A blockade against apartheid

June 17, 2011

The 1980s struggle against apartheid in South Africa mobilized students on campuses across the country to demand that their universities divest from corporations that did business with South Africa. At Columbia University in New York City, students organized a blockade in April 1985, which electrified campus activists everywhere.

Eleanor Trawick wrote this report, which appeared in the May 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

ON APRIL 4, when an anti-apartheid rally at Columbia University turned into a blockade of Hamilton Hall, the main undergraduate classroom and administration building, no one expected it to last more than 24 hours.

But it did last longer--much longer--and became a major headache for the university and a source of inspiration for other protests across the country.

Ever since Soweto, American students have condemned their universities' support for the apartheid system and have demanded divestment from corporations that do business in South Africa. As the repression of South African Blacks becomes increasingly brutal, the claims of investors and businesses that a by-product of their involvement in the region is to improve conditions there become less and less credible.

In March 1983, the Columbia University Senate voted unanimously in favor of full divestment. The trustees ignored the resolution and continued business as usual.

A year ago, following the recommendation of an administrative committee, the trustees agreed to a freeze on investments, but placed a high cap of $39 million. Furthermore, a "lucrative loophole" allowed investments to surpass this limit if there was a reasonable expectation of high profits from the increase--as if there would ever be an increase for any other reason!

Ten days before the Hamilton Hall sit-in started, seven students began a hunger strike, demanding that university President Michael Sovern meet with them to discuss divestment. The administration initially ignored both the hunger strike and the blockade, apparently hoping that they would just disappear.

The day after the blockade started, however, the university sent a warning that the protesters were in violation of civil and criminal law. Over the next few days, several students were identified and given disciplinary notices; most of them refused to meet with university officers, and the blockade reiterated its ultimatum that the university agree to immediate and full divestment.

During the week that followed, support for the blockade increased. Sovern met with the hunger strikers; they broke their fast, but came to no agreement with him.

Evening rallies throughout the week averaged 500 to 600 people. Some were among the 400 students who had at one time or another made up the shifting personnel of the blockade. Others were from the Columbia community at large, from Harlem, from elsewhere in New York, and from out of town.

THE BROAD alliance of students, faculty, university workers and the Harlem community accounts for the huge success enjoyed by the blockade early on. Over 2,000 of the 4,400 faculty and teaching assistants signed a petition in support of the blockade.

Unions on campus declared their support and donated money--UAW District 65 (clerical and technical staff), Local 1199 of the Health and Hospital Worker's Union, Local 241 of TWU (security and maintenance)--as did others from off campus, such as AFSCME Local 420 and District Council 37. Teamsters Local 237 made an initial donation of $1,000, and contributed $100 each day after that.

On Thursday, April 11, 150 Harlem residents marched onto campus to beef up the rally.

Columbia had just lost its fight against unionization of the office workers--District 65 was certified in February--and has been coming under increasing criticism for the cynicism and obvious racism in its real estate dealings in Harlem, where the university is the second biggest slumlord--after the city of New York. It is clear that the last thing it wants is an alliance among students, workers and tenants.

On Monday, April 15, Jesse Jackson addressed a crowd of 1,500 in front of Hamilton Hall--by now rechristened Mandela Hall. Then, on Thursday, students and Blacks from the area marched up from Harlem onto the campus. A rally larger than Monday's moved from the site of the blockade over to the main administration building, where a black-tie alumni dinner was being held.

From the beginning, the blockade could have been more effectively built had the organizers put less emphasis on press coverage and more on the nuts and bolts of building the blockade.

In retrospect, it is clear that the university has been able to tolerate a good deal of embarrassment and "moral pressure"; militant action alone can force change in so large and powerful an institution. Non-violent protest, while certainly the correct tactical choice in this situation, should not mean non-confrontation; for without confrontation, all the "justice" and "moral high ground" in the world will change nothing.

The informal leadership of the blockade was never actually elected by the people involved, and without a real democratic mechanism in place, tactical shifts and radical actions are next to impossible. Consensus is notorious for the passivity and moderation that it encourages.

It is also unfortunate that a division was allowed to develop between the blockaders and their supporters. Again and again, organizers failed to give the huge numbers of active supporters any role but that of audience and cheering squad.

At the Jackson rally, the demonstration at the alumni dinner and at other times, many people besides the blockaders were involved, but when each action was over, everybody simply went home, given no chance to channel their energy into further support for the blockade.

This concrete support can take several forms--right now, as the semester draws to a close, or next fall when students return to campus. Supporters of divestment and of the blockade itself should be encouraged to wear buttons and armbands to show their solidarity.

Picket lines in front of the loading docks could stop all deliveries; and one-day (or longer) strikes by workers, faculty and students could shut the university down entirely. The blockade of Hamilton/Mandela Hall, which still allows access through a long and narrow tunnel, would be more effective as an actual occupation--either of that building or of another.

THE COLUMBIA blockade has had an electrifying effect on the whole of New York City--and beyond. Students from City College of New York, New York University, Princeton, Rutgers and State University of New York have come to Columbia in support of the protest and have demonstrated on their own campuses.

At Rutgers, students occupied a building to protest their school's South African investments. At Cornell, 142 students were arrested on April 18; they returned the next day, and 188 were arrested. At Berkeley, a student strike and a slowdown by workers paralyzed the campus and virtually shut down the entire university.

Students who have never questioned the way the system is run have become more aware of the endless brutalities of capitalism--and of how they must be ended.

For the Columbia blockaders, the connections between the university's South African stocks, its union busting and exploitation of its mostly Black employees, and its role as a Harlem slumlord were hard to miss.

In the cafeteria, where Black students used to sit clustered together and separate from the white students, racially mixed tables are now the rule. It is common to see Black and Hispanic security and maintenance workers talking to white student protesters.

The experience of a common struggle has broken down many of the old barriers and prejudices. The students' involvement in an actual struggle, however limited it still may be at this point, has radicalized many and raised the consciousness of all.

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