‘We had the dust of radicalism sprinkled on us that night’ – an epic documentary of black student protest | Documentary films | #students | #parents

‘Lockdown has done wonders for me,” says Paul Cronin with a laugh. An English film-maker who lives in New York, he had been working off and on for 14 years on A Time to Stir, a documentary about the 1968 student uprising at Columbia University. Then, after the killing of George Floyd in May, Cronin’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood was transformed. Protesters marched through its streets, statues were defaced, the windows of galleries and banks were smashed, police cars were torched, helicopters roared night and day. It was an extended moment of rebellion and release, terror and possibility.

“I’m watching what’s going on from my window and taking lots of late-night walks through Washington Square with all the wildness and craziness going on there.” Struck by the parallels between the archival footage on his computer screen and present-day convulsions, he went into overdrive, only coming up for air after he had completed the film.

To describe A Time to Stir as an epic work is something of an understatement: it is 15 hours long, made up from more than 700 interviews that run to 2,500 hours. Cronin collected 35,000 photographs, almost none of which had ever been seen before.

Part of what the film chronicles is well-known: campus leftists taking over key university buildings to protest against its role in conducting research that enabled US bombing campaigns in Vietnam. They took an acting dean hostage and occupied the president’s office, where they found cigars with his name engraved in gold. Their insurgency, before it was violently broken up by police, attracted the likes of Abbie Hoffman, the Grateful Dead, Noam Chomsky and poet Robert Lowell, all of whom showed up to signal their support.

Abbie Hoffman at the 1968 uprising, in A Time to Stir
Abbie Hoffman at the 1968 uprising, in A Time to Stir.

But Cronin’s film also shines a spotlight on a crucial, but far less celebrated, part of the story: the resistance of a cadre of pioneering black students who were indignant that Columbia, having purchased lots of nearby real estate, immediately reduced the number of housing units available to low-income residents. Worse, it had taken over a city-owned park where, against the wishes of locals in nearby Harlem, it planned to build a five-storey gymnasium with separate entrances for students and non-students. These decisions were seen as social cleansing, a form of expropriation not unconnected with what the US was doing in south-east Asia.

Many of the black students thought their white peers were showy and tactically naive. “They were just talking politics,” claims Arnim Johnson, one of Cronin’s interviewees. “It’s a rap session, and then they want to do singalongs!” The relatively novel presence of black students at the university might have assured Columbia’s administrators they were in the civil rights vanguard, but many of the students saw it differently: they recall receiving lighter workloads than their white peers, being astonished at the lack of black faculty members or black history classes and feeling upset at getting stopped regularly by security guards. They were at once hyper-visible and invisible. They knew they had more opportunities – for success, for upward mobility – than their friends and family members back home. They also knew about dogs and whippings and beatings: this made them reluctant to be as showily combative as some of their white classmates. According to Manning Marable, who, before his death in 2011, was a professor of African American studies at Columbia: “The white radicals did not deconstruct white privilege in their own lives.”

In the end, those white students were asked to leave Hamilton Hall, the first building to have been collectively occupied. This led to other campus sites, including Low Library where the president had his offices, being targeted by white demonstrators instead. Creating multiple fronts for protesters made it harder to disperse them, but it disappointed those who thought pan-racial unity would be easy to achieve.

“In every beat of this film, one sees how different the world looked to black and to white students – and how they handled themselves in the circumstances,” says Cronin. “The entire thing happened because black students decided to throw white students out. They did not want to be out with them. Black students had thought about these issues for years in a way that white students had not.”

Coalitional politics, the art of “allyship”, the intersection between race and class: these are controversial topics today. How is it, I ask Cronin, that even though there is a mini-industry dedicated to 1968-ist commemoration, the voices – yet alone contributions – of black students are so hard to make out? “It’s funny. I was asked recently: ‘Paul, how did you get the African American students to talk?’ I replied: ‘I just asked them!’ No one had ever asked them before! They were more than happy to talk. And what they remembered was very important. They told the white protesters: you’re not going to smash up Hamilton Hall. You’re going to leave it cleaner than when you arrived. You’re spilling your shit? You’re dropping your dope on the floor? You’re having a good time? You think this is theatre? No – for us black students, this is not theatre.”

Police among the protesters, in A Time to Stir
Police among the protesters, in A Time to Stir.

To think of Columbia 1968 purely in terms of black and white would be a mistake. One element of its story that Cronin brings to the fore is the importance of Jewish students. They were white, but non-white. Historically, like their black classmates, they had been treated as second-class presences. But by the 1960s, says Carl Gettleman, who helped occupy Low Library, Columbia had begun to resemble a Jewish Ivy League college: “It was in New York, and if a preppy guy went there, he was probably a loser, because if he was a winner he went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton.”

According to Cronin, the incoming Jews knew all about alienation and annihilation. “Many of those that arrived on campus in 1964 and 1965 had watched the Nuremberg trials on TV when they were teenagers. Mike Locker [a student activist who published the power-structure pamphlet Who Rules Columbia?] told me: ‘If you take Nuremberg seriously, then you see that if there’s a crime being committed by your country, it’s your obligation to intervene and object.’ These were the children of Holocaust survivors and they had a hunger for justice. A lot of them were ‘red-diaper babies’; their parents were very left-wing and often lower class. Even if they were secular, they had grown up being told stories about Cossack atrocities by their grandparents.”

Cronin, who grew up in London, but has dual citizenship through his American mother, says he can barely remember a time when he was not drawn to the febrile politics of the US in the late 60s. “I recently found a cassette of a Radio 4 programme about the 20th anniversary of 1968. I was only 15 when I made it!” In the past, he has collaborated on book projects with Werner Herzog and co-translated the poetry of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, but the dominant influence on A Time to Stir is that of British TV documentaries. He says: “I grew up watching a lot of Brook Lapping series [the widely respected production company run by Brian Lapping and Norma Percy]: End of Empire, Watergate, The Death of Yugoslavia. I liked the way they took their time, moved chronologically through epic, complex histories, and showed testimonials from incredible eyewitnesses.”

Perhaps unusually, Cronin does not talk about his film as being partisan or primarily activist. “There’s another Brook Lapping series, The Fifty Years War (1998) – it’s in six parts and about the Middle East, but I’ve been told it has been used in both Israeli and Palestinian schools. With A Time to Stir, I wanted it to be as fair and balanced as possible. There was no point in making it if we couldn’t hear from both the red bandana-wearing Maoists and the cops who beat them that night.” He was also keen to capture stories before it was too late. “I met a guy who told me that after his mother died, he’d thrown away countless rolls of 16mm film he’d shot of the campus protests. These stories are like knives to the heart. I have the historian’s dread of the dumpster.”

The historical value of Cronin’s work became apparent this summer when William Barr, Donald Trump’s widely detested attorney general, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he claimed to have been on the “jock line” in 1968. “This was a bunch of conservative students who took offence at the radicals occupying the buildings. They felt the administration was not being sufficiently gung ho and decided to take matters into our own hands. They physically surrounded Low Library and wouldn’t let food in our out. It was all a bit theatrical.

“Barr said he saw 12 people end up in hospital after a fist fight. I thought: that never happened! I’ve talked to enough people and seen enough footage. No one went to hospital that day. A Washington Post editorial used my film to discuss how a big part of the Barr story is essentially about the manipulation of memory. A few weeks ago, Barr was testifying in front of Jerry Nadler, a Democratic congressman who was also at Columbia in 1968. They were arguing about whether it was right to crack down on protesters in Portland. There’s a sense that we’re still fighting the culture wars of 1968.”

A photograph of the student protests from a Time to Stir
A photograph of the student protests, from A Time to Stir.

Frank Guridy, an associate professor of African American studies at Columbia, teaches a class on the same topic as Cronin’s film. He, too, has been pondering its relevance today. “Columbia fashions itself as an activist Ivy. It at least tolerates student activism. It’s part of the brand in some ways. Many of the people here have very little awareness of what happened here at Columbia in the 60s and 70s. But because of Trumpism, climate catastrophe, the police brutalisation happening every single day and everywhere in this country, my students completely get the political imperatives that were driving the black protesters back then. They are feeling an emperilment that is very similar to what was happening 50 years ago. And with the university buying up parcels of land around Harlem’s West 125th Street, there are still the same questions about Columbia’s imperial relationship to its surrounding community and the social displacements it instigates.”

I tell Cronin that, for me, the most telling sections of his film concern the white students discovering how intentionally violent and conspiratorial the police could be. “It’s so relevant, isn’t it? So many interviewees told me how terrified they were. They never thought it could happen to them. They had heard about police violence, but never witnessed it personally. And then, when they did, in the words of one person I talked to: ‘We had the dust of radicalism sprinkled on us that night.’ Poof! Bam! That was it! In all sorts of vexed but profound ways, the events at Columbia in spring 1968 set them on a path to thinking about the world differently, how best to work with people from different backgrounds, how to make the world a different place.”

A Time to Stir is on Vimeo from 1 October


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