The Columbia protests are nothing like 1968

Today's anti-Israel activists are a sad parody of the 1960s anti-war, anti-racist radicals.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics USA

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The anti-Israel protests at Columbia University in New York, and at other campuses in the US, are being repeatedly compared with the student protests that gripped America in the late 1960s. Such a comparison flatters today’s ‘Gaza solidarity’ movement, to put it mildly.

There may be superficial similarities between the protests now and then, from the campus sit-ins to the prominence of Columbia in both waves of protests. But beneath the surface, these movements have very little in common. Whereas today’s protesters seem spoilt, entitled and ignorant, their counterparts in 1968 took themselves and their causes very seriously, from their opposition to the Vietnam War to their anti-racism.

Context matters here. From the Communist-led Tet Offensive in early 1968 onwards, anti-Vietnam War sentiment had been growing among the public. It looked increasingly like a war that the US couldn’t win. At the same time, discontent was simmering in black ghettos across the US. Between 1965 and 1967, during three consecutive ‘long, hot summers’, there was rioting in over a hundred cities. Black Americans took to the streets again in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968.

With all eyes focussed on America’s restive minorities, the eruption of a student protest in New York took many by surprise. After initial demonstrations in March and early April, the first serious campus disorders took place at Columbia in late April. United in opposition to the Vietnam War, racism and Columbia’s plans to build a gymnasium in nearby Morningside Park that would not allow Harlem’s (mostly black) residents to use it, hundreds of students occupied Hamilton Hall, a university building named after founding-father Alexander Hamilton. The students, mostly supporters of Students for a Democratic Society, soon set about occupying several other buildings on campus.

After a week, exasperated university administrators called in the police to remove the protesters. Over a thousand police officers proceeded to clear five buildings at Columbia and arrest over 700 students. In the melee, nearly 100 people were injured, some seriously. At least four faculty members ‘received severe head wounds’, according to student newspaper the Columbia Spectator. It described the police action as a ‘brutal bloody show of strength’.

In the months that followed, there were student sit-ins and police interventions at various other campuses in the US. This led to tragedy at Kent State University in May 1970, when the Ohio National Guard shot dead four unarmed students and wounded nine others.

Those camped out today at Columbia and beyond clearly want to cosplay as their lionised 1968 predecessors. But in terms of the nature of the protests, the types of people involved and the police response, they could not be more different.

Relative to the majority of Americans, including those actually drafted to serve in Vietnam, students in 1968 were certainly privileged. But where the $2,500 per annum fee it cost to attend Columbia in 1970 was beyond the reach of many, it was still less than a third of the average wage of $8,370 per year in 1970. Today, the cost of attending Columbia is nearly $90,000 per year, which is much more than the national average salary of $59,400. Attending Columbia today signifies privilege in a way that attendance in 1968 did not. It is an institution reserved for America’s upper class.

The police response is also markedly different today. Despite the many arrests over the past week, it is difficult to find any reports of cops causing serious injuries. Contrast this with what happened in Columbia in 1968, when over a hundred were injured and blood reportedly streamed down sidewalks. The shocking level of police violence on display at Columbia was one of the reasons why the student protests subsequently spread throughout America, in solidarity and defiance.

However, what really sets today’s protests apart from their historical counterparts is their crassness and emptiness. They offer a sad parody of the student radicalism of the late 1960s. Back then, students railed against the paternalism and authoritarianism of the university as an institution. They wanted greater autonomy. Today’s student protesters want nothing of the sort. They are so infantilised that they actively want the university to play the role of a parent.

Think of the now infamous clip of Columbia protester Johannah King-Slutzky demanding that the university feed students as they illegally occupy Hamilton Hall. There are countless other examples of protesters calling for universities to protect them. One group of anti-Israel students at Columbia even filed a complaint with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, accusing the university of failing to protect students ‘who have been the target of extreme anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic harassment’. This harassment apparently includes being called ‘terrorists’ while wearing keffiyehs. Those students in 1968 would probably have got over being called names quite quickly. They certainly wouldn’t have demanded ‘humanitarian aid’ for themselves.

Then there’s the intolerance of today’s Columbia protesters, which often slides into outright racism. One of the current leaders of protests in Columbia, Khymani James, has even been barred from campus after a video surfaced of him stating that ‘Zionists don’t deserve to live’ and that ‘I fight to kill’.

James’s bigoted views are far from unusual. Videos from Columbia show protesters shouting ‘Go back to Poland’ about Jewish students, and others calling for ‘10,000 7 Octobers’. Even those students who, in 1968, cried ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’, a reference to the North Vietnamese Communist leader, did not call for the deaths of their opponents.

Successive generations of student activists have sought to emulate the protest movement of the late 1960s. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in the future wanting to emulate today’s cohort of spoilt, foot-stamping brats.

Kevin Yuill is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sunderland and CEO of Humanists Against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (HAASE).

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA


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