April 22, 2003

Straight Takeover Recalled

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In remembrance of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover, The Sun is reprinting, verbatim, the original account of the events taken from the Sunday, April 20, 1969, extra edition published the day after the takeover began. On April 19 of that year, students from the Afro-American Society occupied the Straight regarding several issues and grievances which had created tensions over the preceding months between University administrators and African-American students on campus. The following Sun article was written by former Managing Editor C. Barton Reppert ’70.

This week, the African Latino Asian Native American Program Board (ALANA) is holding events for Willard Straight Hall Takeover Week, including a film screening at Robert Purcell Community Center at 8 p.m. tonight and a “Retracing the Steps of the Takeover” event on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Straight.

University officials and faculty representatives were slated to reconvene this morning to continue deliberations over yesterday’s takeover of Willard Straight Hall by about 100 members of the Afro-American Society (AAS).

Steven Muller, vice president for public affairs, said late last night, “We don’t want to use any kind of police action” to clear out the building. But Muller emphasized that “this does not mean that we will not use police at any time.”

About 50 members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) kept up a picket line late into the night at the Straight steps, in support of the AAS takeover.

SDS decided early this morning at an almost silent meeting in Anabel Taylor Auditorium to rally at 11 a.m. and march on the site of the administration-faculty meeting.

A sleep-in was also planned for Anabel Taylor, where an estimated 300 people geared themselves for a night of continued discussions centering around “contingency plans.”

The takeover, which began shortly before 6 a.m. yesterday, jarred out of bed about 30 parents visiting Cornell for Parents Weekend and caused a temporary shutdown of WVBR before the radio station moved to a clandestine remote studio.

The day-long occupation and picketing were marked by no violence except for a morning fight between white counter-protesters — who stormed into the Straight — and the black students, along with some SDS members.

Sparking the takeover was Thursday’s decision by the Student-Faculty Board on Student Conduct to impose reprimands on three members of the AAS allegedly involved with harassment incidents last December, during agitation for a stronger Afro-American Studies program.

The AAS protest action yesterday followed by one day the burning of a small wooden cross in front of Wari, the COSEP women’s co-op at 308 Dearborn Place.

Also heightening campus tensions were more than a dozen false fire alarms since Friday.

The AAS announced yesterday that its members would give up their takeover of the Straight only if the University drops all charges against the black students in connection with the December demonstrations, and undertakes “a full and thorough investigation of the recent cross burning and the subsequent actions of the campus police.”

Edward L. Whitfield ’71, chairman of the AAS, told The Cornell Daily Sun last night that another request, concerning improved housing for blacks, was withdrawn because “the people in Ithaca hadn’t been consulted properly.”

Whitfield said AAS members “handled everything very tactfully” in the start of the takeover yesterday, which resulted in the ousting of about 40 Straight employees as well as the 30 overnight guests.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the SDS picket line, Whitfield said, “If they’re able to explain to students the importance and the legitimacy of what we’re doing, that’s fine.”

The AAS chairman declined to speculate on how yesterday’s takeover might affect prospects for the new Center for Afro-American Studies expected to open next fall. The Board of Trustees voted April 12 to budget $240,000 for financing the Center in 1969-70.

A University press release issued last night said yesterday’s session with the administration, Faculty Council and “other faculty and student representatives” arrived at “no final conclusions during its three hours of deliberation.”

The release added that, “At the present time individual efforts intended to achieve further understanding through discussions with the black students in the occupied building, as well as other student groups, are under way.”

Asked about the administration’s rapport with the AAS, Muller said, “There have not been representatives of the society in our discussions.”

He added that the occupation of the Straight, which serves about 6,000 meals a day, would cause “considerable inconvenience” to the University community if it continues through tomorrow.

Shortly after the black students started their takeover yesterday, a WVBR announcer interrupted regular programming at 6:03 a.m. to introduce a “relevant political message.” A person identified as Whitfield then came on the air to say AAS members had assumed control of the building because of what they called the University’s “racist” policies and lack of a program relevant to black students.

About 75 SDS pickets had gathered with placards in front of the Straight by the time a special convocation was slated to commence at 9 in Alice Statler Auditorium.

President James A. Perkins had been scheduled to address the convocation on “Prospects for Stability,” but Mark Barlow Jr., vice president for student affairs, told the audience of about 80 parents that the event was canceled.

C. David Burak grad, as SDS spokesman, then mounted the stage to explain the group’s stance on the Straight takeover and bicker briefly with some of the parents over SDS ideology.

“We feel it is ethically incumbent upon white people to support [the black students’] efforts for self-determination,” Burak said.

One woman leaving the auditorium commented to her husband, “he’s just grinding out the party line.”

About an hour later, Perkins issued a statement saying the seizure of the Straight was “both an astonishing and a regrettable action on the part of some black students claiming to speak” for the AAS.

“It is astonishing because of Cornell’s program for both the admission and special education of black students,” Perkins said. “It is regrettable because it has cut across the plans of many months’ standing for entertaining several thousand parents of Cornell students.”

The statement added: “The black students within the building have been informed that they must leave. A refusal to do so will set the stage for any one of a series of alternate actions by the University community.”

Burak returned to the area in front of the Straight to lead a rally of the SDS pickets about 11:30, while several of the SDSers scuffled with counter demonstrators.

The AAS statement distributed about this time by SDS charged: “This administration, faculty and liberal student body let six black students wait four months with a suspension charge hanging over their heads, for no reason whatsoever.”

The students cited in the December incidents had been repeatedly told they would face automatic suspension unless they appeared before the conduct board. It was later ruled that the board could decide their cases whether or not the students appeared.

The AAS statement further charged: “The University chose to disregard the mental health of those six brothers as it had chosen to disregard the physical health of the black inhabitants of the Ithaca communi
ty. …”

The main conclusion the AAS said it drew from these conditions was that “Cornell University is a racist institution which holds nothing for blacks but degradation, oppression, insults and finally death.”

Archived article by Sun Staff