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DeJa Vu: I was an Outside Agitator at Columbia in 1971


By David Haldane

May 13, 2024



The only thing unusual about the call was that it came so early.

“Good morning, comrade,” said a commanding voice at the other end of the line. “We need you at Columbia in half an hour.”

What he was talking about, of course, was the famous university in New York City near where I lived. “Sure,” I said, “what’s up?”

“You’ll find out when you get there,” he said, and hung up.

The voice was familiar, belonging to the leader of an organization I’d just joined, called the Young Socialist Alliance. The youth wing of the better known Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, the YSA favored revolution by any means necessary to overthrow capitalism and initiate utopia. Which, frankly, sounded pretty good to me. So, hearing they needed “organizers” in New York, I’d taken a leave from my small Vermont college, rented an apartment in the city, and, well, here I was.

I painfully rolled out of bed and pulled on my trousers. Brushing my teeth, I wondered what they would have me do. Then walked out the door into my first full day as a professional outside agitator.

Apparently, it’s a time-honored tradition. Only nowadays, instead of protesting the Vietnam War, the students are protesting the war in Gaza, calling for death to Israel and its Zionist supporters, and demanding divestment from any companies doing business with the “genocidal” state.

“We are united in our cause,” one masked protestor told journalists gathered recently near the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at, you guessed it, Columbia. “We are building community. We are eating together. We are keeping each other safe and warm. We are putting our principles into action.”

That was before the police arrived to arrest nearly 300 of them. The real question, though, is exactly whose principles she was talking about? Because, according to city officials, almost half of those arrested weren’t affiliated with the university at all.

So who were they?

A Wall Street Journal editorial offers a clue. “Recent days have shown that the protests aren’t merely bursts of student moral concern about Gaza,” the piece contends. “They’re often guided by professional leftist groups exploiting students to foment chaos…”

Other Journal articles have reported that the students, mostly newcomers to social action, received months of training before the protests by “an organized movement of leftists who want to spread disorder and whose candid strategy is to defy school administrators and police to achieve their radical goals.”

And, finally, The Free Pressan independent online journal founded by a former New York Times editor—claims to have uncovered at least nine training manuals shared via phone chat groups nationwide encouraging protestors to “break laws, seize buildings, vandalize them, and then use tactics to evade police detection and arrest.”

I was able to peruse one training website myself——which describes its followers as “an international network of aspiring revolutionaries extending from Kansas to Kuala Lumpur.”

“Crimethink is everything that evades control,” the site boasts. “It is the spirit of rebellion…a rebel alliance…a secret society pledged to the propagation of crimethink.”

Among its bits of advice to the Columbia protestors: occupy factories and blockade ports, don’t be overly concerned with “de-escalation or remaining peaceful,” seize campus infrastructure to use as barricades, reinforce banners with plywood or steel for “defending and pushing,” engage in negotiations only “when reinforcements are on the way and buying time is an advantage to us,” and, finally, “be wary of those who attempt to stifle the movement in the name of safety.”

The only way the protests can succeed, the site’s administrators conclude, is by “catalyzing a much larger social explosion” to bring about “a full-scale political crisis in the United States.”

All of which makes me and my long-ago socialist comrades seem like petty amateurs. Because all we did on that distant New York morning was beat up a few unruly Maoists.

I guess I was just born too soon.





David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.











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