The Great Water Fight of '68
The late 1960s saw the climax of the rebellions by college-aged youth, who demonstrated, violently at times, for social justice. On April 23, 1968, at Columbia University, three hundred students barricaded the dean’s office in protest of the planned construction of a gym in Morningside Park. Student anger towards this project was based on its design; a facility for the university would be on the upper level, while a lower level basement gym, marked by a black door, would provide limited access for neighborhood residents, who were primarily African American and Puerto Rican. These racial tensions were only worsened when, in attempt to expand its campus, Columbia evicted the tenants of more than a hundred buildings in the area, leaving the low-income residents with nowhere to go. Although Columbia’s intention was to reduce crime in the area, many neighborhood activists felt that the rehabilitation of these buildings and hotels, which the New York Times called “well known havens for prostitutes and narcotics addicts,” would be a better solution. An incident that further intensified student dissention was the unearthing of papers documenting Columbia’s discreet partnership with the Institute for Defense Analysis, a think tank that supported the war effort in Vietnam.
Although Columbia University vice-president David B. Truman attempted to meet with the frustrated students, the students preferred the more radical option of demonstrating. These protests, led by Students For a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Mark Rudd, were to take place at the Low Library of Columbia University, which housed many of the administrative offices. When they were told that the library was closed, the students quickly made their way up to Morningside Drive and 113th Street, where the proposed gym was to be built and tore down the chain-link fence around the construction site. There, the police moved in and arrested one student. When that failed, the group of protesters marched back to Columbia, where Rudd addressed the group and defiantly laid out his objective, “We are going to have to take a hostage to make them let go of I.D.A. and let go of the gym.”
At Hamilton Hall, the administrative center for Columbia College, the protesters gathered in front of the office of acting dean Henry S. Coleman, who had been selected as the aforementioned “hostage.” Columbia at the time prohibited protests on campus, so as Dean Coleman pushed his way through the crowd and entered his office, Rudd shouted, “Is this a demonstration?” The crowd shouted back a resounding, “Yes!” Coleman aloofly responded that “I have no control over the demands you are making, but I have no intention of meeting any demands under a situation such as this.” A similar exchange occurred when protest leaders demanded that Coleman contact the president and vice president of the University. When the dean complained about the number of people that had congregated in his office, the group compiled a group of demands. These included the termination all disciplinary actions pending against students as a result of previous protests, a lift on the campus demonstration ban, a resolution to the disciplinary actions against students at a hearing before both students and faculty members, and obtaining dismissals of charges against all those who took place in the gym protests. After reviewing the protesters’ demands, Dean Coleman alerted the protesters that Mr. Truman would be willing to meet with them. Student leaders replied that they would only meet if they were to obtain a written guarantee that the protesters would be granted amnesty, a request that Truman denied. Truman later said in an interview with the New York Times that he was prepared to have the protesters wait in Hamilton Hall, “until they get tired.”
Things intensified further when “red crepe and posters bearing the likenesses of Lenin, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X...were posted on the walls,” and a group of eight African American youths began patrolling the area around Dean Coleman’s office. These youth carried pamphlets that read, “Stop Columbia from taking over Harlem. Black students at Columbia are holding a dean captive and have taken control of the administration building... Go to Columbia and help the black students now...” As Omar Ahmed, an organizer for the United Black Front, said, “This is going to be a very hot summer for Columbia University.”
Sixty blocks uptown, at Yeshiva College, the spring was also quite hot, but the students rebelled in quite a different fashion: through a water fight. Yeshiva University students indirectly participated in the Columbia University protests by taking the 1 Train to 116th Street and watching protesters lambast authority figures by instigating violent reactions and calling them “pigs.” A 2008 article in The Jewish Week by Yeshiva College alumnus Gary Rosenblatt commemorated the forty years since “The Great Yeshiva ‘Riot’ of ’68,”1 with a reflection on the impact that the political unrest had on Yeshiva University students. Rosenblatt humorously recounts the water fight, which involved:
Scores of students in their swim trunks heaving large cans of water on each other, and sometimes out the window onto Amsterdam Avenue. Soon, the fire department arrived, with firemen wading through puddles in the dorm halls, axes at the ready, responding to calls from neighbors. Surveying the scene, though, they were good natured-about the mess, and didn’t stay long.
Word of the “unrest” soon reached Columbia University, whose SDS had heard that “Yeshiva was being liberated” and sent two representatives to Rosenblatt’s dorm room to assist in the rebellion. Rosenblatt, who was merely interested in a good time and not a university coup, listened to their elaborate schemes, pretending to be interested until they finally returned to Columbia. By the end of the day, no liberation had occurred, and all that seems to have transpired was a humorous tale.
While this second anecdote provides an amusing account of an incident unearthed from the annals of Yeshiva College history, a Commentator editorial (printed below) that appeared at the same time as the water fight, seriously discussed the possibility that violent outbursts similar to those in Columbia could happen at Yeshiva.
What links the student frustrations at Columbia and at Yeshiva was a lack of dialogue between students and administrators. Although Rosenblatt does not mention student frustration in his article, The Commentator editorial makes specific mention of a New York Times article from May 2, 1968, which delineates changes in the administrative structure of Yeshiva University. The students of Yeshiva University at the time felt that there was a lack of communication between the administration and the students. It is rather ironic that these initiatives were implemented by university president Dr. Samuel Belkin in order to “improve communication between the 7,000 students at Yeshiva and the administration,” as The Commentator editorial bemoans that the fact that the students were not consulted and calls it “unconscionable negligence or intentional disregard on the part of the administration.”
Unlike Columbia, where students were attempting to redefine the values of society and fight against racist politics, Yeshiva College students were primarily interested in an equal voice in the determination of university policies that would directly affect them. The students apparently were not particularly interested in causing discord and controversy. According to Rosenblatt, all the students wanted was, “a good laugh before going back to sleep for another day of Talmud study and exams.” It appears that The Commentator’s concern that violent protests would occur at Yeshiva, were slightly overblown. The potential for Yeshiva becoming “a Columbia” seem to be overdramatizing the reality at YU. Although there obviously was anger towards the administration for not informing students about changes in the Yeshiva administration, it seems unlikely that students would have violently protested with anything more than a water fight.
Adam Zimilover and Dov Honick contributed to this article.
1 Rosenblatt, Gary. “The Great Yeshiva ‘Riot’ Of `68.” Jewish Week [New York] 8 Apr. 2008. Print.
The above article discusses the violent protests at Columbia University in 1968. The following editorial, which discusses the potential ramifications for Yeshiva University, was printed in The Commentator in May 1968:
Can it Happen Here?
The recent occurrences at Columbia have, in their extreme violence, taken the spotlight from more responsible forms of student protest. It is hard to imagine any connection between the ordinary demands for recognition now advanced by students at universities across the country and the destruction which recently visited itself upon the Columbia campus. Yet, the connection, obscured though it might have been by the extremity to which the protest was carried, is both present and relevant. The difficult at Columbia is basically, as it is here at Yeshiva, the presence of an overwhelming communications gap between student and administrator…. That we, the students, were not consulted concerning the [administrative] appointments is insulting and injurious; that we were not even informed of these same appointments is unconscionable negligence or intentional disregard on the part of the administration.
The failure of the administration to consider the rights or opinions of the student body is a manifestation of the deep chasm which separates the upper echelon of Yeshiva from the students. There is only one remedy to the problems caused by the lack of communication and that is the opening of a channel for such communication…We may be grateful that Columbia is not Yeshiva, but while being grateful, we should take steps to ensure that Yeshiva will never be a Columbia.