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Columbia unrest echoes chaotic campus protest movement of 1968 

Early on April 30, 1968, police arrested nearly 700 student protesters who had occupied buildings at Columbia, including Hamilton Hall. Fifty-six years later to the day, pro-Palestinian activists took over the same building.
Student demonstrators and police officers at Columbia University
Student demonstrators from Columbia University form a human chain in front of Broadway and West 116th Street after five campus buildings were cleared of protesters on April 30, 1968. Mel Finkelstein / NY Daily News via Getty Images

The tumult at Columbia University has seized national attention, providing for many young Americans an emotionally fraught introduction to heated student activism. But the unrest engulfing the Ivy League campus in upper Manhattan is also intensely familiar, recalling one of the most dramatic chapters of the student protest movement of the late 1960s.

Fifty-six years ago, Columbia students furious over the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the school’s plans to build a segregated gym in nearby Morningside Park decided to take over Hamilton Hall, an academic building on the main campus. Overnight on Tuesday, pro-Palestinian demonstrators stormed and occupied the same building, with some drawing direct parallels between their activism and the legacy of 1968.

African American students look down on the balcony of Hamilton Hall
Black students on the balcony of Hamilton Hall at Columbia during demonstrations on April 24, 1968. Gene Kappock / NY Daily News via Getty Images

“When I heard about the Hamilton Hall takeover in response to the student suspensions, I thought: Oh wow, this seems very much like what was happening back then. It’s very much like what I saw,” said Mark Naison, a Fordham University professor of history who participated in the 1968 demonstrations at Columbia. He was referring to the suspension of students at Columbia who defied Monday’s deadline to vacate a pro-Palestinian encampment set up to protest Israel’s war in Gaza.

The sociopolitical conflicts at the root of the two protest eras are not precisely the same, however — and in today’s campus environment, students are also sounding the alarm about a sharp uptick in both antisemitism and Islamophobia since Oct 7. But some of the students involved in the activism at Columbia have nonetheless sought to present their political agitation as a direct continuation of late ’60s change-making.

SDS Occupation Of Columbia University
Students occupy Hamilton Hall on April 23, 1968, during another takeover of Columbia University organized by Students for a Democratic Society. A photo of Mao Zedong hangs above a doorway in the background.Bev Grant / Getty Images

“Let’s finish what they did in 1968,” one Columbia protester could be heard saying early Tuesday. “This building is now being liberated,” another protester said, echoing how 1968 activists described their takeover of Hamilton Hall and other campus buildings, which also stemmed from student anger over the university’s ties to a think tank involved in Pentagon weapons research.

The pro-Palestinian activists at Columbia have demanded that the university administration divest from corporations that could be profiting from the war in Gaza and agree to be more transparent about where it invests funds. Israel declared war on Hamas militants in Gaza after the Oct. 7 terror attack, which killed more than 1,200 people. Israel’s military operations in Gaza have killed more than 33,000 people, according to local health authorities.

The New York Police department, at the request of Columbia, sent hundreds of officers onto the campus Tuesday night to clear Hamilton Hall and a tent encampment. Nearly 100 people were arrested in the operation.

The university has asked the NYPD to maintain a presence on campus through at least May 17, two days after its scheduled graduation ceremonies.

The specter of a law enforcement crackdown on the pro-Palestinian protests also recalls the drama of 1968. 

Two weeks ago, NYPD officers arrested some 108 people at Columbia, including the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Columbia’s president, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, defended the decision to call police, explaining that protesters had ignored written and verbal warnings to disperse and stop trespassing.

Fifty-six years ago on Tuesday, 1,000 police officers cleared five buildings at Columbia that had been occupied for a week. In the melee, according to a contemporaneous news report published by the Columbia Spectator student newspaper, nearly 700 people were arrested and 100 injured, some seriously. At least four faculty members “received severe head wounds,” according to the report, which characterized the police action as a “brutal bloody show of strength.”

Police breaking through student demonstration at Low Library
Police at Columbia University's Low Library in April 1968.Charles Ruppmann / NY Daily News via Getty Images

“The thing people forget about the 1968 building occupations and strikes is that they weren’t all that peaceful,” Naison said. “The buildings were barricaded, deans were held captive inside Hamilton Hall.” (Columbia students prevented the acting dean, Henry S. Coleman, from leaving his office for a night. He died in 2006.)

“There were faculty outside the buildings trying to protect the students from the violence,” said Juan Gonzalez, a former columnist for the New York Daily News who was one of the Columbia protesters involved in the 1968 demonstrations. “We fought pitched battles with the cops. It was much more violent than what we’ve seen so far at the demonstrations now.”

S. Daniel Carter, an expert in campus security and the president of the company Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, said he hopes that any law enforcement officers who might be called to Columbia’s campus in the hours and days to come will be much more “judicious” and mindful of how the situation could spin out of control.

In a statement, one of the groups involved in the Hamilton Hall occupation invoked the killings of students at Kent State University and Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in 1970 against a backdrop of anti-war rallies and civil rights protests. The group, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, warned Columbia’s administrators and trustees not to “incite another Kent or Jackson State by bringing soldiers and police officers with weapons onto our campus.”

There were no injuries during Tuesday night's police raid of the campus, an NYPD spokesperson said.

Image: Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
Demonstrators supporting Palestinians in Gaza barricade themselves Tuesday inside Hamilton Hall, where the dean's office is. Alex Kent / Getty Images
Image: Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
Demonstrators in Columbia's Hamilton Hall on Tuesday.Alex Kent / Getty Images

In the eyes of some activists, the tumult at Columbia this week hearkens to more recent protest movements. In a statement outlining the Columbia protest movement’s demands, demonstrators said the Hamilton Hall takeover represented “the next generation of the 1968, 1985 and 1992 student movements.” 

Columbia student demonstrators occupied the building in 1985 to demand that the school divest from companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa. Seven years later, students seized the building to rally against the school’s plans to convert the ballroom where Malcolm X had been assassinated into a biomedical research center.

Today, Columbia publicly touts its legacy of student activism. (The “1968 Crisis” tops a list of “Columbia History & Traditions” on the university library’s website.) The violence that unfolded 56 years ago left lasting scars. The war in Vietnam dragged on for another seven years, culminating in the fall of Saigon in 1975. But the university did halt construction of the gym in Morningside Park and sever ties with the Pentagon-linked think tank.