Watch the Grateful Dead Slip Past Security & Play a Gig at Columbia University’s Anti-Vietnam Protest (1968)

In 1968, the Viet­nam War was not a cat­a­lyst for protests but a sort of nexus for all oth­er injustices–the part con­tained ele­ments of the whole: racism, class war, cap­i­tal­ist prof­i­teer­ing, impe­ri­al­ism. It was symp­tom and cause, much like cli­mate change feels today. In April of that year, one inflec­tion point hap­pened on New York’s Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus.

The Uni­ver­si­ty want­ed to build a mil­i­tary gym, not on cam­pus, but in Morn­ing­side Park, a pub­lic space that bor­dered on Harlem. The stu­dent body imme­di­ate­ly protest­ed the con­struc­tion. For one thing, it was planned to fea­ture one entrance for stu­dents and fac­ul­ty, and anoth­er entrance in the base­ment for Harlem’s most­ly African-Amer­i­can res­i­dents. Pro­tes­tors saw this, and the dis­place­ment of black res­i­dents from their neigh­bor­hood park, as racist. The Stu­dent Afro-Amer­i­can Soci­ety (SAS) of the Uni­ver­si­ty nick­named it “Gym Crow.” At the same time, anoth­er activist group, the Stu­dents for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Soci­ety, dis­cov­ered links between the Uni­ver­si­ty and the Depart­ment of Defense. The two events were sep­a­rate, but stood for a big­ger prob­lem.

Stu­dents staged protests, sit-ins, and gen­er­al­ly dis­rupt­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty, vow­ing to con­tin­ue until their demands were met–specifically divest­ment in the war machine and halt­ing con­struc­tion of the gym. Things got so bad, with some 148 injuries and 372 reports of police bru­tal­i­ty from New York’s Finest, that the Uni­ver­si­ty went into lock­down.

That was April. On May 3, enter the Grate­ful Dead. Still a young band, the Dead were com­par­a­tive­ly unknown on the East Coast, but set out to sup­port the stu­dents with a free con­cert. What you see above is one of the few reels of footage of the ille­gal gig, with music from ear­li­er gigs used over the silent footage. No sound record­ing exists of this event, but the uploader seems to think “The Eleven” was part of the set.

Mick­ey Hart, who had only recent­ly joined the band as a sec­ond drum­mer, recalled how they made their way onto the cam­pus:

[Grate­ful Dead man­ag­er] Rock [Scul­ly] reached out to the strike orga­niz­ers and offered to do a free show for the stu­dents. Always up for an adven­ture, we of course, went right along. Since the police and guards were clos­ing off access to the major­i­ty of the cam­pus – we were “smug­gled” on cam­pus to Low Library Plaza in the back of a bread deliv­ery truck. Equip­ment and all. We were already jam­ming away before the secu­ri­ty and police could to stop us.

This oth­er footage shows more context–shots of Morn­ing­side Park, the protests, the police response, the sit-ins, a chalk notice­board fea­tur­ing mes­sages from the out­side to the students–all tru­ly a time cap­sule. One YouTube com­menter says he was there:

They set up on the porch of Fer­ris Booth Hall, which was the stu­dent union, in effect. A small crowd gath­ered; the Dead were not wide­ly known yet in New York. I had a nice chat with Gar­cia [while] they were set­ting up. They start­ed to play, but some­one from the admin­is­tra­tion cut the pow­er, which was not received favor­ably by the stu­dents. After some brief nego­ti­at­ing — some­one point­ed out that legal­ly Fer­ris Booth Hall was owned by the stu­dents and does the uni­ver­si­ty real­ly need anoth­er riot — the pow­er was turned back on and the show con­tin­ued.

In the end, the stu­dent protests con­tin­ued right through graduation–students held their own cer­e­mo­ny off campus–but they worked. The gym was not built and the Uni­ver­si­ty broke off its work with the DoD.

Flash for­ward to 2019 and it’s all com­ing around again: stu­dents and fac­ul­ty demand­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty divest from all fos­sil fuels, in sup­port of the Extinc­tion Rebel­lion hunger strik­ers. As of this writ­ing (Feb­ru­ary 2020), the Uni­ver­si­ty is still mulling it over. (No free con­certs have been announced either…yet.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a Long, Strange Trip and Stream a 346-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Live Grate­ful Dead Per­for­mances (1966–1995)

The Longest of the Grate­ful Dead’s Epic Long Jams: “Dark Star” (1972), “The Oth­er One” (1972) and “Play­ing in The Band” (1974)

How the Grate­ful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Mon­ster, 600-Speak­er Sound System–Changed Rock Con­certs & Live Music For­ev­er

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Chet Torrance says:

    I see you say — above — that back then — in the ’60’s’ — the protests were about ‘racism — class ware­fare — expoi­ta­tive cap­i­tal­ism, ETC.’. And then com­pare it to ‘cli­mate change today.’ . See you say — what has changed in the top­ics of the ’20’s’ muh fren? What is dif­fer­ent one might ask. Study your lines and make em count. Eric Blair teach ya.
    With respect, it’s Chet.

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