Up Against The Wall

By Bhagirath Iyer

As millions of young people gather in Washington D.C. and other cities of the U.S., as well as across the world, for what has been gravely named the March for Our Lives, it is worthwhile to recall a similar moment not so far back in history.

***

The current protests by teenagers and young people across America for gun control has many parallels with the counterculture movement of the 60’s.

Led by the youth, the counterculture movement initially emerged as protests against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, but soon rose into an anti-establishment wave that spread across the country.

***

The movement had its run-in with guns and violence in 1966 when a youth-led protest against a 10pm curfew on Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California was brutally suppressed by the police. Buffalo Springfield’s super-hit song “For What It’s Worth”, with lyrics by band member Stephen Stills, was inspired by the Sunset Strip curfew “riots”.

***

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
- Stephen Stills

***

As much as the movement was against war, guns and violence, it was also a fight for free speech, free expression of identities and sexual freedom. The colorful clothes and free hairstyles that were popular in the 60’s became a symbol of the inter-generational conflict between old, conservative Americans and the new-age youth. Cut to 2018, and we see that Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez is called a “skinhead lesbian”, in a sign that the same inter-generational fault lines may be opening up once again. That is, if they were ever filled shut in the first place.

***

As the U.S. began to recognize the right of equal pay for women in 1963 and civil rights of African-Americans in 1964, equality across race and gender also became a cherished dream of the counterculture movement. Bob Dylan wrote his classic “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, wanting to come up with an anthem that reflected the social churning of the 60’s civil rights and anti-war movements.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
– Bob Dylan

The fact that just this month, a black man was shot to death by the police in his own backyard and that Parkland teenager David Hogg recently acknowledged that black Americans are disproportionately affected by gun violence means that the battles outside have still not stopped ragin’.

The counterculture movement soon spread to American campuses and Columbia University was in the spotlight, when students launched a strike in the Spring of 1968. Long before Occupy Wall Street, a group of protesting students occupied Low Library, Hamilton Hall, Avery, Fayerweather and the Mathematics buildings by force and did not let go for a week. The protests ended only after University officials called the police, and the NYPD forcefully removed protesting students from the buildings they occupied.

***

The students were protesting against the University’s decision to align with the pro-war Institute for Defense Analyses, but the protests were also against the general high-handedness of the University Administration and frequent unilateral decisions that affected student life.

One of the rallying points of the protests was the administration’s decision to build a private gym inside Morningside Park, with a back-door entrance for the largely black residents of neighboring Harlem.

Students increasingly felt that what they were being taught in the classrooms of the prestigious Ivy League University was elitist and out of sync with what was happening around them. That Columbia not only did not seem to care, but was also actively taking over public property that belonged to the Harlem community enraged the students even more.

***

“We can point, in short,” wrote Mark Rudd, a student of Columbia University, in an open letter to then University President Grayson Kirk, “to our own meaningless studies, our identity crises, and our revulsion with being cogs in your corporate machines as a product of and reaction to a basically sick society.”

Just a few more hours, the whole campus will be ours;
Keep your eyes on that prize, hold on!
– from the Columbia University protest song

Rudd ended his letter with the lines, “I’ll use the words of LeRoi Jones, whom I’m sure you don’t like a whole lot: “Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick up.””

Even without social media, “Up Against The Wall” soon turned into the official hashtag for the Columbia University protests, showing up in bold white letters on black posters across the campus.

The phrase captured the frustrations of the students of often feeling helpless against the University administration. But, more than that, it was also a call to action; to capture by force, what rightfully belonged to them.

Today, fifty years later, as the murmurs around Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives rise up to a crescendo, Columbia University students face similar frustrations as before, from water fountains that don’t work in the SIPA building to the University’s opposition to unionization by graduate student workers to the single-digit proportion of students of color on campus.

April 23, 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the day the protests began at Columbia University and it is just a few days after the next major event planned by the March for Our Lives movement. Can the youth have America’s lawmakers and administrators #UpAgainstTheWall again?