May 6, 2010

May '70: 8. Memory Loss

The sign was hung out of an NYU dorm window. It read, simply


I want to use that sign as a starting point in talking about some largely unsuccessful emotional archaeology I’ve been doing, trying to reconstruct what it felt like to be 20 years old and a revolutionary in the midst of the first national student strike the country had ever seen.

I know I wasn’t expecting to be killed, even though--forty days ago today—the Kent State murders were only two days in the past and in the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.

And that wasn’t what the dorm room sign was about. Those kids didn’t expect to be killed either. They were celebrating the fact that the scope of our movement, the hundreds of new campuses—including high schools—which had gone out on strike since May 4 had pretty much removed violent repression as an option for the ruling class. I quoted John Kaye on the intensity of those days in yesterday's installment. I’ve recently spoken with Mirk and Mindy, who, like me, came out of NYU and we all agree that there is a lot, a surprising amount, from these intense weeks that we just don’t remember.

I put this down to three things.

First we were drinking deep of an emotional cocktail that combined rage, exhilaration and simple exhaustion.

Second, we were in an environment where all of daily life was changed. Classes, papers, tests no longer had claims on students’ time; though they might still worry about such things, as 12+ years of US schooling had trained them to, we were on strike! The struggle demanded that we do new things and do old things in new ways and do them all at once.

In the two or three days following May 4th, I am fairly certain that I spent many hours with kids from nearby Taft High School with whom NYU Uptown SDS had been working, helped them organize a walkout and lay out the second edition of Rip Off, their underground paper, and get it printed by the Kimball collective. The Uptown crew also met to develop programs we were demanding that the administration put in place to serve the West Bronx community. I also seem to recall spending much of my time downtown, centered around stints, including some quickly grabbed zzzs in the middle of the night, guarding the seized Courant computer. And meetings to coordinate activities on the Uptown and Washington Square campuses. Then there was the peace march on Wall Street that the hardhats attacked. And a bunch of us went to City College to support the students there. And…

Third, was the simple fact that we had entered uncharted terrain. The enemy was in retreat, though still deadly. We were, in chaotic fashion, advancing. What should we be demanding—of our school, of the government, of society?

For instance, to return to my touchstone. our SDS chapter had a standing demand that NYU enact an open admissions program for community residents who graduated high school. It was a damn good program, written by some guy named Mike a year or so earlier (we lost track of him when he transferred out), but it had never been anything we had the power to make the administration deal with.

Now things were different, even if the majority of students who were on strike weren’t ready to go as far as open admissions-—concerned what it might do to the value of their diplomas and to tuition rates. Should we do more education to win our classmates over? Set up our own free tutoring programs for grads from Taft and other local high schools to prove to the administration it could work? Force the NYU administration to develop partnership programs with the city officials running those high schools and start taking the first steps?

Lacking experience, absent central coordination, without tested leadership to help us sort through the options, we tried everything, usually without a clear plan and goals.

I’m not sure how different things could have been, given the historical circumstances, but I guess the reason I am writing this multi-part reflection is to identify and salvage some of the lessons of May. ’70, so when history puts something like it on our plate again, we can avoid some of the old mistakes, and make some new ones as we move forward.

Click here to read this series from the beginning.

Click here to read the next installment.


Just a little younger said...

What links links this posting and "May '70" #7? And what's all the confusion about the "super computer" seizure at the Courant Institute? Some readers suggest that incident was a singularly foolish tactic, but I think it must be viewed in the spirit of that spring…

These were indeed heady days. Attempts to defend the Black Panther Party were an important step at the time, particularly by groups of mainly white students. Our local home town "underground" newspaper, which grew directly out of this campus upsurge, saw "explaining" the Panthers as an important component of its editorial policy.

To suggest that some kind of Gandhian pacifism (in emulation of a misunderstood memory of the tactics of Dr. King) would have better served the NYU campus struggle, is to lose sight of multiple things. First, one of the lead demonstrators at NYU did jail-time over the computer ransom incident, so WAS following MLK's model, like it or not. Second, it was a period of great experimentation, which is what the confusion about the mass demand for open-admissions at NYU indicates.

This was a period when many on "the left" openly *ASPIRED* to drug-addled craziness. I don't say this as a pejorative. If memory serves (and this is related to another point in Post 8 about memory loss, I guess) the Weather Underground (among others) had a policy that ran something like "we celebrate everything our parents said were wrong,' promoting even needle-drug use.

Massive experimentation meant there were bound to be bad ideas, but let's actually LEARN from these mistakes, rather than seek EASY self-congratulatory attacks on the people's struggle. In the end, that period pillorying is no different than the Beach Boy's regrettable paean to "staying home"…

NobodyToToyWith said...

Reading I can...keep going...