.

By the ’67 riots of Detroit and Newark, the sight of troops and tanks on the streets of the US convinced me that only a revolution could bring change to the US. Yet I had no idea how that could happen and was still more of a left liberal than socialist before April of ’68.

After ’68, I participated in the struggles to redirect the anti-war moment into a broader movement for fundamental social change, to ally it with the increasingly radicalized young workers. On the downside, I saw, and took part in, the disastrous split convention that ended SDS in ’69, and the degeneration of the many small groups that emerged from the wreckage into tiny undemocratic cults—the opposite of what we had strived for. On the upside, I saw that our collective actions during the 60’s and 70’s helped to end a grisly war and segregation in the South, led to the rise of the women’s and gay-rights movements and the (temporary) revitalization of the labor movement. Unfortunately at the end of the ‘70’s the old society was still there—changed, but far from radically.

Like many who were radicalized in the ‘60’s, I’ve kept on organizing: strike support for the PATCO air-traffic controllers in ’81, helping to found the National Writers Union in ’83 and to build in the following years. I worked in the ill-fated effort to create a Labor Party in the late ‘90’s and later to build a group for a democratic workers movement, Workers Democracy Network. More recently, since 2001, I‘ve been organizing for immigrant rights and against detention and torture with the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee and the NJ May 1 Coalition. We have had a few small victories along the way. In 2006, working with immigrant detainees, we forced the closing of Passaic County’s immigrant detention center, liberating about 120 detainees. But like all of you, I’ve been forced to organize defensively and in reaction to the government’s attacks, not offensively to change the underlying structure. The problem of how to change society, and how to do it democratically, has not gone away.

Professionally, I initially, after a brief stint in grad school, went into science journalism. But ten years later went back to physics, starting research in astrophysics and controlled fusion energy, while continuing to write about science for magazines. I ended up as much of a heretic in my physics work as in my politics. In cosmology, I became part of a small group of scientists that believe that the “concordance cosmology” of the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy, is more fairytale than science and that the universe has always existed. In 1991, I wrote a popularized account of the debate, titled The Big Bang Never Happened. While heavily outnumbered (and out-funded) we are currently gaining some traction.

In fusion, I have worked with a few others to develop an approach that we call “focus fusion”, which promises clean, safe, unlimited energy that is ten times cheaper than any available today, and promises it relatively quickly, given funding. We are trying to put the oil and gas companies out of business—a modest goal! While we received some funding from NASA in the 90’s, in 2001 we got cut off, along with all the other NASA fusion work, and are now relying on money from small investors. We hope to get the technical part done, but to implement a new form of energy will take mass political support.

So now here we are, forty years after ’68 and society is in even greater need of radical transformation than it was then. When most key decisions are made by a few thousand exceedingly rich individuals, what’s left of democracy is threatened with extinction. While the media still tout the great benefits of globalization, world per-capita grain production has been declining for 25 years and is now 12% below its peak. While the billionaires multiply, the average human being is poorer and hungrier than a generation ago. Americans are working a month more each year for the same real income.

The future is running a bit late—or running in the wrong direction. Yet I believe radical change is still possible. ’68 gave many of us that unshakeable idea and there may be grounds for it. The Web has made communication among all of us, outside the mass media, far easier. The current economic crisis may well present tens of millions of people with the choice, as in the Depression, of collective action or ruin.

I still think that Luxemburg’s century-old vision of a democratic socialism is a valid one. History has not ended. The fight continues, and we remain a part of it.

Since we do have the Web, if people are interested in finding out more about anything I wrote here: http://focusfusion.org/log/index.php; http://www.bigbangneverhappened.org/; http://www.nj-civilrights.org/; http://njmay1.org/; http://workersdemocracy.org.

- by Eric Lerner
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