Sunday, 26 February 2017
March / April 2009
Getting It Straight
Bookmark and Share
Print E-mail
Tuesday, 03 March 2009

With the help of activists from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the AAS had been purchasing rifles from local gun stores throughout the semester. After the Delta Upsilon incursion on Saturday morning, students smuggled the guns into the Straight through a back door. Unarmed campus security officers, under orders to allow AAS members and supporters in and out of the building, let them through.


MEADE: When morning came, and there was recognition that we were armed, it became important to begin the negotiations in earnest. But it was clear that our demands were not being received and that the administration was not going to risk having armed students stay in the building one more night. So that meant we'd have to be expelled, and we would try to repulse the attack. And so, for me, it came to be fairly obvious that this might be my last day.

JONES: I grew up going deer hunting. I had been in ROTC. I knew how to handle a rifle. Some of the other students, especially those from rural backgrounds, had some familiarity with weapons. But there were others who didn't. That was cause for concern. There's always the risk of an accident. Somebody doesn't have the safety on. Somebody trips and falls and the gun goes off. Crazy stuff can happen.

DOWNS: Cornell became this cauldron of rumors. A lot of it was uncertainty and incomplete reports, trying to figure out what's real, what's actually happened, feelings of amazement. We had been hearing about people around town coming to campus with guns. One person told me his fraternity was starting to bring guns in from home. We were all thinking, How can this be happening? What does it mean?

As Downs reports in his book, "Hysteria, fear and paranoia raged through campus." He describes how Cornell, located in a small, isolated town, was more affected by the unrest than an urban campus would have been. "At Columbia and Berkeley, large surrounding cities absorbed the tensions, alleviating potentially overwhelming pressures. Cornell's setting led to the opposite effect: a magnification of tensions and fears. There was no escape."

Tom Jones
Emerging victorious: Tom Jones '69 took the symbolic position of being last to leave the Straight.

MARCHAM: There was an unreality to what was going on. In the anti-war movement there was a lot of guerilla theatre and people exaggerating points and making ad hominem attacks on administrators. When the event took place, one of the things that struck me was how much everyone on campus depended on WVBR for coverage. It was absolutely amazing. They broadcast every hour on the quarter hour, and you could see the community was stuck to that, keeping track of what was happening.

JONES: I'm proud of the courage of all of those black students who didn't crack, who didn't succumb to the fear of what might happen. There could be a massive assault against us. People understood that, if that happened, it would change Cornell forever—it would change America. It would be a historic event. I'm proud that we stayed together when there was no personal gain to be had. I'm proud that so many white students said, "We're not going to let these black students stay isolated. We're going to rally and create a buffer between them and the police."

SPITZER: Students were not hardliners the way some faculty were. There was a general feeling of support and sympathy for African American students. It was a liberal time politically, so the student sentiment was that punishment was the wrong idea—that we should be mending 200 years of oppression, not continuing it.

JONES: I felt like the wheel of history had spun around and the dial was pointed at my generation. If I had been born in 1925, I would've hit the beach at Guadalcanal because it was my duty. If I had been born in 1845, I would've crossed the field at Gettysburg. I believed in the fight.

As white students gathered outside the Straight in support of the AAS, administrators negotiated with the occupiers. Eventually, they came to an agreement that included amnesty for those involved in the takeover and investigations of the cross-burning incident and the Delta Upsilon incursion. The Cornell negotiators made a concession that would have enormous symbolic consequence: when the AAS members refused to exit unarmed, the administrators didn't insist that they leave their guns behind. It set the stage for one of the most enduring, and unsettling, images in Cornell history.


JONES: It was a moment of enormous pride. Some of the black students, particularly those from southern and rural backgrounds, had never stood up to white people in their lives. I intentionally took the position of being the last to leave the building, because I wanted that symbolism to reflect what I felt, which was 100 percent commitment. Even though I had not thought it was a good idea to begin with, once we're in it, I'm committed. This is my fight and I'll see it through to the end.

DONALD DOWNS: I was standing outside the Straight when the students came out. It was surreal to see them walk out with the rifles, with the bandoliers across their chests. It was a stunning experience. Part of me admired what was going on. They were standing up for what they believed, taking on authority in a big way. But the other part of me was saying, "What can this lead to? Are things going to fall apart? And is this something that should be taking place on a campus? Aren't universities supposed to be places of reasoned disagreement and pursuit of truth?"

JONES: It not only shocked Cornell, it shocked the country. I believe it's one of the reasons this country decided to try to fully incorporate all of its citizens, whatever racial or ethnic background.

President James Perkins
Failure of leadership: In a much-anticipated speech to a packed Barton Hall, President James Perkins astonished and appalled his audience by failing to specifically mention the takeover.

Though the occupation was over, it was just the beginning of an intense week on the Hill. As the faculty held tortured debates over whether to nullify the pact with the AAS and punish the participants, thousands packed Barton Hall for speeches and teach-ins. Jones's inflammatory rhetoric on the radio had some professors scared enough to leave their homes and move into motels. Rumors flew about which building might be occupied next, as news of armed deputies mustering downtown sparked fears of more violence.

SPITZER: Thousands of people on campus realized there was a crisis going on and wanted to know more about it and get involved. A fair amount of that feeling was fear and opposition to the idea that the state police and sheriffs were going to try to solve the problem their way. There was a widespread feeling that would be a terrible thing. We didn't want rural deputy sheriffs coming onto campus dealing in an unfriendly way not only with African American students but with the whole student body, whom they presumably viewed as a bunch of long-haired, pot-smoking hippies—which we were.

DOWNS: There was a real concern that it was going to go to the next level, which could really be chaotic. We had heard Tom Jones on the radio, so it was like a pressure cooker. There was concern that this could lead to something scary.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 12 March 2009 )