How a Times Reporter Covered the 1996 Columbia Student Protests

More than 100 students were slumped around the oak-and-marble lobby of Hamilton Hall, the main hub of Columbia College, fighting off sleep.

The students had barricaded the entryway of the building with desks from nearby classrooms, and had threaded chains through the main door’s push-bar handles. Just outside, a half-dozen campus security guards patrolled the area, the sound of the erratic clicks and beeps from their radios spiking the momentary quiet.

The students were occupying the building for a second day, and I was the only reporter in the room. On the first night of the takeover, I slept on the floor, hoping that the organizers would soften and talk with me. But after a day of my stalking around, none of them had.

I could understand why: They were angry and unsettled. Three days earlier, New York City police officers arrested 22 of the nearly 150 student protesters after some had blockaded another school building. Three of the protesters, who were on a hunger strike, hadn’t eaten for 13 days. Interminable meetings with university administrators had worn them down.

The scene might sound like one from the recent turmoil at Columbia but is actually a night from April 1996, when a coalition of Black, Asian and Latino students waged a monthslong campaign to demand an ethnic studies department. Their fight culminated in a four-day takeover of Hamilton Hall, a building that has become newly familiar to a national audience.

I was a reporter for The Village Voice at the time, only two years out of college. When news broke on a Wednesday night of the arrests at Columbia, one of my editors asked me to check it out. But the campus was locked down, and you couldn’t enter without a student ID.

One of the protesters was handling media requests. He had been emailing updates to the main Village Voice account (and to other news outlets), and I replied. To my surprise, he sent me coordinates to a campus entrance, where he’d meet me. He’d be wearing a white armband.

About four hours later, I found myself following him through a small gate onto school grounds. He led me to Hamilton Hall, where I saw a phalanx of students locking arms, guarding the entrance. They had just taken over the building.

“It’s up to you to see if someone will talk,” he said, before disappearing past the line of protesters.

I quickly figured out what he meant. Blank faces greeted my introduction.

“We don’t feel comfortable with the press here,” one of the students said. “Please leave.”

Much has been made about the similarities between today’s pro-Palestinian protesters, who are demonstrating against Israel’s war in Gaza, and the student uprisings in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.

But I see a strong parallel between today’s protests and the one I covered in 1996. Like the student demonstrators then, those today are people of color railing against what they see as a discriminatory system. And like their 1996 counterparts, many today consider the news media to be part of that system.

The Times and other news outlets have doggedly covered the current unrest. Times editors have assigned around 20 reporters and freelancers across New York City in the past weeks to cover firsthand what’s happening at Columbia, City College, New York University, Fordham and elsewhere. Across the country, at least another dozen reporters and freelancers are covering campus protests for The Times. Today, thanks to cellphones and near constant connectivity, journalists can submit dispatches, videos and photographs as the news unfolds.

In 1996, publishing an article took a bit longer than it does now, but there was still plenty of coverage. The arrests made international news, and while the students were willing to issue statements and answer a few questions, they didn’t want anyone inside their bubble.

But The Voice had a long history of reporting from inside student movements. So I stayed. And waited. And watched. Instead of approaching the students, I pulled out a Paper Mate pen and my reporter’s notebook, a Stationers 800, and started writing. I didn’t have a cellphone — this was a time when reporters worked without the ability to instantly broadcast news onto the internet.

I eventually made my way inside Hamilton. I kept quiet, observing, but I also made sure everyone knew who I was. The protesters took to calling me “Village Voice.” But still, after two days, no one talked to me.

On the third night, I noticed that the organizing leadership was ready to update the group on the state of negotiations with the administration. One organizer started to speak but stopped herself when she noticed me. Another shouted, “Do we want him here?”

“He’s OK,” someone else responded. “Let him stay.”

The leadership described the difficulty of the day’s negotiations. And over the next day or so, people started to talk with me on the record.

I hadn’t showered or shaved in three days, and I still had to write my article. The Voice sent the paper to the printer on Monday nights, and by that day, the occupation was still going on. But that morning, one of the organizers told me that they were about to cut a deal with the school and relinquish the building.

I had just a few hours to get back to the office and write what at that point was the biggest story of my career. I banged out 2,000 words, but the piece didn’t have an ending.

I made it back to campus to take in the departure of students from Hamilton Hall, with a deal in place. I could tell they were disappointed but hopeful. (Three years later, Columbia established a center for ethnic studies.)

The organizer who first told me to leave was still there. He asked if I’d finished the article. I told him I was almost done.

“I can’t wait to read it,” he said.

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