1968. It was a year of turmoil and trepidation. Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam War had come home with impending drafts. Thus it wasn’t a surprise that the college campuses all over the United States erupted into chaos and disorder–and nowhere was did disorder more apparent than on the grounds of Columbia University in New York.
The university was then a prestigious academic enclave surrounded by poverty and decay of the Harlem ghetto. The anxieties there were exacerbated by the university’s ban on indoor demonstrations, its work with a Pentagon think tank and the ‘Gym Crow’ scandal: the newly proposed gym had a grand entrance facing the university while a small separate door for part of the gym built ‘exclusively’ for the neighborhood kids.
On April 23rd, students stormed the acting dean’s office and took him and two others as hostages for 26 hours. Another group of students broke into the empty office of the university president Grayson Kirk, destroyed it and pasted a sing on the window: “Liberated Area. Be Free to Join Us.” The above photo of student David Shapiro relaxing and smoking Kirk’s cigar sitting in Kirk’s chair became one of the iconic images of student unrests in the 1960s. It was taken by Blake Fleetwood who described his experience here.
Over the next 48 hours, students seized three more campus buildings. It forced 17,000-student university to suspend all the classes. Counterdemonstrations were flared up. The university called in the New York Police, and just before dawn on April 30th, 1,000 officers armed with warrants signed by the university trustees entered the campus. More than 130 people–including 12 police officers–were injured; nearly 700 people were arrested. This ended the impasse but further demonstrations, police brutality and arrests plagued Columbia until that summer. As Margaret Mead, the famed anthropologist and longtime Columbia professor, noted, the demonstrations marked the end of an epoch in the way universities are governed.
David Shapiro went on to teach at Columbia.