In recent days, commentators have compared 2020 to America’s other annus horribilis, 1968. That year packed in the Tet Offensive, the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., police riots in Chicago, the end of a presidency and Nixon’s ascendancy, not to mention plenty more misery and conflict around the world. One other event in 1968 that garnered front-page attention day after day for a week in the New York Times was the student takeover at Columbia University. And it may well have been one of the earliest formative moments for a central character of today’s unrest: Attorney General William Barr, the official reportedly responsible for the unleashing of military officers on peaceful protesters outside the White House.
Just as the current demonstrations nationwide are a macro-level manifestation of the many issues of this moment—from police brutality to Donald Trump’s presidency to the global pandemic and record-level unemployment—the events on an enclosed campus in northern Manhattan in late April of ’68 were a microcosm of the larger issues of that era.
Not long after Dr. King’s assassination, hundreds of emboldened Columbia students took direct action against what they regarded as their university’s racist and militaristic policies by barricading themselves inside five buildings on campus. Together, behind locked doors, they issued demands: Columbia must end construction of a gymnasium in nearby, predominantly black Morningside Park (“Gym Crow Must Go!”) and disaffiliate with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which was conducting weapons research for the Department of Defense and connected the university to the war in Vietnam.
As with today’s activists, there was a range of political convictions among Columbia protesters. On the far edge was a small, seemingly self-appointed vanguard who wanted to force a clash with the police. “Nothing radicalizes like the Cossack’s whip” became their refrain. The African American students, together in a single building, were just as committed ideologically but more cautious in approach. Some older, more moderate graduate students, about to start careers, looked at their bellicose undergraduate comrades with a certain suspicion.
While it might have seemed from media reports then that the campus was engulfed in protest, as the entire country appears this week, actually most Columbia students weren’t so concerned that they actively took any side. Only a few hundred students (plus a host of reported “outside agitators”) were ever inside the occupied buildings. Classes having been suspended, the masses were left to wander across campus, wondering whether they should or shouldn’t be doing more, just as many Americans today watch their fellow citizens taking to the streets while Covid-19 has effectively ground everything else to a halt.
William Barr, a 17-year-old freshman from New York City, was a part of a third group—not the protesters, nor the bystanders, but the self-described Majority Coalition.
This was a couple hundred students, encouraged by some faculty, who took it upon themselves to shut the protesters down—physically, if necessary. They insisted that the university’s administration hadn’t acted quickly enough to remove the protesters from private property. Infuriated at their inability to attend class, compounded by the representation of the protests in the media, these students, mostly a mix of athletes and conservatives, announced the creation of their informal group to oppose what they held was a small minority that had taken over their venerable college. One proud member was Barr, who wrote to me in 2015, when I was researching my book and documentary on the subject, that he was “heavily involved in the Majority Coalition.”
“I grew up in the Columbia community, my parents both serving on the faculty. I had, and still have, strong views about the events,” Barr told me by email. (His office did not respond to an interview request this week.)
The Majority Coalition didn’t do much. Their big happening, their one active step to challenge the protesters, took place on April 28, when they installed themselves in a line around Low Library, one of the occupied buildings. The blockade—an attempt to prevent anyone from leaving, and food from going in—was really just for show. But even as it became something of a circus, it was also powerfully symbolic. The culmination of days of theatrical behavior came when allies of the occupiers lobbed fruit, salami and Wonder Bread through the windows, over the heads of Barr and his associates, who in turn held up large trays or threw blankets up into the air to try to stop the incoming.
The next day, it got physical. A protest group attempted to break through the line. The skirmish, as it was described in student newspaper coverage, lasted only a few minutes. A row of clean-shaven white men, mostly wearing jackets and ties, punched away as students and outsiders tried to bash through what they called the Jock Line. Behind the Majority Coalition was a row of faculty, above whom, on the ledge of Low, stood the occupiers, heckling those down below and urging on their compatriots. A member of the Majority Coalition told the Columbia Spectator that the protesters threw ammonia at them. “It won’t be funny if one of us is blinded by that stuff,” he said.
Altogether, the kerfuffle lasted less than five minutes. Barr recently told the New York Times Magazine that he was on the front line of the “fistfight” but wasn’t injured because he was on the side of football players and picked his opponents carefully. “Over a dozen people went to the hospital, between the two groups, when they tried to rush through,” he told the Times reporter with a smile, adding proudly that the protesters “didn’t get through.” (Barr has inflated the drama of that moment. There appears to be no record of any trip to the hospital, and no one of the hundreds I’ve interviewed about that day mentioned it.)
Barr, now the top law and order man of the Trump administration, told Vanity Fair last year that the incident on campus when he was still in his teens was crucial in focusing his priorities. If leaders at Columbia “had taken a stronger stance, up front,” said Barr, “it would not have degenerated so much.”
The story has been part of Barr’s public political narrative for years, and the way he tells it might go some way toward explaining his apparent comfort using force against even lawful-seeming protest. In Barr’s framing of events, the Columbia protesters’ actions were more significant for what they obstructed than for what they expressed. It was his rights that merited protection, and an illegitimate assembly which required governmental intervention.
In his 1991 Senate confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Barr explained: “I went to Columbia University during the riots in the late 1960s. People interfered, private citizens interfered with my constitutional rights, and I am not saying this is an analogous situation completely, but people blocked me from getting into the library. I know how it feels to be blocked when you are going about your lawful rights and it is quite offensive. But even though I was being blocked in the exercise of my constitutional rights, I was being blocked not by the State, but by private people. And my remedy there was to go to State courts and get the city police to get them out of my way, which is what ultimately happened.”
Barr’s group got what it wanted in 1968. The protests were eventually forcibly ended by the New York Police Department—though it may have come at a cost.
Former New York Governor George Pataki, a Columbia law student in 1968 who says he was sympathetic to the aims of the Majority Coalition, told me in 2010 that he regarded the leftist demonstrators in the same way as Barr did—high-handedly impeding their classmates’ rights to go to class, “reflective of that authoritarian concept of ‘if we believe it’s right because it advances what we believe are society’s interests, you can set aside the rule of law and just impose your will.’”
But Pataki also recalled the police bust at Columbia, when a thousand NYPD officers cleared the five buildings, then turned on the onlooking crowd. “Without any warning, you have these big [riot control] troopers with clubs and locked arms come sweeping across the campus, chasing everybody.”
That night was a memorable one for Pataki, a fiscally conservative yet socially moderate Republican who has had his own mixed relationship with protesters. And it could offer insight into Barr’s approach as he deals with protests today: Unlike Pataki, Barr seems to have ascended the ladder to power without ever coming to understand that incident 50-plus years ago from the other side. According to Pataki, “All you had to do was say, ‘We’re the police. We’re going to clear the campus, please leave,’ and we would have left. I’ll never forget being chased by a cop. You couldn’t turn around and say, ‘Wait a minute. I’m on your side!’ They didn’t want to hear that. So you just ran.”
“Many of my friends who had been in the Majority Coalition flipped sides,” he told me. “They said, ‘Well, maybe the radicals have a point.’”
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