The Taking of North Hall

%22We Have Your Mechanical Brain%22

photo courtesy UCSB

At 6am on an otherwise dull Monday morning in 1968, a group of 12 black students strolled without ceremony into UCSB’s Computer Center in North Hall and proceeded to make history by barricading themselves inside. They did it the old fashioned way, with stacked chairs and heavy furniture pushed against locked doors, with chains run through push bars. First, though, they’d had to clear the building. They’d surprised a handful of computer techs there and politely asked them to leave, to which the understandably uptight Guardians of the Nascent Age of Intel replied “Uh, yeah, right!”

One imagines the scene with wonder. The contrasting haircuts alone signified a coming tectonic shift in the zeitgeist.

But the horn-rimmed and outnumbered Spartans were hesitant to abandon their million-dollar baby to the black activists. UCSB’s vaunted IBM360/65 Mainframe was the pride of modern computing, a research machine that also was the keeper of student records and other invaluable data without which the campus would be sunk. The burnished, button-festooned beast featured a sweeping 1MB of memory and in photographs looks like an enormously complicated washing machine. Never mind that UCSB computing was associated with the storied ARPANET, forerunner of today’s internet, whose DNA does indeed trace straight back to UCSB. The computer scientists were, in the later words of reputed student ringleader, today’s Murad Rahman, “absolutely astounded by what was going on. They must have thought it was something out of a comic book.” Later accounts described the black student activists as comparatively polite and accommodating, even as they bounced on the balls of their feet and tried to hurry things along. But the black students did make one thing clear. Any attempt to forcibly dislodge them would result in a broken computer.  In a markedly postmodern threat, one of the students reportedly issued these words of caution.

“Look, leave us alone and we’ll leave the computer alone. We have your mechanical brain. Give us justice.” One official report typed up in the immediate wake of the takeover describes “…some of the students crouched in front of the computers armed with heavy hammers and large wrenches…”

The threat cast a chill on the proceedings. UCSB’s Chancellor Cheadle, whose previously elusive attention was the object of the students’ ire, briefly considered having the black students ejected by force. In his later written record of the day Cheadle explained the humane calculus that informed his decision to hear the black students out.

”The first option was to…persuade the occupants to leave the building peaceably. The second was to clear the building by force, an option involving predictable and unwelcome consequences. First, the substantial destruction of computer equipment valued at approximately two million dollars…second, personal injury….”

Yeah, the occupiers knew their audience.

UCSB: A History of Silence

UCSB is today a world-renowned research university, consistently ranked at or near the top of many of those cryptic “World’s Best Universities” lists that celebrate both academic firepower and actual contribution to human culture. UCSB’s campus has an almost unseemly number of clustered Nobel Laureates. You can easily spot them because they go everywhere with their medals on. There are but a handful of globally respected Institutions of Higher Learning whose topographical largesse allows the student to come in from the breakers and minutes later take a seat in a lecture hall where a medal-wearing Nobel Laureate is dispensing arcane, graduate-level brain food. Seriously.

But UCSB wasn’t always the enlightened bastion of liberal munificence it is today. The twelve black students who took North Hall and the Computer Center on the morning of October 14th, 1968 (namely Jim Johnson, Maurice Rainey, Arnold Ellis, Tom Crenshaw, Dalton Nezy, Ernest Sherman, Booker Banks, Mike Harris, Vallejo Kennedy, Stan Lee, Don Pearson, and Randy Stewart) were all members of the freshly-minted Black Student Union, which had itself evolved from an earlier black student organization begun in 1967, called Harambee (Swahili for “Let’s Pull Together”). Both these groups had been formed as a reflexive bulwark against what the few black students on UCSB’s campus found to be an institutionalized racism.  This wasn’t the ugly, hothouse racism of hooded, spelling-challenged Master Race morons on horseback setting crosses alight on people’s front lawns, beating and murdering with impunity. This was the quieter, happy-go-lucky racism whose infected perpetrators aren’t always aware they’re carriers of the illness, white college kids in blackface strolling down the street at UCSB’s 1966 Homecoming Parade in white top hat and tails and waving giddily at the camera, or taking up shoe polish and a fiddle to effect a bracing, good-humored antebellum jig. As recently as a couple years ago a yoga studio in town hosted a “ghetto fabulous class” replete with inner city garb and costume bling. N.W.A. they called it: Namaste with Attitude. Yes, even the Enlightened stumble. These people of course don’t regard themselves as racist and surely wouldn’t self-identify as a members of a Master Race. But racism isn’t always a belief system. It’s not always about what you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s just about what you’re doing. UCSB had a problem.

A Bulletproof Coach Under Fire

The proximal cause of the takeover of North Hall’s computer center that year was rising frustration with the rumored passive-aggressive racism of UCSB’s deified Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice,  whose unrivaled record of UCSB football wins, inconquerable passing game, and central role in UCSB’s football program achieving NCAA Division I status made him a living bronze statue around which the campus establishment gathered and covertly knelt. Complaints lodged against Coach Curtice by the black athletes in his charge fell on deaf ears, or elicited vague promises of investigation which never came to pass.  The complaints described a litany of slights that aggregated to something less than the strutting racism that could be called out by school authorities but which made the experience of the black athlete at UCSB feel like something less than the thrill of victory. One typical grievance was that of an athlete who was tired of being served his meals after the white athletes on his team had eaten. Black athletes’ luggage would be lost on trips away, the black athletes would be refused service in hotels with no recourse and no backup from coach Curtice. Black athletes complained of being called “boys”. In early October of that year the BSU had issued a petition signed by 22 black athletes accusing the athletic department of racism, charges which were quickly dismissed by the Intercollegiate Athletic Commission, frustrating the campus black population further. UCSB’s athletic program fleetingly became the actionable nexus of a subsurface campus racism that was a nagging, unsung feature of everyday life for black students there. By the time of the occupation of North Hall’s computer center, the 40 or so black students on campus (out of a total student population at that time of around 13,000) had futilely gathered the signatures of 4000 sympathizers who agreed that something was amiss, and that UCSB as a campus was maybe due for a change.

It Was Not a Very Good Year

1968 was a “year of change”, as is said euphemistically by those who have never been shot at or beaten up or chased across the quad by a phalanx of upset National Guardsmen. The conflagrations that year were large and small, characterized both by the fiery, deafening explosions of the watershed Battle of Khe Sanh In Viet Nam (which would see American troops ditch a besieged base for the first time in that war), and the brief lethal whisper of a.30-06 Springfield bullet crossing a parking lot to break a minister’s jaw on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis. In the wake of Dr. King’s death a visibly broken Bobby Kennedy calmed a surging, anguished crowd of hundreds in downtown Indianapolis with an extemporaneous speech and plea for unity that is now considered a classic of unrehearsed truth-telling. The crowd dispersed peacefully, and two months later Robert Kennedy was shot in the head while speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.  In May of that year radicalized French students swarmed through the streets of Paris in a spasm of disgust with capitalism and the established order, in time bringing that country to the brink of collapse, and the Tlatelolco massacre would see the Mexican army gun down 300 gathered student protestors. 1968 had the character of a denouement, an almost stage-written wrapping up of a decade that would see the global Establishment take a flurry of finalizing body-blows and be laid to rest ringside, supine in its grey flannel suit.

Wild-Eyed Radicals Read Out Their Wholly Unreasonable Demands

Within hours of “seizing” North Hall (as nearly every newspaper that day described the event, though the students had actually just breezed in and rousted those inside), the black student occupiers of the Computer Center issued their demands in classic revolutionary style; from high windows above a gathering crowd of onlookers, through megaphones. As the hours passed and word got out that some actual revolutionary drama was afoot on UCSB’s sunstruck campus (or as the October 17, 1968 edition of UC Irvine’s student paper put it: “Santa Barbara? The campus of parties and keggers and TGIF’s? The campus where more students learn surfing than calculus, where more money is spent on booze than books? Yes, friends, demonstrations have spread to that academic playground by the sea…”), a crowd of onlookers naturally began to gather around North Hall, skeptical and restive at first, then grudgingly supportive, and finally offering themselves as a massed 1000-strong bodyguard for the black activists should the state make good on its threat to send in forces to enter the building and bring the thing to a conclusion. There was one instance of disaffection as an apparent faculty member in the mid-afternoon couldn’t take the standoff any longer and with an unsuccessful rallying cry of “C’mon!” forced his lonely way into the building, his righteous fever quickly doused by a black undergrad with a fire extinguisher.

The occupiers had 8 demands whose sum expression was the desire for increased minority enrollment at UCSB, an end to institutional and academic racism on campus, and the expansion of minority-based studies in UCSB’s curriculum. A year later, UCSB’s Black Studies dept. would spread its fledgling wings and take off on a journey that has to date been characterized by constant change and interdisciplinary outgrowth. Chancellor Cheadle, who had so successfully dodged the black students’ athletic concerns in the months-long run-up to the occupation of North Hall, capitulated so completely in the end, it stunned everyone. Once the activists had secured the beleaguered Chancellor’s accession to their revolutionary demands, making campus history and setting paradigm-changing institutions in motion – they more timidly asked for one more favor. Could they please not be disciplined for this little dustup? Cheadle agreed, offering them a collective “suspended suspension”, a whimsical little disciplinary flourish that was the equivalent of the dad-like “It’s okay this time, but one more of these and you’re grounded!”

This further incensed critics of the blacks’ brazen lawbreaking and Cheadle’s enabling. The Chancellor’s acquiescence would royally piss off then-Governor Reagan, whose battles with UC Berkeley and Clark Kerr (whose namesake building is coincidentally right next to North Hall on the UCSB Campus) would soon enough prompt the Governor to angrily invent tuition (heard of it?) and begin the country-clubbing of university education. But Cheadle didn’t completely stand down. He did refuse one of the group’s demands – that of the firing of odious but indispensable Athletic Director Jack “Cactus” Curtice. Agreeing to reasonably mitigate the academic hegemony of Eurocentrism on the college campus is one thing. But you simply don’t screw with a successful passing game.  I mean, c’mon.

The Fruits of Determined Activism

Dr. Jeffrey Stewart, Chair of UCSB’s Black Studies Department, is about 8 feet tall and has the shambling gait of the “beloved outlier professor” who is always crossing swords with admin in those 60s movies about life-changing educators and the stiffs who run them down. Not to put too fine a point on it. When he speaks it is with the easy, laconic manner of a guy with all the time in the world, but as he talks his eyes fix you with a scholarly glare. In 2012 black students on campus again drew up a series of demands for the Chancellor (Dr. Henry Yang this time), with the result that Stewart was asked to oversee an installation at North Hall that today commemorates the events of that October day in 1968. He refers to North Hall as “sacred space”.

“The idea was to create something so that black visiting students could see that they had a presence, and were making a real contribution here.” Chancellor Yang asked Dr. Stewart to work with admin and students to make it happen. His team was comprised of  Director of UCSB’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum (ADA) Bruce Robertson, ADA Exhibition Designer Mehmet Dogu, and UCSB Facilities kingpin Mark Fisher, and together they helped make the students’ dream a reality. Former Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas was a booster of the project and even authorized Dr. Stewart’s course in Curatorial Methods that would train the determined students in the mounting of an exhibit of this kind. Dr. Lucas’ successor, EVC David Marshall, likewise supported the installation.

With the help of Stewart’s team the students put the thing together, and it is a sterling example of the power of the image. The series of larger-than-life photo panels that line the breezeway of North Hall are eye-opening. One panel shows the excited black students draping the handwritten “Malcolm X Hall” out the second story window, while another features the inevitable black and white child looking at each other with that bewildered “what the hell is the problem?” expression that for ages has caused shame-faced adults to look at the floor.

“The research shows that right after the takeover you begin immediately to get more courses in the black experience, in sociology, in history, in English, in education,” Stewart explains. “Later, Chancellor Cheadle authorized a feasibility study and the Black Studies department was announced in ’69.” For the record, the Black Studies department had its budget slashed by $10k in the 70s, another story. Dr. Stewart continues, “Immediately after the North Hall takeover, there were courses offered in the urban experience, black literature –  suddenly you had the option of taking courses in black culture. Right away.” The atmosphere engendered by the episode opened conversations that led to UCSB’s Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Department of Asian-American Studies (the first such department in the U.S. to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Asian-American Studies), the Department of Feminist Studies – a culturally and politically varied menu of mind-opening disciplinary departments that may also be considered the fruit of the North Hall occupation.  Could the young occupiers of October 14, 1968 have really foreseen the culture-opening shock wave their passion play would set in motion? What if things had gone the other way, if Chancellor Cheadle has called in the troops? Ringleader and head event planner of the takeover, Murad Rahman answers this way.

“We were highly aware of the risks and  possible consequences of our actions if we failed to carry out our mission with skill and precision. We did not want to make mistakes or jeopardize the success of the operation. The consequences of failure would have been disastrous for those coming after us as well as African Americans in general.” As for Cheadle…

“Personally,” Mr. Rahman says today, “I was astounded by his graciousness and willingness to negotiate with a bunch of what he probably considered to be wild and crazy misfits who didn’t belong on his pristine campus. I will always remember him as a man for whom I will always hold the highest level of honor and respect. He could have ordered us to be forcibly removed from the building, which was in fact our expectation. The Chancellor took the high ground, which I believe was the most vexatious but prudent decision he could have made. May God and history reward him for that.” The Establishment, in the form of Vernon Cheadle and the finally sympathetic crowds who gathered, seem to have seen a glimpse of the light that day.

“To me that’s part of what ’68 is about,” Dr. Stewart says. “In ’68 though they did have, you know, black power, black students; it’s not just about black subjectivity, though, it’s about an inter-subjectivity. Look at the page of El Gaucho where they cover the North Hall takeover. That page also has a piece about ‘Berkeley going on strike against grapes’ – then over in the corner Eugene McCarthy coming to campus on an anti-Vietman War mission. All these things were in conversation with each other.”

The North Hall breezeway installation tells the tale of a group of sixties students taking over a university building at a time when boldness was the default and young people would leverage any opportunity to right a wrong. Truth and beauty aren’t phony ideals. Even cinderblock can be made new. Dr. Stewart has a final thought about the commemorative North Hall installation. “I always was interested in the aesthetics of this thing, as well as the history,” he says, then breaks into laughter. “And that space looks a lot better than it did before!”

But were Rahman and his activist pals really prepared to wreck the storied mainframe computer that day? A gee-whiz reporter wants to know. Mr. Rahman’s answer is brief.

“What do YOU think?!”

SB Sentinel – Volume 4, Issue 29, Oct 10 – 24, 2015

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