Longtime social movement scholar Frances Fox Piven reflects on her involvement in Columbia’s 1968 occupation, the need for protest movements to imitate each other, and why campus protests make sense for students demanding an end to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Student protesters at a sit-in at Columbia University, April 1968. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

As the war on Gaza enters its seventh month of unrelenting destruction, students around the world are setting up encampments and occupying buildings to press their institutions to cut financial and academic ties with Israel. Their peaceful and passionate protests are bringing a new level of intensity to the multisided movement supporting Palestine. They also recall and build on a living history of similar student actions, from those demanding an end to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s on. Here, scholar-activist Frances Fox Piven shares some reflections on the 1968 strike at Columbia University with labor and social movements scholar Stephanie Luce.

Piven is professor emeritus of political science and sociology at the City University of New York (CUNY), a renowned scholar on social movements, and a lifetime activist for welfare rights and other social justice issues. She had been a professor at Columbia University in the 1960s, and while her main political commitments were with the welfare rights movement, she had some engagement with antiwar organizing and knew a number of student activists.

Students at Columbia occupied five buildings on the New York City campus between April 23 and 30, 1968. They demanded that the school cut ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses, which supported military research, and drop plans to build a gymnasium on Morningside Park, city-owned land in the predominantly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Harlem. Police violently busted the occupations, but the university ended up meeting those demands.

Stephanie Luce

How did you get involved in the events at Columbia?

Frances Fox Piven

I had been in a meeting in Washington when the buildings were occupied. I came home from Washington, got my daughter Sarah, and then we walked up Amsterdam Avenue, and we got into the campus at about 117th Street.

When we approached the math building, Tom [Hayden] leaned out the window and yelled, “Hey Fran! Come on up.” I did. I hoisted Sarah up and all these arms reached out to help her get into the second-floor window. And then I scaled the building. And when we got upstairs, Sarah leaned out a window looking onto Broadway. And the jocks were there and they threw some eggs at her. And the Red Cross — the student operation — was there; everybody was fussing over Sarah and wiping the eggs off her face. Meanwhile John and Tom were giving me an assignment. I was supposed to get the sympathetic faculty to agree to a set of demands, to give to the administration, which would require a kind of peace and the students would leave the occupied building. It was not my idea. It was their idea.

I went to the student headquarters at Clare Booth Hall and with the left faculty I drafted the plank that the students wanted the administration of Columbia to agree to before they left the building. Those demands were: they had to get rid of the really silly idea that Harlem people had to enter the gym from the basement door; Columbia had to disassociate from the Institute of Defense Analyses; and they had to commit not to punish any of the students. That’s what I remember off the top of my head. I circulated that petition and I couldn’t get anybody to sign it.

We went and stood in front of the math building, and the police assembled in front of it. And they had their bullhorn, and they ordered the students to leave. And every time they ordered the students to leave, the students would yell, ‘Up against the wall, motherfucker.’

By nightfall, most of the faculty had gone home and you could tell the police were getting ready for their assault on the building. They assembled in sort of a battalion, and then they stormed first, the library. And then the Fayerweather building. And I was worried about the math building, not only because I knew some of the people there, but that was the place by reputation where the really radical people were holed up. So I thought that I should go there to bear witness on what they were doing. And I found a guy I knew who was wandering around campus who was a lawyer. And I asked him to come to the math building with me. So we went and stood in front of the math building, and the police assembled in front of it. And they had their bullhorn, and they ordered the students to leave. And every time they ordered the students to leave, the students would yell, “Up against the wall, motherfucker.”

The cops moved on the building. I can’t say exactly what happened then because somebody lifted me up and threw me. And I momentarily lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I was out on Broadway. I wasn’t on campus anymore. But I stayed. And I picked up the petition of demands and now I got a few more people to sign it.

Stephanie Luce

So the police attacks helped gain sympathy — which seems to be what’s happening right now today, where the campus encampments have grown larger each time the police make arrests. It seems like for a long time college administrators learned that they don’t call the police. They just wait it out. And they let summer come and the protest dies down. So it seems shocking that Columbia kind of made this mistake again because that mobilizes a whole other level of support.

But so back then, after the police attacked, the petition got more support?

Frances Fox Piven

It got some support. I mean, it wasn’t overwhelming. The next day, or a few days after, there was a faculty meeting called and the first speaker got up and said, “A lot of you don’t know what’s going on here, but I do. I recognize the politics of disruption.” He basically accused the protesters of being Bolsheviks. He had told me already that he was a Menshevik. What he did — what he was trying to do — was to avert a faculty strike. It would have just been the left-liberal faculty, but it still would have been important. But he dissuaded that by saying they were all just stooges. Those were not his words but that is what he meant.

Stephanie Luce

So there wasn’t a faculty strike. And then how did it resolve?

Frances Fox Piven

With a whimper. There were a few little eruptions in the days that followed, but basically, they just sputtered.

Stephanie Luce

It is interesting how the Columbia crackdown today has helped spark this wave of encampments. How does this situation today compare to 1968?

Frances Fox Piven

Columbia is more prominent now. But you know, movement action spreads. People get the idea. They get enthused about the possibility, and they imitate each other. That’s not a criticism; people are always imitating each other. That’s how they learn.

I think it was a whole year after the Columbia occupation that the protests at CUNY erupted, though those protests at CUNY were not about the Vietnam War. They were about incorporating black and Puerto Rican students. But they were influenced by Columbia.

But before the Columbia occupation, campuses across the country had protests, and they often took the form of building occupation, or at least occupied the office of the president, or something like that.

Stephanie Luce

Do you see similarities in the reactions to the protest then and now?

Frances Fox Piven

A lot of people said, at the time, “Why are the students attacking the university? The university is on their side, it’s almost the last place they should attack.” But this greatly ignores the exigencies of collective action. You can only take collective action where the collectivity is. So, it was inexperienced people looking for something to criticize. The students had to attack the university. And that’s true now!

The kind of protests students are doing — building occupations, gatherings on campus, critiquing the university administration — follow logically from their situation.

The kind of protests they’re doing — building occupations, gatherings on campus, critiquing the university administration — follow logically from their situation. They can be doing other things as well. But there’s a reason that they protest on campus. Protests have to be collective! And where are students collected together except on campus? It’s ridiculous, the critique, that this is not where they should protest. It is the dynamics of movements. And I must say that these stupid university presidents didn’t see how they are making the university a logical target—not just a logistical target.

Stephanie Luce

Some people today are arguing that the Columbia protests today have nothing in common with the 1968 occupation — that the causes were totally different, and that the 1968 ones were justified because they were about American soldiers being killed and coming home in body bags, which isn’t the case today.

Frances Fox Piven

They are completely related. Both are protesting American involvement in a war that is taking place around the globe. We should not be supporting that! At the very least, we should not be supporting it. I mean, it is inevitably different in some ways but it is exactly the same issue.

Stephanie Luce

And our universities are complicit in certain ways. And there was a similar occupation at Columbia in the 1980s, in support of ending apartheid in South Africa. That too called out the ways in which the US government, and our universities, were complicit in oppressive regimes.

So we have a long history of student occupation and protest, and a lot of times they fizzle out, and sometimes they’re crushed. These kinds of struggles are hard to win — certainly on big issues like foreign policy. Can you think of examples where they are successful or what might it might take for a campus mobilization to be successful?

Frances Fox Piven

Well, I think that foreign policy is hard. It’s not the same as issues that are campus based. I haven’t done this, but I think that if you looked at the whole span of student protests over the Vietnam War, you would find that there was an impact. You would find greater and greater concern about the war, more public awareness about how it was understood.

And you would find a wariness of the kind of situation at Columbia — and this was a big one for the Administration — which was, they did not want to provoke Harlem. Some of the black students were the first to leave the occupied building, Hamilton Hall. When I saw those students leave with boxes of groceries, I was very worried that a deal had been made, because those students were the connection to Harlem. And Columbia was very afraid of Harlem.

If you looked at the whole span of student protests over the Vietnam War, you would find that there was an impact. You would find greater and greater concern about the war, more public awareness about how it was understood.

And after the student occupation, the Ford Foundation gave Columbia $10 million to improve relations with the community. And what did Columbia, in all of its wisdom, do with that money? It created three chairs in urban studies. Herb Gans got one of them. He’s my friend. They also created an urban research institute — that’s not what it was called but that’s what it was. And they appointed my cousin, Ewart Guinier, Lani Guinier’s father, to be associate head of the urban center. It was all cosmetic.

Stephanie Luce

The other critique they are facing today is that the movement itself is antisemitic.

Frances Fox Piven

That critique is a problem, and they may need some more help with that problem. One organization that emerges for me right now with a halo is HIAS — the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. It has worked for every immigrant group that tries to come into the United States, all those people at the border can get advice, counseling, services, from HIAS. Given the intensity of the crisis, I think that is so great.

I am Jewish, and that’s what I thought it always meant to be the chosen people: that social justice was very important. HIAS is an example of that. Also, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, they are as well.

Stephanie Luce

Yes, and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Not in Our Name. I just participated in a giant seder in the streets that was also protesting Chuck Shumer’s support for sending more aid to Israel. It was very moving, since I was raised in the same kind of Judaism that you were, that it’s about social justice. Though we were raised to be very pro-Israel, because we didn’t have the real story; we didn’t know what the real history was.

Frances Fox Piven

My mother and father were political socialists. They were not political people at all, but their political socialization came from the Bolsheviks. They were not at all religious. I remember my mother being at the ironing board when the radio was on and the announcer said that the UN recognized Israel, and my mother slammed the iron down on the board and said, “If they wanted a homeland, what was wrong with Birobidzhan?” — Stalin’s strategy for dealing with the nationalism that seems to be a part of human nature. And of course, the Soviet Union was an empire, which included many nationalities — his strategy for dealing with that was to give every nationality a little homeland within the Soviet Union. And the Jewish homeland was Birobidzhan. But nobody would go.

Stephanie Luce

That’s a funny story.

So this moment feels a bit like 1968 in a number of ways, including how the movements are divided in terms of how to relate to the Democrats, but also facing a horrible Republican candidate. What are you thinking about this situation?

Frances Fox Piven

It isn’t perfect. This is the first uprising against Joe Biden. Biden is probably a nice enough guy. But he’s promoting war, maybe World War III. You can’t just go to war for a little while. It corrodes the humanity of people and it lasts forever.

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