From Student Life to Political Commune:
The Radical Action Cooperative
And The Situationist International
by King CollinsFrom 1964-1966, I lived in San Francisco, drove taxi and, in search of a career, enrolled in a Masters program in Psychology at San Francisco State. While there I took a course from Dr. Paul Ekman and worked in his lab, The Nonverbal Communication Project. With Paul's support I applied for and was accepted as a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at Columbia Teachers College, in New York City.
The dirty, littered streets of New York made San Francisco seem like paradise. New York's pretty side was mostly inaccessible to me. I was lucky that some old friends of my mother took me in when I first arrived. They lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park, complete with doorman and maids.
I had only the small (but welcome) stipend from my PhD program, so I settled for a two-room apartment on the lower East side. It was on the 3rd floor of an old tenement building with drab, poorly lit hallways and a loud, clunky elevator. Inside my tiny two-room apartment, the front door was fitted with an ugly security lock, a half-inch thick steel bar, a full 3 feet long, that ran diagonally from a metal fitting in the center of the door to a metal slot in the floor. I had never seen anything like it and it made me even more apprehensive about the neighborhood. What kind of place is this, I wondered, where you need a thing like that to keep people out?
There in that dingy apartment, I was visited by one of my San Francisco friends, Roger Tucker. He offered me a joint, and for some reason---in spite of the fact that I had tried and failed many times, since way back in my army days---I got stoned for the first time! That was, I think, the fall of 1966.
Meanwhile at Columbia, I was a PhD candidate in social psychology, mingling with other would-be professionals. Sometime I'd like to talk about that experience, which was interesting and challenging in some ways, and I met some nice people, but the best of the professors didn't seem in the least wiling to risk much. It felt stuffy and I had the recurring feeling that the people there were themselves screwed up, especially my colleagures, the other graduate students in the psych and social psych departments.
The anti-draft movement and the torment of Vietnam
Meanwhile, after starting in a run down apartment in the East Village, my situation improved. I found a lovely girlfriend in the West Village. She had a nice a little boy and a nice apartment in the West Village. For over a year we enjoyed each other and I commuted from there to Columbia University on the upper West side of Manhattan. I had a lot of fun around that time, and was doing well enough in my classes. After a couple of years. I was more or less assured of a PhD. if I stuck with the program. But I told my closest friends that, if there was ever a real student or community uprising, I would join it, regardless of my academic career.
The war in Vietnam was driving me crazy and loomed large on the political horizon. In New York the anti draft movement was taking shape. Sometimes it was pretty rough. I remember my girlfriend's leather boots and shapely mini-skirted legs akimbo as she was knocked to the ground by a mounted policeman. She was a good sport. But her heart was not in it and she had a little boy to worry about. I felt much more propelled than she into the free wheeling politics of that time.
Gradually, I became more and more concerned and more aware of how so much of our society, including the university is a functioning part of the machinery that supported the war. And increasingly I sensed that a lot of young people felt the same way: The energy of revolt was in the air.
* * *
Rebellion in the making and thoughts about communal life
In the course of my studies, I met Peter Waring and his wife Liz Corwin. I immediately liked them both. Peter was a graduate student in Social Psychology at Columbia just across the street and we had several classes together. Peter and Liz were in their mid twenties and I was a few years older. We hit it off as friends and talked at length about politics and society.
Peter was remarkably quick learner, a star in academics and a very good athlete. Peter's wife, Liz Corwin, was equally intelligent and capable, and like Peter willing to consider big changes in her personal life.
We read together, joined discussion groups and protests that were happening in New York City. As the Vietnam War escalated, I joined the anti-draft protests at the White Hall Induction Center in lower Manhattan where I had my first taste of street tactics and what it feels like to get smacked around by a bunch of baton-wielding cops.
From time to time Liz, Peter and I would discuss the possibility of living together, but it wasn't until 1968 and the student rebellion at Columbia University that we actually started sharing rent and other expenses, and living together.
In the spring of 1968, five campus buildings were occupied and classes were stopped for over a week before the New York police arrested the student occupiers. SDS had been agitating on several issues and like other students, Peter, Liz and I were discussing what they were up to. We had all been involved in anti-draft protests and I for one was hoping that there would be some significant escalation in the efforts to confront whomever or whatever was responsible for the continuing war against Vietnam. SDS was part of what convinced me that the university was an integral part of the system that was making the war possible.
SDS initiated the occupations through a campaign to prevent the construction of a new gymnasium that Columbia University sought, quite arrogantly, to build in a ghetto park. The Columbia University campus is bounded on the North and East by Harlem and on the South and West by some of the most expensive real estate in the city, the Upper West Side.
SDS was also challenging Columbia's ties to secret military programs. The university was stonewalling on both issues, and tension was rising. One afternoon, a rally erupted in a rush to tear down the fence at the gym construction site. That was the beginning of the occupation at Columbia in 1968. It profoundly affected my life. (The first building occupied was the Administration Building. A group of us broke in there and SDS established its headquarters there. Seeing nothing further to do there, my friends and I (Peter, Liz and a few others) went back to get a few things and then helped occupy the Sociology building "Fayerweather Hall ." I'm sure SDS would have preferred that the rebellion was less spontaneius, that only buildings occupied were those they controlled. As it turned out, five buildings were occupied, including the Fayerweather hall, and Fayerweather had by far the largest number of occupiers, over 300.
Peter, Liz and I joined the Colombia occupation in the spring of 1968 with enthusiasm, and quickly discovered that the problems we faced were not only the university administration and many faculty but also the student leaders themselves, especially SDS which saw it's student followers as little more than cannon fodder. Rather than trying to maintain the occupation, the SDS leaders preferred to bring the occupations of the campus buildings to a dramatic end with a police bust. The authorities complied and the two week period of endless discussions ended with a massive police raid and the arrest of over 1000 Columbia students including Peter, Liz and me.
We set up our own "strike committee"
After the bust, SDS set about the construction of a "strike committee" dominated by their own cadre. Peter and I and other new found friends, declined to tie in with SDS and instead set up our own organizational space at Columbia Teachers College, just across the street from the Columbia campus. The administration of Teachers College, trying to avoid any direct confrontation, agreed to give us some office space and access to typewriters and some duplicating equipment. We met often and did a few actions, some of them perhaps deserving of mention (later). We wrote a critique of the college and of SDS, from our homegrown sociological and anarchist perspective. It got around somewhat, and in response to that piece some "situationists" (Bob Chasse and Bruce Elwell) wrote to us.
RAC was more than an office and flyers: Peter and I had stipends from graduate school and we used that money to help finance a small commune. We met some like minded people, including Susan Crane, Hannah Zeigellaub and Peter O'Grady, who were not students. In a few months there were twelve of us living in a 3 bedroom apartment on 113th St. The administration at Columbia Teachers College generally tolerated us and let us occupy a small office in the Horace Mann, the main Teachers College building even though, as one administrator put it, our name, the "Radical Action Cooperative" (RAC) could hardly have had three more provocative words.
RAC continued the discussions that had started in the occupied buildings. We avidly read and distributed radical pamphlets and experimenting with an umber of small actions, including classroom disruptions, which was our direct action to dramatize that "business as usual" was not acceptable as long as the war continued. These disruption were always accompanied by flyers and commentary or "surveys."
The "situationists" and Verlaan
I'd like to talk more about the others who took part in this communal experience, but for the moment, I will just mention that there was one other person in particular who set us off in the direction of situationist activity. It was Tony Verlaan.
It was Tony Verlaan who most influenced our thinking, because he actually lived with us and participated in many of our discussions, our happenings, and meetings with SDS, etc. We had lots of interesting discussions with him. It was then that I realized there was something called "critical theory" that promised to understand the world, on both a personal and a political level. Verlaan was a Dutch travel guide, about the same age as the rest of us but far more worldly. Speaking 5 languages, and having traveled widely, he had also been involved in some radical political activity as a student in Europe.
(Tony Verlaan's association with the situationists began, I believe, with the "Strasbourg University Scandal" For more about that, see "Our Goals and Methods in the Strasbourg Scandal" published in Situationist International No. 11).
In my recollections, Tony always had a tope bag with him. It contained lots of pamphlets, whatever his latest agitational material. The one that fascinated us the most was called Ten Days That Shook The University, a roughly printed but articulate pamphlet of about 30 pages, which was first published at Strasbourg (France) as On The Poverty of Student Life.
As mentioned above, Chasse and Elwell wrote to RAC shortly after we published a document (It was called "RAC Manifesto: Life not Survial.") Their letter raised some interesting questions and I met briefly with Chasse, and he made it clear that my thinking about revolution was not adequate in his eyes. At that time, neither Chasse nor Elwell were members of the SI.
The discussions in RAC lead us toward more experimentation with direct action. After about a year of communal living and discussion we had a core group that wanted to expand our agitation and test what we had learned in our experiments at Columbia and Columbia Teachers College. Those who still wanted to maintain their student status or who were less inclined to direct action stayed behind. Reduced to seven dedicated agitators, we set out, in March, 1969, on a trip that took us, first, to Harvard University. The seven included; Peter Waring, Liz Corwin Waring, Susan Crane, Hannah Zeigellaub, Peter O'Grady, Jenny Starr, and me. In March 1969, we left New York in our 1965 Chevy van, all 7 of us, and drove to Cambridge, Mass. By the time our actions started at Harvard we had added an eight person to the group. (Name? Was close to Liz.).
I don't recall where we stayed after we arrived there, but we immediately checked out the Social Psychology courses offered at Harvard. Peter, Liz and I were all PhD candidates in Social Psychology at Columbia. We found one "The Individual In Society" which sounded like grist for our mill. It met on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in a big room with tiered seating like a small amphitheater. We knew it was unlikely that the professor would actually notice us in the crowd of a hundred or more undergraduates. We all attended the class and put what we had learned in our "experiments" at Columbia to the test. What we had learned included some tactical skills as agitators, our own unauthorized social psychology experiments (including classroom interventions) and the "critical theory" we had been learning from Verlaan and our reading of situationist texts and other sources.
The class was taught by a middle-aged professor by the name of Alex Inkeles. I believe I was the first person in the class to ever raise my hand. The class was quickly transformed into free-wheeling political discussion, with students standing up and addressing the disrupters and each other. There was no way Inkeles, poor soul, could control it for the simple reason that what was going on was more interesting and relevant than the class itself. After an hour of high-spirited exchanges, the class ended and we dispersed into the dorms. Word got around campus, and when we returned for the Thursday class, the classroom theater was completely filled and the discussion was even more contagious. At that point the Harvard Crimson started covering the story.
When the eight of us returned to the class for the third time, the next Tuesday, the University had the campus and Cambridge police ready. Students loyal to the administration stood on their desks to point out which of us were not enrolled in the class and several of us, including Peter Waring, Peter O'Grady, Susan Crane and I, were arrested. The Crimson recorded the whole merry scene which included a Keystone Cops chase outside the building. There was a pretty big crowd watching the performance as the cops tried several times and finally succeeded in stuffing us in the waiting police vans. There was time for a little oratory from me and the other agitators during the episode.
At that point the Harvard Crimson covered our activities and continued to do so for several weeks. Some Harvard students and others (notably Alain Gerhardt and Roger Gregoire, both French radicals) joined our agitation. We called the new group "The Enraged of Harvard University." To clarify our political position we reprinted and distributed 5000 copies of the situationist pamphlet mentioned above, "Ten Days That Shook The University."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
For more about the situationists, see "Our Goals and Methods in the Strasbourg Scandal" published in Situationist International No. 11.
Note about RAC and the American Situationists:
Tony Verlaan's participation in RAC was a major source of disagreement within the American section of the S.I. For those who are interested in the arcane details of what actually happened to the situationists in the United States: See letter "The Practice of Truth: The Crisis of the Situationist International" by Jon Horelick in Diversion #1:
Chasse and Elwell (who, along with Tony Verlaan and Jon Horelick, became members of the American section of the S.I.) recognized the mistaken part that each of them played in a particular incident . . . . In this incident, Chasse. . . wrote to the situationists in Europe in respect to Verlaan . . . . He stated his unwillingness to become a situationist so long as Verlaan remained a part of a student commune that operated around Columbia University, the Radical Action Committee, where in effect he had stayed for two months among people in no way equal to him as a de facto leader and as a carrier of entrism -- dual organizational ties. Elwell now admitted his belief that Chasse was mistaken in having mailed the letter without first showing it to Verlaan, even though he continued to refuse to leave the commune until much later.To me this points to a problem with situationist thinking at the time. Prior to 68, their best known intervention, the one that really echoed within the university and beyond was the the 1966 "scandal" at Strasbourg University. That event was a direct outgrowth of a communal practice. Tony Verlaan was involved in that as well. The S.I. claims that what made the event subversive was the pamphlet, which one of their members wrote.
There was a theoretical bias against against communal experiences, especially if students were involved. I suppose if a bunch of workers lived and agitated together it would be acceptable, maybe.
Verlaan's practice was not perfect, but he was certainly imaginative and really liked to mix it up when something was happening. We got to know each other pretty well. I enjoyed our time together, in meetings and parties, making breakfast, writing flyers, smoking and drinking. Those discussions and the closeness of our lives made it easy to connect my own rebel yearning to dialectical thinking and all the agitational tools that the situationists were discovering, or had discovered. It was mind-blowing for me to find out that this amazingly anti-establishment point of view had existed so long, for over a decade and had put out 12 annual issues of their theoretical journal. That really impressed me.
But of course, the way we (my RAC friends and I) interpreted situationist theory it didn't contradict communal practice at all. In fact, we couldn't think of a better way to keep on living experimentally, saving money and having time to be politically active. It seemed like a good way to be a situationist. Anyway, it worked for us for a good while, ten years or more. We found ways to make a our limited money last longer, by living closely together, sometimes ten or more to a small apartment (at the height of RAC at Teachers College) and later as couples and extended family sharing a daily life, and businesses, and even having babies in the same house.
Along the way we were sometimes criticized for using our social science training to brainwash each other. I don't think our anarchist "take turns at being leader" approach, could be used for brainwashing---unless by that you mean that we were using our life situation to brainwash our conditioning. That's probably true.
Anyway thanks in part to Verlaan's "entrism" (see definition in letter above) I got to know a lot about the S.I. and the fascinating history of the revolutionary movement. But nothing along the way has changed my feelings about communal life and community. As far as I can see, it is compatible with the practice of situationist theory.
King CollinsRevised August 2014
To be continued someday maybe: RAC and the "Enraged of Harvard" after the Spring 1969 disruptions. The CCE and experimental living. Emisaries to the SI. Scimmaging with the New York Tenant's Union. Joining the squat at St. John the Divine. Fundi and forming Mechanics United. Publishing "None Shall Escape" (LP record) with Fundi under the name of Caribbean Situationists. Thrown out of the squat by a coalition of the willing. Caravaning to the Bay Area from New York. Having babies and raising our families in the welfare state. Free Spirit Press, One Purse and Los Trucaderos. Publishing "Beyond Isolation" (about the West Coast Food System) with Leon Willard. Working with the Cheeseboard and publishing "The Collective Directory." Living collectively as The Motleys in Bernal Hieghts.... KC
Regrettably, I must report that Hannah Ziegellaub and Liz Corwin have died. Hannah Ziegellaub died May 29th, 2006 in New York City of complications from multiple sclerosis; Liz Corwin died June 2009, of cancer. KC
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