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Bridge and Tunnel Kid, Part III

Columbia divest

Columbia University has for years used 854-1754 as its main telephone number, and it is the line that shows up when student volunteers call alumni to seek donations during the dinner hour. It is, I suppose, a clever reminder that Columbia was founded  in 1754, twenty-two years before American independence, as King's College in what was then still a relatively young British colony. It is the fifth oldest university in the United States, one of the original nine chartered colonial colleges and it has achieved a global aura of prestige and exclusivity that could never have been imagined by anyone who attended Columbia College in the 1970s and early 80s, when it had no endowment and some of its facilities were ramshackle wooden death traps (Baker Field, several miles north of the main campus in Inwood on the nothern tip of Manhattan, in particular).

Outside of the lecture hall that bears his name, there is a statue of Alexander Hamilton, the bastard son of a Scottish laird born in Nevis, West Indies and the first self-made immigrant to the United States, a King's College man and the first Treasury Secretary, a liberal Federalist who created the central government that has endured for two hundred years and constitutes the largest economic and political enterprise ever created by human beings.

On a rainy night in 1983, I raced past the statue and around the corner of Hamilton Hall toward College Walk and the gate on Amsterdam Avenue. An all-night Strat-o-matic baseball tournament raged around the table upstairs in Livingston, and I'd drawn the assignment of meeting the delivery man from Hunan Balcony. The campus was partly closed, heavily circled with police and campus security because of a series of large-scale protests organized by students to protest the University's continued investment in funds that did business with the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. It wasn't exactly 1968, Vietnam and Mark Rudd, but the crowds had been sufficiently boisterous - and University officials talked vaguely of trouble-making "outsiders." 

It was dark and chilly, and I jogged around Hamilton and ran directly into one of those feared outside agitators, who I immediately recognized. "Hey, hold up," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was carrying a megaphone at the head of a dripping contingent of perhaps a hundred protesters. The weather had clearly held down attendance. There seemed to be more cops than activists. The crowd moved toward Amsterdam Avenue and I moved with it. The signs demanded that Columbia divest itself of all South African investments, in order to stem the flow of capital to the white ruled country and pressure the Apartheid regime to give up its racist hold on power.

Divestment began as a liberal strategy to pressure South Africa as far back as 1962, but it came of age in the early 1980s and Columbia became the first hotbed of university action (which was ironic, given its paltry endowment at the time). Divestment extended the Sullivan Principles, developed by a minister who was also a board member of General Motors, which demanded racial fairness in corporate dealings. The pressure point was institutional investors, particularly universities, municipal bond issuers, and public pension funds. At Columbia, the Committee Against Investment in South Africa grew rapidly, and included the great student leaders of my time, Danny Armstrong and Stuart Garcia, as well as a young Hawaiian transfer student named Barry Obama. 

There is no ex post facto case for my own activism in the divestment cause (I was no leader), but I did attend several rallies after that night and I did walk around campus a few times with signs, mainly because I liked the people who were involved. Stuart Garcia had been my partner in the lab section of a behavioral psychology course taught by Eugene Galanter, who was a protege of B.F. Skinner, and we had a gas locking each other up in the Skinner boxes and tallying reactions to stimuli the experiments demanded. I met Stuart in 1980 at freshman orientation, and introduced the young Texan and a few other out-of-towners to the wonders of Max's Kansas City, Danceteria, and the Peppermint Lounge in partnership with my native bridge and tunnel tribesmen, Doug Tween and the two Toms, Kissane and FitzSimmons. As I've written before, Stuart was one of the early casualties of AIDS, dying only two years after graduation, in 1986. He was a natural politician, had the common touch. Short, friendly, with a shock of thick straight hair that levitated when he walked. There is no doubt in my mind that he'd be a figure in American politics had he lived, either in his native Texas or somewhere else. He was open, not shy, a friend to all - my opposite, in those years, really. And he was 23 when he died. But in 1983 he was gloriously alive and marching, and some of those he marched with carried signs with pictures of Nelson Mandela on them.

To those of us who frequented New York's musical clubs in that era, Mandela came to us in song as well as image. The Specials were a great British ska band with a sound that moved, they played all the clubs in New York when they were in town, and ska ran second only to over-driven punk rock (and vintage Motown, if truth be told) on the big jukebox downstairs at Max's. As Columbia students marched, the Specials released a protest song with a hook so damned big you couldn't help but sing Nelson Mandela's name all day long. Free-ee-ee-ee Nelson Mandela. At the time, of course, Mandela was still in prison for this efforts to overthrow Apartheid; he'd serve another six years for a total of more than 27 years. His body abused, but his mind is still free. You're so blind that you cannot see. The song was everywhere. And the Specials were cool.

A few years ago, I found myself chatting briefly with Illinois Senator Barack Obama in the receving line at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Dressed uncomfortably in rented white tie and tails - required get-up for the dais at the annual Al Smith Dinner - Obama stood next to Cardinal Egan, who in turn stood next to Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy, in the traditional show of bi-partisanship and Catholic elan that defines the famous occasion during Presidential election years. Obama looked tired and not entirely comfortable, but I waded in anyway. We talked a little bit about Columbia days and sitting on the steps in front of Low Library in warm weather. And then I told him I knew he'd been in the divestment marches, part of that movement. "It was formative," he said, in that professorial tone we've all come to know, with the clipped mid-western "r" he uses. We shook hands and I moved on, somewhat concerned that I'd left the impression that I was a college rabble-rouser and not the campus Strat-o-matic champion.

A year later, in the same Waldorf setting, I found myself standing next to Steve van Zandt, the Bruce Springsteen sideman and Sopranos actor, at another charity dinner. Strangely enough, the subject of Apartheid came up again, and I praised his work in the effort. Van Zandt had led a coalition of musicians in the recording of Sun City in 1985, a year after I left Columbia. The song called on artists no to play the Sun City resort, then a whites only casino enclave for wealthy South Africans. In addition to Springsteen, Van Zandt had rounded up the likes of Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Joey Ramone to take part. Twenty-three million can't vote because they're black. We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back. It was another great song that stuck with you.

Obama was right. It was a formative time, and the figure of Nelson Mandela and twenty-three million countrymen denied basic human rights did tend to stick. The divestment battle and the rallies to push the United States to do the right thing in South Africa made a different. Winning victories, says my friend Al Giordano, an organizer with a Vince Lombardi mindset, is what drives real citizens movements: "Mandela will always be one of history’s great role models in the art of building public opinion to win victory, instead of suffering defeat after defeat."

On that rainy night on Morningside Heights, I did finally find the delivery man on Amsterdam Avenue. But I think I found something more as well, and it was linked to man in a jail cell thousands of miles away. I had no role in that struggle at all, but I saw the art of building public first hand, the power of the story in the cause. And the protest songs had big hooks, besides.

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