The Columbian revolt of 1968 was a demonstration of the rise in political activism on college campuses. It marks a stark transition in education; a change from a passive to an active learning experience. The protest is a reflection of the 60’s culture and ideologies. The film, Columbia Revolt, attempts to capture the struggle and turmoil of the students, the cops and those involved or affected by the protest.
The film begins with the dialogue- “modern university is the cradle of the nation’s future”. It highlights the importance of university education at that time, which holds true even today. The Columbian revolt of 1968 was not an isolated incident. The recent political engagement of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and acts of freedom of speech from Kanhaiya Kumar display the rise in political activism. This is especially true given the results of the last Presidential elections of the United States which create immense uncertainty regarding education policies in the United States. The film gives a very unique element to the protest: there is personalisation that makes the audience sympathise for the students; Simultaneously, there is generalisation of the whole movement in order to illustrate that this could be the case for anyone.
The students were protesting Columbia’s ties to military research and plans to build a university gymnasium in a public park in Harlem. The events tumbled one after another in quick succession. Multiple building were taken over by the students while they were struggling to figure out the situation, “we(they) didn’t know what we(they) were doing, or what our(their) best strategy would be”. White students and African-Americans, who were most directly affected by the predicament, were split on many decisions and tension escalated to a point where the African-American students asked the rest to leave. One would notice that there were votes conducted on what action should be taken. It was democracy at its finest. There was intensive planning which, along with the voting, was a constant reminder of what democratic collaboration could lead to. Resources were limited; everything had to be shared. Food was shared, some individuals ate half a sandwich so that others could eat as well, signifying the camaraderie and the sacrifice students made for the greater good!
The revolt’s initial days acted as a catalyst that exponentially rocketed political involvement of the students. There was increasing awareness of the difficulties of the commune. The students knew they had not done something legal and were ready to accept charges; however, they were adamant that what they stood for was nothing short of social justice. They were aware of the repercussions of their actions, but they did not compromise on their demands. They fought till they got what they wanted. It is imperative to understand that it was a revolt that was not built on violence. It did have violent elements when the police tried to take control of the situation, but the protest was on the grounds of equality and peace. There was brutality: students had broken ribs, scars and wounds, doctors were not allowed inside or to help the injured, and there was destruction of the property- the mathematics building was decimated with furniture that seemed to just fall out of a hurricane. Neither did this stop the protest, nor did it make the students retaliate with violence. The students continued their revolt through other acts, like boycotting the graduation ceremony- with the Trustees, and having their own student commencement ceremony instead, with a few teachers and no other administrative faculty or trustee.
The cinema style used is Cinéma vérité which creates a sympathetic atmosphere for the students. The filmmakers participate in front of the camera. Each building had filmmakers and a camera, and while media was recording from the outside, the students used the camera as a weapon as well as a tool to record and document the entire incident. It features a number of off-camera interviews with unnamed students who were involved in the seizure of university buildings. The cinematography is beautiful and on point because the camera showcases the situation while a student shares his or her experience of the same.
Today, students of the revolt are leaders in their respective fields. Gustin Reichbach is now a New York State Supreme Court Justice. William Sales is now a professor at Seton Hall University. Tom Hayden is a former California state senator. Juan Gonzalez, is the co-host of Democracy Now!. In a recent interview, 40 years after the incident, they reflected back on the revolt. They discussed about political activism at Columbia during the 60’s. They explored the implications of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.- three week prior to the revolt- and the Tet offensive in the Vietnam war, among many other factors. A crucial idea that is spoken about is the role each individual in decision-making at the university and the contribution of a single entity in a community. The revolt led to a remarkable pamphlet which describes modern private universities acting as private corporations while portraying themselves as social workers who are in the public’s interest. The pamphlet begins with a quote of Charles Beard, upon his resignation from Columbia University, October 9, 1917. “I have been driven to the conclusion that the University is really under the control of a small and active group of Trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. Their conduct betrays a profound misconception of the true function of a university in the advancement of learning.” The discussion moves onto how the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) – the student organisation that led the revolt of ’68 – and war efforts shaped future politics for the country; however factors like, the white backlash to the black liberation struggle cannot be ignored in the election of Richard Nixon.
The Columbia revolt of 1968 is message for all students to not be mishandled by the trustees and administration. It is a call for political engagement and an active effort in decision making that directly affects us as individuals. But, above all, the revolt is a stark reminder to be courageous and fight for what we believe in, and persevere against all odds.
About the Author
Jainam Jain is currently pursuing his A Level course at Tridha International. He finds Mathematics, Statistics, Physics and Economics really interesting and fun. He likes to spend his time cycling and running or watching films and plays.