At Columbia Protest, Echoes (Faint) of 1968

Students and other demonstrators who gathered in the main Quad of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus yesterday were aware of the significance of the date they chose for their class walkout, a day after the 40th anniversary of the first in a wave of protests that rocked the campus in 1968.

Around noon, a couple of hundred students, professors and assorted other protesters gathered to hear anti-war speeches from several professors and a young Iraq war veteran. All around them, hundreds more students were sunbathing and playing frisbee on this warm April afternoon.

“I’ve been disappointed over the past few days to see the disproportion between the number of people who have been playing on the lawns or buying at the fair compared to the number of people at the this table,” said history professor Rashid Khalidi, who directs Columbia’s Middle East Institute, referring to an ongoing crafts fair on campus.

In the 1960’s, students occupied the administration building and forced administrators to cancel classes for the remainder of the term.

But, Mr. Khalidi said, times have changed in politics and in the media since that day 40 years ago.

“I don’t think we should beat up on ourselves about the fact that there is apathy,” he said. “40 years ago, you couldn’t avoid pictures of the Vietnam War. You can find pictures of the Iraq War. I don’t know how you deal with the brilliant shell game the Bush Administration has concocted.”

He went on to say the costs of the war were not being driven home to students or to the country at large.

But to judge from the pitch even of the students who were participating, this was not much like 1968.

During a part of the demonstration, the demonstrators shrouded the Alma Mater, a statue central to the campus in the figure of a woman, in a black hood, and dangled wires from her fingers, to evoke the image of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

But organizers characterized the symbol as an “art installation.” And they were careful to wrap the wires in rubber tubing, so the statue’s fingertips would not be scratched, according to 25-year-old anthropology graduate student Callie Maidhof, who was acting as the event’s spokesperson.

Later in the program, 50 or so students and other demonstrators linked arms around the statue for 50 minutes,10 minutes for each year of the war, organizers said.

Steve Rittenberg, the university’s rules administrator,would not say whether they would be disciplined.

“I think what we’re going to do is not something that we want to discuss with the press,” he said.

While the demonstrators encircled the statue, Mr. Rittenberg and several other administrators stood nearby, chatting.

It was hard to gauge the success of the walkout. Anthropology department chair Brinkley Messick, who was watching the demonstration, had a class to head to, but said “I don’t expect any students in my class when I get there.” He was back at the protest a few minutes later.

Freshman Kelly Hostetler, 19, a member of the College Democrats who was sunbathing on the steps of the administration building, didn’t have a class to walk out of, but said doing so shouldn’t be construed as a noble sacrifice.

“I am motivated to walk out of class for far less,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie.”

She appreciated the effort to honor the war dead, she said – except for the Burmese chime demonstrators had been using all week after the reading of each name – including during her freshman writing seminar.

“That kinda killed my focus. Kinda gone for the entire two classes,” she complained.

As for the sparse participation, she suspected the nice weather wasn’t helping. “I mean, people would probably participate a lot more if there weren’t so many distractions,” she said.

Hilton Obenzinger, who teaches writing at Stanford and who was part of the strike coordinating committee that organized the 1968 protests, was more optimistic.

“The old people say the young people aren’t good enough, and I don’t buy it,” he said. “They’re even better, and they’re just struggling to deal with different conditions, and I think they will do it.”

At Columbia Protest, Echoes (Faint) of 1968