The morning of April 23, 1968, my boyfriend and I accidentally slept in. I awoke upset that we were missing a demonstration at the Sundial to stop the Morningside Park Gym. Rushing up Amsterdam Avenue we ran into a throng of students coming from the contested gym site. The fence around the construction site had been torn down, there were arrests and now everybody was heading back to campus to decide what next.
Which was to take over Hamilton Hall. My boyfriend hung back while I entered the hall along with several of my Barnard friends. I broke up with my boyfriend and stepped into what was to become the rest of my life.
I was a Barnard freshman and this was my first sit-in. I spent all night at Hamilton Hall, crammed with students sitting on the hard steps in the front lobby. Dean Coleman was being held hostage in his basement office. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I wasn’t sure if I was willing to get arrested. And then all of a sudden just before dawn, a decision was being made for me. The Black students wanted all the white students to leave. This was their occupation. We could take over our own building if we so chose.
I wandered out into the early morning thinking, now I can finally get some sleep. But people were talking about which building we should take over now. I followed a crowd heading toward Low Library, stood right behind JJ as he smashed the window of a basement door, reached through the shattered glass and let us into the nerve center of the University.
We milled around the President’s outer office. Some folks ransacked files in President Grayson Kirk’s private office. One student sat at his desk, feet propped up, smoking Kirk’s private stash of Cuban cigars. Rumors circulated that the police had been called, a bust was imminent. I was scared out of my mind. My throat was cracked and dry. Someone handed me a can of Coke. I took a swig. It tasted like poison. I realized that the Coke can was being used as an ashtray.
Most of us convinced ourselves to leave and there was a mass exodus out the windows of Low Library. A small cadre remained. I admired them but I wasn’t ready to join them yet.
Later that morning after attending a huge campus-wide meeting outside in the drizzling rain, I decided to return to Low Library. I climbed back up to the window through which I had escaped a few hours earlier, and entered into the most intensive political and personal reality I could never have imagined. 100 people living and breathing a political and cultural epiphany together. We shared everything—food, drink, cigarettes, sleeping space, our lives. We continually looked out for each other as we got to know each other in ways that just don’t happen in classrooms or dormitories. I don’t recall having a negative thought about anybody inside the building. Those thoughts were reserved for the jocks – the Majority Coalition – the blue-arm-banded bullies who cordoned off the building, trying to prevent any protestors, food or supplies from getting into the building. Then there was the faculty with their white arm-bands who stood between the jocks and the building, ostensibly to keep the peace, but really to prevent any more students from joining us. And of course the University administration – the worst enemy of all.
When we weren’t gathered in marathon meetings we sunned ourselves on the window ledges and listened to the sound track of our revolution being played on KCRW and WBAI. It wasn’t just the Rolling Stones that provided the score for the Columbia Revolt. Joni Mitchell’s first album had just come out and as had a new record by the Incredible String Band and I remember hearing songs from those two gentle albums over and over on the radio. We fantasized about what would be the first thing we ate when we got out of the building. Pizza, Chinese, a big piece of chocolate cake from the West End Bar. We knew of course this all would end. Part of me pretended we would have an easy victory. Our demands would be met and we’d leave the buildings victorious. I also knew that we could be busted.
Early in the morning of April 30, we held tightly to each other, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” We could hear the NYC police chopping through the heap of desks and other office furniture we had piled up to barricade us from the cops. Inevitably we were stung by the jolt of blue uniforms and riot helmets bursting into our revolutionary sanctuary. We kept singing as they picked us off one by one. An older student reminded me to keep my head covered with an old quilt while we were being arrested. I watched billy clubs itching to swing at us and I tightened the quilt over my head. My feet barely touched the ground as one cop tossed me to the next cop and the next until we were out in the rotunda of Low Library. I could let my guard down and uncover my head. “Keep moving!” a cop snarled at me and struck the back of my naked head.
At the precinct I ran into my best friend, who was arrested in the Math commune. “Isn’t this wonderful!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never felt so alive in my life.” I wasn’t so sure I agreed with her and showed her the blood on the old quilt, which I was now using as a bandage. I think I brought her down a notch.
We were in jail in the Tombs for hours. One of my new friends tried to get medical attention for me but the guard threatened that if I were sent up to the Tombs infirmary I would be separated from everyone else and arraigned on my own, charged with more serious offenses. Not an appealing option. My older brother and his fiancée were there in court to take me back uptown after the arraignment and we headed straight to St. Luke’s where my head wound took 8 stitches.
The bust changed everything on campus and it seemed across the world. Support for the arrestees was so widespread that the entire university went on strike for the rest of the year. Black arm-bands and buttons saying “Free the Columbia 720” sprouted up all over campus. I saw one student sporting a variation on that button that perhaps best expressed the heart of our struggle. He added 1 and 0 to either end of 720– “Free the Columbia 17,200.”
That moment of epiphany was never again matched during my time at Columbia. We devolved into sectarian battles, reflecting the disarray across the student left, and imploded a year later with Weatherman flinging us in one direction and Progressive Labor in another. Nearly two years after the strike some Weatherman blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse, the day before there was a total eclipse of the sun to mark my 21st birthday. Watching the eclipse on Cape Cod with an eclectic groups of artists, students, activists and a former Columbia instructor, tripping on mescaline and sharing a warm fire and big pot of rice and vegetables, I began to see a different direction my life might take. Like many Columbia ‘68 alumni(ae), I needed to transplant myself to the West Coast. Find a place connected to nature, where rents were cheap and houses large with yards where we could live collectively and grow vegetable gardens. And also grow free clinics, food co-ops, women’s bookstores and a community radio station to spread the word – and share some great music. In Portland, Oregon I found a place where you didn’t just theorize about alternative societies, you actually created one. And thirty-six and a half years after moving here, I think that perhaps I am living out many of the dreams that got sparked during those six days in Low Library.
So for the past 36 years I’ve been a hippie, lesbian feminist, community activist, musician, public radio documentary producer, gardener, hiker, traveler and talk show host.- by Barbara Bernstein