April 24, 1967, and the 1960s (as they exist in popular imagination) were at full flower. The Haight hadn't become a slum yet. January had seen the Human Be-In. Summer would be christened the Summer of Love and autumn would see the Exorcism of the Pentagon. Student numbers swelled as baby boomers hoped to wait out the war in Vietnam (which Dr. King had only just denounced) on college campuses. Just that semester, Columbia University had its first sit-ins.
In response, Professor Herbert Deane, the Associate Dean of Graduate Faculties, said that he gave no more thought to students' political views than to whether or not they liked strawberries.1 Deane afterward and often insisted he had been misquoted. He meant, he said, he gave this minimal amount of thought to students' political views only when they were not well-argued or well-reasoned. Never mind. A Dean named Deane, as perfectly suited a representative of the Establishment as could be found, had said that the political views of youth didn't matter. And, (one imagines) to his lasting regret, he had used the word strawberry.
Strawberries were in the air.2 Strawberry Fields Forever. The Strawberry Alarm Clock. Popular rumour held that a particular type of LSD had the street name "strawberry," and I have little doubt that one soon became a reality. Berry long shadows: in 1970, Nelson published a hip and relevant literature text for use in high schools called Strawberries and Other Secrets.3
Deane had made the Strawberry Statement, and the culture picked it up.
The following year, campus controversy at Columbia polarized around plans to build a gym at Morningside Park. That park separated campus from Harlem, and the park's most frequent users, African-American and in many cases working class, stood the most to lose. In addition, the school's involvement with the Institute for Defense Analyses also had come under scrutiny. For protesters representing a range of concerns, Morningside Park became a catalyst.
Two years of student activism followed.
My question is a simple one: who am I to write a book? I don't know. I'm just writing it. You're just reading it. Let's not worry about it. (1)
James Simon Kunen came to Columbia in 1967. He wrote The Strawberry Statement in the wake of the '67 and '68 protests, in which he took part. He wrote in his journal and "on napkins and cigarette packs and hitchhiking signs" (6), and turned out a book of the sort many clever but aimless youths have written—- with generally wittier style. He found a publisher, because the mainstream had developed intense and somewhat fearful interest in the protest movement, the hippies, and a fascination with contemporary youth in general. While his focus is on the events of the protest, The Strawberry Statement also meanders into his personal life, hitchhiking in summer, reflecting on America. The book becomes embarrassingly pretentious and sixtiesesque in places, but it also provides a balanced, thoughtful account of the student protests, highlighting both real issues and trendy posturing.
Who was he to write the book? He was a guy who got himself a bestseller before the age of twenty. Let's not worry about it.
Much of the Statement examines the violence and problematic policies behind America's undeclared wars in Asia and the racism and other prejudices ingrained in America's history. He notes that the hated Hubert Humphrey was once himself a "civil rights trailblazer"-- in 1948 (150). He notes that "Little boys fight," but eventually realize "fighting doesn't prove anything" and "it's the countries which display incredibly juvenile behavior"(59). We mourn nearby deaths and local assassinations, but think little of thousands killed in wars which need not have been fought. The protest movement had more than a few observations worthy of consideration.
However, many protesters, Kunen feels, demonstrate very little grasp of the issues. Some display more concern with proper style and trendy dress-- that they remember to use "handslaps, not shakes, in the Revolution"-- than with viable alternative solutions. They take inspiration from pop music that is, at best, vague in its politics. Not a few protesters rail against "various father surrogates"(21). Kunen understands what has motivated the best of these people, but he does not idealize them.
Kunen is, in fact, an unlikely rebel. He is a jock, a member of Columbia's rowing team. At that time, many jocks and frat boys actively oppose the student protests. They are disproportionately represented on the various anti-protester groups-- or, at least, the group that goes by various anti-protester names. As critical as Kunen can be of his fellow radicals, the student opposition to the radicals he dismisses as laughable. They "never could get their shit together(7)," he writes. They apparently believe that beating people up constitutes a superior argument. When Kunen purchases food for the protesters, someone whom "he think[s] of as a friend threatens to punch" him because he's "carrying food." As a bonus, Kunen encounters the perennials of campus life, including "a gentleman who seems to belong to the Drunken Faculty to Forget the Whole Mess"(29).
He also expresses contempt for the mainstream media, who gravitate between reporting the protests as a "panty raid"(150) and distorting the facts with dire hysteria. Articles and Op/Ed pieces claim drugs are involved; that may have been true to a degree, but the students voted to ban both alcohol and marijuana from the sit-ins. The New York Daily News reveals its keen grasp of the times by printing an editorial cartoon entitled "Dancing to a Red Tune." It features a "beatnik and some sort of cave girl dancing as a band sings, 'Louse up the campus, yeah, yeah, yeah!'"(31) Outsize agitator theories figure prominently in conservative coverage; such views are, Kunen argues, incorrect and idiotic.
The media, of course, also shapes and influences the events. Protest happens in part because the media covers it.
At the end of his rambling, occasionally novel-like journey, Kunen decides to give "America another chance" (151). Why not? Americans bought more than a few copies of his book.
The obligatory Hollywood film, released in 1970, moves the protests from New York to San Fransisco, where a Kunen stand-in named Simon (Bruce Davison) rows for fictional Western University. The film establishes from the outset that, despite his status as a jock, our hero stands apart from his friend. He wears an old top hat while rowing, and his dingy apartment features iconic posters and trendy radical trappings from the era.
The story more-or-less follows the plot of the book's earliest chapters, showing us a campus under siege. Students protest the expropriation of land from a nearby park, one used heavily by the African-American community, and they decry their school's involvement with U.S. military research. A dean makes the notorious Statement. Jocks and Frat Boys antagonize and assault the protesting "pukes"4, yet one of Simon's fellow rowers, strongly pro-establishment at the start, joins the protesters once it becomes trendy to do so. Simon gets beat up by other jocks and blames the results on police brutality-- the police, at this early point, actually behave with restraint.
The film hangs the story of the sit-in on student romance and forays for food. Simon's movements around campus seem a bit difficult to reconcile with the situation. Despite the opposition, it seems bewilderingly easy for him to move to and from the occupied buildings. He even continues to attend rowing practices. Despite heavy security, our protagonist also gains easy access to an unoccupied Dean's office, and has a conversation with his secretary.
The film captures with the same ambiguity as the novel the feelings of the era. We're reminded of genuine causes of discontent. At the same time, we see the difficulties of organizing a large group, especially one opposed to conventional notions of authority. We also learn that some male radicals have joined the protest for the "chicks," and we hear the worry that someone's "pants are too new" to be radically chic. Simon's new girlfriend Linda (Kim Darby) is surprised to discover that Simon doesn't do drugs; then we learn that she doesn't, either. The pair ask for food donations from an apparently terrified store owner. He'll gladly give it to the protesters if they pretend to rob him, presumably so he can claim the loss on his insurance.
Simon and Linda also find their views challenged when they encounter actual, workaday members of the community on whose behalf they are protesting. Both feel fear and paranoia when Black men approach them in a park, and they learn very quickly (if they did not already know) that not every victim of racism feels ready to embrace each middle-class White rebel who comes along. Kunen had written that the police view all protesters as "niggers," but when armed forces move to break the student occupation, they single out Black protesters first for violence.
The film features some effective shots. One of the opening images has been filmed through barb wire. A guerrilla theater group performs as part of the protest, one of many images incorporated with then-unconventional editing. We experience proto-rock video montages and art school flourishes. Director Stuart Hagmann's approach suits the zeitgeist of 1970-- though he seriously overuses the zoom.
The Strawberry Statement features an evocative period soundtrack that includes John Lennon, Buffy St. Marie, and various incarnations of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. (This same soundtrack and its attendant copyright issues have contributed to the film's sporadic releases for home viewing over the years). Hagmann also uses other ambient sounds. Actual news drifts over the radio in the background, including a report on the Tate/LaBianca murders.
The film's pacing suffers a little in the middle, but it boasts a memorable and disturbingly realistic conclusion, meant to raise questions. The violent ending must have seemed very timely indeed, coming one month after the killings at Kent State.
Children of a New Age5
James Simon Kunen went on to become a lawyer and a journalist. He wrote at least three other non-fiction books, and articles for (among other publications) The New Yorker, People, Newsday, and The New York Times Magazine. He remains best remembered for The Strawberry Statement, an authentic piece of an era.
I could find it neither in my local library nor a second-hand book store, and it has become something of a collector's item online. I had to read it at the local university's main library. The battered, musty, first-print relic of another time had been signed out last in 1996.
1. In an interview in the Columbia Spectator.
2. The Beatles released "Strawberry Fields Forever" in February of '67. The Strawberry Alarm Clock's first album and only significant single came along later that year. Lists of drug slang give widely varying meanings for strawberry-related words, most of which likely took their cue from the Beatles' surreal, psychedelic song.
3. A hip and relevant title, in any case, combined with some almost-trippy artwork. The book is a clear attempt to reach out to teens by wrapping typical high school fare in the happening trappings of a few years earlier.
Copies of the book still see service in some Canadian schools.
4. The term was used disparagingly by non-protesters to describe the protesters, though some activists claimed it ironically for themselves.
5. Kunen uses this phrase on page 31 to describe the student activists.